Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Paper Or Plastic?

And now, on a more serious note.
I really do love New England. I love it for the same reasons that a lot of people make fun of it. I love the people, I love the landscape, and I even love the weather.

People say that it snows too much in New England, and they're not too far off. We get between 35 and 100 inches of snow each winter (and it really depends if you're on the coast or further inland). I've known the snowbank at the end of my driveway to be too high to see over when we're backing the car out. You can make snow caves and forts in the yard, and they'll last for months. We have to heat the house with a wood stove, because it gets too cold to be able to pay to heat it with natural gas. The wind chill brings the temperature well below zero for several weeks.

But, on the upside, we never have a problem with drought. The trees and other vegetation grow without any need for watering. We never water our lawn in the summer. We never have warnings on the radio that we're going to run out of water. If we have to have a sump pump to prevent our basement from flooding each spring, I guess that's just the price you pay for living in such a fertile land.

People say that New Englanders are unfriendly and stand-offish, and they have a point. We're not as warm and welcoming as Westerners or Southerners. In Utah, if you go through the register at the grocery store with chocolate chip cookies, butter, sugar, and flour, the cashier will start chatting with you about what you're making. She'll ask if you're making chocolate chip cookies, and when you say yes, she'll ask if they're refreshments for FHE that night, and when you say yes, she'll ask if you like your FHE group, and so on, and so on, until your head is spinning and you're talking to a complete stranger about how your parents reacted to your brother's announcement that he was marrying a girl he met two weeks ago.

If you bring the same items through the register in New England, the cashier will ask, "paper or plastic?" Random strangers won't often talk to each other. So people think we're unfriendly. I like to think we're not unfriendly, we're just very private. We don't mean to be unkind, we're just not accustomed to bothering people, to getting in their personal space, to asking them personal questions. Sometimes we don't know the people on our street very well. We have a very laissez-faire attitude--I won't bother you, and you don't bother me--I won't mess with what doesn't concern me, and you will likewise mind your own business. Live and let live.

Because of this so-called-unfriendliness, our friendships are tighter. Social circles tend to be smaller but more tightly knit. A New Englander won't befriend you immediately, but once you're his friend, you'll be friends for life. With strangers, New Englanders are cautious. With friends, they're fiercely loyal. My parents don't know the names of the people who live three doors down from us, but they still keep in touch with people who moved out of the state--or even the country--years ago. Some people call it provincialism--I like to think we're cautious with who we trust.

People say New Englanders are liberal, and they have a point. Our states usually vote for democratic candidates in federal elections. The schools tend to be more liberal. Things you'd never get away with at the University of Idaho are common at Yale. Massachusetts even legalized gay marriage, the only state yet to do so.

But because we're so liberal, we're very accepting of other people's differences. This liberalism can spring from our laissez-faire attitude--I may not be partial to your lifestyle choices, but it's none of my business. The same attitude that makes New Englanders so accepting of gays also makes us accepting of Mormons and Jews and everyone else. When people talk about being ridiculed during high school for taking a moral or religious stand, I just can't relate. I never had anyone pressure me to drink or smoke or have sex--once they knew where I stood, they wouldn't even have let me drink if I had wanted to. They wouldn't even swear around me, and if someone who didn't know me well told a joke or used language I didn't appreciate, I didn't even have to ask them to stop--another friend would jump in and reprove them for me, saying something like, "don't talk like that around Amy." There was always a lot of respect from others--it was as if they were saying, "Oh, you're a Mormon, and you don't drink? Well, that's cool, whatever. Seth's a Jew, so he doesn't eat pork, and John's a vegetarian, and Judy's black and Rachel's a Muslim, and that's no problem either." I'm not very liberal myself, but sometimes the tolerance (that seems to be the new liberal buzzword) they show works to my benefit.

People say that New Englanders are curt, and they have a point. New Englanders say what they think, without sugar-coating it. Sometimes that comes off as unkind--we think of it as direct.

I had an Institute teacher once, a good man raised in Utah, who told the class one day, "You know, John the Baptist was a New Englander." We were talking about John's cry for the Pharisees to repent, "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (Matt. 3:7). We all laughed, and then he went on: "John didn't sugar-coat anything. He didn't try to be nice to anyone. He just told it like it was. John the Baptist was a New Englander!" New Englanders don't often use what I call the "Relief Society Smile." If you want an opinion, you'll get the truth, and nothing but the truth.

New England isn't perfect by any means, but it certainly isn't as stuck-up, stand-offish, cityified, and flaming liberal as people seem to imagine. Your neighbors won't harass you, your church will take care of you, and people will be honest with you. You'll have to work harder to win their hearts, but they'll be loyal friends, and they won't judge you too harshly. And then there's the beautiful trees. Oh, how I miss the trees, especially during autumn...

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