Rattus Norvegicus, His Hindquarters, Heaven and Hell, Our Common Purpose, The State of Our Understanding Thus Far
Follows now a short essay written by an ordinary man living in an unspectacular town of which few beyond its borders will have heard. It will be passably well enough written considering the late hour of its creation, the weariness of its author and the low expectations of those who will recognize the name and style of the writer. As to its purpose? It stands only as a vignette of the satisfactions of political engagement at the smallest, most local level, the only place where a man or woman retains yet some voice and influence. When printed a few days ago in a small weekly newspaper which has tolerated similar works twice monthly now for a decade, someone edited it to obscure every direct use of the words ass and bullshit. Asses and bullshit continuing to be met daily in the author's experience, he restores those references in this printing.
I know something you don't know. We are not surprised at this. I have lived long, moved widely among men and women of all sorts, and experienced much. Between many exquisite incidents of high drama and delight and others of desperation or despair I have been afforded the time and found the inclination to reflect upon that which I have seen and done. What I may not own is the ability to translate, to transfer, to build in words the essence of this experience and the understanding I imagine I have gained from it. I can only tell a part of it. I can only tell that part as it appears to me, which is in itself a bent and imperfect vision. I'll give you what I've got so far.
Had you driven along state Route 218 last Monday evening between about eight and midnight you might have found your passage impeded by the great flux of bullshit running from the Alna town office building. Seven persons met there to discuss some municipal business: the first selectman, two members of the current version of a committee investigating our building requirements, the fire chief, fire department president, a fire department president from some years ago, three former selectmen, a town meeting moderator, and I think one or more each of school committeemen, planning board members or chairmen, some emergency management directors, and unelected, unappointed, not unnecessary nor always and entirely undesirable bloviators without portfolio. Thus the bullshit. It is an inevitable byproduct and lubricant of public works and deliberation in the town of Alna. Passers-by and innocent bystanders are warned.
This committee, one of whose co-chairmen called me Sunday evening to ask my attendance, was empowered after a town meeting failed to pass any of three options put forward by the first committee for construction intended to solve space and function requirements of the fire department and the town administration. The problem was not the idea but the price. The solution was to buy time. That time is now half used up, the new committee is deep into its labors, and no one could fault them for drafting some officeholders and opinionators for advice and perspective. The greater number of offices than persons present is in the nature of local government-a few serve often in several capacities that the many may not be so troubled.
Some, thus, have wide experience in the operation of this only extant system of democratic self-rule. Generally, the more offices one has held, the more hours and years and meetings and town meetings and deliberations endured, the greater the understanding accrued and the greater the tolerance developed. We understand that each of us is a fragile agglomeration of opinion and ego and self-doubt, and we each grant the others some leeway in getting to a similar understanding of what the whole seven hundred-and-some of us should do, what it must cost, and who will carry it out.
Only a town meeting can say yes or no, can find the money (by taxing us) to build our roads and fire stations and operate our schools and pay our dog catcher. These meetings have sometimes been blindingly beautiful examples of good persons doing right by themselves and their posterity. And sometimes I have witnessed there bitterness, viciousness and selfishness that would have made me tremble and weep if I did not have instead the tools and the shield and the salve of sarcasm to hold my spirit together and to get me out and away and home to my woods with no man or woman close enough to see or hear or revile.
Alna has been better favored than some of our neighbors. We have, I think, made better decisions with less damage to any of our citizens than is commonly the case. Two or three men have moved out of town when they did not get their way; they and we are happier for that.
But this truth remains: most of us have never held public office. Those who do are changed by it. We know better the imperative of common purpose; we understand more fully the difficulty of it. We are to ordinary citizens as parents are to the childless, as combat veterans are to peacetime soldiers, as the bereaved to those who have never known a great loss. A man may get himself elected selectman sure of the righteousness of his plan or opinion. A year later he will not be so certain. It happens, people, I tell you. I have seen it. I know it.
Our committee is plowing the same or a similar furrow to the groove its predecessor routed out. I don't doubt they will arrive at a similar array of options. Again presented with two or three admittedly expensive choices to meet needs they imperfectly appreciate, I expect the voters will again reject them all. Would we then have a third committee? I added my memories, eroded by time, of the decisions that produced our present fire house. In this I did no harm and may have contributed some small part to our growing collective wisdom.
