Small Towns can Live. But Only if We Don’t Let Them Die

I spent last week in my hometown of Bear Lake, Michigan, with my wife, parents, extended family, and friends. Monday was Independence Day, and the following Friday and Saturday were “Bear Lake Days”. Because Northern Michigan is beautiful in the summer, it’s always been a tradition for all of my aunts and uncles and cousins to come up for the 4th, and because I love my hometown, I try to get back for Bear Lake Days every year if possible.

If you know me, or if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you know I’m fiercely proud of my hometown. Last week though, as I drove into town for the first time I felt ashamed. And angry.

Bear Lake has always had issues. There’s always been poverty and drugs and a lack of decent jobs. And ever since I’ve been alive there have been a couple of abandoned, blighted buildings in downtown. But in the last few years the abandoned buildings have gone from being the exception to the rule. First the Bear Lake Bar, where I spent many an evening drinking $1.25 Bud Lights with friends, went out of business. Then the “Village Variety Store” which has always been a stretch to call an “open business” closed its doors for good. Now it’s decaying to the point that they have the road on one side closed off so people don’t get hit with falling bricks. Then the bank closed, leaving a big empty building which serves the exclusive function of supporting a still functioning ATM. The café closed. Basically the only things left are an auto parts store, two “antique” shops which seem to be open sporadically at best, and a single chair barber shop which will undoubtedly close when Hugh, the elderly barber, retires or dies. That and a bunch of empty buildings in varying states of decay. You could pick up the main drag of Bear Lake and drop in on Chene or Gratiot in Detroit and it wouldn’t look a bit out of place.

Hugh's

Hugh’s Barber Shop

 

The sad thing, the infuriating thing, is that it didn’t have to be like this. When people talk about the decline of small towns they tend to fall into two camps. One group looks at small town America with rose colored glasses and denies that a decline is even happening. To these people, the blight, the drugs, the poverty, the emptying out, are just minor blips, nothing to worry about in the long term. Distressingly, many people in leadership roles in our towns, as well as at state and federal levels seem to fall into this camp. The other camp shrugs and says that the decline of small towns is inevitable (or even, in the case of certain smug urban liberals I’ve met, a good thing). These attitudes, when held up to even the tiniest bit of criticism are, of course, bullshit. It’s obvious to anyone that has driven a few miles of two lane roads anywhere in the US that there are small towns all over the country that look like Bear Lake. It should be equally obvious that a select few have avoided that fate through good planning and policy.

The majority of the buildings in downtown Bear Lake are owned by two families. One that has owned a bunch (including the variety store) forever, and let them fall into decay, and another that has recently purchased closed businesses and held on to them for what seems to be real estate speculation. In a town as small as Bear Lake, one or two families owning a few buildings each can basically determine the future of the commercial district. What these two families either don’t realize, or are two callous to care about, is that by sitting on an empty property, they not only contribute to the decay of that individual building, but to the decay of the entire community, and the loss of valuable tourist dollars to neighboring towns. They aren’t passively allowing the town to collapse, they are actively destroying it.

Variety Store

The Village Variety Store. Always an eyesore, now a collapsing danger to the public.

I’ve heard enough rumors about people wanting to move businesses into those buildings that at least some of them have to be true. In every case, they were denied by these families. Maybe the families didn’t think their offer was high enough. Maybe, as some have claimed, they nurse a grudge that is manifested in their spitefully empty storefronts. But the fact of the matter is there is no policy tool that allows the township or county to remedy this situation. If we were to develop legislation with the specific goal of reviving our small towns, specific tools for towns of under 2,000 residents to redevelop their commercial districts, rather than a cookie cutter approach that says what’s good for Detroit and Bloomfield Hills must be good for Bear Lake, then perhaps we could have that brewery or bakery, rather than a collapsing building or empty storefront. There should be a law that allows townships to seize commercial properties from the owners if they have sat empty for a certain number of years, and sell them to the best business that bids on it, the business that would provide the most benefit to the community. Then a large percentage of the sale price could be paid back to the original owners.

