Cold in the Heartland

The blast of Arctic air that has moved across the Heartland this week brings me memories of other winters. Growing up in the Heartland, I was accustomed to a few days some years when the high temperature of the day was below zero degrees F. I was also accustomed to a few days some years when the high temperature of the day was above one hundred degrees F. We learned to live with such extremes, although central heating and air conditioning made the living far easier.

When I was a boy, I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they walked on the moon. When winter came, I chose to imitate their excursion in our back yard. The temperature was five degrees below zero, so it was important to leave no skin exposed; but that was just the point. I was dressing up as an astronaut, putting on double layers of shirt and pants, thick socks, black boots (which had five buckles each), mittens on my hands, a heavy coat with a hood, a stocking cap under the hood, and a scarf across my face. Dressed in that fashion, I went through the back door and backwards down the steps, making a giant leap for mankind. I observed the scenery, took samples of the snow, and played astronaut to my heart’s content. For the next couple of years, whenever the weather gave me the opportunity, I repeated the experience, leaving footprints that would never fade, since there is no atmosphere—and hence no wind or rain—on the moon.

It’s hard to describe the difference of a day below zero to people who are miserable when the temperature falls below forty degrees F. Snow has a different sound when you walk on it in the deep cold of winter—instead of crunching, it squeaks. Frozen fog is a sight to see—ice crystals hanging in the air, not falling as flakes. The coldest days come with clear skies, as the snow reflects the light and heat of the sun back into space. That sunlight glaring off the snow can almost blind a person, especially a person wearing glasses that have just become coated with frost when they hit the cold air.

Heartlanders in general, and Chicagoans in particular, are proud of our ability to face all kinds of weather calmly and stoically. We laugh at dwellers of the desert who come to visit in August and wilt, even though the temperature is only ninety degrees, because the relative humidity is also ninety. We laugh at the foreigners who bundle into their heaviest coats when the first snow falls in October and then take pictures of themselves and each other. We know how to drive in the snow, and we sneer at those who slide off the road. Harsh weather makes us strong, able to face any difficulty, unlikely to be overcome by adversity.

The story is told of a Heartlander who died a couple of years ago; he was sent to the devil’s prison for his sins. The devil knew this Heartlander to be a tough man, so he tried his best to make him miserable. He cranked the thermostat up high, but the Heartlander simply relaxed and said, “Feels like a July day back home.” Annoyed, the devil turned the temperature even higher, but all he heard was, “Feels like the middle of August back home.” The devil decided to try the opposite extreme and turned the air conditioner on full blast. Soon fog was swirling, icicles were forming, and even the devil himself begin to shiver. Satan smiled, though, as he heard the man running around in the fog shouting at the top of his voice. Strangely, though, the man did not sound unhappy. Satan lost his smile when he heard what the man was shouting: “The Cubs won the World Series! The Cubs won the World Series!” J.

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Movie review: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

I bought the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for one reason: the movie celebrates the city of Chicago. Other members of my family do not approve—not that they don’t love Chicago, but because they are involved in education. The depiction of high school, and especially of teachers and administrators, in the movie is insulting, no doubt. All the same, the movie is widely regarded as a reminder to enjoy life, to seize the day, and to make one’s life worth living.

Like many other John Hughes movies, Ferris Bueller involves high school students who are confronted with an adult world that they neither understand nor respect. Set in the 1980s (the time period in which these movies were made), Hughes’ work can be regarded as commentary upon the Baby Boomers, a generation that questioned authority and made their own rules in the 1960s, only to become every bit as rigid and authoritarian when they rose to positions of power. The youngsters in Hughes’ stories are not taking to the streets to protest, nor are they seeking Flower Power. In many ways they are conformists, even though they quietly resent the lives they are forced to live. Generally wealthy, well-dressed, even pampered, they lack a loving connection to their parents. As a result, they form their own tribal culture which grants them an identity which comes from themselves and not from the adults who make all the rules.

