There’s nothing on the ice but wind. Tiny tides of peppery lake-effect snow whirl around the surface of the lake, weaving in and out of blue-tarp shanties that seem to coast across the ice exactly because they don’t move. But the only thing on the ice that feels real is the wind. I’m blinded to the things I can touch by the blowing cold which stings at my cheeks, sneaks into my snowsuit, tells me who I am.
I’m six, ice fishing with my dad, my Uncle Dallice, and my Aunt Jan. They set up the shanty the day before – two by fours, a blue tarp, some wood screws. It belongs to whichever of the three of them is heading out to the lake for a weekend. We cleaned out the holes they’d augered the day before, set the tiniest fishing poles, and listened to the Coleman lantern hiss. The steady hum against the wind still sneaking around outside.
Dad shows me how to set the line, where the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are, and how to stretch out my legs without kicking my own or anybody else’s pole into the freezing water. The wind runs cold through Canada and cold across Lake Erie, and cold through the lowest hills and barest trees in northwest Pennsylvania. In the meantime, because of weather patterns that I don’t pretend to understand, Lake Edinboro lies right along a snowbelt. They could get a couple feet, four feet, six feet of snow in a single day. Little mountains blown into piles and blinding at the edges of the lake.
We pull pan fish out of that hole as fast as we can set the lines. Three shanties down from us, a couple of fishers build a bonfire on the ice with wood and gasoline and a couch they’d brought out in the bed of a pick up. I don’t think that’s appropriate, but Dad says it’s okay, and it smells good, so I don’t complain about it anymore. The adults focus on their lines, stopping once and a while to recall a similar fishing trip, a similar winter, a similar smell of fire. Sure, I enjoy the tiny fishes gathering in a bucket, but I do love to listen to those stories – that’s what it means to be a grown up, telling a good story.
The wind snaps the shanty tarp tight and whistles across the augered holes left outside by dozens of anglers. The bonfire on the ice smells thoroughly warming, piney, popping and fizzing on the bright white lake.
I hold my hands out to our Coleman lantern to warm them up. The steam rises in spiraling streams slowly from the cuffs of my coat. Dad tells me not to get too close to the metal on the lantern. I say, “I know.” What does he think I am, three-years old? Then I put the palm of my hand flat on the steaming metal of the lantern.
* * *
I don’t remember much about being that age. I can’t chronologize events or describe in detail my psychosocial development, though I envy people who can. On the other hand, my family has a catalogue of stories they tell back and forth to each other – a series of threads they follow in and out of our family history – and this is one of them. I remember what the shanty looked like, because we stored it or one just like it beside the garage out back for most of my childhood. Coleman lanterns are green with white print and, when they’re lit, two mesh nets light up like bioluminescent egg sacs. I can’t recall what color my snowsuit was or even whether the sandwiches were on white or wheat bread, but over the years I have entirely convinced myself that I knew what bioluminescence meant when I was six years old.
The metal of the lantern bubbled and blistered my skin. I recall this from having heard it, I think, more than from remembering the event as such. I hear a sizzling that nobody has ever mentioned in telling this story. And, though I know this is inaccurate, I imagine the smell of burnt hair. Perhaps those details are standard in a minor-burn story. Perhaps my unconscious is remembering beyond my conscious mind. I said, “Ouch.” My dad grabbed me by the wrist and dunked my hand in the water before I could even register the pain. He said, “You’re okay, buddy.”
This story, I am certain, could read as a parable – do what your folks say, or suffer the consequences – and that’s fine, and maybe I’ll tell my own children the story that way some times, but my family has never told it that way. I’ve heard this story from my mom, my dad, my Uncle Dallice, my Aunt Dixie, and my Aunt Jan, and I don’t know if I’ve ever heard it the same way twice, but I do recall that it always ends the same. Young Jackson sitting on a frozen lake with one hand in the water and the other holding a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Sometimes, they tell this story to talk about toughness. Sometimes, they tell it to talk about sandwiches.
My hand hurt like hell, I’d imagine. The burn was bad, but not dangerous. We went on fishing, though Dad offered to take me off the ice back to the hotel. I never loved fishing of any sort, but I always loved listening to those stories from Dad and Dallice and Jan, the sounds of the wind on the lake, the bright hiss of a Coleman Lantern, and the smell fire on ice.
II. Kaden and Pappap
The air sits heavy and still on the camp. The trees are heavy green and still. A couple of whispy clouds are still. My nephew Kaden is five. He runs across the yard in his bare feet. He can’t cross a stretch of it, because after building the chimney, Angelo and I ended up with gravel mixed in with the grass and sand, and it hurts his feet. Pappap stands on the other side of the stretch, maybe twenty feet away. Pappap says, “Come on over here.” Kaden tells him it hurts too bad to walk on the gravel. Pappap says, “It won’t hurt if you walk on your toes and go ‘ooch, ouch, ooch, ouch’ the whole way across.” Kaden crosses the gravel. “Ooch, ouch, ooch, ouch,” he says.
Later in the week, Pappap sees Kaden walking across the same stretch on his tiptoes, saying “ooch, ouch, ooch, ouch.” This time, Pappap notices, the kid’s wearing sneakers.
