Plains and Planes


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By Eli S. Chesen Something about living on the Plains really annoys me, which is being the occasional recipient of the condescending, geocentric attitude of some visitors to our tender land. They are the ones who view and relegate the Plains states to the status of "flyover states." Whether they visit us or we visit them, we inevitably find ourselves undeserving targets of abuse and humiliation from these myopics who hale from our nation’s certified cultural centers, east and west. I admit from the outset that I have a "thing" about this myself, having grown up in Sioux City, Iowa (home of one of the world’s largest stockyards) during an era long before OSHA. Sioux City had a lot going for it, but it did, frankly, reek with the stench of a thousand nations. All citizens of this ever-shrinking village shared a cross to bear. We grew up humble and apologetic, and it was a given that we expected ridicule from others. The silver lining, I think, was that our citizenry, while self-effacing, had to develop a patina of toughness and a sense of humor to survive our collective plight. Lest I sound vengeful for the deprived venue of my upbringing, I continue to go back there for professional consulting work and feel pleasant, albeit maudlin, feelings there as I drive around and reacquaint myself with the beautiful topography, which can only be made possible by the presence of a major river. The spirit and nature of my frustrations over geographical prejudice were captured eloquently by an old friend who almost lost his job as an airline reservations operator when a Plains-avoidant customer asked him if a particular flight, from New York to Los Angeles, was nonstop—to which my friend responded: "The flight stops very briefly at an Orange Julius stand in Denver." My first experiences with the stigma of a Plainsman identity began the day before my high school graduation, when I left for parts eastern. I worked a summer job in Syracuse, N.Y., at a Western Union office. I am probably partly responsible for the downfall of that once-mighty company. It was during that summer that I began to realize the meaning of "flyover state." While on a lunch break, I ran into an elderly, egocentric woman, who told me to keep an eye out for her grandson, who was attending the University of Minnesota. Honestly, she said that to me. Others who were with me on the bus on my way to work would ask the inevitable questions about cows running through the streets of my hometown and whether we had traffic lights and parking meters. (Incidentally, parking meters began in Oklahoma City.) My Syracuse summer was an absolutely defining time in my life. Having been an abysmal student and having barely gotten through high school with a low C average, I felt like I had been given a second chance to resurrect myself, having landed a summer job which allowed me to "sandbag" most of the day and essentially read for eight hours at a time. Rudimentary communications being what they were in those days, it was the extent of my job responsibility to receive two or three brief teletype messages per day, which I would retype and resend to another location. Today, my former job would be replaced by a cable with a multipronged plug on each end. I probably did about 20 minutes per day of something which actually resembled work throughout that summer. Working by myself in the Syracuse Western Union office was a monastic existence (minus the Gregorian chants). Every day during lunch (yes, I actually had a lunch break sandwiched between my other breaks) I walked over to the University of Syracuse Bookstore and bought used books and magazines, taking back the ones which I had read the day before. Secondary to motivations, which remain enigmatic to me, I left Syracuse with a new attitude, en route to the University of Nebraska, feeling just a little more confident in myself and more aware of the influences of Bertram Russell, Darwin, Einstein, Tolstoy and Rod Serling. After all, I had been studying fairly close to the highly cultural East Coast. I must have read 50 Scientific Americans cover to cover, and I still remember an SA article about the eradication of the screw worm fly in Texas through the breeding, sterilization and release of the male flies.… Really, I am not making this stuff up. By the time I got to Lincoln, I felt that I had shed my shameful high school study habits just in time, and was ready, for the first time in my life, to act like a student. I felt comfortable in my Midwestern skin as most of my classmates at UNL had the same Midwestern twang which I had. At that point I was fine with my Midwestern roots, at least until I arrived somewhat later at the University of Iowa to start medical school. While I was still on my own geographical home turf, I was to be humbled and frightened by a cruel twist of fate. Thanks to our alphabetical lab station assignments, I sat between "Bookin" from Yale University and "Cohen" from Harvard University… It was demoralizing to have had the hand of fate hurl me into the center of an "Ivy League House of Horrors." Again, I experienced a recrudescence of Plains-consciousness. Thank goodness, the University of Iowa was pass or fail. Keep in mind this was before I realized that people like "W" Bush could get into Yale, and certainly most of us feel smarter than he. Following medical school, I left the Plains for an internship in Phoenix. There were 24 interns in our