Friday, March 31, 2006

Wunelle: Therapy Couch Potato

Well, almost.

I grew up, between the ages of 7 and 18, about 10 miles outside Brainerd, MN. The town itself had about 11,000 permanent residents, and the surrounding area was at that time sparsely populated in the winter, but during the summer months it grew to about 300,000 people, with vacation homes and tourists and such. My parents owned a little tourist trap gift shop in a nearby small town (population 1,100), and my dad worked during the week a couple hours away in Minneapolis / St. Paul, a metro area with a combined population of a couple million at that time. So I grew up in a fairly small place, and had regular access to a pretty big city.

From before high school I knew beyond question that I would go to college not in a small or mid-size town, but in the biggest city I could easily get access to. And so I ended up after high school at the main campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. This is one of the larger college campuses in the U.S., with an enrollment of some 55,000 students. This was certainly not an academic decision--I was a shitty, unfocused student; it was a city thing. I was drawn to the city then, and I continue to be so enamored. I think of myself as a city person.

But tho I lived in Minneapolis for 20 years once I came down to attend college, I can remember the dissonance I felt each weekend when I would return back up home to Brainerd. Everything moved at a slower pace, and my blood pressure would seem to cut in half as I rolled into town. Traffic--in which I spent my working life in Minneapolis entangled, driving my city bus thru both morning and evening rush hours--seemed comparatively non-existent. The numerous lakes and dense pine forests were intensely beautiful, and away from the highways it was quiet and serene. This was all quite attractive. When I had only weekend access to Brainerd, I thought I'd really prefer to find a way to make a decent living up there and to live there permanently. But then I'd spend a week up there and would find myself giddy to be back in Minneapolis. I remember feeling a bit stressed (city person that I am) that these two places did not settle obediently into a more distinct hierarchy; I seemed at any given moment to love the place I wasn't.

After a decade of some ill-defined internal wrangling with this, I reconciled myself to the notion that one could be nourished by different parts of both places, that it was OK not to choose one over the other. This may not seem so difficult to most people, but it took some doing for me. Eventually, I built a house up north on a remote lake and sold my house in Minneapolis and moved into a high-rise apartment there. Brainerd became my legal address, but my work was in (or in & out of) Minneapolis. I had regular access to the best of both things.

But I daresay the lesson has not entirely sunk in even now. Our weekend just past in Chicago spurred me to visit every condo open house we ran across, and I float along in the grips of a constant hallucinatory fantasy about having ready access to this or that city amenity, or having this urban landscape be one's living room view, blah blah blah. By any seemingly reasonable standard our house here in Appleton is a fantasy, and (as I have often stated) it would be unaffordable for us in Chicago by a huge margin (indeed, the most striking thing of the weekend was a realization of how little our house payment would get us in the way of a Chicago condo). From a standard-of-living point of view, we simply do much better here in Appleton than we'd do nearly everywhere else.

But that's not all there is to life, of course, and I always feel as though the city represents some rich and varied stream of human happenings that I simply miss by being somewhere else. The city is what country folks read about in magazines. I know that much of this stream is garbage and noise, but part of one's skillset is to know how to find the best things in a city, things which are close at hand if not necessarily in front of one's eyes. When I hear people denigrating the city I feel almost as though they're admitting defeat, conceding that a thing is beyond their coping skills. (I know, of course, that I haven't the slightest ability to make this judgment for others, but that's what it would feel like coming from my mouth.)

But that same assessment places me in some strange purgatory now. It's as though my present solution to this little life's dilemma is to pace nervously in the ground measured to be the exact center of the two extremes, where my solution before was to regularly visit both extremes (well, more or less). This setup gives one things, but deprives one of either of the extremes I used to struggle with.

And so, 25 years later, I'm back to struggling with the same question in the same fruitless way. If I had to choose one or the other, I would always come down squarely in the "urban" camp. But I have to figure out how to be at peace with my circumstances not playing out that way.