I realize this is a radical proposal, but we have to stop looking at the core of our towns as only individual properties. They are not. They directly impact all residents of the community. We need to understand that the public interest trumps an (already well off) private individuals desire to make a few bucks. Developing a policy like this is possible. It just takes political courage. The courage to admit that our small towns are in crisis, as well as the courage to say we’re not going to allow them to die.

On Friday night for Bear Lake days, my friend’s band was playing a gig. My wife, myself, and two friends walked over with a backpack of beer to check out the show. We walked past all the empty buildings, and I tried not to get too frustrated, but as the show started I felt content. Events like this are designed to attract tourists, but later in the evening they tend to go back to their cottages (or maybe to Frankfort, the town 20 minutes away with lots of fudge and “cute” shops). On this evening, the people trickling in were almost all locals. The band sounded great, and as they launched into a medley of 80’s covers an elderly couple went into the parking lot and started line dancing. In no time flat a handful of middle aged couples joined them. Then a whole mess of little kids. By the third song there were probably 30 people dancing a spontaneous line dance, in an empty parking lot, between an abandoned pizza place and an abandoned real estate office. Little kids flitted between them, older people watched, laughing, and a fuchsia sun set over Hugh’s barber shop.

I don’t know what’s going to happen to the buildings in my hometown, or in small towns all over the country. I don’t know if small businesses will ever be allowed to thrive there, if we have the political will to stop treating these places as disposable. I worry about it a lot.

But I’m not worried about the people. We’re gonna take care of each other. We’re gonna be alright.

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The Real World: Media, Sports, and Male Body Image

I’m 6 foot 5. I weight 185 pounds, give or take depending on how recently gobbled a burger or gone for a run. This is what I looked like yesterday:

me no shirt

Most people would say I’m in decent shape. Some people might even call me skinny. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say, because I ran track in college. Back then I weighed about 155 pounds. I looked like this:

skin and bones

I’m healthy now. Back then I was close to being an elite athlete (not going pro elite, just a middle of the road college athlete, but elite compared to the average human). But I’ve never seen many men who looked like me on TV or a movie. Mostly they either look like this:

homer

or like these dudes:

real world

We hear constantly about the unfair beauty standards women are subjected to by the media, and, to be sure, the expectation that a woman be rail-thin to be attractive is patently ridiculous and dangerous. It’s my opinion that it has resulted in a huge gap between what men generally find attractive (some curves/meat on the bones, not to mention a personality and brains), and what women think men find attractive (typically about 20 pounds too skinny in my experience). This is a problem. But there’s a problem with male body image in this country too.

For most of my life, I was terrified that I was too skinny. On more than one occasion in college and in high school, I had a friend pass along the message from a girl I had a crush on: “He’s cute, but he’s too skinny”. Hearing that never failed to be devastating. Because I knew it was true. And I knew it was true thanks to the media.

But a strange thing happened when I went to college. I was training to run as fast as possible, and to do that, you need to be as skinny as possible. Any excess weight, even muscle, makes a big difference in race times (try running a mile as fast as you can with an extra five or ten pounds strapped to you). So I had pressure to be extra skinny from my desire to perform well. At the same time I had pressure from society to be muscle bound and swole. It was a confusing place to be in, and it might have messed up my body image for the long haul.

I don’t think I’m the only man to feel this way, to feel too fat and to skinny at the same time. A lot of us played sports at some point, and are used to thinking of our bodies in a functional sense, where every muscle serves a specific purpose. Most of us move on from that at some point. I stopped having the time or desire to run 100 miles a week and I packed on a few pounds. This is a common story. The average dude doesn’t have the time or energy to sculpt his body. We’re just trying to stay healthy.

At the same time, I can go to the movies any weekend and see a supposedly “ordinary guy” in a scene where he is gratuitously and unnecessarily shirtless, displaying 6 pack abs and swollen pecs. And he’s supposed to be a lawyer or something. I’ve met some lawyers and the don’t look like that. Or I can turn on “reality TV” and see a bunch of shirtless “ordinary guys” who are obviously on steroids, complete with the requisite rage. Or I can open up Facebook at any time and see these bullshit, self congratulatory “fitspiration” memes, that are supposed to inspire you to work out. You know the quotes and pictures that somehow equate physical fitness with morality, as if doing 100 crunches makes you a better person. In reality I suspect these work as a self administered pat on the back for the person who posted it. The message men get from every form of media in this country is that we have two options: attractive, ripped dude with well defined muscles and a lot of money, or hopeless, Homer Simpson-esqe working class slob with a beer gut and a tendency to exasperate the saintly, slender, women in our lives. There’s no such thing as an “ordinary guy” in the media.

