Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Difference Between a Rut and a Grave

I'm not originally from SE Connecticut, or any part of New England. I was born in New York City and grew up in Central New Jersey ('what exit?' Exit 9 off the Pike, towards New Brunswick) and then lived large portions of my life in other peoples' rooms halfway across the world. I always think of Lenny Bruce when someone would ask me what I was doing and I'd respond with 'passing.'

I've lived in Norwich, CT, with my wife and then two young children since arriving from Germany in October of 1991 (it was a straight-up trade: Norwich got me and the Germans got a six pack of American Budweiser and two packs of Slim-Jims. And cash, lots of cash.) and set about rebuilding our lives. My children, nine and four years of age, had been raised in a German-only environment (their dad was planning on staying in his wife's country forever but then the USA won the Cold War and NATO had a going-out-of-occupation fire sale) and much of their earliest English came from TV and Disney movie videotapes ('right on the button' being a memorable early phrase my son, Patrick, used). For my children, public education was an important aspect of their integration and socialization into America. After all, I was the only American they knew while we lived in Germany and the pressure of always having to represent was starting to get to me.

My wife and I live, for the most part, alone in the house near Norwich Free Academy that we all moved into nearly seventeen years ago. It's a lot larger now, with Patrick having moved out years ago to lead his own life (and when Sigrid and I said goodbye after our first visit to see him in Boston, I cried for hours even though I understood it was my job to help him grow up to be his own person) and now with Michelle coming home on weekends from college (it's like visits from another planet and there's a hollowness when she leaves to go back to campus), my wife and I share the kitchen, bath and bed but otherwise have our own sections of the house.

I've had the same job, or at least the same employer, for all those years and she and I know the same neighbors and local personalities we always have (at least Sigrid does. I know them to see them and, if I'm lucky, I'll get a name right most of the time. Sigrid likes people while I like people to stay at arm's length). Our part of the street is pretty stable-I think the last time someone moved in or out, it was us. I believe folks farther down the street may still refer to us as the 'new neighbors'.

Connecticut is called the Land of Steady Habits, though I'm not sure it's supposed to be the compliment that so many Native Nutmeggers think it is. I've looked at the state's history and its politics and organization and not a lot has changed since Colonial Times. In recent years, almost simultaneous (but coincidental) with my family's arrival, this area has had to deal with gambling, in the form of, first, the Foxwoods Casino and then, later, the Mohegan Sun-two behemoth operations that have transformed every aspect of life across the region, but this hasn't really been fully appreciated by the tenth-generation descendants of the first settlers who like things as they are and aren't crazy about ideas that are NFH (not from here).

How our towns and cities are governed, who serves on the various committees and advisories that really color our daily lives, who gets hired to do what either 'in town' or 'for the town' is all strictly, but informally, controlled, just as it was for the last 150 years. It's like the Twentieth Century NEVER happened. We're not the Land that Time Forgot-we are the Land That Has Ignored the Passage of Time. You can spot new arrivals-they're the ones who ask those pesky 'why?' questions, and try as the rest of us might to NOT answer those questions, the people asking them don't take the hint and they don't go away. And tomorrow, damn-if there aren't even more new people and another batch of questions. Yesterday's big question involved firefighters and moved as inexorably and swiftly as any structural blaze from being about better business practices in support of public safety to the firemen of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Guy Montag would NEVER be allowed to speak at a Norwich Public Safety Committee meeting, that's for sure.

"I eat my peas with honey/I've done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny/but it keeps them on my knife."

All we are saying is give peas a chance.
The difference, btw, is the depth of the habit.
-bill kenny

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