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.