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My Cinematic Year, Part 2: The setting.

Part 1 is here.

A few days after my new roller-derby league’s first practice at the rink, I moved into my new apartment, a decrepit studio roosted atop the tiny row of shops on Main Street. My mother had been right: it was exactly the sort of outdated decor I’d find endearing, complete with hideous linoleum. (Floral and geometric? How exotic!) The place had no shower and a kitchen sink that sprayed water in three different directions (none of them “downward,” sadly). But my parents had kindly applied a stunning new paint job to it, and I noted its crystal doorknobs, arched doorways, deep cast-iron tub, and built-in cabinetry with approval.

I scored this wee residence for a pittance of $500 a month, including heat and water.


At the time, I was trying to take a picture of my bike, not my apartment. That’s probably obvious.

This felt like home, for sure. It was the realm outside those walls I was less certain about.

In the movies, smaller-town life is often portrayed as charming and quaint, and it certainly can be. Take the airport, for instance. You can just … park right there, in the lot in front of it, like it’s Target. Finding your gate shouldn’t be too hard, either—there are only seven of them, lined up in a row. The most awkward part will happen once you’ve been led outside to your plane, as it can be difficult to clamber up that funny metal staircase-on-wheels while clutching your carry-on. (It helps to pretend that you are the president of the United States, or perhaps a very successful 1960s musician.)

So yes, it’s quirky. It’s endearing. But sometimes, it’s also heartbreaking.

When I was young, someone I loved, someone I associated with sweet tea and summer and perfectly buttered mashed potatoes, turned away from her stove, looked me up and down, and asked me to promise her that I would not grow up gay. I sat there, perched on one of her kitchen chairs, and I promised.

She did not ask me to promise that I wouldn’t grow up black, but I’m guessing that’s only because I was a safer bet on that one.

I think it’s probably easier to pass judgment on the Midwestern universe if you don’t associate it with lightning bugs and pie, but trust me, I’m painfully aware of its shortcomings. The only two black kids at my high school dated one another in the most foregone conclusion in prom history. A few Latino kids roamed the halls as well, always together; we referred to them collectively as the Spanish Armada. I was in my twenties before I realized that Buddhists were not in the habit of worshipping a fat golden idol, as I had been taught.

And then there was the “hell house,” the Christian version of a haunted house offering its patrons a montage of all the misdeeds that can send one to eternal damnation, including the infamous abortion scene. Let’s not forget “Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames,” a popular play I attended completely unironically as a teenager, which depicts Satan yanking people into hell, including small children who had died in a car accident after choosing to go fishing with their father instead of attending church with their mother that Sunday.

If none of that impresses you, I can tell you that when a bride I know chose an ivory dress for her wedding, she was asked, with great concern, how anyone would know she was a virgin. I guess she was kind of asking for it, though, strutting around in a color the manufacturer had labeled “Candlelight” like some kind of two-penny whore.

By the time I returned last year, things had gotten better, and yet.

I froze when I heard the phrase “openly homosexual” used to imply audacity, and I excused myself entirely when someone my age dropped the n-word at a party (though I wasn’t surprised; on a previous visit home, a young man at a similar gathering had explained to me it wasn’t that he was racist—it was that Mexicans were lazy). I just quietly hoped for the best when one of my skaters would acknowledge that her boyfriend or husband, the same one who would call her ten times an hour anytime she left the house without him, felt threatened by her desire to pursue their own interests. I tried to control my temper when people asked me whether any of my skaters were gay.

“Some people ask if we’re a bunch of lesbians,” one skater told me worriedly.

“The next time someone asks you that, ask them why it would matter if you were,” I responded, once I had managed to quell my inner rage well enough to avoid alarming her with the vehemence of my reply.


The question so common, they even made a T-shirt about it. (The “Yes, Mom, roller derby made me gay” shirt is even better, but alas, it no longer appears to be sold anywhere.)

The promise to not grow up gay, the one I made before I had any idea how horrified my adulthood friends would be to hear of it, highlights the paradox of Midwestern childhood. You want that woman at the stove to be evil, to be hateful, but she isn’t. She is profoundly lovable. They are profoundly lovable. They’ll pull the beaters out of the cake batter and hand them to you to lick clean before shooing you out of the kitchen. They’ll turn on the sprinklers for you to run through, and they’ll put the chain back on your bike even if you’re just the neighbor kid passing by. When the streetlights wake up and call you home, they’ll usher you in and bandage your scuffed knees and scrub your hands soapy clean.

