Chapter Three. The sickness was about the best possible way for Judith and I to start our relationship. Usually, at the beginning of a relationship, there is a lot of doubt and obsession, but with my work and sickness both straining on me, I had little mental energy to think about Judith. I was out blowing off some steam outside one of the not-so-trendy coffeehouses, thumbing through a copy of The Fountainhead that a friend had lent me, when I saw her walking down the street. She glanced at the book jacket, which was severely at odds with the casual air with which I was treating it, and sat down.
I had the natural advantage of being symbolic of Judith’s decision to come back, which was working out well; she had met a professor she really liked, a French woman who was as obsessed with translation as Judith was, and the class she was teaching was “full of devilish angels.” When she saw the book I was reading, and the objective attitude I was apparently taking towards it, I think she was hooked. For my part, I was reading the charged book as an escape from my own head, which was quite muddled with cold medicine and charts.
The Fountainhead is a book that, everyone either loves or hates, and Judith thought that she had found a soulmate, a person who saw parts of it as interesting and others as tedious, irrelevant, or tautological, but who above all was prepared to evaluate it independent of its reputation. Which was true; I have always been an objectivist, rather insensitive to the opinions of others. On this day, though, I was merely trying to create some space for my head to expand.
When I turned out to be sniffling up a storm, Judith was undeterred. Indeed, like the lion smelling blood, my snot only served to draw her closer. Sick people need nothing but platitudes, Kleenex, and sleep, and Judith saw her ability to provide all three. It wasn’t that Judith thought she could hook me by being there for me during my time of need, although it turned out that way; she merely saw this sign of weakness, of humanism, as the final straw in an effigy of Harold-as-soulmate.
We talked for about two hours that day, outside the coffeehouse, me going half-insane inside my head and her being kind and understanding as we told snippets of our life stories. The fact that this took place when I was sick had two long-term implications: first of all, with the basic facts and impressions being committed to memory under such a haze, I was constantly surprised by the later Judith, keeping the spark in our relationship. Secondly, I didn’t censor as much as one usually does. When you meet a new person, one of the first things that goes on is a lightning-quick analysis of their likely predilections and persona, and a corresponding decision about which parts of your personality to reveal first. With Judith, my lightning kept getting caught up in the cold medicine, and I ended up being a lot more honest with her that day than usual. The end results of this were that Judith trusted me more than anyone else has ever trusted me, and that there was no disappointment when the other stories of my life were revealed. Judith was prepared to associate whatever I said with her positive preconceptions, and since it for once was an accurate cross-section of me, there was nothing later to shatter this fairy tale.
Judith and I limped through two weeks of October, watching movies and only very occasionally interacting with the last movement of the social scene. We had dinner with Becky and Garrett a couple of times, and went to one book reading and one birthday party, and that was it. No doubt people looked at us as another couple splintering off, another failure, but this was somewhat blunted by the fact that those still single were generally more concerned with finding someone to spend the winter with, with winning the game of musical chairs. Generally it all worked out and everyone paired off; those who didn’t either committed suicide (rarely), moved away (often), or shelved their personality (most frequently) for the winter as a defense mechanism, and resolved to always settle for less in the future. Well, except for the ones who committed suicide.
This autumn ritual, as sure as the turning of the leaves, takes place all across the Midwest. Indeed, the entire social dynamic of the region is centered around having someone to spend the winter with, someone to huddle with under a modern-day igloo.
In the rural areas, the sample size is so small that there is no spawning free-for-all; most people, once they have found a winter mate, stay with that winter mate through the thaw of the summer. This results in an inordinate number of Midwesterners who have only known one special someone, who grow up thinking that this is the only way. Thus, the winter is responsible for the gumption of the Midwest: egged on by the environment, most rural Midwesterners accept the hard work needed to keep a relationship together, and take this work ethic as a given in other facets of their life as well.
In these rural places, the mating ritual is one of adolescence. It takes place at school dances in poorly lit gymnasiums, as fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds dance awkwardly and form lifelong bonds based on what matters to them at the time, which is generally popularity, sports, and which way the girls wear their barrettes. These people have the phylogeny/ontogeny thing going on: their pair bonds, consummated at such a young age, are based around the evolutionarily early primate values. They marry good providers, or good child-bearers, or alpha males. Compatibility is not the issue; the top silverback gets the top female, and it filters on down purely by perceived worth. At fifteen and sixteen, it is an all-out grab for the highest-status mate one can acquire.
