One of my associates from graduate school sent me a tape with songs like "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" and the theme from Green Acres. Now that I'm working as an assistant professor of English at Small Rural Midwest College, some people back at Big Urban East Coast University seem to think I teach in a one-room schoolhouse and live in a sod hut.
Midwest College was a one-building school -- about 140 years ago. It has become an excellent liberal-arts college enrolling most of its students from within a 100-mile radius. Families have sent their children here for generations, and there is a strong feeling of community and idealism. There is a sense that we live in sacred time out here, that our service to students and the community has meaning beyond professional advancement.
My wife and I bought an old farm on which the previous family had raised 15 children. The day after we moved in, several neighbors stopped by to welcome us with cakes and cookies. The house is five times bigger than our old urban apartment, and we have six acres of woods and an orchard. We have a barn, a chicken coop, a windmill, a corn crib, and an outhouse with two seats, along with indoor plumbing. Last spring, I bought a tractor and a pair of overalls. Two black cats, Edgar and Oscar, have adopted us and live on our deck. There's a raccoon in our barn who looks about 30 pounds, and we've decided to let him stay. His name is Roger.
My wife -- a former college administrator -- is taking time off to be at home with our daughters, ages 3 and 2 months. Although we are concerned about obligatory gender roles, our newly traditional lifestyle does not raise eyebrows here. It works for us.
My oldest daughter and I go on nature walks almost every day now. In the fall, we pick our own apples and pears, and we're looking forward to next spring to see the tulips we planted last September. This weekend, I'll burn some leaves and hang Christmas lights on the trees around our house. We are both truly grateful for this new life. It's some kind of Norman Rockwell fantasy and oh-so banal and "offensive" to the world we used to inhabit back East.
Although I'm not from the Midwest, I feel like the artist Thomas Hart Benton, whose name I've adopted for this column, who became fed up with the snobbery and fashion of the East Coast art establishment and tried to reclaim his identity in the American heartland. I don't approve of his bigotry, but I understand how it developed.
One indelible memory is the first seminar I attended at Big East Coast University. One of my classmates saw my wedding ring and asked if I was married. I said, yes, and she asked, "Happily?" Another student sneered, "Wow, married ... how retro-hetero-normative." Others snickered in approval. And so the seven-year assault on my values began. To avoid harassment, I learned to conceal who I was: my faith, my working-class origins, most of my core beliefs. I had to smile and nod in support of "tolerant" people who openly hated the world that produced me -- and who were abetted by the "profession" in doing so.
Graduate school in the humanities is an extended struggle with shame and guilt for more students than anyone has dared to state in public. One cannot speak publicly about such things and remain a "professional."
It has been a few years since I left, but I retain a grad school superego. It sneers at everything I am. But I am determined to sneer back. I am irony ironized. My new life is surrounded by so many quotation marks that they cancel each other out.
Do I miss anything about grad school? The close contact with a few trusted advisers. The research library. The variety of interesting people. The museums. The architecture. The elegant parks. The charm of a deep local history. The secondhand-book shops.
But I do not miss the traffic, the road rage, the parking problems, the public anonymity, and the general rudeness. The high cost of living, the cramped housing, and the filth on the sidewalks. The snobbery and effortless wealth of cell-phone Yuppies in their BMW's. The self-righteous radicals in $1,000 worth of casual clothes. The scorn for people of faith ("tools"). The default contempt for the United States ("We had it coming"). The ruthless competition among graduate students for scarce jobs and prizes. The professors who treated us like migrant laborers. The depression produced by a nearly hopeless job market.
While I conformed outwardly, my body revolted. In my last semester of grad school, I landed in the hospital with a peptic ulcer and infections in both ears that permanently impaired my hearing. It was the culmination of a series of stress-related ailments that plagued me in the final years of grad school. I feel sick just remembering that time.
I still go to the gray winter conferences: New York, Washington, Boston. I get excited during the cab ride to the hotel. Such tall buildings! I hope I can find time for one of the museums and some secondhand-book shopping. But the hotel lobby fills me with tension. Should I work the room? Twist my face into a phony grin? Try to bask in someone's aura? Pair after pair of eyes move from my face to my name tag. (Am I worth talking to?) I find some old friends; we talk briefly, on our way to someone else. We're in on the conspiracy; we recognize the phoniness, and, of course, it doesn't apply to us. But our eyes still follow the important passers-by, hoping for recognition, hoping to renew a connection.
When I walk out of the airport near our small town, something lifts. I can inhale deeply again. My back loosens; my stomach relaxes. It's not really home, but I am happy to be here. I just want to continue writing and teaching, to contribute to the community, to raise my children, and to enjoy life with my family as the person I am. For once, all this seems possible. I drive home past green trees, black-and-white cows, and red barns. The "profession" seems 1,000 miles away.
And yet I know how predictable this all must sound. What a surprise that I should make virtues of my necessities. A populist is someone who tried to rise -- and failed. How conventional, self-deluded, and "offensive."