And then, after they’ve passed the plates and broken the bread, they’ll share their wisdoms earnestly, with the pitch-perfect believability of people who have no idea they are wrong.

I was wrong, too, it turns out. I thought I would one day be able to look back on that promise I made as a child and see it as more intolerant than anything that happens anywhere else. I hoped to escape the suspicion and hatred that so many people around me expressed anytime they encountered someone different. These aspirations, of course, conveniently ignored my own capacity for widespread disdain and my own continual compulsion to sort everyone into an Us box and a Them box. Oops.

When I left to find this utopia, the inhabitants of my small town were the nicest people I knew. That’s not so strange; I hadn’t met anyone else. But it would have given me pause, back then, to know that this past year, sixty-nine cities and eleven countries later, I have confirmed that they still are.

I think I might owe them an apology.

These women, my skaters, worked so much harder than I expected, and with an astonishing level of humility and integrity. They weren’t too insecure to accept feedback. Having become used to dealing with the sort of identity-oriented fanaticism that can cause people to defend their choice of bicycle-gear style with rabid ferocity, I couldn’t believe how easily they would accept a suggestion, and even thank me for it.

And holy smokes, they made me laugh. Even their gratitude had a sense of humor, judging from the unicorn head on a stick I was offered as a token of their appreciation.

That picture was taken at a surprise birthday party they organized for me upon realizing that I knew hardly anyone in town besides them. Not a single one of them was vegan, but my birthday cake was. When I had decided to take the coaching position, I had been adamant that I would not tolerate bigotry or discrimination in my league, but in retrospect, I had little reason to worry about it. At practice, it was not unusual to see a Mormon skater standing next to a Wiccan skater standing next to a butch woman in a COUGAR BAIT T-shirt.

The Midwestern stereotype still exists for a reason, of course, but guess what? It’s just a stereotype, and it’s not the only one out there. On average, perhaps big-city folk are less likely to judge you for being gay than their rural counterparts, but an alarming number of them will judge you for almost everything else you can imagine, including visible pantylines and meals at chain restaurants. They are more progressive, but they can also be more shallow and almost exhausting in their hatred of any fashion trend or any style of tattoo or any other gesture that could be seen as conformist or contrived or played out.

I know Midwesterners who would not be caught dead at a gay wedding or at a rap concert. I know city dwellers who would not be caught dead eating at Olive Garden or wearing a scrunchie. In either scenario, the person in question has an overblown sense of impropriety. In either scenario, a sense of prim virtue is maintained. In either scenario, someone has to be inferior.

I mean, really, “the flyover states”? I know people who will defend the rights of animals and ethnic groups and drag queens but will still use that expression in mixed company.

Before the credits rolled on my cinematic year, I didn’t learn that home is where the heart is. I didn’t find where I belonged. I didn’t tear up any plane tickets or stick a SOLD! sign in the yards of any picturesque houses or make any other dramatic declarations that the Midwest is the place to be. Much to my regret, I did not deliver a baby cow and then name it Norman and adopt it, Billy Crystal style.

But I did confirm that kindness and positivity get more done than a subscription to any particular creed or belief system, and that intolerance and bigotry are both more widespread and less uniformly present in any given group of people than a lot of us enjoy believing.

“Man, I bet you’re glad to be out of there!” is a sentiment I hear frequently now that I’ve moved to the Bay Area–a subtle, sometimes anxious request for confirmation that I don’t have a Glenn Beck poster on my bedroom ceiling. I don’t really mind, but I can’t help but laugh at the irony: if I wanted to walk around promising people that I’m just like them and always will be, I might as well have never left home.

We’re not so different after all? Make love, not war?

I guess these do kind of sound like themes from a cheesy movie. I may not be Emilio Estevez, but I don’t call it my cinematic year for nothing. And I have to warn you … it gets worse.

