Tag Archives: Midwestern United States

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to (mostly) Love Oklahoma: A Tulsa Memoir Part 5

As noted, I tend to get going on a topic and then trail off (I never did wrap up my commentary on the Feminine Mystique; I never did follow through with all the Big Ideas I had for “This is Not a Lifestyle Blog” – but this is a blog, and there’s time!). Before it gets too far from my memory, I wanted to wrap up my series about growing up in the conservative south and my recent trip back “home.” (Read the rest here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)

When I last wrote, I’d been pretty thoroughly alienated from mainstream culture in Tulsa by a series of extremely negative interactions with conservative Christianity. Between that and poky grass, I was pretty much planning to get out of this place as quickly as humanly possibly. I began to elevate and romanticize the Midwest as the ideal and preferable alternative to the south. By age 15, I was using road atlases to plot an escape route and writing romance stories set on farms.

So what changed? Continue reading

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Life on the Slab: A Tulsa Memoir Part 3

This is part 3 of my series about growing up in Oklahoma, my love affair with the midwest, and other stuff. Read part 1 here and part 2 here. BTW, Jen and I are both in the throes of finals over the next week or two, so bear with us if updates aren’t as frequent!

I spent my entire life in Oklahoma defining myself as a not-Oklahoman. I knew my stay there was temporary, but I wasn’t sure how long my sentence would last. Five years? Ten? As we drove south through Illinois and then across the vast girth of Missouri to get to Tulsa for the first time, I wondered about this new place. I thought Oklahoma would be flat, dusty, and full of horses. I imagined that everyone wore cowboy hats, and tumbleweeds would bounce down my street.

But, the Tulsa I lived in looked more like this: Continue reading

Field of Dreams: A Tulsa (and Iowa) Memoir Part 2

This is part 2 of a series of posts about moving around as a kid and spending a lot of time living in Oklahoma. Check out part 1 here.

Of my immediate family, only my sister still lives in Oklahoma: my parents finally made their escape just two years after I moved away, and now live in Kansas City. Whenever I think about how much I love living in Iowa, I recall a passage from the novel Shoeless Joe by WP Kinsella. Shoeless Joe inspired the film Field of Dreams, and was written by a grad student at the University of Iowa, where I’ve been teaching and attending for eight years.

“It was near noon on a gentle Sunday when I walked out to that garden. The soil was soft and my shoes disappeared as I plodded until I was near the center. There I knelt, the soil cool on my knees. I looked up at the low gray sky; the rain had stopped and the only sound was the surrounding trees dripping fragrantly. Suddenly I plunged my hands wrist-deep in the snuffy-black earth. The air was pure. All around me the clean smell of earth and water. Keeping my hands buried I stirred the earth with my fingers and I knew I loved Iowa as much as a man could love a piece of earth.”

I bought Shoeless Joe in early 1994: I know this because the dated sticker from the used bookstore is still on the cover, a 1982, pre-Field of Dreams mass-market paperback edition. I bought it because I’d loved the movie and considered myself a Midwestern ex-pat. I wanted to connect to the place I considered my true home and my ultimate destiny. I was fourteen years old and I’d been living in Tulsa for two years. I read that passage and thought, I want to go to there.

I’d moved all over the Midwest as a young child – hopping from Missouri to Illinois and then Indiana. We moved for my father’s work in the soft drink industry (yes, we really called it that in our house). Crush, R.C. Cola, A&W: the complicated gerrymandering of your regional territories forced us in and out of quite a few states before Dad left the world of soda altogether. Certainly, there are cultural, geographical, and meteorological differences among Kansas City, Peoria, and South Bend, but they all share a soft topography and a genial, white Midwestern mildness that made them feel more similar than different. They (we?) are friendly by default, but not excessively warm; and because we (they?) abhor conflict, no one will inquire about your religion, politics, or those funny plants you’re cultivating in the backyard, as long as you return the favor.

Don’t get me wrong: Midwesterners are as opinionated, judgmental, and full of shit as anyone else in America, but this was the stew I’d grown up in and I was too young to have that kind of meta-awareness. I was a Cubs fan; I knew what snow smelled like; my houses had basements; and we drove through miles of cornfield ribbons to get to Grandma’s house. I love the look and feel of old Midwestern homes: the pastel interior paints, peeling linoleum kitchen floors; arched doorways, white clapboard siding, creaking stairs with plastic tread protectors. The powdery smell of old bathrooms; the rotten stink of well water; hooked rugs. When we bought our house in rural Iowa last year, we bought exactly the kind of home I always fantasized about: a 1937 cape cod with light, wood floors, gauzy curtains, and a telephone cubby.

Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.

My Mom’s family is Irish Catholic. She has nine brothers and sisters and they were raised in a town near Chicago. Grown up, they scattered across the Midwest, concentrated in central and western Illinois, the suburbs of Chicago, and Wisconsin. A few of the sisters – my Mom included – left the Midwest altogether. There’s just something about this family: full of charisma, music, great hair, and extreme volume, every holiday with them was an event of a lifetime. As a child, I felt like a bit of an ugly duckling, wondering how my brainy brownness fit in with these fair-haired wild wondrous people. I sat in the middle of the living room, surrounded by the noise of forty people trying to talk over one another, and was all ears. I used to write and rewrite the list of names, anniversaries, and birthdates of everyone in the family: Linda Jo, Kathleen Ann, December 1, May 10, etc etc.

  • Fact: their last name is a synonym for “angelic.”
  • Fact: as in a sitcom, each member of the family is fabulously attractive and talented.
  • Fact: this family has been known to spontaneously burst into song and dance.

After four years in Missouri (from about age 4 until 8), we spent three years living closer to family (in Peoria and then South Bend IN), and I finally got to see my many cousins more than once a year. We went to christenings, 4th of July parties, random weekend visits, and every major holiday. I couldn’t get enough of being in the mix, eavesdropping on my aunt’s conversations, wondering at my cousins, who were a thousand times more cool and plugged in to culture than I was (they introduced me to NKOTB and the entire concept of “making out”). After we moved to Tulsa when I was 12, our attendance of family gatherings dropped to once a year, maybe twice. Tulsa is in the middle of the country but it’s so much further south: it really feels a million miles from everywhere.

I felt cut off from the universe: missing Thanksgiving felt like missing the party of the year. If I wasn’t there, I was going to be forgotten, and somehow being in this family felt like my one chance at being cool. And being in that family meant being in the Midwest. Thus as a pre-teen, my whole sense of personal possibility was set in a cornfield.

(More to come…)

Stormchaser: A Tulsa Memoir Part 1

Between the early spring and a few severe storms lately, but I’ve been thinking a lot about and missing my home state of Oklahoma. We’ve been watching Stormchasers with the girls, one of the few shows they’ll watch that we all enjoy – and I mostly enjoy it for the scenery. I’ve been calling it “Norman Porn” because one of the chasing teams is based out of Norman OK, where we attended college. It’s weird how the wide, wild skies, that red dirt, and the scrubby grass in highway ditches gets me feeling all nostalgic.

Oklahoma: Land of Perpetual Road Work

There was a time in my life when I’d have recoiled in horror at a description of the Sooner state as my home or a place I’d consider myself “from,” but since moving to Iowa eight years ago, that’s how I’ve ended up responding to any question about my origins. I wasn’t born in Oklahoma, and I lived in several Midwestern states before we moved to Tulsa, a large city in the northwestern corner of the state, when I was 11 years old. I never loved it; I never felt like I belonged there. I moved away from Oklahoma when I was 23, just months after getting married, in August 2004. What is home, anyway? When I’ve lived less than 12 years in any given state in my short life, is it where I was born? Where my family originated? Where I became myself? I don’t know. But Oklahoma became a part of me.

Oklahoma has two seasons: brown and tornado. Christmas in Tulsa isn’t remotely close to a wonderland of any kind. If it snows more than about ½ inch, the entire city shuts down and cars carom through the streets in utter panic. Sure, it gets cold, and ice storms can and do wreak occasional havoc on homes and lives. My sister and brother-in-law once had to camp out and take showers at a friend’s house for weeks while waiting for their electricity to be restored after an ice storm. But it’s kind of hard to get into the Christmas spirit when the average high temperature is nearly 50 degrees. Oklahoma weather tends to vacillate wildly from one extreme to another: one January day it can be nearly 60 degrees, the next 20, then a week of mid-40s, then the cycle starts all over again.

Merry Christmas from Tulsa!!

In the Midwest (and please don’t get into a debate with me about whether or not Tulsa is in the south or the Midwest. It’s the south. Deal.), you measure life by seasonal touchstones. Birthday: autumn, brisk, crunchy leaves, apple orchards, hay mazes. Christmas: cold, snowy, dark, crèche in the town square, cocoa, ice scrapers, mittens. Easter: thaw, chilly, wet, egg hunts in dresses and parkas, open windows, crossed fingers. Anniversary: summer, warm, sunny, beach, farmer’s market, asparagus, splash pad.

