Monday, February 05, 2007

Knock knock. Hoosier?

Megan over at By and By posted a few days ago about Midwestern Literature, and does it even exist as a genre, and what defines it, exactly?

And are people from other regions of the U.S. as shaped by their region as southerners are by theirs? I believe Midwesterners are, although I would say that we don’t proclaim our identity as much as Southerners do, perhaps because we’ve not been asked to justify that identity as much as Southerners have been over the years. The Midwest isn’t considered majestic, or gothic, or rebellious, or bigoted, or inbred, particularly, it’s just considered boring. And in a way, it is, and I’m not just talking about the scenery. True, the people in Minnesota are very different from the people in Indiana (or god forbid, Kansas), but we also do share a kind of regional identity. If you’ve even listened to Garrison Keillor on a Prairie Home Companion you might have some idea what I’m talking about.

I’ve noticed that Southerners are pretty picky about who’s pretending to be a Southerner in the movies. For instance, many southerners quite rightly protested DeNiro’s villain in Cape Fear, mostly because he sounded like he was being played by Foghorn Leghorn. There is a big difference, they will tell you, between an Alabama southern accent and a Louisiana southern accent, and I agree, there is. Frequently though, those same Southerners, when I favor them with my world-famous imitation of my mother (who hails from south-central Nebraska), will tell me that she sounds like Marge, that cop in Fargo. My mother most certainly does not sound like Marge in Fargo, but leave it to a Southerner to not be able to hear the difference.

So all this got me thinking about those things that I consider unique about the Midwest, and why I am, when all is said and done, sort of proud to be from such a place. And I thought that I would tell you readers a story, a true story, see if that doesn’t help me get my point across.

A few years ago, before the death of my stepfather Al, a farmer who succumbed to a mysterious breathing ailment most likely related to a lifetime of handling fertilizers and other chemical poisons, my mother and I were driving down the gravel road that took us from their farm to the closest county road into town. For the better part of a mile, we drove in between the fields Al tended and the fields belonging to Al’s brother, Archie. Both had planted wheat that year.

My mom was glancing across the road toward her brother-in-law’s fields, which were now waist-high with a crop just about ready to be harvested. I didn’t think too much about it at the time, although it was unusual for my mother to take her eyes off the road, as she was very tender-hearted about the rabbits and pheasants and even the field mice that routinely met their deaths under her wheels. The road saw only about ten to fifteen cars a day, and the adjacent wildlife were, I suppose, relatively unschooled in the ways of avoiding them. Also, the groomers hadn’t hit this road in a long time, and the gravel had been pushed into deep furrows, making it a bit more difficult to navigate than usual.

Gravel roads in that part of the Nebraska are narrow, and flanked by ditches to hold the run-off rain, and it is the custom to drive in the middle of the road until a car approaches from the opposite direction. At that time, you must slow down, and cross into the lesser-used right-hand furrows, while the approaching car does the same. Also, at the point when you pass the oncoming car, it is customary to lift your fingers, and only your fingers, from the steering wheel, and give a slight nod of your head to the approaching driver. The person in the oncoming car of course does the same. If the person in the other car doesn’t know you, say perhaps because you are an infrequent visitor to your mother’s farm, they may not return the salute, but that is only part of a natural reticence in the denizens of that area towards strangers, because strangers are so infrequently seen, and you should not take it as an offense. On the other hand, if the oncoming driver doesn’t recognize you, but does recognize your car, because it belongs to your mother and their neighbor, you will be given the benefit of the doubt and, of course, the accompanying salute.

My mother and I had just passed her brother-in-law in his truck on the road between his fields and Al’s, and after she watched him disappear behind a rise in the rear view mirror, she slowly pulled over to the side of road.

“What are you doing?” I said.

Mom didn’t answer but instead put her beige 1988 Riviera into park, and got out, leaving the door open. She crossed the road gingerly in her low-heeled sandals and stepped carefully over the ditch on the opposite side. She then waded into the wheat field, and looked around, shading her eyes with one hand.

I could not for the life of me imagine what could possibly inspire my mother to abandon her vehicle and take to the fields in this way. For all I knew she had decided to fly into town instead.

She returned to the car just moments later holding a shaft of wheat in her hand. She sat down on the car seat with the door still open. She slowly pulled the wheat apart and looked at the kernels in her hand. She pushed one or two of them around with her finger.

“Mom, what ARE you doing?”

Again, she didn’t answer but instead dropped the wheat into the road, pulled her legs into the car and shut the door.


She put the car into drive and eased back into the middle of the road. “Well,” she said with a kind of terse satisfaction, “I don’t know why they’re crying poor this year. That wheat looked pretty good to me.”

