Saturday, July 24, 2021

The #Midwessay: Travis Scholl, A Reckoning in Missouri

 




A Reckoning in Missouri

Travis Scholl

*

Editor's note: this essay is graphic in its depiction of a lynching.

*

On Tuesday, January 13, 1931, if you would have opened a copy of The New York Times, you would have turned to page three to read the news that carried the headline BURNS NEGRO KILLER ON VICTIM’S SCHOOL. It narrated the account of the lynching of Raymond Gunn in Maryville, Missouri, some 1,250 miles due west from New York City, 100 miles north of Kansas City. The event gained national headlines mainly for two reasons. One, it occurred well north of the boundaries of the American South, which had gained the title “the lynch belt.” Two, the county sheriff, for dubious reasons, did not deploy the National Guard troops that had been activated specifically to protect Raymond Gunn as he awaited trial.

In hindsight, the event is even more striking for the fact that the lynch mob was willing to burn down their own schoolhouse if it meant they could torture and kill the Black man who confessed to killing the white female, Velma Colter, on the premises where she taught.

Next to the article on page three of the Tuesday, January 13, 1931 edition of The New York Times sits an ad for Vitalis hair tonic.


“For every effect there is a cause.” In case you’re wondering, to this day, the Vitalis V7 formula—CAUTION: contents flammable—has remained virtually unchanged.

“For every effect there is a cause.” Raymond Gunn was dragged a mile outside of Maryville, Missouri, to the Garrett schoolhouse. Shingles were removed from the roof so that men could tie his living, breathing body to the ridge beam and doused with gasoline, lethal tonic. Then, at least two thousand people watched as they burned the whole thing down.

“For every effect there is a cause.” If the Middle West we call Missouri can exist as an essay, its cause is the geography of a nation’s most fraught compromise, the way south and north bleed into each other’s boundaries. We have just begun to reckon with how many of our national monuments were built upon the backs of the slaves whose labor made them possible. But these kinds of monuments—slabs of marble, sculpted glass, bronze domes—were not built in this Middle West. Where the Garrett schoolhouse once stood, today you will find only a field beside a country road. No marker. Beneath the tilled surface, the earth has long mixed with the ashes of one body and the blood of another, neither of whom received their due justice.



Friday, July 23, 2021

#The Midwessay: Allie Leach, "Midwest Nice" and Other Tired and True Stereotypes




“Midwest Nice” and Other Tired and True Stereotypes

Allie Leach


*


Last spring, with the sudden change from teaching at school to teaching online at home, I got pretty lonely. And I had a bit of extra time on my hands. To curb that loneliness/boredom, I looked to YouTube to cheer me up. I’d watch clips from musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis. Since I’m from St. Louis—well, from Ballwin, a suburb 40 minutes west of the city—watching these clips made me nostalgic for home, for the Midwest. Somehow, I fell down a rabbit hole of Midwestern-ness and came across the comedian/journalist Charlie Berens. Berens, a Wisconsin native, has his own YouTube channel, one that I found great solace in and many belly laughs from about a year ago.
     Watching his videos last year, I felt like, even though I was from Missouri and he was from Wisconsin, I could relate with the Midwestern stereotypes that he mocked. Even now, I still find many of his satires spot-on. Then again, Midwesterners are complex and these brushstrokes don’t show the full person. Let’s unpack a few of his videos and, while we’re at it, a few moments from my life. 


Midwest Nice

In Beren’s Midwest Nice Part 1 and Part 2, he highlights familiar Midwestern tropes like being overly-helpful to your neighbors and friends; saying “hi,” “hello,” “howdy,” to everyone you see; giving a friendly wave to everyone else at a four-way stop, allowing them to continue, before you proceed driving; holding the door open for people, even if they’re a block away; getting trapped into long, overly-personal and confessional conversations with neighbors; being too nice when people are clearly stepping all over you (in his case, a lady is literally stepping on his foot); saying sorry to everyone and everything (including inanimate objects) even if you have no reason to be sorry.
     Whenever I say “sorry” to someone—like when I nearly collide with a co-worker in the hallway—I always think of my mom. I can remember several instances where she’d correct, “If you accidentally run into someone, don’t say, ‘I’m sorry,’ say ‘Excuse me.’ You didn’t do anything wrong.” I still say “sorry,” though, each time this happens. 
The need to be overly-apologetic and overly self-effacing might be a Midwestern thing, but it might also be a “me” thing. I know plenty of non-Midwestern folks who are like this, too, and, I’m sure, they can relate with lots of the Midwestern stereotypes that I’m writing about here. Even still, I want to tie this “sorry-ness” to the Midwest. What is it about the Midwest, particularly the St. Louis region, that makes us so damn sorry all the time? 
     St. Louis is filled with Catholics. We have Catholic churches at nearly every corner; Catholic elementary, middle, and high schools, even All-Boys and All-Girls Catholic High Schools (I went to one of them—Visitation Academy.) Many Catholics—especially school-aged ones—regularly go to confession. We atone for our sins, even if they’re as small as “I was disrespectful to my mom” or “I lied to my friend.” We are led into a room—the size of a telephone booth—and tell the priest why we’re bad. Why we’re sorry. This might be one reason why I am the way I am.
     Am I annoyed that I’m overly polite? It depends on the situation. Today, for example, I cut in front of someone at the grocery store and the laundromat—I move too fast when I’m running errands—and I turned around and gave them a sincere, five-second look and said, “I’m so sorry.” Because I was. However, also today, while briefly stopping in a nearby park before turning around, a woman rather brashly came up to me, asking me to roll down my window, and said, “Can’t you read the sign? This parking lot is ONLY for people with horse trailers.”
     “Oh! I was just checking my directions home before I left.” In that case, I didn’t say sorry. I had nothing to be sorry about. As I rolled up my window, as she walked away, as I made a U-Turn, I yelled, “BIIIIIITCH!” It felt so good.
     One more thing about Midwest Nice. So many Midwesterners that I know are sweet to your face and then talk shit about you behind your back. So many Midwesterners that I know stuff their other emotions—you know, like sadness and anger—down, down, deep down until shocking, volcanic eruptions occur. Whenever this happened with my dad, my sisters and I got scared. Dad never gets mad. This is so weird. Whenever this happens with me, my friends and co-workers are stunned silent. In the six years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you like this before. It’s unsettling on both sides—theirs and mine—and reminds me to show everyone that I know a wider range of me. 


Midwest Goodbye

Beren’s take on the Midwest Goodbye takes it to an extreme and for good reason: it’s a satire. In the video, a working-class-looking guy tries to leave his friend’s house after having a beer and a chat. After trying hard to leave, his friend offers him another beer. 
     “Alright, one more and then I go,” he says. This exchange happens about ten more times. He tries to leave and then his friend offers him some brats. “Well, if you’re de-thawing them right now, I’ll have a couple.” His friend also gives him a bunch of rhubarb from his garden. He doesn’t want it, but he takes it anyway. “Guess I’ll be making pie,” he says. He keeps over-committing to social events. “The St. Aloysius Fish Fry? I’ll be there.” “The St. Luke’s Charity Softball Pub Crawl? Yeah, I’ll be there.” Then there’s the punchline, “Okay, I really got to go. Your first child’s only born once.” Even the punchline, which is meant to be literal, has that kind of Midwestern, cheesy masculine humor that I’m all too familiar with. This scene reminds me of my family.
     My family was always the last one to leave a party. My mom’s side of the family, in particular, was a super kissy-kissy bunch. With each goodbye to grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, cousins, and second-cousins, you’d give them a hug-and-a-kiss. That intimacy and love and beer-induced-drunkenness from the adults would, inevitably, prompt more conversation. I’d scope out my two sisters and my parents from across the room. After trying to leave the first time, we were all stuck in separate conversations. We’d say goodbye to another family member, and the same thing would happen all over again. It wasn’t until we were the only ones left at the party, that my parents would say, “Well, look at us. The last ones to leave the party again.” They almost said it like a badge of honor.
     As an adult, I still have this problem. I’d love to be one of those people who can do the “Irish Goodbye” or “Ghost-it,” but, again, that wouldn’t be polite. What makes it even worse: I married another Midwesterner. He’s from Ohio, and he has just as hard a time making quick and graceful exits. Whenever we visit our older neighbor for dinner, we’re always making eyes at each other or giving knowing nudges that say, Time to go. But here’s the problem: neither of us wants to be the wet blanket. 
     “Well, thank you so much for dinner…” 
     “Yes, yes. Wait! Have I shown you these pictures?”
     “Oh, no, not yet.”
     (Thirty minutes pass.)
     “Well, it's so great to see you…”
     “Let me give you a few books before you leave.”
     (Thirty minutes pass.)
     You get the picture. Usually, we get the point where the other person has to say, “Well, I can tell I’m keeping you…”
     “No, no, no, not at all,” we say in unison. What we really mean to say, “Yes, yes you have been keeping us. We’ve been trying to leave for a fricking hour. Boy, BYE!” We wish we could be like that. But: we’re Midwesterners. 


