Sunday, October 12, 2014

West by Midwest: they smoke weed out there!

Last week, sipping a gin and tonic at the Denver airport at the end of my 2nd visit in a year, I found myself pondering other recent trips out west, Seattle and Portland included and considering the cultural differences between here and the Midwest.

Denver's capital building from my son Jack's apartment building.
To start with, yes, it’s true, just about anywhere you go in Denver the earthy, sweet aroma of marijuana greets you. Standing in line at the Great American Beer Fest I smelled weed. Sitting in my son’s kitchen in Capital Hill the smell rolled in the window regularly. Standing outside my other son, Sean’s place a block away, weed fumes waft down the street and up the stairwell. It followed me everywhere I went.

I started to think Willie Nelson was stalking me.

But the unique in these northwestern places goes beyond being on the cutting edge of legalized pot. There’s an easy-going “chill” to these cities that make them comfy places. Crowds at concerts and festivals strike me as more gracious and tolerant. Folks on the street are relaxed and smiling. They’ve got a refreshing “can-do” and “live and let live” way about them.

We like to think that technology is collapsing the borders between us, and I think it clearly is.

On a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show, a guest made a joke about the south being backward and hostile to Bill’s aggressive liberal politics. Maher was quick to disagree, noting that every urban area he performs in across the America is as plugged in and worldly as any other, with universities, ethnic restaurants, food co-ops, a broad base of religious faiths and strong appreciation for the arts.

My son Sean during our hiking trip last week.
My own little corner of Indiana has its Thai restaurants, brewery tasting rooms, organic food producers, Trader Joe's, immigrants, vegans and hipsters. About any musical artist you want to see performs here. There's opera, orchestra and professional soccer. I’ve seen just as many hipsters in Indy’s Fountain Square as I found in any other vibrant inner city neighborhood in Portland, Seattle, or Denver. And Indy has been winning recognition lately as an increasingly bike friendly town.

But there are differences.

Mid-westerners in general, and Hoosiers in particular, have what I impatiently call a “can’t-do spirit.” Propose a new idea and somebody’s quick to list all the reasons why it won’t work.

It’s a suffocating cultural reflex.

It’s very Midwestern and so very Hoosier. Got a new idea? “Lemme tell you why it won’t work.” You’ll hear Garrison Keillor describe the characters in the fictitious Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon that way. Hoosier politicians specialize in it.

Former Indiana University economist Morton Marcus once said, “If the Garden of Eden had been placed on the banks of the Wabash, we’d still be waiting for original sin.” Hoosiers just don’t want to be first. We’ve got our rut matted down just the way we like it. I’m proud of being a Hoosier, but this nay-sayer tendency make me absolutely crazy

Folks in northwestern cities seem to have little fear of being first. Little fear of looking at the world with fresh eyes.

They like the outdoors, but instead of just saying so like most folks do here, they actually go out and use it. Hoosiers will say they long for the great outdoors of the west. I’ll ask, “Do you ever drive an hour to southern Indiana and hike in the state and national forests? Do they ever go caving down there? Ever throw a kayack in our beautiful local river?” I often get blank stares in response.

Northwesterners love live music, and instead of simply buying their annual tickets to Jimmy Buffet, Dave Matthews and Zack Brown Band, they actually go out to hear live music on a regular basis –small acts in small venues are just fine. That seeds a local musician culture. If you don't support live music at the grassroots, you don't get a thriving local musician culture. Northwesterners seem more interested in social justice, concerned to the point of taking action over whether those with less are cared for. They celebrate the odd, the weird, the unusual, rather than recoiling from it. These are the places that loved Hoosier writer Kurt Vonnegut while folks in Indiana scratched their heads at his unique, sometime controversial style. Mass transit makes perfect sense to those in the urban west. That’s why it’s so easy to move around their cities. Here, Indy has been wringing its hands for a couple decades about light rail. We just can’t make ourselves pull the trigger. While we grumble about why it won’t work, northwestern cities go ahead and build it.

The view hiking near Estes last week.
True, those cities have their own, over the top weirdness. There’s the Portland movements to sorta legalize homelessness, “Ya know, why can’t these folks sleep outside in public places if they want to? Isn’t it their right?” I’m thinking, “My God! Shouldn’t you at least start by trying to find them a home?” And the near flat-earth insistence that Portland’s water not be fluoridated. And my Seattle friends joke, "People out here get pissed if you're smoking a cigarette in public, but not if you're smoking week."

These northwestern places are prone to such first world luxuries. Folks in third world countries wouldn’t understand. You first have to be spoiled before you can start fearing your luxuries with “fresh eyes.”

But these western places are mostly different in admirable ways.

And along with their “can-do” spirit, they have a “live and let live spirit.” That’s why legalized marijuana is taking hold out west along with gay marriage and doctor assisted suicide.

So I sit in the Denver airport preparing to head home to the Hoosier state where politicians say the want to get government off our backs but at the same time are so damn eager to dictate the terms of our private lives. And progressive change? I won't be expecting that anytime soon. My local and state leaders are likely ready with a list of reasons why change won’t work.

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