Confessions of Front-Porch Realist


Ardent localist am I! This much is obvious, I am sure, to anyone who has followed this Weblog or read my contributions at Post Right. Although I have recently been absent from the comment boxes at Front Porch Republic (not to mention from blogging, as well as most other intellectual pursuits), I remain one of the firmest believers in the front-porch ethos around. Nonetheless, I am aware that FPR is not immune to mistakes, many of which PoMoCons, inter alios — including Front Porchers calling out their own — have aired. Perhaps, however, the most damning criticism of the localist ethos is neither “We can’t pretend that the Enlightenment didn’t happen” nor “Markets, markets, markets!” (Besides, what matter are marketplaces, not abstractions known as “markets”, but I digress.) Rather, it is reality that besmirches most effectively the glowing visage of the front-porch republic: Not the reality of lattes, Target, and LCD-television comfort, but the reality of brain drains, blinkered bumpkinism, and economic evisceration, of low-brow, low-church culture illiteracy. Neither the sages of the porch nor their combatants would deny this, but I fear that, too often, this is glossed over amidst much of the very important head-butting held over Bourbon and banjoes on the rickety veranda.

Since late May, I’ve been living — again, at age twenty-five and possessing a master’s degree, yes — with my parents in rural North Judson, Indiana. In theory, this place is the apotheosis of the front-porch republic: a small, fairly compact town with an obvious central business district that still has some businesses left facing it; houses positioned fairly close to the street (often, though not always, with sidewalks betwixt the two, and with garages off of alleys, rather than facing the street); people who know each other well, and so on. One of my greatest joys these days is ambling down the street (really, along the right-of-way of the non-existent alley, behind my immediate neighbor’s fence) to neighbors Mike and Becky’s place. I divide my time there between drinking beer (usually, I lamentably note, mass-produced, canned swill, but, hey, it’s Mike’s beer, it’s free, and de gustibus non est disputandum — and it’s beer!) and watching football with Mike and assisting him (in, for instance, the effort to turn his garage into a “Mancave”), and entertaining their four absolutely wonderful children. A good number of people in town and the surrounding area know me — either because I worked at the grocery store years, or because they know one or both of my parents —, and most think fairly highly of me. One member of the town council, knowing that I have my degree in planning, has spoken to me about working on a master plan for the town, and some years ago, the then-president of the council implored me to run for the open seat in my district. (I apologize for the self-aggrandizing digression; I aim merely to emphasize the Mayberry-esque side of my humble hamlet.)

Alas, for the educated, community-oriented, twenty-something localist, the dark side of small-town life rears its ugly head ferociously and frequently. Living on my own, in suburban Maryland, I had to feed myself, and when I did so, I ate much healthier — more conscientiously and consistently — than I ever had or have since coming home. Granted, now, Mommy does most of the grocery shopping, and does so at a number of stores, independent and chain, locally and regionally, but when I do buy for myself, I prefer to give business to my former employer out of persistent gratitude, because he’s (one of the) local grocer(s), and because the store has historical familial significance to me — and because I rarely have the time or desire to travel just for food. This makes eating well difficult: most problematically, the variety and quality of fresh fruits and vegetables leave so much to be desired; finding diet or low-calorie anything to drink (other than pop, or “soda”) is typically just as troublesome. And that’s to say nothing of eating well: To be even a novice epicure is unfathomably difficult here. (And our humble liquor store, reliable as it is for a decent surprise six-pack and your typical booze fare, keeps in stock neither a one single-malt Scotch nor a bottle of wine that costs more than ten bucks!) Get me started not on other retail options: The day I can find a book (other than some trashy used romance novel!) in town, or a c.d., let alone clothing or accessories in North Judson, oh, happy day!

Ah, but I complain too trivially.

Right now, my pittance comes to me for a half-time internship that I hold thirty miles away. Now, nothing compelled me to take the internship, but getting my feet wet, so to speak, in my field has been good for me, and although I received my degree without fulfilling the internship requirement, I felt something of an obligation to uphold a gentlemen’s agreement made with my program’s director. Moreover, I wanted, at least for the time, to remain (close to) home: Despite the entire point of this disquisition, I am quite fond of this little burg, and I felt, and still feel, the tugs of familial obligation. And there just ain’t a lot of good work in these parts. One evening, out for my post meridiem perambulation, I stopped at the grocery store to visit. The cashier that night, who had worked under me during my tenure as night manager, remarked, “Everybody’s on food stamps.” Apparently, we Americans have escaped the recession, but in North Judson we’ve been enduring a depression for quite some time. I am fortunate to have the options afforded to me by a bachelor’s degree from a top-tier university and a master’s degree in a field in which demand for drones still exists, so I’m not doomed to remain here, as others are. However, as is the case for some others, I should like to remain here. But money, I hear, talks, and slowly, but surely, it has been speaking more loudly. I have student loans to repay; someday I hope to raise a family; and we have a wonderful Sears Catalog Home on the farm, built in 1913, in which my grandfather was born and raised, that I should positively love to restore.

