Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Thucydides, Al Tingley, Myth and Me

I live in a small town in America, but I wasn't born in one.

I grew up in a college town with a population of a hundred thousand and climbing when I left. I've lived in a number of places, from Dunseith, North Dakota, to San Francisco: and found something attractive about all of them.

I've lived here in Sauk Centre, a town with about 4,000 people, since early 1986. I like it here, too.

Town Historian? Well, Sort of

Not too long ago, someone called me the town historian.

That wasn't quite accurate, the way the word is used these days. A historian is generally thought of as someone who looks for documents about dead people and past events; reads them carefully; then writes a report on who they were, what happened, and why.

That's not what I do. I've been a historian of sorts, but that's another story.

On the other hand, I'm a historian now, in the way that Al Tingley and Thucydides are: Someone who actually experienced the events that he or she is describing, while making an effort to be sure of the facts; but having a point of view.

'Things that really happened' is history. Or, "the aggregate of past events", as Princeton's WordNet puts it.

Quite a few people think that myth is 'things that didn't really happen.' They're right - sort of.

Mayberry RFD, Peyton Place, and Myth

Say "Small Town America," and people who don't live in one - and some who do - are likely to recall Mayberry RFD; Lake Wobegon; Harper Valley and their PTA; or Peyton Place.

There's only one problem with those examples: none of them is real. Like Brigadoon, they're settings for a story. Or, in the case of Harper Valley, a song that told a story.

They are, arguably, mythical Small Town America: the contemporary equivalent of the 'kingdom far away' where Cinderella and Jack the Giant-Killer lived.

Mythical settings are fine for story-telling. An unnamed petty kingdom somewhere 'out there' lets a storyteller enhance elements of reality, making the story more entertaining and memorable. And, highlight selected ideas and beliefs.

Note: "mythical" doesn't necessarily mean "not real." One definition of a myth is "a traditional story accepted as history; serves to explain the world view of a people" (Princeton's WordNet)

The first part of that definition is what's behind the widely-accepted meaning of 'myth' as something that's 'not real.' The second part, myth as a story "to explain the world view of a people" is what I have in mind, when I call Mayberry RFD and Harper Valley 'mythical' places.

Ah, the Simple Bliss and Tranquility of Small Town America

Or maybe it's the ignorance and squalor of of small towns, those havens of hypocritical bigots. Depends on who's telling the story.

I don't think that people in small towns are particularly gifted when it comes to ruining their lives, and the lives of others. No more so than people who live in places like San Francisco or Chicago.

But then, I don't see big cities as dens of iniquity, set to trap youths with vain promises of fame and pleasure.

On the other hand, I've been around enough to know that big cities offer opportunities for self-destruction that aren't quite so available in small towns. Still, we're not all that isolated from what's now and wow.
Small Town America's No Brigadoon
For example, police found a meth lab a few blocks from my home in 2003.

December of 2005 was a bit more eventful than most. The month started out with about $20,000 of shot-up windows - including one of ours - and drug-related arrest across the street.

That arrest across the street was the end of an incident that started with a domestic assault and gunshot in a town down the road. What I called Version 3.0 of the story came out in local papers in early January. A 'resolution' of sorts for the incident where kids decided to spend time shooting at windows came in September of 2006.

Small Town America, Twice a Week

At least, that's the idea. The Sauk Centre Journal has a new entry late every Wednesday and Sunday - circumstances allowing.

Those biweekly posts will be copies of what appears on the Sauk Centre Journal, with the occasional additional comment.

Now, it's high time I start working on today's entry.

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