AS any transplanted Midwesterner knows, one of the favorite indoor sports on both coasts is a gentle little game called ``Making Fun of the Heartland.'' Sometimes the game is played in private, as when a dinner party guest refers dismissively to someone living ``out in the Midwest somewhere.'' Other times the sport goes public, as it has this month in a handful of funny but mildly disparaging magazine references to the Midwest.
Leading the list is an item in Harper's Index that reads: ``Percentage of Iowans with lawn ornaments: 24.''
If one-fourth of all homeowners in California paraded fake rabbits, ducks, deer, and flamingos across their lawns, the practice would be considered chic. But when Iowans do it, well, doesn't that just confirm what everybody on both coasts has always suspected? That the nation's breadbasket is a cultural Siberia, full of men in coveralls and women in polyester pantsuits, twanging platitudes in accents as pancake-flat as the terrain? Apart from supplying stereotyped jokes, the Midwest exists as a blank space to pass through - or preferably fly over - on the way to where people think the real action is: the coasts.
Yet here is where the double standard really comes in. The same Eastern sophisticates who find the Harper's statistic amusing apparently see no inconsistency in their own growing fondness for a different kind of lawn ornament: plywood cows. Something called the Yard Cow is showing up on the lawns of East Coast homeowners who wouldn't think of going near a real farm. Two painted bovines even spent the winter in a yard on the busiest street of a Boston suburb.
A New Yorker ad for the creatures boasts: ``The Yard Cow offers you the pride and obvious stature of livestock ownership with none of the smell, cleanup, or predawn milking chores.''
Elsewhere in The New Yorker, a cartoonist pokes gentle fun at the Midwest by showing a Superman-style courier flying into an office, document in hand. ``I bring word from the Omaha office, sir,'' he tells a businessman. To which the impatient recipient replies, ``When are you people going to figure out how to work your fax machine?''
Substitute any city on either coast for Omaha and the cartoon simply doesn't work. But Nebraska - ah, perfect.
If the famous ``little old lady from Dubuque'' didn't exist - and she doesn't - The New Yorker would have had to invent her, and it did.
Back to Harper's. The May issue also includes an excerpt from a forthcoming book titled ``Bird, Kansas,'' a collection of interviews by Tony Parker, a British journalist who went looking for ``ordinary Americans'' and found them ``smack-dab in the middle of Kansas.'' Where else?
Turn a few pages, and a short story, ``Americana,'' by Mona Simpson, features a young Princeton professor shopping for a television set. Even though the salesman convinces her there's a better set, she chooses a brand her father will recognize, because ``In Kansas, they knew Sony.''
Unlike New Yorkers, Midwesterners are good-natured about being condescended to. What they may lack in ``sophistication'' they more than make up for in tolerance. They know there are those who like their Midwest served up only in musicals such as ``Oklahoma!'' and ``The Music Man.'' And they realize there are people who prefer their Midwest delivered in glossy magazines like Country Living (published in New York, of course), with cover stories waxing romantic over ``A Wisconsin Country Kitchen'' and ``An Artist's Ozark Farm.''
Midwesterners will even pretend to be flattered when networks, looking for a way to inject a little color into a newscast, dispatch a camera crew to somewhere like Coon Rapids, Iowa, as NBC did this month, to ask the ``folks'' out there (Easterners always regard Midwesterners as folks rather than people) how they feel about United States-Soviet relations.
As visiting rubes, Midwesterners will also laugh quietly - even honk good-naturedly - when they drive by a bovine lawn ornament in a pricey suburb on their next trip east.
After all, they know that any Easterner with $59 can buy a wooden cow. Only a true Midwesterner understands how to care for and love the real thing. Plywood imitations will never play in Peoria.