Living in the Midwest

Does it make you complacent and likely to wear clogs?

Does everyone in the Midwest wear clogs?

My husband started a spreadsheet. In it he keeps track of “Things We Like” and “Things We Don’t Like” about the Midwest, where we live. This is part of his ongoing effort to sell me on my adopted hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, where he’s spent almost all of his life. Much of the time, the effort is unnecessary, but every once in a while—like now, as our governor proceeds with his sure-handed destruction of public unions, and what would normally be a quiet race for state Supreme Court grows ever more bizarre by the minute—I need reminding that the “Things We Like” column is winning. By a landslide.

In 1999, I moved to the Midwest—a place where I’d never before set foot—to pursue an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I assumed I’d spend summers and vacations back in New York, where I’d lived since college, but it was all of one week before I knew that wouldn’t happen. I can’t explain it to people who’ve never left the coasts, so I don’t try, but there is something about the Midwest that felt like home to me.

I moved from Iowa to Madison, knowing the city by reputation only, as a liberal hotbed and a university town. Shortly after I arrived, I met my husband, a native. His family is here—including his sisters, who are two of my closest friends, our nieces, and his parents, who have truly become parents to me—and we have a young son. We have no plans to leave, and yet sometimes I still feel like I’m trying the place on for size, like I’m still making up my mind.

And sometimes it feels like the Midwest hasn’t yet made up its mind about me.

When I tell people outside of the Midwest that I live here, they invariably mention two things: the Weather Factor and the Friendliness Factor. I have a warm coat, heated seats in my car, and heavy socks. I love snow and seasons and don’t care for the persistent heat of my hometown of Miami, Florida. The Weather Factor, for me, isn’t much of a factor at all. The Friendliness Factor is a little more complicated.

To say that people on the coasts wildly misperceive the Midwest is an understatement, of course. Back when I lived in Iowa, my brother came from San Francisco for a visit. On his layover, he called to ask how far the drive would be from Des Moines, where he would land. I was baffled—why wasn’t he flying into Cedar Rapids, twenty minutes from my apartment, instead of Des Moines, more than two hours away? He said it hadn’t occurred to him when he booked the ticket that there might be more than one airport in Iowa.

Recently I flew to Manhattan for a girlfriend’s wedding shower. A woman at the party asked where I was coming from, and when I told her, she blinked at me. “Really?” she said. “Well, it must be nice to have all that land!” I started to explain that I lived in the city, not the country, but this clearly confused her, so I gave up. And the other day, during an email discussion about our parallel preschool searches, my long-distance girlfriend, Jen, said she couldn’t believe that a place “like Madison” apparently has better preschool options than the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where she lives.

My friend has visited my city several times, and she’s aware that it’s a pretty progressive place. So I’m not sure if she thinks people in Madison don’t care about their children, or about educational philosophy and play-based curricula and wholesome snacks. (My son’s new preschool campus includes gardens and a small farm, and in the spring the sheep and one llama will be sheared—”gently”—while the kids watch, and then they’ll use the wool in a community project. This kind of thing, which I find at once silly and utterly adorable, is very Madison.)

The fact that we have terrific school options, preschool and otherwise, doesn’t surprise me one bit. Schools are listed in the “Things We Like” column. But what I didn’t realize, when I married the Midwest, was how difficult it is to be welcomed into the heart of the heartland. Broadly speaking—which is the only way to talk about this kind of thing, after all—Midwesterners are, true-to-reputation, kind and friendly, but they aren’t particularly warm. Maybe in my narrow-minded, pre-Midwestern existence, I’d assumed that “friendly” and “warm” were the same thing, but it’s a distinction I’ve found unnerving.

Midwesterners are wary of prying—they consider it impolite, even unfriendly—and they don’t readily reveal personal information. Which means they exist comfortably at a certain remove that can take years—and I mean years—to breach. When my family gets together in Florida, we share a meal, heatedly discuss current events, then retire to separate bedrooms to catch up on email. When my husband’s extended family gets together, it’s an all-day family-fest. They might not talk about much, but they truly enjoy just being together. To a coastal-hearted misanthrope like myself, it’s mind-blowing. But spending time not saying much of anything with family is one thing—doing it with acquaintances is another thing entirely.

I might find, say, having dinner with acquaintances, where the topics range from the weather to the menu, disappointing. Exhausting and depressing, even. But acquaintances are acquaintances, no matter where you live. The trouble here is the trouble everywhere: how to find close friends, how to really connect. And though I appreciate Midwestern civility (a departure from Miami, for example, where in an afternoon one might witness a fight at a traffic light, have one’s cart rammed at the store, then be persistently ignored by a waiter), I continue to wrestle with the barriers of it.

In 10 years, I’ve succeeded in making a handful of close Midwestern girlfriends, and when these women get together, manners and politesse go out the window. Sex, politics, religion: It’s all on the table. Once you really get to know Midwesterners, they’re family. But persistence is required. But this is part of what’s so upsetting about what is happening here politically, no matter what one thinks about public unions. In addition to reducing the quality of life of so many neighbors and friends, the whole thing is just so uncivil, so unneighborly. It’s divisive and mean-spirited. It’s downright un-Midwestern.