In Oklahoma, you lose those touchstones. Everything sort of runs together in “coldish and brown” or “greenish and fucking hot” with no transition. Leaves go from green straight to dead: sometime in late October a switch flips. Similarly, it feels springish about half the time in February (the other half it’s just nasty) and by April the sirens are being tested and you’re making sure the batteries in your weather radio are still working.

Severe weather terrified me: things could turn on a dime and a day could go from bright and pleasant to a boiling green sky and fearing for your life. Live in Oklahoma long enough and you become resistant to weather scares, even though every other night from mid-April to late September, So You Think You Can Dance is pre-empted so Gary England can make sure you don’t die. My husband’s first instinct is still to walk outside and take a look when a siren goes off: he’s a millionth generation Oklahoman. My instinct is to carry everyone and everything we love into the basement and hide under a mattress for four hours. (OK: experience has mitigated that somewhat, but I’m still edgy until things clear up.)

This tornado touched down in Oklahoma less than a week ago.

To illustrate the difference between the corner of tornado alley where we currently live and the heart of tornado alley in Oklahoma, all you have to do is compare the weather reports.

In Oklahoma, if there is severe weather, you have information down to the street number about that storm’s location. All colors of the rainbow will alert you to the temperature, precipitation, lightning strikes, wind speed and direction of this particular storm system. A squadron of pro storm chasers fan out over the area to provide up-to-the-second info on hail location and size, damage, what the cows are doing, etc etc. An extremely serious and kind white man will offer you calm and reassuring information so you know exactly how likely it is that your trailer park will be obliterated. He will let you know that there is a tornado on Main Street in Purcell moving northeast (which is the direction all the tornados go in Oklahoma: they all follow the path of I-44) at fifty miles per hour: this storm is wrapped in rain so it’s very difficult to see and if you’re in that immediate area, take cover now in a central room of your house with no windows (amusingly, Oklahoma houses do not have basements, they have all been “built on the slab”). The night before Brian graduated from college, a huge storm system moved through the Oklahoma City area and the TV station was hit by a tornado. They evacuated quietly while the storm visibly shook the building (on camera!), and then returned immediately to work when it had passed. Oklahoma weather is serious and smart.

In Iowa, there’s just one color on your TV screen: scary red, and it’s spread over a huge area on the map because they aren’t exactly sure what county the tornado is in? Probably, like, southern Linn county, which is only 100 miles or so wide, so if you’re there, maybe you should hide? We’re just going to set off all the sirens, just in case. My cousin Fred called from his Ford Focus and he says that there’s some dark clouds in the general Marion area? So if you’re there, look out for those… clouds?

Last night, our county had a wind advisory. No storm watches or warnings, but the description of the weather said something like, “There might be some strong storms, and a tornado could possibly form.” Well, which the fuck is it? If there’s a possibility, why don’t you put us under a watch? If there’s not a possibility, please don’t use the T word! I am sort of grateful that I live in a place where tornadoes are rare enough that they don’t warrant an investment in technology or serious training, just like snow is rare enough in Tulsa that it doesn’t warrant investment in plows. But the confusion of bad meteorology is just as unnecessarily chaotic and potentially destructive as unplowed streets. People overreact; people underreact.

I was so relieved to escape scary spring weather when we moved to Iowa, but two years after moving here, a storm struck the heart of our college town, passing less than a mile from our apartment building. Ironically, after years in the center of tornado alley, that was the closest I’d ever come to actually being struck by a tornado. We crouched in the laundry room with our cats in carriers and the sirens going off over and over and over again. I hated the shitty meteorology that night: the uncertainty, the messiness of it, the fact that no one took it seriously so a bunch of fools were just wandering around downtown right beneath the storm, and then thousands of students flocked to streets filled with debris and downed power lines because it was just exciting (Idiots Out Wandering Around, fulfilled). No one respected the weather, because they didn’t have to.

Iowa had always felt like a huge upgrade from Oklahoma: everyone around us generally applauded the fact that we’d finally made it, that we got out. But that experience was the beginning of the end of our honeymoon with Iowa. Iowa is great, don’t get me wrong, but it ain’t perfect. No place is. So, what makes a home? Why are we here? Is this it, for life? In a series of upcoming  posts, I will talk about growing up in Oklahoma, my amusing juvenile romanticizing of the Midwest, what it was like to get here, and why we might leave.