My dad is Kaden’s Pappap, and, though Pappap doesn’t think of it consciously, he’s teaching the kid to be tough. My dad would never say to his friends, neighbors, or families, “No boy of mine is going to grow up to be a pussy.” A young boy can play with dolls and cook dinner with mom and watch British cartoons any time he wants, but when it’s time to be tough, a little kid should be tough.
I had a friend whose father stopped talking to him for nearly a year when that friend joined the cheerleading team at college. When I joined, my dad wanted to know what we did at practice and whether or not I liked it. But, I’d imagine if I had called to tell him that my triceps were sore from holding people above my head all afternoon, he would have said, “Oh, for garsh sake, do you want me to drive you up some cookies, honey?” There are a million ways to be tough and cheerleading is as good as any of them.
He never talks about his own toughness directly. But we know – my tough friends and I know – the old man is tough. I’ve seen him dislocate fingers and the dried blood from getting “bumped in the head with a hammer.” He doesn’t brag about it, how thick his skin is, but he doesn’t complain either. The first time I pulled on a pair of boxing gloves, he showed me how to use them.
Anytime the rodeo’s on television (or the world’s strongman competition, or lumberjacks, or racecar drivers), my dad says, “I’ve always wondered who can claim to be a badass in front of somebody who just got kicked in the ribs by a three thousand pound bull. What are you going to do to a guy like that?” He’s as tough as he can be, no doubt, but he also recognizes tough in other people, and that we all have our talents.
Kaden scrapes his knees, and, in that instant between wound and pain while his brain analyzes its new data, Pappap says, “You’re okay, buddy.” Kaden bumps his chin on the counter, Uncle Jackson hits Kaden in the eye with an errant pitch of the whiffle ball, younger cousin bashes Kaden with a stick. “You’re okay, buddy.”
More than anything it’s a calming mechanism. The bottom line here is that you are okay. I heard those words as often as I heard, “Time for dinner,” when I was a kid, and I knew (mostly) what they meant even then. Don’t panic. Pappap doesn’t tell Kaden to quit being a pussy, the same way he never “toughened me up” when I was young. Young boys are allowed to be hurt, but if we’re going to cry, we need to know we’re going to be alright some time, probably soon. Usually sooner than we think.
My dad never told me to quit crying or that he’d give me something to cry about. He’s never said, “Well, wah, wah, poor little baby” to me or to Kaden. If my dad’s anything like me – and the longer I know him, the more I think he is – crying signifies danger. When it is used in vain – like a joyful scream or a joking call for help – its overall meaning is desensitized. Consider: “Wolf! Wolf!” or “Fire! Fire!” or “I was too sick to make it to your class this morning.” Crying tells anybody who is within earshot that I am incomplete, I lack health, I need attention. Used appropriately, crying is more useful than a degree in communications or a lifestudy of metaphysics. Pappap recognizes this. Kaden and I recognize this. And we do not cry in vain.
Pappap tells this story again and again, “Ooch, ouch, ooch ouch,” he says, and we see Kaden tiptoeing across the gravel. It’s another thread that sometimes starts with Kaden or to the chimney Ange and I built or to the yard at the camp. Trying to guess what might call the story into telling on any given day is as difficult as guessing what might come next. Often it’s this:
Kaden is six. He chases his shadow across the yard towards a steep bank on another thick green day. Pappap watches him pick up speed as he gets closer and closer to the edge of the yard. Like inertia, you can’t stop a child at play. Pappap stands up from his lawn chair in time to see Kaden launch himself face and belly first over the crest of the hill into the flower garden. Pappap gets to the edge of the yard as Kaden turns his head back up hill. Kaden says, “I okay, Pappap?”
III. John Wayne Speaks
Anybody can drive a truck, but what my dad wants is a John Wayne, Asskicking, Son of a Bitch truck. That’s what he’ll tell you. It could be a boat or a gun or a jacket. Life is big and tough and will knock you upside the head from time to time. He wants stuff in that will knock back. One time, he told me, “Anybody could fuck around and get a blender, but what I want is a John Wayne, Asskicking, Son of a Bitch blender.”
Dad doesn’t know John Wayne as the well-groomed metrosexual who smoked thin cigarettes and hated horses. He only knows Hollywood’s version of Marion Mitchell Morrison – the guy who could probably strangle that bull with one hand, who traditionally beat the everloving piss out of bad guys from the Wild West to Iwo Gima, who never had call to question his own authority or bothered with gray areas of mroality, who could drawl and holler a woman into love with him or snap a thousand soldiers to with a backwards glance – he only knows The Duke, but he knows that version means a lot.
I have been conditioned – by my lifestudy, in my profession, through my travel – to see how I have been conditioned by my progenitors. I’ve seen them being tough, and I’ve heard their stories about toughness. Each time I take up a thread in my own telling of the story, I emphasize this manner, this way of being, this tough.
I recognize times when I act tough, because it’s what I’ve been trained to do, and because I recognize it, my masculinity constantly raises a series of complicated questions for me – am I reinforcing the patriarchy by behaving this way? do I feel this way because it’s natural or because I’ve been taught to feel this way? ultimately, is my behavior more harmful than helpful (to me, to my wife, to my kids)? For my dad, though, he don’t want no battery-operated, limps-along lawnmower; he wants a John Wayne, Asskicking, Son of a bitch tractor. He wants to puff out his chest and point his finger in some asshole’s face, and issue forth some comeuppance. At times, in fact, I’ve felt this too, it’s actually worth someone’s being an asshole just so we can puff up and point our fingrs in his face.
