This week we’re inaugurating a new weekly feature here at YSDA: a Sunday morning essay about the Midwest.
I’ve been thinking about the Midwest for a long time, at least going back to my days as Mayor of Madison. I would go to national conferences, many in Washington, DC, and get the feeling when I was there that this is where it was all happening — 800 miles to the east of my city or often 2,000 miles to our west. In either direction, for the people of the coasts, I came from fly over country.
The coastal media rediscovers the Midwest every four years. They send reporters into deepest, darkest Wisconsin and discover that we speak a form of English. They marvel at our longevity, which is so at odds with our dietary habits — heroic helpings of fried cheese cut with generous pours of brandy sometimes leavened with a shot of sweet vermouth. It’s cold here. This helps.
Then we vote and decide for them who the next President of the United States will be. After that they leave us alone for another four years.
But what they do not do, what they will not do, is make any real attempt to understand us in any depth. They go away shaking their heads that it’s these people, for god’s sakes, that are deciding the fate of the nation. Rubes with their rhubarb pies sometimes being enlightened (Obama, Biden) and sometimes being fools (Trump), but always deciding for them who will occupy the big white house in Washington. And always doing it by the slimmest of margins. A few thousand votes here and there between Detroit and La Crosse and, bam, the whole country gets turned upside down. Can’t these people make up their minds?
Anyway, screw ’em. We live here. Most of us have always lived here. We are deep, complex, interesting, befuddling people. A popular narrative of the Midwest, especially in literature, is that people are trapped here, that they would be somewhere else in a second if only they weren’t stuck due to their poverty or their family commitments or, most damningly, their own lack of imagination.
I confronted that narrative head on last week. My wife and I went to California. To Menlo Park and Palo Alto, to be exact. The weather was boring in the way I suppose it’s boring to be a billionaire and to never have to worry about money. Seventy degrees, sunny and dry every damn day. After a week of that you could, well, take another week of it. And then another. And then just one more for good measure so that you actually came to miss clouds. Also, there are no mosquitos or biting flies. The result of all this is that a nice house will set you back about $6 million. So, think about that the next time you curse the cold or swat at another bug. The cold and the bugs are keeping your neighborhood affordable.
We returned to slush falling from a sky that was exactly the color of the airport parking lot. And we asked ourselves — we said it out loud — why do we live here?
Every Sunday morning, for as long as I have thoughts along these lines, I’ll try to answer that question.