Midwest Cheap

In Midwest Cheap, Berens piggy-backs off his friends’ Netflix and Disney Plus accounts; has a hard time giving things away to Goodwill; refuses to waste anything, using his soap until the last sliver and scraping the final bits of peanut butter from the jar; regifts Christmas and birthday presents; saves too many packets of ketchup and soy sauce, too many tiny bottles of hotel shampoo and conditioner. In other words, he’s cheap.
     It’s important though to ask this question: why does this stereotype hold up? Coming from a blue-collar, middle-class upbringing, I can relate. My parents took out a second mortgage and constantly refinanced their home so that my sisters and I could attend a stellar Catholic, All-Girls’ High School and go to Liberal Arts colleges. In doing so, they had to pinch their pennies where they could. My family rarely went out for dinner, and when we did, my mom reminded us, “Nothing over six dollars” and “Order from the Kids’ menu as long as you can.”
     Early on in High School, my friend Alex and her parents took me out to an Italian restaurant. It wasn’t fancy, per se, but the entrees—at $9-11—were kind of pricey for my family’s standards. Alex’s dad was a dentist, and, yeah, I’d say they were well-off if not wealthy.
     “Get anything you want from the menu!” her parents encouraged.
     I scanned the menu, looking for anything that was under $6. Mom’s orders.
     “I’m not that hungry. I’ll just get the toasted ravioli.” (As an aside, toasted ravioli is a St. Louis thing. If you’re not familiar, here’s a quick summary a la the Internet: “Toasted ravioli is a breaded, deep-fried ravioli, usually served as an appetizer and with marinara sauce. It was created and popularized in St. Louis at two restaurants, Mama Campisi’s and Charlies Gitto’s, both located in an Italian-American neighborhood, ‘The Hill.’”)
     For like five minutes, Alex’s parents and I battled it out: they genuinely wanted to treat me and I couldn’t be treated for anything over $6. I won the battle and was proud that I stood my ground. Even still, Alex’s lasagna looked really good.
     “Do you want a bite?” she offered. Being the polite Midwesterner that I am, I couldn’t say no.



Thursday, July 22, 2021

The #Midwessay: Devin Thomas O'Shea, Types of Missouri Guy




Types of Missouri Guy

Devin Thomas O’Shea


*


A major type of Missouri guy sits in his ’98 Saturn recording YouTube rants on his phone. The phone is positioned horizontally on the car’s dashboard. His videos frame the steering wheel, the ceiling of the car, and a man on fire with rage about Star Wars and divorce court. The man is over thirty with varying arrangements of facial hair and reasons to be pissed. 
     Margaritaville Guy heard “Cheeseburger in Paradise” back in 1984 and has listened to it once a week, every week hence. He owns multiple models of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville daiquiri blender, and a deck of ticket stubs from Buffett concerts at the Westport Amphitheater, Branson, Missouri, and a themed ocean liner cruise that cost him a month’s salary and hastens a liver condition brewing in Margaritaville Guy’s guts. His lifestyle is oriented around hard liquor and good times; Margaritaville Guy needs permission to chill, and a music culture to support his checking-out of reality, because things have not been going well at the office, and sales are down, and the speed of his promotions has been slower than promised. 
     Truck Man does not get his F150 tires dirty, but he is ready for the Second American Civil War. He has joined the Proud Boys, the Three-Percenters, the local Blue Lives Matter Facebook group, and several prepper/militia organizations too obscure to mention here. The truck is raised, and was purchased by Truck Man’s father; a fatter, grey-er, middle-aged Truck Man himself. Truck Man listens to country music and does not admit that he likes pop country best; the kind with big bass lines, clever lyrics about dirt roads, and a little hip-hop blended in. The trucks keep getting bigger and taller—tall enough that a BLM pedestrian can kiss the Ford logo on the top of the grill as Truck Man does exactly what Rush Limbaugh wants him to do to those protesters. 
     Rapid fire: 
     Obsessively Fit Christian Youth Pastor Guy
     Too-Skinny Gas Station Attendant
     Online Sports Gambling Addicted Uncle
     Pontoon Boat Hoosier (stars-and-bars upholstery on boat)
     Glue-Huffing Garage Pipe-Bomb Assembler
     Qanon Dipping Tobacco Advocate
     Recovering Fentanyl Addict Who Can’t Afford Therapy
     Grass-fed Steak Salesman (pretends to enjoy grilling)
     It Works! Bodybuilder
     YouTube Fast Food Reviewer
     These types of Missouri guy are white, of a certain socio-economic class, and come off as either straight or extremely closeted. In reality, Missouri is home to many types of guy. Guys of a million different creeds and ethnicities, but somehow these Missouri guys are the ones you already know. They are the loudest; they are the easiest to make fun of. They are downwardly mobile and feel humiliated in their bodies. Their masculinity is ridiculed, they are unable to cry as they once did, as little boys. And while they don’t have to be this way, the anger won’t vanish until their material conditions improve, and they wake up to love in their lives.



Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The #Midwessay: Gwen Niekamp, Wanted: Grad Student to Show Famous New York Writer Around St. Louis