The issue gets more complicated for my dad, though. He’ll tell you this: John Wayne, Asskicking, etc., but when he gets his hands on my electric mower, he thinks it’s neater than shit that this little engine can take care of this much grass without fuel, and, because of how they’re built (he tells me) this little thing will run for the rest of your life without ever going into the shop. And he might get him one just like it if he ever gets the mind to.
When Hum-Vs hit the market as consumer SUVs, my dad thought maybe he should have one. “Wouldn’t it be neat,” he said, “if a guy like me ended up with a truck like that and painted it tittie-pink?” I was probably sixteen-years old, and, to be completely honest, I didn’t know whether or not painting it pink would be neat at that moment. Dad said, “Well, hell, I’d still be the guy with the Hum-V.” And that made more sense to me.
My sister is tough, too. Make no mistake. She’s never had it easy: growing up, summers down at the camp – we both took baths under a handpump with well water; we used an outhouse; we got bit up by mosquitoes and ants and mice and had to split and carry wood. She played her sports viciously; learned to drive in a 1977 deep blue Ford F-250; went through several years of drinking hard, smoking plenty, and wrestling her way into and out of bad relationships (just like me). She’s tender and compassionate, a brilliant no-bullshit teacher, kind and generous, but I wouldn’t suggest picking a fight with her.
My mom would rather go into the next room and pass out from the pain in her back, than let on that she’s hurt and ruin somebody else’s good time. She tripped on a basketball I had left on the stairs one time. She asked me to come give her a hand – didn’t yell for me, didn’t let on what was wrong – and the small toe on her right foot was upside down. (What would you call that? Dislocated? Sprained?) “Honey,” she said, “I sure wish you wouldn’t leave your stuff on the stairs.” And I’ve felt guilty about it ever since, though her toe is much better now.
A few weeks ago, I tore out some shelves in the bathroom. There were a few razor blades that the previous owners must have dropped behind the shelves. I reached to grab one, and I was in a hurry, and it was a bad angle, and I was distracted, and I really thought I had cut the tip of my finger off. A little chunk of meat hung by an edge of skin, and I debated cutting the rest of it off or trying to fix it as it was (the next day, a friend asked why I didn’t get it stitched up; truth be told, I simply hadn’t thought of it). I put some antibiotic on it, and ducttaped it back together. I guess it has been almost a month, and there is hardly even a scar to show for it. Mom says, “You got that from me. I heal fast.” And that’s neat, but it doesn’t give us much to show for what we’ve been through.
I’ve been taught, trained, and conditioned to be tough, for sure, but these threads get tangled sometimes in the telling. If it’s the men who are supposed to be tough, what’s with all the tough women in my life? When one gets hurt, is it better to react in anger or compassion, return hurt for hurt or just be forgiving? Sometimes I tell these stories, and someone asks, “What’s your point?” And rather than come up with a point, I pick up a new thread, weave it across whatever I’ve just told, walk back into the labyrinth, trying not to trip over whatever the previous generation has laid down. It’s a trap, a maze, a labyrinth. Unlike Daedalus’s labyrinth, we’re born into this maze, miles deep with threads from a thousand different entrances crisscrossing each other, tangling again on themselves – for every one we tease out, we find another dozen have become more complicatedly entwined. Gender, geography, race, biology, class, doctrine – it is too easy to think we can talk about any one of those things without implying the rest, and, yet, we know, also, it’s too much to talk about all of those things.
My friend Ann wrote an essay called “Tough.” I first read it before it was published when it was called “Touch,” and I got why she called it that, but I didn’t get why she called it that. Where I’m from, steel-belt Western PA, and where she’s from, coal-town West Virginia, touch and tough don’t just look alike in print, they work together. There is something more to being tough than strutting or sneering, and I think it has to do with how we are gentle as much as how we fight.
Her claim in the essay is that her people, boys and girls, are raised to be tough, to sit there and take whatever comes their way – sorrow, poverty, dying young – and they do. They sit there, toughly. Everything that comes their way, they take it in, and they own up to it, and they die young, and they don’t complain, and when a kettle bottom falls from the top of a mine shaft and crushes their spines, they accept their new physical limitations and the accompanying pay cuts, but they’re tough about it for goodness sake. No pissing and moaning. Nobody can take that away from them. She goes on to talk about relationships and her sticking with bad men and being tough rather than looking for something else. And again I want it to be called “Touch.” I don’t want it to be called “Touch.”
Sometimes toughness is to grin and bear it. Sometimes toughness is to fight back. Sometimes toughness is to go without. Sometimes toughness is to go out and get. Sometimes toughness is sitting uncomfortably if it means someone else can be more comfortable. Sometimes toughness is a strong solid punch in the face. Sometimes toughness is not throwing the punch. Sometimes needless suffering is masochism; sometimes needless suffering is just practice for the rest of our lives. We’ve seen toughness in ourselves and in others a thousand times a day since the day we were born, and we don’t have any idea what it is.
