Norbert Blei was a curmudgeon and a poet, a man who grew up loving the hustle and bustle of Chicago but grew even more to love the quiet and solitude of Door County, a natural wonder a couple hundred miles north of that toddling town.
I blundered across a brilliant example of Blei’s love while randomly paging through Meditations On A Small Lake, a short book collecting some of his observations. Part of one piece is a letter to the editor called “The Pink Flamingo Syndrome,” which he wrote after the late Chan Harris sold his beloved family newspaper at the end of 1986. The letter ties together the change at the small-town paper, development that he saw encroaching on the county’s native splendor, and Stephen Crane’s novelette “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.”
(After reading the letter I was drawn back to the Crane story for the first time since college. It’s a wonderful tale that I didn’t fully appreciate when I first encountered it in my studies years ago. I’m glad I blundered into it again.)
“Much of what diminishes the bare-bones beauty of this county is a falseness growing like a cancer upon the landscape which certain mind-sets and forces seem hell-bent on perpetuating …,” Blei wrote. “I call this ‘the Pink Flamingo Syndrome,’ which began when Midwesterners, returning from winter vacations in Florida, carried plastic flamingos back home with them to decorate their yards, recreate an alien atmosphere they left.”
Uh oh. There are two pink flamingos in our front yard. I wonder if Norb would give me dispensation for despoiling Door’s beauty if I explained that they’re intended as irony, as whimsy, as something silly that of course doesn’t belong among our apple trees but offers a chuckle against the grimness of our world.
Blei’s words from three decades ago remind us of a past that even then was becoming a dimmer memory, and he devotes much of his time to mourning the changes that others called “progress.” But through the years has come a growing appreciation of and movement to conserve as much of that “bare-bones beauty” as we can, and I believe Blei helped give that appreciation and that movement a voice.
There are still remnants of Blei’s Door County if you look for them, if you drive north enough. Lord knows we have tried to retain its essence for better or worse. Even if we did find a place for pink flamingos …