Wanted: Grad Student to Show Famous New York Writer Around St. Louis

Gwen Niekamp


*


Riding shotgun in my second-hand Civic—paid for in cash I saved from an $11/hour gig—the New Yorker sucked her teeth as the St. Louis Arch appeared on the horizon. “Before I came here, I didn’t realize the Arch was an actual structure; I thought it was a metaphor. Gateway to the West, yada yada.”
     I was in my mid-twenties, and in the first semester of an MFA program, which had brought the sixty-something New Yorker to campus to work with graduate students. I’d never heard of her before the visit was announced, but a frantic Google search revealed she was New York literati. I hungered for her validation.
     The day before I toured the New Yorker around St. Louis in my car, I arrived at the duplex, the top floor of which my MFA program maintained for its visiting writers. I was to conference with the New Yorker to discuss an essay I had written, and I rang the doorbell for quarter of an hour, then emailed my professors that the New Yorker did not appear to be home. “Keep trying,” they advised, and eventually, she appeared at the door, her wrist draped over her brow to shelter her eyes from the afternoon sun. She was wearing a sheer nightgown through which I could see her nipples.
     “I can come back,” I offered.
     “No, no, no, no, no. Come in, come in.” 
     I ascended the staircase behind her, averting my eyes from her exposed panty lines, and once we were inside the apartment, I took a seat at the dining table while she showered and made breakfast. She set a hot bowl of microwave oatmeal on her copy of my essay.
     “I don’t really have any notes,” she said. “But in New York, we don’t use the Oxford comma—”  
     “—I’ll take it out.”
     The doorbell rang, signaling my classmate had arrived for his conference. I collected my things, pausing briefly to notice that a ring-shaped pucker had formed on my manuscript where her bowl had been. I thanked her for her time and made toward the stairs, but she called out for me: “Wait! Wait! What are you doing tomorrow?”
     Would I have given her my number had I not perceived she was well-connected, a byline machine in cutthroat New York City? Had I not felt insecure as an emerging writer from flyover country, as a Kentuckian living in Missouri? I’m not sure. But when the New Yorker called me to invite me to take her to the St. Louis Zoo, I felt a rush of pride to be chosen from among the graduate students. Her attention, I thought, could pluck me from obscurity.
     It was 2 p.m. when I arrived to pick up the New Yorker for our zoo excursion, and after calling her several times, she finally woke. Again, the nightgown, the nipples, the panty lines. Again, the waiting as she showered. Again, her hunger. She was out of oatmeal, so together we visited a chain coffee shop, where she ordered French toast and bought souvenirs for her daughter. Would a young woman appreciate a tote recycled from a burlap coffee bag? I did not think so, nor did I think it represented St. Louis, but she bought it anyway. 
     The zoo was closing by the time the New Yorker and I finished the meal, so we settled instead on a tour of St. Louis in my car. I was still getting my bearings in the city, and the area I knew best was my neighborhood. Crabgrass and red or yellow brick duplexes, metal awnings and chain-link fencing. Bathtub Madonnas. Fire hydrants painted after the colors of the Italian flag. Donut shops with ten-cent coffee in Styrofoam cups. Handwritten for-lease signs. Once in a while, a hawk atop a powerline, or children learning to ride bikes in a church parking lot.
     The New Yorker clucked and mewed at my St. Louis. When I hit a pothole, she braced herself belatedly against the seatbelt. “How long have you been driving?” she demanded, and seemed surprised by my answer. “Since sixteen?! How do you feel safe on the road knowing teens are driving?” 
What else was said? She bragged of her celebrity friends and the movie stars she’d profiled for glossy magazines. She asked where I wanted to submit my work and scoffed at the idea of a $40 honorarium: “My book advance? Half a million.”
     She asked if I had ever held a gun—“Is hunting something people do here, or is that a fiction?”—and I remembered shooting at Coke cans as a kid. “Inconceivable,” she murmured. 
     I began to feel unnerved by her musings about the Midwest, by the idea that she was approaching St. Louis the way she might have regarded the exhibits at the zoo. Would I factor into her next essay? St. Louis Arch on the horizon—metaphor for a gateway I’d never manage to pass through—my character would be promising enough with whom to spend an afternoon, but ultimately provincial, broke, and uncultured. 
     When I hit another pothole, the New Yorker asked if it was easy to learn to drive. “Perhaps,” she suggested, “you could teach me.” 
     By chance, we were approaching the Missouri Botanical Garden, and I redirected her attention away from the prospect of driving lessons in my personal vehicle. The Garden, I informed her, had woodlands, box gardens, rose gardens, and the historic home of a man who’d made his fortune selling supplies to California Gold Rushers. 
     At the ticket counter, I showed my Missouri driver’s license for a reduced admission rate. The New Yorker, ineligible for this discount, faced a $14 ticket.
     “I’m a member of the press,” she announced to the attendant. “A press pass? Don’t you offer free admission for members of the press?”
     “I don’t know what that is,” said the attendant.
     Reluctantly, the New Yorker shelled out full price, and we strolled through the Japanese Garden, whose paths border a four-acre lake and wind over bridges to small islands. At the crest of a taikobashi-style bridge, we paused to admire the vista—the artful reflection of autumn leaves in the water below. “You know,” breathed the New Yorker, “this is really nice.” Then, she listed the members of my cohort, criticized their writing each in turn.
     At the start of our tour of St. Louis, her approval and confidence would have thrilled me, but by the time we stood on that bridge, I didn’t want it anymore. I was tired of her and disappointed in my own hastiness to define the Midwest by comparison to New York. Middle America, to the New Yorker, was but a buffer between coasts. St. Louis, to her: a blight, a pockmark, a gateway, a layover. 
     Of course, the New Yorker never wrote about me or St. Louis. Why would she have? She likely hasn’t thought about the tour in years. But I think about it every time I glimpse the Arch on the skyline. I’ve made the choice to live in St. Louis even after graduating from my MFA program, and my concept of the city and the Midwest continues to swell and evolve. I don’t mind flattening the New Yorker into a punchline. How daft she looked, gaping up at the Arch with an open-mouthed grin, wearing pity on her face, reveling in her own perceived cleverness. Maybe the Arch is a metaphor, just not the one she expected.



Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The #Midwessay: Alan Van Wyk, Minnesota

 




Minnesota

Alan Van Wyk


*


The sky here still feels a little off; a little too much. Not too big, exactly, but too deep, appearing without surface or limit. Simply there. Everywhere. An upward sink of feeling, drawing attention, making it impossible to look anywhere else. To try to look down is only to fall into the reflection of this sky, into a limitless place without mark or measure. 
     Growing up in California there was always a limit. Mountains one direction ocean the other. The continent ended at our feet; we could jump off any time we wanted. And it was impossible to turn away from the horizon, from that offing where the future reached the edge of the world. A point that was always more movement than destination, the never quite fixed place of possibility. 
     In our imagination we followed the sun as if it were ours alone. 
     History—the one history that we were taught as the only history that mattered—unfurled behind us towards us, as a movement of time that was our destiny. Which is to say that any reflection on place is also about privilege. Or perspective. So to write, as to live, from that place was always to imagine into that not quite fixed future, a future made large as the possibility of our own want. Yet as our desire it was a future founded on a confusion between what was and what might have been. There the present was always already a nostalgia of possibility lost. 
     But in this place, in this media res, where there is no true horizon, history is not so straight forward. It continues to roil over us. 
     It has been said that our work ethic—those of us who have always been outsiders here—arises from a certain anxiety, an anxiety over the uncertainty of grace. Which would mean that we continue to fill these pages not as an imagining but to fix these our lives and loves. But here and now I’m not so sure, for we—again, those of us who have always been outsiders here—seem quite aware that we have arrived by violence and not by grace. And in this violence I remain lost. Unbounded and without direction attention wanders and so grace remains impossible to fix. To write here is to try to find another work, another ethic, to fall into this blood soaked land to find purchase, attending to a land a mirror to a sky that is too much.       


Monday, July 19, 2021

The #Midwessay: Jodie Noel Vinson, The Midwest Essay is Strong and Limber



The Midwest Essay

Jodie Noel Vinson


*


The Midwest Essay is strong and limber, broad-shouldered, hard working. Digs deep. Makes a point.

Or three. A swish from behind the line, straight shooting. A dribble on the page, a dart toward the right margin then a drive in the paint.

It’s the brilliance of a golden sun—squint at the full-bodied, flaring orb of it—rising above a glowing plain.

Or is it the circle of silvery tinsel that catches in the candlelight casting shadows from the long leafed table in the old farmhouse; a well-rounded thought, beginning knotted to end, the precious angel halo of a pageant, a memory returned to sit deftly around golden locks, just above the ears.

Anyway, it’s something about the light, which, I should mention, can also be glaring. You’ll stand sunburnt and exposed to the ridicule of the world.

Or is it the heat, which clings to your skin and makes the sweat stand out from it in beads. It’ll curl your hair if you’re not careful. The damn humidity of it.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s more than just weather and not only climate. The Midwest Essay is atmosphere. 

And, at the same time, solid ground. 

It’s that person perpetually waiting for you in the warm yellow kitchen. The enigma of a life lived apart.

It’s a drive down Highway 20 through the college town, westbound, and all you can see out the windows on either side are the flickering green aisles, stalks way above your head.

Or maybe it’s a sprint down the rows of someone else’s field, a leap to the left over the soybeans to tug at that stubborn weed.

Or it’s the soil that drops in heavy, cloying clumps when uprooted.

Or the clay that sucks at your toes at the bottom of a muddy lake and won’t let you go. 

Or maybe it’s a tick burrowed deep behind your ear.

The Midwest Essay lingers like light angling across a landscape. With no mountain to duck behind, you get every last ray of it. 

It’s all there on the page. Honest. Modest. Bare-limbed. Often, it is swimming. Sometimes screaming. Mostly with delight.

It’s the creak then bang of a screen door in summer. The dinner bell that calls you back.

The voice of the Midwest Essay is often passive, but it can also be aggressive. Unassuming but alive. It also has a conscience, a small cricket incessantly chirping.

The Midwest Essay is a zucchini hidden under the shade of its own vines. In the sun, it grows bloated, over-ripe. If this happens, hollow it out and it will sail, a small boat bobbing in the lazy current of the nearest creek. 

It’s something in the warm lake water, always dirt brown. With your cousins you strain the sand and clay and rocks from it and it falls from your uplifted fingers laughing and clear as a shared memory shot through with sunlight, only to regain its murky mystery with a splash. 

It’s the fossil found on the shoulder of a gravel road. A small, scalloped reminder of what came before. That maybe where you stand now fish once swam. And maybe they will again. 

There’s just that much possibility in the Midwest Essay. Something about those open horizons. Nothing standing in your way. Plow on til morning.

It could also be the leaves of that farmhouse table, fitted neatly between ends like a completed puzzle: an expanse, bounty-laden, that appears out of nowhere, as if always there. When the guests leave, it is shelved again behind the bureau.

