In Praise of Small Towns

W.I. Crossroads

My column that will appear in Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

 

A writer in a national magazine recently theorized that small town voters who are worried about the deterioration of American culture are “insular” and unenlightened, stuck in the past, resistant to progress.
Having grown up in a small town, and also having taught at a high school in the inner city of Milwaukee, I can say that most of my students and their families were also living in their hometown, and the hometown of their families. Does that make them insular? Or does it make them normal?

City life is fine. It is filled with cultural and social and employment opportunities that may not exist elsewhere. You can choose how and whether to connect with other people. But bustle is not for everyone, nor is anonymity.

Some among us choose to live in a different way. But it would be a mistake to believe that small town life is a bucolic and peaceful existence. Living in a small community is not for the faint of heart.

Small towns are a microcosm of the human experience, but with more intensity. You live shoulder to shoulder with your oldest friends, and your fiercest enemies. You daily encounter the person who cheated you; who stood you up; who broke your heart; and with people who know your complete history: every bad decision, every embarrassment, every moment of kindness (if any). In cities, there can be the relief of some anonymity, but not in a small town. Living in a small town is a psychologically raw way to live.

But small town life also requires a deep connection to community that city people may not acquire. It generally means that you go to church because that is what is expected, and what almost everyone does. It means you are surrounded by people who know you. In the city it’s called networking. In a small town, the network is your neighbors, and you are expected to participate. Your neighbors are the ones who gather around you to celebrate births and mourn deaths. They plow your driveway when you have the flu. They raise money to help in a tragedy. They put an arm around your shoulder. They make casseroles. And you, in turn, celebrate, and mourn, and plow, and comfort, and bake. This sharing and mutual support is as old as human beings. And it is good.

We live in a society in which the elites make a continuing push against the values of faith and decency and commonsense. The cultural gatekeepers seem to believe that someone who doesn’t live in your community can decide what’s wrong with you, and what you need. It’s an insult, and a barely veiled one. You are flyover country: insular, irrelevant bumpkins filled with prejudices, unable to participate in the enlightenment of the cities, destined never to be famous. Living in a small town means that you are aware of the scorn heaped upon you by city dwellers who think they are better, and you shrug your shoulders and get on with it.

Maybe resisting progress isn’t all bad. In an age of celebrity and reality television, of Instagram and Twitter, most small town people live out quiet, uncelebrated lives of dignity and depth. They work; they care for their families and their friends; they mow their lawns and mop their floors. They may not be famous or trend-setting. But they have lives worth living.

And that is something worth standing for.

Not Judging Books by Their Covers

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I had car trouble yesterday on my way to a signing in Door County. I was tooling along at 70 in the pouring rain, when all of the sudden there was some catastrophic electronic failure. Every dire warning sign flicked on the dashboard. I lost my brakes, I lost my power steering, and the engine began to buck. Fortunately, I was close to an exit in civilization-which for our purposes here means a place with a Mazda dealer only a few miles away–and was able to coast and manhandle the car down a ramp, through a roundabout, and into the parking lot of a minimart.

I hate roundabouts. I mean, I hated them before, but in this case it was lucky I didn’t have to stop. I could just keep coasting.

When I pulled up next to the building out of the way, all the lights in the dashboard went out, and I couldn’t turn off the engine. I had to go inside to figure out where I was so I could tell the tow truck where to come, and normally one doesn’t leave a running car unattended. But what the hell, I thought. It’s not as if anyone could drive it away.

None of this is the point of the story, but I kind of wanted to tell it.

The tow truck showed up in about ten minutes, to my surprise and relief. We were going to be cutting it a little close for me to get to my event, and I was having a hard time figuring out how to explain to the bookstore proprietor–my friend, Peter–that all his planning was going to be for an author-less book signing. I called my husband, who was speeding in my direction to rescue me, and told him he could go back.

Anyway–and now we’re getting to the nub of the thing–the tow truck driver was this young, blond guy with lots of tattoos. He was a kind of classic Wisconsin small town guy, complete with the rural accent: decent, trustworthy, competent, grease on his clothes, dirt under his nails. He hooked up my car, and I climbed into the cab of the truck for the ride to the (mercifully) open car dealer who would loan me a car.

I told him that I was in a bit of a hurry, because there was an event I had to be at. What kind of event? he wanted to know. So I told him I was a writer.

“I love books!” he said. “Harry Potter is my favorite, as you can probably tell by these.” He raised his left arm to indicate his tattoos, which I couldn’t really see, but which must have been representative of this passion. “I listen mostly to audio books, though.” He fumbled in his pocket to get out his I-phone while I hoped that he was looking at the highway. “I’ve listened to…” he looked down at his phone to check the exact figure…”two months and two and a half weeks worth of books this year so far.” He then proceeded to talk about his favorites: after Harry Potter, a series of World War I historical novels by Ken Follet, and some other series in a similar vein. He was knowledgeable about history, and he clearly loved stories of heroism and mysticism. He wanted to know if my books were on audio. I told him not yet, but that we were working on it.

“I read paper books, too,” he said. “But with all the driving around, I do mostly audio.”  I kind of doubt that my books are his kind of thing, but so far all my assumptions were being proved false. “Would you like a copy of my book?” I asked. He was enthusiastic.

We got to the dealer, and I dug out a copy of each of my books and signed them for him. We shook hands.

I love thinking about this tow truck driver, wandering around the country roads of Wisconsin, doing this necessary but unglamorous job, the rhythms of different authorial voices accompanying his travels, moved by the heroic acts of protagonists both real and imagined. Along what path will these values take him? How will these stories affect his life and the lives of others? From the seemingly mundane heroism of helping people with broken cars to some other, more dramatic form? Or is it these small daily rescues that give his path meaning?

Maybe he thinks about these things. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just a job to him, not a mission. But the meanings of our lives may be things we never realize until we’re looking back. Or they could be things we’ll never know.

People are always more interesting than you think.