Rural America

I find myself still trying to sort out how to process this election.  Yesterday I felt this sense of crushing despair throughout the entire day.  When I went to sleep Tuesday night, it was all but over… and Trump was sitting at 244 electoral votes.  However after several rounds of “we should be able to determine a winner in the next thirty minutes”, I finally went to bed around 11:30.  Waking up on Wednesday morning it felt like I was waking up into a different country than the one I thought I was living in.  The thing is… part of the reason why I was so frightened by this election is that I could see it happening.  I wrote as much on this blog Tuesday, because folks I have known and loved and respected my entire life… suddenly became die-hard Trump supporters.

There is an article entitled “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind” on Cracked, that I think everyone should take a moment and read.  I will tell you right now that regardless of which side of the divide you live on…  it is going to piss you off more than likely.  There are a lot of moments I cringed or got frustrated by… because in truth I knew they were essentially true about any of the small towns in America that have been dying over the last few decades.  

The “downtown” is just the corpses of mom and pop stores left shattered in Walmart’s blast crater, the “suburbs” are trailer parks. There are parts of these towns that look post-apocalyptic.

That piece alone hits home more than probably anything else, because it could have been written about the town I grew up in.  I remember as a small kid, our town used to have a thriving main street and even had a “Pioneer Days” festival that we looked forward to every year.  You could get funnel cakes, and there were vendors that sold crappy knock offs of things like nun-chucks and throwing stars…  of which we saved all damned year to buy.  Then in early elementary school we got a Walmart, a glistening beacon of modern commerce and I was so insanely happy.  Slowly bit by bit this destroyed our main street, and put two of the three grocery stories out of business as well.  I didn’t think anything of it at the time, nor was I really capable of understanding why the town felt emptier, but it was noticeable as what used to be a clothing store turned into a flea market.

During the late 80’s we lost a couple of our major employers, and during the early 90’s… the Walmart declared that it was closing.  Corporate went on a tear of closing small town stores and instead opening Supercenters in “nearby” towns to serve multiple locations at the same time.  The store for us was thirty minutes away in a town of 40,000.  From there during my high school years… there was a string of businesses that tried to make inhabiting the old Walmart work.  However without any anchor industry the town continued to atrophy, and I knew that upon graduation I had to get the hell out of there.  I could have easily gotten trapped just like so many of my classmates managed to.

The big problem is… there is this intangible sense of loss that the inhabitants feel.  They know the town went downhill but I am not sure if most of them really understand why, or the broader changes in our economy as a whole.  They simply know that things are different, and are desperate to find either someone to blame… or someone to bring that back.  I’ve tried my best to dispel myths in my own parents when they arise, and to some extent to my family when I think they might actually listen.  However there are so many things in rural america that are just accepted as “widely known fact”.  For example “Obamacare is Evil” is one of those popular rants that I have heard spun up so damned many times it makes my head spin.  The truth is… I personally think this fear has absolutely nothing to do with the actual law and anything it does and more a general sense of fear in change.

One of the things you have to understand about a small town… is they have a woefully inadequate medical infrastructure in the first place.  The small hospital in my town was built in the 50’s… and has not received much attention since.  The rooms all look like they came from that era, with a few retrofits here and there to add in the ability to have a basic heart rate/blood pressure monitor…  of which they only have one and they wheel it from room to room manually to check people.  Everyone in town refers to it as the “band aid station” because they can do stitches, or maybe set a basic break…  but if it is something more than that you are taking a ride in the volunteer ambulance service to the town Walmart moved to.  Essentially if something happens to you that requires significant intervention in a time period shorter than the next thirty minutes… you are literally going to die.

