Thursday, December 28, 2006

Another Version of the Midwest

I listened to Michael Perry's Population: 485 while I drove recently. Perry writes about living in New Auburn, Wisconsin, and volunteering for the volunteer fire department, which not only fights fires, but does lots of first response and rescue work.

Perry's midwest is very different from mine. First, he's from New Auburn, so going to live there after years away was going home, going back to a place where he had history. He talks about that history at one point in terms of familiarity with the geography. That resounded strongly with me; I remember driving across country the first time, and being overwhelmed by the size of the sky in the midwest. The sky goes on forever here, and feels very low to the ground, especially when the clouds are heavy and stormlike. My geographical sense depends on knowing which way mountains run, and where the ocean is. When I lived in Latin America, I could pretty much tell which way was which by where the mountain range was. Here, I'm constantly lost. Where I lived in grad school, I could only get oriented if I could imagine where the water was because you couldn't always see hills for the polution. But you could usually see the air. Ugh. I don't miss seeing the air.

Second, Perry's midwest is small town, while mine is small city. The sub-title of the book is "Meeting your neighbors one siren at a time." I get the feeling listening, though, that most of the neighbors we meet in the book are the dozen or so other firefighters and EMTs, not only the ones in New Auburn, but the ones Perry worked with during his training and early experiences. Despite the small population Perry talks about, I don't get the sense that he knows folks in the small town the way I imagine small towns. But I've never really lived in a really small town, so he's more likely to have it right than I am.

As I drove, though, I kept thinking about what would happen if I got in an accident, which small town volunteer fire department would get called out to clean up whatever mess I left on the pavement. It's weirdly comforting to think that all across the US (and probably elsewhere), there are volunteers (and paid folks, too) who come together to help their neighbors and strangers. The rural midwest feels especially stark and lonely in the winter, even without much snow.

Every so often, Perry comes up with a really good image, a really good word usage. For example, he talked about a woman whose face was jerked by years of smoking into looking aged. Wow, "jerked" is totally evocative for me, there. I know what he means, I can imagine and visualize the way the face looks, dried and tired.

All in all, then, a good book, well worth listening to, though not as informative about small town midwestern living as I'd hoped. There were moments, though, when I felt that I really understood what Perry was getting at by volunteering and how that helped him connect with the community in a fuller way. It made me want to be a volunteer firefighter in a small town for a few minutes; I romanticized and fantasized, and then realized that my small city has numerous fire stations with lots of pros. And there's no way I'm moving out of my home to move into a small town to try to fit in. That thinking made me think about the ways I do and don't fit here.

It's the end of the year, and time for introspection, I suppose, so that's where I went.

Last evening, I went to visit with a friend's family, to meet her son, another rpcv, and his family. Meeting her mother made me feel right at home somehow, like there's a connection. And there were four generations in that house. Four. I played silliness with one of the kids, which I'm fairly good at. Once a little kid is willing to try the lap, I'm good for an hour or so of entertainment, usually.

We got into a rhythm last evening. We'd do the lap game, then the kid would go do something else, and a few minutes later, come back to the lap game again. It was nice, fun to make him giggle and be silly.

Today I went out and made the final miles to the 700 miles since August on the bike computer. When I woke up this morning, the news said we were expecting freezing rain, but it didn't come, and still hasn't come, and I had a nice ride.

So when I think about fitting, I guess I'm okay. I'm probably as okay here as I would be where I grew up in the suburbs. I always wanted to grow up either in the city like some of my cousins who seemed so sophisticated and savvy or in the country so that I'd get that experience. Instead, I grew up in the almost Disneyesque safety of the suburbs.

I don't know what to call the small city experience; it's neither THE city, nor country, nor suburbs of a big city. We have lots of shared stories in this country about growing up in big cities or in rural areas or small towns. But I don't know what stories we really have about small cities, although lots of people live in them, grow up in them, grow old in them. I don't know the story we're supposed to be living here, so I'm just muddling through.

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