Married to Medicine

Married to Medicine

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In Defense of the Midwest

If you ask any native New Englander (or at least, many native New Englanders) what they think of the Midwest, they may look perplexed at the idea that their response to such a question could possibly be of interest.  If pressed, they may disclaim that they "don't know much" about the Midwest and that all the states "sort of look the same," or "look like big squares."  A few honest souls may even admit they think of the Midwest as a vast nothingness of cornfields and/or a haven for strip malls, chain restaurants, and mega-churches.  In their minds, the East Coast is where it's at - "it" being everything worth discussing.  Chicago?  A mere NYC-wannabe.  Abe Lincoln?  Wasn't he from Connecticut or something?  And I'd love to pit an East Coaster against a Southerner for a discussion of who all can claim the coveted (or disdainful, depending) title of "Yankee." 

To be fair, New England does have a lot to offer.  In just one small corner of the country you can take your pick of ocean beaches, mountain getaways, beautiful wooded hiking, and pristine swimming lakes.  You'll never find yourself in a "blah" world of monotonous suburbia.  Rather, most any drive you take will have you winding and twisting up wooded hilly roads and occasionally passing an independently owned creamery or farm stand.  The historic homes you'll inevitably pass will knock your socks off and send your mind spinning into fantasies of the colonial period happening "right here!" (until, if you're me, you recall there was no toothpaste).  Yes, the quaint seaside towns and the charming little villages with their Old World main streets offer immense delight to lovers of U.S. history, lovers of all that is cute or "has character," and, well, probably lovers generally, old and young.

Concord, Massachusetts, a neighboring "cute New England town."

(View from historic cemetery established by some of the earliest settlers, and well-used by the same during their first New England winter).

Another view of Concord; the preserved historic homes at the foot of the cemetery hill.

Upstate New York is not too shabby.  (although the extreme poverty in the mountains definitely is).

Vermont could certainly be uglier.

The mansion walk in Newport, Rhode Island offers a fascinating glimpse into old money America.

And who wouldn't love Boston Commons, the oldest public park in the U.S., and its gorgeous Frog Pond??  Image google "Boston Commons" - I can't myself do it justice.

Yes, it's just lovely out here.  Which really begs the question:  If this area is truly so fantastic, then why at the grocery store last night did I see an SUV proudly displaying a bumper sticker identifying its driver as a "MASSHOLE"?  Why, this morning at Panera, was I budged in line by the couple behind me, who apparently think "I'll take who's next" from a nearby cashier means - who else?  Why, them of course!  And how in the world did I end up flipping the bird to another driver on my way to drop off a meal I'd prepared for "Take Them a Meal"?

Sixteen months of living here have given me a lot of time (and a LOT of reason) to ponder the origins and phenomenon of the "M**hole."  And basically, it's all becoming pretty clear to my Midwestern self.  Having lived 18 years in Madison, five years in or just outside of the Twin Cities, six years in St. Louis (and one year in Rennes, France), the conclusion is inescapable:  the day-to-day living in the Boston area, well... it sort of sucks.  And when everyone in a highly populated, poorly planned, barely-zoned area is walking around on their last nerve, even sweet Midwesterners (who shall remain nameless) are liable to snap.

Oh sure, those fleeting twenty-something years could be really great here.  As a single, childless "young person" you could share a tiny apartment with several friends (or several random people you found on Craigslist and don't particularly care for).  You could easily tough out a few years dealing with your inevitably soulless landlord and his attempts to bleed the property dry.  Mice and even birds (yes, I've heard of *birds*) will "make a great story" for your friends, and habitability is such a small sacrifice for living only a ten minute, frigid walk to the T.  Yup, the T will give you near-instant access to downtown Boston and about 10% of its restaurants (you probably can't afford the other 90%).  Oh but that's right, your access often won't be "near-instant" because during rush hour, there are actually "T traffic jams" that not-so-infrequently tack on an additional 15-30 minutes to your travel.  ?????  And yes, that will at some point happen when you're on your way to the airport (it's terrifying).

But really, as a young person, you can deal.  The remaining 10% of restaurants you can actually afford are pretty decent.  You get a great vibe being in the birthplace of America, and even if you're not associated with Harvard yourself it's still a cool feeling to imagine yourself surrounded by brilliant thinkers (at least until they budge you).  Yes, Boston is navigable to the young and childless...

But let me tell you.  Once you're married with children, all bets are off.

If you have a family in Boston and are not particularly rich, get yourself prepared for an endless amount of hassles and swallowed frustration.  Any Midwestern parent would surely balk at the idea of living fifteen minutes from a decent grocery store or twenty from the nearest Target.  And make that thirty if there's a random traffic jam (which there will be - and it won't be during rush hour because leaving your house at rush hour was already out of the question).  Oh and that grocery store and the Target?  Nowhere near each other.  So if you have a little one in tow who needs his naps, you can count on being able to do ONE (yes just one) errand per outing. 

Midwesterners would generally find the idea of a ninety minute work commute utterly outlandish.  The most I'd ever heard before moving here was an hour, but if you don't think you can fit your family in a studio apartment and you'd like to stay under $1800/month for rent, get ready to spend your life on buses and the T (or waiting for a spouse whose new home is on said public transit).