There are no doctors in my home town.  There are some at the “Indian Clinic” that commute in a few time a week from a nearby larger town, that you could make an appointment to see…  if you have your CDIB card.  There is also a doctor that works out of the senior citizens center once a month, that you can get on a very long list to see.  Past that you better hope you have a way to get to the next town over for appointments.  Any change or potential change in the already tentative safety net of services they have access to…  scares the shit out of people stranded in rural america.  All it takes is one anecdotal story about someone’s doctor not being covered by a new “Obamacare” insurance plan, and that spreads like wildfire in a small town and suddenly everyone “knows” with an almost religious fervor that it is evil and dead set against them.

The thing is… I tell you this tale about my specific home town, but you could swap around some of the details and change the order a bit and it would apply to dozens of towns I know of in my area.  There is this distinct feeling that someone took a wrecking ball to their happy town that they used to feel pride in… but now can’t even raise the funds to patch the roads.  Hell there are still significant parts of my hometown that still have brick roads, and concrete bridges that were erected during the WPA era of the 30s.  I could be said that more than likely every single bigot in our country voted for Trump, but there are a lot of people who did that can’t necessarily be lumped in that category either.  These abandoned people… in dying towns… represent probably the core of those who voted him in.  He promised them something that they have desperately wanted for decades as they watched this town they loved crumbling around them… and they believed him.

The thing that always shocks me about traveling back “home” to visit family is the sheer amount of contorted disinformation they seem to operate on.  Like I said, above most of the information that exists is told through anecdote and story while sitting at the cafe eating breakfast or drinking coffee, and then reverberated each week after church.  The truth is this is a land that the internet has largely missed.  Up until a few years ago my parents still had dial up, and when they upgraded from that.. It was to already painfully outdated DSL that cannot even manage to maintain a stable netflix stream.  There is no such thing as cable internet, and probably the absolute best option is one of the various satellite providers but those are extremely limited in their coverage area.  Of note… all of this is 45 minutes drive time north of where I live now and have 400 Mbps internet.

So imagine if your only source of information relied upon the regurgitated and spun version that appears on the sort of television channels you can pick up with rabbit ears?  Rumors spread and become fact, because there is a drought of real information.  My dad thankfully is a rabid listener of NPR, but is very much in the minority here where the few radio stations available mostly feature either religious or conservative talk shows.  All of this is not to excuse voting for someone that I still cannot wrap my head around being our president, but instead to explain how it happens.  Rural America is a completely different world than the one I now live in.  It is a world I ran like hell to get away from, and feel like I cannot even breathe when I have to return to.  It is however a world I will be constantly still attached to because there are people who I love that live there.  I was afraid of this election, because I knew this could happen.

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Election Day Fears

I am writing this post with the intent of posting it on my alternate blog.  I am not one to really comment on political issues, because I don’t really revel in making people feel uncomfortable.  Politics and Religion are always issues that tend to divide people more than actually bring them together and this election cycle has made this even more so.  Over the weekend I had dinner with some family, and I knew that several of them were Trump supporters.  I literally stressed myself to the point of having an anxiety attack over the thought of that potentially coming up at dinner.  The worst thing that happened was someone showed off their new Trump knife and then made a joke about it…  since it said “Make America Great Again” on the knife blade… but on the back in big bold letters “Made In China”.

This is genuinely the first time in my life I have have been afraid of an election.  Always in the past I might have had a favorite horse in the race, but I knew at the end of the day someone would cross the finish line and things would be largely the same.  This time around… I am afraid that the horse track is going to get nuked from orbit, because one of the horses got into an argument with one of the spectators.  This is being trumped up as a fight for a way of life…  pun intended, and I guess in many ways it is.  The problem being this is highlighting the fact that there are two very different narratives of what America is.  What disturbs me more than anything is that in many ways I can understand where the other side is coming from.