The process of maturation from this stage onwards is heavily skewed by this primate bond. Locked into a marriage as monkeys, the remaining maturation into a human has nowhere to go. At fifteen, the South Dakotan’s primary lifelong goal is to find someone for the winter; by twenty, they may find themselves wanting to be a writer, or an astronaut, or an organic farmer. A process of conflict ensues. Every summer, the young adult musters an idealistic urge, and every winter he is again glad that he didn’t leave. This conflict drives many to drink, but most end up by twenty-five simply accepting the marriage for what it is.
A segment of the population splinters from this historical pattern, some by choice at nineteen but most by ostracization at fifteen. Unable to find someone for the winter, the fifteen-year-old brain, full of arrogance, concludes that the whole ritual is overrated, that the small, closeted town is full of backwards values which go against the radical ideas they found, shockingly, in the local bookstore. This one book of fiction, this Huck Finn or 1984, is responsible for the exodus of the fringe into the big cities. So they leave for college at seventeen, and remain apart from the town, tricking themselves into thinking they have found their place in the world in a Minneapolis, a Madison, or a Chicago.
But deep in their bones is still the desire to find someone for the winter. As much disdain as they have for the rash romantic compacts so common in their hometown, the morals that effected this environment have been inculcated in them as well. And every winter, as the leaves begin to turn and fall off the trees, the panic comes back, the panic to find someone for the winter. The only difference between these wanderers and the steadfast inhabitants of their small town is that when the spring comes, their antsy element wins, and they discard an imperfect relationship in favor of self-discovery.
The interesting thing about the scenes in Minneapolis and Madison is that there are very few actual natives of those cities in them. If you grow up in Minneapolis, you are hooked into national culture enough to know the real options. If the winter ritual is not for you, you know that you can go to college in California or New York or Miami. The rural inhabitants of the Midwest grow up thinking there is only one way of life; the ones who don’t have it in their genes are nonetheless overwhelmed by the homogeneous culture around them. In Minneapolis, however, this doesn’t happen. There are pockets of transplants everywhere; there are actual minorities. A youth filled with wanderlust can just leave. There’s data on an alternative lifestyle out there; it isn’t just nebulous maybes from a couple of outdated primary sources.
Many stay, of course. The vast majority of people in Minneapolis have been there for many generations. They embrace the polite inclusive family values of their surroundings; they are comfortable on the streets. They aren’t really different from the small-town folks, except that their horizons are a bit broader, they vote Democratic, and they have one or two quirky hobbies. They might find their mates at 22 in a sweaty bar instead of 15 in a sweaty high school gym, but they pair off in the same way. But the ones who don’t fall into this majority end up finding someplace that is comfortable for them. They are capable of adjusting to a different dominant ethos.
The rural outcasts are not. They come to Minneapolis because it is all they can take; the culture shock of moving to New York is too much of a specter. It’s not that they aren’t adventurous; moving to Minneapolis is a huge step given the context they grew up in. Humans can generally only take one step on the spectrum, two orders of magnitude. Beyond that innumeracy takes hold and prevents ordinary functioning; 3,000 people in one’s hometown means that the 300,000 of Minneapolis is the absolute upper limit. The 10 million of New York is unheard of.
It is these circumstances that lead to the quixotic nature of the coffeehouse culture in Minneapolis. There are few native sons to lead the scene; most of those with leadership or social ambition have long since dispersed to the “real” cities. The culture has nothing to tie it together, no idols for the plebeians to emulate. This nebulousness is an advantage in one sense: no one is exactly disappointed by the culture they find. So these transplants hang around its periphery for a few years, with abortive relationships and half-hearted pursuit of their dreams, before they succumb to their native tendencies and pair off. There is no core, no base set of embers for the whole thing to feed off.
These are generalizations, of course. There are those, like Judith and me, who do not actually fit into the schema I have described. I am here for sort of the opposite reason. Growing up in a town of 10 million, I never felt entirely comfortable. However, with the New York firmly entrenched, I can’t go down to the 3,000 level. The 300,000 of Minneapolis is as far down as I can go without being hopelessly out of place. Certainly the main reason I am here is because it was where I could get a job after college without actually taking any action, but it’s not entirely a coincidence that I didn’t end up back in The City.