Ferris Bueller is supposed to be a likeable character. Even the school secretary reports that most students in the school like and admire Ferris—“They say he’s a righteous dude.” But Ferris is dishonest, manipulative, conniving, self-centered, and smug. Some reviewers have labeled him a psychopath. He breaks into the school’s computer system and changes his attendance record—probably also his grades, although that is not shown. He sets up an elaborate system of props and sound effects to cover his absence from his bedroom, should anyone check on him. He faces the camera and speaks to the audience (which is hardly new or clever; Woody Allen did it earlier, and far better, in Annie Hall). Ferris gives instructions about how to deceive one’s parents and be excused from school due to illness. Ferris’ sister Jeannie is not fooled by his ruse, and neither is the school principal. But the movie’s script demands that Ferris succeed at everything he tries. He is a prankster like Till Eulenspiegel; and, as with Till, the audience is expected to be on the side of Ferris Bueller.

Ferris has a friend, Cameron, who is also missing school due to illness. Ferris decides that Cameron’s illnesses are psychosomatic, a result of neglect from Cameron’s parents. Besides, Ferris does not have a car and Cameron does. In short order, Ferris browbeats Cameron into getting out of bed and getting dressed and driving to the Bueller house. He then forces Cameron to pose as the father of Ferris’ girlfriend Sloane, getting her released from school through the phony news of the death of a grandmother. Still manipulating Cameron, Ferris gets access to the prized possession of Cameron’s father, an expensive sportscar. With that vehicle, they escape into the city to enjoy a baseball game at Wrigley Field, lunch at a fancy restaurant, a German heritage parade, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Meanwhile, the school principal is determined to catch Ferris playing hooky. In a series of cartoonish events, Mr. Rooney attempts to visit the Bueller house, only to be struck by misfortune after misfortune. He is like Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner, except this time the Roadrunner has all the props from Acme. Mr. Rooney tangles repeatedly with a fierce dog. Then, when he finally gets into the house, he is attacked by Jeannie, who—not recognizing him—calls the police to report an intruder in the house.

In every story, something is supposed to happen to the main character that changes him or her. No such thing happens to Ferris Bueller on his day off. He catches a foul ball at Wrigley Field, he commandeers the sound system of a parade float to serenade his friends and the city in general, and he returns home in the nick of time to escape capture by his parents. Some people suggest that Ferris Bueller does not even exist in the movie. They suggest that Ferris is an imaginary character, created by Cameron to be all the things that Cameron cannot be. Although this explanation does not match all the events in the script, it does underline the key to the movie: nothing but good happens to Ferris, and he is unchanged at the end of the movie, but his day off does provide important changes in most of the other characters in the movie.

Sloane does not change. She is there mostly to stand next to Ferris and look pretty. Cameron admires her, and she shows warmth toward him, but she is definitely Ferris’ girl. They even speak lightly of becoming married.  This does not stop Ferris from flirting with young ladies on a parade float. Later, he interrupts a mad dash across the back yards of his neighborhood to introduce himself to two sunbathers. That’s how little respect he has for Sloane. At the same time, though, Cameron, Jeannie, and Mr. Rooney each experience important changes in the movie, changes that would not have happened without Ferris Bueller’s day off.

Cameron begins as a deeply troubled character. He is in bed with symptoms said to be brought on by neglect from his parents. As he prepares to heed Ferris’ call to drive to the Bueller house, Cameron suffers an anxiety attack, crying out and striking the seat of the car. Overcoming his rage, he then has a tussle with his best friend in the midst of his phone call to the school principal. The purloining of his father’s car weighs upon his spirits throughout the day off. Finally, when the group discovers that the garage attendants have taken the car for a spin (adding to the mileage recorded on the odometer, something Cameron’s father monitors carefully), Cameron drops into what appears to be a catatonic state. Even if he is faking it, his choice to respond to his problem in that way, and his success in holding the state for a good length of time, indicate severe emotional health problems. He ends his catanoia with the appearance of an attempted suicide by drowning—again, not an emotionally healthy choice.