Of course! It’s the harvest itself, never a clearer metaphor. Those creamy yellow kernels beneath the rough ridged husks. Pull the sticky silk strands away. Sink your teeth in.

The Midwest Essay tastes sweet, but will, at times, smell like manure. 

And the joy in it will always find its equal in the melancholic fall of an autumn leaf. That slow spin back to earth.

Sometimes the Midwest Essay asks you to fit your foot to a larger print, letting it sink down to the packed snow below. The borders of it are well-defined, razor-sharp with a thin coat of ice. You can’t know where it leads. But there’s a light on in the house ahead and a pair of worn brown skates hanging by the door. 

The Midwest Essay is the strength to leave. But let’s also admit that it’s the strength to stay. 

The slow drip of a long icicle from a gutter, counting off the days til spring.

It’s the shimmering emerald of a stretching April lawn, almost neon in its newness. Beloved pets are buried in shallow graves beneath.

Or is it the pale ghostly green the sky could turn, just before a twister. Describe it if you can. A warning, a wonder, a cool basement nook, safe beneath stairs.

Then again, it’s not all security and productivity and mediocrity, just because it’s in the middle. The Midwest Essay is not a cliché. But you can see danger coming a mile away.

It’s the cyclonic funnel itself, sucking up everything in its path til all you’re left with is a blank page. A fresh start, or a finish.

If you’re not careful the Midwest Essay will write you to the edges. One day you’ll get on that road and the horizon will be clear. You’ve seen what the stalks have borne, and the fields are no longer barren; beansprouts about to unfurl. As you drive you’ll start to wonder what’s on the next page over. 

You’ll stop to fill your tank and when you get out into the warm summer evening the Midwest Essay will be sung in the cicadas’ croon, a chorus rising from the roadside ditch, green-black in the dying light, but sparking with the occasional firefly. As if in answer, a lightning bolt crackles like a whip lashed across the sky. 

The Midwest Essay always reads clearer in the rearview mirror, blushing with the sunset of your leaving.



Sunday, July 18, 2021

The #Midwessay: Sarah Curtis, The Wishing Heart

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.


 


The Wishing Heart

Sarah Curtis


*

The wishing heart of you I loved, Kalamazoo.
I sang bye-lo, bye-lo to your dreams.
I sang bye-lo to your hopes and songs.

—“The Sins of Kalamazoo,” Carl Sandburg

After the garage sale was over, my husband loaded the unwanted items into our van to take to Goodwill. He paused when he got to the pink chairs. “Do you want to hold on to these?” he asked, knowing their story.
     I shook my head, glad to be rid of them but sad to see them go. I’d bought them a few years before from an antiques dealer named Bob, a local Kalamazoo character. In the handful of times I entered Bob’s shop, I noticed how out of place he seemed amidst the rows of delicate chinoiserie, with his hulking frame, stained bib overalls, and heavy work boots. He loved the Victorian and Art Deco eras, but wanted nothing to do with Midcentury modern or beyond, and he’d send you to the retro consignment shop two miles away if that’s what you wanted, mumbling “stupid trend” under his breath.
     As I got to know Bob, I learned he wasn’t rude, just devoted to his craft, and maybe a little shy. One Sunday afternoon I went into the shop looking for a chair for my den. By that time, I knew Bob well enough to strike up a conversation, and told him what I was in the market for. He thought for a moment, then his eyes lit up, and he said he had just the ones for me. I followed him down a precarious aisle to a pair of wing chairs he’d bought from a wealthy local matron who, he made a point of saying, did not have cats. I got the feeling Bob hated cats, had seen enough clawed upholstery to last two lifetimes. He leaned down to point out the intricately carved Queen Anne legs, and I told him the chairs were nice, but not my style. For one thing, they were covered in a hideous pink chintz, but Bob assured me it was an easy upholstery job (it wasn’t). He wouldn’t let up, and after a lame attempt at negotiation, I paid $300 for the pair.
     When I got the chairs home, my husband hated them. He thought I’d paid too much, and that the chairs weren’t our style: correct on both counts. Looking at them in my home, I realized I’d fallen under Bob’s spell. I wasn’t a wealthy local matron; I would have been better off going to the retro shop. My husband carted them, grumbling, to the basement, where they remained until the garage sale.

One morning shortly after I bought the chairs, I was scrolling through a local online news site when I saw the headline: “Well-known Kalamazoo antique dealer found dead in home.”
     No. I held my breath and clicked. It was Bob. He’d gone to an estate sale, where he’d paid for his goods with a thick wad of cash he kept in his bib pocket. He was distrustful of credit, said his brother, the one who found him. Oh Bob, of course you were. A man had seen him pay, then followed him for two weeks before breaking into his home with an accomplice one evening. They tied Bob up and bludgeoned him to death with a baseball bat. Bob had lived half a mile from my house; in fact, I’d later learn my neighbor had spotted a ski mask and pair of gloves on an early morning jog shortly after the murder. This evidence led to the killers’ convictions.

Bob’s murder shattered my perception of our sleepy, Michigan town. We’d moved here from Chicago four years before the crime, when my husband was offered a job at a large foundation. At first, I had no interest in moving. We had no friends or family nearby, and was Kalamazoo even a real place? It sounded like a word Dr. Seuss had invented to rhyme with Timbuktu.
     But when we visited, I felt like I’d walked into one of my childhood Eloise Wilkin storybooks. Ruddy-cheeked farmers at the market filled my toddler’s palm with blueberries and peaches, flower beds exploded with fat pink peonies, and glass milk bottles sat on door stoops. Our realtor drove us downtown, where we saw something called the “Doo-Dah Parade.” The realtor pulled the car over, and we rolled down the window so my daughter could hang her head out and watch with delight as men, women, and children strolled along, dressed as the Village People, or bloody zombies on roller skates, or hand-holding hippies with signs around their necks reading DOO DAH. The Masons passed by in their white dinner jackets, followed by a burly man in a half-shirt playing the flute.
     “What’s this parade for?” I asked the realtor.
     He shrugged. “Nobody really knows.” That’s when I decided I could move here. 

In the fourteen years since that day, I’ve come to see that Kalamazoo is just a town like any other. The kind of place that can embrace a cranky antiques dealer, but also where men can follow him home and beat him to death over a greasy wad of tens. Or where an unhinged Uber driver can snuff out six lives on a shooting rampage. You live in a town long enough, you see random acts of good and evil, moments of altruism and greed, the lights of fellowship and the shadows of bigotry. I’d wanted to raise my child in a storybook, but I ended up raising her in America.
     As I watched my husband load the wing chairs into our van, I thought back to how Bob’s eyes had brightened the day I’d bought them, that moment when he realized he knew just the chairs for me. But would anyone at Goodwill love them the way he had, see past their chintz to the supple carvings on the legs? Or notice the curvature of the wings, like the arch of a ballerina’s back in arabesque, her arms allongé, reaching toward something just beyond her grasp.



Saturday, July 17, 2021

The #Midwessay: Diane Seuss, My Midwestern Essay

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.


 


My Midwestern Essay

Diane Seuss


*


One of the most Midwestern essays I’ve read is by Robert Creeley, who was not Midwestern, who was East Coast all the way, and it’s not an essay but a poem: “As I sd to my / friend, because I am / always talking,—John, I // sd, which was not his / name, the darkness sur- / rounds us, what // can we do against / it, or else, shall we & / why not, buy a goddamn big car, // drive, he sd, for /  christ’s sake, look / out where yr going.” 
     When I googled the poem so I could copy and paste it into this essay, I found one comment beneath it, from “James,” posted in 2006: “dats nice i got a freind and sometimes i act that way towards him.” James spelled “friend” wrong, but that’s ok. “dats nice,” James wrote. “i got a freind,” James says.
     This is a Midwestern comment. Is it parody? Is it sincere? Is “dats nice” sarcasm or sweetness? Is it a marker of humility? Is the misspelling purposeful? A refusal to play the goddamned game? Or is James just not all that invested in spelling? I wasn’t, for years, until I had to be. Is the confusion around who “I” is in relation to the poem, and who “him” is, purposeful? As in: I could be I or I could be him or I could be Creeley or I could be a toadstool you don’t know me. Or did James go for concision over clarity? Did James come upon the poem in some serendipitous moment of internet weirdness, and cascading from that moment, in 2006, came “dats nice” and the rest of it? I want to know James.
     I am from the Midwest. I am comfortable with Creeley’s poem. It wakes me up. It doesn’t make me feel like shit about myself. The quirky word division, the shorthand of “sd,” the aural hesitancy —well, that’s how things are in the Midwest, both city and country. The explosion of “goddamn big car,” it’s like when the fuel tanks exploded, it’s like when the outdoor movie screen caught on fire, it’s like putting too much popcorn in a too-small pan and the lid rises up like a crown. “drive, he sd.” In the Midwest, when the darkness sur-/rounds us, we drive, sometimes all the way into the city to watch planes take off from the big airport with the blue-lit runway from which we assume we will never lift off into the air. dats nice.

