The concept of acceptance was vital to Prairie City. It stemmed from the legacy of its first residents, most of whom, in the mid-1800s, were bound for the West Coast on the Oregon Trail. Since Prairie City marked a point where the trail often became impassable in winter, the pioneers used it as a stopover until spring. Except that many never left. As legend has it, Prairie City was imbued with a mysterious force that kept its supposedly temporary residents from resuming their journeys. Of those who did leave, countless numbers found themselves coming back after just a few years on the coast. It was hard for them to explain what had brought them. The tug of that land was as strong and invisible as gravity. The wind, though it shrieked in every season, soon lulled even the most restless souls into contentment. The people stopped thinking about gold and started building schoolhouses. They had more children. They joined sewing circles. They told themselves so many times that they were going to leave that, as generations died and were born, the Plan to Leave became as much a part of community life as agriculture itself. It was all a matter of holding off until the right time, of getting through the winter and then the summer and then winter again. Long before Effie's Tavern ever served its first draft, the citizens of Prairie City had perfected the art of waiting things out.
Of course, I didn't know much about waiting things out before I came to Prairie City. I knew next to nothing about anything, unless you count a deeply ingrained knowledge of the latest sociocultural great truths about the twenty- and thirty-somethings of America, which I discussed with my friends over drinks on at least a twice-weekly basis. Some examples of our areas of inquiry:
A) -No one wears gold anymore. It just went away. Remember how in the 1980s everyone wore gold? Like a gold tennis bracelet? Now it's silver. Nothing but silver. Wedding bands are platinum or white gold. When is the last time you saw a gold wedding band? Seriously? But you're not, like, friends with that person?
B) -More and more women are feeling pressure to not get married until they're at least twenty-eight. But at the same time there's pressure to marry before you're thirty-four. That leaves a very small window. Six years to find a husband. Consider the latest census data that there are seven hundred thousand more single women than single men in New York (not even counting gay people, of which there are more men than lesbians). Ergo, limited window of opportunity plus disproportionate gender ratio equals...imminent spinsterhood for thousands of women. What to call this? The New Spinster? The Spinsterization of America?
C) -Yogurt. What happened? It just went away.
D) -Is thirty-seven the new twenty-six?
E) -Lucinda's apartment lease. Loss of. What is she going to do?
Lucinda was me. Is me. Except the Lucinda who lost her apartment lease on Broadway and Ninety-fourth Street in Manhattan was a person of such a long time ago that I have difficulty even associating that face--pale, unlined, dabbed with Chanel makeup that I never knew how to apply right--with the one who now tells this story. Like so many people in Prairie City, my face has been subjected to a kind of wind that blows in so hard from the north that you find yourself reaching for a tree in order to stay on the ground, only to realize there are no trees, just an ocean of grass.
This is the kind of place that makes you wonder if wind can render gravity irrelevant, if weather itself can make you crazy. You lie in bed and wonder if the Apocalypse has come or if it's just another night in June. The early settlers had a name for this; they called it prairie madness. Pioneers who had migrated from the east literally went insane from the shrieking wind. It seemed to affect the women disproportionately, maybe because the men were insane to begin with. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
From The Quality of Life Report by Meghan Daum. Copyright Meghan Daum 2003. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher Viking Press.
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