I know I’ve once again come late to the party, but I just finished reading Hilllbilly Elegy over the weekend. I know in in the relatively short time from publication to the release of its movie version, it’s gone from media darling to being trashed for the author’s politics. It’s hardly the first time a “problematic” book has ended up on my shelves and it surely won’t be the last to find a home there.
Avoiding any political discussion of the author or anything else, I clearly heard echoes of truth in the text – echoes from a childhood back home and back when, down in the valleys of Maryland’s coal country.
Though I grew up in Squirrel Neck Hollow – or up squirrel neck if you’re local – I don’t have a particular strong affinity for hillbilly culture as Vance describes it. I might not have been raised in it, but the first half of my life was strongly flavored by it.
I mercifully missed out on the drug abuse and abject poverty – though both were in abundance no more than a stone’s throw away back in the 80s. The stories of batshit crazy relatives, of shouting matches, knockdown drag out fights over small piques of honor, of the extended family living way too close and being way too involved in everyone else’s lives stirred more than a few long slumbering memories.
It’s hard not to reflect on how my own life has spooled out as he mused about alternative opportunities of success for those who went away – who joined the military, followed career paths out of the mountains and hollows, went away to college, or through circumstances found themselves further afield.
I’m not sure I buy into all of J.D. Vance’s theories, but credit where it’s due, because he painted a picture of a world that I might not have entirely lived in, but that I walked through often enough to recognize authenticity when I see it.
Books have always had a sort of power over me. I spent my formative years in elementary school reading books about orphans who live in the woods in an old boxcar. Later, I found a nice shady spot on the cafeteria loading dock to read about MacArthur and Patton. That’s probably where my never-slaked thirst for history was really born. It was infinitely more interesting than kickball or whatever else younglings were expected to do during recess back in the mid-1980s.
In middle school, I devoured books about Nixon, Kennedy, and, yes, even Trump. That was back before he was a politician and even before he was a TV personality, of course. I was deep into historical biography and assorted non-fiction.
Finding a tatty copy of Atlas Shrugged on a shelf in my junior year English classroom changed my life, setting me on a course to ask questions about the proper role of the state – what government can do versus what it should do.
Down all the years from then to now, books have been just about as formative to who I am as a person as it’s possible to be. I take comfort in their presence, even if they’re a towering reminder of how little I know even about subjects I know well. It would be absolutely impossible to do without them.
Two weeks ago I passed a few days in the house where I did most of my growing up. For all my travels, I’ve always managed to find my way home at least at Christmas time.
I get up early. That doesn’t change just because I happened to have a few days off. One of the perks of waking up before the sun is that you get to see it rise over the Appalachians. In a lot of ways, those clear mornings were a throwback.
On a dead calm Boxing Day morning, the wood smoke hung thick in the George’s Creek valley. A hundred years ago it would have been coal, but for a distant observer it didn’t make enough difference to notice.
For a couple of minutes, it was like watching a living picture postcard from another age – a sight that realistically hasn’t changed much from the 19th and 20th centuries into the 21st. It was one of the first times I think I really appreciated just how slow time can move out there in the hills.
It’s the rare moments like this one that fill me with the idea that maybe someday I’ll go back to stay… but before long other realities of time and space crowd in and the moment is gone. There are real reasons I’ll never really go home again, not to stay… but those reasons will never, ever be because I’ve gotten tired of the view from down the crick.
Sometime next year you’re going to be able to walk in to local quick stop and pick up a copy of Playboy magazine and not have to worry about your eyeballs being offended by what most would consider some of the most tasteful and understated nudity in the business. The skin-is-in revolution that Hef started in the early 50s has finally overwhelmed his old fashioned publishing company.
That makes me a little sad. I can still very distinctly remember my first look between those storied pages – of tattered magazines wrapped in plastic, stashed in the woods, and passed between half the neighborhood. Within a few days of my 18th birthday, there may or may not have been a fundraiser among some of us to pay the rental for a post office box in the next town over so we could have the latest edition delivered with some semblance of discretion. If I remember correctly, Jenny McCarthy was Playmate of the Month way back when. All these years later I’ll probably still catch three kinds of hell for admitting that out loud.
That was right at the beginning of the internet – that diabolical, always available peep show that blasted a wide swath of destruction through the “dirty magazine” business. No matter what you’re feelings about the industry, venerable Playboy going the way of all the other men’s magazines is a milestone. It’s another reminder of why I seem to hate the 21st century just a little bit more every day.
I was raised in a world where “be a man,” wasn’t considered a derogatory or inappropriate thing to tell a boy. It was a world where problems were solved with fists just as often as words, but no one ever really seemed to take it personally. We were the last who saw our formative years in a world where being a man didn’t have to mean touching your feminine side. I can’t help but think I’m so uncomfortable about the future because it’s going to bear so little resemblance to the world in which I grew up and for which I still have such fond memories.
This weekend the Westmar High School Class of 1996 will celebrate its 15-year reunion. A decade and a half. Three lustra. Fifteen years. Nothing in terms of geologic time, of course, but long enough in the hear-and-now world. These five year anniversaries are as good a time for reflection as any and you know from reading that I’m not one to let a good anniversary pass without saying something sappy about it. So here it is …
I have a confession to make. I don’t feel all that different from the much younger version of myself. The thinking part of my brain keeps insisting that I should. That I should maybe feel like more of an adult somehow. I’ve added some paunch around the middle and lost more hair around the top, but I really feel pretty much like the same guy I was then. I mostly like the same food. I mostly like the same music (don’t judge me). A lot of the things that were important to me then are still the ones that are important to me now. Maybe I’m a little more moderate in my politics than I was when I was 18 and knew everything, but that doesn’t seem to make much difference because ultimately, I’m still me at the core.
I know there are plenty of Wildcats from that long-ago class who have their own high school age kids. There’s a thought that sticks with you. Surely they feel different, right? Metaphysically changed somehow by the passage of years and accretion of responsibility? I’ve been out there and seen whole big swaths of the world. I feel like I’ve seen it all… and I’ve mostly done it all. Sometimes to my own detriment, but always good for a “life experience” credit. I’ve done great things and I’ve had my self confidence shattered. Hell, sometimes it’s happened on the same day. But through it all, I don’t feel any different. Same guy, just with a few added layers of experience.
I get up in the morning, put on a sharp shirt and a tie and spend eight hours pretending that I’m a knowledgeable professional… but at heart I’m still the same guy who mostly wants to hang out with his friends and stay up too late shooting pool or sneak up to Frostburg to see a girl. Under the thin veneer of adulthood, I still like driving too fast and going to Denny’s at odd hours. If having a house, holding a steady job, and paying your bills is the defining characteristic of being “grown,” I’ve got it covered. If it’s some deeper change in your psyche, well, that’s a little more problematic.
It’s one of those deep thoughts I have lying in bed before sleep comes: Am I the only one who feels this way? Is everyone else really an adult inside their own head and I’m the only one who feels like he’s playing a part just well enough not to get caught? Maybe I am… in which case this entire post as served as nothing other than a 500-word admission of guilt. Surely I’m not the only one out there faking it, right? Even if we’re all not kids any more, I’m looking forward to seeing the old gang again.