group who had graduated from esteemed medical schools from New York to California. My wife, Peggy, and I were a little intimidated by the list of the other 23 sophomoric, young physicians, a number of whom came from cultural centers from New York to Philadelphia to LA. Yes, when all was said and done, I still had this "thing" about emanating from a flyover state. There were four of us from Nebraska; we were good friends. I remember thinking that, "By the time we get to Phoenix, we must remember to remove the hayseeds from our mouths." Likewise as I began my internship, I of course had anticipatory concern as to whether or not my training on the Plains was as good as that of my new colleagues’ and whether my persona reflected that of a bucolic, insular loser from Iowa and Nebraska. As my internship year flew by, I found myself gradually getting over the usual fears: High on my list was the dread that when I was on an internal medicine overnight hospital call, I would be asked to go "upstairs" (you never ever wanted to have to go up there) and pronounce someone dead — and indeed pronounce them "dead" only to have the nurse call back a few minutes later bearing the surreally good news that Mr. Furguson had awakened and was on his call button demanding another pain pill. Phoenix was a medium-sized city back then, a little bigger than Omaha is now. While the city today has been irrigated to death and is beginning to resemble any generic suburbia, in 1969, when I arrived there, it was decidedly southwestern with more than a vestige of Hopi, Pima and Navajo cultures, punctuated by an infusion of synthetic cowboy culture. Phoenix was like Santa Fe with pickup trucks. Camelback Road was lined with orange trees, which have subsequently been supplanted by see-through glass high-rises. Phoenix was replete with wonderful public museums and had a respectable symphony orchestra, whose venue was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There were private galleries galore, as well, though most of those seemed to be selling Thomas Kincade-like trash, pseudo-primitive jewelry and Kachina Doll replicas. It was, though, a truly culturally diverse place in which to live, and I have wonderful memories of great medical and cultural mentors there. After Phoenix, Uncle Sam sent me to Las Vegas (Nellis Air Force Base) for a while. Living in Las Vegas, which was growing even faster than Phoenix, served as a prototypical preview of what was to become of all suburbias to follow. I think of Las Vegas as The Mall of America Southwest. After Las Vegas, I moved back to Lincoln. Be advised that if you grow up and stay on the Plains or return to them, the Plains-related humiliation will continue… Having moved back, I continued to endure degradation, now from visiting artists, architects, musicians and other luminaries who graced my life here over the years. I have long had a passion for chamber music, notwithstanding the fact that I cannot read music nor play an instrument. On the other hand, I go to a lot of concerts, and over the years I have enjoyed many illuminating evenings with visiting musicians, the vast majority of whom are wonderfully engaging and creative personalities. Some of these people, however, come across as gifted savants, who feel as though they have made a great sacrifice, traveling to our remote and uncivilized provinces for a gig of Mozart and Beethoven. However, I want to reassure you, that there exist moments of triumph for us, the underdogs from Flyover, USA. A few years ago an internationally known violist and radio personality played an afternoon concert here. He was pedantic and patronizing until I asked him if he played any of the Miklos Rozsa viola sonatas—ah, a rare moment of humility for our guest—he did not know that Rozsa (known more for his film scores) had written any viola sonatas. I burned him a copy of my CD and have relived the moment many times. It was not until I moved from Las Vegas back to the Plains, specifically to Nebraska, that I found a truly amazing concentration of people having so much interest and access to all forms of art and culture: concerts in homes; an insurance company executive winning a Pulitzer; an ophthalmologist writing and playing experimental music; a chamber music concert series alive and well after 40 years and counting; a ceramic artist doing Madam Butterfly; public and private art collections which are the envy of others all over the world; and, especially, a grand and highly diversified group of professional artists, musicians, writers, actors and dancers. Well, I could go on and on. Even the smallest towns on the Plains, in the most far-flung counties, have been known to host many a concert and art showing. Sioux City now has a Skidmore-designed art museum and The Des Moines Art Center is housed in what is arguably one of the world’s rarest of architectural gems designed by the three-generation triumvirate of Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier. It is my favorite place on the Plains! About the only thing I have not been able to find back here is an Orange Julius stand. While I am not the first to proclaim this, culture is where you find it; culture is of people, and it is plentiful here. Just as Antonin Dvorak wrote his "American" string quartet while visiting Spillville, Iowa, the Plains are alive with music and culture, though unfortunately this wonderful phenomenon is not visible at 39,000 feet.

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