Wed May 2, 2012
'Rurally Screwed': On Finding An Honest Life Away From The City
Jessie Knadler is the thirty-something author of Rurally Screwed: My Life Off The Grid With the Cowboy I Love (Berkley Hardcover).
I like her immediately as she strides in the door at WMRA, the Shenandoah Valley public radio station that kindly employs me. There she is, short and slight as two seconds; still got this big-city, offhand glamour and presence going six years out of Manhattan. She's "bring 'em on" without any silly bravado.
It's no wonder. This speck of a woman has hands-on experience killing chickens. Plus, she also teaches Pilates, which explains her enviable abs.
We sit. We talk. I've read Rurally Screwed, but I want to hear the story directly from her. Stripped to its bare bones, it's this: Big-city magazine writer meets a real, bull-riding cowboy while on assignment in Montana. Bull-riding cowboy comes to New York City for a visit. A short time later, cowboy and magazine writer decamp for those mythical greener pastures where magazine writer feels completely inadequate about almost everything...
There is, of course, a lot more depth to Jessie Knadler's book than this, which is why I find it so interesting and endearing. Rurally Screwed, for me, is a very good writer's account of her very real life. It's a memoir of nitty-gritty daily adjustments, of the Herculean personal growth demanded within a committed partnership.
One side note: Rurally Screwed's jacket belies the story's depth. It shows a Jessie stand-in, decked out in red high heels and a handkerchief-hemmed frock, standing next to a muscular, Wrangler-clad male rear torso with a rope around it ... all plunked down in a pasture with three actual chickens.
Is this Carrie Bradshaw moves to the farm or what?
Indeed, the day before we talked, The New York Post had blasted forth a cover story focusing primarily on the Sex and the City aspect of Jessie Knadler's love story and relocation, complimented by photos of her standing around the farm decked out in designer duds, with husband Jake there in his cowboy hat as a kind of Mr. Big stand-in.
Jessie looks unexpectedly uncomfortable when I mention The New York Post. "It's a tabloid — they don't do nuance. So I wasn't all that surprised I came across as a Manolo Blahnik-wearing city slicker and Jake veered toward hick-with-the-heart-of-gold stereotype."
But then, whoosh, all distress is gone. "Hey, I'm not complaining. That's what makes the Post fun and outrageous. And I did love wearing those designer duds for the photo shoot." Jessie's grin is wicked. "It's been years since I had on anything with a label."
Jessie Knadler moved to New York City from Missoula, Montana, in her late teens. By her early thirties, she was living in a small, chic Chelsea apartment, publishing widely, writing mostly stories from an urban-hipster woman's point of view. She'd reinvented herself, Jessie explains, left her poufy Missoula ski parka behind to live and dress as she'd always figured she was meant to. But she was also drinking and partying too much, and had gotten herself stuck in a unhealthy relationship with a man.
From the distance of a couple of settled decades, I find myself relating. Been there, done that – in different ways, of course. Jessie talks and writes about that time of her life as though it was funny and sad and scary, all at the same time; which is certainly how I remember my own creatively self-destructive period.
Sure, there's a chick lit/romance novel flavor to Rurally Screwed. But so what if Jessie extricates herself from borderline self-destruction through love? Let she who has never been a bit desperate to escape her own life cast the first stone. Which would not be me. I'd like it to me, but it isn't.
I found Rurally Screwed to be a memoir with unexpected, unpretentious – and very funny – heft; the story of a young woman who drives herself so hard for a couple of decades that she neglects to notice who she is. Then, after an interlude spent raising chickens, canning, sewing her own clothes, attempting Bible study and overthinking almost everything about rural life, the young woman gets real.
Jessie Knadler writes toward the end of Rurally Screwed:
I finally understood that identity comes once you stop searching for it, once you stop looking to conceptual thought for definitions of who you are or think you should be... It is possible to bend and sway in the breeze too much, endlessly tossed by questions of who you are and, what does it all mean; sometimes the most courageous thing a person can do is stand straight and strong. There is freedom in this...We lived an honest life, Jake and I, not because we slaughtered chickens, sold eggs, sipped moonshine and built fence, but because we were finally honest with each other; I was finally honest with myself.
For me – a woman who's screwed up a lot and come out the other side happier than I ever hoped to be – Jessie's story affirms my own belief that life really gets good only when we relax.
Oh, and one more thing. The author of Rurally Screwed leaves me with the best exit line I've ever gotten from an interviewee.
Heading out the door, Jessie Knadler turns, waves, and says, jokingly, "Gotta get home and slaughter some chickens."