“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Monday, April 23, 2012

Part II, Day 19: Three Stereotypes about the Midwest that Proved to be True

1.  Midwesterners are courteous and pleasant, to a fault.

I was born in Chicago and lived in Cleveland, Ohio, from age 6 to 17, and attended college in Evanston, Illinois, but because I never lived in the region as an adult, my understanding of the comportment of Midwesterners was, for several years, distorted with memories of junior high Mean Girls and extreme family dysfunction. 

This weekend I was pleased to re-discover that Midwesterners really are as courteous and pleasant as they are commonly perceived to be.

Art Son, who has logged a lot of time in New York City, was the first in our trio to give voice to what I'd been noticing but hadn't yet put into words.  "Have you noticed that people who have jobs that jerks normally have are really nice?"

He said this as we were pulling out of the parking garage in downtown Madison, Wisconsin.  Art Son went to art school at Cooper Union and lived in Brooklyn thereafter, when the 718 area code was still affordable for struggling artists.  To him, people who staff parking garages, convenience stores, and toll booths are supposed to be gruff.  But wherever we went we were told to have a great day, often by plump, white-haired women who would probably have called us "dear" if there'd been more time to chat.

We kept looking for a meanie.  At the rental car agency.  Gas station.  Even O'hare Airport security.  Not a grump in sight.  Everyone was pleasant and wanted us to have a wonderful time.   And so we did.

This montage of canvases from Art Son's new work almost blinded me during our tour of his studio.  Maybe I'm slightly biased, but I have yet to meet an artist who knows color the way Art Son does.  Color is my therapy.  All I have to do is look at some of his slides when I am feeling blue, and I'm back in the zone.

on the studio door of Fred Stonehouse, who is one of the artists on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin.   He came to our son's opening, and he's a lovely human.  Born and raised in Milwaukee, he lives up to this print's motto, and then some

This is the window to the River Edge gallery in Thiensville, Wisconsin, where we attended our son's opening; that's me taking a picture of one of the two paintings I covet the most

The artist examining one of his new pieces; this photo does not do the color justice; the piece to the right is from the period before this one, before stripes took over

Art Son's father and I wanted this one in our home, but apparently someone beat us to it
Customers and consumers are pleasant as well.  At the breakfast place Art Son took us to, a woman with hair the color of frosted cornflakes said, "It's just so nice of you to include all these great vegetarian options.  I just want you to know that everyone at my table appreciates it."  At Art Son's exhibition, all the people who walked in enthused about the bright colors and the dazzling optical effects.  No one frowned.  No one was too cool for school.  No one wore black.

If the people here are pleasant to a fault, this is the fault: the squirrels are fearless.  They will take over any public space if you let them.  They think human beings are nice.

2.  Food portions are generous.

Okay, we didn't look for tapas bars or tasting menus, but when we went out to eat this weekend, we were served enough food to share with the families in the surrounding three booths.

At the Sichuan place where we celebrated the art exhibit, we ordered two appetizers, three mains, and one vegetable side dish for three people.  We realized that in any context, this is a lot of food, but in the Midwest context, we ordered enough to feed our son for the rest of the week.  The smoked tea duck dish, for example, was an entire duck. 

The same rule holds true everywhere, even the hot dog place where, if you order the signature dish, enough dogs to fill a baguette, you get to wear a clown's costume and be photographed on the wall of fame.

I love hot dogs madly, and given my love for actual dogs, this particular food craving sometimes makes me feel a little creepy.  When I was a vegetarian, I didn't crave filet mignon or rack of lamb.  I wanted hot dogs.

But as much as I would have loved to have overcome my fear of clowns by becoming one for a good cause like a blog-inspired photo, I stuck to the classic Chicago hot dog, which was absolutely delicious.

At first I thought this generosity must just be true of Madison, because the college is overrun by athletes who need to bulk up.  But the same rule held true in Greektown in Chicago.  One meal = three.  Our friends went home with a heavy doggy bag, and we just headed back to our hotel heavier.

3.  In Chicago's Greektown, the waiters always cry "Opa!" when they serve flaming cheese.

It's true.  I've only been to maybe five Greek restaurants over the years in all my trips to Chicago, but I've yet to find an establishment that has let me down.

Okay, I wasn't wearing blinders.  We all know that the Midwest has given birth to its fair share of serial killers, dog-haters, (and probably even hot dog-haters), and people who say "no problem" instead of "You're welcome."

Nonetheless, good times were had by all in our party, and I can't wait to return.

Our weekend was terrific, and I hope yours was too, gentle reader, and that wherever you were, the people were nice, the food came to you in a trough (unless you were at a tapas bar), and the cheese only burst into flame by design.

And if you live in the Chicago/Milwaukee area, do go to the River Edge Gallery in Thiensville, Wisconsin, to see "Standard Deviation," an amazing exhibit that will be up until the start of June.  The color will blow you away, but the squirrels might steal your lunch.  If a Midwesterner packed your lunch, you'll have enough to share anyway.



  1. Opa! That's what my kids call my dad (and I called my grandfather), but mostly without the exclamation point.
    In Cleveland, the guy at the cell phone store insists I take his card home to call him from here if I have any problems with my new cell plan, and the cashier at the grocery store seems genuinely sad for me that I live so far from home and can't take advantage of the savings her store offers with their rewards program. I live on the edge of the actual west; my adopted home has a "Minnesota nice" reputation, but I believe this might be the lip where nice falls off.
    Mplsstpl does have its requisite Midwest share of fearless squirrels and huge restaurant portions.

  2. I love this remark! I'm really looking forward to my next trip to the Midwest this summer, and I hope we can visit your friends at the phone and grocery stores. I love the line "the lip where the nice falls off." xx

  3. Thank you for the "shout out"! River Edge Gallery is delighted to be exhibiting "Art Son's" paintings. Sorry to let you know, but the painting in the window is SOLD! It is heading to Chicago if you can believe it. Visit http://www.riveredgeartgallery.com

  4. Hi Natalia! I'm really enjoying your blog about your trip to Thiensville and your "Art Son". It was great to meet you at the River Edge Gallery! --btw, the painting you said that you guys "covet" is still for saile! But indeed the one in the window is gone. Love the squirrel photo. This is an image I see every day! -- Kathy T.

  5. Thank you so much, both of you, K and B, for the work you did for Benj,and for all you do for the art world and for your community. I'm so pleased you saw this! natalia