Thursday, July 29, 2021

The #Midwessay: Jill Kolongowski, Atmospheric River

 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.


Atmospheric River

Jill Kolongowski


This pandemic winter (my tenth one in California), while time feels untethered, I’m thinking about how we use weather to tell time. 

Hartland, Michigan, 2000—Moderate rain: 

In Michigan, thanks to the huge surface area of the Great Lakes, the weather is unstable. In the midway seasons, spring and fall, one day might be 40 degrees, and the next 70. The forecast calls for rain and the rain gauges stay dusty, or the forecast says sunny and dark clouds pile up like mountains over the flat land. The rain comes in many forms—drizzle, downpour, steady—and you can leave with an umbrella or raincoat or not, but Midwesterners all have stories of getting caught in the rain.

My favorite: my family is on vacation in the upper peninsula of Michigan, near Tahquamenon Falls, and we’ve taken a silver metal rowboat over to an island to explore. The forecast said the day was perfect for it, but as we hiked around, the sky got darker and darker and we realized too late that rain was coming. We rushed back to the rowboat and my father started rowing furiously, his arms spinning like a cartoon. The clouds built, not unlike ash from a volcano eruption. 

Winters in the Midwest are very gray, with low-hanging clouds a perpetual ceiling blocking the sun. Summer rainclouds are different; they are vibrant, dark, inverses of their white cotton-ball good-day counterparts. Sometimes they can pass overhead, ominous as anything, and not lose a drop of rain, saving it for somewhere, somewhen else. Sometimes it seems to rain from white clouds too. In any case, we can only watch, leave an umbrella in the car, get soaked sometimes anyway.

On the lake in the rowboat, the clouds did not wait, but instead fell in buckets. It’s a cliché, buckets of rain, but what else could it be, the drops thick and fast, so much they don’t feel like individual drops at all, but fall in a soaking sheet. Next, thunder and lightning tore from the sky and the fact that we were in a metal rowboat, a perfect conduit for electricity, tore into my mind too. Across the lake we went—my mother praying, father rowing for his life, me attempting to make jokes—water on water, ants in a flood, the rain singing against the metal hull, rain perhaps the most intimate of all weathers, as it soaked through to the skin.

A few hours later, the sun returned. The grass was green, green, green, happy. When our California friends came to Michigan for our wedding, they were astounded at how green the summers were—summer rain a luxury that California does not have. 

I remember rain this way, in flashes, though I’m sure there were weeks when it rained day after day. All rain in my memory seems moderate, in the middle, hard to pin down, near impossible to predict or name. 

San Mateo, California, 2020—FLOOD ALERT:

In California there are only two seasons: summer and rain. California natives swear there are four, but I have yet to feel them all. Every year without a snowy winter, I get confused about time. Growing up in the cold of Michigan winters, the snow has settled somewhere deep in my bones and my body seems to remember and miss it. Here in California, the winter is green from the rainfall, and in a good year, the rainfall down here at sea level means many feet of snow up in the Sierra Nevadas. We depend on a deep snowpack for our drinking water, and year after year, that snowpack gets shallower, the water supply contracted. Some rivers that used to flow all year round slow to a trickle, or to nothing, a shallow ditch, in the summer, and return in the winter. Some rivers, though, leave and never return again.

For many months it does not rain at all. You forget where your umbrellas are. Every day feels the same, where I live—some a little hotter than others—until it doesn’t. Growing up in one of the cloudiest states, I never thought I’d get sick of the sun, but here in California, I check the calendar and count the days, waiting for a break of clouds, of rain.

And then the rain comes all at once. Days, weeks straight of rain, rain so much we wonder where it can all possibly come from, how the earth can hold this rain, and whether it can take the rain back up again. The rainy days feel somehow colder here than in the Midwest, though it rarely gets below 40 degrees Fahrenheit here. Is it something about the proximity to the ocean that keeps the air humid and makes that rain feel even colder? Is it that our houses here aren’t built to withstand cold, like the fortresses in the Midwest? (My neighbor tells me her house has no insulation at all—“it’s just a box,” she says.) Or is it, maybe, that we’ve waited so long for the rain that the contrast strikes us, like so many contrasts do, as more than it actually is, because we’ve missed it for so long?

