We’re New Yorkers so we think America is a huge landmass with two nodes: New York City and Los Angeles. Ok, we might also add minor nodes Austin, Seattle, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Less frequently, and for very different reasons, we might throw Detroit in the mix. Those reasons are usually opportunistic, rather than wanting it and finding it appealing for what it already intrinsically is.
And, despite being called “The Second City”—correct me if your experience is otherwise—you almost never hear mention of Chicago. Even less than that do you hear the name of the state it belongs to—Illinois—or any other state in its remote vicinity. Sufjan Stevens did bring us Illinois and Michigan, but these albums were released more than a decade ago. Since then, there have been no Wisconsins, Iowas, Nebraskas as followups.
Yes, these places I am speaking of belong to the American Midwest. That enormous portion of our country that, if you come from one of the coasts, is a thing you fly over, an undifferentiated blank. Many East Coasters who are for all intents and purposes smart, have looked me directly in the eye when confronted with a map and asked, “is this North Dakota?” Which is something that I can relate to in as much as Canadian geography escapes me. But nonetheless: it seems important—if, say, you are an Olympian delegate representing the United States, or just happen to leave the country for any reason at any time—to know the geography of the place you come from. Also, you should just know anyway.
And the fact that most of what I’ve claimed so far is on a very broad level true—that Americans who come from the coasts, and New Yorkers specifically, know very little about the Midwest and have quite possibly never visited any of the places within it, save for its airports—is maybe most noteworthy for the following reason: Get in a conversation with almost anyone here about who some of their favorite people are, and at least one if not several of them will be, yes, from the Midwest.
I know New Yorkers are content with their lot in life. It’s a great one: this is a big, crowded complicated place, but it offers more than almost any other city offers, in every part of our lives (affordable housing not included): art, commerce, infrastructure, institutions, very, very, smart and creative people, oh, yes, and food.
But those things can give us momentary or prolonged amnesia, tricking us into believing that every physical place outside of our own is not as interesting, or worth exploring. And yet, if people are a product of their environments, you might consider, something is happening in the Midwest that regularly churns out a lot of people that a lot of other people want to be around. If you think about it like that, maybe you’d want to go check it out?
You see where I’m going with this. Last weekend, until last night, I was in Minnesota. Full disclosure, I’m from there. But I have not lived there since the year 2001, which, if I’m counting correctly, was 15 years ago, or about half my life. So in important ways—sometimes pleasant, sometimes less pleasant—I’ve turned into a hybrid person. And also, a person who now sees the Midwest with newly-appreciative, semi-outsider eyes.
On Friday, after rushing out of town like a chicken with her head cut off, working until the moment I got in a cab, I flew to Minneapolis for a family reunion. After sitting on a couch in my brother’s Minneapolis house, watching House Hunters for an hour (good lord was that pure bliss, because I don’t have cable–can’t afford it; cost of living is too high in Brooklyn), we went to an old warehouse in Northeast Minneapolis that had been turned into a distillery and bar and was serving a big new menu of Tiki drinks, plus there was a ping pong table outside. Which is to say, it was Brooklyn, except, it being a Friday night, there were maybe half as many people as would have existed in the equivalent here. The moment I so much as moved an elbow, somebody asked if I needed something or apologized for being in my way. To say the least, it was a pleasant beginning and the weather was perfect. But the real magic happened the next day, when we traveled Up North. To Lake Country.
While almost every single member of my extended family now lives in Minneapolis, we decided to hold our reunion three and a half hours north of there at a lake resort. Actually, it was one my family had last visited thirty years ago. I vividly remember celebrating my third birthday in its communal dining hall, serenaded by a staff member dressed as a large bear who held my birthday cake and scared the daylights out of me.
So when my little brother and sister-in-law and I pulled onto the resort grounds—on a swath of land that is out of cell phone range and empty save for the resort and a golf course across the rural highway—I was experiencing it with first-time eyes, or, at least, not quite Minnesotan eyes. To use a Blade Runner analogy, I was a Minnesotan Replicant. If you looked too closely, you’d realize I swear too much.
This is what the resort grounds looked like: a handful of acres with 50-some rudimentary wood cabins, ACs and mini fridges not included (though they could be installed for you, brought to you on mini golf carts, upon request). In between these structures there were hammocks strung to trees and, here and there, people willy-nilly lying on them. On the periphery of the land there is a par-three golf course, two run-down tennis courts, a small basketball and shuffle board court, none of which is particularly well kept up. This information is not beside the point so much as very much the point: what was on offer here—the reason families returned year after year or, as we did, for the first time in thirty years—was something beyond the quality of their toys.
