Thursday, September 24, 2009

GLEE: A Perspective From A Lima Loser

Ever since The West Wing ended I haven't watched much network TV. I never started watching "Lost" or "House" or "30 Rock" or even "The Office". I like "The Office" but I didn't catch on to it until seeing the reruns on basic cable. That's what happens when you rarely turn on the TV before 10pm. The downside is you have no idea what other people are watching (although, admittedly, given the decline in network TV, I don't know many people who watch network TV, or at least talk about it... except for Dancing With the Stars and American Idol. Man, I can't get away from those shows in the office the days after they've aired. The ladies in the office beat them to the point I just want dig my ear drums with a rusty fork), but the upside is that when they're finally on at the time you watch TV, they're all new to you. Network TV, was for all intensive purposes, dead to me.

And then there was GLEE.

When I heard that FOX show which features William McKinley High School, the setting for their new comedy/musical hybrid, fictionally in Lima, I couldn't help but be curious. How was the town I live in and call home going to be portrayed?

Well, I think after the airing of a few episodes, we have our answer. It's no surprise the metaphor of Lima is really being used, at least to this point, as the kind of place that's good to be from. In a recent episode, for example, when a teacher/football coach confronts a female guidance counselor about her crush on a married music teacher (and yes, I did wonder if I had stepped back into my college days when we gathered to watch Days of Our Lives), he makes it a point to tell her that she should really start dating him because he was a "minority" with tenure and "couldn't be fired" so she "couldn't do better in this one-horse town".

I disagree. We have many more horses here. That's the hole we're going to fill though... the place where we're all Lost In Middle America.

In any event, this portrayal of the city as not the end of the world, but a place where you could see it was driven home in this week's episode. The show caused a small ruckus locally when the student characters were talking about not being "Lima Losers". I had just turned on the show right before the line was used multiple times, and I even Facebooked about it when it happened.

Sideline: The problem with Facebook, and all written digital communication in general, is that it's impossible to know the intent of the person who has transmitted the words. When I wrote whatever it was I wrote (something to the effect that "Hey GLEE, in our town we're all Lima Losers!), my intent was light-hearted. Imagine my surprise when some when a small debate began to erupt over why the producers had to slam Lima, or how they were just trying to reflect the feelings of teens from every small town or city about wanting to get out of dodge. Whatever. I was just representin', yo! LIMA LOSER IN THE HOUSE!!! I mean, how often does our town get mentioned on a bigger stage? Not often. Just wanted to acknowledge we're getting a little attention, and not much else.

But the whole "Lima Loser" thing, and with it the realization of how Lima and all it represents is going to be used creatively, is hitting home. I heard about it in my office, at the gas station, and it was even mentioned on the phone with a "Harvest for the Hungry" corporate partner this morning. Most of the locals only heard about the "Lima Loser" comment from their kids (which I imagine locally GLEE has about a 99% of all teens watching it, if only because they know it's about teens from Lima, Ohio.... a few of them are probably thinking they'll see a friend which is either sad or funny) but no matter. It's rankled the locals. If there isn't an article about the negative portrayal of the community in The Lima News within a week or two I'll be shocked. I can already see Dan Beck using the whole "Lima Losers" thing as a part of his mayoral campaign as an impetus for change. This is the way it is when there's not much else locally to sway your attention.

But I digress... What, if anything, should a simple Midwestern pastor make of all this?

Well, first and foremost, the attitude of the show regarding towns like ours I think is a pretty accurate reflection of the national mood. Once upon a time people grew up in Lima dreaming of working in a local factory, opening up a local medical practice, or starting their own business. It was the kind of place where you found multiple generations of families living in close proximity together, and an attitude that while Lima wasn't the most exciting place in the world to live, given the chance to make a decent living and find an affordable house, it was a pretty good place to raise a family and live.

Now, while most of us do have family here and still feel this a good place to raise a family, we only feel that way provided you can find good work. Over the last thirty years the city itself has emptied at an alarming rate, the population declining from 50,000+ at the zenith of the late 70's, to now about 30,000+. While some of that decline actually was just transfer growth as folks moved into the burbs (full disclosure: I live in the Village of Fort Shawnee, and work in Shawnee Township, which are burbs), the attitude toward the city amongst the locals, and those who were once locals has changed decidedly since the early 70's. Closed plants, the communal rot caused by the drug epidemic/unemployment/poverty which began in 80's, empty houses, a dying downtown..... Lima is no different than many, many other Midwestern towns and cities that have been hammered by the twin whammies of the "Global Economy" (and hence the decline of American manufacturing) and all social problems that come from urban decay.

Buffalo. Youngstown. Muncie. Lansing. Flint. Pittsburgh. Akron. Toledo. The list goes on and on of Midwestern cities that have been taking a beating for more than three decades, and adapting to a new normal where the feeling that its all just slowly winding down is just a part of life. That's why when someone did the "Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Videos" and posted them on YouTube, they touted the city's primary economic engine as being "LeBron James", it's main export as "Crippling Depression", and as the place where you could "buy a house for same price as a VCR", and we all laughed because the end of the video touts the town as "at least not being Detorit".