I’m thankful, most rainy winters, for the chance to sit inside. In the sunshine of the rest of the year, sitting inside in the perfect weather feels wrong, though of course some days require you to ignore the weather and stay inside. The rain feels like a kind of permission to rest. 

Though of course, this rest is an illusion. Heavy, sudden rains after long seasons of drought often bring danger: floods and mudslides. Even though California should be used to this kind of wet year, it always seems unprepared. The heavy rains are sometimes called atmospheric rivers which carry an amount of water vapor roughly equivalent to the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The first time it rains, roads flood and the highways wail all day with sirens on their way to car accidents on the slick roads. Even though every day the forecast calls for the possibility of rain, I often still forget my umbrella. The earth itself feels unprepared. Almost every year there’s a flood of some kind: flat suburban streets flood as the gutters fill up with dead leaves, water pools on the interstate, underpasses become canals. One year people brought their kayaks to an empty grocery store parking lot and paddled around in their brand-new lake.

But perhaps the flooding isn’t destructive—or the destruction is the point. Just like wildfires are part of the climate, part of the season here, flooding is too. Here the weather feels predictable, even the most extreme weather—but even that illusion of knowledge is a kind of gift. It is wonderful to feel you know what is coming. After all the drought of summer, we know we can expect a flood: a kind of abundance. And soon, people get tired of the days of rain, and wish for the summer again. Like people everywhere, we have trouble being where we are, and always long for the next. Borne along like a river, the rains are ahead, and the sunshine too.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The #Midwessay: David Schuman, 40



