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Fly-Over States

In January of 2002, while George Bush II was alleging Iraq’s stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and drumming up reasons to spearhead a war, I was living in Boston with five guys who were at various stages of obtaining adanced degrees from Harvard. Every morning, I ate breakfast with my housemates: a French physicist, a German professor, a Japanese language student, and a South African diplomat-in-training.

The men came from all over the world, and each had a very particular breakfast routine. The German would arrange his jams, butters, and honeys in a row, meticulously spreading a precise dollop before each bite. He also fit the stereotype of the neurotic, scrupulous German (he used to divide rent and bills to a third decimal and then give us a break by allowing us to round to the nearest quarter).

The Japanese kid was quiet and ate plain rice from the rice cooker, sometimes perusing his collection of anime, occasionally looking up, pensive, passive, but kind, though, he never smiled. The Frenchman initiated each day with a rich plate of eggs and gruyere, painstakingly arranging the food on his plate only to be demolished; his wild hair, loud pants and gestures usually the centerpiece of the room. The South African always came inaudibly late into the affair and left early after picking at whatever nibbles and leftovers he had left in the fridge.

I ate Fiber One and strawberries with non-fat milk everydayat the same time; my boring, processed, borderline ascetic diet, which was quintessentially, Protestant and American (to add to the stereotypes).

In the midst of the political and world chaos, while news announcements and presidential speeches penetrated the living room, we were at the center of a debate. We questioned the motivations and also the role of the United States, but also our individual sense of freedom and fear, living in a very freshly post-9-11 world.

We had four copies of the New York Times delivered to the doorstep every Sunday (the Japanese kid read the comics), and every Sunday, the breakfast intelligentsia, swarmed like vultures. I remember the scene like it was the UN roundtable and I might as well have had a card in front of me that said, “United States.”  There were direct interrogations about our foreign policy, as if I had the political, economic, and historical insight to comment or defend the actions of the administration or any other administration in history—I was the American, after all.

Cristoph, the German professor, who was approaching 40, would talk to me in phrases like, “Your people…your government.”  If ever he needed to be hushed, I would mutter something under my breath about his administration, and by that, I mean, Hitler. This quiet reference shocked like a Hiroshima bomb and cut off unwanted debates.

At the time, I was preparing for law school and waitressing at a touristy seafood restaurant in the center of Faneuil Hall. My academic interests and law school admittance were details of my life that proved beneficial, offering some kind of promise or leverage; however, mostly overlooked. In the end, they would still refer to me as “the waitress from Wisconsin.” There was a sense that I would never fully be able to engage the conversation and I quietly accepted the neglect.

For a majority of non-Midwesterners and the international audience, it seems there has always been a reason to ignore the “fly-over” states. I have noticed traveling internationally and living on both coasts, that people do not visit the Midwest unless they are invited to a wedding or some estranged relative died in the region. If they happen to make the trek, they don’t know what state they are landing in half the time, and when describing their visit, make odd combinations of alien cities and states: “Milwaukee, Minnesota,” or “St. Louis, Kansas,” “Fargo, Michigan,” I have even heard, “Chicago, Indiana.”

Beyond the geographic errors, I think the bigger tragedy is the cultural misunderstandings. To be fair, most interpretations are based on intentionally divisive clips on CNN, That 70’s Show, or Laverne and Shirley. From the outside, things do seem foreign: the sprawling flat landscapes and farmlands, casseroles, Friday fish fries, and church festivals. The most irritating and erroneous assumptions: 1) all middle states are red and, 2) cities in middle-America are just small towns.

While the rootedness of the Midwest can feel oppressive, there is a loyalty and a dedication to people and place that I have rarely encountered anywhere else in the world. To my Midwest friends and family, I will always be a part of it. They don’t let people go. And that is oddly comforting. One of my best friends, who has never left Wisconsin, but for a few flights to Vegas, says to me every time we talk, “When are you moving home?” She still doesn’t understand why I left in the first place, or how I could leave, or the very notion that I would never return to the very soil where she feels I belong. She forgets that I am not really from there and have spent only about 8 years of my life there, the remainder split between coastlines—though, to be fair, they were some formative years.

I consider the Midwest “home,” because, it is the only place that has ever fought to keep me.

Comparatively, the East Coast embodies a profound sense of history (something I have never felt on the West Coast or in the Midwest). In Boston, I used to walk the cobblestone streets and make up my own history tours. I was captivated by stories of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. I marveled at the site of The Boston Massacre, and stood at the docks of The Boston Tea Party. Once I drove up to Salem and read Hawthorne for the day, looking for the infamous hill, trying to imagine an era in history when women, not unlike my young self, were tried and slaughtered for witchcraft.

Another day I drove to Walden Pond, where teenagers smoked pot and old couples held hands and fed geese. I looked at Thoreau’s small cabin and felt like I was living in something similar myself: distant, withdrawn, alone on this coast where an entire world felt as though it was colliding, like the waves on the shores of Maine.

There is something about the East Coast that seems so historically rich, that unless you are from there, you could never truly belong; as if everyone else in the country just spontaneously appeared; a people without history, without relevance.

This is how I felt in my Boston flat, not only because I was from the Midwest, but because I was a waitress, and I didn’t go to Harvard; I only spoke one language, and at the time, I had never been to Europe. I felt like I was an outsider: undereducated and underqualified to have an opinion about anything, much less the state of the world, religious and political conflict or our nation’s foreign policies. Still I felt the need to defend myself, my country, even Middle-America, which was a place I knew, they would never understand.

