Friday, June 12, 2009

Carmel: Pretentious or Proud? 12/10/08

Carmel has been in the news lately, and with enough acrimony, it’s worth wondering why Hoosiers feel the way they do about Carmel.
At the recent news of apparent budget shenanigans involving Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard aimed at getting a high-dollar concert hall and a new Keystone Avenue built, people were poking fun and rolling their eyes at the mention of Carmel.
I even caught myself making a snide comment over Thanksgiving. Family members gathered at Mitchell’s Fish Market in Carmel on Friday night. When making the plans, my brother in law from Cleveland joked, “We’re going to Carmel (pronounced ‘Carm-L’)-by-the-Sea?” referring to the elite seaside California town where Clint Eastwood once served as Mayor.
I replied, “No. Carmel-by-the-Interstate.”
Per capita, Carmel is Indiana’s wealthiest community. So there are layers of meaning in that humorous label for Carmel. There’s the self-deprecation of Hoosiers, always ready to make fun of themselves before someone else does. But there’s something else there that goes beyond the delight of knocking the richest guy on the block down a peg. I suppose it’s a reaction against pretension.
Hoosiers hate pretension.
It goes way back. In the early 20th Century, then famed Hoosier author, Meredith Nicholson was asked by an east-coast magazine to write a piece explaining what, exactly, a Hoosier was. He alluded to this guarding against pretension.
He said that Hoosiers of that era purposefully left the “g” off words ending in, “ing.” Words like “working” and “going” become, workin’ and goin’, lest anyone mistakenly think you fancy yourself a refined, cultured, bigwig.
Literature from Indiana’s late Victorian era also makes fun of people who put their street address on letters and post cards, especially if they lived on a street of grand homes. They also made fun of the first folks to put in telephones. So the comment on such a person might have gone something like this:
“That guy thinks his dog don’t stink. Why, he puts his street address on mail so everyone will know what a swanky street he lives on and even thinks he’s so important that he put in a telephone so people can get his opinion at a moment’s notice.”
True, everyone, everywhere in the world will tell you they don’t like pretentious people, but we Hoosiers have elevated our aversion to pretension to the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not act superior to anyone.”
You see it in the humor of Hoosier wise-ass, Dave letterman. He’s built a career out of knocking self-important people down a peg or two. Note the occasional Letterman show boycotts by the ego-laden Cher and Madonna, both miffed at not being worshipped by Dave. And being true to his nature, the jokes are often on Letterman himself. To prove how regular he is, his regular ol’ mom is a regular guest. Ironically, for this discussion anyway, Dave’s mom lives in Carmel (by-the-Interstate).
I think the negative side of Carmel’s image comes down to that perception of pretension. It’s not just a resentment or envy of the wealthy – though I’m sure that plays a big part as well. It’s the perception that Carmel’s leaders aren’t just trying to make the best city they can make, they’re also trying to make it better than your town, and worse yet, they want you to know it’s better.
But I think those who perceive those motivations have simply gotten lost along the fine line between pride and arrogance, and presume the latter, because, after all, they’re Hoosiers.
I continue to say, “perception” for a reason. While I might tease with my, “by-the-Interstate” comment (for after all, I too am a Hoosier), I admire a lot of what they’re doing in Carmel, including the concert hall and the new Keystone Avenue. And the fact that they’ve got the tax base and willingness to do it – well good for them.
I think most out of towners drive through Carmel and also admire the big projects. But they also think it’s a bit much, and that the town’s leaders seem to want it all a bit too much. After all, the recent hoopla revolves around the appearance that city leaders misled the public about the costs of the concert hall and road project just to get them built.
We don’t have to endorse dishonest leadership, but let’s give Carmel the benefit of the doubt for their dynamic community and its big projects. Their leaders are optimistic. People who act with hope and aggressive optimism are often successful, and once successful, their continued aggressive optimism can come off as pretension.
Maybe it’s time we Hoosiers just get over it, because that aversion to pretension holds back a lot of Indiana towns and keeps them from being as dynamic as a town like Carmel.

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