Dumbshit in a Small Town

Bloggified by Jake on Thursday, August 5, 2010

I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Prob'ly die in a small town

- John Cougar Mellencamp, "Small Town"

For a while I've had a standing argument about the people of Wewahitchka, Florida. I say they are all idiots and my ex says they are not. My case is a simple one. There are two main roads that run through that swamp. Anyone who can't figure out how to leave it is clearly stupid.

Recently, I won the argument when "one of the smartest people in Wewa," who Theresa regularly stood up for, insisting "he's not stupid, Jake. He's really not," called me to accuse me of slandering his name and threatening me with a lawsuit. It took all I had not to laugh--I take that back. I did laugh quite a bit. It was really hard to take him seriously, especially when he informed me "I work with the law and I know slander!"

Yeah? You deal with a lot of slander in your line of work as a correctional officer in Florida's panhandle? Because I'm guessing you deal a lot more with meth heads, deadbeat dads, and drunk drivers than you do with slander cases.

It should be noted that what he actually was accusing me of was libel and that what I had done was not libelous. I tried to explain to him the flaws in his thinking, but he didn't want to hear my explanations. Hard to believe, isn't it? A small town conservative Christian redneck who refuses to listen to facts that might prove his falsely held beliefs incorrect. Who'd have thunk it?

Now, as much as I'd like to rip this guy a new asshole and expose his ignorance for all the world, I'm holding back. I mean, I'd like to... but I don't really want to. In a way, it seems like locking your kid in the basement for a week without any food because he spilled ink on the rug. He doesn't know any better and I feel kind of sorry for his ignorance... though that doesn't excuse it by any means. Instead of posting that, for now I'd rather explore exactly why "one of the smartest people in Wewa" is so fucking stupid.

The problem with small towns is that they breed ignorance and stupidity. The subject in question is proud of his small town roots, as are most people who for some reason feel it's a point of pride to look back on their lives and say, "Yup... I sure didn't accomplish nuthin'. Didn't even bother to leave this town? Why bother? We gonna get us a Olive Garden next year."

The brain is like a muscle. If you are not exercising it, it with atrophy. When measuring our physical fitness, it's easy to find objective measures. "I could bench 150 pounds last week and 165 pounds this week. I am getting stronger." "I ran a mile in 8 minutes last week and 8:30 this week. I am getting slower."

But the brain is harder to test objectively. We most often judge our intelligence subjectively versus those around us. "I am the smartest guy in the room." "Those three guys over there are talking about stuff I just can't wrap my brain around." "How did you figure that out? I never would have thought of that!"

Hence, we tend to exercise our brains subjectively. Imagine if gyms didn't have weights written on dumbbells and plates. Instead, they all were just color coded. In some gyms, red dumbbells might be one pound and in others red might be five pounds, in still others, red might be 20 pounds. But you would never know what type of gym you are in and would have no idea how strong you really were objectively.

You may well be the strongest person in your gym, but if your subjective "strongest guy in the gym" is only benchpressing 120 pounds, what's going to happen when he goes to another gym where the weights are heavier?

When he tosses the same colored weights on the bar, he won't be able to budge it. Like the one-eyed king in Desiderius Erasmus's land of the blind, the strongest man in a land of weaklings is not necessarily strong.

I experienced this first hand when I lived in Panama City Beach--and my sister and friend, Brian, shared similar stories after living in Elgin, Illinois and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania for several years. All my life, I sought out the smartest friends, especially those with the quickest wits. Being around each other made us smarter. The objective measure continued to rise. The smarter we got, the more we worked at getting smarter still. Of the guys considered the "dumber" ones on the fringe of our group, one is getting his doctorate right now, one is a writer for the Village Voice, and one is a high-ranking public official in Illinois.

