jb… a weblog by Jonathan Buys

Getting Small Again

It’s been quiet here at home lately. Grey and overcast, rain morning, noon, and night. A good time to rest and recover from a lot of busy weeks. I’m essentially an introvert, and while I enjoy visiting it tends to take a lot out of me. I’ve always preferred long conversations over coffee to loud concerts or clubs. I’m on the couch this morning, my wife’s dog is next to me. The dog kept us up a lot last night. It’s nearly silent, but for the breath of the dog and the clack of the keys.

I watched “Amazing Stories” on TV the other day, the one about a guy who went back in time to 1919. While he spent most of the show trying to get back to 2019, he found that he actually preferred life 100 years ago and wound up staying. It’s an interesting thought experiment to consider the things that we’ve gained over the past century, like civil rights, women’s rights, advances in medicine, heating and cooling, the ability to stay in touch over long distances, but also to think about the things that we’ve lost along the way too. Independence, civility, an overall slower pace of life. I live in a small town and I think a lot about what could revitalize it. Folks that lived here for a long time say that it used to be different, the buildings that are crumbling and empty around the square used to be stores that were stocked and full, kept in top shape. A person could walk down to the square and see their neighbors going about their business.

The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.

What I miss is the opportunity for someone to open a shop selling what they’ve made with their own hands, and be able to make a living off of it. People in town say that things changed when the state put in a highway that bypassed the town, but I think that was only a symptom… a sign that pointed to a real cause. Things fell apart because people stopped shopping in the town. They stopped shopping in town because they could get things cheaper if they drove 20 miles to shop at Walmart instead. The desire for cheap goods has decimated small towns and small businesses, making us dependent on massive corporations that exploit the world’s poorest and most vulnerable to make a $5 t-shirt.

What I wouldn’t give for a generation of makers and independents to turn this around. Sometimes I like to write or envision future scenarios where that’s taken place. Not that there’s not a place for big companies. Something like the MacBook or iPhone simply can’t be created by a mom & pop shop, but they could definitely be made here, by us.

We still have a fantastic barber and a, well, mediocre doctors office in town. Although, of course, the doctors office just recently stopped being independent and is now part of a regional system. Now when I call to make an appointment I get re-routed to someone 25 miles away instead of a mile down the road. I was in the office one day when an elderly gentleman was waiting in line right in front of me, and I asked him about how things had changed over the years. He didn’t have much time to talk but the description he gave was striking. I asked him what happened and as he was walking out the door he turned and said “everything got big, big, big!”

I don’t want to go back in time to 1919, I rather enjoy the privileges and comforts that we have now (especially considering that the idealized past so many think about was generally only great if you were white and male), although I also believe that a lot more of us could benefit from living more of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life”. I want to go forward. I want to live in the future where we’ve figured out these things. Where we’ve created self-sustaining communities of independent makers, linked by high-speed rail systems and electric cars powered by the wind and the sun. Where we all grow gardens full of good food, and we know where the goods we buy come from, and maybe even know who made them. Where we know our neighbors. Where we know the mailman’s name and recognize his uniform and know approximately when to expect him. Where teachers are revered for the responsibility they have. Where the ability to fix a broken thing is given the respect it deserves.

I wish I knew how to make that vision a reality, and now in this isolated time of the Coronavirus, it seems more relevant than ever. We spent too many years getting big, what we need now is to get small again.