V. Not So Tough Now
[old fish, young fish, what is water?]
I went to college. I went to the steel mill. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Life was hard. I was sad, and I wrote about that sadness and how hard it was to be sad. I worked hard, and I wrote about that work. I drank too much, smoked plenty, and clung desperately to women who refused to love me. I refused equally well those women who clung to me. My friends clung to the same women, and this was our cycle. We fought each other, without anger, with our fists and whatever we could think of to say that would really hurt. I’ve often thought that I chose my friends back Home based on their ability to hurt me, to get me ready for the future, whatever it might hold, and I’d imagine I did my share of toughening them up as well. I’ve been gone from these friends for a long time – gone to grad school, where sadness is often a different kind of sadness, the sadness of knowledge: of both knowing too much and never knowing enough. The same kind of emotional hurt comes at me when I’m in grad school as I was likely to find while working at the mill. But the physical pain isn’t there, the everyday soreness, stiffness, burns, nicks, scrapes, cuts, blisters, the smashed fingers, the torn forearm, the knot on the forehead – this hurt, which makes pain ubiquitous, simply doesn’t exist in the same way at university.
I’ve been walking up and down this metaphorical fence since I was a child, acting tough, punching bags, swallowing more than I could chew – I had to be tough, but I never knew it as being tough, only as the way things are. Dan reaches out and smacks me in the face because I’m reading instead of fishing. I catch Dan with the back of my hand, because I’m curious what braces feel like on my knuckles. We toss each other around. Kick each other when we’re down. We jab. We knuckle rub. We pinch and poke and twist and, when all else fails, we punch and punch and punch and punch until we’re certain the terms of our friendship are clear. But there is no why to doing this. This is only how we live in this place. It is only life, not something I am aware of. It’s not that I don’t know what I have, rather I don’t know there is anything to know about having it. In fact, I have not been called upon to be tough for any extended period of time since I started grad school. At the same time, I became aware of class, really aware of it, for the first time.
Class seems, somehow, unreal – a false way of describing my very true life. When folks talk about wealth and power and money, it is hard for me to get into the conversation, because those things seem so theoretical. When folks talk about freedom and equality and justice, I have a hard time finding anything to connect the conversation to what I have known, to the sounds a 700 ton press makes punching holes in stop sign channel, to hefting cinder blocks four high on scaffolding above my shoulders, to drinking beer for a dollar-ten a draft and shooting pool for a quarter a game.
Still, it is in the midst of these conversations that I start to see the threads. I start to see the labyrinth, though the beauty of this particular maze is that it exists only as metaphor, such that any conversation about it begins with the acknowledgement that it does not exist. We tease out another thread, we find our way to the entrance of the labyrinth. We pass through the entrance, thinking we’ve found our way out, but this entrance guides us directly back into the labyrinth and we find a dozen more threads that lead in a dozen new directions.
VI. Nature and Nurture
Venango County Pennsylvania, where I come from, has more third generation welfare recipients per capita than any other county in the United States. I never knew that growing up, and I don’t imagine that it would have impacted my life too greatly if I had known. What it means to me now is that this guy sitting three barstools down from me never worked a day in his life, because his parents never taught him to work, because their parents never learned to work.
I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe the guy would have been unemployable even if he had punched his way out of a porcelain womb in Beverly Hills. The theory is only theory – I tell my classes about social constructions, products of environments, how rhetoric and power structures shape our ideologies – I tell them that society is so powerful a force that it actually shapes our biology: we adapt physically to the world we create with language and desire.
My friend Preston, on the other hand, says, “It doesn’t matter where you’re born, or what kind of crib you lay in, you are who you are. Your DNA,” he tells me, “is too strong, to give a rip about Nurture.” He’s a cytotechnologist, which, he tells me, means he studies stem cells – he’s an advanced biologist. According to him, my theory is bunk. Society is bunk. Language is bunk. Nurture doesn’t mean shit when you set it right up against Nature.
I tell my students Preston’s ideas as well. And then we all set to trying to find our ways out of the labyrinth, trying to determine whether class or gender or race are based in society or biology.
Ultimately, I argue that we learn how to behave, that masculinity is a guise rather than just the way things are. And, if we take that the way things are to mean the way things are supposed to be, I believe that we should rather weight the cost vs benefits and decide whether or not things actually are the way they should be or if we’re blinded by tradition. But I’m also open to suggestions. I admit the statistic about third-generation welfare recipients might be misleading. It is possible, I would allow, that these people are simply born lazy (truly, there’s no way of knowing for sure). At this point, I can only say that my mother heard the statistic and she is quite honest and trusting. I could replace the statistic with a description of my hometowns – Oil City and Franklin, Pennsylvania – slipping into the Allegheny river, masonry crumbling, sinkholes belching, cars rusting and lurching through the mud. A third world version of the American Dream. Where Freedom means free to toughen up, to sit there and take it, to work seventy hours a week and be proud of your pain.
VII. How, After All, Do You Circumcise a West Virginian?
In my new life, I hear the jokes about my old life, about the toothless, the sleeveless, the drunk hairy, the fat, the skinny, the backwoods, chicken fucking, the poor, poor, poor, ignorant stumbling mass of white trash stinking up Appalachia. In my new life, I see people pity the workers and keep a distance, talk of Marxism and buy two hundred dollar shoes, lean in and ask, “How do you circumcise a West Virginian?” though they are not moyles, and the closest they have ever been to Appalachia is flying into Leguardia..
