Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Get Your Epitaph Right

I was teasing with an acquaintance (I have no friends) on how very similar, and sometimes too similar small towns everywhere are to one another. In many respects, regardless of politics or location, it's the same movie with a different cast. 

As a child growing up in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in the middle Sixties I was always fascinated to read how Washington's army during the Revolutionary War had slipped out of New York City, at the mouth of the Hudson River, under the cover of darkness but fought tooth and nail to hold on to New Brunswick, on the banks of the old Raritan River. 

New Brunswick, then, was like Norwich, New London, Plainfield, and a hundred other places you can think of is now. Varying degrees of plywood windows, people camping in entrances of long-gone enterprises, sidewalks rolled up after dark and a variety of other suburban ills, real and/or imagined. (back then, no opioid plague but lots of other secret sins and vices.)

The towns are mostly populated by those who chose (or were forced) to stay but didn't (and still don't) know how to stem the ebb of vitality and staunch the economic bleeding, and by the ghosts of those who departed, some faithfully and others with a faithless kiss. They have stories of past glories that we, who are not from here, have heard all the years we've lived here and no longer care about. Your Reid & Hughes building is my George Street Playhouse. No rights, no wrongs. Just us in this moment.

Economic development and national renewal, I suspect (actually I hope) will be major themes as the shouting and posturing for the Presidency grows louder as we near November, and that's well and good. We have become a nation of moochers and debtors, without thinking very much, much less twice about it. It's decades overdue that we start to think about how we pay for what we want and need (always two different words because they are two different notions), and I can only hope, that it's better late than never. 

One of the concerns I have when we look at the ruins of small towns so many call home, or here, is how we attempt to return to a point in the past that can never come again, and we make that idealized version of what once was into a definition of what we wish to be. When I returned to New Brunswick in 1991, getting off the turnpike on Exit Nine (knew you would ask) I saw a sign for a Hyatt House Hotel, I thought it was a joke. Nope. 

Where there had been a ghost town, there was now a downtown, full of shops and people. I had returned to my roots but I didn't recognize the tree. That didn't and doesn't make it 'bad', and for my children, who've never lived there, and for those whose children grew up there, it's all the town they've ever known. When the past keeps us from seeing a future, we need to shift the present.  

No one steps into the same river twice because both he/she and the river have changed. And while it's probably healthy to mourn what we miss, getting stuck in someone else's reverie will not help us get to where we want and need to be, either tomorrow or later today. Carpe Diem (Seize the Day) is only viable when you have a plan and a reason for what to do with the diem you've carped. 

A life without risk is safe, but not much of a life because a life without risk is a life without the joy of reward and who wants that? Innovation, Invigoration, and Invention all begin with "I"-that's probably not a coincidence, but a call to arms.
-bill kenny

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