Archive for the ‘A Sense of Place’ Category

Writing and the “Dark Beauty” of the Upper Peninsula

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

In an interview with the Evening News of Sault Ste Marie, Michigan on June 27, 2012,  mystery writer Steve Hamilton talked about his reasons for setting the Alex McKnight mysteries in the eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan:

EN: You keep coming back to the EUP in your Alex McKnight books. What is it about this area that draws you?
SH: There’s a reason why he stays there, because it feels like home to him. I travel all over the place and I ask people if they’ve ever been to the U.P., and if it’s outside of Michigan only a handful of people raise their hand. Everything’s different’s there. The air is different, the people are different. There’s a dark beauty to it. It’s not an easy kind of beauty, definitely not in the winter. Even in the summer, you know it’s not going to last long and that’s sort of heartbreaking. You can draw a bigger parallel about how you live your life. In the U.P., that’s how it feels — that amazing, beautiful summer day, you only get a few of those.

Read the full interview here.

Thanks to James Old, professor of political science and editor of The Cresset at Valparaiso University, for drawing my attention to this interview.

“Everglades of the North” tells the story of the Grand Kankakee Marsh

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Filled with breathtaking motion, captivating photos and illustrations, compelling interviews, and dramatic re-enactments, “Everglades of the North” shows viewers how people have sustained and changed the Grand Kankakee Marsh.

What Grand Kankakee Marsh, you ask?   Exactly.  You’re like the lumberjack foreman who hired  only experienced ax-men:

“I’ve got a lot of experience, boss. I worked in the Sahara Forest.”

“Whaddya talkin’ about.  There ain’t no Sahara Forest.  There’s  only a Sahara Desert.”

“That’s right, boss.  Now.”

Well, as recently as 1900 there was a Grand Kankakee Marsh.  800 square miles of wetlands stretched from Momence, IL to South Bend, IN, more than 500,000 acres. For 12,000 years, the Marsh  supported countless beaver, otter, deer, frogs, ducks, geese, eagles and tens of thousands of native Americans.

Europeans began arriving in the 17th century. Some – like many French – melded happily into the timeless lifeways of the Marsh. But the 19th century brought waves of new settlers who saw the Marsh as an obstacle to a god they worshiped, a god named Progress. They took 70 years, but these new earth carvers  and river-straighteners successfully drained the Marsh. By 1920 only mini-marshes survived. What had been a beautiful river meandering through more than 2000 sandy bends for 250 miles progress-praisers morphed into an efficient, paltry 90-mile ditch.

In the last 20 years, however, the efforts of conservationists have awakened hundreds of persons in Northwest Indiana to the importance of the Marsh’s natural history and the possibilities of restoring the marsh to some semblance of its former glory.

Pat Wisniewski, Brian Kallies, Jeff Manes, and Tom Desch raised $100,000 and invested three years of their lives to make “Everglades of the North” the most important publicly-available contribution to this effort.  Everyone concerned not only with the destiny of the Grand Kankakee Marsh but with putting our lives into a more sustainable relationship with nature owes them a debt of gratitude.


Memories of Evansville

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Thank you to Christopher Bruce for compiling this look back and to the old(er) folk who sent me the link.

Fort Leavenworth

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

Fort Leavenworth is a United States Army facility located in Leavenworth County, Kansas, immediately north of the city of Leavenworth in the upper northeast portion of the state. It is the oldest active United States Army post west of Washington, D.C., having been in operation for over 180 years.

The fort occupies 5,600 acres and 7,000,000 square feet of space in 1,000 buildings and 1,500 quarters. It is located on the Frontier Military Scenic Byway (U.S. Route 69 and K-7 corridor).

There are several old officer houses on historic Fort Leavenworth that are haunted, faces can be seen in the back of the fireplaces and strange noises can be heard at night. It is believes that these manifestations are the ghosts of inmates who were executed at the United States Disciplinary Barracks and the ghosts of those buried in the National Cemetery located just beyond the prison walls.

The Chief of Staff’s Quarters

Located at 624 Scott Avenue, the Chief of Staff’s quarters continue to host a teat party in the parlor. Though apparitions have not been sighted, several people report hearing the sounds of a tea party coming from an otherwise empty parlor.

