Talk to Her

As my son is at the age where it’s time to look at colleges, my attention was drawn to a Parade magazine piece today on college essay topics. My husband picked up on the one that asked the applicants to expound on which woman from history or fiction with whom they would like to converse and what they would say. Being currently obsessed with the work of Henry Thoreau, he commented, “That’s easy. Henrietta Thoreau. I would ask her all about the details of the trip to Maine and then about why she had a sex change.” So, he cheated.

At least he was quicker on the draw and more creative than I. All that came to mind for me was a piece I had read about mismatched fictional couples, which touched upon a reaction I myself had to Little Women: How come Jo ended up with Professor Bhaer? On second thought, I don’t want to know. Jo was so interesting for the first half of the book. I think my heart would be broken. Probably I’d be better off talking to Amelia Peabody, even if her ward/daughter-in-law, Nefret, is much more sensible.

Anyway, I know a good prompt when I see one. Enjoy.

POST-SCRIPT: My husband thought of a red-flag answer to the question posed above: “I would talk with Cinderella and ask her why she thought she deserved to go anywhere when there was still work to be done.” I guess then I would want to have a talk with her too about the dangers of waiting for a man to “rescue” you. Also, I would call that kid’s parents and suggest they have their little darling evaluated by someone with the appropriate specialty training. Extra points to my husband though for bringing that up at lunch in front of our son.

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My Little Town

So the setting of your next work is a small town. What does that mean? Will everyone ride tractors and have pet pigs? If you are one of the writers of the television series Sleepy Hollow, on which the characters often whine about the tiny size of the town and there being “nothing to do,” this must mean fewer than 3 Starbucks per block and fewer than 8 lanes on the interstate. Others have written about the how the fictional size of the town as depicted on the show is much greater than the actual size of the real town (by about 16 times) so I am not the only person who has noticed the disjoint and wondered how a place with over 100K people got classed as “small” (let alone a “town”). By this definition, there are no cities in the whole state of Maine. It may be that this is just a sly inside joke (like the winking awareness that an outfit worn by a character buried underground for 250 years who was then dragged through several messy adventures might smell a tad rank). If not, however, it’s a good example of geographic dysmorphia (inability to accurately gauge the relative size of a population).

At this point, let me note my creds on the subject. First, I have lived in Carthage, South Dakota. We may disagree over whether my current hometown of about 6K is “rural” or “suburban” in setting or the real Sleepy Hollow (about 9K) is a large or small town. Carthage, however, (at 300 residents back in my day, about half that now) should provoke no debate. It is the only town in which I have lived that had tumbleweeds blowing down the main street (for a peek at this town, check out the movie Into The Wild).

I also have published a paper on access to healthy food in rural areas. In order to get into print, I had to run a gauntlet of internal and external reviewers who could accept my definition of “rural.” Let’s just say, having survived some animated discussions on the topic, coming to an agreeable definition can and does provoke debate. For the record, I used the U.S. Census Bureau definition: a place with fewer than 2,500 people.

I have my quarrels with the census definition too. Having lived in Chamberlain, South Dakota, which skates the edge of the number used for a bright line, I have seen how the degree to which that edge can be ragged. Chamberlain is a key service community and county seat. It is more built up than the town in which I currently live, which is more than twice the size.

I do not think of my current neighborhood as “rural,” though it has no city sewer or water, no sidewalks, and no streetlights, because the road is paved and the houses are visible to each other.  Friends visiting me from a more urban area asked beforehand if I “still lived in the country.” The question gave me pause, as I had previously lived in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Augusta, Maine, with city services and a WalMart less than a mile away (Starbucks came later). When they got to my new house, they teased, “Geez, how far away is the supermarket? Ten miles?” Actually it’s eleven, but there are two decent grocery stores five miles away. I have seen worse (see: Carthage, South Dakota). We have no Starbucks but we do have a Subway and the adjacent town of about 15K does have both Starbucks and an interstate.

What the Sleepy Hollow case shows is that the relative size of a setting makes more sense if based on local definitions. To that end, I suggest visiting an actual smallish town (hint: less than 20K to start) to get some real experience if you don’t have any of your own. Listen to chatter at the diner. Count the tractors. Ask someone where the nearest city can be found and where people shop. It might just be someplace without a Starbucks.