*

I’ve digressed. That, too, is Midwestern. There are times we are heading to Walmart and we end up at a haunted church because we just had to drive by those cows. The ones way out there whose pee stream is so ferocious you can hear it hitting the snow. Whose pee is so hot it steams when it meets the cold air. We drive by the cows and roll down the windows to hear the pee and huh—I never noticed that church before, that church over there with the boarded-up windows, that condemned church, we must explore the church. Even if we fall through the floor? Yes, even if we fall through the floor. 
     I just said digression is Midwestern. I said cows and condemned churches are Midwestern. I said steaming pee is Midwestern. How essentialist am I? Very essentialist. 
     The Midwest is big. It contains Ohio. 
     My God, it contains Missouri, Indiana. Wisconsin. For Christ’s sake, St. Louis is not Chicago. Chicago is not Detroit. Detroit is not Cincinnati. Cincinnati is not Milwaukee is not St. Paul. And Iowa. What shall we do about good ole pillowcase-shaped Iowa? But what do I know of Iowa? What do I know of Chicago? I know its art museum and its pizza. I know Cincinnati’s art museum and its chili, Detroit’s art museum and its hot dogs, St. Louis’s art museum and its toasted ravioli. I am what a long-term resident of any of those cities would call a motherfucking tourist, and to the place where I was raised, unless you grew up there, you too are a motherfucking tourist. 

*

What I know, or knew, is Niles, Michigan. What I know or knew further back, as it’s where we lived when I was very young, is Edwardsburg, Michigan. It is 10.9 miles between Edwardsburg and Niles on US 12, but I prefer taking the discursive path, US 12, past the fieldstone house where we ate watercress salad, to Gumwood, to Bertrand Rd., past Billy’s house, my first slobbery kiss. I liked him because he was the boy with a wooden leg, which he removed for wrestling matches. The kiss faded. The leg stayed. If you take the back roads off Bertrand you’ll see the Tying the Knot Wedding Chapel and the former site of a country bar, once painted smoke-pink. Now it’s an auto shop, and the memories of the good times are covered in corrugated steel. 

*

Between Niles and Edwardsburg there are soybean fields, silos, the homemade crosses that mark teenage car accidents, an underground house, and fog.  Edwardsburg, where my mom was raised and where I lived as a child, has a current population of 1,255. The village was built next to a small inland lake around which my mother, as a girl, walked backwards, and was bit on the ankle by a snake. No one believed her until they witnessed the fang marks. The lake is now the site of a massive marina and boat sales showroom. In a place where ghosts were once seen dancing on telephone wires, the marina has decimated all such hauntings. 
     There are undoubtedly more dead in the Village Cemetery than those living in the village. According to the Cemetery Red Book, last updated 9 years ago, there are 69 rows of graves, and a full page devoted to people “Buried In Edwardsburg Cemetery but unknown where.” I don’t know what to do with that information. The cave where dead bodies were stored in the winter, when the ground was too frozen for the gravedigger’s shovel to break through, has collapsed into the boggy hillside and is mostly swallowed by wild grapevines. 
     My dad has been a resident for 57 years. My mom tends his grave, and her parents’ graves, with unshakeable loyalty. Is grave-tending Midwestern? Is loyalty to the dead? No. The cave, the grapevines, the dead buried somewhere, but nowhere known? Probably not. We picnic on the graves. Do you picnic on your graves? Do you wonder what we are eating? I wonder what you are eating. What are they eating, I ask myself as I drive past them in my goddamn big car.

*

Niles, comparatively, is bursting to the gills, with a population of 11,211 living human souls. It was built around a river, the St. Joseph, or St. Joe, as we call it. The river is as innocent as any river. Maybe not innocent, but neutral. It’s not its fault it once floated with human sewage, that it has a vicious, shit-stained undertow. Now, it floats with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from the burning of fossil fuels, mercury, insecticides, herbicides, plasticizers, antioxidants, detergent metabolites, fire retardants, nonprescription drugs, sterols, flavors, fragrances, and dyes. As Elvis would say, “Plus tax.” 
     In the 17th century the river carried colonizers—Catholics, fur traders, “explorers”—to its soggy banks, where the Potawatomi had lived, unimpeded, for centuries. Neshnabek, they still call themselves. The true people. The false people took over, as they are wont to do. They fought each other and wrecked a lot of stuff. Factories rose and fell, leaving their shells, like river snails, behind. 
     Now Niles has a box store, a couple of big home improvement stores, an absurd number of auto parts stores, and a strip of fast food restaurants, though not Steak ‘n Shake. The dream is Steak ‘n Shake, but we are not Steak ‘n Shake’s sort of people. If you need your Steak ‘n Shake fix you’ll have to drive over the state line into Indiana. When Culver’s arrived in Niles, people were so happy they cried. It’s nice to know you have access to the same cheeseburgers other people have access to. 

*

If you drive through the village and the town, I’m not sure what you would see. It would depend on your orientation to life, the nature of your eyes. Most likely you’d see a generic Midwestern town halved by a highway, Shell station on one side, cemetery on the other, river over there, water tower over here. But you’ve seen all that before, from sea to poisoned sea. 
     You want to see beauty? What’s your idea of beauty? We’ve got a bridge. A dam whose water froths yellow. A papermill. You like papermills? We’ve got a museum. A stuffed two-headed lamb. A zoetrope. A beaver hat. Tin soldiers. Arrowheads behind glass. Cornfields that go gold in the fall. Meadows full of Queen Anne’s Lace. If you use the gravedigger’s shovel in the meadow, in the cornfields, on the grounds of the papermill, on the bridge-edge, in the silt beneath the dam, on the riverbanks, you will find cufflinks, gunflints, a mouth harp, pottery shards, beads, bones. 
     You might see houses, barns, sheds, mostly dilapidated, that were safe houses for escaped slaves on the underground railroad. You might even take a side trip to Bear Cave, Michigan’s only official cavern, also a hiding place for escapees. You could also recognize residential segregation, which was the reality when I grew up in Niles many years ago and remains the reality today. My mom’s house is not within the city limits, but on the outskirts, in Niles Township. Her house faces west, sunset. On the eastern edge of her neighborhood, facing the sunrise, is where Black people lived in the township, and continue to live. At the end of that street is the high school where my dad taught for a few years before he died. I remember climbing around the school construction site with him when I was a small child. You would have thought he’d invented every brick. That’s how proud he was. For the students who walked down that east-facing street to school to get educated, racism was as elemental to the place as the cement foundation. Was. Is.

*

My mom has lived in the same house for 58 years. It’s a pre-fab on a cement slab. That’s how she describes it. No basement, so tornado warnings are a bitch. It is rectangular, banded with white aluminum siding, and black aluminum shutters frame the windows. It sits on a corner lot. At the tip of the corner, right next to the road, my sister once grew snapdragons. I liked to pull off the blooms and use them as puppets, forcing them to speak. That’s where the neighbor boy, Mark, often sat eating what he called cracker sandwiches. Soda crackers between two pieces of Kreamo bread, and yellow mustard. 
     The lot had been carved out of woods with bulldozers. Ours was one of the first houses in the development, so we were surrounded by oak trees and dirt hills that were left behind on the bulldozed land. Overnight, it seemed, houses like ours replicated around us and families moved in. Men spent their off-hours manuring their property to convert it from woods to lawn. I remember the sweet-rot smell of cow shit, the green blades pushing through. Even through his suffering my dad seemed to take pleasure in his lawn. Back then, a lawn meant you’d made it, post-war, into the lower-middle class. Long ago my mom decided to let the lawn be what it had always wanted to be, a mossy forest floor.
     Inside her house, the small rooms are linked in an uninterrupted circle. Living room to kitchen to half-bathroom to bedroom to hallway with two other bedrooms and full bathroom back to living room. If a dog wanted to go on a circular rampage it could do so without running into a wall. As in every domicile, each room holds its own story, meaning, and hum. My mother’s kitchen, living room, bathroom, cannot be generalized, even to those same rooms in the identical-looking rectangular house across the street. 
     The bedroom where my mother now sleeps was originally the room she shared with my dad, and then his sickroom. Once he died, my sister painted it Pepto-Bismol pink and covered every inch of the walls and ceiling with photos of the Beatles torn out of magazines. During those years, my mom slept—when she slept—on a twin bed in one of the smaller bedrooms. On the wall of the full bathroom I had painted, at age 10, “Poop in here” in glow-in-the-dark paint, a message which has survived for more than 50 years. At the back of the small medicine chest attached to the wall over the sink is a slot labeled “used razors.” For decades I have imagined my dad’s razors living down there in absolute dark and wondered if there is some way to liberate them.
     In lieu of décor, which cost money we didn’t have, and was ultimately deemed empty, my mom put food coloring and water in jars and stuck them in the windows. A red, an orange, a yellow, a green, a blue, a purple, a violet. To each window its own color. Its own frequency and wavelength.

