You might as well know this upfront: I’ve lived my entire life in a part of America that usually only gets noticed during close presidential elections or when a bad comedian is grabbing for a quick laugh. Our rivers burn, our jobs travel to exotic locations without us, we vote to ban gay marriage, there is no IMAX and the Google Earth views are 4 years old. Yes, that’s right, I come from the place under a thousand jet-johns, the place that has already experienced a dystopian future, the flatish sort of middle place bereft of ocean.
Yes, it’s FlyOverville, USA, the butt of jokes and derision by the people who really matter.
In the quaint, Rockwell-esque tableau of my childhood, it never occurred to me that folks from The City (New York) or That Other City (Los Angeles) would mentally file me (and my fellow FlyOverians) in the same category as an old hound dog with gummy eyes and a drool pendulum. Or if they liked me (for all my corn-cobby home preserved naivete, I suppose) speak to me as if I were a Bonobo with a credit card – “That’s Gooo-Cheee, hun. It’s exx-penn-seive.” Or assume I would be killed by espresso. Or act like my knowledge of “The Arts” was limited to hand-print turkeys on yellow construction paper, an 11th grade production of “Our Town” and a dvd of ‘Riverdance’. Or be so worried that I’d mispronounce Pouilly-Fuisse that they’d blurt out in a pretense of chivalry “We’ll take a bottle of the House chardonnay!” Or whisper at a party “Over there? The tall one in the orchid mini with the big hat? That’s a man dressed up as a woman. You’ve probably heard about them on tv. I just didn’t want you to be scared when I introduce you.”
I never point out, as I’m doing here, that I actually met Mr. Gucci at a seminar in Rome years ago, where I also had espresso that would make the Starbucks version seem like baby formula and saw a transvestite in the grocery store when I was 10 and my mother explained it to me way back then. Or that I started going to museums and art galleries and The Theatre with my parents at a very young age. That would be like saying “Hey, my mom knows a guy who saw Bruce Willis getting gas for his motorcycle at the Shell station across from the Gibsonia Post Office!” Or “Yeah, I see George Clooney and Chris Pratt at Spago all the time.” Or “Hahaha, well then Viggo Mortensen says to me…” No one is impressed. Weird Al Yankovic calls it a Lame Claim to Fame. Al not only “nails it” (gah) with that song, he (as we said in high school) sets its feet in concrete, wraps it in chains and throws it in the Marianas Trench. Done.
So what’s the point of this tantrum-y rant besides making a fool of myself with these exaggerated/obsolete scenarios? Uh, I just wanted you to know where I’ve been sitting. Up in the nickle seats. But I’ve been paying attention to things besides banjos and recipes that begin with “Mix 2 cans of cream of mushroom soup with half a block of melted Velveeta…” I’ve noticed that a lot of people in the East Coast media still talk about this part of the country like we hang around the trailer park drinking six-packs and handling snakes and dreaming of getting on the Jerry Springer Show. Or like we should be “OUTRAGED” all the time. Hell, I don’t know anyone who dresses in thrift store spandex and poses with their ass blocking the snacks aisle at Walmart in hopes of becoming viral. And Hollywood? At best, we’re like the simple, comical inhabitants of The Shire as viewed by a thoroughly stoned Gandalf. Oh, we also preach intolerance from our meth labs and drive shotgun-loaded F-250s plastered with Confederate flag decals and Nobama bumperstickers, but mostly we’re plain and simple folk.
The truth is – shhhhhhh! – hardly anyone outside of the Unimportant States of America knows dick about what really goes on here. Or cares. But that’s wrong, and so very dangerous! It’s like getting a facelift and a brand new pair of Prada heels and then strutting around town in torn granny panties and a Winger tee shirt. Nothing good can happen.
But why bother to care? Spiderman lives in New York, not Fargo or Racine or Sedalia. And even though Garrison Keillor makes a good living from Lake Woebegone, he is very clear that in real life he prefers an urban setting. So what difference does a rotting city in Michigan make, or a rural county in Ohio suddenly flush with new millionaires, or another American manufacturer moving overseas, or another family farm turned into a housing development? Here’s why: we’re an increasingly divided country, more connected than ever before, yet more polarized. We increasingly watch and read and listen to only what the internet algorithms select for us. We connect to an even wider group of “like-minded-thinkers” so we can feel right and good and justified in whatever we choose to believe. We mistake entertainment for news, disagreement for hatred, privileges for rights. We wave the Constitution and then wipe our feet on it. We spout variations on history seasoned to suit our agenda. We hold people today responsible for what happened generations ago. We slap away attempts at friendship. We feel justified in keeping “those people” out of our schools, our neighborhoods, our country. We tell our kids not to be bullies, then we teach them that bullies win. We want the world to respect and fear and love us, but we balk at the idea that the respect should be mutual. We think that “thanking” people for their military service by re-posting a tired meme is enough. We let veterans come home to be homeless. We let them be told they’re “not real men” if they report PTSD, or depression, or anxiety, etc. and then are “shocked” that so many commit suicide. We tell females in the military it’s too bad if their C.O. does nothing to stop sexual abuse; hey, that’s the culture they chose to enter so they should take it or get out! We claim that Christianity makes us right, and we set the ACLU after every symbol of Christianity in sight out of pettiness and spite. We want to live high on the hog but not pay for the tenderloin. We want to blame someone else for the world’s problems while not lifting a finger. We have children we can’t afford. We don’t care about bad schools and substandard education as long as it’s not happening in OUR school district. We pay teachers crap and expect them just to be grateful for having a job. We pay CEO’s and Wall Street people millions and millions and say they deserve that money even when they lie and cheat and bankrupt millions of Americans. We mistake lifestyle for education, financial worth for value as a person. We take credit for the heroic actions of ancestors. We are spoiled, whiny, indignant and self-righteous. You are in this, so am I, and we have to share this country with a lot of other people who are not just going to shut up and sit down because we think they should. Pretending that other points of view are merely inconvenient things to be flown over on the way to your personal destination in life is a selfish, shallow way to exist. It’s lazy and requires no education, and all the seats are in first class. But they are not free.
When not handling snakes, Kris Sayers is busy taking a good look around.