Chapter One. Lying on the north beach of Lake Calhoun in October, the planes flying into MSP don’t fly exactly overhead, no matter how much you want them to for the sake of poetry. Two approach paths flank your guide rail, the one to the left more distant, swooping parallel to the shore before tantalizing you with a leftward turn only to disappear beneath the treeline, the one to the right closer but more assertive, on a path directly to the ground, no doubt in its mind about where it’s headed.
My name is Harold Gonzalez, and I got here by foot. Well, sort of. My full name is Corwin Harold Gonzalez, and I got here by generally following the path of least resistance, my personality and my name both flowing downhill until I ended up at lake level, just sort of turning things over in my mind.
When I was thirteen and entering high school, I dropped the Corwin and just went by Harold. Corwin never fit me – the name that no one could spell attached to me, fifth place in the national spelling bee. My friends didn’t bat an eyelash, relieved to drop the Corwin, gladly giving up years of routine nomenclature for the privilege of not looking like a fool on birthday party invitations. It was just simpler for everyone.
Corwin was my father’s name, not in the sense that it was what people called him, but in the sense that ever since he was young he wanted to have a child named Corwin. Infatuated with a dapper role model from some movie, my mother confided in me when I was sixteen. “I never liked the name. I’m glad you dropped it.” Later, in my one session of therapy, the jittery psychiatrist latched onto this conversation like a mongoose onto a cobra, the underdog having found an inroad into an apparently impenetrable foe.
The Gonzalez fits me even less, but somehow is harder to change. My father’s father’s father came to America from Spain, a hundred years ago. A man I have never met, who is one-eighth of me, gives me one-third of my name. Well, one-half nowadays, I suppose. My mother’s mother, non-practicing Navajo, gives me just enough exotic lines on my face that people believe it. Whatever works, I guess.
Lake Calhoun on a mid-October night is bereft of runners. Here in Minneapolis, half the year the men, women, children, and especially dogs take to the running trails around the lakes, through the parks, and into the wilderness, a reverse image of the Iditarod, rollerbladers pulling their shaggy canines through brown trails and black roads under construction. The other half, all living creatures consolidate their auras inside, their houses providing a surprisingly firm barrier between them and the outside world. Half the year, they incubate their independent streak; the other half, they take it to the streets to be tested against society. On Hennepin Avenue in August, there are more people out than in any of the so-called big cities, making up for lost seasons, the twenty-somethings performing a mating ritual in doubletime.
October 20th is the bridge between the two worlds. Construction crews hastily attempt to wrap up before the winter, their bluffs for more money called, trying to salvage their reputation. The erstwhile runners scramble to get in one last good jog or two before people start looking at them as maniacs hurtling across the frigid tundra. Lake Calhoun gets its last ripples out, before the inevitable freeze strips it of its life as the fickle populace deserts it to weather another winter alone.
My cell phone rings out, an absurd electronic trill against the placifying backdrop. I briefly contemplate hurling it into the lake before bowing to the yoke of technology. It is Janet, searching for meaning, with a “just driving home, baby, what’s up?” I don’t really want to talk to her. She was calling me “baby” before we were dating, while we were dating, and now afterwards, an appellation which doesn’t really become her. This wisp of a girl, confidently throwing around F-bombs and casual “baby”’s left and right, her verbiage a perfect example of the triumph of nurture over nature. Janet’s parents were hippies who encouraged her to be empowered, but it is not really her.
On this night Janet has decided to call me because I haven’t called her in two weeks even though it is my turn to renew our friendship. She has nothing particular to say, but the web of technology allows her to placate her inner voice, which chides her for not throwing her concern into people’s lives the way she ought to. The superficial veneer of concern belies her pragmatic, conformist nature.
Janet and I have a perfectly perfunctory conversation before smoothly wrapping things up with the polish that only two formerly attached, now detached people can have on the phone. I know her cues, she knows mine, and neither of us is too involved to get worked up over it. We hang up and I turn my attention back to the sky, where new shimmering black contrails have appeared behind a 747 carrying one hundred tired travelers into the middle of America.
Contrails are a remarkable thing. Half the time I think they’re man’s way of pissing on nature, and half the time I think they’re a beautiful graphic depiction of history, of technological prowess tracing its ephemeral but remarkable path through the sands of time. On this night, thinking about contrails makes me realize that I have no one to really share this no-doubt-profound thought with. I watch the lines disappear like a child forlornly watching their favorite relative depart after Christmas.
