Friday, February 15, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities... and a Town.

For various reasons, I've always found myself pondering the age old Nature Vs. Nurture debate. Is who you are dominated by your personal experience or by the inherited genetic traits you were born with?

As a good Taoist, I tend to think it is a balance between the two. You can have a tendency twords a certain behavior, but if your environment does not facilitate said behavior, it's unlikely to reach full development... or something like that. Either way, where you came from does have a distinct effect on who you are if it is not the dominating influence.

For the majority of my years, I lived in a little Midwestern town called Beaver Dam. Now, if you have lived your life in a big city, you would probably find my little hometown as profoundly limited and provincial. Over time, I have come to be incredibly forgiving of it's shortcomings and fond of it's unique qualities. Like any hometown boy, anyone else's estimations are swimming upstream against a flood of happy childhood memories. We had one Italian restaurant, one Chinese restaurant, one McDonald's (until recently), one BK, one Hardee's (still my darkhorse favorite). We had a little local pizza place Park Plaza Pizza that has a rabid following and whose little brown bags of deep fried goodness fueled me through innumerable late night gaming sessions and are still frequently the subject of my late night cravings. It was just small enough, just big enough and located in a nicely centralized location that was within day-tripping range to Chicago, Milwaukee and even the Twin Cities. It was also within easy range of so many of Wisconsin's most beautiful parks and wilderness areas I can't begin to tell you.

Understand that I am a Wisconsinite. I love my state. I love it for the proliferation of wilderness, the sturdy, kind personality of my fellow Cheeseheads, our heartfelt love of our home sports teams and the wealth of natural beauty waiting around just about every corner.

I lived the majority of my years thus far in Beaver Dam, on a quiet, residential back street, dotted with at least 8 other kids my age. It was fun, it was safe and it really was the best childhood that anyone could ever ask for. Nothing bad every happened and a lot of the current confidence I feel flows from my ever-calm inner child who has been treated well and sheltered from life's more unpleasant aspects. Later on we moved out of our 3 bedroom house and, after a brief 6 month stay in a really bad apartment, we found ourselves in a mobile home. Yup, that's right, I was Midwest trailer trash... suck it. When I moved out on my own, my first, fondly remembered apartment, it was in Beaver Dam.

My hometown served, as many hometowns do, as something of a safe cocoon for me to grow in. From there I could take brief forays out, beyond it's secure borders to explore my world, knowing I had a secure home base to return to. Like a swimmer, dipping in a toe, then a foot, then a leg to acclimatize. It was just the right size to fit me and just small enough to easily escape from.

Now, if you would have asked me where I would be making my escape to... or, more to the point, where I wanted to make make my escape to if I had my druthers, right down at the end of that list would have been Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin.

Growing up, you heard stories about Fond Du Lac, the blue collar, ass-end of the Fox Cities and criminal hotbed (in comparison with Beaver Dam... which isn't saying much.) When I got my drivers license, my Mother, in a rare act of cautionary guidance, actually warned me to stay away from Fond Du Lac, especially the notorious Lakeside Park.

I actually had a mental list of where I wanted to live in Wisconsin and by the time came to leave the nest, it had been whittled down to two locations... Madison (of course) and Appleton Wisconsin. Appleton is also one of the Fox Cities but it is everything that Fondy isn't. Urban to Fondy's farm/factory feel, professional vs. the Blue Collar Merc Marine crowd. Appleton was expanding, hip and at the economic leading edge of the state economy. The expansion that is taking place there even today is incredible. Over the years I've watched the city double in size and exponentially increase in sophistication. From a Paper Factory town to a bright, shiny retail center with a thriving downtown. Fond Du Lac had a pretty stunted growth trend, was still relying on factory work for the bulk of it's income in this day an age and suffered from a poorly developed downtown.

I didn't have a lot of choice about moving to Fondy. A very good job opportunity surfaced, my first office job that lead me away from my factory jobs and twords my future in the IT industry. Not only did it surface for me, but it was already a reality for Beenie as well.

And so, off we went. Part, parcel and moving truck... up state to a town I didn't want anything to do with, I had no interest in and, ultimately what did it for me, I had no expectations of.

I can't tell you where along the line I went from reluctant and downright surly to out and out fond of my new home.

Were you ever to move to Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, you would quickly learn a few things about living there. First is the very low bullshit factory in the general populace. It is a Blue Collar town. They have one of Wisconsin's last great factories and a large service industry. The rent is cheap so a lot of people who work in the upper Fox cities, live in Fond Du Lac. This leads to some interesting amenities. One of my favorites was the fact that just about every convenience store also offered a hot deli/takeout service. My local gas station offered a full dinner, usually stuff like fried chicken or lasagna, two sides, a roll and desert for about 6 or 7 bucks. It wasn't GREAT food, but it was above average for flavor, filling and cheap... my favorite combinations. There was also not much in the way of customer service. It was generally understood that a grouchy, sore factory work had no stomach for a crystal bright, chipper salesperson at any time you were likely to encounter them. Therefore, contrary to popular sales trends, they operated pretty much on a "if you want something you'll ask for it" mentality. The upshoot of this is that a work-weary factory worker could have easy access to a decent hot-cooked meal on his way home from work with the minimum of grief. (Note this works well for phone-weary call center workers as well).

