When J was out here in Missoula in February checking out schools and places for us to live, it was dark, dank and cold. He called me one day and said, “Remind me why we chose Missoula?”
I replied, “Because you can’t buy KEEP MISSOULA WEIRD t-shirts, yet.” It was my shorthand for, “Because it isn’t Portland, Austin or Brooklyn”. Our home in East London is basically a clone of these hipster hotspots. There is ample artisanal bread, home-made cheese, men in checkered shirts and facial hair, and children taking ironic banjo lessons around our neighbourhood. Missoula, we thought would be so off the beaten track, that self-knowing kookiness would not prevail.
And we were sort of right.
Missoula does seem to have its share of eccentrics. You do see people buying pet pigs because they are allergic to cats and dogs, as one of my neighbours did recently.
But this city, although proud of all that it does right (and it does an awful lot right), lacks that smugness you see in self-proclaimed ‘weird’ places.
For readers who have never been to Montana, it is important to know that Missoula is not Montana. Just like London is not England nor is New York the USA. Missoula is a liberal bubble in a very Republican state. If it needs to be a bit weird in order to stay sane, then that’s fine by me.
So the Keep Missoula Weird bumper stickers may have arrived, but one thing Missoula is, which I was not expecting, is old-fashioned. In a good way. Not in a “You need to be making pies and darning socks all day, girl, between delivering your own babies”, but in a way that feels at odds with the life I lived in London. For instance: where’s the advertising? E doesn’t ever stand at a bus shelter with a woman’s larger-than-life naked thigh shimmering next to her head. Nor do we walk down the street having to look at American Apparel billboards flashing twelve-year olds – usually open-mouthed and legs akimbo – in their underwear. (American Apparel recently fired CEO Dov Charney – who had several sexual harassment claims made against him – who made out his ads were ‘pushing boundaries’. Yeah, right). The targeting of children to get them to want to look a certain way just doesn’t exist here in an overt way. I wonder if the consuming and the sexualising of girls is inherently bound up with living in a big city?
In the month we have been living in our house in Missoula, not one adult has commented on E’s appearance. This is almost unheard of in London where well-meaning adults so often make unwanted comments to little girls about their hair, their clothes, their appearance in general. It is meant well but it does two things: makes girls sensitive and self-conscious about their appearance and makes them value it over their achievements. The emphasis here in Montana, from what I can see, is squarely on what girls can ‘do’ rather than on what they look like. At E’s school, girls play soccer. E is as yet to be convinced about this and still prefers her ballet. Maybe she still sees it as a boy’s game. She won’t say. Hopefully in time, this ungendered Montanan mindset will rub off on her.
And bound up with this lack of bombarding children with reminders of how they should look comes an emphasis here on the outdoors. You would be crazy to play a computer game or watch TV when you could be swimming in the river or cycling through the hills. Montanans are now the thinnest people in the US. I am always struck when I look at photos of children just after World War II. They seem to have a sort of vigorous leanness to them. A leanness you just don’t see anymore in this world of transfats and television. This is exactly what I see when I drop E at school: a wonderfully gangly scrappy bunch of kids with retro physiques.
And then there is the politeness. This also feels very 40s. When E gave a card recently to a 10-year old for her birthday, it was shown around to everyone as if E had just given her the crown jewels. The card was a photo of a wolf cub and the levels of appreciation almost made me cry. How many times have us big-city folk seen the birthday cards chucked to the floor and the recipient of the Gameboy/Barbie/arts and crafts set be utterly disappointed that the toy wasn’t something else? I have seen this dozens of times in my own kitchen (embarrassed cough).
I cannot help make a link between the appreciation of a simple birthday card with the lack of Bratz dolls and plastic, disposable, sexed-up merchandise which you see at eye-level in every London newsagent’s. Is this similar to the video game debate whereby gamers deny the fact that shooting prostitutes all night on a computer screen makes them no less violent in real life. I don’t feel I have the answer at all. But what I am seeing is so vivid and so ‘in my face’ that I can’t deny the effect Montana is having on E. A lack of advertising and a whole load of physical activity is just a better landscape for children to navigate. You simply can’t deny it.
Perhaps my glasses are rose-tinted. Perhaps come February, I will be asking J, “So why on earth did we choose Missoula?” And who knows what he will say. Maybe he won’t have an answer.