My life now is really, really good.

But not because I'm away from the city.


Joshua said...

Please tell me your parents owned a shop in Nisswa.

wunelle said...

Nisswa it was! That's where I finished elementary school, and they owned the Totem Pole (a Nisswa institution!).

Joshua said...

JESUS!!!! You don't know how many times I have shopped in Nisswa, when the fiance and I are in the mood for fake rural charm!

When did they sell?

woolf said...

This evening, Tom and I watched a PBS documentary about a rural Kansan running for state politics (POV: Bill's Run), and I definately had the whole "wish I was there" moment. Just looking at the landscapes and the thunderheads and the old coots hanging around brought on a breath of homesickness I haven't felt in quite some time. But then I look at our limited skyline and I know I would miss this as well. If only Kansas was a mere commute ride away!

wunelle said...

Sorry, I dropped off the face of the earth for a day.

They sold the Totem Pole probably 15+ years ago now. I even worked there a few summers as a clerk. One of many obscure day trips about my resume.

Anonymous said...

I think that it is pretty easy to look over the fence and get the impression that the grass is greener on the other side, and who knows, it may be. The negative aspects of the place you're in seem to stand out, while the positive aspects of the other place seem especially appealing, plus you aren't there experiencing the negative aspects of that place.

For myself, as a 'small-towner' presently in an urban setting, I keep thinking that it would be great to get back to a small town. As far as I can tell, the only 'amenity' of the big city that I couldn't just visit for is a job.

You just need to get the seniority it takes to hold a line to a good city, and then you could have the best of both worlds - plenty of time in a big city (without having to pay city rent) and you get to head home on breaks to a nice, dull, medium-small town.

-- Jeffy

Esbee said...

I have lived in enormous cities, small cities, and in the middle of nowhere.

I loathe suburbs; they feel wishy-washy to me.

I usually have needed/wanted something that has drawn me to an area, but that need/want changes as I reach new stages of life.

Previous to marriage, then when my husband and I were newlyweds up through when we had one small child, we loved all the city had to offer, but then we started wanting quiet, room for a dog (or three), less likelihood of our son hearing casual profanity. So now we are here, in a small city, and it's right for us right now. But I guarantee you in fifteen years or so, it won't be, because that's our nature. And so we'll move.

I'm somewhat envious of people who have lived in one place all their lives, but I am also pleased to not be scared to pick up and go. When my mother was alive, she was my anchor, and I always came back to DC/her, but now we aren't really tied to any one place.

wunelle said...

I have friends who lived in Brooklyn a few years ago and they said they felt the desire to get out of the city when their child was born. For my part (and admittedly not as a parent) I can think of no better place to raise a child than New York City. But I suppose that's just me.

The idea of living in a single place forever seems a little terrifying (can a thing be "a little" terrifying?). I already feel as though significant happenings are occurring without me, and that's with my making regular visits to several pretty large places.

I think sometimes as I fly over these billion small towns in middle America about the number of people who have lived their entire lives in these little communities. But there's value there too, I know.

wunelle said...

And Jeffy, you're exactly correct. I need to bid New York trips, so I can stay at a posh Midtown hotel and wander the streets by day and get paid to do it!

Dzesika said...

Cities. Oh cities. So wonderful. But I do say that on the back end of a two-hour train ride from inner London back out to this backwater. Ask tomorrow again maybe, when I haven't been woken up by inner-city sirens in the middle of the night.

wunelle said...

When Susan and I first started dating there was a Burlington Northern mainline that ran a couple blocks from the apartment, and we'd be gently awakened about 2:00 in the morning by the high-speed freights which ran thru, whistles blowing, each day at that time, and we came to love that sound. To this day we coo over the train sounds around Appleton. When we stay in New York or downtown Chicago, I have to have the window open at night for white noise / city sounds. I suppose the romance wears off, but so far I feel only envy for your move!