There is no doubt, however, of what will endear it to me forever.

I'm not going to write about Irish's Bar right now. My bar deserves it's own entry. Suffice to say, Anthony Bourdain (one of my personal foodie guru's) has 5 criteria for the judging of a great bar.

1. It must be local. (Yes)
2. It must possess a maniacal bartender. (Oh Gawd yes)
3. A Good Jukebox. (Not only yes, but Pat had a penchant for Sinatra)
4. Good Bar Food. (Sadly, no... frozen pizzas and pretzels)
5. A Buyback policy. (Not officially, but Pat will throw you a few free shots if he likes you, especially at closing time)

4/5 is good enough for me.

Having a personal watering hole in any town connects you in ways indescribable. You meet the local characters, you feel the flavor, you hear the goings-on.

Fond Du Lac turned out out to be a decent fit for me despite my initial reservations. I found myself thinking "Okay, I didn't want to wind up here... but looking around, I don't think anybody wanted to wind up here. We're just kinda stuck here, making the best of it."

After a year or so in Fond Du Lac, quite out of the blue, the wind changed again. I would up briefly working another job north of Appleton and a full hour commute away. With changing gas prices and a fluctuating job market, we came down to a choice. It would have been better for us if we picked up shop in Fond Du Lac and moved north to Appleton. Beenie could have gotten pretty much the same job she had in Fondy at the company where I worked and I could have knocked out my commute, saving both gas money and wear and tear on Beucephalus my faithful steed.

Around this time, our long time friends who previously lived in the same apartment building we did, picked up shop and moved to Madison for another job, leaving us quite alone. Moving to Appleton would have meant moving further away from my friends and family in Beaver Dam and the friends I had recently made in Fond Du Lac... leaving me stranded once again in Terra Incognita.

Every now and then in your life, one must roll the dice. I'm not to sure how the idea first came up, but it occurred to Beenie and me that since she had to look for a new job if we moved, why don't we just both look for new jobs and move someplace we could settle down at for an extended period of time that wasn't so fucking far away from everyone. Over the course of a week, the idea turned from "yeah,maybe,someday" to "price apartments, hit the want-ads, look out Madison here we come". Thanks to a well-timed financial windfall, we had the means and defying further odds, we both swiftly landed new jobs, even managing a decent step up in pay for me.

It looked like heaven. Fresh from career success and newfound confidence, here we were, moving to my long dreamt "golden castle" at the end of the road... Madison.
It was the most painless move I have ever made. It all happened so quickly I hardly had time to think. From thought to deed was barely two months. Suddenly, WHAM, here we were, cracking the top off a new town and finally getting to see if what my long desired destination was really about.

Nothing is EVER as it seems in this life. We all have our perceptions colored by time, distance and quite often our own desires. I think I even mentioned to my friend Tiki that things went so well that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it did drop, it left Beenie unemployed and started a strange, six-month slog where our lives, our plans and our hopes were on hold. It also left us far worse off financially than we ever thought we'd be again.

Madison is a very expensive town to live in. It has the highest per capita income in the state. It's got very low crime, very high living standards and an absolute plethora of civic and commercial entertainment sources... all of which, we can't afford. Back in Fondy, we made a pretty good living. Our three bedroom apartment was about $200 cheaper than our two bedroom rented condo in Madison. Even with my increase in pay, we're not living nearly as high on the hog as we have been.

As I said previously, Madison is a town of professionals. It's white collar and educated or at least pedantic enough to fake education. It's the Capitol, the home of the UW and often voted one of the best places in the country to live. You should feel privileged to live and work here and many people do. What you shouldn't do is ACT privileged... which, unfortunately, many people do as well.

This also means that while there are plenty of amenities for the haves, there is not much left for the have-nots... or at least the have-only-sometimes like Beenie and me.

As time goes along we're starting to dig past, little by little, the glossy, Money Magazine cover of Madison and are catching a few glimmers of a richer, more down-to-earth subculture underneath but as it stands... and I never thought I'd say this... I miss Fond Du Lac. I miss the reduced bullshit and I miss my Bar.

Madison may be my home now, but it isn't doing a whole lot to make me love it. 2007 was a hard year, full of victories and setbacks. Hopefully, we've paid our dues and earned our place in this town now. Beenie is now fully employed again at what seems like a good, solid company and is busy making new friends and connections. Spring is fast approaching and with new life comes new hope.

Let us hope our new home does not disappoint.

1 comment:

beenie said...

Never in a million years did I think either of us would miss Fond du Lac. But now that Madison has had its way with us in the last 10 months, let's show it who's boss!!