I notice the old couple sitting on the swings and wonder how long they have been there, feeling guilty about my absurdly unnecessary conversation with Janet. They are smoking, fending off the oncoming winter, which each year kills hundreds of their cohort, with embers which each year kill hundreds of thousands. They seem happy, not talking to each other so much as enjoying their shared memories of fifty previous falls together, two warriors whose lives are so entwined that only death itself will part them, and even that is questionable; their lives are arcing with each other, rising and falling towards a common endpoint. Their obituaries -- “John and Mary lived together, and died together… heroic battle against lung cancer… Korean war veteran… needlepoint” – will leave out everything important.
My problems seem insignificant against this backdrop of history, but they are there. Like every red-blooded American male, I wonder where my next girl is going to come from. I worry about my sexual prowess. I worry about whether my local sports team will ever make the playoffs again. I worry about whether I can continue to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes at my job, about how long it will be before one of them finally realizes how perfectly I illustrate the Peter Principle. I’ve gotten the requisite promotion every two years, two of them since I graduated college; I am right on schedule to rise to vice president at thirty-five and be forced out in a power struggle at thirty-seven. The smart thing to do would be to spend the twelve intervening years boning up on my negotiating skills, so that I can bend the terms of the settlement enough in my favor to retire in style. The company timeline seems to be pretty rigid.
The dirty secret about Harvard graduates is that seventy-five percent of us take the easy way out. The pre-meds go to med school, the pre-laws go to law school, the ivory tower academics go to graduate school, and the rest of us get a job at some company owned by a friend of the family (or, in some cases, the family itself.) The Harvard diploma is enough to ward off accusations of nepotism, but the bottom line is that most of us simply take whatever upper-middle-class route is most convenient. We are, as a class, not out to change the world.
I am hardly changing the world at Villa and Friends. I sell toothpaste, I sell lawn fertilizer, I sell igloos; I sell whatever they tell me to sell. Charlie Villa being a friend of the family, it was my easiest path; I had always been interested in advertising, but not so interested that if Morgan Stanley had been a friend of the family I wouldn’t have gone into finance.
The main goal of an advertising firm is not to sell its clients’ products. The main goal of an advertising firm is to sell itself to its clients. Clients know that advertising firms are sleazy. A well-placed smile, a charmingly disarming intern, or, in Villa’s case, an “and Friends” at the end of the firm title, goes quite a ways towards achieving this goal, especially in the down-home anti-corporate environment of the Midwest. While no one ever mentioned it explicitly, at Villa and Friends our job was simple: sell ourselves without selling ourselves. The Harvard diploma hung at a two-degree angle on the wall helped: professionalism without perfection. The Gonzalez gave me an instant in with the Super Mercado who wanted to open more branches. It was an asset, although overall not as much as an Erikson would have been.
And we did good work, too. Minnesotans generally don’t realize that their anti-corporate attitude makes them even more receptive to advertising. All one needs to do to gain the hearts of well-meaning Scandinavians is to align oneself with them against the behemoths of corporate America. Gas with a smile. Groceries with a smile. Mis hermanos y hermanas. Run by Minnesotans, for Minnesotans. Expressing community values since 1920. The soundbites hardly require the liberal arts education which most of its practitioners possess, nor the concomitant $160,000 outlay which they overcharge to compensate for.
Not that I’m suggesting that our customers did not get their money’s worth. They did, and much more. At Villa, one of the first things we are told about advertising is: “Don’t sell the product; sell the company.” Little Caesar’s, seeing declining market share, hired us to promote their new Extra-Cheezy Stix. The Extra-Cheezy Stix were a colossal bust, but the company’s portion of the pie grew from five percent to eight percent in a year and a half. They fired us. I’m not so confident in Villa’s philosophy. It’s one of the things I plan to overhaul when I am vice president, in the year I have before the heat starts to mount due to a series of mishaps than can somehow be attributed to me by those a level higher. It’s the cost of a promotion: being blamed by someone higher up in the food chain, and therefore more unquestionable. At vice president, you are blamed by Charlie himself, and no one will fire him.
I came to Minneapolis four years ago with two things: a job and an apartment, arranged for me no doubt by the Friends. I’ve stuck around. The bustling streets of Minneapolis are quite a contrast to the bustling streets of New York, where I grew up. Villa has offices in Chicago – I’ve been once, for a pro forma company meeting which was so unproductive that the vice president who arranged it was fired even before his two-year window had elapsed – and I could put in for a transfer, which would have the added benefit of adding a couple of years to this phase of my life and thus indirectly to my tenure at Villa. But I’ve grown accustomed to the genial throngs in the Minneapolis streets.
