Tuesday, October 07, 2008

On Small Town America

In a previous post, I allowed that, after spending my toddlerhood in an inner suburb of a large metropolis, the vicissitudes of life carried me to the small southern town where I would spend five years of my pre-teen life.

There were a lot of changes wrapped up in this move. Our standard of living went from being "upper middle class" to "lower middle class" or worse, although culturally we remained what we were. I had never given any notice to things like heat in the winter, or clothes; now I dressed in the kitchen by the gas heater because in my own room I could see my breath in the winter time. While the clothes were adequate, the best I could hope for was whatever my classmates had worn last year.

The environment changed as well. My suburban school had been pretty uniform SES-wise. Our school out in the country, especially after it was consolidated at a new location, was very diverse. We had a noticeable percentage of blacks; we also had students who appeared to come from relatively wealthy families; we had the poor whites from farming families hit hard by the recession.

Our family was culturally aloof from our surroundings. I grew up, not with country music or some proto version of talk radio, but with NPR. Indeed, to this day, the theme music and soothing voices of "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" evoke memories of hearth and home (although the actual content seems from another planet). While I no doubt agree with Rush Limbaugh more often than not, I yet find his aesthetic distasteful.

I had few friends there. In contrast to the suburbs, interpersonal conflicts stood a large chance of turning physical, and being a skinny weakling, I avoided conflict by avoiding people.

I never played football or attended any games; instead, I took piano lessons. I have no idea what my "peers" did on Saturday; I was manning the community library. I guess the other children attended church, but they were different churches; my brother and I were, with sporadic exceptions, the only ones younger than our own parents. In sixth grade, when we got to take electives, my male peers lined up to take skeet shooting. I took drama. Their runaway favorite television show was "The Dukes of Hazzard", a show I was forbidden to watch.

But was this any different from suburbia? I didn't have any friends there, either. As a child, I wasn't interested in "cultural broadening". Museums bored me. Classical music concerts were a drag after the first 10 minutes. These limitations were hardly the fault of the community; they were borne differently in a small town vs. a major city, but they weren't going away.

The late seventies / early eighties were a great time to be a kid in a small town. I biked everywhere. I explored the woods. I played by the creek. If I was lucky, I got to see what 12-ga. birdshot could do to a road sign, this being the preferred passtime of high school students.

And now?

My job has always required me to live in or near moderate to large cities. In the space / time tradeoff, I always chose the short commute time over the wide open spaces. And my wife, who lived for a time in New York City, prefers the urban landscape to the countryside. Further, my particular engineering discipline cannot very well be practiced outside of major metropolitan areas. So here I am. I don't object to living in a small town, but it is unlikely that I ever will. Addendum: while writing this post, I discovered that my school had a shooting back in '95 in which a student killed a teacher and a 16 year-old classmate.

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