Wednesday, March 10, 2010
I forgot to show you...
This was Emma's school picture from back in the fall.

Where I live...Bootstraps and all
I mentioned that the county population is less than 2,300 people. That means there are even fewer voters than that here. Don't get me wrong, people here vigorously exercise their right to vote. We have higher voter turnout averages than the state or national average for every single election. The problem is that with so few voters we have no political clout. We're a whole county that can be ignored because we can't swing elections.

Therefore getting the shaft from the capital is a way of life. We've actually had delegates from other counties suggest that we take our problems and our special needs and break off from our state and join the neighboring state. Our state legislature, like any legislature, loves to send one-size-fits-all mandates to us and we just don't have enough people and enough tax base to support their mandates. They're killing our school system with their nonsense right now.

The weak tax base means that things that most county governments can easily afford are out of reach for us. Thirty years ago a group of people went to the Board of Supervisors asking for a library. One of the supervisors actually said out loud that the county didn't need a library because no one in the county reads. Despite such a ridiculous rebuff the group pressed on. They raised money and started a library as a non-profit. Later they raised enough money through private donations to build a library building of their own. They went back to the supervisors. This time they proved they had a going concern and asked for county support. Finally, the supervisors took them seriously and started supporting the library with some funding. Unfortunately since then it has continued to be underfunded by the county and to this day relies heavily on donations to operate.

The local radio station is part of a public radio network shared by three counties in two states. The station in town was built entirely with volunteer labor until the very end, when the finishing work needed to be done. Most of the materials were donated. It's programs are hosted by volunteers. The station manager is the only paid employee, otherwise they use VISTA volunteers. Like all public radio stations they support themselves through grants and private donations.

The recreation department benefited from the fact that a supervisor had it in his mind that his legacy to the county would be a swimming pool. This was accomplished through the magical combination of grants, matching grants, and private donations. Once again building materials were donated, labor was donated, and volunteers were called upon. The pool opened up last summer. I visited it once for a birthday pool party and was very impressed with the results of all that effort. It certainly wasn't done without controversy because people rightly surmised that even if the pool was built with funds and grants, the county budget would end up supporting it's continued sustainability. When there's very little money to go around people get touchy about supporting recreation.

The local medical center was built with grant money and private donations (Are we seeing a theme yet?). It was another situation where the locals had to make it happen. What started as a homegrown project now looks remarkably like a modern medical center anywhere else. While I now take my kids to a pediatrician thirty miles away, I still like knowing that medical help is close at hand if I need it.

The Fire Department and Rescue Squads are all volunteer. That's not all that remarkable in rural country, but when you see everywhere else people are volunteering it's a wonder we have enough people left to do fire and rescue.

M and I are not immune to the siren call of volunteerism. M was on the medical center board, the SPCA board, the Chamber of Commerce, and on the radio board at varying times. I've been on the library board, the business incubator board, and we've both done volunteer work for the recreation department.

If you don't volunteer for those organizations there's always the Lions Club, the three different Ruritan groups, the Masons, the various school-related organizations, or the church organizations who could use your help raising money though bingo, food booths, free will donation dinners, silent auctions, sweater sales, ,blood drives, and product sales. Seriously, brother, can you spare a dime?


Tuesday, March 09, 2010
Where I live...where everyone knows your name
When you live in a small town you have no anonymity. Everyone knows who you are, who you're with, and they know your history. This creates a completely different culture from the suburbs and the big city. For example, you can't hide from the consequences of your actions. You can't flip off someone who pisses you off on the road since they'll recognize you and your car. You can't run off at the mouth bitching about someone because it's likely you'll find out later that the listener is somehow related to the object of your ire. In other words, it in your best interest to be civilized.

That's not to imply that civility doesn't come naturally, or that people aren't inclined to be nice anyway. It just means that you have extra incentive to think through the consequences of acting out your anger or frustration at someone. Because you're going to see that person again; there's no avoiding it. The flip side of that is if you are confronted by someone, especially an "outsider," you have allies automatically. People will defend you against unjust attacks, even if only in the telling of it later.

Reputation is everything in this environment. People have long memories here. If you were ever caught doing something illegal it will always follow you. Not that people will discriminate against you, but it will be your tagline forever. If you've had something unusual happen to you, that too could be your tagline. "That's Marge Doherty, she got busted for growing her own pot years ago." "That's Stan Smith, he once got hit by a car at a street dance." "That's Doug Showalter, his wife left him for the bread man." "That Patty Cunningham, she's a nut."

Growing up in this environment is tough. Hillary Clinton would love it here. It takes a village, right? Well, everyone knows your kid and that he or she belongs to you. It's hard for kids to get away with much. Here people are willing to try to help your kid along the right path if they know you give a damn. But if it's obvious that you don't care what your kid does, or what happens to them, people will generally back off because it rarely does any good to intervene. Soon enough it becomes a matter for social services, anyway. Reputation building begins at birth around here. Forty years from now people will remember if you took extra care to make nice even lines when you mowed their lawn for them. If you grow up and do well for yourself the whole county will be proud of you.

All that I've outlined so far assumes you care what people think about you. There are definitely those around here who don't give a damn. They'll do what they please because they're looking out for number one (and it ain't you!). These are the people you would hate to have as neighbors. Honestly, you don't even want to see them coming your way. They may not care what their reputation is, but they sure enough have one.

M and I, our strategy is to be as boring as possible. That way people don't have anything to talk about when the topic of "you" comes up. But you have to be careful with that, because it doesn't keep people from making things up. Back before M was dating me the rumor went around that he was diddling his best friends wife. The evidence? Her car was parked at M's house at odd hours. The explanation...uh...his best friend was driving his wife's car. Duh.