28 Comments

  1. Helen wrote:

    I love this.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 12:29 am | Permalink
  2. Elly wrote:

    I’d forgotten how easy it is to get down on a stereotype, but you are so right – on either side of the bandwagon they are both equally disdainful, someone has to be inferior. Brilliant post, hey :)

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 1:08 am | Permalink
  3. Christy wrote:

    This is wonderfully written and very true about many things in my upper-Midwestern state as well. The only issue is, while big-city folk may look down on scrunchy-wearing Olive-garden-eating folk, I’ve never heard of anyone harassing, harming, suppressing the rights or killing someone for those reasons. The sad fact is, people are STILL harassed, harmed, and even killed for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, what have you. I’m not so certain that being being a bigot and being a snob really fall on the same plane.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 2:19 am | Permalink
  4. Jen wrote:

    Christy, thanks for speaking up, and you’re right that I don’t really address the magnitude of the consequences from either side, and you’re right that the magnitude differs even if the behavior on both sides is coming from an “us versus them” mentality.

    But if I’m going to be really theoretical about it, I would argue that snobbery does contribute to death, destruction, et cetera, albeit not in any direct way. (Well, except for the cases of women who starve themselves to death and an entire host of other unfortunate events borne of the desire to be cool, but I’m trying to limit the scope of the discussion here.)

    Those who draw a line in the sand between themselves and the evil bigots almost immediately cease to have any chance of conversing with, influencing, or educating said bigots. Worse, and probably more damaging, those who draw a line in the sand between themselves and someone who is perhaps on the fence about some things politically, but who isn’t cool enough for the snobs, have lost their chance to foster a more tolerant viewpoint.

    I really do believe that deciding I am better than the worst of them–deciding that I have the tolerant opinions that I do not because I was lucky to be born with a passion for logic or because I was born with a certain personality type but because I am actually inherently more virtuous than they are–will remove my ability to empathize with, and thus connect with, and thus potentially educate/influence, those who are different than I am.

    You can’t change people you won’t speak to. You can’t change people that you dismiss. And if you (not YOU you, the infinite you) are missing an opportunity to mix up our polarized society a little just so you can avoid the indignity of dining at TGIFridays or God knows what, I do think you could stand to examine some things in your life and ponder whether you’re really helping your cause out any by remaining so strident and uncompromising about your fashion and lifestyle choices, much less your politics, that the only people who listen to you are the ones just like you.

    Few people with my political views would have moved home at all, for any length of time, and none of us have long-term plans in the area; most of the people who even vaguely resembled me in high school are long gone. But while I was there, I was continually met with people who were interested in what I had to say and willing to try new things, including eating less meat and entering friend groups that were far more diverse than they were accustomed to. I think that’s worth something, and I think it would be worth a great deal more if more of those barriers could come down.

    This entire comment makes me sound as if I think the big-city folk need to learn to just help out the poor ignorant Midwesterners, but honestly, it could stand to go both ways. Not only are a great many of the Midwesterners I’m talking about incapable of any sort of hate crime (the worst of their actions being voting in favor of oppression, but even that is not uniformly done, not by a long shot), but they also have excellent manners, kind hearts, an excellent work ethic, and a boatload of common sense. They have plenty to teach, and a lot of the stereotypical big-city folks have plenty to learn, whether they want to admit it or not.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 2:47 am | Permalink
  5. kayemgi wrote:

    I recently found your blog and I’ve found myself bookmarking many of your posts to read again and share with friends. Not only do I enjoy your point of view, but you have an easy, relatable way of writing that makes it a joy to read a post twice as long as what I would usually skip on another blog. Thank you!

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink
  6. Teej wrote:

    Ah, my hometown. My relationship with it, and perceptions of it, have never stopped evolving. Probably never will.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink
  7. Teej wrote:

    Delete those commas, will you? Just kidding. I can’t stop copyediting. It’s a disease.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink
  8. Megan wrote:

    You helped teach this Midwesterner a lot about the Midwest with this post.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink
  9. kayemgi wrote:

    I found your blog recently and I’ve found myself bookmarking your posts to come back and read again and to share with friends. I love your point of view and you have an easy, relatable way of writing that makes it a joy to read posts that are twice as long as what I might skip on another blog. Thanks!

