A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, September 27, 2013

Our Town

A few days prior to a public presentation I gave this summer (“Frost and Fire: Alaska’s Changing Climate”), the Fairbanks Daily NewsMiner published an article touting the event: “Professor's talk looks at climate change in Alaska.”  Yes, this was a whole newspaper article about me.  This could have been super-flattering --  except that the NewsMiner had already written other articles about me.  And about Jay.  And about our small children.  And about lost dogs.  And about zucchini. Or if you prefer, from July 16th, “Fairbanks man arrested after punching himself in the face.”

It’s hard to maintain an illusion of Not Being a Total Hick when one ranks right up there with news of this caliber. Moreover, the online comments on the climate change article -- which reflected the grasp that selected local folks have on science, the role of university professors, and generally accepted rules of spelling and grammar – well, let’s just say they didn’t exactly make the city of Fairbanks seem more cosmopolitan. Once again, I had to face the truth:  the city of Fairbanks is not a city.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about this.  On one hand, I’m relieved, because I’m not a city person.  Yeah, ok, I’m stating the obvious here; my lifestyle doesn’t even include a hairdryer, a purse, or, you know, plumbing.  Whatever word is the opposite of metrosexual, the OED probably mentions me in its definition. I know that I’ve never had a banana’s chances in a blender of being either urban or urbane.  And yet… some obdurate part of me wants to feel as if I’m at least in spitting distance of Where Things Happen. A hub.  An epicenter.  Ergo, a city.
Not wanting to be a hick isn’t just a semantic bias.  The long tide of human history indicates that it was when human societies aggregated, coagulated, and clustered that they most often began making great discoveries, writing compelling prose, illuminating the truths and perils of the human condition, and moving the metaphorical chess pieces of the world.  Indubitably, a single human brain is a fascinating and impressive bundle of neural connections (despite tending to find its own self repulsive to contemplate).  But thousands of brains working in concert – piling idea upon idea, hypothesizing, arguing, challenging, goading -- can be stunning, powerful, beautiful, creative, explosive.  Throughout history, cities have created seas of thought.   Such is my hubris that I’d rather think of myself as a guppy in Lake Superior than as a liberal, intellectual halibut flapping in a redneck puddle.
Just how small is the pond up here?  Well, if being touted as news is one sign of small-town-ness, being known by everyone (and their mother, and their dog) is surely another.

