12 January 2012

What 'The Midwest' Is To Me

This is the first Google Image result for 'Midwest People'
Now that I sit down and think about it, I've lived a life of extremes, at least when it comes to population. I grew up in Huntley, IL, went to school in Eureka, IL, moved out to Los Angeles, down to San Diego, and back to Chicago. It seems like wherever I live is either a town small enough to have more town picnics than street lights or police officers, or a place big enough that you could go your whole life without running into the same person twice.

When the idea for this site was born, I was excited to be involved in a project so close to the place and things I grew up with. Having just moved back to Illinois after 5 years in California that year, I thought it would be a welcome chance to fully indulge myself back into what I'd been missing out on for years.

But what is it exactly that makes up the 'Midwest'? Not geographically (which we'll get into next week), but as a concept, a perception. And it sounds like a giant cop out for me to lay a "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" on you, but it really does change from person to person. So I'll be the first of the four writers here to dive into a project where we really take a close look at what we consider to be the idea on which this very site was based around.

The first thing the Midwest is to me is something that has to constantly be defended. The 5 years I spent out on the West Coast were 5 years of meeting new people and having those people ask where I'm from and then having to deal with the inevitable stereotypes that said person will surely inquire upon or reference. Much like we all envision Southern California to be nothing but movie stars and models driving down open roads lined with palm trees, they see Midwesternists as a sort of simple hillbilly, God fearing and right leaning, attending church on Sunday in their finest Farm & Fleet overalls.

I'd get really defensive whenever I encountered this stereotype, for two reasons.

1. It's not fair to stereotype because of geographic blah blah blah
2. It's...kind of true?

I'll admit it: That country bumpkin my new friend had pop into their head? I know that guy. I actually know a lot of guys (and girls) like that. Hell, there was probably a time in my life when I knew more people that were just like that than weren't.

Having a population between 2,000 and 5,000 in the time I lived there, Huntley wasn't exactly a booming metropolis. My high school had about 400 total students. My graduating class was the very first to break a hundred, barely (107). I had a bunch of friends who lived on farms. Yes, I've seen my fair share of pickup trucks and cowboy hats.

So what does the Midwest mean to me? Lots of things spring to mind immediately. It means knowing the first and last (and sometimes middle) name of every person I went to school with at my 10 year reunion. It means remembering the joy and excitement of learning we were getting a McDonalds in 1998. Knowing you could trust the contractor in town because of the family name on their truck. Having friends say they couldn't go to the movies on Friday night because they were "working on their cars". Knowing all the words to "Friends In Low Places" without once in your life actively seeking out that song to listen to.

But not everything about the Midwest is all sunshine and kisses. One of the times living in such a cozy setting was a disadvantage was trying to infiltrate the preexisting family unit already in place upon my arrival. When my family moved to Huntley, I was in the middle of March in 3rd grade. Being the new and kind of odd looking kid in a sea of 60 other students that had known each other for 4 out of their 9 years on Earth? Not the easiest thing in the world. And that late into the school year, everyone already has their preferred touch football or four-square teams picked out at recess and didn't bother integrating new kids. It's the same reason NFL teams wouldn't sign new players 2 weeks before the playoffs: there's no way that guy would be able to learn the playbook. It's easier to just stick with the team you know.

An accurate artist's depiction of what I looked like  in third grade
Another drawback? Because it was Illinois and not West Texas, our town was not exactly football crazy. We were awful because no one wanted to play football at Huntley High. No one wanted to play for Huntley High because we were awful. The Circle of Life Mediocrity was complete.

I'm not saying all of the rural parts of the Midwest are just like the Huntley I grew up in. But driving through Ohio and Indiana and Iowa, it looks awwwwful familiar.

To me, the Midwest also means something that I can't quite put into a singular word. Manners? Community? Something along the lines of those two mashed together. Whenever I was in a place where I didn't know anyone (which was about 90% of the time I lived in LA), I would find myself naturally gravitating to people from the Midwest. Even without knowing where the other was from, it seemed like two people could just sort of tell from the way they acted. I don't want to say that Midwesterners are just more decent than everyone else, because I've ever met anyone from a lot of states, especially the ones that don't matter (Montana, South Dakota, Idaho). Its just that people from the Midwest seem "realer".

This could very well be because I was comparing them to California girls, who by and large make ManBearPig seem real in comparison.

ManBearPig and Midwestern both have 10 letters. CONSPIRACY???
And it's not entirely a geographic thing either. Towns can have a Midwestern feel and good, Midwestern type people while not technically falling into the "traditional Midwest". A lot of what I've seen in Western New York seems the same way. Folks there are just more pleasant to be around than a lot of people raised in a city.

The Midwest is like your weird younger sister that's 2 years younger than you in high school. Yeah, a lot of the odd stories about her are probably true. Yeah she kind of smells (Indiana) and is a little homely (Ohio). And you can make fun of her if you want to because you're family. But if anyone else insults her, you feel like you have to leap to her defense, even if the insults are at least kind of accurate.

The Midwest seems to be fading fast too. Huntley's up to over 23,000 people now. Like I said, we all got jacked up and excited when the McDonalds went in. Now there's a Taco Bell, Walgreens, Wal Mart and Meijer.

But there's still only one goddamn movie theater. And it's 15 minutes away 2 towns over.

The more things change, right?

Fuck McDonalds. $$$$$$Dairy Mart 4 LIFE!!!$$$$$$


KSchaper said...

Is Dairy mart still closed in January??

Arcturus said...

LeRoy's still here, Rich. And we're not changing.

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