Monday, September 22, 2008

the chip on my inbred shoulder

I recently received an invitation to an annual camping party, which read in part
Dear Cousin,

Myself and the current missus (Cassiopeia-Karaoke Bodeen, your 3rd cousin, twice removed on Aunt Jackie's side) are once again having a family gathering at Fortuna Farms, and were wondering if'n you might want to be attending again. . . .

To be frank, it's been a powerful hard year for us, what with the bank trying to foreclose on the farm (fortunately they don't shoot as good as we do), the drought which has made bath-time kind squirmy, and campaigning for John McTaint and his VPILF. You probly also heard your cousin Sissy ran off to Vegas with the blonde copier repair man. We ain't heard nothing from her 'cept one post card with a half-nekkid lady on it, saying "wish you were hear." . . . As usual, we can't promise you nothing but a patch a ground to sleep on, but that never seemed to bother you in the past. We still gots the big army surplus cook pots for baths, and soaking. Your Uncle Walter and Aunt Jane have even more beautiful plants growing in the cement pond. These days, I think we's as civilized as them city-folk Bodeens that is always turning up there noses at our outdoor kitchen and chain-link bar-b-que pit.

Last year as you recall, we had a very unfortunate batch of moonshine. Uncle Earl Bodeen Jr. (Timmy-Ray's husband, you know, the one with the monkey tail) swears on the grave of his daddy (Angus-MacPhereson, your great-great-great Uncle on both sides) that quality control has been restored at the distillery so that won't be happening again. Thank the lard!

I had actually been quietly planning to slip off without the husband and children to go up to this party, but as soon as I saw the theme was Making Fun Of Rural People again, I resolved against it. The last time this theme was used, I spoke up as eloquently as I could, explaining that this line of ridicule is unseemly and hurtful. I argued that it is mean spirited for members of the dominant culture to ridicule marginalized groups (and in the United States, the dominant culture comes out of New York and Los Angeles, from educated city-dwellers). I was not the only person who felt that way, but years later, here come the same jokes again, and they're even staler and less funny to me.

The truth, though, is that I have a chip on my shoulder. I'm from rural Maine. My parents grew up on farms in Gorham, Maine, the town demonized in literature by Carolyn Chute in "The Beans of Egypt, Maine." Although no one has ever addressed it, I am apparently a product of some degree of inbreeding: my mother's mother had the same last name as my father and his family. (And yet I got a perfect score on the LSAT, outperforming 99.9% of the urban, city-dwelling, silver spoon-possessing aspirants of my year. Go, hicks!). I grew up with an extreme rural accent, which I lost along the way, but I still know my way around a cow.

My upbringing was so rural that I was completely stymied as a small child when I read an activity book which asked me to describe my block. Block? What was a block? I couldn't imagine it. In my town, we had no sidewalks, no streetlights, no grocery stores, no malls, no movie theatres... By high school I'd gained a bit of sophistication, but not much. There was a popular song about a girl who'd been dumped nursing her broken heart by riding the metro around and around, and I thought it was science fiction. In college I acquired some polish, but it was gradual: I remember telling everyone I knew in astonishment that I'd been given coffee in Spain "that was soo strong, they only serve it in a tiny cup!" (indicating size of cup with fingers and look of awe). Nowadays Starbucks has spread espresso everywhere, but my rural mind was blown by that first one.

I'm sickened by people who, by complete luck of the draw, were born and raised in cities or suburbs who think people from the country are automatically stupid and ugly. Many of my deep Maine relatives are wittier and more cunning than almost anyone to be found in large cities. Perhaps we Maine people may be lacking in exterior polish -- I am virtually the only mother from my children's private school who lacks a Prada bag -- but we have inner resources we've cultivated over those long, hard winters (or at least one would hope so. There should be some reward).

