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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Still Here

Yes, we survived the move. The day of the move itself--our anniversary, August 13th, as it happens--was pretty terrible: a U-Haul truck without air conditioning, and then a rainstorm to give us a respite from the heat just when we arrived in Macomb and needed to unload the truck. It was a long, sweaty, dirty, damp, miserable day. But did we really expect anything different? It's a rather humbling and sad thing to see all one's worldly possessions--all the clothes, furniture, books and boxes--shoved, like a jigsaw puzzle, into the back of a moving truck. You keep thinking it won't possibly fit, that you've got too much, that life has grown too complicated....but since you've got no alternative you just keep at it, twisting things this way and that, throwing stuff out at the last minute, and then suddenly it's done: your whole material existence has been reduced to a 24' by 11' by 9' space. And then, of course, you get to drive it somewhere, open up the truck, and let it all tumble out again, in a (hopefully unbroken) mess. Even under the best possible driving and weather conditions, I don't see how moving yourself could ever be a joy--and the larger your family, the less joyful it becomes. I don't have any deeper desire at the moment than for the job here at WIU to work out, and that is solely because the idea of moving again next summer gives me a headache.

I love WIU so far--the faculty and staff have been friendly, outgoing, and involving. I even liked orientation, if you can believe that; I just sat back, inundated with handouts and schedules, impressed that a regional university like this could have so much energy (and, not unrelatedly, sufficient money and organizational know-how to put that energy to productive use). I really can't say anything about my classes so far, except that I need to re-acquaint myself with teaching large sections, of which I have several. We also like Macomb, so far; as we'd hoped, we've obviously learned a few tricks over the years, and so acclimating ourselves and the kids to life in a small city, even smaller than Jonesboro, hasn't been hard so far. There's a lot of fun little things to discover around town, and we've been busy discovering them. (While there aren't any bike paths, there is also sufficiently light traffic that quite a few people ride their bikes everywhere, and I'm anxious to get mine back on the road after having been in storage for most of the last three years.) The girls are enjoying school so far, and our local church has been very welcoming. All in all, if we can blot out the memory of the move itself and ignore the unfinished and bothersome remnants of such all around us (the boxes that we really ought to unpack, but just don't have the desire to; the long list of things we probably should complain to the landlord about, but instead will probably just live with), we should be fine.

As always, there's a lot on my mind, and a lot I could write about. But don't expect anything here until after Labor Day--still too much work to do at home and the office, plus the upcoming APSA conference I need to prepare for. (I've organized a panel on conservatism which will feature Henry Farrell, John Holbo, and Scott McLemee, so I'm sure I'll want to say something about that on the blog afterwards.) A shout out to William Polley, an economist and fellow blogger who also began a new position at WIU this year, and has been kind enough to share his knowledge of the Midwest with me on a couple of occasions as we've made out transitions. I've been here less than two weeks, of course, so what do I know? Still, I think WIU and Macomb is going to bring some good opportunities our way.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Leaving the South

As usual, real life makes hash of the best-laid blogging plans of both mice and men. I really ought to write up something about how well my political theory and film class worked out; there was a great discussion of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas and populism in general a couple of weeks back at TPM Cafe that, given my interests, I ought to comment on; and then of course there's all the news of the day. But I'm going to have to pass. I managed to write a review of Half-Blood Prince which got more traffic than practically everything else I've ever written combined; that ought to suffice for now. In the meantime, I'm surrounded by boxes, and soon we will be heading north to my new job in Macomb, IL. On Saturday we'll be moving from Jonesboro, and Arkansas, and the South--who knows? Perhaps for good.

We've lived in the old Confederacy for the past 10 years. Some would, with fair amount of justice, suggest that the first 6 of those 10 years, from 1995-2001, didn't count: living in Northern Virginia, while attending graduate school in D.C., does not residency in the true South make. A few would go even further, and suggest that the last 3 of those 10 years don't count either, as Arkansas, while a Southern state, is really more Midsouth than Deep South, and it's true that you're a lot more likely to meet people around here who consider themselves cowboys rather than rednecks. So by a very strict definition, my family and I were only Southerners for one year--2001-2002, when I taught at Mississippi State University. But I stand by my first, more expansive claim. For most of our married lives, and the whole of daughters' lives, the South has been our home. It's a home I'm going to miss when we're gone.