Walking around in New York, it becomes immediately clear that the man walking towards you bears a deep personal hatred of you and your lifestyle. He is your adversary: he is trying to get past you on the pavement, and you past him. Instantly he conjures up the ways in which you are a despicable person, to motivate him in his quest. You are a fan of the wrong sports team (Yankees or Mets; Rangers or Islanders; Giants or Jets.) You have the wrong politics. You over- or under-appreciate the value of money. You are from a different generation. As he gears himself up by placing you at the other end of any spectrum he can get his hands on, you do the same. You charge at each other like stags, searching for an opening to thrust your antlers into. You get past each other, and repeat the dance anew with other people.
While the sidewalks of downtown Minneapolis are no less dense than the sidewalks of New York, a different ethos prevails. The people of Minneapolis have fifteen-minute breaks instead of ten-minute breaks. They don’t view their time as currency. The currency of this town is, instead, the smile, and it is freely exchanged. You trade your smile, which you can generate an infinite supply of, for their smile. Minnesotans collect smiles the way children collect baseball cards. The dance on the sidewalk is not a contest; it is a trade show, with the attendant aura of niceness that is cloying if you don’t know the culture, just as the New York antipathy offends those who are not familiar with the city’s rituals.
Seventeen years of New York in my bones, I have not yet gotten used to the Minneapolis attitude in my four years here. Sometimes I still lower my head when walking on the streets, a bull gone rampant amidst the trade show executives. Unable to stop smiling, they scatter smoothly, never dropping their calm veneer, conducting business as usual, ignoring the pink elephant stomping over their terrain. Usually I dispense half-smiles, the autograph of the minor league baseball player who thinks he will become someone and thus is reluctant to dispense for free a legible autograph which will one day be worth millions. This is acceptable.
Just as the real animosity of New Yorkers is reserved for their private squabbles, the real kindness of Minnesotans is reserved for private gatherings. The smiles on the streets do not lead to friendship. The Minnesotan stopped on the street and engaged in an actual conversation is as confused as the New Yorker who is actually confronted for their rudeness. It’s the background, not the brush strokes. This is the number one thing which confuses newcomers to the area, the obvious leap of logic which took me seven months to remove from my brain. Their kindness does not indicate a willingness to be friends, any more than a seven-year-old child actually wants to be friends with Mickey Mantle. He would much rather the Mick continue to be a graceful idol, removed from his immediate surroundings, as opposed to a real person with foibles and needs.
My first seven months here, I didn’t make any real friends outside of my co-workers at Villa. It wasn’t the worst life in the world. I had hobbies, and I had friends from college to visit over our periods of downtime. Advertising in Minnesota is largely a seasonal operation, so during the winter, when people went into their shells, we were given copious amounts of vacation time, 2-for-1 incentives which, in effect, forced us to take our breaks then, when they needed us least. Not that I minded getting away from the Minnesota winter.
As the snow cover thawed in early April, I started getting to know people. At Villa it was customary to have end-of-winter departmental parties to celebrate the birth of new grass and new business. I started to interact with my co-workers outside of work. We visited the newly populated bars, getting in on the ground floor the social scene that re-formed every spring. Around this time Villa hired Harish, who I had gone to high school with. We never knew each other well, but had one thing in common: ethnic names which belied our American nature. Harish’s parents were Indian; unlike me, it showed in his appearance, but like me, he didn’t know a word of Urdu and didn’t care to. Harish and I, pseudo-foreigners in a homogeneous society, were drawn together by our bond that would have been tenuous in any other setting. But here in Minneapolis, with neither of us having stronger prior connections, we flourished. With the two of us each having our own semi-social hobbies – he played Ultimate and read depressing French novels, while I had picked up Scrabble in college and baked mediocre pastries (a remnant of a girl I had dated briefly over the summer; she was actually French and taught me to make all sorts of things.) – together we encountered enough people to sow the seeds of a social network, which took the melting snow and sunlight and photosynthesized into a part of the underculture of Minneapolis.
The underculture of Minneapolis was not exactly a counter-culture. It embraced the values which were incompatible with the trademark Midwestern lacquer of conformity, but it was hardly filled with agitators. We didn’t smoke. We went to punk rock shows. We had pretentious conversations. We read the New Yorker and edgy fiction. We didn’t care about sports or farming, preferring to sip coffee in eclectically decorated old houses on Hennepin with marvelously plush couches. The houses were the exact opposite of the typical Twin Cities enclave, drawing elements from the outside, from all over the world. None of us ever really figured out how they stayed open during the winter, but (I learned this from John, a gay history buff who specialized in an ironic take on Americana) every spring they would shake off the dusty and throw their doors open, welcoming our tendrils, as the sterile floors were covered by the vines of our youth.
