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A one-week deep dive into rural America: While We’re Waiting

Welcome to Friday everyone. I’m sure a lot of you are like me and finishing off a week of “Spring Break” this week. It’s amazing how Spring Break is redefined for me now that I’m a father of a first grader. It’s not quite what it was when I could really enjoy some time away from everything. My world doesn’t really shut off because my kid’s elementary school decides to do so. Anyway, that’s not why we’re here. Before I launch into my topic I want to tell you about the incredible month of podcasting we’ve had here at WFNY.

This is one of the most-downloaded months in the history of the WFNY podcast. I’m really grateful to all those that have gone out of their way to listen, share and consume episodes of the podcast this month. In addition to EHC, The Hot Sports Boys, Scott, Jessica and Will Gibson, we’ve had guests including @sportsyelling, Scott Raab, Aaron Goldhammer, Kevin Kleps, Zac Jackson, Chad Zumock, and Dan Labbe.

Speaking of the podcast with Dan Labbe, it was a really great one. It flew by and was a really tight 30 minutes of Browns talk. We discussed Josh Gordon, Terrelle Pryor and the Haslams vote to allow the Raiders to move.

Thanks again to everyone for listening. Now we just have to do it again in April, right?

A torturous week taking in rural America via S-Town and Hillbilly Elegy

The timing of when you take in certain types of art is really important to your mental health. I’ve recently found myself pretty substantially impacted by two things that I chose to listen to back-to-back and I should probably smarter with my choices. I recently finished both the Serial podcast special called S-Town and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. These two things weren’t really all that much alike, except they both involved non-city culture and ended up being kind of similar tonally. Still, the things they shared in common ended up impacting my entire week in terms of leaving me thinking and feeling a lot.

S-Town started out like Serial where it felt like we were going to uncover a mystery episode-by-episode. It’s the story of a man named John B. who contacted the people at This American Life about a supposed murder coverup in his rural town in Alabama. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t gotten to the end, but I can say it ended up being much more of a town portrait than a “whodunit?” mystery. Rather than electrifying me with details uncovered a layer at a time, it ended up feeling like we were peeling an already rotten apple. The storytelling was phenomenal even if it seemed to lose its focus and move the goal posts as it went along. Sometimes that’s just how stories unfold so that’s alright. I loved the ride, but I didn’t necessarily appreciate the taste it left in my mouth with the portrait it painted of rural Alabama.

Contrasted with my near-simultaneous reading of J.D. Vance’s acclaimed Hillbilly Elegy and it made for a hell of a Spring Break week with my kids off of school. In Elegy, you go in knowing that there’s a relatively happy ending for the book’s subject. At least I knew that because I’d heard some podcast interviews with J.D. Vance.1 In Vance’s book I read about Middletown Ohio, just under an hour north of Cincinnati, and all the cultural struggles that have befallen that culture. Vance talks of broken souls from impossibly broken homes and a culture so specific and obsessed with personal honor that it turns its inhabitants into impossible-to-fit puzzle pieces in society.

Amazingly enough, while both works have and will be turned political, neither of the two ended up being overly political. Obviously as anything that actually touches people, those people are inherently political either directly or anecdotally, the politics are added both consciously and sub-consciously. Despite the occasional political thought or conclusion as I was consuming this material I was left mostly feeling sad and hopeless as opposed to judgmental or even thoughtful.

When we talk about sports, we feel like there are well-worn paths to success that we can follow, if not magic bullets. We speak of regimes and positions on a hierarchical chart like President, GM, CEO, Personnel Director, and Head Coach. But when we’re talking about the real world, specifically the changing dynamics in culture that encompass the economy, family, religion, education and every off-shoot in between, it’s too much to fathom “solutions.” We know a lot of symptoms and maybe even some of the problems, but in sports we can still believe in a savior. Look no further than LeBron James for proof that one exists in a sports context. It’s impossible to imagine in the context of either Hillbilly Elegy or S-Town. 

It’s important to pay attention to all the various realities that exist in the country and world, but damnit if I shouldn’t have planned some lighter reading and listening for my kids’ Spring Break week.

Anyway, as always thanks for reading. Feel free to take over the comments as this will serve as your open thread.

  1. Funny story, actually. I’d heard so many interviews with Vance that I’d actually convinced myself that I’d already read the book until I checked my Audible app and realized I actually had not. []

  • Garry_Owen

    I’m in the middle of listening to S-Town. “Enjoyable” is a tough word to use, but I guess I’m enjoying it. It is a fascinating and captivating human interest story, but I don’t know if there’s anything more to take from it than that. If the conclusion is that “rural America” is totally effed up, then I have to wonder what a converse story might sound like. Instead of having a New York liberal doing a human interest story in rural Alabama, take a rural Alabamian and have them do a human interest story in the worst parts of New York city. I would imagine that the conclusion would be that “urban America” is totally effed up. This is not any criticism toward the folks at Serial at all. They are who they are; they are sincere and genuine; they’ve produced a very interesting program. I just think that the best conclusion to draw in general is that humanity is pretty effed up.

  • NankirPhelge

    “I just think that the best conclusion to draw in general is that
    humanity is pretty effed up. We are pretty good, all around, at hating
    one another and treating each other like S.”

