Reader Request Week 2010 #5: Rural Ohio, Revisited
One of the most popular topic requests this year involves me talking about where I live and how it affects me, in terms of writing, personal life and so on. This was actually a topic in the very first Reader Request Week that I did, but that was something like seven years ago, so it’s worth looking at again, I think.
For those of you coming in late, here’s a little background: Currently, I live in the village of Bradford, Ohio, population about 1,850 or so. I wasn’t born and raised here — I was born in California and lived my entire childhood in the Los Angeles area, excepting a few months in Albuquerque when I was an infant (and which I don’t remember), and a year in northern California when I was in kindergarten, when my aunt was caring for me and my sister while our mother was recovering from illness. Aside from those two very early sojourns, I was your typical suburban southern California brat.
Prior to living in Bradford, I’d lived only in suburban or urban areas: Los Angeles growing up, Chicago during college, Fresno in my early 20s (which contrary to its assumed rusticity had a population of 350,000 while I was there and is over a half million now) and suburban DC during my mid-late 20s and early 30s. We moved to Bradford because Krissy’s family lived in this part of Ohio, and after our daughter was born Krissy wanted to be closer to family. I fought against it for a couple of years because, honestly, why would I want to live in Ohio? But Krissy was insistent so I came up with a clever plan: I told her I would move if we could get at least five acres of land. My thinking there was I could never afford that much land. The flaw in my thinking was that I was going off of land prices in southern California and northern Virginia, not rural Ohio. Krissy promptly found a new house on exactly five acres of land for a price we could easily afford. Off we went to Ohio.
That was in 2001; I’ve now lived here in Bradford and in Ohio for more than nine years, which is the longest amount of time I’ve ever lived in a single place in my entire life. This creates some interesting personal dissonances; for example, I have no problem with calling Ohio “my state,” but I don’t ever call myself an Ohioan, because I’m really not. My wife is — she was actually born here and all her family is here — and so is Athena, because despite being born in Virginia, all her conscious life has been in Ohio. But my brain is still on “cultural Californian” even after all these years. It’s not that I don’t like living in Ohio, or that I feel I’m in some sort of exile — I really don’t, for reasons I’ll explain in a bit. But I just don’t have what I guess I would call Ohio muscle memory. I’m not passionately engaged with the Reds or Indians or Bengals or Browns, I don’t seize up with spittle-ly indignation at the word “Michigan,” and it still weirds me out that the nearest spot of historical import is a small patch of grass where the Treaty of Greenville was signed, rather than the San Gabriel Mission. I am at best a naturalized Ohioan.
And it’s pretty clear that I am a bit of an odd duck here in Bradford. The town’s folks are largely blue collar and/or farm folks, overwhelmingly white, most with a high school education and the majority solid, church-going conservatives (Miami and Darke Counties, which split Bradford between them, both went 68% for McCain in 2008, and 68% for Bush in 2004; Minority Leader John Boehner is our Congressional representative). Excepting the “overwhelmingly white” portion of that, I’m none of those things. If I walk over to Harris Creek Cemetery (which, yes, is the one featured at the beginning of Old Man’s War), I can see 100-year-old tombstones with last names carved into them that match the last names of some of Athena’s classmates, which makes our family interlopers, even after a decade. Bradford really is quintessential small-town America, except that in its case it also has a freaky science fiction dude living in it.
I enjoy the dichotomy of that, to tell you the truth. It’s fun to be a science fiction writer in a town where Amish buggies plod down the road, to be well-known on the Internet and have agricultural fields immediately east, west and south of me, and to work on a television show from a place as culturally different from “the entertainment industry” as it’s possible to get in the US (even if the particular show I work on is actually produced in Canada). The idea that so much future is coming out of little Bradford, Ohio just tickles me. And on the flip side, if I think about the fact that my Twitter list population is a multiple of the population of my home town, and that the daily readership of Whatever is close to the population of the entire county I live in, I’m reminded that I actually do live in the future.
I don’t think it means that rural living is for everyone. I’ve noted before that one of the reasons it works for me is that I am married and largely settled; if I were just starting out and/or single I’d be wanting to live near more people to have things to do and people to see on a regular basis. That said, living out here is not nearly as isolating as people often imagine it to be. For one thing, as I’ve noted before, I live in the middle of nowhere in a densely populated state, which means that I can be somewhere (in this case, Dayton) in less than an hour, and in a reasonably large city (Columbus, Cincinnati or Indianapolis) in less than two. It’s not like the middle of nowhere in a state like Montana or Nebraska (or Alaska, as it will be brought up), in which the middle of nowhere really is nowhere. For another thing, these days I travel a really ridiculous amount; in the first half of this year — a year which I am intentionally trying to reduce travel, mind you — I’ve taken three trips out of town already and have another ten scheduled before the end of June. No, I don’t know how that happened either. Clearly I fail at not traveling. But the point is, it’s not like I’m not getting around and seeing people.
People do ask me when or if we’re planning to move away from Bradford and from Ohio; in the short term (being defined as “the next ten or twelve years”) I very much doubt it. One, dude, we just sunk a stupid amount of money into new floors, carpets and cabinetry. We’re going to get some use out of them, you know? Two, it’s obvious that living in rural America is not a hindrance to my career in any way at all, so there’s no practical reason to move anywhere else. Three, and a point not touched on here yet but well worth considering: It’s cheap to live here, and not just in terms of home and land values, although those are the most obvious examples of that. But watching a coastal friend of mine’s eyes pop at a $4.25 matinee ticket at the local movie theater when he came to visit was amusing. Four, our daughter likes it here, and I suspect will through her teenage years, because small towns are really cool when you’re young. So there’s no reason to uproot her from the place she’s known all her life.
Five, you know what? I like it here. At no point prior to my moving to Ohio would I ever have pictured myself living in Ohio, but that’s life for you, isn’t it; full of surprises like that. Now that I’m here I like where I am. I like my house and my stupidly large yard; I like my neighbors, who watch our cats while we’re gone and clear our driveway when we’re snowed in; I like walking out my front door, looking up and seeing the Milky Way splayed out across the sky; I like going away, seeing people and places around the country and planet, and then coming back to this little town where people have roots going back a century; I like putting Bradford in my books to suggest that a couple hundred years from now, it’ll be here still.
So we’ll likely be here for a while, and for my part I’m going to have fun writing more of the future from this little town with cornfields and Amish buggies. It’s not a bad place for the future to come from.