Ingham County, MI
Commenting in the New Yorker on a book composed of blog posts written by the redoubtable Dick Cavett—and dissenting from the opinion that such a collection actually counts as a book—Louis Menand said, “a blog is a means of sharing your pet peeves and off-the-cuff theories of everything with the entire planet. To this point in the history of civilization, that is not what a book is.”
Full marks to Mr. Menand—and sympathies to the offended basement typist elbow-deep in his Cheese Doodles.
For what is a blog? There’s no getting around the fact that it’s like a splotch or a splat or a squeegee: it is what it sounds like.
I write that as someone with a book in production—a book you should all buy several copies of—that collects my FPR pieces on food and drink and the country matters that attend them. (Tentative title: The Culinary Plagiarist: (Mis)Adventures of a Lusty, Thieving, God-Fearing Gourmand.) I have been encouraged to do this by FPR friends who, I half suspect, mean to do me wrong. It has been part of the FPR M.O. from the beginning, after all, for members (or some of them, anyway) to take bites out of each other occasionally while otherwise trying to do the real work of suggesting ways to be men and women of parts, people fully inhabiting actual places and not, as the current script would have it, quasi-human-like bipeds staring blankly at screens and knowing nothing about where we are or who’s around us or what it’s like to toss a football with the nieces and nephews in the backyard of an ancestral house.
That is, FPR has been both a serious and a jocular venture.
So (just to begin a sentence with a word that puts me in grave danger of becoming one of those precious NPR pundits) I more or less accept Menand’s definition of “blog,” acknowledge the verbal promiscuity by which my forthcoming “book” is actually a book, and, by way of shameless self-promotion, introduce a concern that was on the minds of Front Porchers ten years ago: how to make this non-blog on-line magazine dedicated to off-line life—to life fully placed, decentralized, scaled down, and humane—safe from accusations of a fundamental contradiction or, what is worse, hypocrisy.
“Screw it” might be regarded as one strategy—if I may express the strategy less fricatively than I might if I were jesting in a local bar. “This is how things are now. We’ll fight fire with fire.” Anyone who has read The Prairie—and I think all of us have committed enough sins to warrant such punishment—knows that you can do this: you can start a back fire and reasonably hope that, if husbanded properly, it will mitigate the effects of the bigger fire that’s coming.
At any rate, “screw it” was my strategy. I was uncomfortable with the medium but I liked our mission—Place, Limits, Liberty—and I especially liked the company of my boon companions and fellow non-bloggers. Good might come of this, I remember thinking, even as good eventually came of the inscrutable contest Lear put his daughters through. (Treachery, betrayals, blindness, death, and dissolution came of it too, but so did forgiveness and reconciliation.)
And so, as if like Jonah of old I had heard a booming voice say, “Arise, go to that great wasteland, and cry against it, for the insidiousness of their placeless technocratic intent has come before me,” I hightailed it for the Tarshish of smartassery: I wrote a piece that “went live” on Wednesday, March 4, 2009, our first week “up.” The voice was calculated, as it almost invariably would be thereafter, but it made a point I still stand by—even though no modern-day Ninevite has paid attention. The point was that way back in the 18th century Jonathan Swift had
put his ruddy all-probing finger on several of our worst maladies: upward mobility, contempt for the places that sustain us (doubly detestable in those who have “risen” from such places), outsourcing, enslavement to fashion, which is naught but the Tyranny of the Next Thing, and the habit of raising children to do nothing more productive than sit on their Frito-fed fannies until the entertainment industry has successfully amused them into an intellectual indolence exceeded only by their physical inertia.
And then out of sheer stubbornness or cussedness—or, what is more likely, an effort to shame the less stalwart among us, all of whom had pledged to write once per week but who, to a man, keeled over in short order like a snow-bound high-country diphtheriac you can’t get the serum to—I proceeded to write a piece for the next 180-some consecutive Wednesdays, one of them pinched out in a hotel after a long principles-compromising international flight. (I had read a book above the Atlantic; why not riff on the book? Why not share my pet peeves and off-the-cuff theories of everything with the entire planet?) Like Molly Brown I would not be sunk, by God!
