Intercourse, PA can have its debauchery, Hope, AR can make its Presidents, and Providence, RI can have its failed utopia. We're with Boring, Oregon. We aren't afraid to admit that most of us lead tepid, pedestrian little lives. Plainspeak is our dialect; literal is our middle name. Welcome to Normal, Illinois.
Everyone knows that good writers have to spend many years counting fleas, or, in my case, shucking corn. I'm glad I grew up in a town that wasn't aiming for grandiosity. My upbringing in a four-square house on a quiet Middle American Boulevard enabled me to participate fully in the era of big hair and Reaganomics, and to write angst-filled lyrics in high school with lines like, "Normal, Normal, Illinois, ill with normalcy, your ill annoys me."
The Midwest is vastly misunderstood, feared by coastal urbanites, ridiculed by commentators, and underestimated by artists. Yes, it is a land of church socials where the term "salad" still invokes Jello and miniature marshmallows. Yes, the people are nice enough to induce a sugar coma. And yes, most bad hairdos originated within 200 miles of my hometown. However, the Midwest is also a place with a well-developed sense of the absurd, a region with a wry and macabre sense of humor, and a culture where people are surprisingly willing to change their minds.
The biggest myth of the Midwest is that it is a closed-minded and overwhelmingly conservative place. Actually, Midwesterners are very likely to have traveled around the country (often by car), sampled regional cultures, and approached the outside world with a wide-eyed curiosity. They read books. They are connected to the blood, veins, and brain of the nation through the farmers, truckers, and entrepreneurs in their family trees. Most Midwesterners are surprisingly receptive to new ideas, quite aware that they haven't seen and heard everything yet. Sure, they might choose strip malls over haute couture, but only because they tend to be Amish about frivolous pursuits. They prefer to spend their energy being neighborly and going to homecoming games. Community is valued over the individual, and Midwesterners aren't obsessed with psychoanalyzed individuation.
History and Industry
Normal was named after Illinois State University back when teaching colleges were called "normal schools." It is a town of 45,386 in McLean County, IL, a county just slightly smaller than the state of Rhode Island, and the highest corn producing county in the US. Normal's twin city, Bloomington (not to be confused with Bloomington, Indiana), hosts Illinois Wesleyan University and a bigger population. If you want to make sure you're not missing out on any excitement, peek at the Bloomington-Normal Webcams. Some businesses that have started in Bloomington-Normal, IL include Beer Nuts, Steak n' Shake, State Farm Insurance, and Beich's Candy. If you're ever passing through Bloomington-Normal, I highly recommend a tour of the Nestle-Beich candy factory (which includes a bag of samples at the end) and a visit to Steak n' Shake for a steakburger, thin-sliced fries, and a milkshake with the requisite cherry on top.
The Arts in Normal
Move over MOMA -- no, seriously, go back to New York where you belong. In Normal, we like art shows with short lines. Can you believe the Center for the Visual Arts in Normal, IL has hosted shows by Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz? Neither can I. Furthermore, the alternative publishing in Normal is out of control. ISU hosts the Unit for Contemporary Literature, which is putting out some of the most innovative work around. The small presses FC2 and Dalkey Archive Press are both affiliated with this unit, as are the journals Spoon River Poetry Review and the bilingual Mandorla. And finally the Post Amerikan, the awesome long-running progressive taped-together paper I used to read, put a few of its articles online. Read some of the samples from the lit. journals I just mentioned, and while you're at it, stop by the Normal Theater or listen to my Dad's radio show, Radio Munson, on WGLT online. Also, as long as you're going retro cool with your music picks, buy some spiffy recycled furniture for lounging at my Mom's store, City Consignments, in downtown Bloomington. Also, the fairs and festivals are community events, so be sure not to miss the annual Sweet Blues, Sweet Corn festival in Normal (kudos to the person who thought to marry corn and blues), the McLean County Fair in Bloomington, and the Illinois Shakespeare Festival at Ewing Castle. Also, if you like claustrophobia, as we Normalites do, you might want to go rock climbing inside a silo. In his Blogging Across America log, an outsider called Normal "a smallish town coalesced with Bloomington, Illinois into Siamese twins of unrelenting Midwestern normalness." If you spend too much time in Normal, you'll want to hit the road, so get your kicks on the old Route 66 tour.
If you think Columbus, Ohio and Madison, Wisconson have it goin' on three dollar bill style, you should check out the queering of Normal. There are gay rights groups galore nowadays, and yes, even a gay rights bill on the books. Because you can't have counterculture without something to piss people off, Normal has a flourishing little underground. It's little, sure, but if you're going to start a subterranean movement, you should probably do it in a place with the third richest soil in the country. It's just common sense, people.
Have Some Good Clean Midwestern Fun
--Send someone you think is really swell a Bloomington-Normal postcard.
--Download retro Steak n' Shake computer wallpaper by following the instructions on the left column of this page.
--Choose one of your favorite Midwest salads and make it for your sweetie, or take it to a funeral.
--Look at pictures of corn mazes, then try this virtual corn maze.