David Schuman


My kid and I are driving west on the highway when she pipes up.
     “What is Missouri famous for?”
     It’s the kind of random question she asks a lot these days, but it hits me because I’ve been thinking lately about the fact that she’s from here, and I’m not. She was born right here in St. Louis at a hospital called Missouri Baptist, which is a funny thing for me, a Jew from New Jersey, to tell the folks back home. 
     New Jersey is famous for a lot of things, not all of them positive. Okay, most of them not positive. But I’m proud of being from there, at least as far as one can take pride in something they had nothing to do with. I like that I grew up in the shadow of New York City, that from the northeastern corner of my suburban town you could make out the Twin Towers in the distance if the air was clear. I like that the roads and towns of my youth are memorialized in Springsteen songs. I like that my commute to the industrial park in the Meadowlands where I worked in my twenties featured several of the landmarks from The Sopranos opening credits. Not to mention the pizza, the pizza, the pizza. And the Jersey attitude, even if I’ve never really been able to pull it off. Sometimes by way of argument, or explanation,  I’ll say to someone, often with a shrug, “I’m from New Jersey.” 
     I want my kid to have the same sense of pride about the place she’s from. 
     “Well,” I tell her, “there’s The Arch.” 
     “Hmmm,” she says, considering this. “I guess?’
     The Arch isn’t enough for her, it’s just that thing we bid farewell whenever we leave town, a family ritual. “Bye-bye Arch,” we say, crossing the bridge to Illinois we’ve dubbed The Ugliest Bridge In the World.  
     “Chuck Berry is from here,” I say. 
     She nods in approval, though I know this is for my sake, because she knows how much I care about rock and roll.  
     We’re out past the city limits now, west enough so that Missouri starts to look like Missouri. Fields, big sky, megachurches, warehouses advertising feed and tractors. Limestone pokes out of the ground here and there. Over the Missouri River to our right, high above, a flock of white pelicans banks and their wings catch the sun. 
     “There’s that,” I say, pointing. 
     “Yeah, but those birds are probably from Louisiana.”
     It’s true. 
     Maybe the reason I’ve been thinking so much about here and there is because my parents are still in New Jersey, and my dad’s not doing well. His memory is almost gone, and my mom’s heart is broken over it, and the distance between me and my parents, between my parents and the grandchild we’ve decided to raise out here in the middle of the country, can no longer be calculated only in land miles.
Our errand for the day is to check out a sewing stool someone is selling out in Wentzville, which to me has always sounded like a town made up by Dr. Seuss. 
     “It looks okay in the pictures online,” my wife told me. “But make sure there’s nothing wrong with it.” 
There’s something wrong with it. One of the plastic castors is cracked and will need to be replaced. But we’ve driven an hour, and the old guy who’s selling it to us is so nice. He wears a Cabela's trucker’s cap high on his head and a plaid shirt over a prominent beer belly. If he were forty years younger you could mistake him for a hipster. He details the finer points of the item, tapping his thick fingers on the vinyl upholstery to show me how sturdy it is, pulling it open to show us the plastic tray that fits inside. 
     “There’s a place for pins and bobbins and whatnot here, and you put your spools of thread on these little pegs here.”
     We both avoid looking at the broken part, as if it’s a secret we agreed long ago not to mention. My kid’s poking around the guy’s garage, which smells like sawdust and motor oil and tools, an essence no room I’m associated with will ever acquire. 
     He closes the lid and gives the stool a little poke to send it a little closer to me, which I recognize as a closing tactic. It wobbles. I suppose Home Depot carries castors.  
     “It was my wife’s” he says. 
     The way he says it I assume his wife is dead, but almost as if in response the door to the house opens and a woman comes into the garage. She’s pretty, with white hair, wearing a quilted robe incongruously with a pair of duck boots. 
     “Erin!” she exclaims. “John, why didn’t you tell me Erin was here!”
     She’s looking at my kid, who is standing there holding a fly lure she was probably going to ask if she could purchase for herself to wear as an earring or around her neck. She looks caught and not a little afraid under this woman’s beaming scrutiny. 
     “Aren’t you going to give your grandma a kiss?” says the woman. Her robe is slightly agape at the chest, and all of us in the garage want to look anywhere but at her cleavage. 
     “Jude, that’s not Erin,” he says. “These people have come to buy the stool. This is…another girl.”
     “What stool?” asks the woman, her smile falling. “My stool? Why would you give away my stool?” 
She turns to me. 
     “He’s always doing this.” Her voice has turned bitter. “He gives away all my nicest things.” 
     The old guy decides it’s time to usher her back inside. 
     “If you want it, just leave the money,”  he says, putting his arm around his wife’s waist, turning her toward the door. “Or just take it, I guess, either way.”
     I press a twenty onto the workbench and weigh it down with a rubber mallet. It was only supposed to be fifteen, but I don’t want to wait around for the guy to make change. I hold out my hand for the lure, which my kid passes to me regretfully. I put it down next to the money. 
     As we’re pulling out of the driveway, the couple come out onto their front porch. The woman’s robe has been refastened, chastely, up to the neck. The guy puts up a hand, and the woman waves wide, then blows kisses, one from each of her fingers. It’s clear she’s saying goodbye to someone who isn’t her, but my kid rolls down the window and puts out her arm to wave back. 
     We drive in silence for a while. My kid has only recently gotten big enough to sit up front, and neither of us is quite used to traveling this way. She sits formally, her hands on her knees, observing the road ahead as if she’s got a new responsibility to do so. 
     This morning, my mom told me over the phone that my dad had been denied participation in a promising trial. The problem, she told me, is that he’d need to get weekly MRIs. “He forgets where he is and he sort of comes to inside the chamber and gets scared. They told me he kept on trying to sit up in there.” I consoled my mother with something from an article I’d read, which, while heralding the trial as the cutting edge of Alzheimer’s research, cautioned that it had insofar only shown promise in mice. A researcher quoted in the article said, “When it comes to Alzheimer’s, it’s always good to be a mouse.” 
Eventually the city comes into view. The eastern approach to St. Louis on Highway 40 is like landing a plane. It all stretches out in front of you; the suburbs, the green swath of Forest Park, the giant grain silo rising over the railyards, the modest skyscrapers of downtown. And in the furthest distance, like a handle you could use to peel the whole thing up, The Arch. 
     We both take it in, just driving. 
     Then she turns to me and says, “I like it here.” 

