The MidWestern Code


The Midwesterner is distinguished by the extreme lengths they will go to hide (even from themselves) the regional weirdness of their social rules. Texas, for instance, is enamoured with its own odd behaviour: there are Texan ways of doing things, and these are proper; they are not proper because they are what everyone should do, they are proper because they are Texan, and this is Texas, and Texas is chosen. There is something punk-aristocratic about it, and even if the violence, racism, and stupidity can easily repel an outsider, the local codes and craziness are visible, and can usually be easily navigated, or avoided, if you’re fast enough. Israel and Palestine are also replete with regional rules, and they are fiercely visible, if only because everyone likes to talk about their own codes, and their neighbours. The opening premise in most conversation is that everyone, including the speakers, follows an incomprehensible set of rules. This talk produces distinctions which are not actually there in practice: differences are exaggerated, and even the most banal habits are presented as singular and precious.

I have moved several times. More than one would expect for a creature as habitual and bland as I am. And, each time, I am miserable for about 14-18 months. One year to go through a seasonal cycle, hating every violation of my routine, all new objects grinding the tips of my nerves. Then, it takes part of a second year, to learn how to enjoy the place, to slip into its bloodstream. Only Japan did I like within 8 months: food and flowers go a long way with me.

The Midwest is the only place I have moved where the cultural codes are completely invisible to the people who live within them. I have had more than one Midwesterner tell me, with full sincerity, that there are “no codes” here. The effortless movement between the particular and the universal is not intentionally dishonest. Americans are too quickly accused of emotional dishonesty (being ‘fake’) by groups that fetishize their own rudeness—as if German frostiness or Israeli gruffness are sincere, rather than boorish. I find American politeness admirable, and no less authentic than that found in other countries–it is certainly preferable to Torontonian coldness. But the refusal to admit that there are particular, local rules is disorienting to the point of vertigo. Boundaries are sponged away, and the ground disappears with them. The politeness that is supposed to compensate for this absence is not enough for me. You can push your hand right through solid objects, like jelly. When you ask: “what am I doing wrong”, you are politely told “Everything you’re doing is fine”—but knives are still sharp, and people are still desperate. Mid-westerners are very polite. But, הם לא נחמדים. The Midwest is a violent place–there are more gun murders per capita in Ohio than in Texas. Few members of either state would believe this—but a quick glance my student evaluations reveals a seething cruelty.


My sister is hounding me to finish this, get out of the hammock, and eat some fish. I have discharged my duty.







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