Saturday, October 5, 2013

That one killed 'em in Rantoul

When my sister and I were both in college, we used to trash talk about each other’s school’s football team. Yeah, girls do that too. We were both at University of California schools, but whereas she went to Davis—the ag school, as I called it on my more charitable days—I went to Berkeley. Or rather, because nobody who goes there calls it Berkeley, I went to Cal. As in, California. As in THE University of California. The flagship school, the school with more Nobel Laureates than parking spaces for them. At The University of California, our football team was Division I. We played teams from other schools people had not only actually heard of but accorded respect. Stanford. UCLA. USC. Yeah, the Trojan fight song makes you want to stuff condoms in your ears so you don’t have to listen to the damn thing any more, but still, Spielberg, and all. My sister’s school played Chico State. I’m sure there’s some mid-level bureaucrat in an office somewhere who graduated from there and is their most celebrated alum.

Of course, we lost to Stanford, UCLA, and USC, damn near every year. My sister’s aggies, meanwhile, went undefeated.
I am reminded of those days not because it’s football season, but perversely  because I’m planning the book tour for my first novel. A friend of mine, one of the most phenomenal writers I’ve ever been privileged to know, will see her own first novel published next spring; mine comes out later this fall. Her agent is booking her readings in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. As of right now, I’ve got gigs in Rantoul, St. Joseph, and Cedar Falls, and I’m working on Flagstaff. Flagstaff, people. I may need another folding chair.

My father used to quote a line from comedian George Burns: “That one killed ‘em in Altoona.” Burns would say that every time one of his jokes bombed, the gist being that Altoona was goofy-sounding name for a goofy little town in the sticks. My father is from Altoona, and he liked that his town was made famous by that line, even if the line was derisive. It is not always the case, as big city folk might suppose, that those in small towns are irony deficient. It is also not the case—though this is harder to disprove in many minds—that everything in small towns is drastically inferior.
The first time I won an age group award at a local 5K I was over the moon with joy. Me, the 98-pound-weakling, the girl who came in last for everything involving physical fitness, beat every female runner my age and the vast majority of all of the rest of the runners in the race that day. I’ve since won many age group awards, ripped my diplomas off the wall so I could replace them with plaques, flung family heirlooms from shelves so I could display my cheap plastic trophies. Of course I acknowledge that these races take place in towns where a 5K race course might have to wind through every major street in town, some twice, in order to get 3.1 miles. Of course I realize this means that occasionally I can count the number of people I beat on my fingers and still have a digit or two left over. And because of this, sometimes my pride at having “won” is leveled off with a shrug of abashedness. So I killed ‘em in Arthur, Illinois. It doesn’t exactly put me on the Olympic track & field team.

But wait a minute. Why should this matter? Do people really run faster in big cities? Given how few elite runners come from cities like New York and London compared to other, considerably smaller towns, I’d have to guess the answer is no. The people aren’t faster; there are just more of them. Is it so different with the book tour? Because I’ll be reading in a town that doesn’t even have a Starbucks, does that mean my audience will be full of lip-diddling, mouth-breathing troglodytes? Doubtful. In my travel experiences I’ve found that the places you’d think are lease conducive to the culture of reading are where you’ll find some of the most passionate book lovers. They may be small in numbers and a very distinct minority, but this only makes reading all the more precious to them. Ask an avid reader in a small town what books mean to her. Don’t be surprised if she says they’ve saved her life.
Next week I run Peoria. Next month I read in St. Joe. Next year, who knows—maybe I’ll even get to kill ‘em in Altoona some day.


1 comment:

  1. Keep me posted on the St. Joe reading! Where is it? Within walking distance from my house I bet!