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The #Midwessay: Melody S. Gee, After Our Roots Have Thirsted

After Our Roots Have Thirsted

Melody Gee 


Because the Los Angeles suburb I grew up in was built in the 1960s, carved out of abandoned citrus groves and dairy farms, the 1927 brick bungalow we bought in St. Louis felt more than old. It felt ancient. It was from another era. Our house’s previous owner lived and died alone. Neighbors told us he struggled with mental illness, and that he painted dragons. Once, he showed up to a neighbor’s door at 6am with his painting supplies and offered to put a dragon above their fireplace. House flippers painted over the dragons in our living room, but their single thin coat in the basement still lets one winding red creature peek through when the sun is right. While they updated the house nicely, our plaster still cracks everywhere. There are no square corners or floors that won’t slide balls to one end of the room. I turned 40 this summer and am starting to love our old house, and its similarities to my older self. The house contains our family and has weathered tornadoes and Mississippi floods and arctic freezes. While its parts wear out and need replacing, the house has never once just broken down, knock on wood. 

The Midwest teaches me about age and aging. My parents bought their house from my father’s sister in 1970 because it’s what they could afford, and it cut down on overwhelming paperwork and dealing with too many Americans who spoke too fast. My mom never entirely got over that it wasn’t a brand-new house and she never bought anything second-hand again. Every morning my parents try to make themselves new again with supplements and creams that promise to regenerate and revive. I think it’s partly because, as immigrants, their very lives are defined by being new. Their severed roots still search for receiving ground, even sixty years later. They have no elders to anchor them the way the old and deep networks of St. Louis connect, hold, and identify those born here. 

St. Louis feels like the most real place I have lived. Anywhere I go, the brick, the black gum and redbud trees, the fleur-de-lis, and the slightly aggressive neighborhood flags all tell me you are here. The small city I grew up in, bordering endless other small cities that make up the vast and nameless suburbia south of Los Angeles, never felt like anywhere, exactly. It’s not L.A proper, not the Inland Empire, neither of The Valleys, or any of the Beach Cities. We drove from one place to another, paying little attention to what passed between. Life was a collection of places without a sense of place. But perhaps this is what immigrant life is because the realest place has long been left behind. When I bristle against my parents’ overly manicured and curated suburb, I remember that their newer house is really the most ancient place I know, filled with ancestors and Cantonese and millenia of ritual and sacrifice.

This summer, my husband is planting a native Missouri garden of coneflowers, phlox, and blazing stars. We want to be surrounded by what was here before us, before people started changing everything with what they couldn’t bear to leave behind. What belongs and what doesn’t, what’s old or new, what’s real or not—these are all questions of people whose roots have thirsted. Who’ve come and gone, fled and settled, repainted and replanted, staking belonging long before belonging arrives.

Monday, July 26, 2021

The #Midwessay: Sebastian Stockman, Home and How To Get There

Home and How To Get There

Sebastian Stockman 


Fly to Kansas City International Airport (MCI).
     Rent a car. 
     Take I-435 to I-70. 
     Head east on 70, toward St. Louis. (Don’t go to St. Louis!)
     Drive for an hour.
     Take the exit at Concordia. Take a left at the end of the exit ramp, driving under the highway you’ve just departed.
     Drive north on State Highway 23.
     After seven and a half miles, as the wraps to the right on a mild descent, note the silver, peak-roofed water tower. “ALMA” is painted on its side in a large sans serif font. Note the gravel road on your right. It’s the first entrance into town—but don’t take it. Note the sign on your left—“Welcome to Alma: The Cleanest Little City”—just as 23 passes under a railroad bridge.
     Let another road pass on your right. This is the blacktopped second entrance into town.
     Continue as 23 ascends gently and bends back to the left.
     On your right, note the field planted with, depending on the year, corn or soybeans. Beyond the field, note the long brick building with “HOME OF THE CHIEFS” painted on it—that’s the back of your high school.
     Come to a stop at the intersection with the blinking red light.
     Turn right onto State Highway 20. You’ll pass the newish (in the last 20 years) gas station on your left, just down the hill from where the Stolls’ house was erased by a tornado a few years back. 
     Follow 20 up and over the hill. Take your next right.
     Nod at the 25 MPH speed limit sign and the small green rectangle beneath it:

