Thursday, June 3, 2010

'Everybody Knows' What Small Towns are Like

One of the reasons I created my first website, back in 1997, was to offer a sort of reality check for 'small town America.' The ones I've lived in have been pretty good places to live, if you can get used to the lack of air pollution.

It helps, if you can get yourself accepted by the community. Which I've had little trouble doing: I'm inclined to thank my Irish forebears for that. Which is another topic.

'A Long Time Ago, in a Land Far, Far Away'

I think that part of the problem is simple ignorance. America is a largely urban country now, and has been for several generations. Most folks here have heard of small towns - but I don't know that many have actually spent time in one. The result, I think, is that "small town America" has become more of a mythical place, like Camelot or Mordor, than something that you can drive to. I've discussed that before.

Another public relations issue that small towns, in America at least, have is that - again in my opinion - the folks most Americans read or hear, discussing small towns are convinced that it's the stifling oppression of those small town bigots who made their lives miserable. That could be true, but I've got my doubts. Some of those angsty artists and unappreciated 'geniuses' probably wouldn't get as much admiration as they want anywhere. Which is definitely another topic.

Derrick Bird's Victims are to Blame?

Looks like small town America isn't the only place that 'suffocates' people. From today's news:
"Small town may have caused killer to 'snap' "
CNN (June 3, 2010)

"Detectives in England are retracing the bloody trail left by mass killer Derrick Bird to determine what drove the 'well-liked' taxi driver to slaughter 12 of his neighbors in a picturesque corner of Cumbria.

"For three-and-a-half hours on Wednesday, the heavily armed 52-year-old terrorized residents by driving his car through small villages and towns, firing apparently indiscriminately through the window.

" 'The focus of the 100-strong squad of detectives investigating the incident is firmly on finding out why someone would want to take so many lives in such a short space of time,' Cumbria Police said in a statement Thursday...."

"...The area he covered may be popular with tourists, but it is home to a small population of people clustered in tight-knit communities in a relatively remote part of England.

"One psychotherapist said the closeness of the community may have suffocated Bird to such an extent that he saw no other way out.

" 'It can feel very pressurized and too intense and when that happens people do tend to react out of character. They just snap,' London-based psychotherapist Lucy Beresford told CNN.

" 'If there is a problem, for example, that might have resulted in them losing face or to be embarrassed in some way, shamed in some way, it can be almost intolerable to deal with when you imagine yourself surrounded by people who know you very well.'..."
One psychiatrist a statistically significant sample doth not make - but I've heard that sort of thing before. Small towns 'suffocating' people - and blaming the victims of crimes - were very fashionable notions in my part of the world four or five decades back. Still are, in some circles.

Oh, Those 'Suffocating' Small Towns?

I didn't buy the idea that tight-knit communities of folks who know and care about each other were 'suffocating,' and saying that a rape victim was to blame because she 'asked for it' didn't make sense. To me, anyway.

There's an element of truth in what the psychiatrist said, though. Small towns aren't like big cities. Folks living here aren't anonymous faces in the crowd. And that bit about "losing face" is tied to the real world.

For example, if I'd gone to one of the bars downtown yesterday, tied one on, and thrown a brick through a shop window - I might be the talk of the town, if it was a slow week. Same goes for the guy who propositions his boss's wife at the office party, or makes a bank deposit while wearing a grass skirt. (This is central Minnesota - in winter, that'd be chilly.)

I've gotten the impression that it's a whole lot easier to fade away and start over elsewhere in a large city. On the other hand, in a small town a person has a whole lot of opportunities for correcting embarrassing situations - although in the hypothetical case of the boss's wife, that could take a lot of time to smooth over.

Back to that CNN article:
"...While Cumbria police have not commented on a potential motive, the British press has focused on two theories, both based on early targets of Bird's murderous rampage.

"Press reports suggest the divorced father-of-two was involved in a dispute with his brother over the contents of a family will. Bird's twin brother David was reported to be one of the first people shot, along with Kevin Commons, 60, who was a senior partner in the law firm KJ Commons and Co.

"CNN's Phil Black, reporting from Whitehaven, said Bird was also said to be frustrated by the competitive nature of the taxi business in the town, and by the techniques used by his colleagues to secure customers. A number of shots were fired at the Whitehaven taxi rank where Bird worked. Consultant psychologist, Simon Meyerson, told CNN that Bird's grievances could have been rooted in childhood.

" 'A twin has an added dimension. If one was a favored twin at birth then problems can lie down the line for the one who wasn't so favored, (the one) that wasn't so bright, that wasn't so good-looking. He may have fallen into that category from day one,' Meyerson said...."
The only person who could - if he wanted to - tell us why the shooter killed all those people is the shooter himself. Since he was his last victim: that's not gonna happen. Which won't stop folks from speculating, of course.

Reality Check: Small Towns aren't Eden; or Brigadoon, Either

There's a little more about people, and small towns, in the article. Told from the perspective of an urbanite, but with a smidgen of truth:
"...Despite the verbal clues dropped by Bird before his killing spree, psychotherapist Lucy Beresford said neighbors, colleagues and friends could not have known what he was about to do.

" 'You probably have to be trained and monitoring someone on a 24-hour basis to be able to categorically say, "yes I could spot this," ' she said.

" 'By definition we're actually talking about secretive behavior which takes place first of all in the head which is ruminated on and gets fantasized about. That person is never necessarily going to actually say "I'm in trouble." '

"The tight ties within the community that may have driven Bird over the edge could also help the community recover from the trauma of multiple deaths, Beresford said. 'I think communities and groups have an amazing ability to regenerate and to be able to survive trauma and loss,' she said.

"However, she said the residents who may need most help are the ones who are struggling to cope with the new reality that the idyllic rural retreat is now the scene of multiple murder...."
Oh, dear. Well, at least the psychiatrist recognizes that community ties have some value. Besides driving a victim of society (that hackneyed phrase does not appear in the article) "over the edge."

Eden? Small Town America isn't Even Close

I think that poetic allusion to small towns in the United Kingdom as an "Eden" is very nice, and may be an accurate description of the sophisticated Londoner's view of such places. Places like the ones I live in do photograph well.

But an earthly paradise? Let's get real.

Never mind the day-in-day-out bickering and discontent that I've observed everywhere, from a tiny town in North Dakota to San Francisco. I love it here in Sauk Centre, but in the twenty-odd years I've lived in this house, there's been a meth lab bust, a drug-related arrest, and shots fired within a few blocks. One of the latter hit one of my windows.

What's different about that sort of thing in small towns, I think, isn't that our perception of ourselves as beings set apart from the world living on cotton-candy clouds is shattered. The folks I know are well-aware that people can do bad things.

What's different about the small towns that I've known - and certainly about the one I live in now - is that drug busts, shootings and other troubles are comparatively rare events. We're upset right after they happen - but life goes on, and around here 'it could be worse.'

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