Tuesday, August 25, 2015

In memory of Jack Haller

Loss upon loss

According to the latest U.S. Census figures, for the first time in 125 years the population of Blue Rapids dropped below 1,000. For residents of the second largest city in Marshall County, this was big news, distressing news, news that many felt was the harbinger of things to come. Vocal doomsayers knowingly wagged their heads as though they alone had been privy to this latest demographic downturn, and sneering “It’s all downhill from here” ignored the fact that with the notable exception of 1980 it had been downhill since 1890 when the population had surpassed 1,000 as our fledgling settlement took hold on the banks of the Big Blue River.

There had been something reassuring about the one grand mark, as if possessing quadruple digits ennobled the city somehow or magically guaranteed its survival when so much of rural America continued its long, slow slide into forgetfulness. And suddenly that was no longer the case. Talk on the street was that we needed to pad the census with unborn babies or pets with human names, and more than a few voiced their opinion that cats and dogs and chickens should be snuck in, yet, as was pointedly made clear, chickens are banned within city limits by decree, an act over which reasonable folk still seethe and consider idiotic if not heretical. The population decline even played a role in the last mayoral election when one candidate vowed to elevate the population back to its former status. While it was a worthy goal, indeed, one shared by many fellow denizens, he failed to clarify whether its implementation would be accomplished through personal application or from, shall we say, a collaborative effort. He lost.

I don’t see his rejection at the polls as an act of fatalism on the part of voters, nor do I sense even a shred of apathy. If anything, I’d describe it as an act of weary acceptance, grudging, to be sure, and not a little worrisome, but short of launching a procreative campaign to boost our numbers or importing migrant workers—not that we have enough housing, a shortcoming familiar to most small towns—there really isn’t much we can do about it other than adapt. And we’re good at that. It’s got us this far and it will get us through the next 125 years, if we try hard enough.

But numbers only tell part of the story. When taken as a whole they tend to blur distinctions, to marginalize the individual integers that comprise the sum. Our minds can easily envision one or two or a handful of people, but a thousand? Never. They become a faceless, nameless mass. And that summation doesn’t describe Jack, who died last week, or Donita, who also died last week, and though Jack was a longtime resident of our city and Donita was a resident of Marysville, she was nevertheless part of our community, by which we mean our rural sphere of influence. 

Jack was, well, Jack. A tireless jokester and self-promoter, his deeds lived up to the hype. During WWII he crossed the North Atlantic 38 times under the Air Transport Command, and following the war he settled down with his new wife, Maxine, to farm and operate a television and appliance business. His list of sub-careers included securities and real estate broker, heavy equipment operator, technical engineer at a local radio station and home contractor. He was involved with virtually every organization from the Lions to the Masons, served in city government, and was responsible, either in part or whole, for the Blue Rapids community center and the creation of Alcove Spring historic park. But mostly he loved baseball.

He was also one of the first people to welcome us when we moved here from Denver. For him it was an opportunity to regale us with stories about Jack, something he excelled at it. To hear him tell it, Blue Rapids wouldn’t exist without his many deeds. He’d cap the end of most of his tales with an incontrovertible “And that’s the truth,” punctuated by the jabbing of a long bony finger and a mischievous grin, and in most ways it was. He only knew two types of jokes—corny or scandalous—but his repertoire was endless.

Much like Jack, Donita always wore a smile, even during her worst bouts of chemo treatments. She was bright and brilliant and witty and always made the best of any situation no matter how deplorable it might be. When her hair fell out she donned colorful scarves or crazy hats, as if making fun of the cancer that would eventually kill her. Life wasn’t a game to her, but she saw no reason to take it so seriously. I imagine she was still smiling when she closed her eyes for the final time, and while ours dimmed and faltered, it was only a temporary setback. To remember Donita was to smile.

And so we do. Call it adaptation, call it weary resignation, call it survival mechanism, call it what you will, but it’s important and it needs to be done. Life is short. We have less time than we think. Our communities are small and growing smaller. Hold on. Smile. We are never, ever alone.

