A few weeks back my friend and childhood neighbor Tresa Undem wrote a column in the Enterprise, the newspaper that once employed her dad (reporter and cantankerous columnist) and me (hotheaded teen overachiever.) I wish I could link it here but the editorial page is print-only. It was funny and moving and it made me miss her dad, and it incited me to finally articulate some long-brewing thoughts--about Al, of course, but also about small towns and politics.
So I wrote a letter to the editor, and they printed it, and this is what it said.
I knew Al Undem from the time I was in kindergarten, spent summers in the cabin next door, and eventually worked with him at the Enterprise when I was in my late teens. My ideological opposite in many ways, Al loved to give me a hard time. He challenged me, teased me, and he taught me a lot about writing. But most importantly, despite his vehement disagreement with my core political views (I was a diehard liberal; he declared Reagan the greatest president in history), he took my thinking and my writing seriously. He read it and he gave me feedback, he showed me the ropes, he challenged me, and he supported me. He was my neighbor and my mentor and my friend.
One thing that bothers me about the kind of rhetoric that many politicians, most recently but not exclusively Sarah Palin, deploy in their campaigns is the idea that small towns harbor a single kind of people—that small towns represent one particular kind of politics and values. If there's anything I learned growing up in Park Rapids, and working at the Enterprise, it's that small towns have all kinds of people. Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, moderates, wingnuts, hippies, hunters, vegans, religious people, non-religious people, town people and country people, pro-WalMart and anti-WalMart. Our small-town politics will never be uniform, but what we do learn from growing up in these close quarters--which apparently many politicians have not--is how to live with and learn from and even love the people who are think differently from you.
Forget us vs. them. In small towns, we can't help but be both. And we're better for it. Al Undem--always next door to me, it seemed, whether at the lake or the desk across from me--reminds me of that. I miss him and I always will.