Why we need the fly over

Amidst all the flash and bang, the sturm and drang of what passes for news, entertainment, and the gripping social scene of the U.S., there are vast swaths of what the glitterati like to call “”fly over””.  We won’’t discuss how many of those glitterati actually grew up in the fly over and departed for the flash (usually in their early 20’’s), or the good reasons they had for doing so.  But it is curious that many of them who later became successful got known and labeled for their “Midwestern-ness”.  Some say it disparagingly, as Bret Easton Ellis did of David Foster Wallace (something akin to suggesting “he has a fake Midwestern sincerity”, but really- if he calls DFW fake, then I question if he knows what sincerity is at all).  Some say it with a slightly charmed, slightly condescending expression, as if to say “isn’’t that so cute, so naive”.  Some say it with camaraderie- “They remind me of myself at that age, so earnest and hard working””, and on rare occasions, “”I’’d only hire a former midwestern kid.  They are the only trustworthy ones in the lot””.

You get the idea.

Midwesterness is a general category, often used in film and political campaigns to denote the “backbone of America”, the thing that carries everyone along but gets little attention paid, even when it is sending out pain signals.

It is not “southern”; it is not of the “coasts”.  It is not “northwest-like”, and it is definitely not “southwestern”.  It bears a passing resemblance to the crusty, stink eye stare of rural Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine but with a firm, quick handshake and offer of some refreshment.  It goes about its’ business trying not to offend anyone or get in anyone’’s way. 

It is the humor of Garrison Keillor, state fairs, hale cheerleaders, and tractor pulls.  It is high schoolers on dirt roads drinking at 10 p.m. knowing they have to be home soon for family curfews and in time to sleep then get up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows.  It is white, but also brown, and sometimes yellow and red- there are more Native American reservations in the Midwest than anyone ever considers, more Latin Americans, more African Americans and more Asians (and not just in the cities). 

It is thrift stores where dust collects on old Ball jars, while cases of new ones sell out of stores every year.  It is Agri-business controlling vast swaths of green seas, and contracting out with cattle, poultry and pork farmers.  It is musty Carnegie libraries with amazing stained glass ceilinged tiny rotundas that kids bike to in the summer to stay cool and read.  It is the wind.  It is quiet broken by the occasional vicious argument over heard from blocks away, usually over money or some subject akin to any country music song on the radio.  It is the twang of the teen learning the electric guitar, and listening to AC/DC in the basement.  It’s churches of brick, stone and wood with interchangeable signs and denominations. 

To have known Midwesterness is to have looked at the sky, to read the clouds, and know the screech of tornado sirens.  It is all the contradictions of passivity and sometimes self-indulgent ignorance, as well as knowing the meaning of loyalty, kindness, and unspoken anxiety always at the corners of life.  It is to know awe; genuine, gob smacking awe at the greens of a dragonfly, the belly of a hummingbird, the taste of a fried tomato, as well as the sight of a Calder or an Oldenburg sculpture occupying the grass.  It is to revel in awe and not be ashamed, and no knee-jerk jump to tying that awe to any sort of god.

It is a built-in patience with many things, and open-faced impatience with that which seems time wasting or superficial, irrational, or especially unjust.  It is also dumbfoundingly strange from time to time; creative, silly, and sometimes pointless.

Belly laughs are considered good things in most venues, and volunteering is a given.

It can be cruel, not doubt.  Punishing as well.  The wheel that grinds souls in midwesterness is not so much about isolation among many, but isolation itself.

It is a quality often recognized, but difficult to describe.

Without it late night comics would have little fodder, and the very groundedness the flash and bang relies upon would be gone. 

Say what you will.  But I know a Midwesterner when I speak to them.  I may come to dislike them later, but for a moment- there is a kindredness of spirit that I appreciate. 

I do not look down on the green, grays and browns when flying from one coast to another and breathe a sign of relief that I do not have to drive.  I wistfully look down, having traversed those roads so many times, and wish I had the time and money to do it again.  Not to discover Kerouac’s dream, not to mourn with Bill Bryson, not to revel with W. Least Heat Moon but because I have already done it and I miss it.  I don’’t know if I could put my muddy shoes behind the door there again, but I miss it and appreciate it for what it is, and what it gives all of us.

Sweet, salty, and bitter

I finally understand why a tomato is a fruit.  Not the scientific reason, I have known that for a long time: in general, all fruits develop from the ovary in the base of the flower containing the seeds of the plant.  The tomato is born from the ovary of the plant after it is fertilized.  The flesh is made of pericarp walls and the cavities contain the seeds. Toms are an herbaceous plant in the nightshade family (irony there that given the chance over several seasons to go wild, some revert back) and the fruit is classified as a berry.

I ate a lot of garden tomatoes as a kid, and have long known the difference between the artificially ripened tomato-like things at the grocery, and the red, deeply flavored misshapen berries out of a garden.  But I always associated tomatoes with salt.  I have seen tomato jelly for sale and wondered why anyone would treat it as a sweet thing.  Until this weekend.