These coffeehouses were the breeding grounds for music, ideas, and sex. Of these, the last was the most diverse, running the gamut from casual to involved, with wildly varying degrees of kinkiness and safety. Harish and I generally stayed clear of the most extreme, choosing instead to have a series of semi-committed relationships with an attendant level of drama which was not very high. Our fake ethnicity worked to our advantage here; in this culture, dating a “foreigner” was considered edgy. Or perhaps it worked to our disadvantage, since it drew many girls to us who would not have come otherwise, with the unsurprising result of disillusionment on their part, these middling relationships punitively inflating our egos and breaking our hearts.
Harish and I moved in together after I had been in Minneapolis a year. We lived together for two years, until he succumbed to the lure of Chicago and a high school sweetheart (Evelyn Peterson, who had little reputation then and was apparently now working in a perfectly adequate banking job.) This was routine for the twenty-something subculture we were part of. Every now and then, someone would have a mid-life crisis and give in to the dominant Midwestern ethos, settling down and having their dog and 2.3 kids. Or so we viewed it from our moral high chairs, at any rate. Certainly it seemed implausible that anyone would voluntarily choose the staid flatness of family life over the constantly thinking and changing world of the underground.
I have made it seem like the underground comprised a united rebel front against the stody older generation. As I mentioned before, this was false. Minneapolis being the only city around (St. Paul was far more family-oriented), it naturally drew together all of the eclectic people from the surrounding area. But these people had nothing in common except for their uncommonality. They were gay Iowan farm boys, brawny rockers from the swamps of western Minnesota, autistic Sioux, nerdy Wisconsinites, political blue-haired girls from the Dakotas, you name it.
All of these people came to Minneapolis in the hopes of finding a culture of their own, and for the most part all were disappointed. What resulted was not a tightly-knit group, but a mélange of individuals who, paradoxically, were hopelessly trying to find a crowd in which they could be the norm, in which they could exhibit the conformity they were raised to value. The oddball Midwesterner is not a rebel; it is hard to be a rebel when there are no such role models. Rather, this specimen has conformity rooted deep in their body. He (more frequently) or she is looking for a vehicle through which to express this conformity, a set of social conventions that come naturally and effortlessly. Like the Harvard Graduate, the Unique Midwesterner is lazy. He does not want to go to the trouble of leading a political movement, or of distinguishing himself as an individual. He just wants to drift to a place where he doesn’t have to work to fit in.
This is why there are not many cities in the Midwest. Those cities which exist are seen as beacons for the strange, who would much rather try to fit into something which already exists than to found a chapter in their own town, a chapter which might lead to a youth movement culminating in massive growth of technology, commerce, and vibrance. Thus, small towns do not become metropolises; everyone who wants that feel simply flocks to already existing metropolises, the easiest path towards their desired life.
The end product of all of this was a Minneapolis that served its purpose for nobody, except maybe the foreigners like myself, bemused sociologists from a strange East Coast world where individuality was not a burden. The gay Iowans were unable to find a clique, never quite able to coalesce before splitting off into couples; there was no gay Iowan scene, because the same scene had to double as a staging ground for activist, pacifist, and defiantly not-lesbian (not that there’s anything wrong with that) girls from Willmar who had come to the big city to find an agenda to follow, along with countless other groups which in a more organized subculture would have been able to find each other and start something. It could have happened in Minneapolis anyway, but no one came here to start something, on top of which the five months of stasis annually scrambled whatever steps towards segregation had occurred in the previous seven.
Harish’s story was not uncommon among this variegated crowd. After a few years of frustration, most of the minority groups succumbed to the lure of an ordinary life. They kept whichever interest had drawn them to the crowd, voting Democrat or Libertarian, but chose family life over the flux of the underground. It wasn’t a failure. It was a success to them, that they had ventured in search of something, and, with the certainty possessed by only the revisionist historian, had found it, had found their life partner amidst the tumult of life.
For they, like most, were really in search of the simple life. Sociologically, their lives exactly paralleled those of the majority; the courtship took place in coffeehouses instead of bars, but aside from the choice of caffeine over alcohol, very little was different. Having found the spouse of their dreams, in both cases the adolescent homo sapiens partnered off. The nature of the spouse was different, but the overall plot was the same. You can take yourself out of the homogeneous rural Midwest, but you can’t take it out of you.
