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Thursday, Sept. 15, 2005 01:40 am

The Springfield Syndrome

What’s best — and worst? — about the capital city

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I once lived in a place so fresh that people could express their pride in residency simply by the way they put their renewal stickers on their license plates. Most motorists placed them properly, inside that rectangular dimple on the license’s upper right-hand corner, smack on top of last year’s tag. But others refused to cover the previous sticker and placed subsequent years’ anywhere they could — some in careful grid formations, some higgledy-piggledy around the metal plate.

That was Alaska, where almost everybody was an immigrant from Outside, which is what Alaskans call the rest of the United States (only tourists use the term Lower 48).

Anyone who arrived pre-pipeline boom could call themselves a Sourdough, but even that indicated only a few decades investment. Still, each and every year of living in Alaska was a feat. It meant you had survived a dark and frigid winter, an intoxicatingly sunny but impossibly short summer, a few spine-tingling encounters with at least moose if not bear, losing your keys for as much as six months if you happened to drop them while shoveling your driveway, and, worst of all, the embarrassment of announcing your actual weight to a bush pilot and a half dozen other passengers waiting to board his plane. For all this, some people apparently felt they deserved a merit badge, and the license plate renewal tag was as close as they could get.

Telling you about Alaska’s low threshold for tenure takes courage, because even as I type, I hear you snickering. Who could take such perverse pride in living any place so few years? That’s nothing — a blip! — by Springfield standards, where our current mayor campaigned on a platform touting his family’s five-generation history here, and a promise that his clan would remain in Springfield eternally.

My point is not to judge whether such pride is warranted or reasonable; it’s just the feature that defines Springfield for me — this steadfast, burning, self-satisfaction, this blithe contentment with the way things are and always have been forever and ever amen. It’s an attitude I haven’t encountered anywhere else I’ve lived (don’t make me give you the whole list), and it fascinates me. I can’t quite figure out whether it’s purely wholesome self-esteem, or some kind of regional arrogance. Maybe both?

See, as this is our annual “Best Of” issue, I wanted to dedicate my column to all the best things about Springfield. I was going to write about the awe-inspiring beauty of the “new” state Capitol, and the humbling power of the old. The neighborhood streets lined with the kind of majestic trees that take a century to mature. The way the lagoon at Lincoln Park looks at sunrise just after a snow.

But almost everything deep I thought about — Springfield’s intense civic pride, for example — had a darker flip side that made me wonder: Is this a “best” thing or a “worst” thing?

Take, for example, the tight warp and woof that forms the fabric of this community. It’s populous enough to resemble a small city. Yet I’ve realized I can’t go anywhere without bumping into someone I know or someone who knows me. I call these “Springfield moments,” and some are more fun than others. I’ve run into high-ranking city officials taking their kids to the same classes I take my kids to. I used to routinely see one notorious powerbroker at Sunday breakfast, and he got to hear my toddler experimenting loudly with words I swear he picked up at daycare. I live across the street from the State Journal-Register’s investigative reporter, and she has seen me dash outside to grab something from my van wearing just my pajamas. Last week, I was getting my hair cut when a cop who has been the subject of a couple of unflattering articles showed up to get his crew cut trimmed.

Here’s a classic: I made an appointment with an accountant to get my family’s taxes done. He asked who had done our taxes before, and I told him it was someone so incompetent they didn’t even get our Social Security numbers right. When we met for the appointment, he looked at our previous tax return and said, “Oh, this was done by my [extremely close relative].”

Being a glass-is-half-full kinda girl, I’ve decided this Springfield Syndrome is a “best,” not a “worst” thing. This frequent, spontaneous, unavoidable interaction with people I’ve written about has two benefits. It keeps me honest, and it forces me to see them as human beings. Hopefully, it has the same effect on them.

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