Saturday, August 01, 2009


Because this blog is mostly in the style of personal essay -- maybe even “the new journalism” in which the reporter includes his or her own story and reactions in the story of something else -- and probably wanders into memoir and identity politics and because about half of the readers have found this blog by Googling something that interests them and so sees the blog through that filter, and because we’re in some kind of time warp where everyone wants to be a writer, many people take this blog personally. Should they?

Beyond that, some will try to break the glass/paper wall into my actual life and some succeed. I just spent a long time on the phone with a woman right here in Valier whom I had not known was a reader. She will be surprised to see herself mentioned. We were talking politics along the lines very common here: newcomers who are different vs. old timers who insist on the status quo. I am uncomfortably on both sides. How much should I discuss that? Both of us insist on our authenticity and insight and, in comparison to many of the townspeople, we’re quite a lot alike. But we are totally different.

Carl Rogers
made an investigation of marriage “back in the day” when things were defined by “why not?” instead of “but always. . .” He concluded that any relationship depends upon constant communication to keep assumptions and boundaries straightened out. There is barely enough time today -- if you’re going to live in the media-recommended lifestyle -- for people to talk to their spouses, much less their children. The children talk to each other, set their own norms and find their own help. This means that generational change is happening a lot faster than it has in some other times. He noted that some counterculture people could barely manage a marriage of three people (gender neutral) but that even for people who had no jobs and sat around talking all day, five was probably the max who could really stay in sync.

So what about a little village of 350 trying to accommodate their own children plus move-ins? The main idea is that representatives (at least) of factions will come to the town meetings and speak their minds, but people soon figure out that this will get them only target status. Much better to join one of the several coffee klatches in various places around town -- or maybe the bars. It feels natural to hang out with the crowd closest to oneself in style and reach a consensus among that group which can be brought to bear on the town council, maybe covertly to avoid confrontation.

That, of course, doesn’t take into account the larger forces acting on villages these days: regulations and agendas from entirely outside, that directly impact infrastructure, economic opportunity, transportation, and so on. A vivid example here is the CRP program (I suppose that’s redundundant since CRP stands for Crop Reduction Program.) which paid farmers to NOT farm, to put their cropland in native grass. That meant that the farmers, who were mostly almost old enough to retire anyway, planted their land one last time, sold their equipment and even their buildings, and left for a friendlier climate. It turned out to be a population reduction program. In turn, the small town schools shrank enough to force consolidation and curriculum change.

Then there are subtler forces at work that no one asked for or formally created. For instance, something has happened in the culture so that every student who “tries” expects to get an A. If they don’t, parents come to force an A. Grades are understood as access to college which is defined as access to economic success for a lifetime. But because the grades are given for attitude rather than accomplishment, students who thought they were quite above average find out they can’t succeed even in a small tolerant college because they just don’t have the basics in hand. And those who somehow do succeed in college and go on to professional graduate training, discover that the tuition will absorb all their profit for the first decades of their working life. If they discover that it doesn’t suit them after all, they will be facing an impossible buy-out. But because the government will sometimes offer subsidies to those who return to small towns, some find themselves trapped right back where they started. No one intended any of this.

Here’s something else. Normally the arts in their edgier incarnations are phenomena supported only by the population density of cities. Libraries, concerts, galleries and so on need many people passing through to reach the numbers necessary to provide clients. In the American West this is mostly achieved in tourist towns which are high population in the summer. Even now, with the trend for people to build “trophy houses” out west, they are only in residence for weeks out of the year. So the arts also become itinerant. Summer theatre and so on. Locals, observing their “economic superiors,” may come to understand that “culture” is a sign of prosperity and try to establish on-going local art communities which mostly succeed only near universities. But now the Internet provides a virtual population density that gathers up the population of the entire planet. One (okay, “I”) can sit here reading, writing and corresponding on esoteric topics with a community that I’ve never seen, much less sat down with for “beers.”

The first consequence is a huge avalanche of writers. NPR has just sponsored a little contest for their listeners (a fraction of radio listeners) to offer extremely short stories, which ought to cut down even more on participants, and got 5,000 offerings. What will happen to all those worthy blip-length stories? Could a person publish them according to some theme or locale or genre or nationality or gender? That’s the sort of thing that seems to be sorting out the Internet city into neighborhoods, without ever saying so and according mostly to consumer data. Or has writing become the production of ephemera? A twitterized world? To suit people with tweet-length attention spans.

So my telephone correspondent, who is a few blocks from me in our tiny village community of 350, has never met me, didn’t know where my house is, nor have I met her or know where her house is. She assumes that our goals and ideals are similar, because she reads this blog, which means she has one heckuva lot clearer idea of who I am that most of the people who live here, and yet our conversation revealed that we don’t know each other at all. To me, I’m unique and she’s a type. Maybe for her the same is true in reverse.

We made no date to have coffee. (Neither one of us drinks alcohol.) Maybe it would be dangerous to challenge our identities. Maybe the village, seeing us as alike, would intervene. But maybe there are other people like us here. Maybe neither one of us would like that very much.


Running At Large said...

Might I submit that a "type" is but a label of one's surface facade? People are easily categorized as "types" until someone gets to know them, only to find out they, too, are unique. We are all more complex than a mere label. As we learn we grow, continuing to unfold new aspects of our character. I am still discovering "who I am" so how could anyone else really know? Perhaps it's only a matter of perspective. In another geographic area I would be considered a tight necked conservative, while here people might think me a flaming liberal. Both would be wrong. Coffee? Monday? You name the place.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Sure. Not Monday but at the next town council meeting. Bring a mug and a thermos. This time of year they usually offer ice water.

If you're going to run for mayor, it's time you attended a meeting.

Prairie Mary

Unknown said...

Thank God for the internet. It's the only man-made thing powerful enough to unite the isolated, individualized, industrialized Americans into neighborly communion again. Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

Wow, you seem to be more of a Scarey Mary than a Prairie Mary. I've been reading your blog for a while now and I must say, I can't believe that you would put a person down like that without even really knowing them. I thought you had more intelligence than that, who knew?

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Let that be a lesson to you.

A: little old ladies are not harmless.

B: Blogs are not accurate depictions of the bloggers.

C: Do not patronize me.

Prairie/Scary/Hairy Mary

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Dave Lull, cross-pollinating librarian, sends this relevant reference:

Town Crier
The latest chapter in America's obsession with the small town.
By Jessa Crispin