Over the past four years, I have observed this behavior in the crowd that I consider myself to be a part of. Not quite with the level of detachment I have presented it with; I have certainly had my share of involvement in these Midwestern relationships. At twenty-five and currently single, I claim to have transcended them. The irony is that my overt values are really quite Midwestern; I am not a leader or an activist by any stretch of the imagination, and the hustle and bustle of New York is not something I endorse. But it’s what’s in your bones that counts, and the Midwestern dream is not in my bones. Like it or not (I go back and forth), the pinball nature of New York seeped into my DNA when I was growing up, and has stayed there to this day.
Chapter Two. I am lying on the beach of Lake Calhoun, in this city alternately green with trees and blue with the water which draws its population to it in an atavistic quest to return to the sea, because on this day I miss New York. It’s not that I’m exactly bored in Minneapolis. With the strange native customs, there is more than enough of interest to go around. But I miss New Yorkers. As a whole, they are rude, insensitive, and have harsh exteriors, but in isolation they are just people. Perhaps because every default assumption is challenged by some outlier, New Yorkers are free of the schism between outward values and inward values that plagues the local gentry here. Each New Yorker has assimilated the criticism and endorsement of all of the others into their personality.
New Yorkers are constantly at equilibrium. One might think that because of the diverse array of subcultures and environments in the city, they would have ever-changing personalities, multiple personas to cope with the different situations each of them is involved in each day. Yet somehow this does not happen. My theory is that each of us (Us? Them?) is forced from a young age to develop an inner sense of confidence and balance in order to not be thrown off by the constant barrage of stressors from all directions.
When I arrived at college, I found all sorts of different types of people struggling to incorporate the fraternal atmosphere into their being. The prep school boarders and Southerners alike were bewildered by the fast pace of the uncontrolled environment. The Californians were baffled by the ambitious Northeasterners who were the dominant breed at Harvard. Only the New Yorkers were able to take things in stride, for their personalities, by no means uniform, had individually grown to be capable of incorporating all sorts of stimuli without falling off the balance beam. My college friends from elsewhere had crises and nervous breakdowns by the bushel. Not that it was smooth sailing for us, but we were never suicidal or close to dropping out.
Graduating from college with the customary Harvard honors bestowed on anyone with a pulse, I found myself in another new environment, the Midwest. I had spent a summer interning at a biotech firm in a suburb of St. Louis, but that insulated company-dorm environment hardly counted; this was my first exposure to real Midwesterners. Those first seven months, when I was friendless, I spent a good deal of time conducting a dissectional exegesis of their personalities.
It’s difficult. For the New Yorker, you can make a pretty good guess at their internal personality from the exact way in which they are hostile to you on the street, whether their casual animosity takes the form of a grunt, a snarl, or simply a posturing gate. But there is only one way to be nice. The reflex set of a Minnesotan numbers one: smile! With an alphabet of one, the only parameter which is directly observable is the frequency, and, at least in my experience, this simply has to do with age. By the time a Minnesotan reaches eighty, the smile is not so much an action as the default, there until something prompts it to go away, whether there is someone to perceive it or not. The squirrels must feel very loved.
To make wild extrapolations about the personality of a Minnesotan, one needs to dig below the reflexes. The constant casual interaction is a problem in another way; with so many reflexive social tendencies, one rarely sees Minnesotans having conversations of substance with each other, the way one so often sees New Yorkers in heated discussions about politics, justice, or the soup of the day. (Once I saw two sous-chefs angrily discussing the last on a noisy B train. It’s hard to imagine how a clam chowder man and a lemon spinach man can coexist in the same workplace. Only in New York, I suppose.)
The differences between Minnesotans are harder to observe in their everyday personalities, but not invisible. Minnesotans are all the same from the neck up, smiling sycophants, but from the neck down there are differences. The social norms of Minnesota do not include carriage, and this is where individual differences can be gleaned. The future leaders can be identified by a confident, fairly quick walk; these people have gotten smiling down to its optimal efficiency, training their face muscles to deliver a hundred smiles a minute so that they can walk quickly past others while still dispensing the expected grins.
These leaders are rare. In New York, everyone has aspirations of becoming somebody, a CEO, a politician, the subway commissioner (a shadowy figure who has surprisingly little public presence for having arguably the most power of any urbanite), or simply parent of the first Hispanic president of the United States. In Minneapolis, the vast majority remains untainted by this ambitious streak. Among other consequences, this results in menial jobs (meatpacker, janitor, secretary) being far less onerous than in New York. In New York, every moment you spend in a menial job is filled with pressure, whether it is the mounting pressure of one’s years growing without any positive steps towards one’s personal megalomaniacal goal, or the pressure of having to impress one’s boss. Janitors are tightly wound, either on gruff autopilot as they ponder plots for their Great American Novel or on quick duty as they strive for increased efficiency to impress their boss.