Detroit is a place you live when you have no other options, or you can benefit from the depressed real estate market. That's all of us. We lived by the automobile, now we die by it. We're hanging onto to dear life the industry still here, embracing the emerging health industry that's taking care of our aging populations, and figuring out this love/hate relationship we have with the service sector, which predominantly consists of big box stores. Right now, for example, the town is in mourning over the loss of our Anderson's store. People are describing it like a friend with a terminal illness. Tomorrow, though, if Target said they were coming, I'm sure we'd throw a parade. It'd be a bigger deal than, well.... GLEE. So, in other words, the pay in the service sector sucks, but we certainly like having available to us cheap merchandise mass-produced overseas.

So GLEE's portrayal of our fair city as the metaphor/representation of 21st Century Midwestern America isn't all that big of a surprise. I mean, you can't buy a house here for a price of a VCR, but if Brother Esq ever decided to move down here he could buy the former Roosevelt Elementary School for the price of a high end 2010 Ford Taurus. Such is our reality, and such is the general perception of the rest of the country of us, and cities like ours.

The second, and final thing I'll say about this as a pastor, is that where I think the perception of the city is effecting my theology and preaching is that where you have chaos and emptiness, there lay opportunity for creative and entrepreneurial souls. Because God is a creative God (I mean you gotta be creative to come up with the duck billed platypus or stratus clouds), and always is creating, and we are reflection of that God, there's a "second act" brewing for a town like ours.

Maybe this more a reflection of the "American optimism" the rest of the world seems to envy (and miss in the aftermath of 9/11) than of some well-thought out theology, but when I think of the city I can't help but remember the story of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a member of the Judah's court held in captivity by Darius the Great, the king of the Persian Empire. Nehemiah was Darius' cup-bearer, which might not seem like that big a deal but was actually a position of some importance. Remember, despotic or non-democratically established leaders only step down in the event 1) they decide to for the purpose of installing their own heir or 2) they die. It wasn't uncommon for these leaders to die for reasons other than old age. Assassination, and particularly death by poisoning, was a popular way for a rival (sometimes your own relative) to move your caboose out of the throne.

The cup-bearer's job was making sure the king's cup was hemlock-free. This meant the cup-bearer served as a form of intel for the court. He had to be aware of those on staff or in the family who might want the king "off-ed", and plan according. Unusual it was for a member of a conquered court to serve in this capacity, but by all accounts (in the book of Nehemiah), Nehemiah was the kind of person - high integrity, honesty, moral - you'd want manning the job.

Had he wanted to, Nehemiah could have bided his time and lived pretty well in Darius' court, but when he heard about the state of his home, Jerusalem, and how it was still in ruins many years after being conquered by the Babylonians, it grieved him. So, with everything to lose, Nehemiah risked his position and place on behalf of his city. He leveraged his position with Darius to secure financing, protection, and ultimately a chance to lead the reconstruction on the ground. He had much to overcome - those living in the city, for example, had to sleep, work, and protect the slowly rising walls round the clock against local rivals who didn't want to see Jerusalem re-emerge as a power - but eventually the city was reconstructed.

The fact is most young people grow up in Lima just wanting to someday get out. Others growing up elsewhere don't generally dream of coming to live and work in a declining mid-size town marred by regional infighting and petty politics. But somewhere, someone, like Nehemiah, sees opportunity, not just for themselves and their family, but for others. Maybe they're fueled by a sense of justice or ambition or profit or a love for God and others... or some hodgepodge of all those things or more. That's why some people have moved here, and why others of us have moved back.

We love the city maybe not as much as God loves the city, but we still love it and see the possibilities.

God is a creating God, who has created us in his own image. For those looking to create, the canvas of places like Lima only becomes increasingly attractive if only because they get to paint that which makes their heart sing.

Lima, then, might be a place for losers, but losers are only people who have competed and came up on the wrong side of the ledger. Or winners who got knocked down for awhile. The importance is to keep praying, competing, believing, and staying open to coaches and players who are able to turn the team around.

The Lord is not done with us yet, hence, much like the GLEE kids, all of us losers won't stop believin'.


Jim said...

I really liked your blog, Brian.You made great points about the reasons for Lima's decline and the general regional decline.Americans short-sighted immediate selfishness in getting everything as cheaply as possible has decimated our manufacturing base leaving our economy to be based on little more than low wage service sector work.We as consumers and policy makers at the highest levels with their "free trade" rather than fair trade are mostly responsible for whee we are now. One thing though is that the term "Midwest" has very negative connotations around the country. Usually being interchangeable with backwards or hickish. I've never understood how Ohio came to be in the Middle-west when it is actually in the middle of the east. The real midwest ,if you look at a map of the U.S. is Utah and Nevada.

gryfnngurl said...

You bring up a lot of interesting points, Brian. I lived in Fresno, CA for a few years, after living in Philadelphia for much of my youth. The young people in Fresno seem very similar to the youths in Lima (wanting to get out, as you wrote). Also, whenever Fresno is mentioned in movies or TV, it nevers sounds like the hip place to be. Oh well... At least Philadelphia has fans.