While everyone knows that Chicago is sort of an exception when it comes to the midwest (maybe even the exception, that proves the rule), I will just not get on board with the notion that the rest of this excellent region is not pulling its weight. From the food and art you find in the smaller cities, to the attitudes and traditions of the little specks on the map, Middle America does not deserve nearly the derisiveness that coastal humbugs like to dish out. Of course, here I am moving from one coast to the other, gracing the region with my presence for a mere week or so; I wouldn't listen to a hypocritical asshole, either. But wait! Let me make my case.
This century's dogged commitment to tech, which always invites disenfranchisement of the local voice, is like the Manifest Destiny of today. Just like that itch to move West transformed our country 200 years ago, the itch to innovate and share and be special is transforming America's cultural landscape. And while I certainly believe in the power of the "new" to lead us forward, there is not a shred of wisdom in trampling the things that have persevered so that we might glimpse, for a moment, the vanguard.
Here's what I mean. When things develop on the coasts, usually they are hot, exciting, and dramatic, with the muscle of industry titans and the audiences to match. The Met does opera like no where else, everyone is watching when Apple rolls out a new phone, the speed of life is so exciting, BLAH BLAH BLAH. And while the blast radius of innovation in those places is impressive, so is the burn-out effect. I know just as many people who leave the big cities as who move there.
There is nothing wrong with this. But I make the point to show that there is nothing wrong with working in smaller spheres, and living in less intrinsically exciting places, as your life's work. In fact, the greater focus it takes to remain consistent over many years might just make that work more valuable to those that you do touch.
Let me give you an example. My hosts in Madison are a couple who my family met about 15 years ago, when we lived here for a sabbatical. They have kids similar ages to my family, and values that match well with my family's. We all hit it off, and have been the type of friends ever since that I felt more than comfortable staying with them as a 24-year old, who hadn't been to their house in over a decade, as I did when I used to come over as a 6-year old.
These are two people who get stopped on the street downtown by a network of neighbors and colleagues, glowing with the satisfaction of mutual friendship; these are people who wake at 5a every morning so that they might share coffee before work together, after having been married for 35 years; these are people who are as interested in the minutiae of their daily work lives as they are in the principles that have shaped their careers. And these are people who have tasted the coasts and travelled their share, but have chosen to live and thrive in the region where they grew up.
Life is a series of choices, and their's have led them to this totally livable town (Madison), in a totally exciting field (education), with two totally ass-kicking children (who have moved far and wide). Man, what wealth!
Needless to say, I was excited for my own explorations of their -ville. My first day in the city began with breakfast at a true Wisconsin institution--Mickey's Dairy Bar. The food was good, but the prices, and the service/ambience were excellent. And how often can you say you have eaten pancakes, eggs, and a chocolate malt before 7a? Rockin.
Hopping on my bike for 5 minutes at a time, I toured the Capitol building and read underneath the shade of its cupola, saw some modern art, took in a Frank Lloyd Wright public space overlooking one of Madison's beloved lakes, dunked in the other of said lakes, and even visited one my host's fourth-grade classroom. I perused its local businesses, and bathed in the soft glory that is a true Wisconsin accent. And then, when it got too hot (96!), I took respite in my hosts' beautiful air conditioned home, that has lovingly and organically evolved over the years.
And while all of this would've been striking to a new visitor ("Man, what a bitchin city!"), my experience was extra heady because of the incredible tendrils of memory that I felt more than truly remembered. Riding by old grocery stores, and soccer fields where I first played, and the homes of childhood friends, was fantastic, and seemed to only underscore the marriage of old with new that makes this place so great. It was like a natural fermentation, at the proper pace of progress, that changed this town. While there are cranes every where you look, there will always be the thirty people who show up, in a snowstorm, to protest a minor neighborhood development project that doesn't feel quite right.
There was so much more, too: impromptu community sing-alongs by the Capitol, lush lake-side parks where wind whispered along with my kettlebell-ing, free bike repair at the local shop, the best cup of coffee since Render Cafe in South Boston. It makes me think of a Jonathan Swift quote I just saw: "May you live every day of your life. Fuck the naysayers who think the midwest is like America's heart attack." I added to his quote, slightly.
But again, the schedule shot me out on the road on September 11th.