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink
  10. This post is everything I love about you and your writing, Jen.

    Also, I think this is why I’m so thankful I grew up in a large(ish) Midwestern city. It’s kind of like I got the best of both worlds. I grew up surrounded by the manners, the work ethic, the common sense associated with Midwestern folk, but I was also lucky enough to live in a place with a diverse-enough population that interracial couples and friendships were an everyday thing; and if it was still a bit unusual to see gay couples when I was a kid, I at least understood that they were just people like me and those who hated and feared them were ignorant and wrong. And at the same time, while I don’t necessarily wear scrunchies myself, I don’t automatically roll my eyes at those who do.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink
  11. amanda wrote:

    I’d like to spend a little more time with the text that you wrote in the post and in the response above, but my initial response was very much like Christy’s, and still is. I grew up in upstate South Carolina, I had Hell House, I went on missions trips, I know what it means when my parents say that my gay sister will go to hell – they aren’t being mean just to be mean – they honestly BELIEVE that is what will happen. So I’ve seen and experienced a lot of this, and I’m just not convinced that it’s not more destructive and painful than being, as Christy put it, a snob. Though your point about leaving the doors open for conversation is well taken.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  12. I grew up in a small town that’s very conservative, and I was raised in the church. I’m very, very liberal and open and so often, my liberal friends want to demonoize the people I grew up surrounded by, when I feel that despite our differing beliefs, they are loving, kind and genuinely caring. This is an amazing post, seriously. I love it.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  13. Jen wrote:

    Amanda, I’m not convinced that it’s as destructive either. I was less focused on outcomes and more focused on the nature of the behavior on both sides, which seems to me to come from very similar emotional places.

    I can’t measure the damage on either side–I’m nowhere near qualified to do that. But when we’re talking about which does more damage, rather than examining whether we ourselves could stand to improve some things in the kindness/tolerance department, it still feels like a conversation about who is worse. I’m not sure it matters to me who is worse. I’m more interested in how we can influence positive outcomes in the future, regardless of whether things are “our fault” or not now.

    For the sake of that discussion, though, I do think snobbery/superiority is more destructive than people realize. I really do believe that it has enough very real effects on the welfare of our society to be considered poisonous. People starve themselves, they choose to keep up with everyone materially instead of saving money, they pride themselves on knowing which material goods and cultural capital is The Best. Young people kill themselves over some of it, or pretend to be sick to stay home from school, or make decisions that could be fatal. Bigotry is a popular scapegoat, but I think the effects of snobbery are sometimes both more subtle and more epidemic, affecting everything from our ability to deny ourselves material goods we can’t afford to our willingness to take risks at the cost of potentially looking foolish or silly (GOD FORBID).

    Someone thinking I’m going to hell (and plenty do, believe me, including people close to me) is painful and destructive, but so is thinking you’re fat and ugly and frumpy and broken.

    I have been angry about a lot of this. For a long time. I have segregated myself. And it hasn’t made a difference, and I would like to.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  14. amanda wrote:

    That makes sense to me. Thanks for that, Jen, and for this post.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  15. Angela wrote:

    My grandmother used to tell me that my short hair would prevent me from ever finding a man, and that having more than two earrings made me look “funny” (she made her wrists go limp as she said the word). Despite her ignorance, I loved her fiercely.

    My neighbor constantly complains that she’s afraid our subdivision is going to “get dark,” and she’s not referring to the (nonexistent) streetlights. She’s known by many as one of the nicest neighbors.

    I love this post so much. SO much.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  16. stacers wrote:

    I could comment on this until the proverbial cows came home. I feel you, I get you. Coming from the white hispanic who hears a lot of bigoted bullshit from people who assume she’s some white priveleged girl from the suberbs! (one and the same, but with serious perspective!)

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Permalink
  17. Stacey D. wrote:

    Cultural snobbery is actually destructive to the cause of gay rights itself.

    If you believe small-town, conservative religious folk are unredeemable morons, and you avoid associating with them or only do so with tangible disdain, you have no chance of changing their minds.

    If you respect people and suspect that they are basically good, and you think there must be a reason for their anti-gay bigotry (a discomfort with sexuality in general, being molested as a child, just very thorough conditioning, whatever), you can get to know them and you’re in a much better place to change their minds on this issue.