Judith’s presence is equally ambivalent in its causes. On the one hand, she would still be in Madison if they hadn’t rejected her; on the other hand, she enjoys living here far more than she enjoyed living in Madison. The people there were too edgy for her, too assured and confrontational in her ideology. In this respect also my sickness helped the beginning of our relationship, camouflaging the usual New York first impression I make on people. It’s not that I’m an activist, but sometimes I seem like one, the default New York mien emerging when I walk on the street.
By the time I was better, Judith and I were locked into each other for the winter. When the mind takes on these default assumptions, everything is different. There was none of the insecurity that ordinarily accompanies the start of a relationship; there was no rush, we had six months before we might even conceivably break up. So we explored the city. Judith was familiar with a Midwestern city layout, and knew intuitively where to head for good Chinese food which would actually be open during the winter. The extra year of living in Minneapolis was my contribution to our endeavors. Judith loved the cold; I tolerated it.
Meanwhile, work constantly beckoned. I felt like I was swimming in numbers throughout the winter. It was the down season, and this added to my consternation; if I had this much trouble parsing the data when times were slow, what would I be like in April when things picked up again? My first two winters, or what portions of them I spent in Minneapolis, had been a breeze; the previous winter, while dating a perfectly inoffensive girl named Sarah Calflower, I had even started writing again.
Creative writing is to a quantitative professional what donating money to saving the whales is to a rich Marin County liberal. It’s an outlet, a way to achieve supposed balance in one’s personality and morality. Anxious about being pigeonholed, I had started writing pretentious awful poetry at the age of twelve, and quickly progressed to science fiction by the time I was in college. Curiously enough, the science fiction club at Harvard had consisted of people actively interested in neither science nor literature. These people were usually in fields like linguistics, psychology, or computer science (which, of course, is as much of a science as mathematics is, which is to say not at all.)
It was precisely this tenuous connection to science that allowed them to write such obviously unscientific fiction, and it was precisely their lack of interest in actual writing which allowed them to overcome the inhibitions about writing something good that ordinary writers have. I fell in with the crowd for the latter reason. I had standards, I read the classics, but as a writer I stank, and I knew it. The science fiction club, which incidentally spent far more time role playing than actually writing science fiction, was the perfect setting for me to obtain the complementary praise for my right brain that I had been looking for.
The stuff I wrote my second winter in Minneapolis was actually pretty good. I hadn’t really written anything in three years at that point, and the extra words poured out of me. I almost got something published in a prominent and completely unread literary magazine, but it turned out that they were loosely in the same corporate family as Villa, or so I was told.
Sarah Calflower was an actual artist. I sat in bed sipping tea and writing and she painted me. She was good, damn good. She had grown up in a small town on the Minnesota/Dakota border, pretty standard childhood until sixteen, when the boy she was destined to pair off with was killed by a drunk driver. It shook her from her reverie. In watching the tapes of them, and reading his letters, she realized that he was not the shining knight she had thought. His letters were mundane and poorly written; in the tapes, he was clearly a child.
Spurred onwards by this tragic event, Sarah started to question her boundaries. She applied to several schools far outside the standard set for a girl of her type; she was rejected from all of them, but one suggested that she take courses and re-apply a year later: a small school called Reunion College in Kentucky. She took the courses, re-applied, and got in, spending most of the intervening year painting and writing. At Reunion, she painted until her wrists were sore, suffering the growing pains of a bewildered girl encountering a strange new environment. As she put it, she channeled her confusion into paintings, until the paintings started to clear up and with it her mind.
Sarah was big on this symbolism stuff. One February Saturday she spent the entire day on one painting of me, snow streaming down outside the window of her messy downtown loft. At the end, she asked me what I thought of it. It was a beehive, dripping honey, with the bees inside it stuck in a matrix of sweetness and stings. Later, when we were trying to make our breakup painful to legitimize our relationship, she told me that it was that painting which made her realize how we were not right for each other, how the bees inside my head were always there, ready to strike, exterior aside. I don’t really know what she was talking about, but I guess it was good art. The painting obtained a prominent place in a local gallery’s grand opening, and walking around it, I felt famous – all of these people looking at this beehive which somehow represented me.
