Murphy’s Law and the American Midwest

I had a visit this week from a childhood friend who comes from Trump Country. He and most of his family voted for Trump, which was a topic we studiously avoided. Nevertheless, I understand better how hard-working Midwesterners have found themselves attracted to his candidacy and now to his presidency.

I learned this lesson somewhere between Walterville and Marcola. My friend Brett told me about the Left Turn Rule: “There will be no oncoming traffic on a rural road until you need to cross it.” Sure enough — when we reached the end of Camp Creek Road, we had to wait before turning left.

He recounted a time when he and his uncle saw nary a living sole in rural Wisconsin until the exact moment they needed to turn left. Opposition is conjured by desire. Weather and work can be hard in the Midwest. There’s something akin to comfort in knowing that it’s all part of some grand plan — even if that plan is malevolent.

The Left Turn Rule clearly falls into the canon of Murphy’s Law: “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.” This law is enforced and reinforced by Murphy’s three henchmen: Woulda, Coulda, and Shoulda.

Brett told a story about a neighbor buying a commercial property he coveted. I countered with a similar story of a house I tried to buy, until a neighbor pulled a fast one and now I’m glad I wasn’t saddled with the burden of that fixer-upper. He answered the volley with a botched car deal that taught his son never to trust anyone selling anything.

At first, I was startled that we were threading our conversation so differently. His stories ended badly for whoever was the main character — usually him. Most had a dangerous undertow of “if only.” He was telling his stories, while also wishing he could rewrite them.

We’ve been close enough for long enough that I felt I could confront him. “Murphy was a heretic. You’re feeding a monster,” I told him in no uncertain terms. “If you’re expecting bad, there’s no doubt you’ll see it when it comes. But you’re also more likely to miss your own good fortune, because that’s not the story you’re telling yourself. Good news doesn’t fit your narrative.”

We’ve both had plenty of hardship in our lives. That’s not what’s relevant here. The stories we tell animate the world around us, and many people in the heartland have gotten used to shading their stories in darker tones.

The cold might not kill you, but it could kill your crop. If the cold doesn’t get it, a blight might. If bugs can be outmaneuvered, a drought cannot. Commodity prices could drop, just when it’s time to sell. It’s the Left Turn Rule. Conditions change at the least opportune moment to the worst possible outcome.

Contrast that sensibility with the potlatch heritage of the Pacific Northwest. Abundance abounds. Our land is as fertile as anywhere on the planet. The winter rains store water in the mountains, flowing toward us later, when we need it. Our world conspires in our favor, responding to each and every glimmer of gratitude.

I understand that neither model represents the world as it is. Brett tells his stories and I tell mine. In many ways, you could argue that his have produced more success. He’s wary of change, conservative in his choices, and expects little from others. He expects even less from government — he’s glad every day his pocket doesn’t feel picked.

I didn’t ask, but I’ll bet it made sense to him when candidate Trump asked African Americans in Detroit, “What the hell have you got to lose?” Trump’s acceptance speech claim that he “alone can fix it” probably resonated. The carnage Trump described at his inaugural address must have looked familiar.

That’s a picture of the world I grew up with, but it’s not the one I live in today. I don’t know if I changed or the world around me did. I guess I believe that’s a distinction without a difference. Brett and I still love each other. We just turn left differently.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.