    (Of course, it helps if you know your Bible inside out and can talk from a Christian perspective.)

    I’m Stacey D. and I’ve converted people to gay acceptance. :)

    Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink
  18. Stacey D. wrote:

    And now I realize that I just said what Jen *already said,* ’cause I’m awesome like that.

    Doesn’t it sound better when I say it, though?

    No. No, it doesn’t. :D

    Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  19. schmutzie wrote:

    I’m just dropping in to let you know that this weblog is being featured on Five Star Friday:
    http://www.schmutzie.com/fivestarfriday/2011/6/17/five-star-fridays-153rd-edition-is-brought-to-you-by-anne-ca.html

    Thursday, June 16, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Permalink
  20. Dear Jen The Trephinist,

    You’re my favie. Your posts stick to my brainribs like mental meat.

    Working on my metaphors,
    Becky

    Monday, June 20, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  21. sqt wrote:

    Love this post. As someone who grew up in California with liberal parents, I would say that cultural snobbery is just as destructive. That prejudices and intolerance are not owned by one particular group.

    Monday, June 20, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink
  22. J.C. wrote:

    Wow, Jen, you have REALLY made me think. As someone who has used “the flyover states” in mixed company, (in fact maybe in YOUR company), I appreciate the reminder about how the ugly head of prejudice can get in your brain even when you *think* you are an open minded liberal.

    Thank you for the thought bomb!

    Monday, June 20, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  23. The Jules wrote:

    Advised to come here by Steamy, and we must do as she bids or she hunts us down and makes us sniff our own noses.

    Lovely, evocative posts. I’m reminded of something my dad said when I discussed the possibilities and practicalities of moving away, of starting again with a clean slate and no baggage.

    “The problem is, wherever you go, you take you with you.”

    Sort yourself out first, I believe the subtle subtext was.

    Monday, June 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  24. m wrote:

    The “lack of exposure” stereotype, I’ll call it, exists because it’s true. But you can’t forget that the “Midwestern people are nice” stereotype exists because it’s true as well. As an Asian, I got stared at a lot in the Dakotas, but it was harmless curiosity. (”That lady’s yellow!” Just kidding.) I had to disabuse myself of the assumption that these “nosy” people (by coastal standards) wanted to mug me and believe that they were simply interested in hearing about my day.

    Monday, June 20, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Permalink
  25. the muskrat wrote:

    Not as dramatic a swing, we’re moving from the inner city after 7 years into a neighboring suburb in 3 days. But we still plan to look down on anyone who goes to a chain restaurant, just to keep it real.

    Tuesday, June 21, 2011 at 5:37 am | Permalink
  26. Elly Lou wrote:

    I’m a southerner by birth living spitting distance from NYC. I spent several hours just last week trying to explain to someone that the state of NC is NOT inhabited solely by racist rednecks with less than four teeth a piece. And that racism really isn’t any more prevalent there than it is in NYC – it’s just different. I could launch off into a 1000 word discourse on the subject, but I’ll just leave you with – I totally agree – judgments are dangerous. Period. But not always the sign of a bad person.

    Tuesday, June 21, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink
  27. LisaAR wrote:

    Thank you so much for this post—and your writing in general. I really appreciate and love it. The word that I think of as threading through your writing here is RESPECT. Understanding that there will always be differences between people, if RESPECT exists, then those differences can not only be “tolerated,” but learned from, accepted, hell—maybe even embraced. I grew up a suburban Chicago girl and lived in the city for a few years. The eye-rollers who look down their noses at us suburbanites as though we have no culture are irritating, for sure. I sometimes have the urge to note to “offenders” that Perry Ellis glasses do not actually make you an intellectual. Still, the world is very gray and 3D, and if we all remember that there are few that fall into simple categories of good and bad, we may not only live a better life, but help to change it for the better.

    Thanks for your post—it was a great way to start my day!

    Friday, June 24, 2011 at 6:02 am | Permalink
  28. Kerri Anne wrote:

    I maintain I love all of your sentences, but right now this one is my favorite: “If I wanted to walk around promising people that I’m just like them and always will be, I might as well have never left home.”

    Tuesday, June 28, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

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