1. LauraBeth switched career paths in her late twenties, and her new job required occasional flights to Madison for classes and certification tests at the main campus of a large company based just outside the city. In consecutive summers, I flew out to join her for a few days. I was on summer break and flights were cheap, and the first year she was scheduled for classes on our anniversary. I used to think there was no more passive way to live your life than to let arbitrary dates on calendars dictate your behaviors. But they’re not arbitrary, and they’re good reminders. On birthdays, the main thing you’re celebrating is having not yet died, and on anniversaries you’re toasting your ability to have not yet driven your spouse away. These are both achievements worth every bit of celebration.
2. While LauraBeth spent the day in classes, I took a bus into town. The front desk attendant walked me to the bus stop and waited with me for its arrival. He introduced me by name to the driver, who was wearing a Milwaukee Brewers hat and seemed inordinately happy that I had come to Madison just to visit. I spent most of the ride speaking to an elderly black man who’d sat next to me. He was excited beyond reason to hear that I had chosen to vacation in the Midwest. He suggested a dozen places I should visit, pointed out interesting landmarks, and told a very likely untrue story about the time he’d met Jimi Hendrix on the university campus, smoked pot with him, and refused when Jimi offered to give him a girl for the night. He claimed to have met both Keith Richards and Brett Favre, but everyone in Wisconsin seems to have at least two Brett Favre stories. He shook my hand repeatedly. A man nearby joined our conversation and promised me I would love Madison. I like riding buses in strange cities, trying to experience, briefly, what life is actually like for the people there, to learn a little about the character of the place. Here’s what I learned from my bus ride in Madison: everybody is nice, even the weirdos.
3. The Madison Convention Center was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and is the only convention center I’ve ever visited that didn’t feel like a giant tomb with fluorescent lighting. On the rooftop, there is a bench where you can sit and look out over Lake Monona. A plaque notes that Otis Redding’s plane crashed in this lake, and so I sat on the bench and looked out over the rail trying to think important thoughts about mortality and legend. It was a pristine summer day, and I was already a couple years older than Otis when he’d died, and his most famous song was about exactly this kind of thing, so I felt an obligation to sit quietly and be contemplative. But I was hungry, and also a bee was buzzing around my head. I swatted at it, and I yelled that I was busy thinking important human thoughts it wouldn’t understand. I was being complex and thoughtful, I explained, but the bee did not care. The bee swirled around me and buzzed in my ears and I swatted at it again, and spun around, feeling ridiculous. I left the bench and the bee landed on it, taunting me. I was incapable of thinking big, important thoughts. Otis Redding was dead and there was a bee on my bench and I was still hungry, and so I walked away.
4. At night, we asked the man at the front desk where we should go for dinner. There was the bar across the street that seemed to cook all their food in the microwave, and there was a place down the road called Culver’s. “They have everything you could ever want,” he said. “Everything.” Everything means different things depending where you are. In this case, everything meant: hot dogs, burgers, chicken fingers, and ice cream. We ordered burgers and milkshakes, which is not quite everything, but is far from nothing. It was my fifth burger on a three-day trip; at that point, I felt I should personally write a letter of apology to cows worldwide. I felt vaguely ill. I wondered if I could ever live in a place where “everything” means “some, but not most, things.”
5. On my second trip to Madison, we rented a car and explored the outlying areas. We stopped to play miniature golf at the most remarkable course I'd ever seen. One hole required climbing a rope ladder, then going down a slide. We found a tiny restaurant that made homemade gluten-free lasagna, which we’ve still never found in any other city. We drove past Taliesin, the famous estate of Frank Lloyd Wright, but did not enter, because admission was too expensive, at least for two people who have only a passing interest in architecture. We visited the House on the Rock instead, a bizarre, sprawling estate built on a hill by an eccentric millionaire. The building is a mixture of museum, home, and creepy diorama. There are priceless artifacts mixed indiscriminately with piles of the kind of junk you’d find at a yard sale, themed rooms, rooms jutting out over a cliff, and rooms so small you have to crawl just to access them. Going here instead of Taliesin is probably the architectural equivalent of visiting the circus rather than seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Macbeth. But sometimes I get tired of trying to be cultured. Sometimes I don’t want to see perfect lines and interesting use of negative space. Sometimes I want to see a room full of carousels and dolls that look like they’ve just emerged from a watery grave. The House on the Rock is a place that has everything, and if it doesn’t have something, then that thing might as well not exist.
6. During my free days in downtown Madison, my pace was glacial. I walked many miles, taking occasional breaks to sit on benches. I watched protestors circling the capitol, demanding the recall of their governor. I spent hours in the free museums, learning (and later forgetting) so many details about the role of Wisconsinites in the Civil War. I nodded contemplatively at exhibits and tried to be a serious thinking person. It was a summer weekday in a college town, so it felt sometimes like I had the whole city to myself, and yet there was a sort of performance to the way I walked through the museum. I took long lunches at local restaurants. When I’m on vacation all I want to do is eat everything, to be so full of food and drink I can barely stand up. I want to grow and grow and inhabit as much of this new space as possible. On the third day in town, I tried to counteract the effects of days of unhealthy eating by ordering a salad, but when they delivered it, it was covered in roughly seven pounds of bacon. I hadn’t been to the Midwest since grad school, and I’d forgotten that the extra pork is often implied. My willpower caved, and I ordered fried cheese curds and a beer. Sitting in a patio chair outside a clean, friendly bar on a sunny afternoon and having nowhere to be, with no one expecting anything from me—it felt criminal. It felt like I was getting away with something. I considered the luxury of being able to completely disappear. I could have stayed forever if they’d let me.