In Ohio, All Things Are Possible

There’s an old joke that claims 22 astronauts have been from Ohio. The joke-teller then asks: “What is it about your state that makes people want to flee the Earth?” For as many Ohioans who root themselves in the state and refuse to leave, many others scatter for their lives.

I am a fleeing Ohioan descended from rooted Ohioans. I have yet to cross into space, but I’ve been pushed to central Europe. Which, to many Ohioans, is farther than the moon anyway. The Ohioan who cannot stay in one place is a relic of the state’s history. It used to be America’s western frontier, an economic center attracting new Ohioans from Appalachia, the South, the northeast, and the bleakness of Europe. The Ohioans who can’t stand to stay in Ohio continue that tradition; movement was part of the state’s early identity.

Crossing paths with other fleeing Ohioans is inescapable. One Sunday morning after moving to Raleigh, North Carolina, I sat next to a woman in church who knew my grandparents. She had roots three towns over from me. Anyone in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for a summer vacation will be surrounded by Ohioans. We are a people who love mini-golf and tacky gift shops.

Judging from my high school cohort, Nashville, Tennessee and most big cities in Texas are similarly swamped. The Ohioans I meet when I visit New York follow the likes of James Thurber and Dawn Powell in fleeing stultifying suburbs and rural communities of the Buckeye State. Ohio University’s journalism program seems to specialize in catapulting its graduates to New York, Washington DC, Chicago, or Los Angeles. But fear not—any small town across America will likely have an Ohioan or an Ohioan’s cousin there too.

Nor did grabbing a passport help me avoid Ohioans. Prague, Czech Republic is overrun with tourists, but surely Ohioans are quarantined in the Old Town if they make it there? Alas, no. There lies Mark Baker, a Youngstown native who literally wrote the book on the Czech Republic for Lonely Planet. Even Czechs know of Ohio. In Brno, I made friends with a colleague who found his way to Ohio through a student exchange program. Another Czech friend’s girlfriend did the same.

As the astronaut joke reveals, however, this Ohio diaspora does not generate good press. Part of that is because fleeing Ohioans hated the state. They will burn it down in speech if not in deed. Nor would they lack motivation for the verbal destruction. The flatlands of northwest Ohio define geographic monotony. The hills and valleys of southeast Ohio are beautiful, but the economic decline is less inviting.

Between a model of free-spirited experimentation and tame conformity, the state is closer to the latter. Texans, Californians, and New Yorkers rarely shut up about how great their state is. Ohioans, with Midwestern humility, tend to stay mum. That leaves the door open for mockery: when an Ohioan mentions their origin, the listener usually commends them for leaving. Deadspin has a running joke about Cincinnati chili, labeling it “the good kind of diarrhea sludge,” or “garbage-gravy” that is “sensorily and spiritually disgusting.”

I’ll defend Ohio, though. It’s a launchpad for distant heights. Ohioans find that they must leave the state to find success. That offers a certain sort of dignity, a state sending some of its best people to places that need the help. There’s too many of us anyway, so some need to fly the coop. Let a few lunatics who leave prop open the door for others.

It’s hard to convince New Yorkers and Washingtonians that Columbus really is hip, but at least a failed marketing campaign means lower housing costs. What all this amounts to is that growing up in Ohio teaches perspective, be it in Appalachia Ohio or Midwest Ohio, rural Ohio or urban Ohio. It’s far removed from inward-focused media centers and gets invaded by charlatans spewing nonsense four years.

It’s a blessing to have some family stay behind because it’s a glimpse of stability. The rooted give the rootless a connection to the ground when necessary. And not everyone can take off, shaking the dust from their sandals for the unknown. The personality type that flees Fremont, Nelsonville, or Philo needs to be counterbalanced by the type that can improve the geography they are given.

So give Ohioans some credit. To those who like it enough to stay, and to those who had to leave. Neil Armstrong will always be the most famous one, but The Black Keys and Devo started here. Toni Morrison, Sherwood Anderson, Zane Grey, and P.J. O’Rourke all have Ohio roots. Drew Carey and Bill Watterson gave America a great sitcom and the best comic strip.

Please don’t ask for a political representative though. Ohio has an unbeatable pedigree of mediocre presidents. Our governors are so under-whelming that John Kasich looks above-average. However, I will embrace the respectable embarrassment bestowed by Ohio’s legacy. Better to have the forgotten Senator Robert Taft rather than suffer the indignities of New Yorkers—they get the blame for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, after all.

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1 Comment

  1. Mark Baker says:

    Very funny and insightful read. I often wish I had two lives – one to see the world and the other to stay home. Expats are cursed with a longing to return home and I feel that spirit somehow within this story too. Mark

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