When I left Phoenix to move to Yuma, and in turn Panama City Beach, I was instantly the smartest man in town. I hung out with college professors and city officials and was always the smartest man in the room. I did approximately 50% more work than any other reporter at my news station in approximately 70% of the time and was the go-to guy for writing advice and interesting angles on stories. I feel safe saying that if I was not the smartest man in the Panhandle, I was in the top five. And when I went to places like Wewahitchka, Bristol, and Apalachicola to cover a football game or a wrasslin' match, I was smarter than any three people in the room put together.

Then one Christmas I came back to Phoenix. I'd lived in Panama City Beach for 14 months as the smartest man alive, but as soon as I went to lunch with my sister less than twenty minutes after our plane landed, I knew something was wrong. At dinner with my parents, I felt like I was coming back from spring break only to find that everyone else in class had stayed at school and used their free time to take twice as many classes. And when I went to lunch with my friends the next day, I don't know that I said more than fifty words because I constantly felt like I was a step behind all the witty, snappy banter being fired from all sides.

(Unfortunately, Hulu doesn't have the Rob Morrow SNL sketch with the time machine, so you'll have to just go read the transcript. There isn't even a good picture so I'll put a picture of a different time machine here.)

I had become so accustomed to being the smartest man in Panama City Beach that I hadn't recognized how stupid I'd become.

When I moved back to Phoenix permanently, it took months before I felt comfortable with my own intelligence. Theresa struggled in her teaching job for the first few months as well, especially given her accent. But after a short while, we settled in and found our place.

Unfortunately, after years of growing exponentially as a person, Theresa joined Facebook and reconnected with dozens of the albatrosses she went to high school with in Wewahitchka. They laughed at her lack of an accent. They teased her about getting book-learnin' and being all citified. They reminded her how great good old, down home family values were, like never having to meet anyone new after the age of seven. She would spend hours a day talking to these people about nothing, because in Wewa there is nothing to talk about. High school football, hunting, more high school football... oh, and the fact that there's a darkie in the White House who wants to take all our guns.

There are no intellectual pursuits in Wewahitchka. "Oh, you like to read," labels you as an intellectual. There is no way to grow, and so the people there do not. Instead, they revel in their lack of growth and mock those who choose to grow.

Imagine if after finishing second grade, you decided to stay there instead of moving on to third grade, then stayed again and again and again until you were 22, it wouldn't be much different from growing up in Wewahitchka. "Hey, I've gotten straight A's for fifteen years!" you might argue, but it's because you have spent fifteen years doing the same thing you figured out long ago and without ever trying something new you might fail at.

What is the point of life if not to grow, to learn, to spread our influence and experience the influences of others? When speaking to "one of the smartest people in Wewa," I had to listen to him accuse me of having no friends and praising the fact that "in the small town, we make friends for life." Yes, because you never bother to meet anyone new. I have friends from elementary school, junior high, high school, college, grad school, and old jobs that I keep in touch with, and I'm making new friends all the time--mostly in the publishing industry of late--yet I don't need to talk to any of them every day. They have lives and families and pursuits of their own. We don't all sit around doing the same bullshit our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents did because we live in perpetual fear of what might happen if we tried a falafel or watched a movie with subtitles.

In the past year, I have joined a curling league, learned to use chopsticks, wrote four books, saw plays, and invented new sushi recipes. I traveled to San Diego, Tampa, Las Vegas twice, and New York. I went to NFL games, Major League Baseball games, college football games, spring training games, several of the greatest hockey games I've seen in my life, and three Stanley Cup playoff games--and if I wanted to I could have gone to NBA, WNBA, Arena Football, and minor league hockey games, too. My kids ice skated on the Coyotes' home ice, joined a hockey team, learned to make sushi, went to the Science Museum more times than we can count, watched live theatre not in a high school auditorium, heard the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, visited the Phoenix Art Museum, and--Taryn pointed out--regularly shop at one of the biggest comic book stores in the world. On any given night, we can eat Chinese, German, Mexican, steaks, Cajun, barbecue, Ethiopian, Greek, French, Italian, seafood, Brazilian, Japanese, burgers, Irish, Indian, Navajo, Cuban, kosher deli, wings, or Sonoran hot dogs, or we can try to find something we haven't tried yet. We've had so many new, fresh, exciting experiences that present themselves only because of where we live and our willingness to accept them that we lose track.