Small communities can be the best. They shine the most when they can lift someone up. Suppose someone finds out they have cancer and now have to travel over the mountains for regular treatment. Ride pools will be formed to help with the driving. If you're not insured or don't have the means to pay the bills, a free will donation dinner might be put together in your honor to help raise money for you. Friends and neighbors will bring you meals so you don't have to cook. Just last week a newlywed couple lost their home to a house fire. The very next day a donation point was established to collect money and household items for them. A spaghetti supper is already being planned.

In a small town everyone knows your name, which is cool. But they also know your business...or they think they do. M's take on it all is that things around here are pretty transparent. People don't spend a lot of energy putting on appearances. That energy is better spent actually accomplishing things.


Monday, March 08, 2010
Where I live...the People I
This is where it gets interesting. Bear in mind that I'm going to be generalizing and stereotyping out the wazoo, so feel free to comment or question if you feel I'm not being fair.

The overriding dynamic amongst the people here can be found in small communities all around the globe, the locals vs. the "come heres." The locals would be better referred to as the natives. These are the people who were born here (or born in a hospital across the mountains and brought home here). They went to school here and have family here. Now, technically, they can go away to college and work for awhile, marry away from here, and come back and still be a local. It's all in having your roots here.

Come heres are the starry-eyed retirees, the back-to-nature hippies, the school teachers brought in to fill empty slots, the self-imposed exiles, people tired of the rat race, and those who are hiding out from their former lives. If your roots to the area go back too many generations and you were born and raised elsewhere, you may seem to gain acceptance with the locals, but you're really regarded as a come here.

Locals want progress, they want the big highway bull-dozed through the mountains. They want the McDonald's, the Food Lion, and the Rite Aid (forgot to mention there's no pharmacy here). They want to do what they want to do with their land. They want to trespass on yours as they please. They're suspicious of Richmond, and politicians and their promises. They're used to getting the short end of the stick here. Locals are not impressed with your fancy car, your designer label clothes, or your iPhone that doesn't work here anyway.

Come heres are usually enchanted with the beauty of the place. They want to freeze it in amber. Don't change a thing. They don't want the big highway to spoil the landscape and bring in more people. They want their peace and quiet. They want to protect the bats, the bald eagles, and the pristine beauty and crystal clarity of the water of the forks. No subdivisions, not in my back yard. No firing ranges, not in my back yard. No prison, not in my back yard.

The thing is that the come heres have no idea what they're up against. They arrive and dive into the community with enthusiasm, volunteering, meeting people, making friends, and contributing to the general welfare. They love the small community, where everyone knows everyone. The kindness and the accountability that comes from lack of anonymity. But they eventually begin to see the downside to small community living, the gossip, the cliques, the intransigence of the local governing body, and the vague feeling that there's an undercurrent in the community that they're just not understanding. Many come heres become so disillusioned that they leave. In my nearly seventeen years I've seen this happen many times. I've seen some good people come and go.

I'm more of a come here than a local, but I straddle the line a bit because I married into an established local family. I get to see both sides of the dynamic. I think I understand both sides of the dynamic. This area is a tough nut to crack. It's hard to really make friends with the locals. By the time you get here they've chosen up their teams, so to speak.

(M says that using the term "come here" brands me as a come here. He says they're "out-of-towners." He also said I could add to my list of arriving "out-of-towners" people who aren't fit to live anywhere else)


Sunday, March 07, 2010
Where I live...Making a Living
It ain't easy. There's no manufacturing industry here. We're so far off from the interstate that shipping manufactured goods is expensive and impractical. Technically, there is one manufacturer that does extremely specialized cameras, but that's it.

The major industries in this neighborhood are agriculture and logging. The single largest employer is the school system, then probably the county government. We do have a data processing business, but they've recently laid off. We have two community banks which together probably employ about forty or so people. The medical center employs about twenty to thirty people. We have two practicing attorneys in the county and they each employ a secretary. The rest is construction, retail, restaurants and the service industry.

Many, many local people commute to the valley for work. That means driving over the four mountains every day going and coming. It's at least an hour each way. In all sorts of weather. I used do that. I don't recommend it. That's how I came to be such crybaby about driving in the snow. I guess the only thing our commute has going for it is that you're actually making progress the whole way, as opposed to sitting in a traffic jam on the beltway every day.

An unusually high proportion of the people in this county are retired. This is the sort of place people dream of retiring to. Why? I have no idea. But it keeps happening so there must be something to it. Most of the retirees come from metropolitan areas. They come with their pensions and lots of time on their hands.

People who move here expecting to find a job to support themselves are in for a very rude awakening. It's very hard to land any kind of job above minimum wage. Nothing is ever advertised, unless it's legally required. You just have to know people who know people. The restaurants and convenience store are always hiring. But most people who move here aren't looking to do that kind of work. Eventually they might end up settling anyway.

Me, I didn't have to settle at all. After commuting for the first four years that I lived here I was able to nab my dream job. Besides the fact that I was well-qualified, I also knew people. The thing about hiring around here is that you're rarely dealing with an unknown quantity. You'll already know who they are, who they're related to, their connection to the county, their last job, and their reputation. That kind of knowledge can be a blessing and a curse.

Besides those gainfully employed we also have the usual contingent on social security or disability. These retirees are generally natives to the area. You'd have to be crazy to move here to live only on social security.

Finally, we have the group that drives everyone around here crazy with curiosity (and gossip). Those with no visible means of support. We'll revisit those folks later.