Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Midwesterner Visits the West and Finds It Good

My family is mostly from the Midwest, generally from Chicago and parts of Michigan. When I was young and raised in California, I knew that I was only partially a Westerner. Our values, the food we ate, our manner and way of speaking were grafted from a different tree, despite the soil beneath us changing the way we grew.

When I met the woman I would eventually marry, I was not surprised that she was from the Midwest—northernmost Wisconsin, in particular. (A film professor explained to me that all romantic comedies are about recognition.) Soon, I would realize how different I am from a true Midwesterner. For instance, I didn't know what a pasty is. I thought tree stands were tree houses for kids. (They're actually places where drunk people sit to shoot deer). I thought the mini roads and mini traffic signs (snowmobile trails) were for short people. These were a people I had a distant connection to, but I couldn't speak their language.

That's when I truly began to appreciate A Prairie Home Companion, in particular The News from Lake Wobegon. I listened to hours of tapes and learned from the wise Garrison Keillor the ways and meanings of a somewhat foreign people. To him, and his cast and writers, I owe a great debt.

Earlier this month the PHC show was broadcast from the Greek Theater in Los Angeles (an extraordinary place to see any show). It was a special occasion because of the recent fires. It was also an opportunity for a Midwesterner, Mr. Keillor, to describe his his thoughts on the place I know so well. In addition to the show, he also wrote an op-ed piece for the LA Times. Here is a portion of his essay:
Everybody knows the comedy version of L.A. — the city of skinny tanned women, cellphones in hand, driving Suburbans the size of personnel carriers at 80 mph, taking a tiny child to the therapist to address self-esteem issues.

Those jokes play well in the flat parts of the country. A Midwesterner goes to L.A. and feels a certain sense of moral disapproval. The squalor, the opulence, the expense of natural resources to support middle-class life in an arid place, the fascination with the misshapen lives of young celebs. It isn't the Canaan it was for our grandparents. We look at it and see a rundown bungalow selling for half a million and cars inching along the 405 and say, "No thanks."

But it's good to know there's another point of view. The sun does shine there, and people enjoy their lives — the spirit of la pura vida, or the love of life for its own sake, the opposite of Calvinist America.
It is true. Midwesterners come to California and are amazed at how their bodies glow in the sunlight, the wonderful diversity of the population, and the bountiful cornucopia of art and food that the place produces. But most of them are glad to leave it. It's nice to visit, but one look at the murders on the local news, the smog obscuring our view, and the cigarette butts in the sand at the beach, and each of them smiles, and politely says, indeed, "No thanks."

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