Smile Politely

I heart the Heartland

This scandal with the U of I granting admissions to politically connected, under-qualified undergraduate applicants just goes on and on. It seems Iran-Contra-like in its scale. This morning, my co-author Cristy asked me why this was so. After all, she pointed out, doesn’t this sort of thing go on at Ivy League schools as a matter of course? George W. Bush got into Yale, and even graduated.

I offered three reasons. The first two I thought were sensible; the third one I just made up.

1. The University of Illinois is a public, land grant school, and, as such, has an obligation of fairness to the taxpayers.

2. In the wake of Blagojevich, we have gone well beyond the normal amount of rot and corruption to be expected in state government, and we now need to fumigate.

3. We are humble midwesterners, and don’t respect the elite and their way of granting themselves favors.

I like to think that three is true. Regardless, I believe there is a certain midwestern humility of which I am humbly proud. Men from New Jersey are loud and self-promoting, like human cars that lean on their own horn, unaware they are obnoxious. But those of us in the heartland have a certain ethic in which people are considered equal until proven intolerable.

This won’t make sense to the sort of people who write comments on Smile Politely, but humility is a virtue, even a mark of spiritual wisdom.

Take, for example, local arts. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, here in C-U there is a low ceiling on how big of a big shot you can be. If you get too carried away with a sense of your own greatness, this behavior will backfire on you right away. Whereas, if you are an artist living in Manhattan, being an unbearably arrogant diva means you fit right in.

So it’s good for me, I suppose, to be often embarrassed to admit that I not only live here, but am from here. In fact, when I am traveling, I have been known to tell people in Europe or New York that I’m from Chicago, a city of which they may have heard. It’s a lie, but it saves me having to explain the existence of a “Champaign-Urbana” to people who cannot understand or care.

New Yorkers don’t consider the distinction between Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana (in descending order of greatness) as important as the difference between “sushi” and “sashimi,” just like Chicagoans would be unimpressed by the existence of a mild Champaign/Urbana rivalry.

Whenever I am forced to be honest, or feel that midwestern humility acting up, I tell people I live in “Urbana.” A Champaign snob might roll their eyes at that, but I choose my wording not out of Urbana pride but because I believe that “Urbana” is a superior word. “Champaign” is gross; it looks like some sparkling beverage brewed from potatoes. And “Champaign-Urbana” must be one of the ugliest compounds in the atlas, almost bigger than the city it represents. Words mean a lot. Being from “Champaign-Urbana” would be so much better even if the place were called “Yellow Springs.” Just about the only worse name for a town is “Rutland, Vermont.” That’s a terrible name for a place to have been born and to still live.

“Urbana” suits me because “urban” implies “big city,” and the “-a” on the end is reminiscent of nirvana or utopia. (Hey Urbana, do we have to make things worse for ourselves by hosting a yearly “Sweetcorn Festival”?)

I wish I could claim to be from “L.A.” or “New York.” Even “Austin” or “Boston.” I don’t want to live any of those places, but I want to be able to tell people I do. Just claiming to live in such a place grants one an enormous, unfair cred, no matter what you do or who you are. You could be two years old, but if you’re from “Seattle,” you’re automatically cooler than any Champaign hipster. At least I can boast of a colorful ethnic identity: I’m part Iowa, part Missouri.


I live in Urbana. I have a day job. At night, I write for Smile Politely. And Spineless Books. It’s a good life.

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