Thursday, December 27, 2018

Proxy Preference

Bethany brought up a new term over at Graph Paper Diaries, proxy preference. She created it in reference to surveys in which people claim to want to move to a rural area, but actually don’t do this. She wonders what “I want to move to the country” is a proxy for, speculating that it may be yearning for a simpler lifestyle.  As my wife and I originally wanted to move to the country decades ago but never did, I wondered what that idea was a proxy for in our case, perhaps illuminating others. BS King’s post is recommended. She was up visiting her family and came over to have tea with my wife yesterday.  I doubt strenuously they discussed this.

For me, it was first a proxy for self-sufficiency, at minimum. I have always had a streak of not being beholden to others.  The idea of growing one’s own food, cutting one’s own fuel, being able to hunker down in an emergency and survive loomed large in my imagination.  Apocalypse was in the air in the 1970's, but it was also part of my personality to prove I could succeed at the sort of thing not expected of a soft-hands humanities person and his librarian wife. Most especially, to prove that I did not in any way need my parents and so would not be beholden to them in any way.

When one reads about preppers, they echo some if not all of those sentiments. Strategies of being able to live off the land for days, weeks, months are prominent. In the city, one is dependent on elevators and heating working; food supplies are just-in-time, not long-term storage, and even boiling water is impossible with the power out; armed people who might hurt you are right nearby. For that type of emergency, the city dweller is vulnerable, the rural person comparatively safe. Yet for everyday emergencies, the situation is reversed.  If you make your living in a rural setting selling vegetables, beef cattle, or your skill as a carpenter, you are enormously dependent on your customers. Even if you have multiple jobs, as rural people sometimes do (at least in NH), a car that breaks down, a town on hard times, a mere bad season rather than a natural disaster – these are not easily solvable.  In the city, if you lose your job you have more opportunity to hustle for another nearby.  You can walk to a job in a pinch. Or walk to do simple errands which would be very difficult to accomplish in the country. As a practical matter, people find they can’t move to a rural area because they can’t find a job there, or only one of a couple can find a job there, or more subtly, there is an insecurity about getting stuck far from an alternative job if the one you landed lays people off or cuts back your hours.

I think it is also common that people want to move to rural settings “so that the kids will have room.” When one gets down to it, however, kids have plenty of room to run in small towns and even small cities, and certainly in suburbs. Folks start finding that there is even too much room to run, as children have to be driven to play with others well into their school years. If there aren’t a few children within a year or two of your child in a two-acre zoned district they often choose to just stay home. Neighborhood life is not often exciting.  Rural settings only increase this problem. Rural life is better if you are trying to limit the number of people in contact. It can be a project.

“Room for the kids” then, may be a proxy for safety in one type of bad situation – of bullies, or thugs, or bad influences you can keep your children away from. As with the safety divide above, however, the more common safety problems, the non-emergency ones, are worse in rural areas. Children have to be a little older to go next door when next door is a quarter mile away. Getting to home or hospital if one gets hurt takes longer.

Lastly, I think desiring rural life is a proxy for wanting to be on vacation, especially on the vacations of childhood. While there are people who do truly love wilderness, with all its difficulty of movement and lack of visibility, most people – including most environmentalists – want a more managed, aesthetic wilderness, that you can drive most of the way to and have clear waterways for boats and the spreading trees of parks. Rural places are more like the places you went on vacation as a child, so the vision is not only beautiful scenery and some peace and quiet, it is also a place of no work.  In the imagination, that is.  Even people who haven’t lived the life are aware that “no work” is not one of the realistic expectations for rural living – that is, when they think it through for a minute rather than just dream about it.  I eventually decided that even if we could afford a vacation home we would not use our money that way, so all subsequent changes to the house would be in the direction of making it feel and look like a vacation home. It’s about 25% so – it feels rather nice.

I mentioned this to my wife.  She had a fourth, very accurate answer I had neglected.  I will come back to it after we have had a nice drive in the car to discuss it.

A feeling of self-sufficiency; a sense of both moving freely and safety, especially for the children; to have vacation right nearby.


james said...

WRT children and rural/semi-rural life: Chores (every child should have them) have the sting of necessity in the more rural areas. And I can testify to a difference between roaming alleys in LA and roaming in the woods--even when the woods aren't that deep.

To be sure, there are wooded areas in some of our city parks, but the population density is also high enough that we can also be fairly sure that some of the less welcome adults have lurked there.

But I think one huge attraction of the rural areas is that pesky O(150) limit on your friend buffer. I am surrounded by more people than I can possibly know--even in the building I work at. True, there's always a certain fraction of nasty people, and in the rural areas you can't get away from them. But that (to a city-dweller hypothetical) problem has to balance "stranger stress," especially when the city is so diverse that courtesies become scarce.

Texan99 said...

We fantasized about moving into the country, or at least the exurbs, from the time we first met. While we had to make our livings in the city, we took vacations in semi-rural areas or camped. As soon as we didn't depend on a city paycheck, we built out here in the boonies. It's not terribly remote; there are paved county roads and a small town 10 miles away.

What were we looking for? An escape from the more jarring aspects of cities, particularly freeways, traffic, relentless noise, parking lots, and billboards. We wanted a plot big and wooded enough to give us privacy. A pond, some open saltwater nearby. No neighborhood committees to kvetch about what we parked where, no lawn to mow, and no one to freak out if our dogs pooped right on the ground and no one brought in an environmental rehab team.

We know our neighbors a lot better than we did in Houston, but that's partly because we're retired and have more time to spend among them.

If I were a kid I'd spend a lot of time in these woods, as I always did when I had the chance when I was young. I notice that a lot of people here are nervous about it, though, always terrified of snakes for some reason. People here think it's a little weird that we leave most of our brush intact, but they don't bother us about it once they understand that we actually enjoy it that way and aren't simply unable to figure out how to change it.

We don't miss much about the city. One of the few things we miss is a variety of good restaurants. We do have to rely a lot on mail-order, with its attendants delays and the inability to touch some things before we buy them. We're so used to it now that we cheerfully buy major furniture through the mail, especially from the wonderful consignment site "Chairish."