Something you have to know about me is that my “Poor White Trash” roots run deep.  My wife and I both come from extremely meager but equally loving beginnings.  My family gatherings generally involved my mom’s siblings fighting over which brand of truck was the best…  hint the stance changed to whatever they happened to be driving at the time.  Other discussions were often filled with paranoia and delusions that some secret government force was working against them…  specifically them not just in the general sense.  I grew up in a small town… a wide spot in the road that happens to also be a county seat of some import from a bygone era.  These days it is sitting at roughly 3000 people and when I graduated my class had 60 other students.  According to the 2010 census the racial population goes a little something like this…

  • 70% – White
  • 16% – Native American
  • 4% – African American
  • 1% – Hispanic
  • 9% – Biracial

Anything else is too small to actually chart.  However suffice to say it is a lily white town and always has been.  In my grade there were two students of any color other than white or some tribal background that we are so insanely used to that no one even thinks of it AS a person of color.  I myself have an unproven Cherokee heritage and my wife has her CDIB card… so our vehicles all sport Cherokee Nation plates.  There is zero public LGBT presence, and something else of importance to understand is for this town of 3000 people… there are at least thirteen churches and probably some smaller ones on the outskirts that are not getting caught in a google map search.  This is bible thumping country, and both that and the whiteness creates a certain mindset.

How the hell I managed to grow up open minded to things that were different than myself is probably a miracle.  I remember being completely baffled that my grandmother told me it was okay to be friends with the black children…  because “they were just people too”.  So there was always a quiet racism just sitting below the surface waiting to rear its ugly head anytime something didn’t quite go quite their way.  Please note that I loved my grandmother, and she was one of the sweetest ladies ever…  but she was absolutely a product of her upbringing and times in a way that I hoped I never would be.  Getting out of the small town helped a lot, and as soon as I got to college and out into the real world it helped, but really for me my awareness of people not just like me… came when I first signed onto the internet.  Instead of being frightened by it, I was constantly drawn to folks who had different backgrounds to the ones that I had gotten so damned bored of growing up.

So sitting down to write this I never actually intended to veer so far off course, but I am sorta going with it for the moment.  Essentially I understand the mindset of Trump’s core voter.  The rural poor specifically feel abandoned by the future in a way that they struggle to grasp.  They see this person who panders to their religious beliefs and talks about making america great again… and they latch onto him with both hands…  selectively hearing only the bits that they yearn to hear.  They want someone to make this town they are inexplicably shackled to a thriving metropolis, full of job opportunities and industry.  The thing is… that will never actually happen.  I am a prime example of why that will never happen.  When I graduated from High School I ran at top speed away from my small town because I saw it as the despicable singularity that it actually is.  Staying there meant you were doomed to live the exact same lives that your parents and their parents before them lived.

In my class I would say about half of us actually went to some form of high education.  By the end of that first year I would say at least half of those dropped out and right back caught in the trap of the town.  Even of those of us who got college degrees… a disturbing number went back anyway.  Between the 2000 and 2010 census the town lost roughly 10% of its population… and I am sure when the 2020 census happens it will be a similar if not more severe trajectory.  So you look at this decaying husk of a town, and it can be easy to blame that slow death on someone else.  I grew up hearing tales of the town in its prime… with four different movie theaters and restaurants and shops as far as the eye could see.  Now we have I think three restaurants, a couple gas stations, a Dollar General and an Orscheln…  and that’s it.  So to these folks “Make America Great Again” means…  magically fix my town and make it something greater than it will ever be.

The problem is… we cannot turn back the hands of time and no matter how much an Orange Demagogue tells you he can…  he can’t.  Change happens no matter how badly you want it not to, and it is time for us to embrace it.  Once I left home, and broadened my horizons I met a lot of people who are genuinely oppressed by society.  Not the sort of imaginary tin foil hat oppression that happened in my small town, but literal fearing for their lives sort of oppression.  The last decade has moved us as a country towards righting some of these wrongs, and I do not want to see us roll back any of that progress.  That said we have so much more that needs to be done, and miring ourselves in the past is not the way to accomplish any of it.  To reprise what I said at the beginning…  this is the first election in my entire life that I was scared for the future of our country.  Either we will be choosing a cruel bully that cannot help but lash out at anyone who says anything against him, or we choose someone who has fought her entire life to help those who don’t have anyone else to speak for them.  The thing that scares me the most is that there is literally nothing I can say however to dissuade the opinion of those that I grew up with.  It is though America exists in two completely opposite but parallel dimensions… and I am scared that regardless of the outcome of today it will be impossible to bridge that gap.