The body image pressure men get is vastly different from women. The pressure on women seems to me to be constant, straightforward, and explicit: skinnier is better. Pressure on us men is complicated, subtle, and nuanced. We’re not supposed to care about our bodies, but we’re supposed to be ripped. We’re certainly not supposed to be fat, but we’re not supposed to be skinny either. And when you add sports into the mix, it just gets messier. We all know that there’s something we’re supposed to look like, but we don’t know exactly what it is. Most of us just know that it’s not us.

Shortly after I graduated college and started what would prove to be a long break from any serious training, I met the woman who would become my wife. She would later admit that, while she was immediately attracted to me, she thought I was “grossly skinny”. Five years later we’re happily married, and she insists that she finds my body much more attractive than at that time. And I believe her, but the weird thing is that I feel gross to myself. I still vacillate between being paranoid about being “too skinny”, and feeling disgusted that I’ve gained weight. I still feel like I should have bulging biceps or well defined abs. And I know I never will.

The difference now is that when I start beating myself up about it, I force myself to go somewhere else mentally. I ask myself “how do I treat the people I care about?” “What have I done lately to make the world a fairer, more just place?” “Have I been friendly to the people I’ve come across lately?” Sometimes I can answer those questions positively, sometimes I can’t. But the answers never have anything to do with my abs or pecs.

That’s what I think men (and women) should remind themselves. It’s nice to be healthy. Exercise is great for us physically and mentally. But being physically fit does not make you a good person. Being out of shape does not make you a bad person. Let’s stop acting like there’s some connection between our abs and our morality. There’s not. And let’s stop being so paranoid about our bodies. I guarantee any potential romantic partner cares way less about your muscle definition than you think.

Dead Friends and Survivors Guilt

It was 10:54 AM and I was circling a block in Kaleva MI, a tiny town 10 minutes from my parents’ house that I hadn’t even driven through in 6 or 7 years. There used to be a great rope swing out there but some bureaucrats came out with a chainsaw and cut down the tree it was tied to. Now there’s just a tavern and a diner and a gas station. And a funeral home.  I was still driving because I was too scared to go in. Danny K. was in there in a casket. I hadn’t talked to him since high school, and even in high school we ran in different crowds. But in elementary school we were best friends.

Danny lived on a farm. We used to shoot things with BB guns and sling shots and sprint into electric fences and generally harm ourselves for amusement. Danny was a little crazy, in the way of a country kid with too much time on his hands. Sometimes we turned those bb guns and sling shots on each other. He pushed me to be a little more extreme than I was comfortable with and I loved it.

I parked the car and watched a stream of men walk in. Men in union jackets and jeans and sport coats that didn’t fit right. Men that, unlike me, still had calluses on their hands and functional strength. Men trying to hold it all in. I took my tie off and threw it in the back seat, sucked it up and got out of the car.

The place was full. I signed the guest book and walked back into an overflow room with a black and white feed of the service. Simon was there, the cousin of a best friend, and someone I’ve known pretty well since 8th grade. His eyes were red. There were various other old acquaintances there. One or two of them nodded at me as I walked in. Most just stared straight ahead. There were old folks too, and little kids, family and family friends. And there was a contingent from his union. Pipefitters wearing pipefitters jackets. They were taking it pretty hard.

The service was tough.  The preacher had one of those rural northern Michigan accents that sounded both southern and Canadian at the same time. He read some passages and stepped back, admitted he didn’t really know Danny, and asked others to share. People got up and struggled through a story. Some cried, some just stood silently while moments stretched on, trying to keep themselves from crying. Someone told a story about Danny coming to help them weld something at their house on his only day off from being a welder all week. People didn’t really know what to say. Hell, they probably couldn’t believe it was real.