But one idea came to me as the evening progressed, and as is my habit I turned it loose upon the assemblage as soon as it grew solid enough that I could throw it out. The typical voter, I said, will not do well with choices. If you say you can do this or that or the other he or she will likely cry, "I'm confused." The selectmen, the firemen, these committee members, I said, must come to their own understanding of what we ought to do so that we shall have adequate and legal fire-fighting capabilities, acceptable and modest town offices, and large enough public meeting rooms to carry us at least another thirty years into an increasingly uncertain future.
The man who was road commissioner and fire chief for all the dozen years I was a selectman came to my home many times and told me, without my asking, "Cooper, here's what you ought to do." I guess I told his son (who now holds those same two offices) last Monday what he ought to do. Between now and the next town meeting, I said, convince the committee and the selectmen, or let them convince you. Synthesize a single proposal, acceptable to all if delightful to none of you, and take that, not a basket of options, to the voters. They may reject it. You may then propose a lesser or cheaper or modified proposal at a subsequent meeting or you may do nothing further or you may resign your commission if you feel that vote denies you the necessary tools to carry out its functions. I cast my vote for bold leadership.
Municipal government in small New England towns is the cleanest operation of the traditional conservative and liberal themes in American life. We provide for the safety and common needs of our residents as economically as possible with the least possible intrusion into their lives or economies. Everybody likes low taxes, but everybody needs roads and schools and sometimes firemen and hose and pumpers and water. Every family needs a house; nobody wants his neighbor's house or lifestyle impinging upon his enjoyment of his own property. Our poor need help from time to time. So we establish ordinances, assess taxes, limit ourselves to a degree, and most often most of us find the benefits vastly outweigh the annoyances, indignities, and expense.
We live in a time when "conservative" national figures are borrowing and spending without apparent constraint. Republican candidates and officeholders will tell you which god to worship, what sort of person you should have sex with, what subjects your children cannot discuss in school, and what you must do with the withered body of your brain-dead wife or child or parent. Democrats will not muster forty-one senators to filibuster the most egregious abuses of a power-mad administration. Wars open on new fronts, the dollar declines, the earth heats up and erodes and degrades and dies. In our national life there is neither traditional, responsible conservatism nor humane, committed liberalism. There is only money and power and ego. We do not torture? We torture language and meaning and reason as well as men who may be guilty of something or nothing.
I can't do anything about Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton. They don't need me. But I can come when called to the Alna town office or firehouse and struggle with my neighbors to hold onto this remaining scrap of decent, liberal, limited government and its products.
Then I can stand with the chief in the parking lot an hour and more after everyone else has gone home and likely to bed. It was thirty-four degrees. We wore only soiled, ragged sweatshirts. We leaned against his truck or mine and reviewed, recapitulated and reconsidered. I said, "Trask, what you ought to do...." He said (not necessarily in direct response), "I don't give a rat's ass." We are as unalike as any two men you might know in age, lifestyle and temperament. We are as fiercely equally devoted as any could be to keeping our town solid and sane and sensible. Sometime after midnight Mike said, "I've got to get up early and go hunt." I said, "I need to eat supper and write all night toward Tuesday's deadline."
We had previously agreed that I was beyond redemption (First Selectman Mrs. Billie Willard was witness to this and is in full agreement). "And you're going to Hell, too, you useless bastard," I said. Not so, he cried. "It's not a sin to kill things." "God is displeased at far more than your wanton slaughter of wildlife," I assured him. "But I'll say hello to your father for you when I get there. He's getting the place organized and he and I will have work to do; Satan has had it far too easy without having had to deal with Trask or Cooper all these eons."
And in this imperfect mortal world we struggle on. Trask the father was chief when we built our fire house; Trask the son has assumed his position in our doings and will be instrumental in whatever course we finally follow. And he has a son and some daughters who may someday tell my heirs just what they should do, toward which they may or may not contribute a rat's ass..
Do not, please, the author begs you, drive up Route 218. We have plenty enough residents here already, thank you, and require no tourists. But you may from a distance tell him what is wrong with his quaint bucolic vision (should you in fact give a rat's ass) by writing email@example.com.
* * *
A slightly shorter and bowdlerized version of this essay was published by The Wiscasset Newspaper on Thursday, 15 November, 2007.