Former Site of the St. Ignatius Chapel

The original St. Ignatius Chapel was located at 632 Thomas Avenue. In 1875, the original church and rectory burned to the ground, claiming the life of a young priest there on assignment. The building material was salvaged to build the residence that exists there today.

Some of the scorched bricks can still be seen making up the fireplace in the dining room of the house. Etched into these bricks are names, including that of Father Fred. Residents of the home have claimed to see Father Fred walking through the home in his vestments. He is most often seen walking up and down the stairs in the kitchen and dining room. In this 1970s, his robed figure appeared in a Polaroid photograph taken during a dinner party.

A new church was erected after the 1875 burning at the corner of McClellan and Pope. However, on December 16, 2000 in the early hours of the morning, it burst into flames and was completely destroyed.

The General’s Residence

Located at 1 Scott Avenue, the General’s residence is said to continue to host General George Armstrong Custer. He is often seen roaming the first floor of the old residence; it is said his spirit lingers because Fort Leavenworth was the site where he was court-martialed in 1967 for leaving his command and mistreating his troops.

The hearing was held in the command general’s quarters. Custer was found guilty and given a year’s suspension without pay. He was afterward reinstated and rejoined the Seventh Cavalry in September, 1868 where he served until the notorious Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.

Old Disciplinary Barracks

The Disciplinary Barracks are made up of twelve towers along the wall of the Fort. Before the barracks closed, not all of them were manned. Closed off, the only way you could get into the tower was to talk along the wall from another tower. Guards often reported seeing something moving inside the tower, despite this challenge. Long ago, a soldier committed suicide in the tower by shooting himself in the head.

The control tower is reported to having received phone calls from Tower Eight, even though the tower was abandoned and vacant. When the line was picked up, there would only be static on the other end. One story states that a patrol car reported seeing someone standing in the tower pointing a rifle in their direction; no one was in the tower.

Guards also report hearing the sounds of walking and knocking on the trap door entrance to the towers when no one was there.

Building 65 was the prison hospital at one time. Legend has it that fourteen German prisoners of war were executed in the elevator shaft; often, guards report hearing screaming coming from the old elevator shaft. On the third floor, an area primarily used as storage, a ghostly man in a wheelchair was often seen being pushed by another ghostly figure. A new barracks was built in 2002, and operations at the old barracks ceased.

The Officers’ Quarters

Located 605 McClellan Avenue, the Officers’ quarters is said to host a previous resident. A ghostly apparition of a man with a moustache and goatee is often seen appearing in the fireplace in the middle of a burning fire. As the fire dies, his face is seen lingering near the back of the fireplace. The same image is often seen in one of the bedrooms, and one in the bathroom with an old-fashioned razor and shaving cream. Other times, loud footsteps are heard traveling up and down the stairs, doors are heard slamming shut, and scratching noises and loud crashes can be heard throughout the house. Residents also report icy cold spots in various parts of the home.

The Rookery

The Rookery is a duplex located at 12 and 14 Sumner Place. It is the oldest house on the base and is said to be the home of several spectral presences. Built in 1832, the residence has been occupied continually since it was erected. It is reported as the most haunted house in the state of Kansas due to the high number of ghostly residents. The most prevalent haunt is that of a woman with long hair who rushes at people with her fingernails clawing in attack. She is said to have been a victim of violence long ago, and her ghostly presence lingers within the Rookery.

The apparition of an elderly woman is often seen chattering in the corner. A ghostly young girl is often seen throwing a tantrum. As residents try to sleep in the home, they report being aroused from slumber by an old man in a nightshirt with bushy hair.

Sumner Place

The houses in Sumner Place are haunted by a kind woman in a black woolen dress and shawl. It is believed that this woman was, at one time, the nanny or housekeeper who lived in the attic of one of the old homes. Her ghostly presence is said to look after families in the area; she tries to help them with domestic chores, such as doing the dishes and making beds. She is also drawn to children, attempting to soothe and calm them when they are upset.

One child told his parents of a nice lady who would come read by his bedside before he went to sleep. Shortly after, a book was found in the child’s room that was not the property of the family. This spirit, however, feels that babysitters and grandmothers are competition. Her animosity causes babysitters and grandmothers to feel a firm push out of the upstairs nursery by unseen hands.

