Tomorrow my wife and I are taking off to visit my family in my home state of Nebraska. I'm from a town of about 24,000 in the south-central part of the state, two and a half hours west of the nearest major airport in Omaha. (Here's a clue, we'll be there for the Kool-Aid Days festival.) Although I am extremely happy to see my parents, sisters, niece, nephew, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandma again (we're having a big ole jamboree), every time I go back the place seems more and more foreign to me. In fact, if my family wasn't there, I'd probably never go back to my home town ever again.
It was a great place to be for a young child. It's always been a rather civic-minded community, which meant lots of public parks and pools to play in, a well-stocked public library to learn in, and a quality public school education. I also had the good fortune to come from a very close and loving home, so life inside the house was about as happy as it could be. Unfortunately, I couldn't stay at home all the time, no matter how hard I tried.
The cracks in the idyllic veneer of my childhood started with my first day of school. For my kindergarten and first grade years my parents sent me to a wretched Catholic school that has given me a permanent fear of authority figures. My kindergarten teacher was an abusive tyrant who once threatened to shove my socks down my throat for the crime of looking out the window. When one girl was unable to tie her shoes, the teacher shoved her right into a desk, causing a frightening flow of blood from her nose. I will carry the image of that little girl's white blouse covered in her own blood in my head until the day I die. This same teacher also had me taken out of class one day and tested for mental disability. I'd love to mail her a copy of my PhD diploma.
At public school I tended to get along fairly well with my teachers, many of whom encouraged my creativity and intellectual curiousity. My main problems came from my peers, who saw me as an easy mark for bullying, teasing, and public mockery. I was literally spat upon, depantsed, and once had a whole bottle of cologne dumped on me. The thing that kept me going in my teen years was the knowledge that there was a wider world out there beyond rural Nebraska where I might gain acceptance. A world where other people read Kerouac, listened to the Smiths, and appreciated movies like Taxi Driver. A world where I might be able to have friends and get a date. My high school graduation was one of the happiest days of my life, beccause I knew I would finally be escaping from a place where I had never been accepted.
As is usual for young people of my disposition, I found my tribe of fellow nerds in college and never looked back. After college I moved to Chicago for a couple of years, and then went on to get my PhD. During the years after I left home I took four trips abroad, including one nine-month stint in Germany. By the time all was said and done I'd washed most of my upbringing off: I had become a social democratic agnostic cosmopolitan with highfallutin' tastes in culture and food.
Like other academics who come from non-academic and non-bourgeois backgrounds, a gulf of experience has widened between me and my family. Most of my family has stayed within The Bubble. They live in rural Nebraska and Kansas, go to Catholic Mass every week, vote Republican, think of Omaha as "the big city," and are frightened of ethnic food. As economic life in rural America has gotten ever cruddier, its residents adhere that much stronger to the ethos of The Bubble.
Nobody wants to admit it, but when Barack Obama said that people in rural America were responding to hard times and negative change by "clinging to guns and religion," he was right on the money. I've seen it in my own family. My parents have become more radical in their Catholicism, and more unhinged in their politics. In addition to taking part in anti-abortion protests and spouting Tea Party talking points, they were part of a local campaign to prevent water flouridation.
Whenever I go home, I never cease to be astounded at how narrow peoples' horizons are; it's as if life does not exist in the world beyond a hundred mile radius surrounding rural Nebraska. Chicago might as well be the moon, forget about California or New York. I don't want to dislike the place where I was born and raised, but it never seemed to like me very much to begin with. (At least it now has a good bakery and coffee house.) I can at least take heart in seeing the loved ones who are all I really cherish from those days, days that now seem like they happened in another life.