Monday, October 29, 2007

coming full circle

It's always interesting to see how things come back around. I mentioned in my post on Crunchy Cons how I'd started out conservative, shifted liberal, then radical, then back to some kind of conservative. This particular progression just keeps getting "curiouser and curiouser." If I haven't already mentioned my bad habit about reading, I probably should have. Julie's been saying a lot lately that I read too much. In general, that's a fairly accurate statement, but if it's seemed more applicable in recent weeks, it's largely due to how I read. When I read something that really strikes me, like Dreher's book, I comb it for references to other sources. I read those sources, and if any of them strikes me similarly, I repeat the process, until I've exhausted the library, or myself, or this crazy impulse I have. I'm pessimistic about a lot of things, but in at least one area I'm the eternal optimist--I think that if I rush through this pile of books and get them all done, I'll be able to move on to more significant things than reading. Of course, it never works that way--I just end up with an even bigger pile before I finish what I started with.

So, since reading Crunchy Cons, I've kept myself pretty busy with follow-up projects. Many of them have been fairly short rabbit-trails--books that were only marginally interesting and turned out to be much less useful than I'd hoped. I could simply skim through them and be done with that particular excursion. One of the more interesting diversions, however, has given me this weird feeling of "I've been this way before."

In something of a throw-away remark, Dreher refers to an Internet publication called The New Pantagruel. I believe he's discussing Caleb Stegall, the site's editor, as an example of a Protestant Crunchy Con (though my memory's a bit fuzzy on this point--it may have been someone else associated with the site). I thought it would be good to check out an actual, on-going periodical with this kind of outlook, and if it was Internet-based, so much the better. I had no trouble finding the site, but as I might have expected, it was defunct. (I have an unnatural attraction to dead authors, artists, projects, etc.; by the time I get interested in something, it's already gone.) Fortunately, the archives were still up, so I had a chance to browse through the few years' worth of material. I found interesting tidbits here and there, most notably a reference to an even more short-lived (by design) blog about Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists, a book by some guy named Bill Kauffman. (Dreher has reviewed the book, for whatever it's worth.) With key words like "radical" and "anarchist," my first thought was, I gotta read that book!

They didn't have it in our county library system, so I had to wait a bit for it to arrive from elsewhere in Maryland. When it arrived, I devoured it in short order. Like Dreher (at the time he wrote Crunchy Cons), Kauffman is Catholic; unlike him, he was born into that tradition and takes religion in general somewhat less seriously. Not that he doesn't see it as culturally significant--he just isn't exactly what everyone would call devout. On the other hand, the book is decidedly more fringe/radical/anarchist. (Dreher accuses him of missing the "fine line between hale eccentric and outright kook," in his chapter on Carolyn Chute, acclaimed Maine author turned militia leader. Personally, I found this particular chapter to be one of the more endearing.) Kauffman also has a more biting (and crass) sense of humor. Actually, I'm not sure "crass" is an appropriate word to use here. He certainly has his vulgar side, but I get the feeling I've missed at least half of his jokes due to my unsophisticated grasp of culture, literature, and vocabulary.

Part-way into the book, I discovered something unsettling--actually two things:
  1. Kauffman is from Batavia, NY, where I grew up (if anywhere), and
  2. Julie had already read him, long before I did.
And she thinks I held out on her! Here, all along she's been reading radical, anarchist literature behind my back, and saying I'm too political. Here's how it went down. Back in 2003, Kauffman published a book called Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive. For those of you who don't know, a Muckdog is a mythical beast that was adopted a few years back as the new mascot for the minor-league baseball team in Batavia, NY (rated best hometown in New York State by ePodunk). It became an insanely popular nickname, inspiring several little league teams around the country, and selling merchandise to the four corners of the globe. (Muck, BTW, is a rich kind of soil in abundant supply just north of Batavia--actually in Elba, where Kauffman currently lives--great for starting onions and cabbage.) The book is about Batavia, which deserves to be listed on a site called ePodunk (we have a friend who lives a couple of towns over, in the only house on Podunk Rd.--no kidding)--a small town in Western New York State, about half-way between Buffalo and Rochester. After bouncing around the country, my family settled there when I was in sixth grade and stayed until after I got married. We ended up there mostly because it was cheaper than Rochester, where my dad was working at the time we moved.