POP. 402

Welcome to the center of the universe.


Amateur politicians staffed local government. Claxton Joy was the janitor at my elementary school (Trinity Lutheran, 100 students, grades K-8). He was also the mayor. Both of these positions were retirement gigs. Silver-haired with wire-rim glasses, Claxton patrolled the tiled halls with a pushbroom and a large potbelly straining at his polo shirt preceding him. His uniform at City Council meetings was the same, sans broom. 
     The man who cut my hair—and my brother’s, and my grandpa’s—was Harlan Mieser, though everyone called him “Mouse.” He was and, as of this writing, still is, one of three Lafayette County Commissioners. 
     It was something like an understaffed community theater production; everyone played multiple roles. Bob Kurth was president of the Alma Bank. A Navy veteran who’d seen much more of the world than many of his fellow-townspeople, Bob smoked Marlboro Reds and drove a beat-up Chevy truck. His dad, Homer, was the long-time pastor at Trinity Lutheran, and Bob has been the choir director since before I was born. 

Alma Kiehl (always both names, so as to differentiate her from the town itself) was the cat lady. 
     Alma Kiehl’s tale, as recounted by the elders, was a cautionary one. According to Grandpa, she’d gone “to New York and pickled her brain on dope.” She walked everywhere in this town where people drive if they have to cover more than half a block. But from her paint-chipped white house next to the railroad tracks (one classmate heard there were fifty cats in there, someone else heard a hundred and fifty) she ventured out on her daily rounds: post office, grocery store, and sometimes the restaurant. For 50 years or more, there’s only been one restaurant in town, though in different iterations. Lately (read: the last 30 years) it’s been Cathy’s Country Restaurant and before that it was called D’s Cafe and before that it was Poodle’s.
     Cathy’s was the only place she might be confronted—and then only if she just came in to chat and not to order—as the ever-present scent of cat urine was bad for business. In my memory, she wears a fraying, long brown overcoat year-round, plus a tattered old hat. (Although as I re-read this recently I recalled a summer when she might have had her hair tied up in a red bandanna). If Alma Kiehl chanced to address us directly—“You coming from school?”—we followed the lead of our parents and mumbled vague agreements to our shoes. Her difference was dangerous. 
     The way she dressed up to venture out, her sad attempts at vanity, the way people’s embarrassment for her led to feigned indifference which led to behind-her-back scorn. A poignant figure, ridiculous and sad. But at the same time one who, as the object of gossip and speculation as to her history, revealed less about her and more about a community’s own fears and preoccupations. 