“Oh, you’re the one with the two-kid bike attachment thing!” 
The elderly woman was smiling at me with genuine goodwill, but even so, I felt my dignity ebb.  I was still wearing the Respectable Professor Outfit that I’d donned to give that public talk – black slacks, an equally black top that is not (technically) a t-shirt, and shoes that are not held together with duct tape – but she was obviously picturing me in my ordinary state:  covered in bike grease.  “I see you all the time!” she enthused. So much for dignity.  And it wasn’t as if being recognized at my climate change presentation was anything new. This woman extolling my bicycling prowess reminded me of my kids’ summer camp director, an equally elderly and voluble personage in her seventies who had stopped by my office a few days previously.  She, too, felt the need to tell me that she saw me bicycling “everywhere.”   It also turned out she knew Alison, in the next cubicle.  And Tina, in the opposite one. 
“Wow, Fairbanks really is a small place,” I said. 
“Oh, yes!”  Her voice was surprisingly loud for such a tiny individual.  “NEVER have an affair in this town!” she boomed cheerfully. 
Uh, thanks, Sweet Old Lady….
Sage advice from elderly locals notwithstanding, Wikipedia – boon of all lazy researchers -- insists we are, indeed, a city: “Fairbanks is the largest city in the Interior region of Alaska, and second largest in the state.”  In contrast, Huntington Long Island, where I grew up, “is one of ten towns in Suffolk County, New York.”  But if you read a little further, you find that the “city” of Fairbanks has 32,036 residents, and that even the entire “metropolitan area” has a population of only 97,581.  The “town” of Huntington, meanwhile, has a population of 203,264.
Well, gosh, that really clears things up. 
When I was a kid, “The City” meant only one thing: New York.  Much as Manhattan fascinated me, with its labyrinthine museums and its richly-scented and teeming Babel of culture, drama, and vertical humanity – it also intimidated me, for much the same reasons.  Huntington is a dot in the morass that makes up the greater New York Metropolitan Area, which has a population somewhere in the order of twenty million people.  You could lose Fairbanks in that Charybdis two hundred times over, and then some.  If cities are hive-brains, New York is a genius.  But… it’s not a genius I can live with.
Even in tamer havens such as Boston and Seattle, I eventually become claustrophobic and overwhelmed.  What greenness they boast is managed and proscribed.  Escaping their clutches requires braving the transportation maze.  The metaphorical weight of those members of my own species becomes oppressive.  Still, I have an inescapable feeling that such places are the Real Deal: in order to be newsworthy in an honest-to-goodness city, you have to either be hoarding chemical weapons or really, really good at playing football.
Perhaps it’s when I’ve been listening to a little too much KIAK FM that I start questioning whether Fairbanks is precisely the sort of community I belong in.   I’m not a city girl, but I’m not a country girl, either.  Much as I enjoy an occasional country ballad, I don’t aim to spend every Friday night getting fired up on Jack Daniels before riding the mechanical bull, and I don’t really want Brad Paisley to check me for ticks.  On the face of things, the non-city of Fairbanks is that sort of town.
Or… is it?  As I chatted politely with the woman who “saw me everywhere,” other Climate Change Talk attendees were still filing past, some of them enjoying a not-terribly-dignified but deliciously free Good Humor bar on the way out the door.  I said hello to a charming couple I’d met years ago, when I dabbled in the local Shakespeare company.  I thanked the friends who had helped haul in more chairs, when the crowd over-filled the room.  I quickly answered a question posed by a grad student whose research – and academic contacts – overlap with my own.  Meanwhile, two other people agreed with the first of the friendly older women – that yes, I’m that person with the kids on the crazy bike, and where on earth did I get that thing?
Somewhere in the midst of all this – it may have been when I unwrapped my second ice cream bar – I realized that I was having a good time.
I realized a few other things, too.  First of all, for an on-campus academic talk on a Tuesday night in a remote Alaskan outpost of humanity, this really wasn’t a bad turnout – and not a single one of the online hecklers had turned up.  Yes, many of the faces were familiar, but then again, many of them were not.  Only one person had blatantly shown up only for the ice cream, and I found myself kind of admiring his audacity and creativity as he busily bundled extra bars into his ragged bag.  It seemed that I didn’t really already know every single socially engaged and intellectually curious person in Fairbanks – or even anywhere close.
Second, the fact that some of these people were folks I’ve seen on stage with the Fairbanks Drama Association or running through the streets dressed like mosquitoes during the Midnight Sun Run made them more interesting to me, not less.  Recognizing each other, knowing each other, and caring about each other doesn’t make us hicks; it makes us a community.  I may not be a small-town girl in the small-minded sense, but I’m a small-town girl nonetheless.  When it comes down to it, I’d rather be known and understood for who I am than taken seriously for who I am not.
Third, while Fairbanks isn’t a city so much as a speck of humanity lost in hundreds of miles of forests, rivers, and wetlands, it is nonetheless an epicenter and a hub.  We’re a hub in the sense that we’re the largest community for over three hundred miles in any direction, along the five roads that leave town, heading north to the Arctic ocean, northeast to the Yukon River, east to Chena Hot Springs, south to Anchorage, and southeast to the Lower 48 (via a couple of thousand kilometers’-worth of Canada.)  But even more importantly, we’re an epicenter -- because in the age of the Internet, small towns are big, and big towns are small, and epicenters can be everywhere or nowhere. 
The internet has Changed Everything, but I’d argue that it’s changed the small places more than it has changed the big ones.  Google “Nancy Fresco” and you can find our far more than you ever wanted to know about me.  (You can use it to heckle and deride me, if you want to.)  Among the public detritus of my life you’ll find that back in December, the NewsMiner singled me our as the “winner” of the solstice Dawn to Dusk race, a ludicrous 3-hour-and-41-minute trot at temperatures that never topped -30.  There were only 2 women who completed the entire time period – and I was, in fact, the slower of the two.  But – so what?  Fairbanks residents do not have to rely on this sort of stellar reporting for their worldview – and people in New York need not be deprived of it.  In this century, anyone can read the NewsMiner… or the New York Times.  And we can all share in the messy, pyrotechnic, beautiful massive-mind-meld that used to be the sole prerogative of city-dwellers.
As for my actual, physical locale – well, I’d much rather live in a quirky outpost that feels like a community than in a city full of strangers.  There are limits to how genuinely hick I could be; I want to live somewhere with a university and excellent public schools.  I want a good academic library, and a good public one as well.  I want a variety of local events, shows, resources, and experiences -- and I certainly wouldn’t object to a town that offered the opportunity to run a marathon over a scenic mountaintop and then catch a show and some Thai food all on the same day.  I want a large enough local population to allow me to find intellectual, open-minded, adventuresome, challenging, supportive, iconoclastic, hilarious, goofy-as-heck friends.  But really, eighty thousand choices will do. I’ve found you guys.  I mean, I’m picky, all right, but I’m not THAT picky.   In short, I don't want or need to be in physical proximity to a million people, but I want to be in metal proximity a billion. 
And… I can.
Sure, there are things I hate about Fairbanks.  Many of my fellow residents do not vote in precisely the manner in which I would like them to.  Our urban planning is deranged, and we seem sadly unable to sanely manage our air quality problem. And I should never, ever, read any NewsMiner online comments.  But those are all subjects for another day (meaning, of course, another blog post; your patience with me is impressive, if you’ve gotten this far).  For now, I’m happy to live in the great big bustling urban metropolis of Fairbanks.  And if you’re pretty sure you’ve seen me before, because aren’t I that woman with the two-kid bike attachment thing – well, yeah, that’s me.  In fact, I’ll be giving a public talk a couple of weeks from now at Beaver Sports, about our family’s vacation, spent biking with kids.  I was asked to do this because… well, you know, because this sure is a small town. 

See you there.

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