Perhaps the only thing that keeps Pennsylvanians from being the butt of so many jokes is that our accent is just not quite as thick rusted shut as West Virginia’s. Western civilization knows about the downtrodden in South Central L.A., because we’ve seen Omar Epps and Cuba Gooding Jr. and the evening news coverage of Watts riots, and most of us recognize the bad taste of making a joke at the expense of inner-city blacks. Such jokes are clearly racist, oppressive, limiting, hurtful. But, there is another kind of third world in these here United States – it is in the tall hills of Appalachia. Look in the hollers and down the crick there, you’ll see poor. But listen to them speak. By God that’s funny. It’s like a cartoon of itself. Guldernit.
In Salt Lake City, NPR runs “Selected Shorts” at nine p.m. Friday night. I moved there five months before my grad program began. I worked hard all week in machine shops and steel mills, drank myself to sleep on Friday nights, ran twelve miles Saturday mornings. I didn’t know anybody, and those salt flats stretched on and on and on. Life was hard. The theme for “Selected Shorts” (an NPR program where famous actors read short stories by famous writers) one Friday evening was folktales. The show began with an anonymous 14th century French folktale called “The Stupids.” A family of royalty whose surname translated to Stupid and who might have been the progenitors of Amelia Bedelia and Gomer Pile. I don’t remember who read the story, but I remember every time the reader came to a bit of dialogue from a member of the Stupid family, that she spoke West Virginian with a touch of Kentucky. She read every bit of description, action, and the dialogue of the “normal” characters as though she were practicing for the cotillion, but when one of these medieval French nobles mistook a pine tree for his fiancé, his drawl grew into thick slow mountains.
And here’s the rub: I probably still wouldn’t be able to articulate my feelings about home if I hadn’t spent so much time away. I probably wouldn’t talk about home without my doctoral studies. ButThe accent upset me immediately. And I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why. Why does it matter to me? Why do I care whether she uses an Appalachian accent or a Bronx accent? Why would such a thing have any implications regarding my life?
The answers are complicated. The answers are simple. It doesn’t matter at all. It’s the only thing that matters at all. The answer is bound up in other questions I have been asking myself for years: are you a racist? a bigot? do you hate people who live on the street? Are you frightened of foreigners? And I’ve always wanted to answer, “No, me, no, never” to all of those questions, but the truth is – the truth is more complicated than that. Here’s the next equally important question – how do you know? Because I have a lot of black friends or always give to the poor or support feminists everywhere. Why? Because, I have been taught that all people are equal. Because I naturally believe that all people are equal. Because I want to heal the world, make it a better place for my kids, allow individuals around the world to live in harmony, put an end to war, distribute wealth and power equally to the masses. Oh, those things are a little bit true, but there is also a great deal of guilt that goes along with never having gone hungry, with never having to skip a meal, with getting a different pair of name-brand shoes for every sport I played..
I imagine most people out there who actively consider themselves nonracist, nonbigots, would say the same or similar things. I’ll bet you cash money the woman reading on selected shorts is not a racist or a bigot either. I’ll bet you it never even crossed her mind to insinuate that the Stupids are black, Irish, Jewish, Female, Queer, mentally challenged, because those people are real people and they have feelings, too. White trash, now, that’s a different story. They’re just little cartoon people with funny voices, so who gives a shit if they get the rickets.
It is not all right to tell a joke that begins, “I’m not a racist, but did you hear the one about the two blacks who … ?” Blonde jokes are inappropriate. No thoughtful, sensitive person would start a joke about vegetable and end it with an invalid human being. On the other hand, I’ll bet you’ll get a laugh from just about anybody if you say, “Kick his sister in the chin,” in response to, “How do you circumcise a West Virginian?” Appalachian jokes are still acceptable in the cities, on the radio, in academia, in other parts of Appalachia. The closest my wife had ever come to Appalachia, geographically, before she met me was New York City, and even she knew some West Virginia jokes. Her family, none of whom has ever been anywhere near Appalachia, who lives and breeds in Utah, who are kind, thoughtful deeply religious people, never meaning harm, have no problem whatsoever making fun of West Virginians.
They’re inbred, hypersexualized – did you know there is a law in West Virginia that says you’re allowed to fuck anything bigger than a chicken? – they’re lazy, unkempt, ignorant, thoughtless. Fucking animals. Shouldn’t it be enough that in order for the joke to work, a woman has to get kicked in the face? Well, it isn’t enough yet.
* * *
The Blue Collar Comedy Tour could just as easily be called The Southern and Stupid and Proud of It Comedy Tour. I used to say, I don’t blame Jeff Foxworthy for amassing millions of dollars by pointing and laughing at his neighbors. I used to say, I don’t care that Larry the Cable Guy can say “Water-headed retard” without batting an eye. What bothers me is that we give these people an audience. It bothers me that these are educated human beings, perpetuating negative stereotypes about human beings.