At one time, the residents of 16 Sumner Place became so perturbed by her benevolent presence that an exorcism was had on the home. Indeed, the lady in black left the residence, only to relocate next door to 18 Sumner Place. Witnesses believe they see her figure silhouetted against the attic window.

The National Cemetery

The National Cemetery is home to the ghost of a woman by the name of Catherine Sutter. She is reported seen walking around the tombstones of the cemetery. In the fall of 1880, Catherine, her husband, and two children stopped at the Fort on their way to Oregon territory. One day, her husband sent the children to collect firewood. They never returned.

It is believed the two children wandered near the river, where they were swept away by the current. A search party attempted to find the children for three days, but the children were finally given up for dead. Catherine and Hiram Sutter stayed at Fort Leavenworth through the winter, as though their children would come searching for them. Catherine was seen walking through the snow in the grounds of the Fort, calling out to her children. She contracted pneumonia and later died that winter. She was buried in the National Cemetery.

Distraught with grief, her husband, Hiram Sutter returned to his home in Indiana that spring. A short time later, Hiram Sutter received strange but glorious news. His children, Ethan and Mary, were alive and well. Swept into the river, Ethan and Mary were rescued by a tribe of Fox Indians. The Indians were harboring Ethan and Mary through the winter until the spring, when they would be returned to Fort Leavenworth.

Catherine still wanders the grounds of the National Cemetery, forever unknowing of the safety of her children, still searching believing them to be missing. Wearing an old calico dress and black shawl, Catherine is often seen carrying a lantern and desperately calling out to her children. Other times, only her voice can be heard, calling out from the darkness for her children.

It is also reported that the ghost of Chief Joseph, a proud Nez Perce Indian leader, roams the cemetery. He was incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth in 1877. Additionally, Civil war soldiers are also reported as walking through the woods nearby the National Cemetery.

The Sheridan House

The Sheridan House of 611 Scott Avenue is said to be haunted by the vengeful spirit of Mrs. Sheridan, wife of General Philip H. Sheridan. In 1869, General Philip H. Sheridan left his wife on her deathbed to pursue business interests in Chicago.

American Midwest and Midwestern People

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Raber Aziz

On Friday evenings and other holidays, the Browns family in Valpo buzzes with international students. They are all invited over by Kathy and Dave Brown over to their house to spend an evening with them, share food, play cards, chat, and to experience some American cultural events and traditions. You will hear people speak in English, Arabic, Kurdish, Chinese, and Hindi as well. In every room there are several people either sitting at a table playing cards and while chatting, having some snacks while chatting, or just chatting. Even the basement is not empty; there are children who road around the basement play with anything, besides the toys the Browns offer them to play with, that they can grab. There are also some adult international students there as well who are either playing on the Foosball or the ping-pong placed there. The scene is of one international family that spans several continents in the world. There are international students from Europe, Asia, Middle East, and Americas. The strong sense of community and family is so potent there that one feels at home and among family and loved ones.

Before I move to the US with my family, my wife and my son who is about 18 months old now, I was really concerned with the security side of living in the US. Many of the international students who study at Valpariso University with whom I am in touch have also told me the same thing, that security was the number one concern for them. Generally speaking, people from outside the US have a vague understanding of the US, or in many cases a totally wrong picture of the US. One of my friends told me that before he came to the US he thought that Americans would have guns and shoot people. He thought there was much violence, rape, murder, bullying, drugs, gangs, ad all sorts of chaos. It seems that Hollywood has done a great job in presenting this negative image of the US to the world because this is what people have seen in the action movies. People see in the movies neighborhoods that are controlled by gangs, people getting robbed, stabbed or shot while they are walking on a quiet street at night, people getting kicked for walking down a certain street that is the domain of a gang in that area, or girls getting harassed by boys for being pretty.