Here’s a story: one night in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s someone tripped the alarm at Alma’s general store on the town’s main drag.
     The store isn’t there anymore. It closed years before I was born. So did all six of the town’s saloons that, legend has it, once thrived on railroad traffic. Passenger trains would let travelers off for a pit stop on their way across the state. No one alive remembers the saloons. You can get a beer at Cathy’s, but she closes at seven, sometimes eight. Trains still stop in town every now and then to take on a load at the grain elevator, but there are never any passengers.
     There aren’t a lot of businesses in Alma, is what I’m saying. The building that housed the general store had been empty for years when, in the mid-90s, it was torn down to make way for a new post office.
     Anyway, very late one night or very early one morning in the late middle of the 20th Century someone tripped the alarm at the general store. Wilbert Fiene, the store’s night watchman, investigated, whereupon he surprised two Ozark hillbillies mid-burgle. The would-be felons fled the store and jumped in their truck, speeding south on a gravel road out of town. Wilbert followed only to find his hot pursuit thwarted before it’d begun; they’d let the air out of his tires. The night watchman’s next step was to rouse Renata Limback, the town’s telephone operator.
     Of course, there were no cell phones or 911, and even had there been the town has only ever had a part-time police officer, and that position often goes unfilled. What the town did have—what it would have until the mid-70s—was a party line. To get someone you’d pick up the phone and say “Renata, ring Virgil Beumer [BAY-mer] please. And then Renata would activate the line Virgil lived on. This would cause the phones to ring in Virgil’s designated pattern (two shorts and a long, say) in every house along the line. (This was great for snooping and gossip, as you didn’t have to hang up. You could listen in to any conversation happening along your line). If you’ve seen enough episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” you’ve seen this in action. The phones worked just the same in Mayberry.
     So Wilbert woke Renata, who rang all the houses to the south and west of town, rousing sleeping farm families to let them know miscreants might be headed their way. A lot of these farmers—this story goes—went down to the ends of their lanes with rifles or shotguns, looking to get in a pop or two at the bandits’ truck as it sped by. It was probably Ronnie Rist who got one of the tires, which forced the burglars to abandon the truck and make their way on foot. 
     By now the rousted farmers had coalesced into an informal midnight posse and were tracking the fugitives with their dogs. The dogs were not practiced at tracking humans, but their baying would have been heard by the Ozarkers (whom I always picture as barefooted, overalled cartoons, like the animated Hatfields and McCoys from Warner Bros. cartoons), which would have added to an overall ominous sense of being, ahem, hounded.
     At some point the burglars doubled back toward town. They were found separately. One was discovered curled up at the bottom of someone’s cellar steps. The other was sprawled flat atop something called a self-feeder in the middle of a hog lot surrounded by some very disturbed sows.
     My grandfather, Erwin Stockman, (who went by “Dick” so as to differentiate him from his brother Albert, whom everyone called “Pete”), was a dairy farmer. Every morning he drove into town to drop off the freshly-squeezed milk at the creamery and his only child, my young father, at school. The Stockmans lived about five miles out of town along the party line that had heard so much action the night before, so father and son left a little earlier than usual that morning to see the results of the fuss. 
     Of course they went to Poodle’s, site of the town’s early-morning farmer kaffeeklatsch (as D’s would be after it and Cathy’s is now). Instead of the usual four or five men trading monosyllables over weak coffee, the Stockman boys found a lively scene of backslapping along with a loud rehashing of last night’s manhunt. And, sitting there in a booth, they found the manhunt’s targets.
     There was no city jail, and really no other place to put them, so the accidental vigilantes hauled the hillbillies into Poodle’s to hold them until the Sheriff could make his way down from the county seat. As Dad recalls it, the posse was treating the captured crooks to breakfast—out of a sense of hospitality and maybe in gratitude for a night’s excitement.

Dad’s vague on many details—like his age at the time. But this is the kind of story I grew up with. It’s the kind of story that allowed me to watch “Andy Griffith” reruns growing up and see not a lampooning but a slightly-heightened version of rural small-town life. 
     I sat summer nights on the patio as Dad drank beer and grilled. We’d listen to “A Prairie Home Companion” and wait—through the “Powdermilk Biscuits” jingle and the Ketchup Council ads, we’d wait as Garrison Keillor insisted on joining his more-talented musical guests for a number or four. Then, in the last quarter of the show, Dad would pat me on the knee and say, “here we go” approvingly as Keillor introduced his signature bit: “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown, out on the edge of the prairie.” 
     We might hear of a character who left Lake Wobegon, went East, only to return like Alma Kiehl—abashed, chastened, diminished—and in the process confirm all the Wobegonian priors about the outside world and the folly of venturing forth into it. 