When the spring came around, Sarah and I tearfully and amicably parted, and I stopped writing. The third winter, with Judith, I considered picking it up again, but ultimately I didn’t have the mental space for another aspect of my personality. Judith, her brown hair bobbing in tune with her thoughts, was bringing out likes and dislikes that I didn’t know I had, and meanwhile Charlie Villa was fighting for my soul, throwing thousands upon thousands of numbers at me.
Chapter Four. My supervisor, an actual Coordinator of Research to my Assistant Coordinator, was a fat, prematurely balding thirty-one-year-old man named Erik Calhoun. Before I met him, I always thought of Erik Calhoun as a cocky, flashy, cutting-edge man; it was probably the “k”, jutting out like a knife. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Calhoun was a man whose soul was filled with a deep miasma. He was even more cynical than I am about the whole structure of Villa, seeing himself as a pawn in a corporate game, advancing until finally captured by the opponent’s mighty queen. Calhoun had worked hard to get to where he was, but he was not particularly proud of it; he treated his life with a very matter-of-fact attitude. This is the way it is, this is the way it’s going to be, no use expending emotions over it.
As a supervisor, Calhoun was indifferent. When I was promoted, he introduced himself to me as my boss, and I didn’t see him again for three days. Every day, a new pile of material would appear in my mailbox, with a few curt e-mails flashing up on my screen. “Might be interesting. –Erik” was a total lie: Calhoun found very little interesting and even less worthy of his time. I never figured out what he did all day; when I was promoted to Director of Research, I couldn’t see how a man with as little energy as Calhoun could have put everything together as a Director must.
Meanwhile, at rank two, I had data monkeys who were loosely under my control. Villa does not exactly trust Assistant Coordinators of Research, probably because of men like Calhoun who don’t exactly evoke confidence. Because of this, the data monkeys I was given access to were totally changing. My job was to look at the scores of columns we were given on each data sheet, usually with confusing acronyms, and figure out which were worthy of being passed onto the monkeys for further investigation.
It was a baffling ordeal. Like with Judith, my sickness for the first few weeks changed the entire job. From day one, I was confused as to what exactly I was supposed to do. Since there were no specifically stated goals, and Calhoun offered only the barest modicum of guidance, I ended up working extra hard to be sure I had accomplished whatever it is they actually wanted me to accomplish. I resented the data monkeys assigned to me, the class that I used to belong to. It’s a weird thing, maybe the Minnesota creeping into my brain, that I deeply envied those of lower rank.
At Assistant Coordinator, we got to see the company names. Our goal was to synthesize the data to the point where we could be consulted about decisions; we would receive all the data for, say, a marketing promotion for Cute Cuts, and we were expected to use the data monkeys to figure out which aspects of the promotion were successful and which weren’t. Our conclusions were fed to our superiors, essentially as gospel. We were given large arrays of data every day.
In addition to the burden of figuring out which data to mine, we were apparently expected to keep five or six cases in our minds at once. The way Villa worked, data sheets were rotated between different Assistant Coordinators, so that you might see the same case for a day every week. The thinking was that with five different minds working independently on the same case, the conclusions were bound to be relevant. One of the only things Calhoun told me at the beginning of my job was that I should not consult with the other Assistant Coordinators under his control, for this reason. The Villa workplace was “vertically integrated” for this reason, which meant that in my new working area in the west wing, there were two secretaries, five data monkeys, myself, two Assistant Coordinators in other groups, a Coordinator in charge of yet another group, and a Project Manager whose project was not being examined by any of the rest of us.
On the Wednesday of my third week, as I was starting to emerge from my sickness and Judith and I were staying up late talking about supposedly important things, I was called into my first client meeting. This was a surprise; Calhoun told me fifteen minutes in advance. At the client meeting I saw my avatars, the other Assistant Coordinators in my group. One I vaguely knew outside work; Carrie Paulsen came to some of the mellow rock concerts, although the wedding ring on her finger indicated full status in the smiling world outside. I struggled to connect the others with their names as we were perfunctorily introduced in advance of the client’s arrival. There may have been others not invited to the meeting; I don’t know.
