Friday, July 17, 2015

Small Town Girl

Dear Dad,

Last weekend was, as you know, my 20th High School Reunion. We'll just skip over the unbelievable fact that high school for me was 20 years ago, though -- it tends to remind me that I'm old. But in the midst of the inevitable "So where are you living these days?" and "Where are you working now?" I overheard Will commenting to somebody that while yes, we live in Portland, that I was still a small town girl at heart. Actually, I think what he said was that I had a split personality- part of me loved the city, the rest of me craves a small town.

He's totally right. I appreciate living in a city. I like the access to culture, the choice of shopping and parks and activities, I enjoy the diversity, but I'm really a small town girl. I want to know everybody, I want familiar and cozy and predictable. I loved being a part of village plays and town hall meetings.

In a small town you have to participate. Because unless everyone participates, there aren't enough people to make anything happen. Cities afford a sort of anonymity that makes it too easy to just not participate. Because someone else will organize the festival or the blood drive or the clean up days.
If I could wave a magic wand and create the perfect place for us, it would be a small, vibrant, bikeable village where I could still walk to work and the grocery store and the park but where I knew everybody. My family would all live nearby and, hey, this is a dream town, right? I could easily hop on a train and get to a larger city and several other countries within a few hours. So basically I need to be living in a pre-war, pre-border check English village.

The reality is that being married to an urban designer does not go hand in hand with rural village living. And, as I realized after a few hours back in my small home town, the politics of small town life can seem close-minded to me after years in big and small cities (not to mentions wildly liberal New England villages). And so my solution is to live in the parts of cities that feel village-like.

 Neighborhoods that are dense and well defined, where almost everything you need on a daily basis is within a few minutes bike ride or walk, or in a stretch a quick drive. in Dublin it was Rathgar, in New York it was Morningside Heights, in Portland its Hawthorne, an identity beyond the city. A homemade village. I love Portland precisely because living in the part of town that we do is as close to small town life as you can get in a city, so it satisfies both sides of that split personality of mine.

            -- Gillian

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Small town life in the heartland of America

Dear Gillian,

Garrison Keeler would have been proud. Prairie Home, MO, has everything Lake Woebegone has only in dreams.

Saturday, Mom and I took a winding ride to the 100th annual Prairie Home Fair – an event unlike most of us have seen for decades. It’s not one of those cows, pigs and jelly jars fairs.

This is community celebration of games, songs and good times. And it is all the better for what it doesn’t have.

Like mobile phones. The grandstand was full and there were the requisite number of bored teenagers. But not a one was texting, not one was playing a game. And none of the adults were checking email. Their eyes were on the arena.

We arrived just as the kids bicycle races were hitting their mark. About 75 kids from 5 to 12 raced by the handful around four orange cones on a bare-dirt lot. First peddler to make two circuits ahead of the crowd could coast over to a wooden shed and collect $5, cash.

A few more things were notably missing: Bicycle helmets, clinging parents, knee pads – and lawyers. When kids spun out at that tricky first turn, they rubbed their knees got back on their bikes and peddled like crazy.
But one of those wipe-outs left me a spectacular memory. Two 12-year-old boys who were obviously friends jockeyed for the pole (or cone) on their small-wheeled bikes. Inevitably, one tumbled and tumbled hard. He got up, but spilled at yet another corner.

His friend coasted to the booth for his five $1 bills. But as he walked away, he stuffed the bills into his fallen friend’s pocket.

Ain’t that America?

                            -- Dad