The real treat came when something in the Keillor story reminded Dad of a piece of local lore—The Night of the Ozark Bandits, say. Ignoring the closing number, he’d tell me about the time Uncle Pete and “Fat” Limback got an entrepreneurial hair and set up a still at the old King place—which I knew only as a bare spot in a field, where a tiny family cemetery plot sat next to two grain silos, just barely visible from our seats at Dad’s house, over on top of the next rise. 
     Anyway, Fat and Pete went around to the barn dances to peddle their efforts and liven up the proceedings. But, as Colonel Schuette once quipped, “They never had quite enough product, as they were assiduous about quality control.”
     This is how, not quite 30 years later, after Keillor’s retirement and disgrace, I arrive at nostalgia for nights spent with a radio program whose subject was nostalgia for a place and time it fetishized, but one that, as far as I could tell, I lived in. The News from Lake Wobegon wasn’t, for me, the self-consciously old-timey, humor-adjacent nostalgia trap most people take it for. In my pubescent cultural firmament it was … the news. News from a place where, because everyone is cousins, most trespasses could be winked at, forgiven. 
     Everything except leaving. 

Sunday, July 25, 2021

The #Midwessay: Conor Gearin, On Joe Pera and Midwestern Obscurity


On Joe Pera and Midwestern Obscurity

Conor Gearin


In the chorus of the song “Team,” Lorde sings, 
We live in cities you'll never see onscreen 
Not very pretty, but we sure know how things.
Whenever I hear that line, I cheer along, internally—I too am from an offscreen city, I think. But on reflection, it seems like non-hub cities are nearly always the ones you see on the screen these days. Think about the setting of Ozark and of Breaking Bad before it: the attention to the details of ordinary neighborhoods in the Southwest and Midwest, not ruined but in the slow process of ruination, homes built in the ’70s and never updated, small town business strips emptied out except for antique stores and city hall. 
     Think of how many people around the world now recognize Scranton, Pennsylvania; Pawnee, Indiana; or Letterkenny, Ontario. A story set in Manhattan? Sounds like a splashy, high-budget romcom from 30 years ago that starts with gratuitous helicopter shots of skyscrapers—a dinosaur, in other words. 1988’s Mystic Pizza and its exploration of a sleepy Connecticut town was a better indicator of what was to come than When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, or Serendipity that came in between.
     On the one hand, this line from Lorde is just the classic gesture towards home, an artist representing the community she came from, trying to say that one of us made it for the rest of us. On the other hand, it’s probably false. In singing the line, it becomes untrue: she has put her city on a stage. 
     Obscurity is central to many Midwestern origin stories. In creating a personal mythology, being “from nowhere” makes “becoming something” a more interesting narrative. Obscure origins and interests become a point of pride, a reason to see ambition as worthy and not just ordinary upward striving that we share with people everywhere.
     Lorde is from Auckland, New Zealand. With a population of over one and a half million people, it’s the largest city in New Zealand, a small country notorious as a destination for tourism and as the filming location for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films. And similar cities are onscreen, relentlessly. 
I was born in Boston and grew up in St. Louis, two places that productions have glommed onto because of the very nature of their grim ordinariness. Before Mystic River or Good Will Hunting, greater Boston was just another collection of post-industrial New England communities crumbling into poverty, not a well-defined cultural touchstone for corruption, Catholicism, and hard lessons about the way things are. Boston movies, in a way, set the precedent for why it could be fun and commercially worthwhile to feature cities outside of New York. 
     The film Up in the Air featured a George Clooney character traveling to various sad-looking Midwestern cities after the 2008 recession, but in fact they were all just shots of St. Louis, Mo., from different angles, including scenes in Affton, one suburb over from where I grew up. 
     There’s a memorable monologue where Clooney speaks up for St. Louis’s airport, once a hub for the vanished TWA. His sister had asked him to take a photo with Lambert in the background. Anna Kendrick’s character, taking the picture, asks him what the point is. “Are you kidding—Lambert Field? The Wright brothers flew through there,” he replies enthusiastically. “That domed main terminal is the first of its kind, it's a precursor of everything from JFK to de Gaulle.” He has the obscure secret knowledge that helps explain, after all, why St. Louis matters, why everyone else is foolish for not knowing about the place.

