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The strange and wonderful world of Midwestern humor

Although I've spent all of my adult life in Arizona and California, I've never lost that strange sense of humor that I grew up with in Minnesota. But I have learned to try to watch myself, because it can cause some serious confusion with many of my friends here.

The Midwestern sense of humor is sometimes described as "dry", or "dead pan". If you're old enough to remember Johnny Carson, his humor was classic Midwestern. He often referred to his childhood in Nebraska, so it's obviously not limited to Minnesota. His comic delivery was done by saying something outrageous, and silly, without smiling. At all. That's a "dry" delivery. A "dead pan" means a face with no expression. It's the kind of thing that makes you wonder, "Is he kidding?" Yes, he is. And when he cracked up, it was wonderful. Because it's at that moment that even people who didn't get the joke understand that he was joking.

An example of a strange midwestern sense of humor would be if I texted someone that I was visiting my grandmother, and got texted back that I should tell her that she owed my friend 50 bucks, and never returned his Corvette. What? Is he kidding? Well, yes. And sometimes the kidding can be so "close to the vest" (another midwestern term meaning being subtle and kinda secretive) that it can be a bit worrisome. Fifty bucks? My grandmother? When did she borrow fifty bucks from my friend? And when did he lend anyone his Corvette? I thought he drove a Camry?

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I've had a tendency towards this type of humor so much that sometimes people can't tell if I'm kidding. And for people who don't understand Midwestern humor, this can be disconcerting. If I tell someone that my dog is bad and sick, they may think that I'm trying to use goofy language from the '80s, or maybe my dog has been bad and is genuinely sick. It's important for me to clarify.

Taken to an extreme, cheerful midwestern humor can be cruel and hurtful sarcasm. I have a Black Belt in sarcasm, but I don't ever attack. If you hang around me, you should be able to tell that I have a quick wit, but I'm not cruel. Sarcasm used against innocent people is bullying. And I would never fight an unarmed opponent. So no. No.

For me, I prefer to be facetious (I had to look up how to spell that). I had a coach in High School describe me as that, which is kinda silly and sarcastic but in a cheerful and good-natured way. And being facetious is a wonderful way to look at some of the absurdities of life, so I will continue to be that way. If I'm in a group of people who are genuinely wondering if I'm kidding, and are concerned, I'll stop it.

There are a lot of Midwestern people in California and Arizona, and those people understand the Midwestern sense of humor right away. For those who don't, I smile and say "just kidding!"

Image at the top of this post: Me in Minne-snowta after a light dusting of snow in 1982. - Smile - no, just kidding, it was a record snowfall. You can Google the Minneapolis blizzard of '82 if you think I'm kidding. I'm serious here. No, really... come on... seriously...

Why I love living in a harsh climate - Phoenix, Arizona

I've lived where the weather is nice, and I've lived where the weather is harsh. In other words, I lived in Santa Barbara, California, and I've lived in Phoenix, Arizona. And the most miserably uncomfortable I've been is where the weather is nice. If that sounds strange, please hear me out.

Here in Phoenix it gets insanely hot. Like over 120 degrees sometimes in the summer, easily over 115, and 100 is pretty much nothin'. So having air conditioning isn't just a luxury, it's the first thing that someone like me thinks about. And I have an awesome heat-pump A/C on my house, and the world's greatest General Motors air conditioning in my car. And since I've never had an outdoor job, I've been wonderfully comfortable.

When I lived in California, where the weather is nice all of the time, I've lived without air conditioning, or heat. And when the weather isn't nice (which actually does happen) I've been miserably cold, or miserably hot. Yes, there are days when even Santa Barbara gets very chilly (especially if you live by the ocean, and it's winter, and raining). And then there's the Santa Ana winds that come blowing in, that roast Southern California. They only last for a few days, but for those days, you have to live with blistering heat, and if your place doesn't have A/C, you sweat.

Here in Phoenix, no one ever asks "why would you bother paying for Air Conditioning?" so I can indulge in the most comfort that I can afford. I have an awesome Air Conditioner on my house, which works great and is professionally served every year to be sure it's at peak performance. I'm never uncomfortable. I haven't spent a sleepless night for years. It can be over 100 degrees out there, and I sit here in cool comfort at my computer. Weather is something that happens outside, I don't have to worry that I will be freezing all night (like in the wee hours in Santa Barbara), or unable to sleep because it's too hot (which happens quite often even in places where the weather is "always nice".