The meeting was to discuss a campaign for Jethro Books, a local chain of bookstores specializing in histories, biographies, and reference books: a chain that could exist only in the assiduous Midwest. Their sales had been flagging recently for no discernible reason, and Villa was hired on a shoestring, commission-based budget to revive them. Our keystone ad concept thus far had been a quintessentially Midwestern college student, perky blond ponytail, in profile, smiling while reading a book on pioneers. The tagline, “Jethro: Quite a Read” was a leftover one from a previous ad campaign, the Q supposedly effective at drawing the attention of drivers passing by. The same image appeared with different taglines in other ads that were run more sparingly, breeding grounds to test effectiveness of various slogans. Each one of these was placed near a different Jethro, store location on the sign, to tease apart the effectiveness of the individual slogan and thus to broaden Villa’s knowledge of what worked.
I’m not sure where this institutional memory is stored. I didn’t learn the point of this variegation until recently, immediately prior to my promotion to research coordinator. The data all goes into computers – fortunately my Harvard degree and connection allowed me to skip the data entry stage of things – but it is unclear who keeps track of the conclusions. It’s possible that as the assistant coordinators and data monkeys turn over, they are given projects and data from the past. I suppose that once you reach a certain rank, you become part of this institutional memory. Perhaps these conclusions don’t actually remain anywhere; perhaps Villa’s cadre of worker bees re-deduces them each generation.
At the Jethro meeting, me still sniffling, Calhoun introduced us as the Jethro “team.” I wasn’t the only one who emitted an imperceptible smile; Carrie smirked for a moment, while an immense black man whose name I think was Derek half-rolled his eyes. We were a motley crew, assembled perhaps for diversity: me for Hispanics, Carrie for Midwestern housewives, Derek for African-Americans, a guy maybe named Dave for the conservative types, and John, who might have been gay. Presumably Jethro’s president, a man whose name I didn’t catch the first time and who was never introduced again, saw that we at Villa had all of our bases covered. Affirmative action contributing to the company’s bottom line.
Calhoun was in rare form. He glad-handed the Jethro president, and presented some charts that could have been in Arabic for all the good they did the rotund, sixty-year-old sweater-clad narcoleptic who was our audience on this day. This was apparently his element; the looks of surprise on my compatriots confirmed my suspicion that Calhoun acted towards everyone the way he acted towards me. There was some talk about the regional sales campaigns that was in marketeer-speak that I couldn’t understand; Carrie, who might have been the senior member of our team, interjected several times with useful comments, while the rest of us sat there bemused and trying to look comfortable.
Then we were asked for our opinions. I went last, a horrible position to display the diversity of opinion that was supposed to reflect our cultural diversity. By the time I got to speak, all of my lines had been taken. I clammed up, palms as sweaty as I can recall them being since the out-of-place high school dances in New York. I don’t really know what I said, but it wasn’t good. Calhoun’s gaze swiveled towards me like the cage-boy’s, as if he couldn’t believe what I had said. The other assistant coordinators were all starting at me. The Jethro president was practically asleep.
The worst part about the experience was that no one ever told me why I had failed: what I had done wrong, or what I was supposed to do. That I had failed was eminently clear; it was my only client meeting for three months. The saving grace of the whole situation, aside from the fact that the Jethro president barely caught a word of what I said, was that I had been promoted too recently to be fired. Villa, fortunately for me, understood sample size – one bad week was not going to kill me.
But two bad weeks? Three bad weeks? The question haunted me through the winter, which I viewed as my informal trial during the slow season, a chance to learn. I worked harder than ever before, despite the fact that I had few tasks and the tasks I had didn’t really seem to lend themselves to hard working.
The working hard seemed to allow my relationship with Judith to develop at normal speed. One of the reasons the relationship was so good is that I had other things on my mind; most of my college relationships had ended quickly and disastrously, usually with my overthinking the situation in some direction or another, either teasing every small problem out of its hiding place to hasten the inevitable breakup or falling hopelessly and scarily in love with a girl after two dates. It’s not that I regret this per se – it’s just that these relationships didn’t really add much to my life.