After the episode at the swimming pool, the group returns to the garage holding the precious sports car. Once again Cameron suddenly strikes out in anger, kicking and flailing at his father’s car. Realizing that he has damaged the car, Cameron begins to assess his need to deal with his father, no longer to hide behind illnesses and silence. Before he can assimilate that reality, though, the car shoots out the rear of the garage and crashes below the house. “You killed the car,” Ferris observes. Although Ferris weakly offers to take blame for the incident, Cameron refuses. He is going to use the disaster involving the car to assert himself to his father. He is finally going to stand up for himself. This is the last we see of Cameron in the movie.

Meanwhile, Jeannie faces changes of her own. She begins the movie irritated with her brother and his ability to do as he chooses without any negative consequences. After she discovers students in the school hallway raising money to help with Ferris’ feigned illness, she tries to report his crime to the principal, but Mr. Rooney has already left the school in pursuit of Ferris. When Jeannie returns home, she senses the presence of an intruder in the house and calls the police for help. Waiting for them to arrive, she hears a noise in the kitchen. In self-defense she assaults the intruder, not recognizing him as Mr. Rooney. When the police arrive, they find no evidence of an intruder in the house, overlooking Mr. Rooney’s wallet, which he had dropped in the Bueller kitchen. (The police bumble as badly as every other adult figure of authority in the movie.)

Taking her to the police station to charge her with placing a false report, the police leave her for a few minutes sitting next to a drug-dazed Charlie Sheen. In their brief conversation, Sheen gives Jeannie a new outlook on life, beginning with the ability to let Ferris be Ferris without being bothered by whatever he does. Jeannie gets to act on this advice driving her mother home from the police station. Seeing her brother sneaking through the neighborhood, Jeannie begins to drive erratically, distracting her mother and delaying so Ferris can return home safely. He nearly makes it, but he finally is confronted by Mr. Rooney. At this point, Jeannie has found Mr. Rooney’s wallet in the house. She can vindicate herself before the police and still see Ferris suffer for his crimes. Instead, she uses the wallet to blackmail the principal and prevent her brother from the punishment he deserves. Is this turn against authority and responsibility a permanent change for Jeannie or only a temporary softening of her heart? We do not know; her part in the story is over.

This leaves Mr. Rooney. His car has been towed. His nice suit and shoes have been ruined. His body and his pride have been damaged. Now comes a final humiliation. A school bus, filled with students from his school, is ready to take him back to his office. Bedraggled like the Coyote after every attempt to catch the Roadrunner, Mr. Rooney walks down the aisle of the bus. The students stare vacantly at him; in their own way, they have faced a day as tough as his day. One girl takes sympathy upon the principal, offering him a seat and a piece of candy. Has Mr. Rooney learned his lesson? Will his bus ride help him to empathize with the students and care more about their lives? Again, we do not know. Mr. Rooney is left on the bus.

We do not learn about Cameron and his father, or about Jeannie and her new attitude, or about Mr. Rooney and his revelation. This is not their movie. It is Ferris Bueller’s day off. Because he does not care about these people, except for the parts they play in his own entertainment, we are not expected to care about them. Ferris underlines this attitude by addressing the audience one more time after the closing credits. Informing them that the movie is over and they should go home, he reinforces his point. He claimed a day off to enjoy himself, and the effect that has had on other people does not matter to him. In this, he completes his role as the merry prankster.

Moreover, Daylight Saving Time must be abolished. J.

America’s Heartland

America’s Heartland is also called the Midwest. It is not in the south, or on the Atlantic coast, or on the Pacific coast. It is not known for mountains. It has five great lakes and thousands of very good lakes, as well as rivers, prairies, forests, and vast acres of farmland. The Heartland has several large cities and a great many small towns. It is crossed by many roads, including Interstates 55, 80, 90, and 94.