I could have stood up and cheered when I first heard it. But now, I think it’s a little like the Lorde song—the place’s obscurity is used as the justification for its value. And in talking about it to millions of viewers, the beloved obscurity slips away as soon as it’s recognized. 
     Is it actually interesting to have grown up somewhere outside of New York or LA, or is that just a useful myth for a Midwesterner trying to create meaning out of an ordinary life? Maybe—it depends. One thing I’ve learned is that I’m less interested in art that sets itself in a lesser-known place just to add an aesthetic grimness and more interested in projects that investigate the identity of a place on its own terms.
     That’s why coming across Adult Swim’s Joe Pera Talks to You shorts felt like such a revelation. The titular character is a middle school choir teacher who speaks directly to the viewer like Mr. Rogers or Bob Ross, trying to describe the constellation of places and things that make his corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or UP, a place of wonder rather than boredom. In the middle of the informative monologues, he’s often derailed by other characters. In the first episode, “Joe Pera Shows You Iron,” a documentary about the UP’s rocks and minerals instead becomes an introduction to his friends and neighbors. Composing a musical about the Rat Wars of Alberta for his students to perform becomes an argument with Sarah Conner (Jo Firestone), a music teacher with whom he’s beginning a relationship, about whether his interest in obscure subjects actually matters in the context of threats from climate change and food insecurity. Like a good essay, the episodes begin with one topic and opens unexpected doors to others.
The episodes that follow chase that idea—do my obscure interests matter?—with a level of insight I did not expect to find in comedy shorts. It’s a show about young adults realizing they aren’t finished growing up, and perhaps never will be. Joe, raised by his grandparents and often acting out a character that is half obsessive teenager, half grandfather, grows into a more mature relationship to his passions. He’s able to balance healthy bonds with Sarah and others while trying to tell the outside world about Sugarloaf Mountain, growing beans, or the lighthouses of Lake Superior. He might spend days on his backyard bean arch, but he also helps care for his neighbor’s kids while the parents move through a rough patch in their marriage. 
     Joe Pera Talks to You feels like something that could only have been made in the UP, even when the plot isn’t necessarily UP specific. The grocery store, the middle school, and the local church give me the sense that the show lives in Marquette, Mich., even when it’s offscreen (after all, it’s only onscreen for 11 minutes at a time.) That, I think, is what makes it different from the way a show like Ozark approaches its setting. Southwest Missouri is there chiefly to provide an ambience of desperation and decay. Missourians might recognize the place, but ultimately the Ozarks could be substituted for other economically depressed areas without the show losing much meaning. Ozark is set where it is because Breaking Bad already covered doing crimes in the desert, not because it has much to say about the unique truths of living near an artificial lake in the lower Midwest.
     I’ve never been to the UP, so perhaps it’s not fair for me to judge Joe Pera’s verisimilitude. But what it stands for, in my mind, is art that’s of a place, not just incidental to it. It speaks truths shared by many Midwesterners: having a personal geography of places that sound largely uninteresting for tourists but are beloved to you, seeing a modestly-sized city like Milwaukee as a metropolis, smaller things like the weekly trip to a supermarket with wide aisles and familiar people. And it reckons with the question of obscurity: whether the obscurity of a subject is enough, on its own, to make it worthwhile. The answer the show comes up with is something like: not necessarily, but if you can show why the thing means something to you and your own story, then it could be interesting.

Even though I quibble with her phrasing, I think this is what Lorde was getting at in “Team”—what it means to love a place that most others see as uninteresting. “Team” and Joe Pera are trying to do something beautiful and strange, which is to explain love, as accurately as possible, to an uninterested third person. It’s the song I find myself singing all the time.

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.