29 April 2013

putting down the anvil.

The American Midwest is, by and large, an infinite-seeming patchwork of flat fields inhabited by paunchy, slow-witted social conservatives still wearing last decade's fashions. Reluctant as I am to admit it, I am a product of this environment—which is not to say that I am paunchy or consider myself (especially) slow-witted, but only to claim that the greater part of my personality has formed as a knee-jerk reaction to this decidedly bovine milieu.

Knee-jerk responses of any but the physical kind—in other words, the kind appropriate to actual knees—are unfortunate. We generally enjoy the luxury of not needing to form opinions urgently. We can reflect on what we think is right or good and spend our lives pretty much fine-tuning our attitudes as we come in contact with competing ideas or revelatory experiences.

And yet there is something so essentially repulsive to me about garden-variety Midwesterners that this theoretical high-mindedness rarely wins the day in my daily encounters with them. Sometimes I imagine myself throwing heavy objects at them or pushing them out of a moving vehicle, and I'm (a little) ashamed to say that these fantasies are consoling. I can't help thinking that something severe—perhaps even violent—needs to happen to these people to shake them out of their intellectual dormancy or moral complacency. But who am I to speak about morals when I'm imagining myself gleefully throwing an anvil at their heads? (Don't worry. I could never lift an anvil. And I'm not even sure where to find one.)

I work in an office that could almost be considered a museum of Midwestern archetypes. If I described some of them to you, you might argue that they aren't necessarily Midwestern archetypes, but more likely office archetypes or mid-sized city archetypes or even middle class American archetypes. I don't think this is true. Perhaps I couldn't articulate what it is about their cud-chomping demeanors that sets them apart from your local dunderheads, but I insist that there's something ineffably distinct about their manner and bearing (and certainly their banal preoccupations) that earns them the right to be considered if not a different genus, then a different species of American.

I've practically made a hobby of being annoyed by my office neighbor 'Sandy'—who is the subject of other blog entries—but when I look at her, I don't just see a loudmouth, busybody Michigander with a bad dye job and a large, distressing mole on her left cheek; I see the Plato's Form of the Midwestern species—the optimized blueprint against which all other weather-obsessed, casserole-baking, folksy automatons are measured. 

It's almost as if Sandy and I were characters in a novel and she is symbolic of all the values that I reject but which, ironically, are responsible for creating the person I've become. Without Sandy, David (as I am) probably wouldn't be possible. (I guess you can either thank Sandy or go get your own anvil to throw at her head.)

Awhile back, I read a book on anxiety, and the writer said that one of the indicators of whether a person is likely to develop an anxiety disorder is whether his parents distinguished between taste and morality. For example, if your parents encountered someone strange or quirky when you were young, would they be more likely to say that something is 'wrong' with the person or that the person is unique or one-of-a-kind? If they saw a teenager with dyed-purple hair, would they be more likely to think it was shameful or just an instance of personal expression? 

This passage in the book really resonated with me because my parents—particularly my father—often categorically judged people based on their appearances or their opinions, many of which were rather incidental but within which he seemed to decipher a defective character. It's easy to see how this kind of parenting could really fuck up a kid and instill a lifelong anxiety in him—because it seems to extend morality to every conceivable choice we could ever make. Anything we do or say could possibly be 'wrong' without our even realizing it. And not only that, this philosophy also suggests that who we are (fundamentally) could be judged as bad because we failed to conform to a certain formula of correctness that isn't even rationally discernible.

I think this is where my feeling that there is something essentially wrong with Midwesterners originated. You see, I just can't let them be. I can't understand their way of being as just one way among many—each of which has its own right to be respected as a choice with little or no moral consequence. If Sandy obsesses about the weather or talks (excessively, I think) about squirrels or brings her down-home common sense to bear on issues that affect her own life, then why can't I just keep my moral judgments to myself? What's any of it got to do with me anyway? 

I am now going to provide you an extremely abridged list of matters of taste that I seem to morally judge compulsively. I want you to understand that none of these is made-up or exaggerated. When I hear that a person happens to like or to enjoy one of the following items, I wince on the inside and my opinion of that person is damaged (if only minimally or temporarily). It isn't something that I even rationally consider anymore; these are fully-formed reflexes. I don't say this to excuse these judgments but to explain to you how difficult it is to get out from under these reflexive responses when they occur.

Here's a sample list of negatively-judged items or behaviors:

* iced tea
* Mountain Dew
* General Motors vehicles
* WalMart
* True Blood
* country music

* watching/attending sporting events
* FoxNews
* flip-flops
* slow driving
* the phrase 'spot-on'
* tropical resorts

* mustaches (ironic or not)
* Dell computers

Again, this is only a very small sampling of the countless reflexively-judged objects or behaviors which inform my attitude toward other people (before I get the chance to really know them and have these impulses overturned).

A certain friend of mine has made a sport of mocking this reflex. You see, whenever he voices an opinion that is (offensively) contrary to mine, I usually say that's he wrong or dumb in jest. In addition to imitating me unflatteringly, he has needled me about the fact that this habit of mine isn't completely in jest. Sure, I hide behind the deadpan humor of it, but he and I both know that there is something in me that really bristles at a challenge to my moral judgments. And this is a problem. It's clearly not a healthy way to approach the world.

How healthy can it be to set yourself up as a deeply-entrenched moral opponent of your very surroundings (i.e., the Midwest)? How does one get along with and have meaningful relationships with persons whose very existence seems to violate one's moral outlook? 

I attempt to answer these questions again and again—but particularly on Monday mornings, when Sandy is bubbling with what almost seems like an excitement to be back at work and she chatters on and on about so many details of her life that are not only beneath my notice, but (seemingly) undeserving of my respect. 

The alternative strategy, I think, is to write blog posts about this impulse so that I can possibly understand it better myself and maybe set down the goddamn anvil occasionally.


  1. Where else has Sandy been featured on the blog?

    And the taste/morality thing just rocked my world. I am definitely an instance of that.

    1. Thanks for reading, Mirabito!

      Sandy is also discussed in these entries:



  2. the theme of the past few days is speaking to me. what i find to be a challenge is that when i get caught up in it, there are so many compulsions, i can sidestep a few, but then they wear me down. and i'm never sure if resisting makes the muscle stronger or tires it out, you know?

    but, i will. not. delete this comment.

  3. That's gotta be Gottlieb who calls you on that. Some of those examples of what triggers your knee-jerk judgmental streak are so interesting to me, Kowalski. Because I can't see their association to that which could understandably ruffle your feathers, so it just seems very random to me. Like the iced tea, for example. What an innocuous little thing a glass of iced tea is! What about that could trigger such a response from you? I could understand Bud Ice or something equally white trashy but iced tea? You are an enigma.

    1. Psssst... Jason... iced tea is white trashy too...! (In case you didn't know!)

      But yeah. Just so you know. Everything has a reason behind it--just not necessarily a reason that the average person would understand or sympathize with.

    2. do you know the reasons? or do you think figuring them out can help?

    3. I know all the reasons. But the reasons (in some/most cases) won't make sense or ring true to other people.