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Thursday, April 28, 2005 05:52 pm

A state of mind

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When my friend Debora heard that I was moving to Illinois, she took me aside to offer me advice about Midwesterners. “You can’t expect them to act as friendly as Southerners,” she said, “but when they are nice, you’ll know they mean it.”

At the time, her counsel mystified me. I never thought of Debora as a Midwesterner, and I certainly never thought of myself as a Southerner. Furthermore, the notion that there could be any significant cultural differences between the two seemed absurd.

But I’ve recently discovered that’s a common blind spot — the tendency to be completely oblivious to your native culture until you find yourself without it. You may not necessarily feel homesick, but you start to notice subtle variations, and at some point you just can’t keep living in denial. You find yourself staring into a mirror and rehearsing your little confessional speech: “Hi, my name is Dusty, and I’m a Texan.”

Debora had that detail wrong. She shouldn’t have lumped me in with the Southerners. But she couldn’t be expected to know the difference between Southerners and Texans — being, as she is, a Midwesterner. See? I’ve now swallowed the whole culture-clash scenario whole.

My main concern is the children. I’m too old to change, but my two sons are in their formative years, and I see them morphing into Midwesterners right before my eyes. Already they’re asking for oyster crackers to float in their soup — little alien pastries instead of the proper soup supplement, crumbled saltines. Clearly I have to figure out what it all means.

I began by attempting to define the Midwest, and quickly learned that there is no simple answer. I found a public-school Web site that outlined the Midwest to include North and South Dakota, yet my friend Anne, a true Midwesterner, rejects those states as “up there too far away.” My co-worker Todd calls himself as a Midwesterner, having grown up in Pittsburgh. But I found a Grumble magazine article called “Out Loud and Proud: A Midwesterner’s Story” in which the author, listed only as Sassafras, insists that anyone who lives in Pittsburgh is not a Midwesterner but rather a chilly, aloof Easterner.

Turns out it’s easier to define Midwesterners not as residents of certain states but rather by a state of mind. Almost everybody I consulted used the word “earth” to describe Midwesterners, as in “down-to-earth” or “salt-of-the-earth” type people, then hastened to clarify that they didn’t mean “hicks.”

“You might hear the word ‘Midwesterner’ and think of a couple of guys wearing overalls and straw hats playing country music,” says Richard Wiegel, founder of a Wisconsin quartet called the Midwesterners, “but we’re much closer to Chuck Berry style than anything.”

The other trait almost everybody emphasized was the Midwestern work ethic. Brandy Agerbeck, the Chicago-based graphic artist behind loosetooth.com, didn’t realize that she was a Midwesterner until her work took her to New York and California.

“On the East Coast, things get done because of who you know. On the West Coast, things get done because everyone agrees and feels all right about it. In the Midwest, things get done because work needs to be done,” she says. “The Midwest is more of a meritocracy.”

It’s a place with a sterling reputation. T-shirts.com offers a cute brown ringer tee emblazoned with a pair of wheat sheaves and the words “WHOLESOME MIDWESTERN GIRL.”

If there’s a bad connotation to the term “Midwesterner,” it’s the tradition of conformity, says my friend Anne, who spent four fun-filled years living in New York City.

“You need to fit into a mold, or people give you funny looks — and it’s not just the Bubbas,” she says of the Midwest.

Anne, who describes herself as “a Midwesterner, but a weird Midwesterner,” admits that she’s sensitive because she gets such looks all the time, like when she goes grocery shopping right after working out at the gym.

 “See, there’s no such thing as a weird New Yorker, because you can’t find the archetype that personifies New Yorkers,” she says. “You could definitely find a set of archetypes that constitute the Midwestern population — and a lot of people would fit it 100 percent.”

I’ve been in Illinois more than two years now, and I’ve never been more aware that I’m a Texan. My editor, a vagabond journalist who has lived everywhere, lists some unflattering stereotypes of my home state’s citizens and evaluates me tactfully: “You’ve got a bit of cowboy in you.”

I don’t feel that I embody all the flamboyant traits routinely attributed to Texans, just as I don’t believe that every Springfieldian exudes that heartland sincerity that Midwesterners are famous for. I’ve crossed paths with some mean-spirited bullies here. But I’ve also met some people who, as my friend Debora said, offer friendship in its most genuine form. If my kids grow up to be that kind of Midwesterner, I’ll be the happiest Texan in Illinois.

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