I had similar misconceptions, to be honest, before I came here especially because I had family. I spent a month’s time just researching about the American universities and the cities where the universities were located. I researched about everything, from population, ethnic makeup of the society, security, crime rates in those cities, and so on. I chose Valparaiso University mainly because I found positive feedback about the city and I liked the findings of my research. I was happy that I had found a place where I could feel that my family would be totally safe. When I moved here, I found out that it was not only very safe, but also that people here were very friendly, easy-going, cooperative, supportive and they had a great sense of community and family. I was more than happy. I kept telling my family back home in Kurdistan region of Iraq how good the people were and how safe were here. I could walk to Walmart at 11:00 pm, or come back form the Drive-in movie theatre at 2:00 am and feel completely safe. I was very happy. I had never heard of the term Midwest, or American Midwest, before. I would probably not heard it any time soon, or may be never, had not taken this graduate course, New Ideas in Midwestern Literature offered by the English Department at Valparaiso University. I learned that there was a region in the US that was called the Midwest and that comprised about 12-13 states, about six states on either sides of the Mississippi River where the people are distinct from the rest of the country. I learned from an article entitle Midwestern Distinctiveness by R. Douglas Hurt that people of the Midwest are “friendly, sensible, pragmatic, independent, modest, moral, conservative, determined, industrious, thrifty, optimistic, progressive and educated”. I read the article with much interest and thirst. While I was reading the article, I kept nodding in agreement about each and every characteristic mentioned. I had already met with the Browns family and a few other Americans from Valparaiso. I observed how friendly, nice, understanding, supportive and modest they were. Even before we had met, Kathy Brown, knowing form another Kurdish student in town that I was coming to Valparaiso with my wife and my son along, she had put together a pack n play and some other stuff for my son who was only nine months then. She showed us around and took us shopping in her car. Whenever we needed a ride anywhere, she was there for us. She took us to the Drive-in theatre, Merrillville to find Middle Eastern ingredients, to Sam’s Club to get the best of grocery for low prices using her membership card, to Indiana Dunes to spend time on the beach, and to and from her house whenever there was a gathering on Friday evenings.

I know that when I go back to my country there is so much misconception about American that I need to correct in doing that I would rather have the Midwest as the representative of the US rather than any other part. I would rather take the Browns family for the typical American family and the representative of the American people than what people see on TV, especially in movies. The Midwestern family will be the version of family I will be telling my people about, and the Midwest my version of America as opposed to that in the movies.


Recently, I managed to put my enthusiasm for telling my family and other potential Iraqi and Kurdish students interested in pursuing their studies in the US into a video project that is required as an assignment for one of the New Literacies, Technologies and Cultures of Writing graduate class that  I took during the 2012 Fall season. The video is about the Midwestern city of Valparaiso and the advantages the city offers international students such as security and peacefulness, low cots of living, reasonable housing options, good people with a great sense of community, and its proximity to other interesting places and attractions like Chicago city and Lake Michigan. I am hoping that potential international students seeking a degree at Valpo University will watch the video and find answers to weeks long research about the city and the people in 6.5 minutes time.  below is the video:

Learn About Valpo City from Raber Aziz on Vimeo.

The Distinctiveness of the American Midwest

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Originally I was born and raised from Chicago. I lived on the south side area within the Grand Crossing neighborhood. For many years, I withstood many trial and tribulations, but I knew of a special place where I could escape. Many people would take long vacations and see sights that could be regarded as the 3rd, 4th and 5th wonders of the world. However, raised in impoverishment, I could not afford to see the airport much less take a airline trip.

Interestingly, I kept in the back of my mind a place where I once visited as a young girl and although the memories are visited upon a dream-like state they detail to me a place of refuge. When you deal with a city like Chicago, you depend on survival, but when you live in Indiana; Valparaiso, that is…you find a difference of life and often a breath of fresh air. The Midwest is the pulse of the nation. It is the only place where the values and faith are central and distinct. It avows to Christian living and many of the parishioners that live here will hold every word and gesture as a “gentleman’s agreement”…sorry, ladies it’s a man’s world.

I wrote a short story based upon my experiences visiting family members in an Indiana township. I was very young and only remember the experience and not the towns’ name, however, I am quite sure after you have read it reminds you of a special place, a secret place where you and I can run to and call home. Hope you enjoy it!