While the jobs are the same in Minnesota, no one feels pressure. There are more than enough high-level jobs to go around to those who actually want to be leaders. This is painfully clear at Villa, where people don’t aspire to rise to vice president so much as they have it thrust upon them. Someone has to be vice president, and there usually aren’t enough someones. So there is, in essence, an executive draft at each stage of the chain, where vice president prospects rise through the farm system whether they like it or not. Eventually, like the vast majority of professional athletes, almost all have an undistinguished two-year career before they are discarded in favor of the next great hope. No one hangs around in Double-A forever; you’re promoted or released, and once you are in the majors, you can never go back.
Villa’s structure has more tiers than most. I started out as a data monkey, analyzing clients’ statistics, the Stats 110 class I mostly slept through sophomore year ample justification for hiring when attached to a sellable Latino name and, of course, the personal connection to Charlie Villa. It wasn’t bad work; most people don’t know how to compute relevant correlations, and thus don’t understand how easy it is. As the lowest rung on the primate pecking order, we were considered unproven and thus underworked, given every opportunity to succeed so that the firm would have warm bodies to promote. My first two years at Villa I worked maybe twenty hours a week, and most of that was because I felt guilty about working so little.
At this stage, we were given stubs of figures with the company name blacked out. Supposedly this was because they didn’t want us to evaluate the statistics based on our subjective impression of the brand, but I’m sure some vice president once upon a time realized that this prevented us from breaking the NDA, the conception of the lower classes being that we would steal our own mother’s office supplies if given a chance. At any rate, we were asked to apply our vast knowledge of statistics to compute correlations and figure out which factors really made the difference. It was mostly simple regression analysis, easy for a computer; all it really comprised was running several algorithms and picking the majority explanation.
It was simple, but it was the basis for all advertising. If you can’t tell what is succeeding, you can’t tell what to try. When I ascended to the second level of Villa’s hierarchy, I learned the depth of the statistical analysis that Villa did; we could analyze advertisements to the word, figuring out where “the” was better and where “a” was better, where we should throw in adjectives and where we shouldn’t.
It was at this second level that the real Villa work went on, where the intermediate managers made decisions on what data sets could be lumped together. Villa promoted from within because an actual grasp of statistics was important here. Do perfume ads and cologne ads deserve similar treatment? (The answer is no; the gender disparity far outweighs the olfactory similarity.) What about selling a steakhouse versus a burger joint? The ability to eyeball multidimensional data tables and figure out which similarities were accidental required a good deal of statistical analysis and intuition.
I struggled upon my promotion to intermediate manager, or “assistant coordinator of research,” as it was clunkily typed on Villa’s memos. I had no actual statistical training; aside from the basic statistics class I largely slept through, I only took one other class even vaguely related to statistics, a cognitive psychology class where the brain’s high-level workings were laid out in percentages and correlation coefficients. Fortunately, it was not a highly coveted job, so I was given a year to find my feet.
By this year, my third in the Twin Cities, I was starting to hit my social stride. I was promoted in September, the last month before the panic to find someone to spend the winter cuddling with set in. September weather in Minnesota is gorgeous. The mosquito population is safely tucked away in eggs invisible to the naked eye, the humidity has faded, and the leaves fall hard and fast, a browning deluge rushing to get under the snow cover. September is the only month of the year where it is truly comfortable to be outside all day long.
My existence in the Minneapolis underground validated its status to those who flocked to it. Here I was, a New Yorker and therefore a person who had all the choices in the world, and I was apparently choosing this scene. Therefore, the logic went, there must have been something going on. Because of this, even though I was no more a born leader than any of them, I had become something of a social hub. In practice, this meant that I spent most of September outside, in the visible world to which it had been deemed that I was entitled, the face of the underground. This worked well with my data monkey job, which had become laughably routine. I would spend my free cycles at work coordinating write-ins, poring over Slate and its ilk, and generally thinking about what I was going to do that night. It was never nothing.
This flourishing livestyle suffered a major setback when I was promoted. Suddenly I found myself used to working sparsely and in a job where the effects of sparse work were all too visible.
I know it’s cliché to try to fit the events of one’s life into a coherent narrative, but the increased work served as a wakeup call. I am no leader myself, but amidst the directionless flock of the Minneapolis eclectica I was playing the role of one. It was stressful. I was never bored, but I was also never relaxed. In a sense, the increased workload forced me to step back from my unprecedentedly bustling social life. September represented the clash of these two forces, as the demands on my time grew and grew.
