Hopelessly Midwestern

Administrator’s note: Since this is a retroactive blog, it is full of retro references, such as those to URLs below. These ramblings are now just a portion of the larger New Rambler web site, which you can visit if you want to learn more about the author, namely me.

Welcome back to old subscribers, and just plain welcome to the few of you I’ve since added to the list (and my apologies to those who weren’t included before–the trial audience was rather small, and looking back over the address book just now I noticed there were a number of people I thought were there who weren’t). What you have here is the sixth issue of The New Rambler, an occasional e-mail journal which I started some months ago as a small little soapbox and which seems to have acquired a life of its own. If you’re confused, just keep reading–it’s good for your head.

The big news is that [drum roll, please] The New Rambler now has a web site, which contains, in addition to the back issues, several other articles I’ve written which I deemed to be too topical for general distribution, a few links of possible interest or relevance, a nifty guestbook, and probably some other stuff I’m forgetting. It ain’t pretty, but it will take only split seconds to load–and I like to think I’m keeping with the Web’s original purpose of disseminating information rather than adding to its current glut of crowded graphics. But, I shall prolong the suspense no longer–here’s the url:


So go check it out. . . it should all be in working order. . . I hope (of course, if you’re reading this on the Web, that should be proof positive).

In other news, I just returned from a whirlwind week in New York–Vassar, Brewster, and NYC all in the space of seven days. I’ve been telling people around here that the only reason I came back was that I was about to run out of money, which is partially true. When I’m in New York City, I can hardly imagine ever wanting to be anywhere else, and this trip was no exception. I went to see the Jackson Pollock exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, and, several hours later, when I emerged at the end, there were several moments in which I thought I could go blind right then and there, since I felt that I would be perfectly content if I never saw anything again. I didn’t, of course, and I did have to leave and come back here, and as always, as I was driving back to Iowa from Chicago (where I generally fly from), I discovered that that wasn’t at all a bad thing.

During that drive I thought, as I always do when driving long distance, about what a crazy, large, and varied place this country is. I’ve visited 23 of its states, and my goal is to make it to all 50. There are a lot of places I love–Chicago for its museums and its architechture and its skyline, which I think is the most beautiful one in the world; San Francisco for its vistas and its crazy bus routes and its weather (I actually like fog, and I love that it doesn’t get hot there in the summer); Maine, for the woods and the lakes; Wyoming, for the most amazing night sky I have ever seen. What I was thinking about as I drove was how lucky I am to come from the Midwest.

It’s often said that everything is in New York, and there certainly is a lot there–I can’t imagine why anyone who lived there would want cable TV, when a simple ride on the subway can expose you to more different sights and sounds and smells than you could ever get from a hundred different two dimensional channels. But at the risk of sounding trite, there are things you can’t get in New York, and things I think New Yorkers (and in general people who live in cities and on coasts) miss out on. Awhile ago my mother, who grew up in suburban Chicago, was telling me that before she moved to Iowa she never really thought of the weather as something people had to deal with anymore. Oh, sure, there were hurricanes and blizzards from time to time, but ordinary weather was something we’d conquered, something which didn’t affect the way people lived aside from the minor inconvenience of sweating outside in the summer and shovelling the sidewalks when it snowed. Living here, though, even if you don’t live on a farm or (like me) know a thing about farming, you still realize how very wrong that perception is. A few inches of rain too many or too few, an early frost, a hot summer or a mild winter–each of these has more direct influence on more people than you might ever think. Living here makes you more aware of that–closer to the land and closer to its history. Sometime in college I alluded to one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books during a class, and I was met with blank stares. Finally someone said, “Oh yeah, those Little House books–I always thought those were stupid.” That experience was something akin to having a knife twisted in my gut, until, reflecting on it, I realized that everyone in that class was from an East Coast city–some of them–quite possibly all of them–had never seen a prairie (and I guess lacked the psychic ability of Emily Dickinson, who does go on about how she knows all about heather and waves though she’s never seen a moor or a sea). And then I just felt sorry for them.

One might, of course, argue that we Midwestern kids are equally deprived of a true understanding of, say, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by virtue of never having been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Midwesterners are more likely to go to the alabaster cities (“Alabaster cities–New York City,” rhapsodizes Garrison Keillor in an old News From Lake Woebegon) than Easterners to go in search of amber waves of grain. “America the Beautiful,” though, includes all those elements–the purple mountains and the pioneers, the cities and the seas. I’ve been eyeing a new anthology called Writing New York in the bookstore for some time, considering whether I have the funds to purchase it, and right now I’m recalling Garrison Keillor’s commentary on it in the New York Times Book Review. He starts by talking about how just walking around NYC is one of the densest literary experiences you can have–or, as I frequently tell people, New York is fabulous because everywhere you go you’re somewhere. But that’s not true exclusively of New York–it’s true of everywhere. American writers do have a tendency to gravitate towards New York, but for as many as are drawn there, there are an equal number who resist its pull, and who have graced and illuminated so many other places with their touch–Mark Twain and the Mississippi, John Steinbeck and the Dustbowl and California, all those writers from the South.

People frequently ask me why I haven’t been to Europe, and while my explanations usually involve my shortage of funds and my inability to speak any living languages aside from English, the real reason is something far more intangible, something to do with the last sentence Jack Kerouac, whom I sometimes think appreciated America more than any other writer of the 20th century, wrote in On the Road: “So in America when the sun goes down. . . .” (Yup, you have to look up the rest of it yourself. Happy reading and happy travels.)