Friday, March 31, 2006
Wunelle: Therapy Couch Potato
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.