I hibernated a bit early that year. At the beginning of October, I was falling apart, becoming sick from the germs of my personal life and the stress of my business one. Sickness in Minneapolis is quite different from sickness in New York. The natural New York instinct is to quarantine; the natural Midwestern instinct is maternal. Being sick didn’t make me undesirable so much as a martyr, someone who just needed the right girl. Judith Haskins was that girl.
Judith, like me, was something of an exception. She was from Madison, in Minneapolis for normal reasons. This was not her Mecca; she was not here on a pilgrimage or quest to find some utopia. She was here because the University of Wisconsin had rejected her from its Ph.D. program in comparative literature, forcing her to hop the border to Wisconsin’s sister state. She, like me, had apparently chosen to come here, which made her the natural homecoming queen to my prom king.
Judith wasn’t really a foreigner, though. She was from a city with a thriving activist underground in its own right, 300 miles closer to the East Coast and its ideology, but still with essentially Midwestern values. In Madison, she told me one day over chicken noodle soup, they didn’t fight so much against the Wisconsin norms as they did against the national norms, despite the fact that these were much closer to what they actually believed. It was an uneasy balance between their liberal ideals and their inculcated tendencies to not rock the boat – they channeled their dissatisfaction with specific people and specific features of Wisconsin into a general, nebulous attack against “corporate America” and “the status quo.”
When I met her in July, Judith was just visiting friends for the weekend. Her first year at the University of Minnesota had not been a smashing success, and she was spending the summer in that most exotic of locales, Canada, figuring out whether or not she would come back. We spent a harmless evening amidst a group of seven, mildly flirting and listening to bad jazz music. She seemed smart. Funny. Not at all my type. It was just a pleasant evening.
Later, Judith mentioned that evening had been the critical point in her decision process. A nice, normal evening out with thinking people. Apparently in Madison this is impossible – the underground culture is constantly full of flux and drama, while the still-dominant classic Midwestern culture is full of people who always vote for the nicest candidate and listen to quaintly conservative music. Not exactly Red America per se – just very inoffensive and bland.
Ironically, Minnesotan culture succeeds in finding the middle ground precisely because this blandness is more ingrained. In Madison there is a constant ideological struggle between the ardent students and the paternal geriocracy. The youth of today are always trying to push the envelope, getting more piercings, becoming more unkempt, doing whatever they can to update their environment for the twenty-first century. This takes a lot out of them, with the end result being that they lack the maturity or mindset to maintain normal relationships. The drama of their activism, the conception of The Enemy that plays such a bogeyman role in their mind, permeates their everyday lives.
Judith, as a well-adjusted person who read Ayn Rand and Camille Paglia without getting worked up about it, didn’t really fit in in Madison. She is not by nature an activist; she does her civic duty by voting against the tyranny of the senior citizens whose votes decide elections and therefore politicians’ stances, but she does not accost people on the street or offend people’s sensibilities. The way she put it, that summer she was looking for a home, and when she saw my crowd, the crowd that was already starting to gravitate in my direction, she saw that home.
Judith told me this over coffee the week after I had finally gotten over the nagging cold and fever that had plagued the first two weeks of our nascent relationship. It was early November by now, and the last of the Canada geese were heading southwards over Lake Harriet as we drove by its settling surface. I spent these two weeks sleep deprived, alternately hungry and bloated. I was Judith’s wounded tiger, and she nursed me back to health.
Judith and I had picked up where we left off, with comfortable, assured glances at each other, in September. She had come back to her comparative literature, a world I understood little of but was happy to discuss, and the social scene she was introduced to by a couple of college friends who had moved to Minneapolis after graduating from UW. Garrett Hammaker was a defensively straight theater major from the Minnesota/Wisconsin border, who had set out to find his calling in Madison and, when that failed, had picked Option B, the only other city anywhere close to his hometown. Garrett represented the quintessential struggle among our cohort, with his desire to find a bridge between the small-town upbringing he was really quite comfortable with and the big-town bustle depicted as a liberal panacea in artsy movies and urbane books.
Garrett’s partner in crime was Becky Hammer, a girl he had known for eight years, ever since they had a heated argument in debate class in tenth grade. Becky had grown up an awkward distance from Minneapolis, close enough that it always represented a dominant figure in her mind but not so close that she had really absorbed its schismatic nature while growing up. Fifty miles separated the young Becky from what she always considered her eventual destination. Becky’s story was the opposite of Judith’s: rejected by Minnesota for some reason, she had ended up going to Madison for college.