I suppose if I ever move back to Santa Barbara (which is very unlikely!) I'll have a big heat pump Air Conditioner installed on my house, and make sure that the A/C in my car is always working. The neighbors would probably think I'm kinda crazy, but I'm used to being comfortable. I'm from Phoenix.

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Minnesota cold, or why I moved to Arizona

I moved to Arizona when I was 19. I had been planning to get out of Minnesota since I was a kid. And the only reason was the cold.

In High School I would talk to friends about where I could go. I remember that I thought of moving to Australia, probably because I had seen a documentary showing the deserts. And then I saw the cars zooming through the desert in "Gumball Rally" and I figured that I could move out west.

Of course I had no idea what Arizona looked like. It could have had sand dunes, and cowboys and Indians and stagecoaches for all I knew. But that didn't matter - I just needed to get away from the cold.

For those of you who didn't grow up in Minneapolis, I will share a few things that even to to me sound like I'm making it up.

• Delivering newspapers on Sunday mornings in the dark in the winter. Even people who live in Minneapolis probably don't do much of that nowadays. The temperature could easily get to below 40, and I made a note of the windchill one day of minus seventy five degrees. It didn't matter what you wore, that cold burned through you. I even had one of those "eskimo" fur-fringed hoods that you squeeze up in your face, but I remember that I could barely breathe because the cold was so painful.

• Walking backwards to school. We had a long walk to my High School (a couple of miles) and we never took the bus, we walked. And on bitterly cold winter days, my friends and I would walk most of the distance backwards, just because the cold hurt so much in our faces. Yeah, no one believes that, but I can still feel the burning cold on my face, and I walked backwards against the cold wind.

• Heating car keys with a match. Nowadays people don't unlock car doors with a key, but I remember the locks being so frozen that you would hold a match under a key to try to get the lock unfrozen enough to get the key in. It usually took several matches. And I remember standing there on Bloomington Avenue, with that windchill of -75 degrees. That was my moment - I was eighteen and I said "I gotta get out of here!"

I had started doing my research in my late teens. In my first year of Junior College I got a part-time job with a company that had offices all over the country. I went to see my supervisor and asked if he could transfer me. He suggested Phoenix, picked up the phone, and said that I would be welcomed there. I had no idea what Phoenix was all about, but I knew it didn't snow there, and that's all that mattered to me. I headed west.

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Being a renter in Tempe, Arizona in the 1980s

I've owned the house I'm in, in suburban Phoenix, for over twenty years now. And when I talk to my neighbors there's always a concern about "renters". People point at houses on the street where renters are. Of course, the implication is that renters are bad, whereas owners are good. And it's made me think about our attitude towards the places we live.

I rented a place in Tempe in the 1980s while I was going to ASU. It was a little converted garage with a tiny kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, and a bedroom. I lived there for a little under two years.

While I was there, I wanted it to be a nice place to live. I tried to keep it clean. I also arranged for the irrigation to be turned on after many years, I bought a lawnmower at a garage sale, I planted some shrubs and trees. I even painted the place, inside and out. I even remember painting color-coordinating trim on the hot water heater (which you can see behind me, matching the trim of the "house".

Of course my neighbors thought I was crazy. We were renters, so we were supposed to live with ugliness, and just make it worse. That's how it's supposed to work. Then one of my neighbors saw what I was doing, and joined in. He helped mow the grass. When I left there to move to Los Angeles, the property looked pretty darned amazing. My friend and I had converted the place from a dump to looking more like a resort.

When I wrote to my landlord from California to see if I could get my deposit back, he refused, claiming that I had left the place in "poor condition". I remember telling my friend that with a laugh, and he didn't think that it was very funny.

In my experience people will care for things as they see fit. Some people will drive around in cars that are so dirty they can hardly see out of the windows. Some people will live with weeds and dog poop everywhere. I wish I could understand why people would want to live that way, because I don't. I'm on this planet temporarily (although hopefully for a long time to come!) and I will care for my little part of Arizona, and the world. I can't imagine not doing that.

Thank you to my patrons on Patreon who help support History Adventuring! If you like these blog posts, and would like to make suggestions for future ones, please go to patreon.com/PhoenixHistoryAdventuring where you can show your support for as little as $1 a month. Thank you!

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How the economic crash of 2008 helped my little Arizona neighborhood

When I bought my house in Glendale, Arizona (a suburb of Phoenix) over 20 years ago, I wondered what the neighborhood would look like in the future. I had seen how quickly neighborhoods had deteriorated in Phoenix, and I just hoped for the best.

Unlike most people that I talk to, I am not interested in an increasing market value for my house. It's not for sale. This is where I want to live. I like it here. I don't want to move away. As an old Californian, I know that exploding home values don't help people who want to stay, they only help people who want to leave. The people who stay just have to pay more property taxes. Google "Proposition 13" if you want to see how terrible it can be for people.

I live in a patio home neighborhood. The houses are very small, the lots are very small, even the streets are very small. For me, as a confirmed bachelor, this was perfect. Mostly I wanted a garage for my car, and a little bit of backyard. And I watched the neighborhood age. I watched the old folks who had lived in the neighborhood before I got there get older and more fearful. Many of the houses, which had originally been owned, were now rentals. And then the economy tanked in 2008.

Suddenly there were "For Sale" signs all over my neighborhood. Some of the houses were abandoned. And in spite of a homeowner's association, there were unkempt lots, and even a few stray abandoned cars. And I know that all of the neighborhoods around here took hits like this. People were losing their jobs, losing their houses. I know people were who "upside down" - who owed more on their houses than the value and were stuck. 2008 was a terrible time. And then something incredible happened to my neighborhood, and I think I can explain why.

Almost immediately, all of the "For Sale" signs in my neighborhood were gone. The neighborhood started brightening up again. People were moving in and fixing it up. And I guess that a lot of people who had lost their big houses on their big lots were disappointed at having to squeeze themselves into my tiny neighborhood. But they were going to make the most of it. And I got to see it up close and personal yesterday afternoon.

I was invited to a neighborhood party yesterday afternoon. It's the first I'd ever seen in all of the years that I've been here. It was held by a neighbor of mine just a few doors down. He and his wife put out chairs, tables, an awning, and rolled out their grill onto the driveway. I walked over at about four and hung around for about an hour. And all around me I saw life. Young couples, babies, children, dogs. It was wonderful and amazing. It was a neighborhood, a community. People were saying hello, shaking hands, eating hot dogs.

I like it here.

The historic palm trees of Sahuaro Ranch, Glendale, Arizona

The Sahuaro Ranch (yes, it's been misspelled that way for over 100 years), which is between 59th Avenue and 63rd Avenue and Peoria and Olive (south of the Glendale Main Library and north of Glendale Community College) in Glendale, Arizona has a lot of amazing historic palm trees.

If you live in Phoenix, you see palm trees all of the time, and it you may be wondering what I'm talking about. Come to the ranch with me, and let's look up.

Most of the palm trees around Phoenix, which are commonly called Mexican Fan palms (Washingtonia robusta), come from Sonora and Baja California. They grow very quickly, and are the ones that you see along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. And because they grow very quickly, they became much more popular after the 1920s. The ones in the photo at the top of this post aren't fan palms, they're date palms. And the difference is in the structure of the leaves.

A date palm has leaves that I like to describe as looking like a feather duster. A fan palm, as the name implies, has leaves that look more like a fan. Since I prefer the look of a date palm to a fan palm, I have a tendency to describe fan palms as looking kind of like toilet bowl brushes. Once you see it, you'll know what I mean.

Date palms are from the Middle East - they're the ones that grow in the desert in areas that can get precious little water - you know, in an oasis, surrounded by sand. And once you can see the difference between a fan palm and date palm, then you'll be impressed at how amazingly tall the date palms at Sahuaro Ranch are. I really don't know how old they are, but since they grow slower than common fan palms, date palms that are that tall are pretty darned old.

By the way, the date palms at Sahuaro Ranch were actually planted to produce dates, not to just look nice. There were several places around the valley where date palms were planted for crops, the most notable one being the Black Sphinx Palms at 44th Street and Camelback. The date palms that you see being planted nowadays are dateless (like seedless watermelons) because the fruit is messy when it falls. This is the reason that date palms weren't planted much in the 20th Century, and why they're making a comeback.

This cluster of palms is on the east side of the historic houses. If you enter from 59th Avenue there's a parking lot area that very few people use. The tree that I'm leaning on is a date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) and since I'm about six feet tall, the tree is, uh (I'm not very good at math), really, really tall.

Thank you for visiting the ranch with me!

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