In a recent fit of insomnia, I watched a sitcom called The Middle, about a well-meaning but bumbling Indiana family. The episode contained a few smart observations about life in the middle-class—they’re a two-income family living paycheck-to-paycheck, always a half-step from getting canned, not challenged or satisfied by the work that pays the bills—but overall the show left me cold, mostly because the set and costume design were straight from the 1980s. In The Middle, apparently, people are unaware that style has advanced over the past 30 years.

Maybe it’s my coastal snobbery—the comment on Midwestern style is at least a teensy bit true—but it seems when coasters make fun of Midwesterners, it’s always on this superficial level. It’s as if people believe that unanimously adopting skinny jeans or hip hair styles is fundamentally more important than quality of life. I watch The Middle, and I’m simultaneously defensive and embarrassed, then embarrassed that I’m embarrassed.

My husband, the native, isn’t bothered. It’s a coastal trait, he thinks, caring about people’s opinions. It’s in the same arena as Keeping Up with the Joneses, and snobbery, and pretension. Instead of being irritated, I should be elated. I live in the Midwest. I’m free.

Last year I published my first novel, Stiltsville, and I’ve spent a lot of time on the road since then. It’s been wonderful to get a warm reception in so many states, including Florida, where the book is set. But it was disconcerting to receive a chilly reception from one Midwestern audience (not including the many local book clubs that have welcomed me into their homes).

Like any liberal, midsized city, Madison is home to a fantastic independent weekly newspaper, which has done me the favor of mentioning my book three times. The first was the only bad print review my book received, out of more than a dozen nationwide. But receiving an ugly review from the local indie paper is exactly like receiving an ugly review from your favorite hippie uncle—it’s hurtful and humiliating, but it doesn’t matter. The second mention was neutral, but my name was misspelled and the novel was summarized as a love story between two female characters (which it’s not). But that doesn’t matter, either. The third mention named Stiltsville one of the best local books of the year, and included a lovely write-up. Again, my name was misspelled, but here’s what really packed a punch: I was dubbed a “recent transplant” to the area.

And there it was, in black and white, confirmation of a suspicion I’ve had for years. As much as I’ve loved living in the Midwest, I’ve continued to feel held at arm’s length, a bit of a misfit. Some of this is because feeling like a misfit is part of who I am. Some of it is because, ultimately, I’ll take someone hot-headed and opinionated as a friend over someone mannered and friendly any day of the week.

But it’s also something else. I’m considered an outsider by many locals, even after a decade, even considering my roots here. In a larger city, I could be considered a local after just a few years, but though Midwesterners travel—more than one might guess, actually—they don’t often move. They like it here, and they have family here. Only coasters like me flow in and out. When or if I’ll ever slough off the designation of “recent transplant,” I’m not sure.

Hence my husband’s spreadsheet. I continue to ask myself: What do I want from a hometown?

I want to support public schools without compromising my son’s education (which, at least until the current governor wins his war, was a safe assumption). I want to regularly see good live music and movies and art exhibits without wrestling with crowds or competing for tickets. I want at any given time not to be the only lefty in the room; otherwise, life is stressful, especially in this time of no common ground. I want evenings and weekends to be devoted to family time. I want to not worry about money, fashion, or what kind of car I drive. I want to comfortably afford to travel and own a nice home and not feel at all times like we need more space. I want to my son to grow up spending time—not just holidays—with his aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents.

Of course there are people in coastal cities who have all of this—tons of them—but it’s just easier here.

Once, a coastal friend told me that he thought living in the Midwest made people complacent. I know what he meant, but I can’t bring myself to agree. In smaller towns, the opportunities are limited, of course, but that’s true everywhere. In Madison—a university town, the state capital, and home to a ton of health care and high-tech business—there are plenty of opportunities for an ambitious person to be successful without compromising life-work balance.

And when I consider the crowds that have swarmed the Capitol here in Madison over the past months, and the incredible voter turnout in the spring election, I see commitment and level-headedness, but I don’t see complacency.

Shortly after moving here, I talked to a friend who had come from New York to Chicago for law school. She observed that at first it seems like Midwesterners dress pretty well, but then you notice their shoes. I’m far from a fashion tastemaker, but I laughed—because, well, it’s a little true. Then I chastised myself. Why, I thought, are we scrutinizing people’s shoes? Is this the lens through which I want to see the world? Isn’t this something I’d like to leave behind?

A couple of months ago my son and I went to a group playdate at a friend’s house. At the door we shed our hats and gloves and jackets and dropped our soggy shoes. The last woman to arrive made the comment that the mudroom resembled a giant Dansko clog party. We’d all worn the same brand of comfortable—and decidedly unhip—shoes. There was no one there to criticize. We spent a couple of hours talking about kids and partners and in-laws—about love and family, in other words—and then we all put on our clogs and went home.