"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Our love-hate relationship w/ small towns

One of my breakfast companions had an impulse to call the barber Tuesday morning. He used his cellphone right from where we were sitting.
It turned out there was an opening, so he left immediately. He left his coffee and napkin behind, saying he'd be back shortly.
"Only in a small town," one can observe.
You leave your place at "the diner" for a haircut and know your spot will be undisturbed until you get back.
There are highs and lows to small town life, to be sure. Roger Ebert has written about this. In the movie "Sweet Home Alabama," a character has to ponder whether to stay in the big city or go home to the quintessential small town.
Ebert said it wouldn't really be a plot spoiler to indicate how this would turn out.
"Is there really any doubt?" he wrote, or something to that effect.
Ebert said moviemakers instinctively feel the small town of America is utopian, sort of. How can we not feel charmed by the likes of "Mayberry?"
"Everyone knows your name at the local diner," Ebert wrote.
There's one problem with this mindset. Ebert wrote that the people who create movies actually have personal feelings that are the complete opposite. They would never choose to live in the classic American small town. They apparently like the anonymity and cosmopolitan atmosphere that a large city affords.
Garrison Keillor, a friend to Morris, has touched on this contradiction too. I was reading in a book by Keillor about how well-to-do retirees from a small town continue receiving their hometown newspaper. It's essential to them.
They send renewal checks to the paper with exotic place names on them, from places in the sunbelt. No humdrum street addresses. Instead it's colorful place names with references to flora and fauna that don't exist here. They have to know what's going on back home.
"Is Pete really selling the hardware store?"
They no longer live here and "wouldn't if you paid them," Keillor wrote.
They're right in there with the Hollywood types. They observe small town life with fascination but keep a personal distance, as if wearing a lab coat and taking notes. Which they are.
My friend at the restaurant, Glen Helberg, went to see barber Dave Evenson. Who knows what Glen could have learned visiting the barber.
The barber can give interesting leads on things happening locally. He's the small town equivalent of "the shoeshine guy."
A satirical TV series once had a shoeshine guy who was a fountain of local information. Of course you had to pay him. Just peel out some bills, as the Leslie Nielsen character did on that show.
Considering what the barber now charges, I almost feel like I ought to be getting something more than a haircut.
It's nice to get a snippet or two of local information.
The recent fund-raising drive for the golf course was a prime example of a local topic prompting all sorts of talk, speculation and misinformation. Was there really a 100 percent serious bid from ag interests to plow the golf course under?
Where money is concerned, I'm always asking questions.
Why couldn't the golf course be handled as a normal business matter and not turned into a community fund drive? There are all sorts of good causes for our money. I'm not sure that golf, which tends to appeal to the most affluent among us, merits that kind of support.
We live in a country in which the rich are getting richer. Let the rich deal with the issues of a golf course. The location of our golf course has no redeeming qualities anyway.
We all know there are certain phenomena associated with a small town. The late unforgettable Walt Sarlette talked about one: two motorists coming toward each other on main street, who recognize each other and decide to roll down their windows and chat for a few seconds.
"And if you honk at them, they get mad," Walt said.
I actually think he was talking about towns smaller than Morris but it could happen here.
Terms like "small town" and "big city" are subjectively defined. Morris is big relative to Graceville. Alexandria is big relative to Morris.
I remember a Star Tribune writer once who seemed to poke fun at the smaller communities in Stearns County because they looked to St. Cloud as "the big city." She put "the big city" in quotes as if St. Cloud couldn't truly be viewed in those terms.
A couple years later I had an email exchange with a contact I had at the Strib, and shared this story. My contact said the metropolitan writers can be guilty of smart-aleck insinuations like this. It wasn't something to be proud of, she said.
If St. Cloud isn't big enough for you, you have problems.
Of course a big city doesn't have to be defined in those terms. Big cities of course have "neighborhoods." These are places where they actually might "know your name at the local diner."
The late author Theodore White wrote that a big city is "a collection of many communities." He was writing about forced busing for integration purposes. His point was that a big city shouldn't be viewed as a single entity.
Here's a central point I wish to make: the type of small town we associate with Norman Rockwell's America has largely faded into myth. The main reason is communications technology. No one needs to feel isolated anymore. Anywhere. Not even in Montana.
In 1958 we finally got TV out here in western Minnesota. Today we take for granted the seemingly hundreds of TV choices we have. It can be switched on in the middle of the night too. And of course there's the Internet. There are mobile devices I can't discuss knowledgeably.
You can lose yourself in all this stuff instead of gossipping at the local diner. Small towns simply are not culturally disadvantaged anymore. You can enrich yourself as easily here as in Manhattan, New York City. The big cities are actually starting to look undesirable.
I have even read that the neighborhoods surrounding St. Cloud State University aren't as safe as they once were. Their complexion changed in about the mid-1980s, I read. The topic came up in connection with St. Cloud State cancelling its Homecoming.
If I am to believe what an apparently knowledgeable person wrote, that part of St. Cloud has become one of those places where you're best off not taking a walk after dark. St. Cloud State is an old institution and it's in an old part of the city. It's falling behind.
What about Morris? If you work in the media you have the whip cracked over you to be positive. Boy, there are just new programs and ideas to promote a feeling of, well, just a good feeling about ourselves, or a good feeling among those people who fancy themselves community leaders.
I'm afraid that an objective look is more sobering. It seems Morris is contracting. Businesses have closed up. We abandoned our huge old school complex and grounds with no plan of demolition or firm idea of how to transition it to something else.
By "firm" I mean plausible and likely - doable.
The "green community" seems to be pie in the sky - an idea where bureaucratic types can stroke each other.
People talk about how the University of Minnesota-Morris ought to grow. Fine, but experience has taught me that UMM has never been interested in the suggestions from community people.
It does appear that UMM has discouraged the word "townies" for referring to townspeople. That always grated on me.
The colonel character in the movie "First Blood" used the term "jerkwater" to refer to the town where Rambo had his misfortune. Hollywood exaggerated this kind of thinking.
But this kind of thinking seems obsolete now as we have all become empowered by technology.
Also obsolete is the setting where the colonel and sheriff had their conversation: a bar where sexy-looking waitresses bounced around. The sheriff (Brian Dennehy) ordered "wild turkey," remember? Was he going back out to drive his squad car?
Movies reflect our culture at the time, albeit with exaggerations and some stereotypes.
Small towns survive with both ups and downs. The kind of tech that allowed my friend Glen to call the barber from his booth at McDonald's is an up. Our shrinking population is a down.
It's worrisome that the very small towns around Morris are losing so much. No more cafes in Cyrus or Donnelly. No more Spartans of Chokio-Alberta.
We can count on some peace and quiet. But it's going to get quieter.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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