“From Alpha to Omega and Back” by Me
When I was a little girl, my parents took me to a place where there were rows of long stalks of corn and high sunrises and winds that blew. I asked my father if we are close to my father’s uncle home and he said, “No”.
As we continued to drive, I placed my forehead against the coolness of the window and looked at the barns, cows and horses. I would speak to them as we went along thinking I had long acquaintance with them and they answered me back with “hello, welcome home”.

With simple boredom, I wished to see a farm house with an outhouse because I need to make a deposit and to breathe. I did not go before leaving the busyness of my neighborhood. My home was noisy and crowded. I was told I had to go to school and obey my parents, teachers, and family.

The city was an impossible lifestyle to fill. Impossible to satisfy the human urges of success, education and finance. Impossible to please and ignore to laugh and to cry. Crimes of passion and woe and the impossible snow. Chicago was the name and for many a claim to fame. But not for me, for I wanted to be free. To play and reminisce of what it was like to feel a kiss.

The road was filled with long hilly roads that seemed it would never end and the headline that separates the ground from the sky was incomplete. I asked yet again with bravery as to the arrival and the answer was silence and my cue not to ask anymore. So I waited once more. All of a sudden, I felt the slowing of the wheels and I immediately rose to my heels to see that the speed of the corn stood still and the door opened to a smile and arms open wide welcoming me to calm, closure, peace and a place where I belong.

The odor of fresh grass and trees and of a single television talking of the show, “I Spy” moved me instantly into the room. My great uncle’s home was small and happy. Every room connected with one pace as I turned I faced, the kitchen, turned again, the living room, and once more, the dining room. Later, the call was heard it was time for supper and the pork roast was in order with corn pone, Crowder peas that came from the U-pick and fresh watermelon. Tall and dark-skinned was my great uncle enough to see his pure white teeth as he raised me into the air and twirled me up and down until I fit into my chair. I didn’t care, I was home.

After dinner, it was time for bed; but first, I had to bathe. My great aunt pulled out the big silver tub basin and filled it with warm water and castile soap. She placed me in the tub and I felt the arms of love that I once knew until we moved. She dried me and put me into pajamas, combed my hair, tickled and read to me for an hour. I did not put up a fuss not in one moment stead for I was ready to be put down for bed. I kissed my mom, dad, uncle and aunt and finally, dropped to my knees to thank God for the thought. Now, I am home.



Sense of belonging

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

The handmade patch quilt is blanketing the firm, but ridged, ground and serves as the barrier between the damp grass and myself. As I sit here quiet and alone with my back against the aged oak tree, known as the mother of all, I cannot help but feel a sense of relaxation and peace fill my body, as well as a sense of gratitude toward the new owners for giving me the opportunity to embark on such a creative and necessary personal journey. With many familiar sights, scents, and sounds of nature surrounding me, I graciously invite any childhood memories to surface. I look up, focusing straight ahead on what is left of the old barn, the garage, and the horse stalls- I see my grandfather, I see my grandmother, I see my cousins, I see the animals, and I see me. I see life as it once was, but then the memory slowly fades as another one pushes it aside for a brief moment. During this time, I slowed down my breathing, ceased my body movements, and allowed the energy of nature to permeate through me. As a breath of fresh air filled my lungs and a chicken hawk flew overhead, my concentration intensified.


It was evening, after school hours, when I eagerly peered out the front window of my mother’s and step-father’s suburban home which was located in a neighboring city of Chicago, known as Berwyn. My mother asked if had everything ready to go away for the weekend. I gave her a quick nod and a ‘ah huh’. I gazed around and had seen children playing, parents teaching their younger ones how to ride bikes, older couples tending to their lawns and gardens, and younger women jogging. Then my attention traveled back to the left where the end of the street met the corner near the stop sign and where my grandfather would be coming into view. After a few long quiet minutes I could hear the horn and see his light blue GMC pickup. Excitement came over me, as he pulled up to the curb on this family orientated street. Just then, I thought of the farm- not just any farm, my grandfather’s farm, my farm, and my second home.