Notwithstanding one beer-and-Bourbon-fueled night at Brantwood with one of my best friends since elementary school, intellectual stimulation has excused itself from my real, social life in North Judson. Multiple stacks of books line my bedroom, and I read — too slowly, too infrequently —, but reading loses its luster when I’ve no one with whom to discuss what I’ve ingested. So, it is the Internet that is my solace: Weblogs and instant-messenger conversations constitute the bulk of my mental activity these days. Although this is far better than nothing, and often truly enjoyable, it lacks something. I hate the dependence on technology that it demands, but I also bewail the incompleteness of the conversations. Tenor, timbre, pitch, tone — these are all lost in the flatness of typed discourse. I travel to Chicago every weekend for a Latin class, the only social intellectual stimulation upon which I can count regularly. I have to drive ninety miles to make muh brain wurk. Exercises such as this posting help, but, even if I have the pleasure of replying to a dozen comments, from a dozen people (Not holding my breath!), it will not be the same as if I were discussing this topic with only one person over coffee.

Presently, Nisbet’s The Quest for Community has my all-too-easily distracted attention; I sincerely doubt that anyone else in North Judson has even heard of this work. How am I to venture into the local coffee shop hoping to discuss Nisbet under such circumstances? Perhaps I am too harsh in making this point: Folk needn’t all to be intellectually oriented as I am, but this total isolation become impoverishing.

Regrettably, perhaps it is spiritually that the reality of the front-porch-with-holes-in-the-floor life most deeply impoverishes. As I noted above, every Sunday morning (save the Friday evening when I headed up early to attend a debate held by a fantastic conservative student organization at the University of Chicago — talk about stimulation!) I drive to Chicago for an hour-long beginners’ Latin course. A parish, St. John Cantius, offers the course, and I remain at the church for Mass, usually spending seventy-five minutes reading between class and the twelve-thirty Mass. That I have not attended Mass at my home parish in more than a month saddens me: This is the parish in which I was welcome into the Church through all of the Sacraments of Initiation, where my parents were married, and where my paternal grandmother played the organ for sixty-five years. It’s my parish, in my hometown, where I was an altar boy for years, a church to which I can walk in a few minutes.

And yet, despite the very un-front-porchiness of it all, I cannot really regret eschewing the local Mass for that offered by Cantius. Excluding the occasion rendering of the “Gloria”, I recall no point since 2002 at which a parish priest has uttered a word of Latin; at Cantius, I attend Latin Masses exclusively, sometimes the Novus Ordo, but generally the Tridentine High Mass. At Ss. Cyril & Methodious, altar girls (and, on rare occasion, boys) wear sandals while serving the altar! At Cantius, only males serve, and the sense of reverence and decorum that they show is impeccable. The æsthetic grandeur of St. John Cantius is truly awe-inspiring and spiritually uplifting. Despite a respectable attempt to improve the church’s interior appearance a few years ago, by and large, Ss. S&M remains the mutilated victim of post-Vatican II whitewashing. Lastly, Ss. C&M is a parish; Cantius is a community of faith (and I mean this in the best way possible). It’s vibrant, with families of four and five children, classes, reading groups, a schola cantorum, the church-basement café where I do my reading, and the Canons Regular. And orthodoxy! My home parish, yes, has the Knights and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, but it just isn’t the vigorous stronghold of faith that encourages the flourishing of the Faith.

Again, the localists at FPR are hardly ignorant of these issues, but these concerns receive far too little attention, except, perchance, as a criticism of those of us who raise high the small-is-beautiful banner. North Judson needs front-porch republicans: The free-market social conservative, however much he sympathizes, ultimately gives in to the forces of Progress, pronouncing the inevitability of the desiccation of Middle America, embracing his suburban lifestyles, and taking comfort in the absence of government meddling in economic affairs, consequences be damned. I decidedly do not believe that small-town America is doomed, but it needs help. I’m not ready to abandon it; as I said, I want to raise a family in that restored farmhouse (on to which I shall make one addition: a real front porch), and I have much interest in doing whatever I can to help to devise a master plan for this town that guides it on the path to rebirth. But the front-porch right has to reconsider a few things. When industrialized agriculture and what remains of heavy industry in the Gary area are two of the more lucrative sources of employment for people here, our caterwauling against big, ugly, and mechanized — however on-target it generally be — needs to be tempered. Our highfalutin talk ‘bout Aristotle and Wendell Berry and Christopher Lasch and the Anti-Federalists — as great as all them folk are — means very little to the great bulk of citizens of the crumbling republics; sometimes, we need to get into the nitty gritty of it all, realizing that, as much as we idealize the agrarian way, it is so far off of these people’s radars that to speak of it when trying to act meaningfully is almost pointless.

I love my front-porch republic; I can only hope that, someday, it is truly worthy of the mostly unconditional love that I shower on it. I hope that its loveliness becomes such that people choose to stay here — can choose to remain —, rather than be compelled to do so.