On the other hand, in the past year, "one of the smartest people in Wewa" coached basketball... again and got one year older while his kids experienced getting another year older and doing all the same old shit their dad did when he was their age.

What is death but the cessation of growth, learning, and experiences? Once someone decides "I have learned all I care to learn" or "I don't need to ever see anything different" or "I know everyone I'll ever need to know," that person is essentially dead. And in small towns like Wewahitchka, there are legions of walking dead, steeping in proudly defiant ignorance. The only thing sadder is watching someone who broke free and spent nine years raising two beautiful, intelligent children openly embracing that ignorance because those old, ignorant, dumbshit redneck friends "don't make me think about stuff."

What makes all this even worse is that "one of the smartest people in Wewa" wants to be a teacher. He wants to join the institutionalized movement to "educate" kids unlucky enough to be born in the backwater swamp that they can't possibly do any better and shouldn't try, lest they be labeled as "city folk" and accused of turning their backs on their roots.

Gonna die in this small town
And that's prob'ly where they'll bury me

5 sarcastic replies:

Lisa said...

sounds like u a real smart shit !!

Jake said...

Smart enough to capitalize my sentences, use verbs, and spell out the word "you."

KeK1974 said...

Seems to me you both just have a different opinion of what is important in life. I have lived both sides. I've lived all over the world. I'm proud of the fact that I experienced different cultures, learned to speak Japanese, excelled in my education, and the fact that I still have friends from Japan to Australia! And one other fact... I have lived in Wewahitchka, Florida! Man... you have it ALL wrong!

KeK1974 said...

By the way... this "smartest guy in Wewa"... Were you aware he is working towards his Masters in Education? He has a true love for the work he wants to do? And his family means the world to him? Probably not. I am one of his "newer" friends. And the values and morals that I see in him are the values and morals I hope to instill in my children one day. So get your head out of your ass and knock your ego down a notch. But, from what I'm hearing, it sounds like someone may have beaten you to it!

Jake said...

KeK1974... if that is in fact your real name... my point was not that someone living in Wewa can never experience new things or broaden his horizons. Just that if one chooses to stay there, those experiences and horizons are necessarily limited. I would say one would be better off--oh, just picking an example at random--living all over the world, experiencing different cultures, learning to speak Japanese, excelling in education, and making friends from Japan to Australia. Those things do not happen to someone whose social calendar every fall revolves around hanging out in the IGA parking lot to take pictures of dead deer strapped to tool boxes in the back of pick up trucks.

On a similar note, let's acknowledge there are millions of "cityfolks" who never bother to embrace the opportunities presented to them and are no better off than if they buried their heads in a swamp in Wewa. Living in a big city is not a guarantee you'll be smart and being from a shithole like Wewa doesn't mean you have to be stupid, but the odds of growing, learning, and having better, broader experiences are always greater if you get your car on 22 or 71 and don't turn back.

As for your comments regarding the SGiW:
1. If that guy gets a Masters in Education, it will just prove how little higher education means in this day and age. It used to be that a high school diploma actually took some intelligence to achieve. Now they hand out BA with honors to anyone because schools only care about making money.

2. I didn't question whether or not he loves his potential for squashing the dreams of kids who think maybe one day they'll escape Wewa. I only said it was sad that he'd probably get the opportunity to do so.

3. I didn't say anything about whether or not he loves his family. However, there are some text messages and late night phone conversations with at least one woman other than his wife that might make you question that statement. In fact, his disrespect for his family and the families of others is at the heart of my dislike of the man. Again, I didn't bring it up, you did.

4. Please, if you love your children, instill in them your own desire for depth, new experiences, and general thrill of the unknown, not his quest for mediocrity.

5. What you are hearing is, again, the sheltered, myopic views of someone who doesn't understand the world beyond Blountstown. Someone might be mistaking politeness for intimidation.

Thank you for your 99% polite and well-spoken reply.

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