*

Years ago, I hosted a well-known fiction writer at the college where I taught. After her reading and Q and A she commented to me, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.” We were walking through the dusk to her book signing. “Good,” I said. “It’s a pretty special place.” The moon was full and yellow. Without glancing at me, her heels clicking on the pavement, she responded cheerily, “No it isn’t!” 
     She was accurate, of course. There is nothing particularly special about that college or any other. Nothing distinctive about me, either. If you think you’re special, she inferred, well, you’re not. You’re like every unknown flyover state literary hack who’s ever hosted me. The dinner was not special. Especially the chicken. The conversation was run-of-the-mill. The students were like all students. Oval-faced, bored, some of them barely pretending to care. She, however, was special. She told the crowd her father referred to her as “kitten” when she was growing up. 
     I’m fairly sure she is not from the Midwest. If she were Midwestern she wouldn’t have thought such a thing, that the place and its people were not special, and had that thought managed to squeak through, she would have never said it out loud. In the Midwest there is a silent agreement that the truth is less important than respecting other peoples’ illusions. Is that right? Is it Midwestern? Maybe it’s just my family and I’m generalizing. In fact, my mom teeters in the direction of honesty over illusion. Maybe it’s not us at all. Maybe it’s just me. Or it’s not me, just how I want to think I am.
     Maybe Edwardsburg, Niles, are not Midwestern at their core. You could find similar places and points of view in Arkansas, New Mexico, Eastern Oregon, Texas, Florida, etcetera. Maybe the housing development where my mom’s house is situated is like every lower-middle-class housing development on the continent, and what I’ve described, and what I feel, is more about the outskirts anywhere than our particular outskirts. If you are a hayseed you could probably come to Niles and feel right at home. 
     My mother’s house is the color of a generic barcode. White. Black. But inside it’s all her. There is the whiff of the snake that bit her when she was small. The flag from my dad’s coffin, folded into a triangle and clasped inside its case. Her coffee maker—cheap, but she likes it. When it gives up the ghost she’ll get another just like it. Her bookshelves packed with texts from her late college education. Her small refrigerator. Her small tv screen. Her chair. Her hair in the wastebasket, as now she cuts it herself. 

*

There may not be a Midwestern essay. 
     There is a Norma essay. That’s my mother. A Deb, my sister, essay. She was a Hospice nurse. Helped hundreds of people die. Has terrible, chronic pain in her shoulder from lifting bodies, both alive and dead. Her husband, a Vietnam vet, disabled from Agent Orange, who also, in his time, hoisted bodies. He, too, an essay. 
     A separate essay for each of her daughters—a nurse and two teachers—their husbands and kids. One of the teacher-daughters also breeds pigs. As I write this sentence, my sister sends me photos of the newborns, pink with black spots, one fully black, in the arms of the younger daughter who helped deliver them. She wears bloody disposable gloves. The black piglet’s cord hangs down in front of her pink jacket. Her older sister, who used to midwife the pigs, is now more interested in boys and the cosmetics and other products it takes to lure them. For every girl, for each stage of her doing and undoing, an essay.
     And there’s an essay for my son, deeply but tangentially linked to mine. He lives 600 miles north, though still officially in the Midwest. Like me, after some really hard times, addiction, and lost love, he lives alone. He’s begun to like it that way. His essay is huge and thunderous and brilliant and wounded and funny and sad. If he could, he tells me, he’d move to the North Pole. The North Pole is not the Midwest, but he’d still be himself, even there. Maybe, as in Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar,” his very presence would transform the landscape around him. Maybe it would become the Midwest’s northern outpost.
     There is not a thesis broad enough to hold even our small family, let alone the pigs.

*

Does a poem have a thesis? Blatant as a box store, or concealed in a safe house, but maybe. Does an essay sing? Is its song shaped like a rectangle, or like the curved walls of the hiding room in the only cavern in Michigan? Maybe.
     Is penetrating the mystery of landscape the life work of a Midwestern poet? Is penetrating mystery the life work of the poet? Is “maybe” the rhetorical terrain of the Midwest?
     I saw Robert Creeley walking on 8th Street when I lived in New York for a time that felt like exile. He didn’t see me.

*

Before he died of AIDS in the mid-1980s in San Francisco, my whatever-he-was, Mikel, insisted I visit him to tell him goodbye. The very thought of it made me want to wretch. I called a crisis line to get help with how I should tell him no. I had a good excuse, a baby who was still nursing. Instead of getting a young crisis worker who might have let me off the hook, I got some sort of elderly bodhisattva midwife woman who said in no uncertain terms that I must go. 
     Mikel was raised about a mile from my mother’s house. His family lived behind the fruit stand on Sunside Byway, which was a dirt road back then, and still might be. Mysterious, how a gay aesthete was born into that town, that neighborhood, that rough-edged family. More mysterious even than the two-headed lamb. Bullied in school, he moved to San Francisco after a couple of attempts at a college education, which just didn’t suit him. In his years there, he brought the Midwest to the Castro, at least to his loyal group of friends, and they—the friends, the neighborhoods, the state of California—finally gave him a safe space to be overtly, fabulously queer. 
     When he gave me instructions for dispersing his ashes, though, he wanted to be back home. In water. Not in Lake Michigan, he said. Not in the St. Joe. In a tributary, which seemed humble in a bossy sort of way. His mother would be invited but not his father. My then-husband and baby son. My mom, who had been his teacher. I didn’t have the guts to touch the ashes. My ex-husband therefore put them in the stream for me. I remember that his hands shook, which almost, but not quite, allows me to forgive him for leaving us, but not myself.
     When I flew to San Francisco for two days, not long before Mikel died, he returned to me all the letters I’d ever written him. He also gave me his book of poems by Kenneth Patchen because he loved the poem, “And What with the Blunders,” especially the line, “we shall not be there when death reaches out his sparkling hands.” He gave me a portrait he drew of me, in oil pastels, from memory. The woman in the portrait is conventionally pretty in a goth sort of way, which I have never been. He wanted to give me his Calphalon cookware but the idea of making spaghetti sauce in his pan made me feel creepy, like I’d be stirring it with one of his bones. Finally, for my son, then a baby and now in his mid-thirties, he handed me Ginsberg’s annotated Howl. Inside the cover, on a blank page, Mikel wrote:

I Know a Man—Robert Creeley

As I sd to my   
friend, because I am   
always talking,—John, I

sd, which was not his   
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for   
christ’s sake, look   
out where yr going.


Friday, July 16, 2021

The #Midwessay: Jennifer Furner, Midwestern Work Ethic

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.