Finding balance

I’m on the phone with a well-known agricultural economist discussing his definition of macro economics when the conversation goes south. Or not south, actually, just sideways and backwards and forwards across 50 years and a dozen geopolitical entities and the Euro crisis and Russian’s involvement with Ukraine and the yen versus the dollar and the Great Depression and market shares and economic trends and drastic, sweeping demographic transformations that will turn the beef industry inside out, and while I can almost keep up with the guy he occasionally pauses his breathless diatribe to ask if I’m still with him, if I understand what he’s telling me, and apologizing, too, for such a roundabout answer but then the answer is both complex and arcane and involves not just Kansas ranchers but the immensity of global markets and financial systems and food biases and a verifiable host of other factors that influence the answer, and please bear with him as he brings the conversation to an enlightening denouement.

“Okay,” I say, and he’s off again, certain of his facts and the bewildering connections linking them like a vast and incomprehensible spider web, and uncertain about my grasp of worldwide events both past and current—for which I cannot blame him, the average person being fairly incognizant of the great forces at play—when he pauses to ask if Im conscious of the recent financial debacle in Ireland.

“You bet,” I lied, and on we go.

Surprisingly, after 15 minutes of of meandering, the economist wraps it all together into a tidy package that makes perfect sense. I’m impressed. I’m also not entirely certain that I care.

This has nothing to do with him. The man’s limitless overview of world markets was nothing short of genius, and his ultimate explanation was such that anyone could understand. That’s an impressive accomplishment. 

My problem is that my interest in news and world events has faded. What was once a gradual shift toward inspirational or educational resources over news updates has now become a rout. It’s not that I believe news has lost its value, only that news has lost its pertinence in my life. Whether or not I delve into the European crisis to determine how it affects me in a tiny prairie town in northeastern Kansas is immaterial to what will or will not transpire in the coming days, months or years. Ditto for the majority of other headline-inducing reports. As a businessman I stay informed about tax changes and new regulations and policies that have direct bearing on my business, but other than that I pretty much steer clear of anything involving news updates. 

Needless to say, as a reporter I felt deeply divided over the change. I couldn't readily admit it to my friends and relatives, but kept it secret, hidden, as if it were a loss of faith, which in many ways it was. I had believed in the news, had valued the unbiased collection and dissemination of factual news stories, and had, as others had, become increasingly disturbed at the mainstream media’s erosion of ethics and the celebritization of content. Reading about the newest nonsensical measure proposed by Kansas legislature or the hearing the latest libelous political ads didn’t enlightenment me so much as make my blood boil.

It finally dawned on me that an informed citizen was a continually agitated citizen. And I didn’t want agitation—I wanted inspiration. I wanted creativity and art and music and culture and the beauty of the natural world. Having entered my sixth decade, it was time to distance myself from anything that did not make me a better photographer, a better husband, a better neighbor, a better man. The world can and will go on without me.

For the most part, the few friends I mentioned this to felt that I was neglecting my duty as a free-thinking individual who would eventually be called upon to vote for crucial political positions and legislation. And I can see their point. Though I assured them that I would do the research and vote accordingly when the time came, I’m not sure they believed me. 

One day not long ago a friend dropped by, and we sat on the porch sipping beer while sweat trickled down our faces and mosquitoes buzzed in our ears. He was the husband of a newspaper-owner and one of the most educated people I’ve ever met—in other words, not the most ideal person to admit my declining interest in news gathering—and yet out of the blue he said that a friend of his had decided that the news media had reached an unsustainable level of toxicity, and henceforth he would eschew anything and everything that did not built him up. “Sometimes,” his friend said, “you just have to live your life.”

For a moment I sat there in stunned silence, oddly encouraged by the validity of the statement. Sometimes enlightenment needs no backstory, no roundabout elucidation. In a complex, convoluted world, sometimes truth is the least complicated thing of all.

“Your friend is a wise man,” I said.

His smile was infectious. “Which is why I no longer care, either,” he said.

“Do tell,” I said, and he did.