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Essays: Best of “Midwest Is Best”

Last year, just ahead of our move back to Michigan from Maine, we asked a handful of friends to get us primed for the return into the virtues of Midwestern life: Big Ten football, the best in processed meats, and people who don’t take themselves too seriously. They delivered with these insightful, bite-sized essays—all riffing on the theme “Midwest is Best.” Now a year later, we’ve got our Michigan roots firmly planted back in the ground, but these essays still make us appreciate what we Midwesterners take for granted. Enjoy! —Lou & Emily, Founders/Editors of Found Michigan

From The State That Has Everything

by Susan Quesal
Hometown: Iowa City, IA by way of Macomb, IL; Current city: Austin, Texas

In Texas, they laugh at you: Who would want to go to Iowa? they ask. Iowa is boring. Iowa is full of wheat, they say, and sheep and nothing else. And when you suck your breath between your teeth and clench your jaw and settle that impossible ire that’s been sitting just below your larynx since you moved for some stupid reason to this arrogant, endless state and say, “It’s corn actually. And soybeans. And hogs more than sheep,” they shake their heads and say, “Oh in that case, let’s go!” It’s hard to impress a Texan, you see, because Texas has everything. We’ve got corn and pigs AND wheat and sheep, they say. And mountains and ocean and forest too. They don’t understand why anyone would want to be anywhere else, when Texas has everywhere already in it.

But there is something to be said for doing one thing well. There is something to be said for commitment to a craft, for having better of less. Iowa has the tallest, best smelling corn fields I’ve ever seen. Iowa has the most delicious pork chops imaginable. Iowa has small cities that rival Austin and Dallas for cultural output and investment. The restaurants are consistently good and the people are consistently nice. We might not do it all in the Midwest, but what we do, we do well. The Midwest exhibits a commitment to goodness: subtle, stable, thick-wrought kindness. Hand-hewn benevolence. Farm fresh eggs.

Boltcutters: Notes on a Misnomer

By Dirk VanderHart
Hometown: Grand Rapids, Mich.; Current city: Portland, Oregon

My bike had just been stolen, so I decided to get day drunk. Pitifully day drunk, for precision, my considerable regrets and velocipede pinings awash in 24 oz. cans of Steel Reserve. I was on my couch.

This was a Sunday at the beginning of March, and I was listening to my roommate’s band practice upstairs. I’m not great at codifying music, but their stuff is sort of folky — acoustic guitar and keyboard and compelling melodies that I guess are occasionally sweeping. I enjoy their practices, when I’m not trying to sleep, and the music fit snugly with the malt liquor as a salve against thoughts of a bikeless future. None of this matters for our purposes here, except you have to set a scene.

What matters is that we four — a drunk-bound Michigander listening to the folksy stylings of natives of Illinois (keyboard, guitar, vocals), Indiana (guitar, vocals) and Wisconsin (drums, no longer in the band) — somehow found ourselves in a house in Oregon. Stuff like this happens constantly in Portland and Seattle. Probably most West Coast cities and maybe many East Coast ones. We midwesterners have a way of teeming, pooling. Somehow — whether by a subconscious soothing effect produced by the swaying monophthongs of our speech, or some innate, recognizable friendliness — we find each other.

Sure, we left the Midwest in the first place. Some of us might never live there again. But we teem and pool and we talk about the winters and the pasties; how swimming in an immense freshwater lake is so much better than the putrid, frigid, salty Pacific; and how Cedar Point has the best roller coasters anywhere. I have no fewer than five shirts that tout the state or city of my provenance and, to be honest, I’m not even sure why. Something about the place makes me need to rep it to death, if not live there right now. It sticks with you, in probably a million intangible ways none of us even realize.

Anyway, I was sitting day drunk and bereft on my couch when the drummer from Wisconsin descended the stairs and announced he’d like to get a tattoo. It just felt like the right time, he said. So we called ahead, and walked over the bridge into the city, and grabbed a beer, and my friend got his tattoo.