well meaning

I know that if you were to gauge who I am as a person based on my social engagement… someone would probably place me in the extrovert spectrum.  That is very much not the case, or more so that I have learned over the years to figure out ways of tricking myself of being more outgoing… especially online.  There is something safe about engaging someone when you know that you can simply close a window and log out of a game… and get some much needed personal space.  In the real world I have managed to come up with similar tricks that shift me into a more “normal” seeming person, but underneath my skin is often crawling and I am looking for a way to escape out of the room and into my nice and sheltered cubical.

For the first several years of working where I work, there was this nice and quiet path that no one took to reach the restrooms.  I could skirt along the back of the rows of cubicles and was one of maybe a dozen people that ever used that route.  However roughly a year ago we went through this massive juggling of cubes, and the negative fallout of this is that the project managers now have big open cubes facing the windows…  and as a result facing the one safe escape route to the bathroom.  I’ve spent the last year trying to find the best route that takes me nearest the fewest number of cubes, and as such avoiding the maximum amount of small talk.  There are mornings it works, and there are mornings it fails spectacularly.  The route I end up navigating is contorted and includes a feigned checking of my mailbox in the copy room.  I have received maybe two pieces of mail in the nearly decade that I have worked here, but it allows me to duck into safety and avoid random discussion.

There is one person in particular that seems to throw a monkey wrench in this plan constantly, and if I had a nemesis he would probably be it.  I realize he is well meaning and is probably doing his own act of attempting to “seem normal” and engage in appropriate levels of eye contact and vocal discourse.  However no amount of avoidance or dodging ever seems to stop the constant onslaught of random water cooler discussion from him about things we have zero points of reference on.  Once upon a time I went to a basketball game as a favor to my wife, and from that point on I was branded as giving a fuck about sports.  So in his attempt to gain favor and influence other human beings, he has filed away in his brain that he should talk sports… even though I have never once had anything even vaguely close to an appropriate response to him.  I can’t even fake an understanding of pretty much any sport that is not baseball, and even then I only have a surface level understand based on playing little league ball and once upon a lifetime ago working in a sports card shop.

There are days it is extremely hard to swallow down the rage and frustration of having to navigate around this guy… only to get strapped with a random conversation.  He probably doesn’t even know how much it infuriates me, because being male means I should be operating within certain parameters.  Were he a geek, we could probably be friends… because he seems like someone who is probably overcompensating for his own shortcomings in trying to be a “normal male”.  Problem being I just don’t care enough to try and find out if this theory is correct, and instead just want to be left alone to exist in my own quiet bubble without having to summon forth a carpet of bullshit to spew as I walk to the bathroom.  Of note… he is absolutely the sort of person who will strike up a conversation at the urinals.

years of postponement

To be honest I am still not completely sure this is a good idea.  Aggronaut.com is my baby, and for the most part over the last several years I have been pretty damned open about my own failings on it.  However there are bits and pieces left over in the cracks, that I never really talk about.  Things that I don’t necessarily want to talk about in public, but still maybe want to get off of my chest.  I mean I realize that creating a public blog is the exact opposite of “not public”, but having things cloistered off in a separate bucket somehow feels more intimate.

Basically the idea of this blog is that folks know “Bel” but not that many people get to see “Ghast” the bit that is left over.  Bel is the part of me that pretends to have my shit together, and Ghast is the anxiety riddled residue that remains.  With Blaugust being a thing once again, I thought maybe it was time to get this project that I had considered for years off of the ground.  Since I am planning on this being a very minimalist experience, I am going with free hosted WordPress.com rather than one of my self hosted experiences.  I am not going to advertise this one very much, but it will be there when I decide to write about something.