It’s difficult to explain to someone not from the Midwest what a quintessentially Midwestern moment it is that I just described. Perhaps I should start with the first rule of being a Midwesterner: Don’t let anyone else know what you’ve got. Midwesterners are judgmental above all else, and if they know you’re doing well, they’re going to wonder why you are being so stingy by, for example, bringing a noodle dish to every single pot luck when you could afford to bring a meat dish. And if you are not doing so well, then why were you just seen buying the expensive quilted toilet paper, when you should be buying the inexpensive Kroger brand, especially since you seem to be too good to clip grocery coupons like everyone else.

So you can’t win. The only thing you can do is deflect attention to someone else (Can you believe the Myers are putting in a swimming pool? A BUILT-IN swimming pool?), or keep them guessing as to what you’ve got. You do this by being noncommittal at all times. If someone asks you how your year is going, and you’re obviously doing well because you have a brand new car in your driveway, you say “Fine.” If someone asks you the same question, and you just had your new car repossessed, you say “Okay.”

Pride is the ultimate sin a Midwesterner can commit, and so praise is properly deflected, not accepted, except if you accept it in the name of the Lord, and even then, don’t be too showy about it. If the juiciness of a Thanksgiving turkey is praised, the proper cook always claims that last year’s turkey was better and she forgot to baste it for nearly an hour and oh, gosh, she doesn’t know where her head was at but thank you. If a shiny new piece of farm equipment is being lauded in envious terms by a neighboring farmer, the owner will be sure to point out that a hitch tends to stick in the cold and they sure don’t make things like the used to.

Pride is never measured in terms that assess its affect on you, but in terms that indicate the degree to which you are attempting to show up your neighbors. My mother, for example, is a genuinely good and gentle woman, and lord knows she is a thousand times more tolerant and open-minded than anyone else in Buffalo County, but I have never heard a statement more dripping with scorn and revulsion than when she told me that Lou Ellen had just worn her best dress to church. Her best dress. I don’t know what Lou Ellen could’ve been thinking. You just don’t do that. You wear your best dress to your daughter’s or son’s wedding. You don’t wear it to church. With all your neighbors there.

Because who do you think you are?


Jess said...

I like to imagine Mr. Pibb growing up in the midwest... running through fields of corn with a stalk of wheat between his lips. Wearing overalls w/ no shirt. Being afraid of "the big city" and not understanding the ways of women. At night, he'd lay back on a bale of hay & watch the stars. A simple, midwestern life.

"Jess, I grew up 20 minutes outside of Chicago!" he keeps reminding me.

"Shut up and be midwestern!" I reply.

It's hot!

vikkitikkitavi said...

Jess: Wow, that is eerie. You sure nailed MY Midwestern childhood exactly, except as a girl I was required to wear a tube top underneath my overalls.

Seriously, though, when my stepfather died, there were several farmers at the funeral who came in a button down-shirt, a tie, and their best overalls.

RandyLuvsPaiste said...

Jess- how funny. My wife likes to think of me growing up on a tree farm in rural Pennsylvania exactly the same way. She also wonders how the Hell that environment could produce a vegetarian/socialist/athiest who couldn't wait to run away to the big, bad city.

Ummmmmmm, I sorta think it's obvious.

Spooney said...

Tub Tops are hott!
check this out!

Spooney said...

Ahh, I meant tube tops.
I wouldn't want to see anyone in a tub top.

dad said...

One of my childhood heroes was Dizzy Dean, even though he was out of baseball well before I reached 12 years old. I read about him is Sports magazine who would interview some recently retired sports star, much the same as Playboy has a monthly interview. Dizzy, a pitcher, liked to brag and taunt opposing batters with how good he has. He said it isn't gragging where to do what you said you were going to do. Along came Cassius Clay as he was know then, with the same hutzbah. I liked him too.

All this is to confirm what you are saying about having pride. It was such a factor that naturally, I rebelled against it.

Johnny Yen said...

You can take the girl out of the Midwest, but you can't take the Midwest out of the girl...

kiki said...

is that really your dad's comment?

Dave said...

Midwesterners are cerebral. I see it reflected in the writing of Vonnegut. I see it in the sense of pride in comparing ourselves to our neighbors that you write about. I think that it has something to do with the prairie. The prairie is to be survived or crossed. We have no mountain to admire and no sea to inspire.

SJ said...

I had someone say about Midwesterners that they don't contribute to conversations. They just sit there and say nothing and you're left just carrying the entire thing by yourself. Perhaps they don't want to give anything away, just as you said.

Foghorn Leghorn, haha

vikkitikkitavi said...

Randy/Dad: I think your environment either inspires you to conform or to rebel. And before Ali retired and became a revered cultural icon, we was widely reviled because he was such a braggart. He would have been ridiculous if he couldn't back it all up, but fortunately for us, he could.

Spooney: After watching that video, I am ready for a tub top.

JohnnyY: So true. I think of that every time someone gives me a compliment, and I automatically deflect it.

Kiki: "Dad" is always really my dad. You can tell by the typos.