Becky Hammer was gorgeous seventy percent of the time. The remaining thirty percent she was filled with that brand of insecurity that only gorgeous girls have. She would have noticed some imperfection in her unspoiled snowdrifts during the night, and she would slink around shrinking away from everyone, always trying to appear in profile, the resulting contortions producing a constantly unusual perspective for her gentleman admirer. It may not seem like much, but when you’re used to seeing someone at a five-degree angle, and it becomes 15, they look positively freakish, like those pictures of Ronald Reagan with the upside-down mouth.
As humans, we have developed an elaborate set of body language norms. I remember once seeing (possibly apocryphal, I realize now) footage of a boy who had been raised in a metal cage for his first ten years of life in psychology class. It’s one of few things I remember from psychology class, which I mostly slept through, it being at 8:30 in the morning. This particular day I had gone to sleep early, exhausted by a fight with a girlfriend the previous day. In any case, I was in sort of a strange mood, with girlfriend troubles and an unusual-for-me-sleep state, which probably affected my impressions of the clip.
The boy, now twelve, is being interviewed by Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes. Leslie asks him a question. He turns away from the camera towards her as she is speaking, and his eyes move as if they are on a spring with his head. For the first third of the head motion, the eyes remain constant, and then they start to move, trailing his head. His head comes to a stop and his eyes continue pivoting until they are aligned with his head, and then they keep going before they reach the limits of the spring. They slowly, painfully, oscillate to a stop until they are facing Leslie. It looks positively predatory.
He opens his mouth to speak to Leslie, and as he does so, his shoulders flex backwards against the chair. He is presenting himself, pushing backwards against his shoulders as he talks. It is perfectly natural to him, perfectly innate. It is the simple reflex of projecting, moving closer to the person he is trying to communicate with. It is subtle, but it is so out of place. It is these little things that make you realize how strange an upbringing he must have had. What he says is perfectly normal for a twelve-year-old boy. It is the lines on his face, the movements of his muscles, the eyes-on-a-spring which make him seem strange.
Ever since that day, when I was strangely lucid in the face of bizarre allegations and thoughts flying everywhere around me (no doubt a New Yorker’s defense mechanism), I have noticed this in people; I have noticed it in myself. The regional differences between parts of the country are huge: dialect, fashion, politics. But this subtle body language thing is the same. People cock their head just so to express interest, or to topicalize. People lean forwards when they’re interested. People move their vestigial body parts (little fingers, toes, coccyx) when they are in waiting mode, and stick out their tongue ever so slightly when they are trying hard to parse other people’s thoughts. Most of all, people present themselves at very specific angles based on settings, and move their eyes in certain ways. All subtle codes set up for the benefit of the American trait group. I have watched movies made in China; it is like watching the cage-boy.
Becky Hammer is not quite like the Chinese or the cage-boy, but it is similar. The thirty percent of the time when she is presumably disappointed in her face in the mirror that morning, she goes around listless, reverting to the phylogenic call of her DNA to relax and not think about human society. On these days, she is a primate without any young to protect or food to procure. A primate with no real goals in life, with all of her immediate needs cared for. I picture Becky in a tree, surrounded by bananas, desolate.
It’s not exactly sad which Becky is. It’s just that her guard is down. She doesn’t think she’s beautiful on these days. She doesn’t present herself as beautiful. She avoids confrontation. She emits a mood of disinterest. Occasionally someone falls in love with the despondent Becky, seeing a beautiful Ophelia who is drowning amidst the much-derided societal complex that destroys women. This young man or woman becomes intensely political for a while, trying to bring out the real Becky by subverting this paradigm. In about two weeks, they become disillusioned, or Becky breaks their heart, and they go back to their uncertain dormant state, with opinions but with no impetus to impose them on others. It is a live-and-let-live kind of laziness that is easy to rationalize. After all, imposing opinions on others is exactly what They are doing.
Judith tells me that Becky and Garrett have never dated. They have been roommates since junior year of college, and this apparent closeness despite lack of physical intimacy are largely responsible for the assumption that Garrett is gay. My theory is that Garrett is really an intense judge of personality. He is able to see that there is no inner Becky, and that what you see is what you get – a gorgeous girl who is ridiculously insecure one day out of three. Garrett is a personality man, not an appearance man – either belied by or bolstered by his inclination towards the theater, I can never decide which – and the bad days ensure that he will never date Becky.
They work perfectly as roommates, because on those days he can just stay out of her way. She doesn’t need to be consoled. She just wants to make it through another day of life. Garrett no doubt realizes that if they were dating, this would be untenable – there would be an event, or something, and they would go to it, and Becky would detach, and it would be incredibly frustrating.
It makes sense rationally, but I don’t know how you could live with someone as gorgeous as Becky seventy percent of the time and not have the rational overridden by the lust. He’s got to be gay.