Times change. But once, time slowed and change crawled.
Once, there were the corner grocery, and wooden houses; big trees for climbing; backyard vegetable gardens, and woods within easy bicycling distance. And no danger. Once mama sent us to the corner store with one-dollar bills and some change wrapped up in them. Once our dad taught us how to change spark plugs; once our grandparents sat on their front porch two houses down, and the Depression lingered on in a hundred ways. Once the cashier at the corner store wore his hair in a ducktail, and looked a little like Elvis, but he was a peaceable guy, a Southern boy, little slow of speech, and like Elvis he knew respect and gave respect.
Older ways are not necessarily better, but they do denote a kind of strength that is missing now. How did strength let itself disappear? What replaced it? Things are broken now, and we don’t know how to fix them.
Did Mayberry ever exist? Can we square a nostalgic vision of virtue & community with all we know now about meanness and dysfunction and financial looters and schemers? I believe we can.
Once the world of ‘village culture’ --- the greetings, the old understandings, the people who seemed to know us though we did not know them, their expectations of our conduct, the scroll-saw work hanging from the porch rim, the hesitation we saw as the gray-haired fifty-year-old considered how best to respond to our childish explosions and offer semi-articulate guidance --- the world of overarching ‘village culture’ gave us a world of safety and (presumed) wisdom; a world where good things could be expected to happen; a world with adults quietly but firmly in charge; a stable world that could handle our childish adventures and misadventures, that went its own self-enclosed way while we took our bicycle trips around town, went on frog-collecting expeditions, or had our rather harmless crab-apple fights with neighbor children. This world of ‘village culture’ had been brought over from the Old World; it dispersed as the immigrants scattered; now it lingered, partly imbued with its own power, partly torn and trailing, as new forces attacked it and separated its strands.
The new forces had to do with money and mobility and the uses to which prosperity was put. In the new suburbs, spread out on or past the edge of town after the Second World War, neighbors from disparate backgrounds peeped at each other through the window slats and tried to figure out what the other was up to. After a time they formed ad hoc relations --- handshakes and grins --- relations that would last only a generation --- because each home was a launching pad for children who would exceed their parents’ station in life, fly off to some higher-mortgage suburb, and thereby justify the father’s ‘daily grind’. You must go, but please make us proud.
In the womb of the family, we fed like wriggly one-cells in a nutrient bath. As children we found our feet, crept out beyond the boundaries, saw a bright world then ran all over town; grace, shock, and mild adventure awaited us.
Adolescence was like going over the rapids in a raft.
By the time the current generation had come to be, the vacancy and materialism of the post-WW2 suburbs --- the vacancy being the extinction of village culture, with no organic substitute --- had been replaced, in kid world, by an invasive species --- the video world, which cannibalized the kids’ minds and set the terms of the culture --- the culture to which they aspired, the culture in which they projected slightly more grown-up versions of themselves. TV culture started with 60’s affluence --- a TV was placed in every bedroom so there would be no more dispute over what to watch. This eliminated the family dinner. Video culture started with MTV in the 80’s; it blossomed out with phones; it established a counter-world based on going one step further, and then one step further than that --- all breathtakingly transgressive. In prying kids away from their parents and establishing vulgarity as an advancing and competitive norm, it went too far.
I can’t offer advice or guidance, but I can leave a record of the old village world --- its torn remnants --- it lives on in memory and shortly not even in that. I think a collection of pieces written with respect and intelligence and a determination that these things not die might take root in the secret hearts of readers, and blossom somehow. I think all those kids who comment on videos of Del Shannon and Buddy Holly “Gee, I wish I was born then” will find something to grab onto in this little book of mine and guard them against the depredations of video culture and out-of-control change. I think my book is actually a sacramental object. I think it belongs on every nightstand and in every backpack. I think it will slowly be recognized for what it is --- an American classic. Along with Books II and III, soon to be released. Get your copy now.
I can’t stop.
It’s not just a throwback. If in it you can find those moments when the eternal suddenly reveals itself in us and to us like a timeless crystal and unites in its cold flare to the same moment in people a hundred years ago or a hundred years hence, then you have a time machine --- an instantaneous connection to the Self around the arc of the universe. Open the book and the transhuman shines out. Put your hand on it and send your message out through the great fiber-optic to your neighbors long gone or living now or waiting for you in the future.