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. Its 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 Kerouacs 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.