But insofar as this electronic magazine did in fact share certain characteristics with a “blog,” there was bound to be some blathering, and I, no doubt, contributed my unfair share just to keep the site meter spinning. For site meters must spin, especially in a topsy-turvy world where a blog is a man’s best friend. So I kept at it. I kept at it and renamed Tuesday “Desperation Day.” My family knew that after supper I would disappear and not be heard from again until Wednesday morning. And I confess to you, my bruthren and sistern, that sometimes, at the end of the evening, for labors that occasionally brought forth naught but fiction and doggerel, I rewarded myself with a skewered and much-drenched olive, often on the very last stroke of midnight, though there were times when the quality of the writing could make a reader think that the reward had come much earlier in the evening.
And then a sabbatical came along and I felt duty-bound to quit for a while to do the promised work, and so I did, and Mark Mitchell was kind enough to write a short thank-you and explain my absence. And suddenly Wednesdays on the Porch were quieter and I a slightly better family man after supper on Desperation Day.
At length I did start up again—long enough to write a widely-read and monstrously-traduced piece on how to write like an average undergraduate male—until something stood athwart the porch and yelled “stop!” In 2015 I had been knocked a little off balance by the death of my father and the task of putting him to pious rest smack-dab amid the twelve days of Christmas, whereupon what remained of my balance forsook me altogether, exiling me to my bed, where, even supine, I lay spinning. For several days a virus plus vertigo plus who-knows-what sat heavily upon me, and by the time it lifted itself to let me take inventory I discovered that I had gone completely deaf in my right ear. The indicated treatment, a course of oral steroids plus another course of steroid shots—one per week for a month right through the eardrum—did not bring back the hour of splendor in the bass—or in the tenor or alto or soprano either. All I had to show for the steroid therapy was a deafening case of tinnitus in the dead ear. But at least the ringing wasn’t going to make me any deafer—in time grumpier, certainly, but not any deafer. You can’t be any deafer than deaf.
Perhaps I should go dumber too, I thought. More on that anon.
It was time, I think, for my father to cross the finish line. He was ill and was not going to get better. That it was time for me to go deaf in one ear is, I guess, also true. I was planning to buy myself a set of high-quality headphones that winter. I like good music, not the garbage that the kids these days listen too. I especially like English choral music and, though I say it myself, I have some capacity for it. But I found suddenly that my appreciation of music had been diminished by about the equivalent of two ears divided by one. I would have to adjust to life without a father and an ear. But I could be thankful for this much at least: I hadn’t parted with the money for the headphones. And now, for obvious reasons, I never would. Antiphonal music expertly mixed and piped into two headphones will leave a man deaf in one ear mightily perplexed.
The father-business is private enough to warrant the silence that half a head can get acquainted with pretty quickly. As for the silence itself: it didn’t take me long to determine that hearing is not a right of birth and that I had no business giving pity a foothold. It helped having one functioning ear left, I admit. Losing all my hearing might have been a damned nuisance.
But how can you keep from asking yourself what it would be like to lose your tongue—that is, the capacity for both speaking and savoring? Or what if you begin to think that less writing (or “posting,” as I guess it should be called) would complement nicely that diminishment of hearing? What if you think the booming voice is now saying something about how the Ninevites are a little tired of your ire and spleenstone? Or what if that is simply a delicate way the booming voice has of telling you you’ve run out of things to say and ways of saying them? A crisis of confidence can strike at any time. “All of the moves and none of the courage,” as Bonnie Raitt once crooned.
“Man does not put silence to the test,” said Max Picard; “silence puts man to the test.” So I went irregular again—like a beef-eating octogenarian on high doses of Codeine.
* * *
I fully expected FPR to have come and gone by now, and not simply because of the soft inland murmur that the initial torrent had been reduced to, to say nothing of the apparent deaths of Mark Mitchell, Jeremy Beer, Bill Kauffman, Patrick Deneen, Nancy-Boy Jeff Polet, the mellifluous Katherine Dalton, and the mulish and headstrong but now hamstrung and hogtied Honorable Justice Caleb Stegall (all of whose deaths have been greatly exaggerated). Besides, as Hawthorne once put it, “persons of marked individuality—crooked sticks, as some of us might be called—are not exactly the easiest to bind up into a faggot.”