Coincidentally I'm currently reading "Deer Hunting With Jesus" by Joe Bageant, a book which argues that the left has lost power in America precisely because urban liberals have such scorn for the uneducated country dwellers. Republicans woo these people's votes and pay lip service to their values, while liberal urbanites like my friends make fun of hollers and cousin-lovers. This makes all too much sense to me. Laugh while you can, city dwellers. You're just buying us more Republican administrations.


Oldsoul_NotQuite said...

Well said. I went to college in small town Minnesota where my first two roommates were (coincidentally) both from small town South Dakota. For this big city boy, there was a clear difference in aspiration between they and I. That said, I certainly couldn't call them stupid. And I kind of marveled that we ended up at the same college.

Silliyak said...

Udderly fascinating, say, is that a cow chip on your shoulder or are you just pissed.

Anonymous said...

great post for several reasons. first, i think you're 100% right about the rest of us supposed cityslickers alienating the rural voters. we just don't get it at all. i am going to send this along to some of my friends, who like me at times, can be very snobbish and mean spirited about these folks. my husband, who is from england, recently gave me a stern talking to when i used the term "white trash" in that hip ironic term some of us love. he told me it was no more acceptable to use that than to use "nigger" and after a bit of reflection, i had to agree he was right. so out the window went that phrase and now i am trying to throw all my preconceived notions about rural people out the window as well. so thanks.

also, hadn't thought about "the beans of egypt, maine" in years - what a fantastic book.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say I loved this post. I grew up in rural MN, and it wasn't until high school that I understood what a block was.

In a college class once, we had to describe our hometown. Most people in the class had grown up in a city... I described my area by mostly talking about trees, wolves, and lakes. And tourists.

Amy said...

I remember reading (your?) posts about this in a yahoo group and being really puzzled about it. Because I had viewed the Bodeen theme in a totally different light.

I saw the other campers as being from (or uncomfortably close to) white trash themselves. And the deliberate, over-the-top campiness was a typically working-class way of dealing with feelings of shame and disempowerment: by doing it deliberately you regain a sense of control, by mocking the negative stereotypes people assign to you you rob them of their power and demonstrate just how ridiculous they are. It's a sort of communal purging. To me, that's what the theme was really about, and why (along with nostalgia) people liked it so much.

Working class humor tends to be pretty "anti-PC". In fact, when I posted an example on my own blog (with a poll) whether someone was actively working class or not turned out to be a good indicator of whether or not they would find it funny. Readers who were of upper-middle class origin or had spent a lot of time in grad school were uniformly offended.

Maybe I'm just naive (for years I maintained the belief that those who heckled me for kissing my girlfriend on the street were heckling about the kissing, not the girlfriend). I know my reluctance to pass harsh judgment on people I don't know well makes me sometimes reluctant to recognize genuine ill will. But my impression of my fellow campers was that they weren't the offspring of urban upper crust. They were people of mostly humble origin who had clawed their way up the ladder or lucked out in the boom with "good jobs".

Am I off about that? You know these people better than I do.

Also, I hope I'm not making you feel dissed in your journal. I really am sorry you're upset, and I'm not good at being sympathetic in writing. I'm bringing this up because in the past year I've become uncomfortably aware about how little understanding there is across class/race/etc. lines, and how out of politeness, we're stifling conversations that might help overcome that. There's this incredible focus on form over intent. People are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they choose not to say anything at all. And it's making the situation worse, not better.

Freewheel said...

Have you read "The Funeralmakers" (and the sequels) by Cathie Pelletier? Hilarious and well-written. Clearly, Pelletier had fun mocking her rural Maine roots.

the Drunken Housewife said...

I don't feel dissed, Amy, but I definitely feel the other way. I've had conversations with others who find this theme offensive, and it tends to be the case that the offended are those from humble origins. There are exceptions (I'm thinking of someone who is quasi unoffendable from the deep South), but I would say my reading is that the people making those jokes are largely from upper middle class backgrounds, from cities and suburbs.

I think if it were a communal purging, when I raised my issues, people would have said, "I'm from a farm myself."

I also find the character of Cletus unbearable on the Simpsons. He's the one consistently unfunny thing in my opinion.

