Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bright future

It’s true: the inmates are running the asylum.

I’m almost at a loss for words over news of the upcoming Kansas sesquicentennial wrap-up scheduled to take place in Wichita in early December. According to a press release, the event is a two-day, statewide symposium “designed to foster engagement and energy, and to establish a direction for a bright future, through dialogue on the most critical issues and opportunities facing our state.”

Like a certain television program whose answers are put forth as questions—a pathetic attempt to be fresh and unique, I would guess, though in all honesty I’ve never watched it—those critical issues and opportunities are posed as questions. 

And what questions they are:
  • Has small-town Kansas outlived its usefulness?
  • Can we afford public education?
  • Should teachers do more than teach?
  • Should small towns be allowed to die?
  • Is it time to go back to the one-room schoolhouse?
  • Tornadoes, drought, floods and hail: is the land trying to tell us something?
In case attendees get stumped over some of the questions, “conversation catalysts” will energize responses and dialogue. The roster of speakers and facilitators is a who’s-who of dignitaries, professionals, politicians, professors and business leaders, none of whom apparently have the foggiest idea about rural life, rural problems, rural opportunities or rural advantages.

And it sounded like such a good idea. A forum of ideas and problem-solving that includes all Kansans from all walks of life, dedicated to chart our common way into the future through the troubled waters of a failed economy, megalomaniac politicians, religious persecution, environmental degradation, bankrupt cities and towns, crumbling infrastructure and rural depopulation. That it came down to questions about the affordability of education is almost criminal.

As someone who traded a metropolitan hell for a century-old farmhouse at the end of a gravel road (technically true if one takes into consideration the 90-degree bend in the road) in a town so small it doesn’t have nor need traffic signals, I have but one response: You people truly have your heads up your asses. 

As a relative newcomer to the rural experience—having spent most of my life in cities both large and small (two million population on the high end, 14,000 on the low)—I consider myself something of crossover, and a successful one at that. Before ditching life as I knew it, I was so unversed in rural living that I boned up with books purporting to enlighten urban escapees on the sea change that was about to engulf them. Looking back from the perspective of a decade, I can’t help but chuckle at the inanity and absurdity of much of the information, as if the authors had combined a reverse Beverly Hillbillies with Deliverance. Though rural life certainly has its share of comedy, rarely does it venture into menace of such horrific intent. 

As a crossover, I have an intuitive alert system that signals excessive levels of bullshit when people (rural or urban) pontificate on subjects clearly beyond their reach, kind of like the spidey-sense that sets Peter Parker tingling when danger is present. Coupled with an increasingly diminishing lack of empathy toward stupidity—notably when coming from those who should know better, those who do know better but are trying to be disingenuous or those who are genuinely stupid and proud of it—I’m something of a radar for moronic behavior. When I read the press release about Kansas in Question, my tingling was so pronounced it could only be described as orgasmic.

Without the fun, I might add.

From a rural perspective, I suggest that if the state’s future depends on leaders who express such blitheringly facile arguments, we’re all doomed. Fortunately, from that selfsame rural perspective, I know better. But creating a bright future goes beyond rural boosterism or urban planning; it will require hard work, dedication, passion, creative thinking and a quality rarely found in the halls of academia, the state legislature, or symposiums such as Kansas in Question—common sense.

Several people I know considered attending the symposium but balked at the subjects and the cost. As a public service, I’ve decided to save my friends their fifty bucks and convene my own dialogue, admittedly one-sided, which will answer those hard-hitting questions. I’m positive attendees will hear a different version but what the hell. You get what you pay for.

So, without further ado, here we go:
  • Has small-town Kansas outlived its usefulness? Absolutely. In the new urban environment characteristics of small-town residents such as work ethic, patriotism, dedication, the sense of community, sharing, empathy, honesty and giving are anachronisms. Their replacements—greed, selfishness, lust, sloth, apathy, dependence, conformity and addiction—are better suited to the rat-like, crowded conditions of population centers.
  • Can we afford public education? Can we afford ignorance? 
  • Should teachers do more than teach? If the question is whether they should also sweep, dust and mop their classrooms, wash windows, provide free psychological services to students in need and personally assist students with homework in evenings, the answer is no. We might well ask if politicians should do more than prevaricate, lie and pander to their richest constituents. (Or, as writer Sherman Alexie suggested, make annual lie detector tests mandatory for politicians.) I mean, why teachers? Why not garbage collectors, journalists, store clerks, astronauts? What a dumb-ass question.
  • Should small towns be allowed to die? As far as you’re concerned, they’re already dead and gone. We prefer you to believe that. The question rural residents ask is this: Should cities be allowed to muck up Kansas? We think not. Wichita, Topeka, Kansas City, maybe even Manhattan, should be forcibly relocated to New Jersey.
  • Is it time to go back to the one-room schoolhouse? Yes, but only if we include amenities such as wood stoves, kerosene lanterns and a complete renunciation of modern technology. Mud roads, while optional, would further a sense of endurance.
  • Is the land trying to teach us something? Let me put it bluntly: Darwin’s survival of the fittest isn’t working. Mankind continues to spread like a malevolent virus, leaving in its wake environmental degradation, wars, famines, pestilences, droughts, natural resource depletion and symposiums such as Kansas in Question. Democracy, the world’s best hope for political stability, has been bought by the rich for their own nefarious purposes. We sacrifice the minds of our children on the altar of television and digital content. The world’s population reached the seven billion mark with no end in sight. This isn’t rocket science, folks. Mother Nature is pissed.
I forgot to mention one of rural Kansas’s most enduring characteristics: optimism.

With depopulation gutting our communities, with the outmigration of our youngest and brightest, with jobs and services becoming evermore scarce, I sometimes wonder whether it’s a misplaced hopefulness, more wishful thinking than anything based on a realistic appraisal. At its core, though, is something based on experience. 

From its inception, Kansas was based on the premise of success while at the same time accepting the inevitable failures as obstacles to be overcome. And not just overcome, but learned from. These problems aren’t new. We’ve been here before and will be again, long after urbanites, professors and dignitaries have ignorantly relegated us to the dustbin of history. 

Oddly enough, we hold no grudges. We know we’re being talked down to, and we know it doesn’t matter. Our place is here, on the land, far from the incestuous cesspits cities inevitably evolve into. We have our place and they have theirs, and we hope and pray that they stay there, asking their silly questions and puffing themselves up with learned gravity while we carry on toward the stars of our making.


Carol said...

Tom, You took my breath away with this one. I love it when bright people write exactly what they are thinking. I think this piece needs wide reading and will do what I can to attract attention to the piece. If you decide to go protest somewhere, let me know about it. I'm an ex-hippie, but wise enough now to pick my fights. This fight is near my heart.
Thank you for writing this piece!

shoreacres said...

I did laugh out loud when I got to the part about the enduring quality of optimism.

Beyond that, I agree with so much of you said, and you couldn't have said it better. Your one-man dialogue is absolutely on-target.

We face the same issues here in Texas, and I heard them talked about during my recent trip through Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Iowa. Essentially, people were saying, "Shut up, go away and leave us alone to live our lives and die our deaths in peace."

Sometimes, being ignored is good.

Tom Parker said...

Being ignored is good indeed, unless it's your spouse doing the ignoring. This is probably a rural/urban divide that's been doing on since we first settled the west. Rarely, though, has the divide or the future been explored with such vacuous topics.