Different observers have given the Heartland different boundaries, many of them defined by state borders. In my opinion, the Heartland runs from the Canadian border south to the Missouri and Ohio Rivers; it begins in the hills of western Pennsylvania and extends to eastern Nebraska. Chicago is the largest city in the Heartland, but it also includes Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Des Moines, Omaha, and Lincoln. Kansas City and St. Louis are on the southern boundary of the Heartland, as is Cincinnati.

Great Britain acquired half of the Heartland by treaty from France at the end of the Seven Years War. After the Revolutionary War, that region was given to the United States by treaty and was called the Northwest Territory. The other half of the Heartland was included in the Louisiana Purchase.

The Heartland is politically diverse. Many of the states in the Heartland remain “too close to call” during presidential elections, unlike states in other regions that are solidly red or solidly blue. Ronald Reagan was born and raised in the Heartland. Barack Obama began his political career in the Heartland.

The Heartland is home to ten major league baseball teams, ten professional football teams, six professional basketball teams, and six professional hockey teams. The Heartland is knit together by college football and basketball. The Big Ten Conference, aside from Maryland and Rutgers, is at home in the Heartland. In many parts of the Heartland, college football games matter more to people than any professional competitions.

The Heartland feeds America and the world. More than half of America’s corn, soybeans, and hogs are raised in the Heartland, as well as a large percentage of dairy cattle and beef cattle. Many other fruits, vegetables, and grains are raised in the Heartland. Moreover, the Heartland processes all of these foods before shipping them to the rest of the world. Carl Sandburg called Chicago “Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” Coal and natural gas are also found in abundance in the Heartland.

Weather in the Heartland reaches all extremes. Summers on the prairie are hotter than summers in south Florida, but winter temperatures regularly drop below zero degrees Fahrenheit. The Heartland has endured floods and droughts, tornadoes, hailstorms, and blizzards. The people of the Heartland endure weather with little complaining; one of the most common expressions about weather in the Heartland is, “Be patient; it will change soon.”

People of the Heartland often seem less expressive than people from other regions of the United States. In the Heartland, people are less likely to question visitors about whether they like the city or state they are visiting. People living in the Heartland seem to laugh less, cry less, shout less, hug less, and even talk less than people from other parts of the country. The humor of the Heartland is sometimes characterized as “dry.” Johnny Carson was from the Heartland. Bob Newhart is from the Heartland. Garrison Keillor is, of course, from the Heartland.

Other Americans sometimes characterize the Heartland as “Fly-over states.” But the cities of the Heartland have some of the world’s best symphony orchestras, ballet and opera companies, art museums, natural and historical museums, comedy clubs, botanical gardens, and zoos. Colleges and universities in the Heartland have produced some of the world’s leading scientists, mathematicians, engineers, writers, artists, musicians, and leaders in many other fields.

The Heartland holds the loyalty of its children, even when they wander far from home. Jobs and retirement have brought Heartlanders into the south, the southeast, and the southwest, but for many of these people the Heartland remains “home.” They still cheer for the same teams, they still yearn for news of their old neighborhoods, and when two of them meet they have an instant bond.

Fast transportation and instant communication have homogenized the world in some ways. McDonalds and WalMart look the same wherever they are found. Everyone in the country can watch the same shows, go to the same movies, and listen to the same music. Yet most people of the world continue to hold to a sense of their roots. With more time for leisure, many people have turned to cultural events to celebrate their family history-with food, with dance, with clothing, with music, and with artwork. The Heartland is home to people of many backgrounds-European, African, Asian, or Native American. Many languages are spoken in the households of the Heartland, and many different kinds of food are prepared in homes and in restaurants. Yet the Heartland itself is also a culture worth celebrating. The Heartland is an essential part of the American tapestry; without the Heartland, the remaining states would be far poorer.

You can take a person out of the Heartland, but you cannot remove the Heartland from that person’s heart.

J.