“Well,” folks tell me, “Chris Rock makes fun of black people, and people think he’s funny.” Well, folks who argue thus – I’m going to tell you this, and mull it over, chew on it for a while, don’t just agree because you feel like you should or disagree because you’ve been taught something different – shame on Chris Rock, too.
My students have raved about Mind of Mencia, how this Latin American man deals with race issues and breaks down boundaries by being politically incorrect. He’s hilarious they tell me and interesting, because he says things other people are afraid to say. I watched him for the first and only time on the recommendation of my students and had to fight back tears. And not the laughing kind. Carlos Mencia stood up there and said he didn’t care about political correctness, because he was just being honest. His humor, he claimed, only pointed out the truths that other people didn’t feel comfortable talking about. He made fun of blacks for being incompetent, Mexicans for being lazy, women for being emotional and overly concerned about their weight. He made fun of white people for their conservative politics. He insulted the poor, preyed on the dispossessed, while constantly reaffirming the notion that he was rebelling against an authority that would have him keep quiet for the sake of conventional notions of decency. Mencia created a false consciousness that denied any objection against him as prudish and backwards; he put his own thoughts (which did absolutely nothing but reinforce overwrought stereotypes) forth as revolutionary; he claimed to be undermining power structures, when, in fact, he was only reinforcing them. He took on the language of revolution and used it to strengthen traditional and oppressive patriarchal, racist systems. He used easy and well-known jokes about gender, race, and class to encourage overt bigotry, racism, and classism – ooh, Mencia, some rebel.
Seven years ago, I might have found some humor in Mencia, or, at least, thought him harmless. But, now, I’m trying to figure out how these sorts of comedians help to keep the status quo status quo-ing. I see that these jokes, these stories, make the butts of the jokes somehow unhuman. I recognize that when I have said, “You might be a redneck if …” I have been complicit in perpetuating dehumanizing notions of ignorance, laziness, overt racism in my own people, when, in fact, the people I know are people, not the silly caricatures these jokes have made them out to be. Even my neighbor with his van up on blocks is human. Even my neighbor with the porchful of firewood is human. Even my neighbors next door and distant who are the butts of every one of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You Might Be a Redneck …” jokes are human.
I look at the way we’re taught to sit and take it. I listen to how outsiders talk about Appalachians. I’m coming to terms with the ways in which we socially construct each other and ourselves to maintain and uphold the (usually devastating) traditions of our culture. I grew up tough. My friends and family members grew up tough, and we needed it, and we need it to deal with the steel, stone, and oil of our working lives, to deal with drafty winters and summer vacations to Conneaut Lake Amusement Park. If we weren’t tough, we wouldn’t be able to sit here and take it when the outside world calls us ignorant. We can take that. And if we move into the outside world from time to time and eat a bite of their sushi, they can take that. As long as we go back to whatever hillside we crawled out of, go on sleeping with our relatives, and forge that fucking steel.
These jokes, characters, sitcoms, and other media like them are more threads that keep us bound up where we are, more entrances into the labyrinth, more ties that bind us to this way of life. They keep us bound where we are, keep us frightened of the outside world – you hear that you and your folks are subhuman often enough, and you start to believe it. Many of my people even take pride in these awful things that The Blue Collar Comedy Tour says of them, not recognizing the ways in which they have been limiting, hurtful, degrading. And, in this way, such folks walk deeper into the labyrinth, refusing to see what they can see, because they’re blinded by the invisible maze, just as we’re blinding by the wind on the frozen lake.
Me, I made it out. The simply explanation for this is that I got lucky, I suppose: through a strange series of events and, perhaps, a slightly different set of desires than most of my peers, I took grad school over the steel mill. I can see, now, the labyrinth. Even if I can’t find my way out, I can, at least see it. And, most days, I think that’s nice, that knowledge, but the rest of the time, I know, the knowledge has cost me my home, my place in the world, a concrete connection to my much of my family and most of my old friends. And that’s just fucking tough.
VII. Just Figures
I left it all behind for a while – the mill, the masonry, the refinery. I’ve taken to wearing dress shoes, even khakis sometimes. I understand the underlying principles of chopsticks. I almost won a couple of awards. I did win some others. I’ve had dinners and drinks with some of the best writers in the country. Except for a week in August and a week in December, I leave Western Pennsylvania completely behind, but it won’t leave me alone.
My wife and I and our three kids (and one on the way) and our cat and our dog and our presents drove from Athens, Ohio to Reno, Pennsylvania three days before Christmas 2006. Every once in a while, I opened up my cell phone to read the message I had received the day before. “Mugged in pittsburgh saturday night, surgery friday. Severe pain. Happy holidays. Visit me when you are home, don’ think i’ll be able to drive for some time.” I like being able to keep in touch with my friends, but text messages frustrate me. People don’t underline book titles or capitalize presidents’ names. I am a dumb reader and I need these cues – without them, I might end up thinking the message bout Moby Dick is about a musician’s penis.
Dan, who had sent the message, happens to have a fairly serious heart problem, along with a number of fairly serious health issues dating as far back as high school. He’s also the type of guy who is liable to pick at a stranger just to see what it feels like to get beat up by this particular person. The phrase “Severe pain” might have had something to do with his relationship or dealing with his second Christmas without his grandmother or it might have been an existential statement, a promise, or a reminder of the fact that I once cracked a vertebra in his back yard.
