Sunday, January 15, 2006

Just For Kidz: Where’s Frank Drinking Egg Nog?

Hey, kidz! Now that Frank is back from holiday vacation, the question is: Where was he? Tahiti? New York City? The Taj Mahal? Nope – he was visiting his girlfriend Stephanie’s relatives. Play this quiz and try to guess where they were:

1. When we met with some old friends and wanted to hang out after 9 pm, the only place to go was:

a. the local bar
b. the local nightclub
c. the local brewpub
d. the local Wal-Mart

2. While playing “school” with Steph’s seven-year-old niece, we listened to her sing along with:

a. nursery rhymes
b. Disney songs
c. a Hilary Duff album
d. a song called “She Thinks My Tractor is Sexy”

3. The local video store, which carried our film “Buttleman” for a brief time, was closed for selling:

a. pirated movies
b. broken tapes
c. adult videos
d. crank

4. The most popular lawn ornament in town is:

a. gnomes
b. geese
c. windmills
d. posters of the Ten Commandments

If you answered ‘d’ to all of the above, you win. So, where did Stephanie grow up? The answer to today’s Geo-quiz is: Cliché, KY! Actually, Princeton.

The town of Princeton is nearly the center of a huge bull’s-eye in the heartland of America, where the borders of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky crisscross. The nearest airport, just two hours away, is Nashville. The nearest hotspots (places that have bars) are Clarksville, TN, Paducah, KY and Metropolis, IL. A plaque in the center of town marks it as a stop on the Trail of Tears. Two monuments in front of City Hall commemorate American soldiers – one of them is dedicated to Confederate martyrs.

Every day I took a walk through town. I loved the architecture of the town – I miss brick buildings. Everything in LA is stucco and Spanish mission. Having grown up outside of Chicago, surrounded by brick factories and warehouses and complexes with a century or more of decay, I never thought of brick as anything special at all – it was everywhere. But there’s something fixed and grandfatherly that brick lends to a structure, which makes everything here seem flimsy and slapdash. LA was built by the first two pigs, and you know that worked out. No wolf could blow down Chicago.

To give you an idea of how much brick is a part of my childhood, the place I grew up, Park Ridge, IL, was originally called Brickton. I grew up in a completely different cliché – the town that the Tom Hanks 80’s movie “The Burbs” was based on. Literally. The screenwriter went to my high school. In fact, he named the fictional quintessential burb with a nod to his hometown’s history: it was called Brickton, too.

Steph’s family is not a cliché by any stretch. She spent more than half her childhood in Scotland; her family has seen the world. They share none of the attitudes or views that are typically associated with provincial, small-town Americans. Her niece is exceptionally bright (she plays “school” when she’s not in school). Steph’s brother John Paul draws the distinction without apology: “I’m not a redneck, but I am countrified.”

One of my favorite moments on the trip was going with Steph while she visited her family doctor, Dr. Settle. He is the same doctor who brought Steph into the world, making a joke about losing his watch. Now close to retirement, his sense of humor and his passionate concern are still strong. He lectured Steph’s dad about smoking, even though he knows he quit. He tested Steph for strep, even though he suspected she just had the flu. I think the biggest loss we’ve suffered by the medical industry is the family doctor. I’ve never trusted a doctor from an HMO, so-called “family practitioners” who act as if they’re paid to tell you to ignore it and don’t expect to ever see you again. I trust Dr. Settle.

At one point on the trip her family recounted a harrowing and incredibly – shockingly – unjust incident one of them experienced with the law in a nearby berg. It resulted in them being jailed – innocently – by a sheriff who would later be brought down by the FBI for drugs and corruption. I made the offhand comment that if it happened to me, I’d move out of the whole damn state. The rest of the family was silent. I felt ashamed for the remark. I guess there’s a virtue in refusing to give up on your hometown. I got out of the burbs. Steph got out of the country. But for many people, home is home.