Who We Are
As a fan of, and occasional guest on, John Dankosky’s Connecticut Public Radio program “Where We Live,” I wonder if there should also be a companion show called “Who We Are”—or maybe, given Connecticut’s general cluelessness on the matter, “Who Are We?”
Self-identity has never been our strong suit here in Connecticut—not now, not ever. For all our long life as colony and state, we have toiled earnestly between we’re-better-than-you New York (“The city that never sleeps”) and self-absorbed Boston (“The hub of the universe”), taking much from both but in the end taking up with neither. We are a small state, easily overlooked. Our natural gifts are modest, and our virtues—intelligence, refinement and moderation, to name a few—almost by definition do not call attention to themselves.
But in this age of texting, 140-character Tweets and 6-second video clips, maybe it’s time for us to get on the stick. Maybe it’s time to figure out once and for all who we are, boil it down to its essence and then get the message out to the world at large before it forgets about us entirely. We might even take the Doritos approach to product recognition—hiring a bunch of talented, slightly off-the-wall filmmakers to make minute-long spots extolling Connecticut’s virtues (or whatever) and then running the winner on national TV during the Super Bowl. Of course this would probably be viewed as a very bad idea by our elected officials. Why spend a few million on a jaw-dropping national commercial announcing Connecticut’s coming-out party when you can use the money instead to include a leaky atrium in the design of a new middle school?
Promotional ideas good or bad are fairly easy to come up with, but less easy to put in motion—especially given our inept efforts at self-marketing in the past.
To begin with, after all these years—centuries actually—there isn’t even general agreement on what to call ourselves. Texans know they are Texans, New Yorkers feel very comfortable as New Yorkers, Vermonters have a pretty clear idea of what it means to be from Vermont. But what are we? Connecticutters? Connecticutites? Connecticutians? The best we’ve every managed to do in this regard is to call ourselves Nutmeggers, a term that—just so you know—conjures up our thieving forebears, itinerant peddlers from Connecticut who fanned out across the new nation making it their sleazy practice to pass off wooden nutmegs as the real thing.
But it’s not only in the elemental act of naming ourselves that we fail. Over the years, we’ve fallen down at almost every opportunity we’ve had to distinguish ourselves and market Connecticut intelligently. Here are some examples:
—I believe that we are alone among the 50 states in having an official State Song, “Yankee Doodle,” that doesn’t even mention the name of the state.
—Our state university’s mascot, the UConn Husky, has no particular local connection, but rather was born as a result of an awkward play on the word “Yukon” and a dog commonly found up in that part of the world.
—For years, Connecticut’s only major-league sports team was called the Whalers, a name borrowed from an earlier day when the team was located in Boston. Our current major-league team, the women’s pro-basketball Suns, got its name indirectly from a South African casino mogul whose first name is Sol.
—We are known rather dully as the Constitution State, but few people know exactly why that is or what it means.
—Even though all the cities and most of the commerce and people are in our state, the body of water that lies between Connecticut and New York is called Long Island Sound.
This curiously backward approach to self-promotion extends into other areas as well.
In the world of food, for instance, there are Buffalo wings, Boston baked beans and Philadelphia cream cheese, but nothing I know of that’s named for a city or town in Connecticut. There’s Vermont cheddar and New York cheddar, but no Connecticut cheddar; Rhode Island clam chowder and Manhattan clam chowder but no Connecticut chowder.
Even the dishes that were invented in the state don’t wear Connecticut name tags. When the hamburger sandwich was created at Louis’ Lunch in New Haven over 100 years ago, why did they decide to name it after a city in Germany? Just imagine for a moment a world plastered with McDonald’s signs declaring: “Over 100 Billion New-haveners Sold.” Similarly, when the first hot lobster roll was served at a Connecticut diner in the 1930s, couldn’t it have been put on the menu as the Milford Roll or the Post Road Sandwich? The same goes for the white clam pizza. Why not call it a Wooster White Pie, after the New Haven neighborhood of its birth?
But that’s not what we do. We don’t elbow our way to the front of the line, and, because we don’t, we must be prepared to suffer the consequences.
Such as during the big TV music special that aired in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when celeb after celeb shouted out, “Hey, New York! Hey, New Jersey!,” and Connecticut got almost no love at all.
Or as in the 1,500-page Encyclopedia of New England, published in 2005, where Connecticut was treated as not much more than an inconvenient southern appendage to the “real” New England located to our north.
Or . . . or, maybe, just maybe, all this identity stuff doesn’t matter very much after all. Maybe we should be proud to be considered elusive and enigmatic and just a little bit out of it in a world where everything else seems so loud, overproud and obvious. If the state itself can take its marketing cue (“Still Revolutionary”) from a war that ended 230 years ago, then I guess the rest of us don’t have to be so eager to ride the latest wave.
As for Connecticut’s identity, I am content with a definition—a description really—I once found in a book published in the 1920s. I like it because it is as true today as it was on the day it was written, it cannot be challenged and it’s only 13 words long. It reads: “Connecticut is slightly larger than Jamaica and a third as large as Switzerland.”
Let’s face it, beyond that, everything else is just puffery.