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.