In the center of the land was a small pool and the old, grand lodge. This, along with the rest of it, has not been changed in decades. The basement level is a game room with ping pong, pool tables, and foosball, none of it new. The main level is carpeted and has a long lounge area, the lodge mascot dog, Millie, with a bar at the end of it that sells popcorn, hot dogs for $1.50, mini frozen pizzas, and Coors Lights if you went for a run around corn fields and missed the big communal lunch. Upstairs there is a “library,” which just means a secluded area with old cushy furniture, the only TV on site, and one book shelf with some spine-bound selections. To walk inside of the lodge is to walk inside of 1988, approximately.
In the back of the lodge are long wooden decks that overlook the pièce de résistance: a large lake. It sparkles in the sun, glows purple and orange at sunset, and the periphery is lined with handsome cottages. At will, one can take paddle boats, kayaks, another kind of one-person boat that looks like a cross between a water plane (with its ski-like flotation devices) and a bicycle, which you sit on top of and peddle, thus propelling the thing forward as you steer it with its bike-like handle bars. There’s a boathouse with life jackets, if you’d like to use one. Do you pay for these rentals? No. Is there supervision—well, kind of, if you ask for it. As with everything at the resort, there weren’t really hard and fast rules for anything. Something you’d hear the family employees say over and over is, “nothing really changes around here,” or, if you noted something not working that well, it would be followed with knowing shrug like, “Yeah, that sounds right,” and then a vague implication that someone would look into it.
What I’m getting at here is, this was not New York. The clocks mounted on the walls literally did not work. When we checked into our cabins, there was no procedure beyond announcing our presence because the cabins had no keys and remained wide open all day long with all of your possessions inside of them. My eyes grew wide in semi-disbelief when the daughter of the long-time owner, in her sixties, explained to me, Yep, just lock yourself in at night.” This place was something else.
Namely, it was incredible. Because the look, the condition of the place was not the point; and therefore, it held its own unselfconscious beauty. The point of the infrastructure that let you play tennis, or shoot hoops, or shuffle disks across the floor, or hit a small white ball across a board with a paddle, or stroll with open container Bootlegs anywhere, was simply to provide pure interaction with the people you came with, or maybe new ones you met. It was almost as if those things were invisible tools whose product was human engagement, and the quality of the time spent together.
And, comparatively, New York is a highly-functioning paradise. It brims with quality everything, on a design level, on a material level, on the level of ingenuity. But often, the people who inhabit those places and use those things are almost relegated to afterthoughts. The focus is more often: look at this material thing. Look at me using it. In these activities, conversation, engagement, is too often lost.
I’m not even talking shit. I moved here for a reason. I moved here because everyone wants what they don’t have, and growing up I wanted a lot more than what I found in my small town. I wanted the kind of culture that I just referenced, that is produced in big cities, and so I went to get it. But another thing I know is that, in four days, I had three conversations with two cousins and an aunt in which I cried, yes because I’m a crier but also because we had the space—both literally and metaphorically—to have them, about things that deeply matter to us; about what motivates us and where we’ve been and where we hope to go. We had the room to really look at and be with each other, surrounded by a lake, fields, and an old resort that was just itself and not an ounce more.
I know this cannot be every day life. We all have jobs and this, after all, was my vacation. And yet, what happened there is emblematic of what happens in many places in the Midwest all of the time. The fact that it is so empty might, in fact, turn out to be the source of its magic, the reason that, consistently, its greatest export is its people (and Prince and Bob Dylan). There is not an overwhelming amount more to focus on, to nurture. Well, except for (Minnesota’s at least) 12,000 lakes (and thousands more, depending on who you ask), a lot of great hunting, and thousands of gallons of milk, cheese, and corn until the eyes can see. All of which you probably enjoy, too, whether you know it or not.
As I packed up my hot cabin room (it was a bunk room and, if you’ll recall, there was no AC) and my godmother Sue sat in a chair and talked to me while I stuffed things in my bag, she said, “I wonder if we’ll come back next year? Wouldn’t you rather go to some other place? Wouldn’t you rather go to New York?” I got sad at the thought of this change, at not coming back. I was happier in the last four days walking in and out of my room with its broken screen door, not showering because the room came with no bath products, and playing a game of P-I-G with a basketball that was oblong shaped and bursting at the seams. No, I very much did not want to do this in New York next year. New York didn’t have all of this.