Julie, on the other hand, was born and raised in Genesee County, not in Batavia proper, but the adjacent town of Oakfield. Both sets of grandparents lived within a couple of blocks of her house. She walked to the same school her dad had attended before her. Her brother ended up moving into her grandparents' house and pastoring the church we all went to. For several years now, their high school has had an e-mail list for the alumni (all of them, since there are so few), and I think that's how she found out about Kauffman's book when it came out. She read it and liked it; I decided I was too busy with who knows what other reading and didn't think much of it. (How could we both like the same thing?) Little did I know . . .

Once I realized the connection, I requested Dispatches as well (fortunately, they had it in our library, so I was able to get my hands on it more quickly) and devoured it over the past couple of days. I must say, though, that I enjoyed Look Homeward somewhat better, where he draws on uniquely positive examples; in Dispatches, he paints small-town life in all its stark, often depressing reality. Both books are quite good (though I must warn--Dispatches has a good deal more profanity), and both are hopeful in their own ways, but Dispatches has a lot more about how small towns have got themselves into their current mess. Still, you come away (or at least I came away) with a strong message that they're worth fighting for. And it was nice to learn a lot about the town I (sort of) grew up in.

We moved to Batavia after it was pretty far gone, and lived so far out on the rural margins that we never identified that much with it. We were actually in the school district for the next town over, we commuted to Buffalo for work, and we happened to be on the side of town where most of the big-box expansion outside the city limits was going in. We made a fair number of trips "downtown," but we mostly grumbled about the ill-timed traffic lights and run-down buildings. We got a taste of what Batavia was, but in a lot of ways we were original exurbanites, as likely to head for Buffalo as anywhere closer at hand. We may have been surrounded by corn fields, but it was still just our house with the (really) big yard, from which we commuted to pretty much everything we did.

Don't get me wrong--we were hicks enough. We had our vegetable garden and a big, smelly compost heap. We burned our paper trash in a 55-gal. drum out back. We wore jeans and flannel before it was cool to be grunge. We ate venison when we could get it and beef from a locally-raised and -slaughtered cow, including the tongue and heart sandwiches I took to school to gross out my friends. My dad had an ongoing feud with the woodchucks, which did not stop short of burying our dead dog in one of their holes. (Not entirely out of spite--we had him put down in winter, when the ground was frozen solid.) I never did much with guns myself, but I can't even remember when I started carrying a knife in my pocket pretty much everywhere. When I wasn't mowing, I stumped around the homestead pruning trees with my trusty hook saw and went on four-mile walks around the block with an ax handle to ward off the dogs that were never tied or fenced. It was a rich experience in its way, but we were never really part of small-town life.

Yet here I am, finding about the strongest political resonance I've encountered, with a native Batavian, who left home for DC but returned to stay for good. Go figure. My family is long gone from that area--parents are in SC, we're here in MD, grandparents deceased, aunt in PA, and brother in Springfield, New York but still a few hours away (I normally say he lives near Cooperstown, but here I'll say he lives near Jordanville)--but Julie's parents are still there, which has made us think seriously about moving back, if the circumstances ever seemed right. Right now, it's looking more like we'll stick around in this area, but who knows? In any case, I'd really like to pick somewhere and stay put. It would be great if we could do that close to grandparents, but right now this area looks more promising for jobs. (Kauffman has an advantage--professional writers can work from pretty much anywhere, so for him it doesn't matter if every job in town disappears into a sinkhole.)

But perhaps the best part was finding that Julie and I both liked the book. If we can find common ground with something this wacky, maybe there's hope . . . (She says now she wants to read Look Homeward, America.)

1 comment:

Amber Mc said...

I'm quite intrigued. I'm another small-towner and I'll read the book. And I to long to settle in a small place and stay...