Dan called my folks’ house on Christmas Eve. This year, a call was the best he could do. I talked to him for a few minutes and promised to visit him the next day. My parents asked how he was doing. I told them he got beat up pretty bad and he sounded tired. They said, “It’s a shame.” Then we played more cards.
A little anecdote about Gordo. I hit him over the head with a spade shovel one time on accident, hard enough that, I believe, I would have knocked most people out. Square on the head. He winced long enough for the shovel to stop reverberating, and shook his head as though he realized for the first time in his life what kind of an idiot his best friend actually was. Then he kept digging.
Christmas Day, when I got to his parents’ house, he hugged me at the door, the right side of his face swollen, bruised. His right eye sunken, almost invisible. I noted that it didn’t look that bad. He said the surgeon did a hell of a job. He showed me where the doctor had put the titanium plates above and below the eye and one on the side. The doctor had reconstructed his sinuses, but he thought what hurt the most at that moment were the screws holding that part of his face together. I spoke to his parents – themselves a second set of parents for me for the past fifteen years – while my wife talked to Gordo about school and our upcoming baby. I tried to get some kitchen magnets to stick to his face, though I guess titanium doesn’t work like that. He had an appointment with an eye specialist the next week, because when he reads, the words at the right side of the page fall over onto the floor, because, after the bone collapsed and the muscle collapsed and his sinuses collapsed, the muscle popped back up, but the bone stayed indented, and there is a great deal of swelling, which is frustrating, because the best present he got this year was a first edition copy of George Orwell’s war correspondence and some essays and he’s been wanting to get his hands on that book for years.
On my way out, I hugged him and his folks and his fiancé. I told his dad that I wished we still had the boxing gloves, I think I could take Dan this year. His dad said, “Bullshit.” His mom told me congratulations about the baby and to stay out of trouble and to keep in touch.
My wife scolded me after we left. Dan had been sweating and breathing hard for the last half hour we were at his house. Sitting at that table for two hours was the most activity he had engaged in for the past two weeks. She said, “We overstayed. Couldn’t you see how much pain he was in?” The simple answer is: “No.” But the truth is: of course I could see it. I stuck around, because I wanted to watch my friend tough it out. He could hardly speak by the time we left, and he needed the counter to help him stand. I stayed there with him, though to leave would have been merciful, because Dan can take it, and I know it, and he’d have done the same for me.
I told my cousins and my aunts and uncles about Dan getting mugged. He’s like a cousin to them or a nephew or a friend. They said, “Jees o Pete.” They said, “Well, I’ll be darned.” They said, “That’s a shame.” And it wasn’t enough. I had the scenario set up in my head, and I already knew they would say those things, and I knew it wasn’t going to be enough, and it wasn’t enough. For Christsake, I’ve been telling myself each night since then as I lie awake, it’s not enough.
Alright, I’ll say it: if there is one quality that I admire above all others about my people back home, it’s how goddamn tough they are. Now I mean it. Every single one of them, I don’t care what they’ve done, from whom they’ve stolen, how many times they’ve been brought up on possession charges. If there is one thing, though, that keeps me away from home, that reminds me I can never go back, that I absolutely cannot stand about my people, it’s how tough they are.
My mom tells me, “The saddest thing to me is that I’m glad it happened to Dan. Getting hit like that might have killed somebody else.” My dad says, “Might have? You don’t hit a boy like that with your fist and smash in his face. Whoever hit him, whatever they hit him with, they were trying to kill something.” My parents love Dan. He spent seven years full time in the steel mill, now he’s a year away from a degree in secondary education. They are damn near as upset that he got hurt as they would be if it had been me. But they’re right, and I’m glad it was him, too, by which I mean, I’m proud of Dan, too. By which I mean life is hard, and it just fucking figures.
I never thought about class when I lived in Pennsylvania. If I did think about it, I might have thought, the rich are rich and the rest of us do what we have to do. Since then, I have lived for a spell in Red Lodge, Montana; Salt Lake City, Utah; Athens, Ohio, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Athens, Ohio again.. And even now, I’m only beginning to understand what class means. I have friends and inlaws who live in quarter million dollar houses who don’t think they are anywhere near being rich. People who scrape by on six figures and who are embarrassed when they buy five-year old cars.
I’ve been a part of these work forces and these academias. I’ve drunk with them and made friends with them and other emigrants to the towns. I’ve made love to some of them and even held a couple through crying jags. But I have never been in a place other than Appalachia where a group of people meet news of such a mugging with as much compassion or complacency. These people, my people, when we say, “It’s a shame,” we mean, “It’s a shame.” We don’t mean, “Let’s do something about this,” or “I couldn’t care less.” We mean we wish it hadn’t happened and the world is rough and life is hard and bad things happen. But we also have this uncanny ability to say to ourselves, “It just fucking figures.” I can do this. I’ve learned it, I’ve taught it. I can say, “Damnit, Dan. That’s hard to believe. The mugger didn’t take anything except your cell phone – have you read anything good lately.” In these other places, in other circles, I would say, “Did you call the cops? Did anybody else witness the event? Can you sue the city? I am not going to sleep until we clean up those streets.” But in Western Pennsylvania, I know, I am certain, the best I can say is that life just fucking figures this way, and to tell Dan, “That guy did one hell of a job with the stitches.”