I'm not pretending that our years in this part of the country have completely remade me; there are many ways in which I would fail any authentic Southerner test. (I'd probably fail to qualify as even an authentic Southern tourist: despite multiple moves, and putting a lot of miles on the car in the meantime, over the past decade, our American South checklist still has a lot of holes in it. We've managed to visit Charlottesville, but not Richmond; New Orleans, but not Baton Rouge; Memphis, but not Nashville; Little Rock, but not Fayetteville; Birmingham, but not Mobile. In fact, we've yet to even set foot in either of the Carolinas or Florida. So even by that standard we're pretty pathetic, though we have promised Melissa's parents, who are making the trip from Michigan to help us move, that we'll make a quick trip down to Vicksburg, just for them.)

Still, I don't think my talk of "leaving" and "missing" the South is therefore so much communitarian hot air. The fact is, we really kind of fit into this place. Yeah, I could go and on (and have, many times before) about how much I wish someone could discover here in the South the socially conservative, economically progressive, populist alternative that I think our country needs, and how frustrating it is to realize that few if any other Southerners, white or black, share that perspective. So, sure, politically it has been frustrating. But socially or culturally? It depends on what your frame of reference is. In the D.C. area, of course, there was an embarrassment of entertainment riches (the National Zoo has spoiled us forever, I'm sure). But since then? Yes, we've missed the art and music that so often bypasses even large cities in the South, but living in a relatively small town--as we have done for the last 4 years, and which we will continue to do--means you just have to make do without it, and that'd be the case no matter what part of the country you lived in. And the meantime, here in the Bible Belt, there are benefits. There was Megan's kindergarten teacher, a true Coke-for-breakfast Mississippian who taught her the right way to say "ma'am." There were Wednesday evenings, which I learned soon enough not to assign a lot of homework for since half the class would be attending Bible study. There were the church or city-sponsored (admittedly, sometimes it was hard to tell the difference) barbecue and catfish and crawdad cook-offs; there were the parades where every other float was sponsored by some church youth group or another. I liked living in a dry county, despite its affect on the restaurant business; I liked living in a community where I didn't have to worry about porn videos catching my daughter's eye at the video store. Yes, there were crazy people writing in to the local paper about the IRS selling the U.S. out to China, but you get those everywhere; a gentleman patiently correcting a newspaper report on how frog legs have fallen out of favor with the locals, and making some recommendations for where to get the best samples of this regional delicacy to boot on the other hand....well, somehow I fear I won't get much of that north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The courtesy and conviviality, the willingness to watch out for one another, the sense of shared interests and intentions (not too mention the food)--no, it's not everything the movies and books and stereotypes make it out to be, but our years in the South have taught us that it's more real than the cynics might think. (It would take us unawares, sometimes: suddenly a friend would tell a story, or whip up a dessert, or crack a joke, and we'd suddenly realize we were in the presence of a culture still peculiar enough to be considered something very much its own.) The downsides, of course, are real too: some folks we knew who moved to Jonesboro from out west were amazed at the willingness of strangers--folks at the store, neighbors next door, police officers walking through the park--to comment (not always approvingly) on how they were raising or disciplining their children (or weren't!). And not all the stereotypes are so comparatively light-hearted: until we moved to the South, we never imagined we'd meet someone who could say, without the slightest embarrassment, that she doesn't shop at the local Wal-Mart because so many black people shop there also. Heaven knows we won't miss that. Oh, and we won't miss the smoking either, which from what we can tell is taught to most students around here in about the 4th grade.

It's a mixed bag, like every place. On the one hand, I never cared for the summers that lasted well into fall, and I missed having seasons. On the other hand, I'm really going to miss the pecan and magnolia trees. Politically, there's a lot I'd like to see changed. But I also know that a lot of those changes would bring consequences and losses with them, and since--culturally and socially at least--I'd kind of like to see the South hold onto as much of its distinctiveness as it can, I'm not sure the costs of those changes might not sometimes outweigh their presumed benefits. No, I don't care one bit for the Republican bait which most white Southern voters have swallowed, but I tend to believe that most of what needs to be done in the South--politically, economically and otherwise--can be done on their own peculiar terms, without some unnecessarily intrusive, modern-day progressive reconstruction. Living in the South has, contrary to what the usual liberal story has to say, enlightened us. I dearly hope we don't lose any of that as we take our children "back" to Melissa's and my native Yankee soil.

(I suppose once I'm set up at Western Illinois University, I'll get back around to blogging again. In the meantime, for a more personal and religious take on what we're leaving behind, click here.)