Oldsoul_notquite, I think aspirational differences have a lot with where you're from socioeconomically and geographically. There had never been a National Merit Scholar before in my school district, and another girl and I were National Merit Scholars. Our guidance counselor's advice to us, brainy girls of an ilk who had never been seen before in our tiny town, was to join the military. She did. I didn't. It's hard to come up with a sophisticated plan for your life when you don't see that in real life.

the Drunken Housewife said...

A further note: I don't think the Bodeens are all of upper class origins, but there is a big difference from being from a suburban middle class upbringing and being from the middle of nowhere. (Thank you, Phoenix, for sharing that you also didn't understand the concept of a block!)

Anonymous said...

This is a good take on the Dems problems with the electorate...

Anonymous said...

I feel that I can relate to you on this post more than any other. I come from not only a small, rural town...but one that is located in the middle of a swamp. My family lived on an "undiscovered" island there until the 1940's when a railroad was built through it. I was the first person from my family to go off to college, and have continuously been underrated because of my accent and background. My husband's family was not receptive to me because I was "country". Despite the fact that I was a Fulbright scholar and now have two Masters degrees, many of the people I meet can't look past the fact that I am not quite like them. Hearing urbanites denigrate rural people pisses me off more than anything. The small mindedness, prejudices and elite group-thinking of so many urban liberals is turning the bread and butter of the Democratic ticket away in thinly veiled disgust. I guess this will only get worse as the country moves away from rural life...Although I now live in the "big city", I long for the hospitality and generosity of my hometown...and all my double-first cousins!

Epiphany said...

Oh, DH, I'm bummed about this because I really wanted to spend a weekend in the woods with you again (minus the arctic cold and the getting lost on your way out, naturally). Chris and I are both gonna be there, and are looking forward to hanging with the homies.

This post reminds me much of the folks who gripe about the theme for Burning Man: the theme doesn't matter a whole lot once you get there, and does little to influence your experience. (Maybe it's different for a small event, but still....)

I hadn't given much thought to the theme, personally, and have been pretty much ignoring it. Not gonna pick out a name or talk like a hick all weekend. Not really interested.

I really wish you'd reconsider - we'd have fun regardless! I miss you, and these weekends are the best way I've found to get some quality time with my friends. I will understand why you won't come, but will be sad nonetheless...

Anonymous said...

fuck the theme. I really don't see why they have them, they're *always* pointless anyway.

I go to spend time with my friends, and to relax with my bunny. I never really bother with the theme one way or other, and it doesn't really matter much, beyond people writing emails in silly fake accents. hell, maybe we need to start coming up with theme ideas so that old ones wont be recycled again and again!

I really wish you'd be there - but I do understand your dismay at the decision to revive this theme (dude, once was more than enough!)

BTW, this is M - I forgot my $%^&$) passwd!

Caroline said...

GORHAM?!?! Rural??? Ho-lee smokes, that makes Bridgton (from whence I hail) positively frontierland! Geez, what with its proximity to the Big City and the Portland-Gorham campus there (I like calling it PoGo soooo much more than USM), I always thought Gorham was suave and urbane! Sheesh, you should see it now - it's a suburb, McMansions and all. Now, Standish - THAT'S country!

On the other hand, I get the low aspirations thing. I had a completely incompetent guidance counselor my senior year. I did all my college stuff myself. When she asked me what my plans were, I launched into this whole spiel about how I wanted to make sure I went to school outside Maine or else I wouldn't ever leave, and I wanted to try living near a city, and I wanted to be near enough to home to come back once in a while, so I thought I'd go toward Boston, etc., etc., etc.

Her response was to blink a couple times, and say, "So what branch of the University of Maine are you going to apply to?"


Missy said...

In all fairness, I have yet to meet a rural person(I teach and live on the edge of the rural/suburban border) who finds these stereotypes or jokes funny. They don't appreciate being labeled and typecast anymore than someone from the inner city does.

DH, you did a great job pointing this out. Brilliant.