Donkey Thoughts with Nick Offerman
Donkey Thoughts with Nick Offerman
Donkey or Ass?

Donkey or Ass?

My Midwestern Family Values.

Steve, of South Berwick, Maine, asks, “I’m curious about the etymology of Donkey Thoughts. Is it a midwestern thing?”

Steve, thank you kindly for your question.

When I was originally spitballing and brainstorming the shape and identity that my Substack account would take, I suspected that I would want to couch the proceedings in descriptors that belied my fondness for tools, handwork, farming, and stubbornness. The flow, then, of this “inspiration fence board”, if you will, was heading pretty squarely for the barnyard. I’ve already handsomely compared myself to a pig, in the materials promoting my first touring special, “American Ham”, so I didn’t want to retread that territory.

I have been known to engage in misbehavior now and again, and also have made the mistakes typical of a human laborer with more muscle, perhaps, in his arm than between his ears. I recall reading examples of donkey-person types who are typically good-hearted, but can’t help fall prey to their jackass natures. I remember a play, in fact, with a weaver donkey who had a most fantastical dream…it was by that Marlowe-adjacent writer, and it had no bottom. Or the weaver was a bottom? In any case, it went something like:

The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen,
man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive,
nor his heart to report, what my dream was.

So that neither I or my readers should ever be in danger of taking me too seriously, Steve, I ultimately labeled my thoughts as “those of a donkey”. I think self-efficacy is a very important part of this attempt at a well-balanced breakfast of midwestern values.

James Pfeiffer in De Pere, Wisconsin asks, “Having grown up in the midwest (places include South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) I’ve heard the phrase ‘midwestern values’ more times than I can count. However, I’m a bit leery of embracing this expression as it may infer that people outside of the midwest cannot possess such values—whatever those may be. I’m also wary because used as a platitude, ‘midwestern values’ can be politicized and effectively equated with the socially conservative slogan/ideology ‘family values.’ I’d like to get your take on the saying ‘midwestern values.’ Do you think there is a such a thing? And if so, what qualities would those values possess?”

James, thank you very kindly for this question. It’s a good one, and I’m not sure anybody can have exactly the “right” answer, since one would arguably need to visit a good deal of the midwestern states and somehow experience the full comprehensive menu of these so-called values, right? And then visit a sampling of everyplace else in order to compare and contrast the corresponding values of the rest of the locations? Or am I being too literal? Can I travel to, say, Kyoto, and, if I am greeted with the right recipe of hospitality and humility, or just the perfect sheet-pan of cherry squares, can the behavior of my Japanese hosts qualify as exhibiting “midwestern values”?

I think that, hailing from the midwest, I would subjectively like to believe that this term simply means things like a warm and neighborly welcome. “Come on in and make yourself at home, stranger, can I get you a beverage?” But I fear that the true meaning hews much closer to a common definition of conservative, with all the good and bad that that ideology can carry. And I will say that for me, “midwestern values” does connote a sober work ethic, with a commitment to square dealing, a frugality, and notions like “you don’t get somethin’ for nothin’” and “there’s no such thing as ‘get rich quick’”.

But “conservative”, to my way of thinking, also makes me think of the factions in our society who want to, loosely, “conserve” a way of living that literally “keeps things the way they like them”, which can mean white, straight, and Christian. All of which will foment discrimination and much worse. It smacks of the same hypocrisy that comes with some modern day Christianity; usually the more public it is, the less Christ-like are the motives behind it. I want “midwestern values” to conjure images of helping out a neighbor, no matter what they look like or what they believe, but I fear that the term can also be taken in a much more menacing connotation, as in “You had best not get caught around here after sundown. These people practice midwestern values.”

I might have just answered you by correcting that overly general phrase (the “values” of the midwest: a very large region) to something more localized and specific, perhaps to do with the values of my family, a household of Illinois stalwarts who are doing our best to lead lives of service with humility and empathy. We were brought up to work hard, to live within our means, and to help out our neighbors when they needed it. Of my family members (all flawed, of course, as we are merely people), I am easily the one who fails at these tasks most frequently, but I have at least taken my parents’ teaching onboard, and I haven’t given up on doing better and better work as I age and learn. Ah, yes, and forgiveness. There are an awful lot of mistakes to be made by a human in a life, and I certainly hope that nobody is keeping a list of mine. Believe me, I’ve crunched the numbers. We were taught in our house, around the dinner table, that when mistakes are made, forgiveness will do a lot more good than spite.

To wit, a proper sense of “family values” would prohibit me from publishing this photo, but I as pointed out, I still have some mistakes to make. Photo Credit: A Studio in Channahon? Wardrobe: CHESS KING

“Around the dinner table” has lit me up, now that I have written it, as a great source of what I wish we would think of when we hear “midwestern values”. As in “we are those who sit down to dinner together.” This opens a whole agrarian can of worms, because when I think of my family dinner table, I think of my parents’ voluptuous garden and my uncle’s fresh sweetcorn and it makes me wish that “midwestern values” would bring to mind a people who take good care of our topsoil and provide our food in a sustainable way that benefits the health of the grower, the eater, and is even agreeable to Mother Nature. It would be ideal if the values of Aldo Leopold sprang to mind.

But, as you point out, the term “family values” can no longer be assumed to be a term of decency. It has become an exclusionary term instead of the welcoming inclusivity that I have found in the midwestern households I admire. It’s similar to the way that our far-right leaning citizens have tainted the idea of patriotism, and who is allowed to qualify as “patriotic”. Or “married”, for Christ’s sake. No pun intended.

In any case, I think that you have given me a lot to think about, and good cause to use more accurate language the next time I want to describe the values that I hold dear.


My trusted muleteers, this post is the sort of thing you can expect for free, usually on a Thursday, but sometimes on a Friday afternoon. I live rather in the wind like that. On the weekends I’ll do a video post and that requires a paid subscription. In any case, please leave me a question in the comments so I’ll know what to talk about next time, and don’t forget to let me know where you’re from. Please be more specific than “the midwest”, and thank you.

Donkey Thoughts with Nick Offerman
Donkey Thoughts with Nick Offerman
More Carrots, Less Sticks
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