A really wonderful column in today’s Washington Post about growing up in Ohio, missing Ohio, being annoyed with the rest of the nation’s stereotypes of Ohio (and much of the Midwest in general), being annoyed with oneself for leaving Ohio, and more.
I think the Midwest is a blank spot on the mental maps of many Americans who have no connection to it, blank spots that are filled in with caricatures of people and a lifestyle that is at best quaint and at worst derogatory. It’s pieces like this that both explain why many Midwesterners have inferiority complexes when placed outside of their places of origins, or why they blather on about how lucky they are to have “gotten out” in order to placate a false idea that others hold that, surely, if there was ever some place in the states to escape from, this is it.
Some favorite paragraphs:
My flashes of insecurity were snuffed out as soon as someone mentioned their parents’ two-hour commutes or used the word “summer” as a verb. What I wonder now, two years out of college, is why so many people in Washington, the adopted home of nobodies from all over the country trying to make names for themselves, are so clueless about the Midwest. Take my boss. He’s a smart guy who has traveled around the world. Yet despite all my jabbering about Ohio, he has asked me more than once about my family back in . . . Iowa.
Of course, I’m not the only Ohioan to have mixed up Brooklyn and the Bronx. But the tendency to write off Midwesterners as a bunch of simpletons strikes me as plain unfair. I recently met a man who drives through Ohio every year on the way from Washington to his summer house in Canada; when he heard where I’m from, he hopped up on his high horse and announced that Ohioans “don’t take risks.” So he hasn’t run into any Evel Knievels there. That’s surprising, I wanted to say, because the Wright Brothers were from Dayton, and it took some gumption — now there’s a word Midwesterners like — to catapult themselves into the sky in their rickety contraptions. Another gutsy Ohioan: John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. And another: Neil Armstrong.
“No, no dreamers in Ohio,” I felt like replying. But my mother would have called that back-talk, so I let good old-fashioned Midwestern manners get the better of me and kept quiet.
Presidential candidates, in their efforts to look like regular folks, are among the chief purveyors of one of the most destructive stereotypes of Midwesterners: the working stiff who can’t work, thanks to the Rust Belt hemorrhaging all those jobs. During a campaign stop in Youngstown, Ohio, 2004 Democratic nominee John F. Kerry set up shop outside a boarded-up building so that photos and television footage would show the city’s “ugly rump,” as the New York Times wrote, rather than the new office building across the street. No hard feelings, senator. The voters of Youngstown understood: It was easier for you to show that Ohioans needed your help if you pretended that they couldn’t help themselves.
I miss Ohio most when I hear other transplanted Midwesterners belittle their parents for being intimidated by subways that they have no occasion to ride, or mock the suburbs that seemed pretty great when they were running through sprinklers in their big backyards, or dump on cornfields and cows, especially when most of them spent their childhoods not on tractors but in minivans. But of course, I too have sinned by leaving Ohio, and there are days when I feel downright traitorous for having done so.