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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Being Home.

Ah, rural Indiana! Fresh air; crystal-clear, star-filled skies; people who, rather puzzlingly, think highly of me. Not even forty-eight hours home, I heard that Ray’s Super Foods “needs” for me to return. For reasons best left unpublished, I cannot return to that place, as important as it is to me (See below, natch.); however, I wish to offer reflections thereupon and, thus, reflections upon living in a real place. Call it my very brief, spur-of-the-moment (a couple of years ago) Front Porch Republic-esque thoughts on North Judson, Indiana. This was initially part of my Facebook profile when I first returned to Ray’s Super Foods, as night manager, during my hiatus from academia.

***

In 1902, Joseph Dolezal and Joseph Sindelar, two Bohemian immigrants, both members of Ss. Cyril & Methodius Roman Catholic parish in North Judson, IN, partnered to enter the general merchandise and grocery business. Naming the store after themselves, they called their business Two Joes, Inc. Eventually Mr. Dolezal bought out Mr. Sindelar’s share and became sole proprietor of the business. After his death in the 1940s, his wife Blanche assumed ownership and three of their sons took over day-to-day operations. After Blanche passed away, son Cyril became the owner of the store.

In the 1970s, a young meatcutter by the name of Ray Okeley hired on at Two Joes. He became a fixture and for thirty years his dedication to his trade forged for the store a strong base of customers who settled for nothing less than Ray’s work.

In 1992, Cyril passed away and his wife Alice became sole owner of the store; along with her son Kenny, she ran the business until 1997, when, after ninety-five years in the grocery business, the Dolezal family sold Two Joes to Raymond J. Wajda, then of Lansing, IL. He renamed the store Ray’s Super Foods, and to this day continues to run the store. He has become a very active community leader, volunteering as a Little League coach and board member and giving generously both his time and his money to various causes.

On the morning of 27 June 2006, one week to the day before his sixtieth birthday, Ray Okeley succumbed to cancer that had, unbeknownst to him, infiltrated many of his organs. He passed away in front of his house, in his wife’s arms, as he prepared to leave for work.

Joseph Dolezal, an incredibly civic-minded individual who dedicated himself not only to his business, but to his family, his church, and his community, was my great-grandfather. I am the last descendant of Joseph and Blanche Dolezal to work at 324 Lane St. Over time Ray Okeley became a good friend of mine, about as close to me as any fifty-nine-year-old coworker could ever be to a twenty-two-year-old college grad. I hope now that people understand why, even though I have a degree from the University of Notre Dame, I continue to work for $8.50/hr in a small small-town grocery store.

An Awesome Title Or, Wordsmithery Gone Natural

Professor Deneen’s “Oeco-system.” It’s a really good piece, too — not just a superbly titled post.

Here’s a snippet:

Meanwhile, for many years now, cosmopolitans have sought to liberate humans from the narrow boundaries of unchosen communities, have urged a globalist ethic that regards humans as appropriately citizens of the world and at home nowhere in particular. Seeking the liberation of opressed individuals from the depradations of local communities, cosmopolitans have sought to commend an ethic of “multiculturalism” often at the expense of culture proper.

We should see clearly that the modern ethic, in all of its forms – philosophic, economic, political, theological, artistic – aims at the elimination of culture. Culture is an eco-system with added presence of human beings. Culture springs up in local places based on local diversities and natural conditions. In a healthy eco-system, cultures are robust and can expect to thrive – like snail-darters or tree-frogs – into the indefinite future. Under threat from external forces, they prove to be fragile and with relative ease are rendered extinct: destroy the eco-system that gives rise to and sustains creatures or cultures, those creatures and cultures are eradicated with remarkable ease and alacrity.

The commendation of “multiculturalism” is everywhere the recommended stance of our time (while this is a position most often visible on the Left, it is also in fact the default position of many on the Right, particularly in their encouragement of “free trade” whose result is a polyglot commercial sphere. Readers should consult the work of Tyler Cowen for the “Right” version of multicultural enthusiasm).

Delicious, huh? Here’s his scintillating concluding paragraph:

What needs fundamental reassessment is the idea that the current Left and Right represent true alternatives on our political stage today. There are legitimate differences, to be sure, but it turns out that what makes them more similar undermines their points of legitimate difference. Asking us to choose between “the environment” or “family values” (for instance) while simultaneously demanding that we sign on to a more fundamental agenda that makes either – or both – of those commitments finally untenable is either the most brilliantly contrived political conspiracy of all time, or simply a reflection of yet unquestioned commitments to a modern agenda that will ultimately destroy the natural and cultural pre-conditions of its own success.

South Bend is a Peculiarly Lovable City

James Matthew Wilson offers a beautiful elegy here, at Front Porch Republic

Some News That’s Fit to Print

*With a tip of the hat to The Western Confucian, “Results, not Bush, slowed embryonic stem cell research”:

But many private companies have been reluctant to fund embryo research because it involves morally controversial techniques and, so far, has shown few signs of success. Most preliminary research indicates that adult stem cells are the key to new cures and treatments, so they’re jumping on that bandwagon. This is the real reason government funding is so essential to ESC research– few private investors view it as a future success.

And, relatedly, in today’s Washington Post, advances in alternatives to embryonic stem cells:

In addition to the scientific implications, the work comes at a politically sensitive moment. Scientists are anxiously waiting for President Obama to follow through on his promise to lift restrictions on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells. Critics of such a move immediately pointed to the work as the latest evidence that the alternative cells make such research unnecessary.

“Stem cell research that requires destroying embryos is going the way of the Model T,” Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said. “No administration that values science and medical progress over politics will want to divert funds now toward that increasingly obsolete and needlessly divisive approach.”

*As I noted below, Larison, Deneen, Dreher, and others have given to the world a splendid gift in the form of Front Porch Republic. A particularly interesting conversation, in which I’ve participated, can be found in the comments accompanying Mark Mitchell’s “What our Hands Have Wrought“. Community, Distributism, the politico-economic half-blindness of both parties, and the reliance upon the State of capitalism (something that I suggest here). Hot damn!

*I’m officially a “journalist”, which is to say that I have been paid to write something, specifically a review of Prof. Bacevich’s The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism one of the most important books that I have read in a long time. Find it in the inaugural issue of Young American Revolution. (Or ask nicely for an electronic version of the unedited draft, and I might oblige.)