We're back for round 3 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. Are you a Michigander? A Michiganian? Do you have thoughts or feelings about our fair water-bordered state and its literature? If an essay captures the workings of the mind, what is the mind of Michigan? Be in touch and send us something.
On Shit and Shinola
There was a time I called things Midwestern only when I was in a room full of people who, I believed, as the saying went, did not know shit from Shinola. In other words, when I was reasonably assured I could see their gears turning then rusting out and settling into the loam of that one image they saw that one time: a rowed cornfield or a red barn crumbling, an abandoned Main Street or some burned-out factory, rebar reaching into the sky like the frayed ends of cloth. Wait—a friend once interjected while detailing her flight path back to the East Coast from the West—Which comes first? Minneapolis St. Paul or Detroit Metro?
In other other words, when I was pretty confident most people in the room were not Midwestern and any responsibility to unpack that might, for a moment, fly over me too.
I don’t actually think I knew there was a Midwest beyond some arbitrary textbook geography until I went to college. Ann Arbor was only three hours away from my hometown in Muskegon and granted, still in Michigan, but also, somehow not. My Midwestern gained its early inflections in those years. Especially in the ideas and behaviors the “outta state” kids were quick to point out. One being the way I justified every purchase with a remark about its sale status.
Girl: That’s a cute shirt.
Me: Thanks, I pretty much found it in a dumpster.
Girl: Oh, is that like a new boutique or something?
But also in their bewilderment about the existence of deer hunters or the necessity of small talk, or the way some people looked other people in the eye; how that contact was for some, held three seconds too long, but for others, one second too short of what it took to say hello.
Yup, I would say, some real Midwestern shit; a phrase edged with shame long before it was ever riddled with pride.
In those days, Ann Arbor was often referred to as a bubble. And if I had been as metaphorically inclined then as I was materially, I might have recognized the trappings of a place, or the idea of a place, that could exist within only as much as it might resist without. But, for better or for worse, I wasn't.
I was, instead, entirely preoccupied by another phenomena: leggings. Leggings as something not worn under your pants as a base layer for frigid commutes but as actual pants. That and the fact a thousand dollar coat could be a noticeable fashion trend. The kind of coats made out of dead birds and space plastic, necessary only if you were:
- On an arctic expedition
- Not wearing pants
A Canada Goose® had, until that point in my life, been an actual goose, synonymous with black letters arcing over the sky and trumpets punctuating the evening stillness. But also shit: shit on the driveway, shit on the dock, shit on pretty much everything you could think to shit on.
As it turned out, even though I had been saying it for years, I didn’t really know Shinola from shit either. I had known Shinola was an old brand of shoe polish, but I also didn’t know anyone who polished their shoes. Had never really put two and two and five together. Had always assumed that not knowing shit was the true heart of the insult.
Not long after I graduated, a store called Shinola opened up on Main Street. They sold leather things, single speed bicycles, and high end timepieces (aka watches) (aka no bargain bins there my dudes). They lauded themselves on employing local Detroiters, many of whom came from the increasingly defunct auto industry, and called their revival of Fordist infrastructure—in which no one who actually worked for them could really afford any of their shit—an emerging lifestyle brand. At that point, I think I lost or maybe just found mine.
Like the Midwest, the essay was a place I could learn about only after I left home. And after the novelty of leggings as pants wore off, was where I would encounter the kinds of minds unafraid to cast and spin and reel and drag, dumpster dive and drift, quarry and leap; the kinds eager to say hello. I found kinship in writings that reached inward through all the layers one might don to stay alive in the cold, in those that reached outward only by drawing deep from that within.
That last bit was not a shit reference, but it might as well could be: good shit. Suffice to say I only really call things Midwestern now when I am trying to connect with the other people in that room.
What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond. These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors