midway

This word feels to me thick, humid, like a muddled mass of humanity, perhaps a murmur – no, more, a roar, and not just of people but of things, machines, and bright flashes. It is not dry and soft like halfway. It may seem to mean the same as halfway, but this word goes all the way, right into the middle of things (it may even meddle in the midden). If it is the middle of the road, it is not the noncommittal even-handed blandness, it is the madman at midday in the middle of the way, waving. You may feel you are midway between the devil and the deep blue sea, or perhaps midway in the Red Sea behind Moses.

It is a word of life, a medium. We are mandated to move to the middle of the way, to choose moderation, but what we find when we are midway between birth and death – in a murky wood, maybe – is that the midway is where it all happens, and we have always been in the midst of it. The midway is a midwife, a medium of emergence; and when we have at the end made our way away, we may emerge again by way of a medium. And in the midway between? Sound and fury and light.

Midway is the point in a sporting season when games have been played and teams have moved up or down in the standings, and trends may continue or may be reversed – the outcome is still up for grabs, but there is a history to look to. Midway is the name of an atoll in the middle of the Pacific where an important battle of World War II was fought – a battle that happened midway in the war and that helped turn the tide between the US and Japan. Midway is also an airport in Chicago – the smaller, more tolerable, more central alternative to O’Hare.

And midway is a place in a fair, a carnival. It is where the fun foods and fun rides are. The carnies roll up and set up and the crowds flood in and for some stretch of time in the summer or fall people eat deep-fried things on sticks and throw things and spin things and shoot things and fish for things to win prizes, and people pile onto machines to experience key consequences of the laws of physics in a very immediate way. It is all midway in the year – between winter and winter, between the birth of spring and the death of the late fall. And it comes around every year. Ever since 1893, when the Midway Plaisance – a south Chicago park, originally meant to be an answer to New York’s Central Park (by the same designer) – was included in the grounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, this stretch down the middle of a fair, the fun grounds, has been called the midway. (The Midway Plaisance is now part of the University of Chicago’s grounds.)

So midway has made its way. Its real source is now academic; for millions midway has an immediate humidity and wildness, an air of deep-fried everything and a smell of onions and fat, and sticky fingers, and the pops and bangs of games and the urgings of young men and women with megaphones to get you to spend your money on their entertainments, and the attractions of rides that make you fly and fall and scream and splash and laugh and whirl. It is the via media, admitting all – for a price – and everything is up for grabs, and while we are amid it it is all our world whirling around us: a madness we have made for our own diversion, until at day’s end leave, arms full, pockets empty, following the dispersing crowds and at last making our several ways back home.

One response to “midway

  1. The particular environment in which we each become aware of language (and Chomsky’s language acquisition device kicks in) remarkably nuances our personal vocabularies. Born in 1941, I would have heard “Battle of Midway” a lot in 1942-44. So I was perplexed, probably in 1947, to hear adults talking about the Canadian National Exhibition “Midway” as if it were somehow a place of pleasure — but by then I had already learned, as we all do, that language is a chameleon thing.

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