Dave: True. I also think that "never mention a no-hitter to a pitcher" rule was invented by a Midwesterner. Nothing kills a run of good luck like talking about how lucky you are.

SJ: Midwesterners are intimidated by a Southerner's naturally outgoing personality. We are less confident than Southerners are, and also afraid of being ridiculed, and so we may prefer to speak only when spoken to. Also, in the Midwest, silence in conversation is acceptable, whereas other people feel like silence indicates the conversation has failed.

dad said...

As Andy of Amos and Andy used to say, "I resembles that remark".

GETkristiLOVE said...

Thanks for that story. Classic.

Grant Miller said...

This is quite a story. But more often than not, I find us - humans in general and Americans specifically - to have far more similarities than differences. Which is both comforting but also terribly frightening.

Chris said...

I have to agree with Grant. I find it difficult to make sweeping statements about the differences between people living in different regions. Sure, there are little quirks and tendencies that are regional, but after travelling this country extensively in what I consider an intimate fashion, I feel secure in saying that we are more alike than we think. Plus, the fact is that there are introverts in the south and extroverts in the north. There are examples of all personality types everywhere you go.

rob said...

This is EXACTLY the internal conflict that made Fargo such a terror -- Midwesterners give NOTHING away. If they are so excited to see you that they can barely contain themselves, they'll look you right in the eye and say "Well, hello! How are you?" Conversely, if they are inflamed to near homcidal rage at the mere mention of your name, they'll look you right in the eye and say "Well, hello. How are you?" See the difference? One piece of punctuation, of course invisible in spoken interaction.

I lived as an East Coast Jew -- talking with my hands, getting really vocal about things, you know, open -- among the stoic Minnesotans for nine years, and I never really cracked the code.

I did learn how to drink, though. That helped.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Dad: I can't believe you're quoting Amos and Andy to me.

Kristi: We should just take turns blogging about Mom.

Grant: If you look at the large picture, I suppose that's true. But I make it a rule to always to lose myself in the minutiae of a thing.

Chris: Of course there are examples of all personality types wherever you go, but I think you can also say that there are regional personalities, and if you don't take that into account, you can get into a lot of trouble. I remember once I was working a trade show in Chicago, and some exhibitor came up to me and started yelling and being very confrontational because he didn't like the service our fine unions were providing him. I was trying to deal with him tactfully, but he honestly was being his own worst enemy in getting the problem solved. At one point he exclaimed "I'm from New York, and we don't like getting screwed!" and I (honest to god) said back to him "I'm from the Midwest, and we're polite to strangers." At that point he actually settled down, because he realized that the behavior that gets you what you want in NYC might not get you what you want in Chicago.

Rob: Someday I may write a thesis about the different meanings of pursing one's lips in Midwestern speech pathology. One small facial gesture, and it can mean anything from "When is that sorry old biddy going to stop dying her hair black? It looks like shoe polish." to "I'm secretly in love with you, but would rather die than tell you, so I express it by making snide remarks about your lawn maintenance skills."

As Yet Undecided said...

I love childhood moments like those - the kind that stay with you and represent a place and time you'll always love.

This post made me remember growing up just outside of Atlanta, listening to aunts and cousins blather on about "best dresses" and presumptuous neighbors. Of all the bad press surrounding the South, I don't remember burning crosses or beating bibles. I remember porch swings and tall glasses of sweet tea, and catching fire flies in honey jars that provided nightlights all summer long. I remember the smell of fresh rain, and the constant moaning of my mother over the "Georgia red" dirt stains on the knees of our trousers.

Regional differences, yes. But how great to grow up in a place that is so vibrant, so memorable. Thanks for the trip home, Vik.

Bro said...

I still make a point of letting my neighbors know that my expensive cars out front of the house are leases... you know, cause I am not really rich cause that would be wrong when they aren't rich also.


Megan said...

Although I put a lot of stock in the universal human experience, I do think that there are regional differences and that the region in which you grow up shapes who you are to a certain extent.

I think the danger lies in making sweeping generalizations about people based on where they're from. I'm from Virgina, but I'm not a backwards-ass racist. My mom's from NYC, but she's ridiculously friendly to strangers. . .

vikkitikkitavi said...

AYU: Yeah, I had a great kidhood too, although that was before I became aware of how ugly my hometown was. And I miss fireflies! We have none in LA.

Bro: You were brought up right.

Megan: Yes, I grew up in a very racist place, and I am not a racist either. It's not so much that a region tends to homogenize the message so much as how the message is delivered. And of course, everyone has the potential of adapting to their circumstances. My coworkers at the trade show place used to bitch about New Yorkers and how rude they were, and they would dread working the shows with a high NYC exhibitor quotient. I told them they're not exactly rude, it's how they learned to deal with getting what they need. You need a certain amount of agressiveness to get by in NYC that is considered out of line in the midwest. And I told them that if they'd ever tried to get served in a crowded deli at lunchtime in NYC they'd know exactly what I meant.