Danny’s not the first kid from my hometown to die way too young (27), hopefully he’ll be the last, but you never know; I think there’s still one or two in Afghanistan. All across America, young men from small towns (and inner cities) are dying too young. They’re dying because of pointless wars and drug addiction and needless street violence and drunk driving and general hopelessness and no one that I’ve heard from has a good reason and no one is really even talking about it.  I had been debating whether to come to this service for a while, and I didn’t decide until the last minute. I had plenty of great reasons not to. It was on a Monday morning and I had a ton of work to do. I hadn’t spoken to Danny in years; we didn’t run in the same crowds. I didn’t know his family that well. I felt weird parachuting in from out of town and leaving right afterward.

When I told my wife about all these reasons she told me I had survivor’s guilt. It felt silly, or extreme; it’s not like Danny and I had been in a war together. But maybe she was right, at least about the guilt part. I do feel guilty. I feel guilty about leaving my small hometown to get a degree, and then take a job in a big city where I sat at a desk, talk to folks, and had health insurance for free. I even got dental. I feel guilty about the fact that my fingernails haven’t been dirty in years and the only callus I have is caused by my wedding ring and that my muscles have atrophied and I’ve added a layer of fat from sitting on my ass all day instead of actually building something or fixing something. I feel guilty about the fact that I’ve gone soft and got disconnected from my people while they are still in Bear Lake and Onekama and Kaleva and thousands of other small towns across Michigan and America struggling to make it work and hold their communities together. And mostly I feel guilty about the fact that the only thing that allowed me to move away and get a decent job and my own apartment and a wife from the suburbs was pure luck. I was lucky enough to have parents with good jobs and a little money, and I was lucky enough to be a fast runner. I don’t know if that’s survivor’s guilt, or what you call it. God knows I’m not the only one who left, most of us moved to major metro areas. But I know that’s the real reason I almost didn’t go to the funeral. I was being a coward about facing my own guilt, whatever kind of guilt it was.

I stuck around after the service to talk to Danny’s mom, and God bless her she was holding it together. She recognized me right away and was excited to see me. I told her a story about something crazy Danny and I did together as kids. She told me she knew he was someone’s angel now. I hugged her, and filed out, stopping to talk to some former teachers. There was a circle of people roughly my age standing in a circle outside smoking cigarettes. I gave Simon a hug and tried to say hi to a few guys I knew. Danny’s younger brother came up and tried to make conversation but he could barely talk. People were mostly silent and numb, so I left to go to the luncheon that followed.

Sitting in the car outside the town hall I thought about why I drove 4 hours for this funeral of someone I hadn’t seen in years. Mostly, it was because he was a very important person in my life at one time, even if that time was many years ago, and I think that it’s important to show people that you give a shit about them, whenever you can, even if it’s too late. But it was also partly because I am still grieving for the loss of my community, and I had a selfish mission to show myself that I was still connected to it. Most of all dammit, Danny was a good kid, and from what I could tell, was a good man. I was pissed he was gone.

I went in to the hall and looked around. People were trickling in and it was quiet. Some were eating, some were drinking punch. Someone tried to laugh. I stood in the corner and surveyed the scene. These were my people, or at least the people I thought of as my people. Rural, hard working, no nonsense folks that took care of each other. People with a sense of humor, impatient like they were always ready to get on with it. And they were hurting. I couldn’t take it. I pulled an Irish goodbye and ducked out without talking to anyone. I got into the car and pointed it back toward my big city, middle class, health insurance, no callus having, soft existence.

A few miles down the road, I was forced to admit to myself that, whatever selfish mission I had coming up here, whatever I had to prove to myself, I had accomplished it. I didn’t want to admit it. I was trying to think about the sub sandwich I was going to get for lunch, or the work I had to do the next day. I wasn’t trying to reconcile with my guilt. I wasn’t even trying to accomplish closure. But I was forced to. And I was forced to pull over. I was forced to by the tears beginning to spill down my face.

Goddammit Danny, 27 is way too young.