 


Midwestern Work Ethic

Jennifer Furner

*

My father worked 12-hour days at the transmission plant, slipping on the oily floors, damaging his hearing with the deafening humming of machines, inhaling machine dust for 37 years. The summer after high school graduation, I got an internship at his plant, just like my brother had, to help pay for college. While I waited for my mandatory hearing test, a 50-year-old man, who looked 70, elbowed me, leaned over and said, “You’re supposed to raise your hand when you hear the beep, but I can’t hear a damn thing anymore. I just raise my hand whenever I want to. I bet that confuses the hell outta ‘em.” And he chuckled, deep in his chest, and I heard a rattle in his lungs.
     I hadn’t wanted that internship in the first place. But my mother said, “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do.” A credo of Midwestern Work Ethic, the one she lived by, working full-time at a travel agency and still handling all the domestic work, the budget balancing, the child rearing. And then, after her divorce, adding a part-time job on top of her full-time job to make ends meet.
     When I started college, I was an education major. A teacher was a good job for hard workers, and unionized to boot. But in my final year, I dropped education and got my degree solely in English. Then I was constantly asked my Midwestern Work Ethic family and friends, “What are you going to do with that?” Because of course I had to do something. Apparently writing wasn’t an acceptable option.
     But it’s that same Midwestern Work Ethic that has me getting up before everyone else in the house to make something with my own two hands, to put words on the page. I’m just as dedicated to this trade as my father was dedicated to his plant, only I want to be here, hoping I get 37 years or more of creating, of narrating, of sharing my experiences with the world.


Thursday, July 15, 2021

The #Midwessay: David LeGault, On the Avoidance of Conflict

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 the Avoidance of Conflict

David LeGault

*

Like any good Midwesterner, I’d do nearly anything to avoid conflict. I mean this somewhat literally: I got a massage last month as part of some ongoing physical therapy, and I overpaid for it by a not-insignificant amount. I was aware of this as it was happening, but I am currently living in the Czech Republic and this woman spoke very little English and the idea of complaining or arguing the point via Google Translate was, at the time, more than I could bear. Like any good Midwesterner, the inner debate in the moment—not to mention the 30 minutes home on public transit—were more than enough to negate any meaningful effect of the massage itself. The hour I had just spent with light new age music, salt lamps, and essential oils had somehow left me feeling more tense, more dejected, more ready to go somewhere I can better speak the language.

This is the story of the Midwestern essay, encapsulated here in my own immaturity and conflict avoidance. I am representing the Michigan contingent here, but I’ve also lived nearly a decade in nearby Minnesota: my entire life (my time in Prague withstanding) has been shaped in Midwestern-ness, in “Minnesota Nice.”

Minnesota Nice is the way I think of the essay, which is to say, it’s not nice exactly, but complicated in the author’s own telling, where deeper understanding only comes from lived experience: the white space between what is said and what is meant. Minnesota Nice is how what is said is more often about the speaker than the audience: a way of expressing oneself without making anyone angry, or perhaps maintaining some plausible deniability in the obfuscation or misdirection, or a smooth polished surface with true meaning only showing through the cracks in the ice.

When I talk to my parents, we talk about the squirrels: my parents live in an extremely rural part of Michigan already, but the pandemic has magnified their focus on the wooded world around them. I get regular updates in the form of video and text. An albino squirrel has recently appeared and has brought fresh excitement to our Sunday conversations. Most of them have names. 

It is in the midst of feeding the squirrels over video chat that I hear about my mother’s worry for my grandmother’s declining health, the worries for how to help her in the midst of social isolation. It takes 30 minutes of squirrel feeding to get to anything of meaning, but then again, I could point to more or less any essay I’ve written in the past five years and see familiar patterns: I’m about 200 pages into a draft of a book about board games that could probably be summed up by saying I feel isolated living in a country where I cannot speak the language. I could save a lot of time with being direct, but there’s no pleasure in that. Why communicate when I can pontificate?

Or maybe the Midwestern essay is rooted in an inferiority complex, in talk of “flyover country” and cultural irrelevance. Nonfiction as a word suggests that it’s more about what it’s not, and I’d argue the Midwest is seen this way as well. For both, I’d argue this is to their benefit: the lack of definition allows for more experimentation, more weirdness. The publishing world and the big five are framed in terms of their New Yorkiness, and what they are publishing reflects that. No surprise that the most exciting collections of essays are not getting published there, but in the independent and university presses, my personal favorites all in the Midwest, where weirdness seems more celebrated.

Or maybe the Midwestern essay feels right because I am Midwestern, well versed in the insecurity and indirectness mentioned above. To be in my mid-30s and still not have a real job, no prospects, or (as I’ve just learned) no place to call home as my time in the Czech Republic comes to an end. And what comes next? As of now, no clue. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty coming forth without considering pandemics and historically bad economies, but even in that fear, there is a comfort in a likely return to the Midwest, to a place where I can take comfort in the squirrels, in everyone telling me it’s okay. Even when it isn’t.


Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The #Midwessay: Oindrila Mukherjee, The Things I Might Tell You

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.


 


The Things I Might Tell You

Oindrila Mukherjee

*

If you had asked me what I thought of the Deep South when I was growing up in India, I would have said country music and cotton plantations. If you had asked me about Texas, I would have mentioned cowboys and ranches. California was golden beaches and golden hair. New York was Broadway and bright lights. Even Seattle had, apparently, sleepless people. But if you’d asked me about the Midwest, I would have had no answer. The Midwest was an undefined, unknown space in the middle of America, one I could not conjure up from the pop culture I consumed. Once I read a YA novel in which a girl from Iowa moved to a college in the north east. Everyone there called her a “hick,” a word I hadn’t heard until then. But it reminded me of our own snobbery towards those less cosmopolitan or urban than us. That book also mentioned cornfields. Maybe I thought of cornfields when I thought of the Midwest. But then again, there was no reason to think about the Midwest. I had no desire to emigrate to America and if I did, I would live in New York or LA or DC or Boston. If you’d asked me whether I would ever move all the way to America to live in the Midwest, I would have laughed.   

This July, I complete ten years in Grand Rapids. I have lived in a total of ten different cities spanning three continents, and now the longest I have lived anywhere outside my hometown of Kolkata is right here in West Michigan. A decade later, I still feel like I’m just passing through, but if you ask me about the Midwest now, I could tell you some things about it. 

Midwesterners don’t leave. If they do, they return. To their families and childhood memories. Essays about the Midwest are often about nostalgia. Midwesterners don’t seem to yearn for change. I envy them their contentment with the way things are and their attachment to their roots. Unlike them, I am restless and nomadic, always longing for someplace else. Most people here have families. Conversations at social events revolve around daycare, high school soccer games, holidays with siblings and reunions with parents. I am single, childfree, an only child, and my parents live thousands of miles away. At the time of writing this, I haven’t seen them in nearly three years. 

The Global Midwest project—supported by the Humanities Without Walls consortium of research centers—defines the U.S. Midwest as eight states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. According to the 2010 census, 77,132 people of Indian origin live in Michigan. A 2013 report by Global Detroit and Data Driven Detroit states that of the immigrant ethnic groups in Metro Detroit, the largest segment is the Indian population. 

The heartland is a labyrinth. You can drive for hours and never reach the coast. But it doesn’t matter to people here because I’m told you can’t travel six miles in any direction without finding water. Years ago, in elementary school in India, I learned the names of the Great Lakes. Now, I live thirty minutes away from one of them. Many Midwestern essays are about water. Everyone’s favorite activity seems to involve water. Camping, sailing, swimming. I have never learned to swim. I have never gone camping. At the lakeshore, I find little shops that sell ice cream and eat it on the beach alone, while all around me families make memories that will pull them back to this place years later. I am a loose pebble among all the solid, stable rocks.

On February 22, 2017, Adam Purinton, a 51-year-old US Navy veteran, shot two Indian men, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, at a restaurant in Olathe, Kansas, killing Kuchibotla. Both Indians were employed by Garmin. Purinton reportedly yelled, "Get out of my country" before firing. He said later that he had mistaken the men for Middle Eastern. Weeks later, a video surfaced on social media in which a computer programmer called Steve Pushor—who had secretly recorded Indians relaxing in a park in Columbus, Ohio—said, “The number of people from foreign countries blows my mind out here. You see this whole area is all Indian, amazing. It's an amazing number of jobs have been taken away from Americans. The Indian crowd has ravished the Midwest. It's crazy.” 

The first time someone visited my apartment after I moved up here, they took off their shoes, just like they used to do back in India. I was astonished because no one in the south had ever done that. People do that here because they don’t want to get your floors or carpets dirty. Yes, please, I say. Thank You for being so thoughtful. Everyone is nice. All the time. They smile whenever they see you and ask, “How are you doing?” and quickly hurry on before you have to answer the question. No one argues or contradicts or raises their voice. Well, except me. I am blunt and brown and frequently not Michigan Nice. 