I bought a pint box of tiny orange tomatoes from a farmers market stand.  As I waited for Husband and kids, I sat and ate a few.  It was unlike anything I have ever had.  They smelled like tomatoes, the texture was of a good garden tomato, but the flavor was sweet.  Down right sugar sweet they were.  I continued to eat the whole pint, each tiny fruit bursting with flavor the second I bit down upon it.  I bought a second pint for Husband to try, as I rambled effusively about the flavor.  One bite and he agreed.

I was happy to have finally tasted a tomato that was the very definition of fruit, not just terrific tomato.  They were not the flavor of the “grape” tom, these tiny orange spheres are something else.  When I go back next weekend I will ask what variety they are.

Summer is in full swing with record heat waves, drought, pepper plant eating deer (I am now itching to shoot not only the dogs who randomly crap in our yard-damned the owners- but also the night stalking deer), itchy mosquito bites, bats swarming through the air at sun down, crunchy brown grass, and pots of basil that seem to multiply over night.  The split system heat pump and air conditioner we installed last year has been a blessing on days when the mercury has soared above 105, and the basement is always a good refuge from the heat.  The van shimmers and blasts out waves of throat-choking air when I open the door, and keeping the family hydrated is a constant concern.

The undecipherable tonking of speakers from a local baseball game sounds as the sun goes down, kids run dripping up the street heading home from the city pool.  Watermelon juice dries stickily on hands, chests, cheeks, and floors.  Cornhusks get composted, and the slow gray smoke from the black pot bellied grill wafts over the fence.  Cicadas sound early in the morning and late in the evening, and black birds converse as they take refuge from the heat in our black walnut tree. 

We buried Husbands 15 year old cat last week, at the end of the dry flower garden.  The boys and I found a small concrete sleeping cat, which we put on top of a 2’x1.5’ rock over the grave.  It was a major passing for Husband, a singular marker of middle age.  He had rescued the cat from a shelter as a kitten, and it was his companion throughout graduate school.  Last fall it had begun “losing its mind” according to Husband, and even after being confined to the basement continued to cause problems.  I give him credit, for knowing what had to be done and doing it.  He sat with the cat while the vet gently slid a drug into the small furry body.  He made peace with his friend, and let him go.  When he brought the box home with the body, he dug the hole and I helped him cover it over.  It was not an easy day for any of us.

Summer can be a time of bounty and sweetness, and a time of loss.  I swore like a sailor when I stepped out one morning last week and saw the leaves from my sunflower and pepper plants stripped bare.  I gave up trying to keep any of the lawn green after three weeks without rain.  And I cried for my best friend and the inevitable act he had to carry out that lessened our family by one pet.  I watch as my 95 year old grandmother winds down her life and her body, my father making sure she is comfortable and eating- I must remember to take her some of the tiny orange tomatoes.  I think one of the great graces of middle age is knowing that life ebbs and flows in a complex forward motion of the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, and lots of just plain doing in between being born and dying.  It is this knowledge that keeps the darkness at bay for me, the knowledge that I can still be surprised by life and that I will at some time again be tortured by sadness, but the sadness will not last.

I have never liked heat; geographic regions where the sun shines down and the air seems not to move and the temperature hovers in the 90’s.   I like rainy and cool places best.  But where we live is not always a best-case scenario, and things that happen are sometimes simply part of life.  There is always my family, the cool of the house, and the promise of sweet, bright orange garden fruit in the middle of summer.  Most days, that will do just fine.

The flags were made in China

4th of July, 2010.  We saw the Karate Kid remake.  It’s a good “family” movie, and I like Jackie Chan.  The editing is well done, the acting adequate.  The subtle love letter to China understandable.  It was the parade this weekend that got me.  No bands this holiday, a lot of car and motorcycle groups, the newly elected GOP reps walking and riding smugly along, and the tea party making a show with flags and loud music.   Later that evening, a friend showed me a photo he had taken of the flags that were being given out by the parade walkers.  It was clearly stamped on the side “made in China”. We laughed a rueful laugh together.

I read on the net in a paper I usually peruse that international corporations in China are getting itchy because of a recent wave of worker strikes.  They are striking over the things all factory workers strike over.  So the factories are closing down or moving inland to poorer regions.  There is only so much of the globe that can be exploited- or is there? How long before the US becomes just another third-world country, and the factories come back to us because we have the cheap, unskilled, easy labor?  I am disgusted with the complete erasure of “the greater good” discussions about what is best for the most people, especially from our elected officials.  I am sick of ethics classes not being required for a B school degree.  I am sick of infrastructure as a taboo subject.

I wanted to hope.  I know a lot of people who did.  It seems if we continue to hope, we fall into a category of stupid: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results each time.  Our 4th of July parade was the same format, the same route, the same disappointing motley groups of marchers.  Wave that flag, lick the dripping post-parade icecream and keep the desperation deep in your chest tamped down, drowned out, ignored.  “Keep on keepin’ on” as the sign on the back of the monster truck recommended.  Wipe your brow, nod to a neighbor and agree with the shop keeper to “Have a happy 4th”. Postcard from America 2010.