Saturday, June 27, 2009

Happiness is.... Pullman in the Rearview Mirror

A while back I saw a bumper sticker that said "Happiness is... Pullman in the rearview mirror" and it reminded me that even though nearly twenty years have gone by since I reached the end of my non-optional community arrest in this town, and the world has changed in a number of ways, some things really don't change at all. Back in 1996 I had finally had enough of this town, so I escaped to the West side. My reasons for leaving were numerous: not enough good jobs in this area, hadn't really ever spent any time in a place other than Pullman, all my friends from highschool had gone, all my friends from college were gone. In short, I wanted to go out and experience life, make a name for myself, and move beyond the limitations of this place.

It took several years for homesickness to set in. I'm not talking about the mild kind of homesickness that you get over time as you realize that familiar elements are missing from your life; you know, the kind that you can cure by taking a week to go back, surround yourself with those familiar elements, and then leave, happy that you have the freedom to get away. I'm talking about the kind of homesickness where you realize that even though you have a lot of nice things, a decent life, a career, a new car, a house, children and pets of your own, there are also certain things that just weren't the same - and not in a good way. It takes an hour to get anywhere because the traffic is so congested, it's always raining, except for when it's hot, and when it's hot the humidity makes it sweltering, and then there's the small matter that you have to drive quite a ways to escape urban sprawl.

Someone, and I don't remember who, once described Pullman as a forest in the middle of a wheat field, and I happily agree with them. It isn't exactly a full-on desert, but the summers are hot and dry, the winters require a certain amount of masochism to survive, and you can't help but be aware of the rebirth during the annual greening of the Palouse and then its inverse, when everything changes to shades of yellow and brown and the bite of cold creeps back into the air. During those last few years in Seattle, I really missed the Pullman summers, when the dirt was so dry that it became powder and you could smell the asphalt baking in the streets, and the distinct earthy smell of the rare rainstorm after weeks of being blasted by the heat. The sky was often cloudless and blue during the day and you could actually look up in the night sky and see stars rather than the dull light of the urban sprawl reflected in the ever-present clouds.

Then there's the culture. Many people claimed that Pullman is a cultural wasteland. In fact, Young Jean Lee, who graduated from Pullman in the 1990s (was she in our class?) is now a playwright and was featured in the New Yorker, where they discussed her play entitled "Pullman, WA" One passage reads:

I was surrounded by mermaids. I was lying on soft green grass and they
were standing on their flippers in a circle around me. I looked up and saw
a bright blue sky crisscrossed with rainbows that arched from one puffy
white cloud to another. As I sat up, the mermaids started hopping away
and I could see that the landscape around me was composed almost entirely
of chopped-up mermaid parts.

In interviews, she has said that her father brought the family over from Korea (she was only two at the time) and became an evangelistic preacher—right here in Pullman. She rebelled, became a playwright. “Pullman, WA” isn’t very reader-friendly, but it’s probably fun to perform. One reviewer calls it a performance piece. By willfully NOT being about Pullman, it’s really all about Pullman. It’s about a wasteland, teenage and otherwise.

Despite the perception of Pullman as a cultural wasteland, maybe there's something that people overlook. The community is largely educated, thanks to the presence of the university. Pullman has athletes, and writers, and music, and food, and beer, and nature. A fifteen minute walk from any place in town is all it takes to move beyond the boundary of the city and out into the countryside. Pullman has diversity, and tolerance. Pullman's highschool is not only rated one of the best in the nation, but it's also a place where people are given the tools they need to find their calling in life, and the wisdom that they will probably need to leave Pullman in order to be those things.

So here I am, two and a half years back in Pullman, finishing my degree, that one big project I should have finished more than a decade ago, and I'm looking at this place not in terms of its limitations and shortfalls, but in wonderment at how any of us could have possibly taken this place for granted. While I'm beginning to look once more towards the future, despite the worst economy I've ever seen in my life, I'm beginning to remember Seattle fondly, not quite homesick yet, but remembering the things that are there that are not here like friends, excellent radio to keep me company while I'm stuck in traffic, companies with high paying positions that don't involve teaching college, and the ability to go shopping for something and actually being able to find it. I don't know if Seattle is in my future; there are editing positions with both local universities here, and Pullman is a better place to raise my kids, but I'm not convinced Pullman is the place for me anymore either. For everything that it is, it's also small, and no matter their strengths, small places are limiting places.

Regardless of whether I stay or leave again, the one thing I'm doing differently this time is not allowing myself to take it for granted. The bumper sticker lies. Happiness isn't coming to or leaving a place; it's wanting to be at whatever place you are.


bob said...

So, true story, my friend Keith was the originator of that bumper sticker back in 1985 when we were attending WSU. He dreamt it up, got some bumper sticker guy to print him up copies then got it sold at the Bookie. I think he sold the rights to the bumper sticker guy when he left WSU.

Pullman lacks trees, that bothers me most.

Darrin Drader said...

Pullman has lots of trees. This is a forest in the middle of a wheat field. Now it would be factual to say that the surrounding area lacks trees.