August she was swinging low
Town of about a thousand-so
Out of school, ready to get out of here
Off to farm, off to State, each going our separate ways
Graduation message still sweet in our ears
~~ “Long Gone Long” by The Rainmakers
A few years ago at a dinner after the funeral of a family member, I was sitting at a table with some of my cousins, my Mom, and my sister Diana. I don’t recall exactly what we were talking about, but my cousin Curt said to me, “Since you’re the token liberal in our family, I’ll ask you this,” and my sister Diana didn’t say anything, but just raised her hand. Curt looked at her and started laughing, then said to my Mom, “What did you DO?!” Mom just kind of laughed and shook her head and said, “I don’t know.”
If any of that sounds mean-spirited, it wasn’t, not at all. It’s something I still laugh about, and Curt and I have been having interesting and respectful discussions since our college days. We still get a chance to have an occasional chat and I always enjoy them immensely.
It leads to something that I have pondered quite a bit: since I come from a conservative family, in a conservative state, and grew up in a very conservative small town, how the heck did I end up a flamin’ liberal?! Same with my sister Di and with Cousin Shane. This is something I’ve even discussed with Di and Shane, just because I’m curious about how that could happen. What was different about us?
A few things spring to mind.
To continue to use the three of us (me, Diana, and Shane) as examples, we all got into music at an early age. Diana was a Beatlemaniac and I was listening to her 45s and albums from the time I was probably six years old. (She taught me how to do the Monkey.) Shane and I really started getting into music even when we were in grade school and things really took off when we got into junior high and high school. I think it’s fair to say that we were obsessed. We started off mild, with stuff like The Eagles and Journey, but then we discovered bands like Queen and Cheap Trick and Heart and then holy mama, PUNK ROCK hit us like a hurricane! I subscribed to Creem magazine and I think I subscribed to Circus for a while, too. We read about these crazy music scenes in New York and London and pored over lyrics and obsessed about the music as well as the musicians.
I grew up in a fundamentalist religious household and rock music was often seen as something satanic or evil. I was never forbidden to listen to it—that train had already sailed—but there were always sermons at church, or books laying around, about the dangers of rock music. I used to laugh about it at the time, but you know what? I look back at it now and I realize that there really was an inherent danger in the music.
Not that it was satanic or evil or contained occult messages—that’s just silly. But there was definitely a message there about thinking for yourself, questioning authority, being anti-establishment. And there was plenty of stuff about sex. I mean, hey, it’s rock and roll! So yes, that is dangerous to the conservative, religious atmosphere in which I was raised. Even beyond all that, it gave us a glimpse of a lifestyle other than our small-town Midwestern existence. There were big cities where things were happening, people were doing their own thing and being themselves, people were going out at night and just totally rocking out! Music was a taste of other things out there. Things we wanted to experience.
I was going to make that heading “books,” but I realized that Shane doesn’t read a lot of fiction books. I changed it to what I did because while being a reader means that you are undoubtedly intellectually curious, you can still be intellectually curious without being a reader. (Does that make sense?) Di and I have always been avid readers, both of nonfiction and fiction (and the occasional science textbook for me), but Shane has his own way of being intellectually curious. After a recent trip to Europe, he is currently working on learning some phrases in Polish. Just as with music, reading and continued learning allow us to get a glimpse of other worlds, other cultures, other ways of life. Shane and I also took a lot of German in high school (and I took some in college), and we agree that a second language should be mandatory in high school. It taught us so much about a different culture and really opened our eyes to a bigger world.
When we were kids, we went on a lot of trips with our parents. My family usually split our summer and winter vacations between Minnesota and Florida, respectively. Not a lot of variety there, but on the drives up to Minnesota or down to Florida, we stopped at a lot of places along the way to learn about history. Shane went on a lot of trips with his Dad, to places out East and to the western states. We all still love to travel and we all seem to have that same urge to learn things when we go to places. I always joke about how when I go to someplace new, I end up buying a half a dozen books about it! (I’ve got plenty of books about New Orleans and Las Vegas if you want to borrow some!) This is also related to the above categories because when you travel, you get to meet people and see cultures that you aren’t familiar with. You get to see that there is a lot more to the world than what is in your little local bubble.
Going off to college
This is the only one that applies just to me, and I think I might be the one who needed it the most. (Di and Shane both attended our local Indiana University extension.) I went off to the big city of Muncie, Indiana (haha) to go to Ball State University. Ball State is a good-sized state college, with an enrollment of maybe 20,000 when I was there. I lived in dorms my first three years and then off-campus for my senior year. What an eye-opener that experience was! All of it. I was around people from all over the state and some from other countries. There were party kids, there were studious kids (I tried to dabble at everything!), there were frat boys and sorority girls (we didn’t hang out much with them, although we partied a lot at the “Animal House” type frat), there were rich kids and there were kids like me. Not only did I get to meet all kinds of people I had never met before, it broke me out of that mold that I’d been stuck in when I was in high school: the nerdy bookworm type. I realize now that that isn’t a bad thing, but when it’s your senior year in high school and you don’t get invited to the prom, it’s kind of like, “Well...fuck.”
Anyway, all that changed when I got to college. People liked my weird sense of humor. They liked that I was into music. The guys at the local record shop got to know me and always had suggestions for me. I dated the drummer in a band called The Generics. I went from being an unpopular kid in high school to being voted Resident of the Year on my dorm floor my junior year. (I still don’t get that! I also got the Foulest Mouth award. THAT I understand! Some things never change.) I’m not sure how much anyone other than the professors were interested in my intellectual capacity, but that was okay. I got a good education but I also got the opportunity for people to like me for ME, and to not judge me based on what they had heard from someone else in a tiny school. As a painfully shy kid, I really needed that. I still remember the name of the first boy who told me I was beautiful: L*** V. R*****. Okay, fine, he was drunk...but it was stunning for me to hear that for the first time. So much so that I still remember his name after all these years! Like, “Hey, wait a minute...you can be smart AND pretty??”
(Aside: Holy shit! I just looked him up and he’s an accountant in Indianapolis! That’s why I redacted his name. Not cool to put someone’s name on a blog entry, even if it’s for something nice. Cheers to you, sir. Your words are a nice memory for me and made a difference in my life.)
Honorable Mentions to:
Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Second City TV, Beyond Our Control (a local show), Saturday Night Live, Fridays, Midnight Special, American Bandstand, Soul Train, and what the hell, even Dance Fever with Deney Terio!
I really don’t know if all of this culminated in me being a liberal in a red state. I do think that much of it had an effect on me. I read something a while back that I found shocking. There are a lot of people in this country who have never left their home state. I wish I could recall the exact percentage, but it was shockingly high to me...maybe 20%? When you are exposed to nothing other than the same influences you have had from your first moment, how can you learn and grow?
I hope this doesn’t come across as “elitist.” Heck, I live in the heartland...how can I be one of those coastal elites? Ha! And it’s not to say that those who didn’t do any of these things didn’t end up with the same outlook that I have. However, I do feel that my worldview is different from a lot of the people in my area. I don’t know the exact combination of factors that set me on a different path, but I’m glad it’s the one I took. I’m happy with being me.
And even though I never got to go to prom, I had plenty of chances to work it out on the dance floor later!