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. []