It says “Midwest Nice.” It’s on his neck.

Michigan: A Love Story

By Kierstin Reszka
Hometown & current city: Traverse City, Mich.

It was love at first clichéd sight, first snowfall, first stinging swallow of freshwater burning down my nose, my throat. It was my first taste of something bigger than me, of the thunder that rolled above Lake Michigan, the lightning that revealed the war between seasons. Powerful and foreboding, intimidating in it’s beauty and still somehow delicate; that is how I came to think of my northern Michigan home.

I was eleven when it ended.

Shortly after the death of my grandfather, my then-undiagnosed bi-polar dad and well-meaning-to-a-fault mother took us to Disney World. I took pictures as souvenirs to bring home to my friends who might never know the magic of strangers dressed up like imaginary princesses. I spent the evenings watching my parents barbecue and share beefs about the cost of propane with our temporary neighbors at Tropical Palms Resort and Campground. But the days dragged on into weeks, then into months. When I asked my mom when we would be going home, she told me to ask my dad and when I asked my dad he said nothing. This didn’t faze me. My dad doesn’t answer with words. He answers with manic, sweeping actions that wipe out centuries of belief systems, devastate entire cultures, and deplete humongous chunks of the ozone layer. It wasn’t until my one friend at the campground, a French-Canadian boy named Phillip, left to return to his home that I realized my father’s unspoken answer: Never. The vacation was over before it began. We were home.

Shortly after Phillip left, we collapsed the awning of our Dutch Star RV and travelled yonder to the stink of rotting biology that is the Everglades. At that point, it became as clear as the night skies of my hometown of Traverse City that I had just been royally screwed. My parents bought a house on Marco Island, a good 250 miles from Disney World, and some 15,000 miles from Traverse City. Our home in Michigan was sold, along with our belongings. My mother bought me a yellow boom box as my consolation prize. My heart broke.

I spent my hot, hot days in the Everglades fantasizing about the way a cool breeze lifts baby hairs off skin to reveal goosebumps. I tried my damnedest to appreciate the possibilities of a new life in a new place but recoiled at the sting of saltwater on my bare legs. I continued to tell people that I was just on vacation, I’d be coming home soon. I tried to remain the same, but my golden hair bleached white and my ivory skin turned brown from the mornings spent watching the tide make its advances. Any happy moment spent in the white hot sand felt like a betrayal to my Michigan, especially when all of my longings were born out of memories of cold autumn nights.

These facts exploded three and a half years after our Great Florida Vacation began, when my mother found me on my bedroom floor balled up and weeping in my underwear and sleep shirt, devastatingly pathetic. Missing Michigan had split me into pieces that didn’t sparkle, even in the unending brightness of the Sunshine State.

Two dizzying weeks later, as spontaneously and strangely as we’d arrived in Florida, my family retraced the steps we’d made that had led us across the country in the first place. Maybe my dad was having another manic earth-shifting episode. Maybe the stars in his eyes had finally aligned in my favor. Or, maybe, it was my lack of pants on that pitiful morning when my mom had found me sobbing that brought light to the ridiculous injustice of the past few years. Or maybe my dad was homesick too. I didn’t really ask. I didn’t really care. I was going home. All I cared about was that golden morning when I awoke to my mother telling me to pack everything that I couldn’t live without.

On the way home, I sat in the backseat squished against my brother, and as we crossed the Ohio/Michigan border I was overcome by this anxiety that maybe it wasn’t as I’d remembered it. Maybe my memories were a sort of fantasy I’d dreamed up to make up for the zero below winters. I felt feverish thinking that perhaps my love for Michigan would fall short of my expectations and I would be left homesick again.

But on that first day of my new life I fell asleep wrapped up in the bitterness of an October night with my old love, any tinge of fear overthrown by this: That no matter what happened or what was about to happen, it was true. It was true love all along, a love that gave me a home. And this night was proof that it was as amazing as my years of yearning had remembered it.

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