And what will be your reward for such a heroic commute?  A two-story, 3-bedroom, 2-bath home such as many of your Midwestern friends have owned for years?  Ha.  Ha.  HA.  Nope, after 2-3 hours total on buses and the T, you'll arrive home to your family's two-bedroom apartment, and probably at least a one-floor walk-up.  If you're really lucky (like we thankfully are), you'll have a good landlord and things will generally be in working order.  If not, you'll be getting evicted under false pretenses due to your new pregnancy and the Massachusetts deleading laws (yes, I've heard of this more than once) or at least fighting mice. 

This is our steep, narrow walk-up.  Every time my parents visit I find a new picture of it on their camera.  It appears they believe I will one day die falling down these stairs while carrying a baby (let's not even think of harm befalling the baby).  Many out here would consider me lucky to "only" have a one-floor walk-up.  

Personally I think my parents' worries would be better spent on our treacherous driveway.  I've already slipped and fallen once, thank GOD I was not carrying Matthew at the time.  I injured my shoulder and neck.

Shoveling this driveway when it's slippery is a nightmare, even when there's still room to put the snow.  Getting the car into it often takes a few "running starts" interspersed with shoveling and one particularly slippery time, Mark got out of the car to shovel a path for the wheels and try as he might he kept slipping back down the driveway and landing on the car.

Backing out is not as labor-intensive but leaves me terrified of killing unsuspecting pedestrians whom I cannot see beyond the tall mounds of snow. 

Intense winter storms yield charming New England scenes, but the utter lack of space for the snow makes for less-than-charming area inhabitants.

The sidewalk.  

But even when it's not winter, the streets are still a disaster.  Winding, twisting, gorgeous roads are just fabulous on summer weekends but they pose nothing short of disaster during weekday rush hours.  When we first moved here, I nannyed for a family who lived just under five miles away.  Seems pretty ideal right?  No.  It typically took me 27-30 minutes to get to their house.  And on the way back it often took 35-40.  To go five miles, people!  And we are living in the 'burbs!!

Apparently the roads here evolved from old cattle trails.  And those cows just could not walk a straight line.  There are no "blocks" here, because none of the streets are straight.  And so I can only imagine that older residents who had to tough it out without GPS systems simply have permanently shorter fuses.  I mean that's all I can come up with to explain the behavior of the wealthy-looking gray-haired sixty-something year old woman who ended up on the receiving end of my favorite finger as I towed an infant and a carefully prepared meal-for-a-mom over which I had slaved all afternoon.  We live on a somewhat blind curve (don't even get me started on the infinite blind curves and unclear intersections), and she was not visible when I pulled out onto the road.  Normally that's fine, but this woman was in a serious hurry to get to the next inevitably-red, traffic-piled light down the way.  She (she!!!) came up behind me, dangerously and purposefully riding my rear, and you had better believe that I (I!!!) will not hesitate to express my dissatisfaction with any car getting too close to my baby.  I watched through my rear-view mirror as she rattled of a list of her own profanities and threw her arms up at me in response.  With 29 years of Midwestern living under my belt, I can truly say:  Such an exchange between two such people just wouldn't happen in St. Paul, MN. 

And there you have it:  The Making of the M**holes.  It's not that the people here are inherently less patient or more entitled.  I mean when you think about it, these are the people in our nation most likely be in favor of giving away as much of their income as possible to benefit government programs for their neighbors.  But if those same neighbors are legitimately ahead of them in any sort of line or traffic, and they have somewhere important to be?  Watch out.  This is a land where a lot of people have an excess of money but a shortage of time, and it shows.

And so I say, to those of you who think the Midwest is boring or forgettable, or to any Midwesterners stuck out here and feeling less-cool than the natives:  Stand tall, be proud.  Yours are the communities built on functionality and common sense.  Yours are the friendly, helpful people who wait their turn in line.  And even if the scenery can't quite measure up, let me tell you:  The wait at Cheesecake Factory out here is longer than it is in St. Louis, and that says a lot about the accessible restaurants in the area.


  1. Here in Vermont, there is no traffic, but there is also no Target or Trader Joe's. So sad.

  2. oh Lisa... I understand your frustration. Had I not been enamored with coastal Maine and single when I moved to Boston, I would have felt more frustrated with how much harder "life" is up there. After 9 years, I just got used to it. Now that I'm in Colorado, I savor the freedom of turning right on red without fear of getting ticketed, driving no more than 10 min to the nearest "anything" and being able to grab something at the store I'm hankering for at 11pm. And the thing that has struck me most is that people out West are so polite and friendly. I haven't had one bad interaction with someone in customer services during the past month. And I've only gotten upset at a driver three was three times a day in Boston. My only complaint about the drivers here is that they tend to drive under the speed limit!

    I think all those people smashed together in a small area, combined with the weather issues help to make for a mass of rudeness.

  3. I agree with Shelby. For a completely different experience, try living in the West for a while. When we go back to MN every year, I find myself astonished with how many people if feels like there are (not that they're any more densely populated - it's just the feeling), how fast they drive, and how unconcerned they are with their fellow human beings. (Oh, btw, we're 40 minutes from Target, and about 30 from the nearest decent grocery store, without traffic. Traffic? What's that?)