Friday, July 13, 2012

[insert town name here], To Thine Own Self Be True!

Bodie and Shamrock listen to the
 news from Lake Wobegon

There’s this really great scene in the HBO masterpiece of a series called The Wire, where a couple of young guys working for an inner-city drug dealer are tasked with a trip to Philadelphia (from Baltimore, where the series is set). Now these young lads had obviously not been too far out of their comfort zone – that is, their neighborhood, and acted all fish out of water ... much like I would if plopped down in their stomping ground.

They switch on the radio - ah, music – a comforting and familiar friend... but, wait! What kind of radio stations do they have in Philadelphia?! Weirdly enough, they land on an episode of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. And even more strange... THEY LEAVE IT THERE! Are they paying attention to the news from Lake Wobegon? What are they thinking? 

Garrison Keillor brings us the
News from Lake Wobegon.
Every week, after his musical guests and standard sketches like Lives of the Cowboys and Guy Noir, Keillor will launch into a rambling story about the folks that reside in the fictional town of Lake Wobegon – a group of earthy, hometown folks – industrious, clean-living Lutherans of Norwegian descent who live quaint day-to-day lives, having modest adventures in the town diner or the Lutheran church. 

The stories are humourous, sweet and sentimental – almost as if Keillor can’t resist plucking every single available heart string - and even some you might not know you have. He also likes to tickle every bone that has even the slightest notion of being funny. The humor is subtle, but it’s also broad – with maybe a few fart jokes or nekkid ladies. But it’s mostly non-blue.

Oxford – MY home town... just being itself
Being an old-fashioned radio show with drama and musical sketches, the show evokes another time. It also gives us a peek into small-town Minnesota, a place that is far removed from what most of us know, even if we aren’t drug dealers from inner-city Baltimore.

I know that everybody says that our country is becoming all flattened out and homogeneous – with the endless landscape of WalMarts and McDonaldses. But what I notice is that there is plenty of vibrant regional variation shining through the prism of our coke bottles. I know it’s just TV, but shows like The Wire and Treme, which shows a post-Katrina New Orleans struggling to get back on her feet – even Portlandia, which lampoons the hipster culture of Portland, Oregon – give viewers a peek into the regional quirks of places far from our knowing. And they do exist – these pockets of regional personality.

Go to Hooters... for consistently
good ... um... food.
While these pictures that we get are, obviously, just a TV writer’s vision of what the culture is like, it’s also an indicator that the place actually has a culture of some type... instead of just looking like a Target ad. Additional evidence of juicy pockets of local culture can be gleaned from my diverse facebook friend list. I grew up in Oxford, lived in Asheville a while, and now reside in Chapel Hill. Just from the things my friends from each corner of the state post, I can tell that regionalism is alive and well. Sure, these towns are in the same Southern state, but their regional personalities are worlds apart. And I don’t even know that I can give specific examples – I can just tell! And it’s not even in just obvious conservative-vs.-liberal ways... it’s more a feeling than anything.

Now, even though I love Chapel Hill, I can’t say that I would wish that its culture – or the culture of any region – could be ubiquitous. What would be the point of travelling then? And I love Target and and Trader Joe's and the fries at McDonald’s. I don’t even mind that these joints are everywhere you look. (One of my husband’s relatives used to say, “When I’m travelling I always eat at a Hooters – because I KNOW their food will be good.” Uh-huh.) 

What MY America looks like!
My point is, though – that each region should explore and exploit its own particular qualities... I mean, unless we’re talking about a tradition of racism or crime or something like that, of course. Then, by all means, change THAT! 

But embrace the fun and funky, the local foods, the history and characters of a place. It’s not a deep or shocking thought, but I did want to share it. Not that I’m an expert on tourism, city planning, etc., but my advice to a town/area: Be yourself.

Once again, I’ve spewed forth without having a clear aim in mind. Just... I love the fact that our nation has resisted all attempts of huge corporations to flatten us out. No, we’re not a no-iron piece of tan polyester... we’re still a patchwork quilt with pockets full of interesting food, music, art, dialects, characters... It’s a fab frock, isn’t it?

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