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I’m still alive — and I’ve written something.

Job plus life plus corrupting neighborhood children = too little writing. I have some fairly well thought-out ideas in the mind and should be getting posts online, here and at Post Right soon. For now, my super-long screed on localism and economic liberalism is here.

Neighborhood Schools, Local Business

Over at The League, the (extra)ordinary Mr. Kain has a splendid piece on “the concept of the school itself as an essential part of one’s community.” It is, rest assured, well worth the read. (At Front Porch Republic, Professor Fox offered, a couple of months ago, the very interesting “A Partially Localist Defense of Public Education”, wherein, discussing Mike Huckabee and school consolidation, he notes very reasonable, troublesome reasons to support consolidation; that’s neither here nor there (Well, not here, but maybe there!), but the posting is worth your time, too.) My favorite passage from E.D.:

I’d like to see, quite literally, corner schools – kind of like the days of “corner stores” which have now all vanished in the face of big grocery chains and super Wal*Marts. Because corner schools would be personable. They’d be right there in your neighborhood. Elementary schools tend to be closer to this model. For some reason we go from a dozen or so elementary schools in a mid-size town to one or two high schools. It doesn’t make sense. And if you’re worried about sports, there’s really no reason why schools couldn’t team up to create a good football team. But even better than that, you’d have lots more sports teams and lots more kids would get a chance to play – even if the teams themselves weren’t quite as star-studded, and the games were not quite as good. Still, it would level the playing field, so to speak. And that’s a good thing.

One thing upon which E.D. touches not (though one can infer it, perhaps, from this earlier line: “Schools should be more responsive to their communities needs and vice versa.”) is the particular connectivity between the school and the local business community. Before the 1974-75 academic year, students at North Judson-San Pierre High School (a product of the dreaded mid-century consolidation movement: San Pierre could hardly support a high school, by the advanced standards of the education technocrats) attended classes, concerts, and basketball games in the middle of town, at the corner of Keller Ave. and Central Ave, just a block from Lane St., our main drag. (The football team played on a field now replaced by residential blocks some number of streets to the west; the baseball team, on the same large town block, on WPA-built Norwayne Field.)

My father, oftenly enough, has spoken of lunch hours spent at Pell’s Sweet Shop, the local diner at Lane St. and Adair St. (See map linked to above.), to which he and friends would race to save a booth and where they’d play Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein”, Grand Funk Railroad’s “Flight of the Phoenix”, and Deep Purple’s classic “Smoke on the Water” on the jukebox, all three for a quarter. Old Man Pellegrini worked the fryer, calling out “French-a-fry, French-a-fry!” in broken English between quarrelsome verbal bouts with his wife. In the mid-Seventies, in time for my father’s class to be the first to graduate, the school board replaced this downtown facility with a presumably state–of–the–art (Read: Barns–with–lean-tos–looking bit of totalitarian architecture; insufficiently fenestrated, natch!) building on the southwestern edge of town, with cornfields on two sides!

The Keller Avenue building then housed middle school students — to wit, continued to operate, but not with students likely to be trusted to venture forth from an open campus for lunch —, whilst the secondary-education students had no choice but to lunch daily on remarkably cardboard-esque mass-produced cafeteria food — served by ladies kindly enough, but many packs of Virginia Slims beyond their prime, with all the enthusiasm of a reluctant mortician into whose hands the family business fell —, imprisoned (a verb all too regrettably à propos of the school’s æsthetic character) by the closed-campus restrictions I assume were imposed de jure (By my time in high school, anyway, the school compelled students to remain on the premises at lunch, and otherwise, without a legitimate excuse.), and, certainly, were discouraged, de facto, from enjoying lunch served by a local restaurateur by the reliance upon an automobile (paired with a relatively short lunch hour) that this anti-communitarian location required of students. The students lost “choice”; the diners and restaurants, customers.

Troublingly enough, returning our schools to neighborhoods — or, in smaller towns, nearer our business districts — is, presently, rather impractical. Doubtless, the school district here could not at all easily build new schools in downtown North Judson, and if they could, likely would construct buildings so atrocious that one easily would mistake them for anything but. (See here about architectural ineptitude in North Judson.) This is saddening. Notwithstanding the very real objections found in Prof. Fox’s disquisition, E.D’s case is quite compelling; what I’ve discussed hereabove only strengthens it. Methinks an incredibly sensible, could-be-practical way to help to revive our local economies without furthering the often onerous regulations employed — sensibly enough — to level the playing field for local businesses is to bring our schools back. As Mr. Kain properly proclaims, the school is an essential part of the community, and as Mr. Kunstler, that pugnacious prognosticator of Peak Oil and maligner of modern massacres of the public realm, echoing Mr. Wendell Berry of Kentucky, asserted, in The Geography of Nowhere, “Community is Economy.”

Post-script: I’d certainly love to see a return of Catholic education, even if only at the elementary (and middle-school) level, as was the case in the past, to North Judson. Paul Barnes, commenting on E.D’s piece, broaches this topic.