    Wow. Fortunately, that has not been my life experience, at least not on a personal level, even in the worst of times.

  • Hopwin

    S-Town was hands down the worst podcast of the year. It was wholly misrepresented in marketing and feels like a most grevious exploitation of a mentally ill person.

  • Garry_Owen

    Yeah, it’s a sweeping generalization in response to a podcast. It has not been my personal story, either, for the most part; though I have seen the impact of humanity’s inhumanity toward man. It’s unavoidable and undeniable. The better thing to probably take from my rant is the last sentence in parentheses.

  • Garry_Owen

    Interesting. I can see this. In fact, this has been my major beef with Serial from the start. It has always been a podcast geared toward exploiting human pain and suffering.

  • Hopwin

    Spoiler:
    Either that or This American Life didn’t realize they were being scammed by a mentally ill person until they had invested too much time and resources into the story to just throw it away and thus released it as a podcast.

  • mgbode

    Thank you.

    As someone who lives in “rural America,” I had similar thoughts.

  • mgbode

    Garry came around to also note that there are things to love & admire in nearly everyone too. The anonymous hatred and treating each other poorly is certainly a real, popular thing from all sides unfortunately (though obviously generalized here).

  • jpftribe

    The distinction between what we experience ourselves, and the picture being painted by any media outlet is a really powerful point these days. There’s no substitute for doing your homework on what you are consuming.

  • RGB

    Austin? Rural?

  • mgbode

    I work in the Southern most part of the sprawled city, then live a 45minute drive further South. 20 minute drive in most any direction to even see a gas station or other store, so I would definitely classify it as rural.

  • RGB

    So, no Cavs article, or are we ignoring that debacle last night?

  • mgbode

    Oh, it is coming. Nom decided to give y’all something special for it. Think you will enjoy (it’s next).

  • I understand where this criticism comes from, but I’m not sure I agree. The man called them. They investigated his claims and I really felt like the producer came to the project honestly and just went with it after it took him to a different place. It could come off as exploitative in total, but I don’t necessarily blame them for not spiking the project after it changed on them.

  • Hopwin

    See my spoilered comment for an alternative hypothesis.

  • mgbode
  • Scut_Farkus

    Instead of Audible, try an app called OverDrive that will let you borrow audiobooks from your local library through a library cooperative called CLEVNET. The Cleveland Public Library has it. I’ve been using it for a few weeks now.

    And if you haven’t had your fill of dark stories about rural Ohio yet, I recommend any of the novels by Donald Ray Pollock, especially The Devil All the Time. Two of his audiobooks are on CLEVNET. He has an interesting bio too. https://www.amazon.com/Donald-Ray-Pollock/e/B001IGT4TS/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

  • Hopwin

    This does not provide any clarification as to your location. A 45 minute drive in Austin could be 2 miles and a 20 minute drive could be just getting out of your driveway 😉

  • mgbode

    I don’t want to clarify my exact location 🙂

    But, the 45 minute drive is rural roads w/o traffic. Work is on the outskirts as it is, so I avoid the highways and actual traffic of the city.

  • nj0

    Interesting. Based on the little I’ve read about it, this sounds like a completely fair assessment.

    Similar but different: Making a Murderer on Netflix. I first watched it and thought it was great. Then, I read about the facts that the director decided to leave out. For me, that made it cheap and manipulative rather than an honest attempt to find some kind of truth.

  • nj0

    Or how about someone from poor rural America does a story on rich urbanites in New York? Lets make some value judgements on that part of society.

  • nj0

    San Marcos!

    You have any problems from the storm on Wednesday?

  • Steve
  • mgbode

    San Marcos is just to the East of me. Thankfully, I’m outside the flood plains from that river though as it rose a bunch Wed night. Nothing more than some knocked down trash cans and a bunch of branches we all cleared in the roadways on the way to work that morning.

  • Garry_Owen

    Certainly plenty of value judgments to go around. In fact, halfway through the first episode, I was wondering how many caught the irony of a crazy bigot complaining about the crazy bigotry of the town in which he lived.

  • nj0

    Good to see I’m not the only one who disagreed with much of HE. “If only (insert group) were raised right! Then they could overcome their lack of economic opportunity, access to adequate healthcare, decent education, clean drinking water, basic social services….”.

  • nj0

    I’ve got friends around there. I’ve stayed with them on occasion and would drive into Austin for what not. Actually enjoyed my time around there more than in Austin.

  • nj0

    If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer.

  • Hopwin

    I thought it was: “If you aren’t paying for it, then you are the product”?

  • jpftribe

    Which is relative to the currency you give up.

  • tsm

    That comes from our inherent selfishness. We deny this at our peril. Most of us have to learn how to put others first. Just look at any day care center and see how the 2 year olds act. They are selfish and don’t want to share “their” toys. Thus, they are taught that they must share. The good news is, as you put it, many folks do learn to put others first and thus become those we love and admire.
    I am early on in Vance’s book, and do find it interesting. (But not as interesting as reading about the 17th mock draft).

  • mgbode

    Love the area. Somehow not as crazed despite immediate South (SA) and North (Austin).

  • nj0

    I’ve heard both. The one you quote is definitely more popular.

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