Wednesday, December 10, 2008
What is Midwest Culture; A call for your comments
All this moving around has sparked some new observations and has me wondering; what is it about trying to maintain a Midwest character in China that is so exhausting and futile?
During college I was convinced that the Midwest was the most generic place on Earth: flat, no wilderness yet no cosmopolitan areas either, strip malls, K-marts, gray skies for half the year, corn fields. Picturing it? If you grew up in rural or suburban Midwest you were stuck being aware of all the extreme hobbies and cultural scenes of the rest of the country, yet had to make do with what the region could provide. You could only go so far into these interests before you either had to settle on something else or bail for one of the coasts or Rockies.
My friends were all from places that I imagined to be more . . . authentic. I listened to my friends' hometown stories with envy. In Marion, Virginia they had southern accents, bluegrass, and hometown doctors that cross-country skied to the office in the winter. I am sure there were grassroots revolutions started in the coffee shops and vegetarian joints in Amherst, Massachusetts. High school students in Seattle, Washington knew how to deal with both glacial crevasses and inner city scuffles. And in the tiny hamlet of Pultneyville, New York, old ladies will interrupt your long run to taste test their homemade cookies. I spent my summers in Alaska, Idaho, and Washington, hoping to gain some kind of character that I thought the Midwest had shorted me on. So, I was surprised and even delighted in China when a friend from California paused after something I said and exclaimed, "God you're so Midwest!"
That got me thinking. What exactly is that Midwest character? I thought there was none. But, the Beach Boys Sing about it: "The Midwest farmers' daughter's really make you feel alright..." So, there must be something distinct there right?
Here are some undeveloped thoughts:
Is it for better or worse, that the Midwest feels a bit generic?
In her song entitled Iowa, Dar Williams sings, "Way back where I come from, we never mean to bother; we don't like to make our passions other people's concerns. We walk in the world of safe people and at night we walk into our houses and burn."
Is it that people are friendly, or that they keep to themselves?
After a flight of unwelcome chatter on a plane, my sister-in-law's friend said that he appreciates Ohioans as seatmates because Ohioans will always say hello, but still let you read your book.
Or, is it some obsession with a constant hyper-awareness in social interactions. With tedious utterances of "Sorry" and "Thank you," a good Midwesterner is continuously aware of how to help others while simultaneously staying out of their business and never, ever, inconveniencing.
Author Jonathan Franzen captures this in The Corrections, as he describes his main character's visit to a museum in St. Jude. I did not bring the book to Beijing so I cannot quote it directly. He explains perfectly the constant awareness with which everyone moved about the exhibits. Each person will pretend to view the display even after they have lost interest, so as to not pressure those ahead of them. If those ahead of them are also good Midwesterners, they have a guilty fear about lingering too long which becomes activated by the tacit signals from the people behind them. The whole system works very well.
Or, does it have something to do with a balance of restraint and indulgence. My friend told me that is his father, a good Midwestern man, could never bring himself to give his cat straight kitty treats, but rather mixed them with the other less decadent cat food.
Here is call for your thoughts and suggestions from Literature/music/films/comedy and your own musings. I need some material. So please, give me Garrison Keillor and the lot. What's your Midwest description? You can email or comment.