But there’s a resilience to this project, and it’s a resilience born more of demand than of supply, as is proper for oddballs like us, writers and readers alike, who aren’t particularly pleased with how, ever since the first fowling piece was sold at Mt. Wollaston, supply has been dictating the terms of existence, turning trivial goods into vital necessities and ruining everything in the process, or with how the telos of man has shifted away from eudaemonia or a good death to a life of perpetual disquietude fueled by ever-more highly refined methods of shopping and round-the-clock entertainment issuing from a satanic rectangle slid unbecomingly in the back pocket. Quiet I know something about; disquietude has but one remedy, and it is not a program of planned obsolescence and ritual spending. That program issues from people who are smart and cool by dint of living near an ocean. Don’t ever trust them.
In 2002, twenty-five years after The Unsettling of America was first published, Wendell Berry said that as the author of the book he should be pleased about its abiding relevance, except that the book was written to correct problems that in the intervening twenty-five years had worsened. Better far for all of us if the book had been rendered irrelevant by improved methods of land-use and healthier communities, especially rural communities. But none of that ever happened. And now it’s been forty-two years since the book came out, and still the problems are worsening, and so the book is relevant and timely still.
So it is, I fear, with the meager FPR project. Do we hear more or less noise about limitlessness? (“Unlimited talk,” boasts one or another of the demonic purveyors of mobile (de)vices—as if endless yammering could ever be a selling point even to someone with only one functioning ear!) Is there anything or anyplace that the missionaries of limitlessness have not attempted to proselytize? And having plowed through the delimiting markers of our farmland, we are now poised to plow across the margins and fencerows of death itself. Such are the promises of at least one very great fool, while at least one minor bard wonders, in apparent irrelevance, where all these deathless Methuselahs are going to park.
And do we see more or fewer people casting their buckets down and driving their tent-pegs deep, flourishing in their places like people made for horseshoes and hayrides rather than for an airport Starbucks and seven more Cosmo secrets on how to drive him wild? Perpetual motion in nature is impossible? So what? In Silly Con Valley anything is possible. Put your whole life in your back pocket and go! (Just be careful not to butt-dial anyone when you sit down at the fair-trade bistro to check whether your home security system is enabled.)
And what of liberty—true liberty, as in the liberty by which we free ourselves from our most tyrannous impulses to live out true vocations? What about liberty of that sort, as opposed to the “freedom” of having sixty-seven different brands of deodorant or corn-sweetened breakfast cereals to choose from? What of the sweet capacity for restraint that is proper to a creature capable of contemplation and wonder and adoration?
The pestilence still rages. On the tenth anniversary of FPR we must, like Old Wendell, admit a little sadly that we’re still relevant.
In his preface to Localism and the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (which you should also buy ten extra copies of) Mark Mitchell noted that a “cosmopolitan agenda . . . that champions internationalism over nationalism, that celebrates an abstract global community over concrete local affiliations, and that rejoices in the inevitability of globalization” is now being seriously challenged by people all across the political spectrum. I won’t say that FPR is the Little Engine That Could chugging along at the front of that challenge, but it hasn’t exactly been the Little Red Caboose behind the train either. Its mission remains (to quote Mitchell again) to “see the possibility of a world where human affairs are conducted as if place really matters, where economic affairs are conceived as if limits really matter, and where political power is exercised as if liberty really matters.”
It helps that, under the energetic groomsmanship of Jeff Bilbro, there are several more horses in the FPR stable; it also helps that there are some savvy folk moving about quietly and anonymously in the barn to lend a hand. Matt Dorn and John Bilbro come to mind. They along with Jeff deserve our gratitude. The project needs their talent more than it needs money, which it also needs.
But my own view is that we’re going to need more than the Budweiser Clydesdales to pull the cart of civilization out of the mire of centralized planning and technocratic tyranny. My fear, as I said ten years ago, is that man is an incorrigible creature who uses reason only to increase his vice. We’re neither good enough nor smart enough to make, voluntarily, the changes that we obviously need to make to avoid catastrophe. But at least we’ve figured out how to create the catastrophes that will force us to make those changes. So let us preserve the knowledge and skill, the goodness of heart, and the truth about ourselves and the end we’re made for, so that when the evil days come, as they most assuredly will, we are ready to begin again with what remains.