For me, thoughts of the farm, which is a 20 acre plot nestled in a little town known as Knox Indiana, would immediately bring a smile to my face. Although I did not realize it at the time, the farm that gave me such excitement, was my therapy. It was place that allowed me the privilege to forget all the unwanted and unpleasant thoughts and emotions, a place that allowed me to escape into my imaginative world. It was bye bye the chaotic streets of Bridgeport, Illinois, bye bye its gang activity, bye bye to bullying school children that didn’t like me because I was of mixed race, bye bye to the humiliation I felt with prejudice and difficult teachers, bye bye to the loathing loads of homework, bye bye to my estranged father who never called or picked me up on his turn of the weekends, and bye bye to the busyness of my mother who often passed me on to one of her sisters when she didn’t have time. The farm indeed was my world- it was where I was free.

This is where I am sitting now, 25 years later, thinking of all the wonderful times I spent on this beautiful piece of land, where I climbed trees, swam and fished in the Yellow River, rode dirt bikes and four wheelers, rode horses, cared for cows, goats, chickens, pigs, and ducks, bailed hay, planted and detassled small sections of corn among other small crops, hunted deer and rabbit, participated in hog and goat roasts, started bon fires, gazed at stars, played horseshoes and hide-n-seek, and laid in the open prairie looking above at the clouds or waiting for the next animal to cautiously tip toe across in order to get to the other side. This place, the farm, was my home away from home and will forever be a place in my memory.

I am sure that you could see why the farm was considered to be so pleasant for a young child growing up. Let me add that here, there were no parents, only my beloved grandfather who was patient, kind, and resourceful. Nor were there any school or societal stressors such as the changing of different school locations or gang activity. Here, I was able to wake up to a rooster crowing or a horse’s bobbling head through the side window that hung over my bed, instead of an intrusive unpleasant sound of an alarm clock or a gun shot from alleyway. Also early, in the wee hours of the morning, there was nothing more satisfying than a fresh glass of warm goat’s milk,  the happy eager greetings of farm animals, and the scent of fresh baked bread and apple pie.  Furthermore, throughout the day, I was also able to build forts, use sling shots, bebe and pellet guns, and slide down the giant hill behind the barn when snow was abundant. The farm was the foundation that ignited my love for the beauty of nature.

In addition to enjoying the farm, I also enjoyed and will continue to enjoy its surroundings. I have hiked through the trails of state parks, nature reserves, and private properties with permission of course, camped at various allowed sites, and canoed, fished, and swam in rivers and lakes. Some of the state parks include: Tippecanoe State Park, Potato Creek State Park, Dunes State Park, and Turkey Run State Park. Some of the lakes include: Kankakee River, Bass Lake, Lake Maxinkuckee, Koontz Lake, Winona Lake, Lake Manitou, Wawasee Lake, Twin Lakes, and Lake Latonka. I have picked various fruits and vegetables from local U-pick farms in the counties of Marshal, Starke, St. Joseph, Fulton, and LaPorte. I attended a variety of fests such as The Blueberry Fest, The Mint Fest, The Harvest Fest, and the Scarecrow Fest, just to name a few. I have visited Amish Acres, dairy farms, hog farms, sale barns, and many flea markets. The slowness and creativity of country life most definitely left me with great appreciation for the beauty and simplicity of realism and nature.  For me this is the heart of the Midwest or perhaps I should say, this is my heart of the Midwest.

Chicago Reporter Neil Steinberg Thinks About What “Chicagoan” Means

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Neal Steinberg, seasoned reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, has written You Never Were in ChicagoAn excerpt appears in a recent issue of his paper.


Friday, October 26th, 2012

Overtired but beaming with energy. Smiling more than usual. A sense of rest admist running to and fro. Feelings of strong motivation despite recent increase in work loads. And on top of it all, really gloomy weather that I nonetheless appreciate… I’m home. After a two-and-a-half month stint away from Evansville, my longest ever in life, I have finally seized the opportunity to come home.

On the trip down, I tried to be mindful of my thoughts considering ‘homeliness’ is a recognized value in the Midwest. That term in itself figures perfectly into describing the sort of vague complacence I feel right now: homeliness does not describe anything in particular, yet it nevertheless evokes images or feelings, probably comparable among us. Thus, my first few lines struggle to present the picture of that complacence with strange juxtapositions. And while it could be that I just feel great getting away from a stressful environment, I am drawn to describe the ‘homeliness’ I have returned to as something that always is/was.

