I'm so torn lately.
Some of this goes back to the entries a few months ago about TC Boyle's Drop City and The Tortilla Curtain, and some of it is related to Peak Oil worries, and still more of it is related to my rural upbringing.... but I'm feeling the constant urge to be as self-sufficient as possible.
We're living in a small city -- an overgrown town, really, ringed with hellacious wastelands of 'burbs and container stores and chain restaurants with shit tacked to the walls. Our house sits on about a hundred square feet of back yard. Not exactly what you'd call a farm kid's paradise. Perhaps this is making be a bit nervous in and of itself. I'm kind of living vicariously through my comics buddies Donna, Layla and Colleen, who have all recently purchased land Out In The Middle Of Nowhere and are loving every minute of it.
I remember the boundless freedom of growing up in the country. I remember playing in mud pits, sand pits, digging my own clay for sculpting, flying kites, tapping maple trees with the neighbors, sweet corn pigouts and kitchen sink tomato sandwiches, swimming at our pond and cutting wood for our stove. I remember the wonderful feeling of self-satisfaction that comes with being almost entirely self-sufficient: it seemed like there wasn't anything my parents and grandparents couldn't do, from building fence to making apple butter, refinishing floors to welding I-beams. It's no wonder I want that feeling back, and feel awkward in a city. Awkward in my own skin -- because even though I'm strong and handy, I never learned how to do any of those things. I never learned to spot weld or run a lathe, drive the big tractors or inoculate the cows. But I know about them, know that they can be done, and I'll be damned if that basic intuition doesn't come out in my everyday life like it's some sort of creepy genetic memory.
However, Kalamazoo has an awful lot going for it, in some ways more than the farm. The hard things about the farm was the isolation -- it was miles and miles to the nearest store. I remember what an incredible thing pizza delivery was, when I got to college. I'd order pizza just because I could. It was a 45 minute bus ride each way to and from School, and I was in a different area code from everyone else, which meant I wasn't even allowed to call my friends when I was in high school. There were a few neighbor kids around, but I didn't seem to connect well with any of them. I felt left out most of the time, and if there'd been a healthier home life at the farm, or more nearby country-friends to fill in those gaps, it'd have been better, but it wasn't. I left for college as fast as I could.
Kalamazoo is proving to be an excellent fit, at least for this point in my life, and trumps Ann Arbor on all sorts of levels. We have a thriving Farmer's Market and we're surrounded on all sides by farmland which is legendary for having just about the most fertile soil in the state. There's no housing bubble out here waiting to burst. Decent houses cost around $80 - $150K here, unlike the unbelievable housing market further east in the state. We still have a lot of family-owned businesses and small, old-fashioned craftsmen: we have a cabinet maker, cobbler, tailor, breadbaker, milliner and bike shop all within walking distance. And that's another thing -- everthing here's within walking distance. I can walk or bike to all the above, as well as the food coop, post office, hardware store, party store, used bookstore, library, ice cream parlor, hospital, two 24-hour coffee shops, three breweries, four art galleries and a dozen good restaurants. True, Ann Arbor has most of those in their downtown, but the exhorbitant rents are squeezing out the old craftsmen one by one, and I was paying more for my 400 ft2 apartment on the edges of downtown than I am currently for my entire 2000ft2 house. It's much easier to get by here, and I love the overwhelming sense of community, convenience and togetherness that a small downtown provides. In many ways, it really is like living in a small town.
On our block, specifically, our neighbors are totally awesome and look out for each other, which is a wholly new phenomenon for me. Just last night we found out our next-door neighbor finishes attics among his many skills, so we'll probably be hiring him within the next month or so to do our insulation. The store owners all support each other, too: When you go to the antique store, they've got freshbaked cookies from the bakery around the corner. You see stuff like this all the time. There's a fair mix of liberals and conservatives, but most everyone just likes the idea of supporting local businesses. It's so refreshing to see that, to see people valuing small stores and community over money, prestige and doggie-sweaters. To step back into that Lake Wobegon-esque style of living that I'm used to. It's a bit like having all the perks of country living without having to fill the hayloft three times a summer.
It's funny -- Layla and I were talking about the Lehman's catalogue the other night, and how many things we recognize in there from our own upbringing. I'm often tempted by things there -- until I realize that my grandparents would have laughed me out of town for buying a plastic egg separator. (Use a spoon!) Stores like that are for people who want to play-act at self-sufficency, not actually be self-sufficient. True self-sufficiency is hard work, pennypinching, gardening, laying up food, and doing without... hardly glamorous. And I miss it -- not only because it is my nature, but I am drawn to it because it feels real, unlike the fake plastic I see around me every day.
Yes, I miss the wide open spaces, and am still -- even after nearly 15 years -- still getting used to this concept of locking your doors. It's frustrating as hell to have to ask for permission to do things to your house (Thank you, Historic District), but it's also nice to be involved with people who are genuinely concerned with revitalizing their neighborhood. I am very happy here, right now. Very Very happy. Someday, however, I envision a return to the country... maybe some acreage around here, maybe a return to the family homestead. Who knows where the world will lead me. Until then, I'll be in the garden, coaxing my tomaters into their trellis, driving my bean-car, and trying to sneak solar panels past the Historic District Board.