VIII. Sydney and Duff
Life is hard. We know this. And, yet, I don’t want any of my writing to read, “It’s not easy growing up (the way I grew up).” Because it was easy for me. My childhood was as good as any I’ve ever heard of. And I’ve reached a point where I feel as though I have overcome (or at least am aware of) most of the neuroses which are liable to have cropped up from such an upbringing. I’ve made it out into the world, and, for that reason, maybe my claims fall apart: that my hometown is a socioeconomic labyrinth to its inhabitants doesn’t ring quite as true coming from someone who writes from the outside.
Now, my kids, they’re a different story altogether. They spend their summers in Pennsylvania. They spend their summers in Mexico. The camp still has an outhouse, and the water comes from the well, but now there is an indoor toilet and a hot water tank. They fish from the boat for eight-hour stretches in the hot Mexico summer and sit in the back of the Ford Focus for the three-day drive to or from the ocean. They’re tough in their own way.
Above all else, it’s a defense mechanism, I know that much. Thinking I’m tough. It’s just a way to cover up the fact that I know I’m not. I read somewhere a while back, “There are two types of men in this world, those who think they’re strong, and those who know they’re not.” It’s a gendered statement, I know that much, too. And it’s wrong, because I think that I’m tough. And I know that I’m not.
Toughness is not something that I like to talk about, because just talking about it makes most of us want to fight, want to throw the fuck down, or at least compare stories about the toughest guy I know. That’s not what any of this is about. I wouldn’t for a minute insist that I could walk into a bar downtown or out in the country and kick a bunch of ass. Fighting isn’t our specialty. If anything is our specialty, it’s getting beat up, and, again, taking it.
* * *
There is one story my friends from back home and I tell about the first summer we worked in the mill together.
Stacey Confer was sitting in the break room, eating leftovers. He said, “My wife yelled at me the other day for smacking the kid around. She said it hurts him and it just ain’t right. I said, ‘Honey, I’m just tapping him around, trying to toughen him up a little bit, you know, pepper him. If I don’t, the kid’s going to grow up to be a pussy.”
It’s been twelve years now, and we still quote Stacey from time to time. We all know it’s not easy growing up with a girl’s name in a place where being a man is very specific and not up for debate, and make no mistake about it. That old boy got peppered plenty himself when he was young. And he’ll tell you himself, he turned out just fine. I’m not always certain why we tell that story. None of my friends ever got worse than a belt or a good spanking. On the other hand, we have all been bit in the ass by our own Aussie Shepherds. We have been mugged or had our legs run over by a jeep while we were passed out or got our arm pinned beneath 400 pounds of stop sign channel.
We have all, in short, been peppered, whether we’ve known it as such or not. And, I’d imagine, though we desperately don’t want such things for our kids, we all desperately need such things for our kids. I’ve gotten out, and I teach a course about the dangers (to both men and women) of the masculine construction we believe in our culture. I’ve got out, and I don’t work at the mill anymore, hear the stories, push the steel. I wear dress slacks and shower in the morning. My tough friends are in various stages of still being trapped by our towns. They are going to need their kids to be tough, they are not going to want their kids to grow up to be pussies, but, if they’re anything like me, and, let me tell you, they can’t help being something like me, they are going to hope like hell that their kids grow up not to be like them.
My kids scrape their knees, bite their lips, get splinters, and I don’t know how to feel about all that. I want to nurture them, to let them cry it out, to give them time and sing them songs. And I want them to suck it up. I want them to get tough, to pour the peroxide on the cut, spit out the blood, cut the splinter out with a pocket knife.
I don’t know which is the right avenue for them.[TIME FRAME] Yesterday, their mother finished the last step in the long process of earning a PhD. I’m two years into a similar program. My children have academics for parents. We have more money than my parents had growing up, but I know now we are nowhere near middle class, but neither are we anywhere near the working class families I grew up around. My children are growing up in the university. For them nothing is impossible. They are bound up in a different class that doesn’t have so much to do with money as with education. They speak about college as the natural step that follows the natural stage of high school. By the time they are in high school, they are already talking about grad school. They will never be wealthy, nor will they probably wear steel-toed boots to work regularly.
Yet, I can’t help wondering if maybe my notions of toughness and class are dangerous to them in ways that none of us can recognize at this point. I realize that by insisting they are tough, class aside, I am reinforcing dangerous notions of masculinity. I also worry that by privileging toughness, I might be encouraging them to privilege toughness as well, to seek out pain in the same ways I have, to value it in others above things such as business savvy and witty banter. I see my kids limping about on stoved toes, rubbing scrapes and bruises, crying because their wrestling match with a friend got out of hand, and when I think to tell them to suck it up and be tough, the walls crop up, the bars fall into place; I see myself building this impenetrable power structure around them. I see my own class overwhelming their own. More than anything, though, I see Western Pennsylvania pulling me back towards it no matter how far I travel or how long I’m gone.
Jackson Connor lives and writes primarily in Athens, Ohio with his spouse Traci Connor the writer and their four badass children. His work has won awards and appeared in a number of journals. He has a blog about learning how to write again after his press shut down and he lost his first novel last year.