Sunday, October 22, 2006

I Love Pennsylvania

As soon as I get to Pennsylvania I feel better.

I’ve driven around the state a number of times, and it’s always the same.

The last time was when I drove to Pittsburgh from Boston and back in August. I enjoyed almost all of it. Except of course the part where I was rear-ended on I-80, but more of that later.

What’s wrong with me?

Pennsylvania is, after all, one of the squarest, dullest states in the country. Nothing could be more boring than mile after mile of well-manicured countryside, dotted with little towns with translated Platdeutscher names, where nothing ever happens.

And the basic population is as white as possible (pushing 90%), mostly of Northern European origin (people of German, Irish, and English background make up almost half the population), and heavily Protestant Christian. They tend not to look like garden-variety fat Americans, but often resemble stolid Bauern from the Low Countries, whose descendents they generally are.

Well, that’s the stereotype, and, like all stereotypes, there’s an element of truth to it. Part of my wife’s family is from Pennsylvania. They were originally French, but had become quite German by the time they arrived. They married into the local Pennsylvania Dutch population and settled right in. Her ancestor, Michel Gilbert, horloger de Paris, was a Huguenot (big surprise for a watchmaker). He bailed when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes.

Caution: History ahead. Sorry if your eyes glaze over. I'll stop and read it if it's about the 17th century. You should, too.

Anyway, here’s what Wikipedia says:

Eighty-seven years later, in October 1685, however, Louis XIV, the grandson of Henry IV, renounced the Edict and declared Protestantism illegal with the Edict of Fontainebleau. This act, most commonly called the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, had very damaging results for France. While the wars of religion did not re-ignite, many Protestants chose to leave France, most moving to Great Britain, Germany and the Dutch Republic. This exodus deprived France of many of its most skilled and industrious individuals….

So, the skilled and industrious Michel Gilbert headed to Hohenheim in Württemberg. His thoroughly Germanized grandson, Bernhardt, moved to Pennsylvania in 1750, where he could be among his Calvinist coreligionists and enjoy the ongoing benefits of William Penn’s well-run enterprise. He settled the town of Gilbertsville. It’s still there near Pottstown, not far from Reading, and nothing much has happened these past 256 years.

Now my wife with her Pennsylvania ancestry finds small-town life there intolerable. As a book editor, she had to do a couple of temporary stints at a printing plant in York, PA, which drove her to climbing the walls even while not at work.

I find rural Pennsylvania strangely comforting, however. I like the settled, almost European look of the countryside. It has little of the chewed-up, bleak, exploited appearance of many agricultural areas in this country. People have lived in rural Pennsylvania for 300-odd years, and it shows.

I also like the fact that Pennsylvania is heavily churched. A bit less than 40% are Protestants, with more than 50% Catholics. If you do a Google Earth search of any populated area in Pennsylvania and select to show places of worship, the image will be practically blacked out by little church icons.

Christian radio stations are everywhere. This is fairly unusual for the Northeast. Here in New England, there is the odd Catholic broadcast on some small station. Evangelical radio is rare.

I find that I am most comfortable around religious people. The specific religion is not important to me, but I just like people who have some religious or at least spiritual dimension to their lives.

This is a complex subject I’ll try to write more about later. I hope to make religion and spiritual life one of the topics on this blog.

A short aside:

The small suburb where we live in Massachusetts is surprisingly churched. As a result, our kids think that going to mass is perfectly normal, as everybody does something like it. It also allows them to explore and compare different traditions, because the kids talk a lot about it among themselves. They also talk to us: “How come Jacob is walking with his family all dressed up in black on Saturday morning? Where are they going?” “William told me they don’t believe in saints. Why do we believe in saints? What are saints, anyway?” “That church is scary. Why does St. Michael have that big sword?” We’ve had some great religious and philosophical discussions with the kids that I don’t think would have happened in a more secular environment.

So, I appreciate the relatively high percentage of churchgoing Pennsylvanians.

I must say I have no illusions that there is a simple, sturdy yeomanry out there in some kind of sylvan American paradise. The recent horrible Amish school murders make that point, don’t they?

In addition to the horror of the school murders, there is the universal catalog of daily human misery in rural Pennsylvania: Truckers on pills, hopped-up meth-head bikers, local thugs and idiots, alcoholics, hookers, all-purpose bums, runaway pregnant girls with AIDS, and on and on. Read or listen to the local news.

My wife did not like her gun-toting, proto-good-old-boy cousins when she met them many years ago. But despite that, there is a kind of goodness, an almost Midwestern niceness that has come from most people I’ve met in Pennsylvania. There is also plenty of old-fashioned American practicality that is in short supply in the other bicoastal places I’m familiar with.

An example of the practicality and civility of Pennsylvanians was in the way I was treated when I was rear-ended on I-80 somewhere in Jefferson Township. I was driving a van filled with trade-show display items. I was rolling to a stop behind some trucks already stopped for road construction, when a driver in a Mercedes station wagon, not from Pennsylvania, plowed into my left rear side. Because he swerved at the last second, he barely missed hitting me directly, and spun out three times into the center divider. Neither of us was hurt, although he might have gotten a scrape or two. In any event, all sorts of people stopped to help. I called 911, and the State Police were there in a few minutes. The State Troopers, from the DuBois office, were remarkably helpful, friendly and efficient. With the help of a tow truck driver, they eventually got the van going again, and I drove on to Pittsburgh. I can’t say enough for the quality of their work. I’ve been involved in a few other fender-benders, and I’ve never had a better experience with the police. Another confirmation of my good feelings about Pennsylvania.

So, am I just a fan of the boring, the dull, and the white? Should I like Cambridge or Manhattan or San Francisco better? I’ve spent time in all three places, and if I were asked now if I would rather move to any of them or retire to some rural township in central Pennsylvania, I’m afraid my unhesitating answer would be the middle of Pennsylvania.

To repeat the question, what’s wrong with me?