Now, two-and-a-half months is certainly no dreary odyssey, but then what does it say of my Midwestern home in the presently-rainy city of Evansville,IN that a mere ten weeks feels like ten months and then ten years even as I approached the familiar suburban driveway I had driven into since I was sixteen? Does it say anything about my ‘MIDWESTERN’ home, as though homecoming in other regions are not as sweet? As though other students from other regions would not get that sense of refreshment even one hour into travel? My honest answer is I’m not sure. Maybe this course is biasing my view to an extent on the singularity of the Midwestern experience. But if the Midwestern author Tanya Chernov is any indication (and I am presently wont to assert she is), then her words on a Midwestern homecoming may appeal to what I experienced couped up in my Corolla, driving 110 miles down the very uninspiring Highway 41.

She says, “Part of the benefit to living 2,000 miles away from where I grew up is that I get to come home, in that way that one can only do after spending considerable time away from the place of one’s birth…now that I’ve lived away from Wisconsin for more than 13 years, all I seem to want to do is write about home. In my fiction and nonfiction, poetry and short story forms, I find great satisfaction in exploring that landscape of my youth, the place that holds the most potent elements of my sense of heritage.” This still does not specifically designate something about coming home to the Midwest. My case figures even less because I haven’t left the Midwest at all! Yet I still feel some sort of significance to the fact that even the subtlest differences appear grandiose after only ten weeks away:  the gas station where I worked through college got new outdoor lights; the intersection which seemed always to have orange construction barrels outlining the most stringent paths around the unending repairs and enhancement was astonishingly barrel free; the big hole in the yard barn door, a festering wound in the backyard that irked my dad all through my undergrad years, had been cut out and replaced with fresh cedar. The fact the small things stand out so vividly (a Midwestern characteristic perhaps?) then sets up big reactions to the larger changes:  my high school got a fresh paint job; the Garfield’s restaurant has been replaced by a Roppongi Japanese Steak and Sushi; Dad got new speakers and a larger desktop monitor for the computer! Not that changes are expected or hoped for, but homecoming, at least on the drive home, involves thinking about the familiar places and landmarks that set off a chain reaction for comforting the mind and body– letting them know a time to be at ease is very near.

Of course, the strongest argument for what constitutes the homeliness expected of returning to my little (well, little to me) suburban home is the people. I have reveled in having/getting to tell the same stories three times to the parents and grandparents sets 1 and 2, whose first questions are always some variations of “how ya been?” “whatcha know?” and “har things?” I have received more hugs in the last twenty-four hours than I have during the routine crafted in Valpo– the tightest embraces I have felt from my parents and grandparents in quite a long time. Curiously, those strong holds have carried over to the hugs I have shared with my girlfriend, who joins me in the routine-living in Valpo and traveled down with me, as though the intimacy built up from longing for the company of people we miss passes through and revitalizes our own connection. Yes, it must be the intricate nature of the bonds to the people that makes a Midwestern homecoming ‘homely.’

But even if all of this is hogwarsh, I can at least add some relevancy to Midwestern studies thanks in large part to my grandfather. Ever the history buff (and often random conversationalist as his hearing impairment leaves him vulnerable to inserting random history facts that have nothing to do with the ongoing conversation, just so he feels like he is contributing). He offered a most a-pro-pro, ‘didja know’ piece of Evansville history to our lunch today:

“Didja know that large salt deposits were discovered in  downtown and westside Evansville around the middle of the 19th Century?”

“[Snickering quietly at the random bit of jeopardy trivia] No, Papaw. Howja know that?”

“I was just readin’ through some of mom’s (my great-grandma’s) stuff about the beginnings of Evansville. Yeah, the salt allowed them to not have to travel an are or days I guess in their carriages to get up to Vincennes to get salt for their meat. They could just stay down here.”

Intending to take a break from doing school work but finding inspiration to keep at it from the likeliest of unlikely places. Damn, it’s great to be home.

Benton Harbor’s Predicaments Subject of National Magazine Cover Story

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Benton Harbor, a town of 10,000 people in southwestern Michigan,  endures the ravages of economic and political upheaval.  Recent efforts to revive its fortunes focus the attention of Jonathan Mahler in a cover story for the New York Times Magazine