This week’s sketch starts far away from Haarlem, on a stretch of road I’ve driven more than a few times in my life. It’s straight and it’s flat, and it takes you south out of Chicago into seemingly endless fields of corn, soybeans, and wind turbines.
“Dad, I can’t imagine you ever deciding to stay here.”
That’s what my daughter said from the back seat at some point on our drive to the farm in northern Indiana where my parents now live. The Hoosier State, “Kentucky’s Middle Finger.” Back Home Again, indeed.
I think she piped up because we’d been reading the giant billboards along the road, and were caught, as the state’s very own John (Cougar) Mellencamp sings, “Between a Laugh and a Tear.” I’ve long had a theory. If you want to understand this place where I grew up, if you want to really chew down to the bone and revel in the fullness of Indiana’s id, then look at the billboards.
In a three mile section, here’s what we saw. Four billboards advertising various remedies for erectile dysfunction. Three wondering if we’d either been injured in a trucking accident or have mesothelioma, and if so to please call someone known as “The Hammer” for legal representation.
There were two anti-abortion billboards, both featuring the phrase “precious heartbeat at 18 days” and the same picture of a baby girl (much older than an 18-day-old fetus) with a little pink bow in her hair. These were usually positioned directly across the road from the erectile dysfunction ads. Parse that, Freud.
We also saw two billboards, neither of which left much to the imagination, for a “Gentlemen’s Club” coming up at the next exit. Those were followed by a gigantic Jesus advertising a local megachurch, also at that same exit. Then, a small sign with just flames and halos simply asking “Heaven or Hell?” There was a 1-800 number to dial.
“International rates clearly apply,” I told my kid.
Finally, there was a double-wide billboard appeal, now outdated, to visit the NRA convention in Indianapolis, where hundreds of different kinds of firearms could be viewed and tested. “Plus, free ammo!” A silver-haired man who looked vaguely like Mike Pence stared down at us from the sights of a semi-automatic rifle. Mother approves…of guns, at least.
The billboards got me thinking about these mythic values I grew up hearing so much about here in Hoosierland. Parents, teachers, coaches and preachers—they all threw that phrase around like it was something that couldn’t be questioned, an airtight synonym for honesty, hard work, family, etc. Indiana, they would have you believe, was just brimming with these values. It seemed plausible when I was young, something you might even want to believe, even if you had an inkling it was all bullshit.
Then I got out and largely stayed out. I have had the extreme good fortune to meet people sticking themselves into the world in all kinds of ways (both good and bad). I have realized over time that there’s nothing “Midwestern” about those values at all, or even “American” for that matter. Some folks adhere to them, most pick and choose based on convenience, and some reject the very premise that those traits are even desirable to begin with. The latter are, by far, the most interesting to talk to and hang out with.
When I moved to Washington, DC, and later to Boston, this “flyover state exceptionalism” would sometimes manifest itself like this: “Well, you may be living on the East coast now, but you’ll always have your ‘Midwestern values’ to see your way through the sinful, liberal purgatory of places like ‘Taxachusetts.’”
I promptly got a job in public broadcasting, making sure I became a truly lost cause to these people as quickly as possible. OK, so I have a small contrarian streak. Is that also a “Midwestern value?”
When I was younger, I always half-joked to myself that all those precious values were ultimately hollow in basketball-crazed Indiana unless I had a solid jump shot to go with them. “He’s not very big, but he’s slow,” as one coach once quipped when asked about my skill level. He laughed and laughed. It helped to learn early that a person can hide a lot of pettiness and hate behind their “values.”
Now, though, I realize that there is rot forming beneath the entire construct. The foundations are liquifying. I’m more sure of this every time I hear someone slyly implying, or more often now publicly bellowing, that such values can, and should, only be the domain of people who are white, Christian, and American. This flies in the face of everything I have experienced in my life, Indiana and otherwise. Willful ignorance and racist myopia, like termites and mold, are things I cannot abide. Also, clowns, but that’s for another time.
“Kurt Vonnegut. That’s why I left.”
This is what I ultimately blurted out as a response to my daughter, after a few minutes of silence during which all that stuff above was running through my brain and I wasn’t paying much attention to the road. Relax, it’s flat out here, and the roads are straight. The car practically drives itself. Everything is fine. Except it clearly isn’t.
The point is that it was a horrible non-sequitur of an answer to a question she hadn’t even really asked, so I tried to explain to her who Kurt Vonnegut was, and why he’s my favorite author—a Hoosier I truly admire, a man who spent his writing career struggling to make sense of a world gone well and truly mad, and who also managed to make Indianapolis and Cape Cod (even Trafalmadore!) feel like home.
I told her I’ll never forget when I first picked up Slaughterhouse-Five at the age of 16. I read the words, “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” They hit me like a hammer. I, too, wanted to get unstuck in time, and in place. Vonnegut inspired me to act on it. Plus, the drinking age is lower in so many other countries.
“Funny, Dad, you like Slaughterhouse-Five and now we live in the ‘Slaughterhouse neighborhood’ in Haarlem.”
It is a bit funny. My sense is that people don’t think of Kurt Vonnegut as a “Midwestern writer” in the same way they think of Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, or Richard Wright. And OK, Vonnegut didn’t really write about the prairies, or about “Main Street,” or about inner-city Chicago. But he was at his best when he highlighted one of those “universal values masquerading as Midwestern” that seems to be in very short supply these days—kindness.
I know. It feels completely antiquated and out of fashion, doesn’t it? The whole concept probably makes you angry just thinking about it, given the daily barrage of hate you have to fend off every day.
I told my daughter about Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. In it, he has one of the characters give a little speech to some new arrivals.
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”
They should put that on every roadside billboard, and I don’t mean just here in Indiana. Mother’s approval, like the current fashion, be damned.
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