By December, the tenor of our winter relationship was pretty clear. The nature of my job at Villa allowed me to take days off whenever I wanted; Judith and I would lie in bed talking, or putter around one of our apartments shuffling the furniture around in an attempt to have the interior décor vary as the environment outside steadfastly refused to do. When we were overcome by cabin fever, we would head outside in her trusty Escort or my sterile Honda, driving around the city with the knowledge that eventually due to random chance we would find an establishment worthy of our presence. We would dissect the walls and the patrons.
These patrons were always curious. The vast majority of Minnesotans venture outside their house in the winter only to go to work, birthday parties (very few, since most babies are conceived during these times), or vacations to warmer climates. Of the remaining minority, the largest group is the crazy outdoors types, who can be found cross-country skiing through the gapingly large parks in the city, twice as large as usual because they need to accommodate twice as many people during the summer. It was a strange person indeed who left their house during the winter to go to a diner, or a bookstore, or that weird place we found in North Minneapolis with the red-and-orange walls, people milling around inside, and absolutely no one who seemed to be associated with any sort of business, an art gallery without the art.
In any crowd, there is a majority. The majority of the people in most of these places, the faux art gallery excepted, were old widows and widowers, recently bereft. We talked to many of them; almost without exception, their spouses had died during the winter. Judith and I concluded that there must be geriatric meat markets somewhere, like the clubs of the underground, where the old meet during the summer season to find spouses for the next winter. Either that, or they just dropped dead rather than risk the winter without a spouse.
It was strange, though, that these old people didn’t huddle inside their houses alone like the rest of the rejected. Why were they in the diners when singles weren’t? It was like stumbling upon a ghost culture; they knew each other, sixty years of shared history, and they gathered despite the snow outside … for what purpose? To possibly find someone to spend the rest of the winter with? To distract themselves from their cold, oversized houses? To break free for a few youthful jaunts before being committed to a nursing home? These were the opposites of the Canada geese and Boca Raton yentas, going out into the cold in the twilights of their lives.
At these diners, Judith and I took a corner booth, protected on one side from the elements and on the other sides from a stark depressing dystopia of death, represented by these single wrinkled figures. They were chatty with the waiters and each other, but rarely sat at the same table, singular figures against a floor of linoleum and ketchup stains. It was as if these diners were once packed, and nine-tenths of the people randomly died; instead of coming together, the remaining one-tenth kept sitting where they were, calling out from afar, still unable to reach the people far away due to the crowds they had become used to penning them in.
This is the quintessential Minnesota story. It is ironic that in New York, where the crowds are ten times as big, it doesn’t happen: people meet and marry others from all over the place. But in Minnesota, where it is easy to physically move around the streets and open land, no one does. You are psychologically yoked to your own street unless you actively choose not to be; you marry the girl next door or, at worst, the girl from a couple of blocks away. Minnesotans, who never have to worry about their nearest neighbors depleting the oxygen supply in their little bubbles, are the ones who act as if they are trapped.
The bullish nature of New Yorkers is a reaction to the crowds, the security of a little bubble. New Yorkers are electrons, trying as hard as possible to repel each other in order to move freely, with the result being a quick orbit that canvasses the perimeter of the atoms, finding everything that the atom could come into contact with. Minnesotans, on the other hand, are rocks in the asteroid belt, floating in space, going around the sun so synchronized that each is aware only of its nearest neighbors. They attract each other with the weak gravitational force, but the primary reason why they grow up in situ is the fact that with so many people so much alike, there is little reason to ever venture outside your own street.
Unless you are not one of these gentle smiling elves. These are the people who flee from Minneapolis to the big cities, who flee from the smaller towns to Minneapolis. These people see the flash of the comet grinding through the belt and are drawn to it. But when you are too far away from your people, you become scared, and eventually on a later comet orbit you acquiesce to peer pressure and drop off in a different portion of the asteroid belt, with the comet experience getting further and further away by the year.
The elderly patrons of the diner were, I suppose, the asteroids whose mates had been swept away by the final comet of death into the sun, if you will pardon the tortured analogy. They have spent their whole life penned into the Minnesotan reality, to the point that when the fences were moved they were unable to be reintroduced to the wild, preferring to create imaginary walls around them. They have dinner with ghosts in the restaurants of a town muffled by snow, a winter ghost town.