From 1990 to 2000, Indians and Indian-Americans became the largest Asian ethnic group in Illinois. The Chicago area has the third-largest Indian community in the country behind the New York-New Jersey and San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose areas. If I drive west, I can get to Chicago in under three hours. The first glimpse of the skyline from the freeway feels a little like home. Even if I don’t go for months, I know it’s always there, just like New York and London and every place in India. It is the America I had imagined when I was a teen, from sitcoms and music videos and The Bold and The Beautiful. 

Midwesterners pick fruit from orchards and bake pies with them. Cherry pies, blueberry pies, apple pies with and without caramel, rhubarb pies, strawberry pies. They also make jams and jellies and their own honey from beehives in their backyards. I buy these from farms off the highway. I ask for them a few times before someone understands my foreign accent but they are always, always, nice. The fruit is mostly tart and a little sweet, like life itself.  

If you ask me about the Midwest, I’ll first tell you about myself. I’ll project my history and desires onto a place that still often feels like a blank canvas. I will compare it to every other place I’ve been. I will highlight all the ways in which I am not a typical Midwesterner. I will generalize and complain and list all the things that are missing. But then, when you ask me again, I will tell you about the antique shops on the lakeshore, the fudge and pasties up north, the sunflower farms and blues bars, the tulip festival and sunsets, and the Diego Rivera mural at the DIA. And I will tell you that unlike anywhere else I’ve lived, here the seasons change. In the spring, the woods and parks are full of flowers, in the summer, the days are long and glimmer with fireflies, in the fall the world is a kaleidoscope, and in the winter, yes, the endless winter, the snow falls and falls and falls, until you hear and see nothing, not even your own history, covering up everything just so you can begin again.   



Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The #Midwessay: Aram Mrjoian, Apples to Apples

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.


 


Apples to Apples

Aram Mrjoian


*


Six miles from the house where I grew up, along the leaf-carpeted bank of the Huron River, sits the oldest continuously operating cider mill in the state of Michigan. The car or bike ride over is cinematic, a stretch of narrow road that bends to the water’s S-curves and fluctuations, packed tight with oak and birch trees on either shoulder. A fire of leaves in autumn. Winters glassy with ice and snow. Drivers and cyclists are constantly feuding for space. In early June, hundreds of runners follow the road for the majority of a half-marathon route from rural Dexter to downtown Ann Arbor.
     The Dexter Cider Mill boasts being family-owned and operated since 1886, and holds strong to the brand of midwestern nostalgia that helped bring dressing like Paul Bunyan back en vogue. On weekend mornings, a line of locals snakes out into the parking lot. They wait to enter the big red barn where you pass by apples being pressed to cider the old-fashioned way on the walk to the register. Employees send fruit and other parcels from the basement to the front counter by a basket tied to a fraying rope that passes through a hole in the wood flooring. The smell of apples, that ripe funk of fermentation, mixed with hay, hangs heavy in the cold air. The cinnamon sugar doughnuts are unmatched, though I am biased, since they remind me of home.
     In Pappyland: A Story of Family Fine Bourbon and the Things That Last, Wright Thompson argues, “Longing for a vanished agrarian past (that possibly never existed) dominates much of the American story. It’s human nature.” While Thompson is reflecting on the craft of bourbon and Southern culture, the sentiment carries across other vast swaths of the stolen American landscape. The Midwest is no different. The region has been cultivated toward a “Midwestern nice” aesthetic that whitewashes its realities. Regionalism offers a sense of uniqueness and mysticism, a nod to specific traditions and colloquial charms (even if those charms were only accessible to certain populations). Our sense of place might be smudging at the edges, but it was likely never as distinct as we imagine. Nostalgia is a powerful eraser. 
     My father worked for Ford Motor Company for more than thirty years, specifically focused on evaporative emissions. He’s modest about it, but I like to think he played some small part in mitigating our catastrophic environmental footprint. Again, nostalgia, I remember my father in suit and tie returning home after a long commute in one of the cars he could have very well helped engineer. I mostly write and teach writing for a living, skills that feel valuable until the moment I need an oil change. I drive a hybrid car. A Ford. That familial brand loyalty remains. Much of the Midwest is this way, tied to industrial inheritances. I am not particularly handy. I worry constantly about sustainability, but haven’t taken much action to fight climate crisis outside of what I can control in my own household. The nostalgia returns when I fret over erratic cold fronts and crop yield and whether or not the cider mill will be open the next time I return home. It’s easy to step into a barn that’s been in business for nearly 140 years and think it has more staying power than some corporate factory churning out subpar product and in constant hunger for resources.
     Consider West Coast apple juice giant Martinelli’s, famous for its rotund glass bottles found in big chain grocers such as Whole Foods. Strong branding, but an understanding of craft as watered down as their translucent sugar water. The company’s FAQs page notes, “Martinelli’s apple juice and cider are the same; the only difference is the label. Both are 100% juice from U.S. grown fresh apples. We continue to offer the cider label since some consumers simply prefer the traditional name for apple juice.”
     Find me a Michigander who doesn’t scrunch their brow. Apple cider differs from apple juice in that it’s unfiltered and unpasteurized. You’ll catch the occasional fleck of pulp in your teeth from the good stuff, a brown sludge of apple mush stuck to the bottom of a plastic gallon or half-gallon when you’re through. Michigan ranks third in the nation’s apple production behind Washington and New York. The state produces more than a billion pounds of apples each year or about ten percent of apples across the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture. Michigan also accounts for nearly 74 percent of tart cherry production in the country. Yet, the only time I’ve walked across these orchards has been as a tourist, thirsty as anyone for a sense of connection to the land I’ve been privileged enough to call home, even if I’m distant from its quotidian labor.
     Ann Arbor is in many ways a blue bubble. In “Some Houses (Various Stages of Dissolve),” Claire Vaye Watkins describes the city like so:

Now I live in a movie about college written by a high schooler. There are actual letter jackets, actual cheerleaders, actual frats. There is an actual quad flung with Frisbees and an actual grove strung with hammocks. In the fall the leaves are blown into actual piles, though I never jump in. All the things we grew up thinking were real only on TV are real in the Midwest: rain pouring down windows and making the house a submarine; leaves turning gold, maroon, purple; raccoons; mailmen strolling the sidewalk with satchels; snow enough for igloos. When you come to visit you point and say, Look! A squirrel!

     In Ann Arbor, sometimes it’s hard not to imagine the television tropes inform the place more than the other way around. There’s a feeling that the city is performing to meet its reputation. I grew up in a suburban township on the west side, beyond the city limits, somewhere buried between the University of Michigan’s main campus and unincorporated farmland. I left Michigan shortly after graduating college, naïve that I was stepping outside of Ann Arbor’s technicolor frame. Years later, during my visits, Trump signs and confederate flags would awaken me to my personal lack of awareness growing up on the outskirts of a university town. Michigan fought with the union, but drive out on the country roads and you’d never know it. If nostalgia is used to erase, if it’s used to distract and point and bewilder, it’s also weaponized as a violent border. When I make the long drive home and see the Make America Great Again signs lined on the shoulders of the expressways, I recognize this message harkens back to genocide, segregation, and plunder, even if masquerading as white-picket fences and lush apple orchards and American cars like sailboats drifting down dirt roads.
     At times, I still get curmudgeonly about apple cider, but I wonder more now if I am yet another part of this problem, clinging to a false idea of golden era craftmanship I’ve never possessed. This stuff is the real deal, I tell people, sitting alongside the river with a cardboard cup of cider steaming, pulp afloat at its surface, not spending too much time reflecting on my own safety driving out into farm country on the back roads where I’ve received multiple kind warnings from police officers after being pulled over for speeding coming from my parents’ house with the taken-for-granted filtered well water a mere hour drive from Flint. I’m ashamed to say it wasn’t until recently I started asking if maybe Dexter Cider Mill has operated for so long, that it has been such a consistent staple in my life, at least in part because it is nestled in a predominantly white and wealthy area. How can we connect specific places to prosperity without acknowledging the systemic privilege and power linked to those conditions? Nostalgia is but a short drive away from the suburbs. That real nectar is only available to a select few, fewer still as climate crisis looms. I am often nostalgic for my childhood in Michigan, which is perhaps to fawn for a time when I was less aware of how much I’ve been given. This lingering selfishness is more tied to my identity than the place I was born or the region where I was raised. It’s a craving for innocence I never really had. It’s easy to look back fondly and thirst for a place I was allowed to freely occupy. Everywhere is subject to our destruction. This will all be gone soon, I think, but only by design. This will all be gone soon, I think, but only because it was made for me.