During this time, I snagged a fake membership at the Harvard athletic facility, where I would hop on a treadmill and watch the legitimate students work out; a voyeur to their privilege and pedigree. I wondered where they came from and what future inventions and discoveries they would bestow upon the world. I imagined their colonial homes in Connecticut, hometowns with the suffix “-bury” and vacation homes in The Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard. I was envious of children born to liberal parents.

I wondered if they knew that I was an imposter, a spy. I wondered if they could smell that I didn’t belong. I would walk through Harvard Yard and gaze through the dimly lit, frosted, winter windows, thinking about the dusty books, the almost paranormal absorption of knowledge, the secret societies that no matter what I had set out to do, I could never understand or be a part of. There was an excitement in the air and in the richness of place. I breathed like I could take in the region’s history by inhaling, or learn Ivy League by osmosis.

My father grew up poor and my mother came from a blue collar family in Illinois. My paternal grandfather was an alcoholic-cartoonist, who failed miserably in art and in life, losing his legs to amputation and alcohol-induced diabetes. He took his last breath before I was old enough to remember his face. My other grandfather was an ironworker, who gracefully sobered up before he raised eight children. The solid, stoic Midwesterner was God-fearing and blue collar to the core (he hated liberals and lawyers). He died the summer before I started law school, and in a strange way, I’m glad I never had to explain my decision to him. These were my roots and it seemed that the liberal “elitist” (writer or lawyer) was a far cry from anything I had been bred and born to do.

Years after I graduated law school and was living in New York, I entered NYU’s English Ph.D. program as an Early Americanist, with an intention to study nationalism and American rhetoric, narrative and literature with a very roughly scripted dissertation on the role of fiction in law.

After articulating my zygote of a thesis to the admissions committee and gaining acceptance, there was a moment I felt validated, like I was finally “in.” A leading scholar in my field called me on my cell phone to offer me a fellowship. I attended Upper West Side parties with professors.  I was courted. Still, I witnessed the cringing faces if I ever revealed I had gone to a *gasp* state school or that I hailed from a suburb in the Midwest.

Ultimately, I was given a 5-year grant with a stipend of $22,000 a year. This is a gift for any grad student, but hardly enough to make ends meet in Manhattan. I was working as a freelance copywriter to afford the rent I was paying for my East Village apartment. Someone (anonymously) reported me to the department and I was summarily warned that if I worked, I was at risk of losing my fellowship. This begs the question, one I was willing to ask directly: “How do all these grad students survive in New York on $22,000 a year without working?” Even student housing rent was over $1500 month.

The fellowship director never gave me a straight answer, but maneuvered, “Well they must have other forms of income,” then trailed, “And, somehow they manage.” The truth is what I already knew: most of these folks already had money and the stipend was a bonus, not a living wage. Their parents had also been grooming them for Ph.D. programs since they were taking IQ tests in diapers.

At the time, I had to explain to my parents what a Ph.D. was. The only question my father asked was, “Are you going to be able to get a job with that?” And the truthful answer is probably, “No.” But for my NYU colleagues, job prospects, as well as income, were irrelevant. Even with acceptance and the scholarship, I still felt like The Little Match Girl standing in the Harvard Yard.

There are places for people in the world. This was not mine.

When I tried to explain my financial position to the head of the department, she literally said, “Look, you can only work in an approved academic position, like as a librarian or a research assistant. You can’t just work at Starbucks or something.” Like those jobs weren’t good enough, like an NYU grad student who picked up a service industry position made the school look bad. Copywriting, apparently, was an equal humiliation. The truth was, those “academic positions” were few and far between, if not impossible to obtain and their purpose was not to secure an income, they were to secure CV status.

Joan Didion wrote, “It had not been by accident, that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations. They had not run for student body office. They had not gone to Yale or Swarthmore or DePauw, nor had they even applied…they had knocked up girls, and married them…they paid their bills or did not pay their bills…they were never destined to be, in other words, communicants in what we have come to call, when we want to indicated the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained in the United States.”- “Insider Baseball,” After Henry

When I dropped out of NYU, I dropped out of the conversation. I will no longer be qualified to voice dissent, to engage the intellectual, to question political action, or to suspend power of those collective and authoritative voices.

The status quo does speak in code, and no matter how much education or practice it took to assimilate, I would always be outside, looking in. It turned out, I was wrong, and even after my extensive, heartfelt foray into the upper echelons of East Coast intelligentsia, I was still, in many ways, a waitress from Wisconsin.

But, anyway, as it turned out, those were not the voices I was interested in engaging.  The most authentic conversations are not being hurled in upper level theory grad school classes, but in the daily lives of those who are not given the power of the pen. I have learned to embrace the Middle, where I am from and where I will always look back to.  There lie the roots of my family, the struggles they engaged and the way that it made them fierce with work-ethic, even if driven by fear and a sense of displacement.

And the middle gives perspective. It has defined my life in many ways—middle-class, middle-America, middle-child.

Middleness” implies some kind of irrelevance, a loss in the shuffle. New theories on middle children suggest that rather than becoming the stereotypical deviants, they can actually be more well-adjusted, more creative, and accomplished than their older and younger counterparts. Middle children are forced to carve out their independence. Being from the middle demands resistance and the ability to transcend irrelevance; the middle means you have to fight harder, that you are not born into a role. In the end, the one you create, is harder to define, because it did not preexist you.

No one tells you who you are or how to get there. Coming from the middle forces you to be authentic.

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