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State by State

Quilt of the states.
I've been dipping into a fun anthology called State by State: A panoramic portrait of America, edited by Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey. Inspired by the Federal Writers' Project that employed some 6,000 people & produced guides to each of the states, their goal was to "put together a book that captures something essential, something fundamental and distinctive about each state... something broad-minded and good-hearted... a road trip in book form."

So far so good.

"Each [state] guide ran more than 500 pages," they say. I am holding my beloved South Dakota guide, discarded from the Huron (SD) library & which I paid $20 for in 1982, when I was making $100 a week. It is 421 pages & that is counting the index.

OK, a small matter. Some of the essays are great: Jonathan Franzen on New York and Dave Eggers on Illinois make me want to read every word they ever write. I learned from Heidi Julavits on Maine and Jack Hitt on South Carolina—states where I've lived. Philip Connors on Minnesota was insightful & smart, as was George Packer on populism & liberalism (!) in Alabama. I haven't yet gotten to Jayne Anne Phillips, William T. Vollmann, Sarah Vowell, Tony Horwitz, and a bunch of other good writers. (More than a third of the essays are by women.)

And then we get to South Dakota (which I read first, of course). Every other essay is by someone who is from, has lived in, or has roots in the state they write about. South Dakota got snapped up by someone who was "casually flipping through" a travel magazine, saw a photo of a bighorn sheep, and said "let's go there." His wife researched what to do, "none of which I had any real opinion about." He likes that the state is "exotic" and that it alarms his friends that he's going there.

And guess what he found? Hicks (burly, burly, round & gray), and "to judge by the [Rapid City] airport," no black people live in the state. Sylvan Lake, which he describes as "so well maintained that it looked manmade," is manmade, pal.

I'm used to being considered a hick. I'm used to people thinking there's no there in my home state. I'm used to "flyover country" & "boring" & "blizzard" & "4 seasons—winter, winter, winter, construction."

But I also know it's not that hard to go someplace with an open heart & find what you didn't expect—sensitive, thoughtful gay men in the supposedly most redneck parts of the South, brilliant artists in dying 19th-century resort towns, gorgeous & varied landscape in every single state, (yes, most definitely including New Jersey). I know it's possible to meet people who aren't just like you & not laugh at them.

I feel like the only kid on the team that didn't get a trophy.
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