Last week, as part of my commitment to a civic commission, I attended a speech by Cold City’s mayor. The occasion was held in a new, burnished steel and honey-blond wood performing arts centre downtown on a snowy, slushy day, and I put on my brown pinstriped monkey suit and meandered down. The lecture hall was an impressive modern space lined with sumptuous fabrics and woods, filled to overflowing with wonks and power brokers, protesters, and various clueless citoyens like myself, with a large, dramatic picture window that, Cold City style, looked out not onto a beautiful view but rather a brutalist, brown concrete high-rise apartment block from the seventies. It seemed an interesting counterpoint to the luxuriousness of the hall, and represented in its physical manifestation some of the aesthetic and social conundrums of this place.
Being present among the city’s elect (literally and figuratively) drew my mind to settling down here for this stultifying interregnum. As the Mayor, with the perfectly lacquered hair and reptilian mannerisms particular to politicians, droned on over his nifty little PowerPoint presentation, and through the many moments of obligatory applause, as scripted as Kabuki (Down with Crime! Up with Youth! Down with Inefficiency! Up with Development!), my thoughts drifted to the dimensions of identity formation and the Bedouin-like travels we academics live through, taking a little from each place we land and packing it away, in small, portable valises we can grab quickly, without thought, in a hurry, a battered airplane waiting on a humid, cracked tarmac to spirit us away to the next destination.
Now of course, this is not necessarily the experience of all academics, perhaps even most academics. Many of us land in one place or another, and wake up thirty years later Emeritus and unbearably crabby. To which I say Mazel tov! This has not been my experience, however. Having fled across the continent back and forth five times, my sixth dropped me here, deep in the Profonde of some sort of formerly unknown Amerique.
I would like to think that I am not condescending to this particular, idiosyncratic corner of Middle America. I have tried, somewhat successfully, to recognise and appreciate the specific social and cultural qualities that Cold Place offers, if nothing more than the sheer alterity of severe Lutheran effacement. I know my way around town, where to turn left and where to turn right, where to get most any commercial item I might have gotten in New York, and where to get a decent cheeseburger. However, recently, I have begun to worry a bit about my own placement here, have started to realise that one’s cultural baggage, no matter how tightly packed, how lightly it weighs on one’s fingertips as one breaks off their stiletto heels to run faster, remains, however unintelligibly, important.
I wonder if my personal formation is not too coastal, too determined by living in particular communities with specific relationships to identity and social politics, to ever be truly comfortable here. Recent decisions to stay for the duration have only increased the intensity of the concern, the mildly obsessive focus on possible assimilations. Part of this is being torn by memory, and competing cultural comforts that live in other places. But a larger part is a growing recognition of the unique dimensions of Cold Place with its incredibly strong local culture that demarcates quite clearly insider and outsider status. I am reminded of a story I heard when I arrived, of a long-term gay resident of Cold City who, after 20 years of professional accomplishment here, took a job back in his hometown of New York because, as he put it, he “didn’t want to die alone.” When I heard this story originally, in the bloom of enthusiasm, I thought it ridiculous. Now, chillingly, I understand it completely.
As Love Buckets put it with his usual delicacy the other night as we sat, desultory, in a quiet, morose gay café surrounded by men with their faces fixed hypnotically on laptop screens, “All of your sophistication, and you still can’t get in [to the local culture].” As Love Buckets painfully explained, slowly and deliberately as if to underscore an important moral principle to a child, whereas New England Protestantism regarded modesty and self-effacement as hierarchical (I’m modest, ergo better than you), Cold Place Protestantism was designed more to reinforce the collective (I’m modest, so to not draw attention to myself). He traced out, quickly, several examples of how this attitude works: the refusal of compliment, the downplaying of accomplishment, the display and cherishing of unassuming tastes, functional architecture, and humble dreams.
The effect of this cultural sensibility on everything from social relations to professional engagements has been curiously frustrating. Those very attributes (florid articulation, educational achievement, cosmopolitanism, aesthetic discernment) that draw others to you like a moth to flame in the Babylonia of the coasts are actually anathema here, on some strange level: the indelible stain of the ausländer. Where this attitude meets the particular deployment of gay identity is even more problematic. If the act of coming out involves an elevation of individual ego against the communal super-ego (or alternatively I suppose, the sexual base against the cultural superstructure), then it means that by their very being LGBT people here transgress the dominant cultural code. Which goes a long way to understanding why regional LGBT folks are so assimilative in their principles, distinctly “just folks” in their hyper-consumerism of bourgeois proprieties, SUVs, Labradors, and CostCo cards.
All of which feels rather daunting. But perhaps I am following the wrong thread here, which is the assumption that I shall spend the rest of my days here, a tremor reflected in the mantra-like echo of Helen Fielding’s apt description ringing in my head: “… fears of dying alone and being found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian.” The simple fact of the matter is that the wide-angle cosmopolitanism that is reflected in my experience and makes me such a piss poor Cold City citizen is exactly what will most likely restlessly propel me, belongings tucked into a matchbox, once again into the ether. Perhaps, however and with any luck, before that inevitable flight of the Valkyries, I shall be able to play Babette to the feast.