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On Wisconsin

The Chamber of Commerce probably keeps a blacklist with my name on it. It’s not that I don’t love Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but the city is to me what Gloversville, New York, is to Richard Russo – raw material that can’t be manufactured into art without emitting little puffs of pollution.

I wonder sometimes, as a Wisconsin native and resident writer, what is my moral obligation to lift the Midwest from the quagmire of caricature? Oshkosh is known worldwide for its overalls. In Buenos Aires, back in the 90s, Argentinians said to me, “Oh, Oshkosh B’gosh” as if the trademark and city were interchangeable. Right then, six thousand miles from home, I decided Midwestern Gothic was my genre – nice on the outside; scary on the inside.

What happens if (and when) Wisconsin writers dispense with pleasantries – like perfectly freckled magazine children in perfectly pleated blue jeans? Wouldn’t you love to know what’s hiding in those pockets? It’s not lint, let me assure you.

Really, what is Wisconsin known for besides cheese, a Friday fish fry, bratwurst, and brandy? Polka, maybe.

Unfortunately, our most recent claim to fame is the Netflix sensation Making a Murderer. It just so happens, as part of CAPP (Cooperative Academic Partnership Program) at UW Oshkosh, I’ve been assigned, as a liaison, to Mishicot High School, which everybody knows was the site of Brandon Dassey’s (coerced) confession regarding his role in the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach.

When I drive through Winnebago and Calumet Counties toward Manitowoc County on business, Google Maps routes me past the Avery junkyard. The landscape is hilly – not flat – which also runs contrary to popular perception. Wisconsin is quite shapely, if you drive close enough to Lake Michigan or, alternatively, the Mississippi River, and for endless miles, I am alone in the Badger State. Foolishness settles into my brain. And they say the world is over-populated. As I near the site of that infamous but heinous Wisconsin crime, white noise shifts pitch. A tuning peg tightens me like a string on a violin. I hold my breath as my kids do when we drive by cemeteries.

When I arrive at Mishicot High School, students are always polite, what outsiders describe as characteristically Midwestern. But on the drive home, a few miles from Steven Avery’s salvage yard, my tire blows and my van sags to the shoulder. For a fleeting moment, Teresa Halbach and I share the same darkness.

Thank God for cell phones. I call for help, and by dusk – 4 PM winter sunsets, I wait for the tow truck. As the wrecker approaches, I picture Handsome John Pruitt, hook for a hand, but wait, that was Chicago, Adventures in Babysitting, fiction as fodder, not real-life. In 2015, Wisconsin was re-christened land of the documentary T.V. series.

Somewhere along the remote two-lane route to Mishicot looms a roadside bar called “The Lucky Lady.” I survived. Tereasa Halbach, of course, did not.

I believe creative writing can be taught to everybody. But years ago, a student named Laura enrolled in my course. She was tall, blonde, smiley as an advertisement for top-of-the-line dentistry. She really existed; I’m not making this up. She was my alter ego, preparing for a career in marketing, or was it tourism? Laura was Pollyanna in the flesh. No matter what I suggested about her sunny poems, she could not darken a single word. I bet she’s out there somewhere, happy to sell you the picture on a postcard. “Door County is the Cape Cod of the Midwest,” she’d say. Our lakes, many of them spring-fed, outmatch the Great Barrier Reef. Our Packers fans are fiercely loyal. Miller Park, with its retractable roof, can be used year-round. Summerfest is the world’s largest music festival. Book your ticket now!

Of course, I’m secretly thinking, Wisconsin was home to Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein, two of America’s most gruesome serial killers. Milwaukee is the most segregated metropolis in America. Our universities are coming apart at the seams. I guess, we’re rich in contradiction, exactly as we should be.

Another Laura, as in Ingalls Wilder, wrote about these “Middle Border” lands too. She “kept it real,” writing about things like danger, drought, and death all over the Midwest. Of course, back then, perhaps, we still possessed a degree of mystery. We were not yet the forgotten states. Ryan once asked one of my dear East Coast friends (who may be reading this!) to label a map of the Midwest. She was here, by plane, but couldn’t identify exactly where she’d landed.

Admittedly, I fell into the same trap when visiting her, having veered too far off-course. My brain works best on my home turf. And for what it’s worth, I do love Wisconsin, or I’d have moved by now. I even know a few lyrics to the Wisconsin Fight Song, and they go something like this:

On Wisconsin, On Wisconsin, stand up Badgers sing. "Forward" is our driving spirit, loyal voices ring.

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