I was raised on a farm in Kansas, where Id slopped the hogs and helped harvest the wheat. What did it mean to be country?

What it means to be country has changed in the few decades of my lifetime, I think, from an experience to a brand cultivated by conservative forces.

Once, when I was about 30, I saw a boy from a small town wearing a T-shirt that read pro-God, pro-guns, pro-life. I was shocked. In my experience, there was no evangelism about my familys Catholic faith in the 1980s and little overt cross-pollination between our church and our politics. There was, that I can recall, no resentment toward people in cities with more formal education and money. Im suspicious when I see these tropes trotted out proudly to represent the rural, working-class experience, often by people who have things my family never could have afforded.

Id never heard of Carhartt, for instance, the popular workwear brand sometimes worn as a class-conscious fashion statement, until I was well into adulthood. My choring coveralls were 20 years old with a big corduroy collar and holes in the lining, and I slopped the hogs while wearing old tennis shoes as often as I did in boots.

Grandpas trucks were small Toyotas bought used, not big Fords or Chevrolets jacked up a foot above big tires to look tough. Those trucks tend to look too clean for a machine thats done any work. The big flags flying off the back of them wouldve scared our cattle. The people who drive them often live in suburbs and have big, clean garages full of all-terrain vehicles that they call toys next to a row of shiny helmets, a very good option I didnt have as I drove three-wheelers from one pasture to another with buckets of feed.

Grandpa would have chuckled at a man with a cattle guard on the front of his truck driving to and from an office job. He would have laughed, too, about designer jeans yellowed with a wash meant to evoke the dirt that was under his fingernails, or the shabby chic decorating trend of new furniture meant to look like it had weathered decades in our barn.

My family found stuff like that funny rather than offensive, maybe because it was so poorly executed. When affluent urban men in plaid flannel shirts let their hair grow wild and unkempt across their face and necks to affect a laborers style for doing laptop work in coffee shops, I think of my dad immaculately trimming his beard every morning before dawn to work on a construction site. The men closest to me took meticulous care with their appearance whenever they had the chance.

Mom, too, presented herself like her main job was to be photographed, when it was more likely to sort the inventory in the stockroom of a retail store. Her outfits were ensembles cobbled together from Wichita mall sale racks, but she always managed to look stylish. My favorite was a champagne-colored silk pantsuit that was cut loose and baggy. She wore it with a scarf that had big, lush roses on it like the satiny wallpaper she had glued and smoothed across our hallway. She had married a farm boy but had no interest in plaid shirts.

For me, country was not a look, a style, or even a conscious attitude, but a physical place, its experience defined by distance from the forces of culture that would commodify it. That place meant long stretches of near-solitude broken up by long drives on highways to enter society and then exit again.

Owning a small bit of the countryside brought my father deep satisfaction. The state had seized some of his dads farmland through eminent domain in the 1960s to dig the reservoir and move water east in underground tunnels for the people of Wichita. Sometimes Dad would park his truck on the shoulder of the two-lane blacktop that ran along the lake dam and take my brother and me up the long, steep concrete steps to look at what would have been his and then our small inheritance, now literally underwater. We couldnt use the water ourselves; it was for Wichitans to access by turning on a faucet. We thus had dug a private well right next to a giant reservoir on what once was our land. Its an old story: pushing poor rural communities out of the way to tap natural resources for cities.

Witnessing this as a child had affected Dad deeply, and he shared Grandpas attitude toward the value of land: They dont make any more of it. He had plans to buy the bit of land north of the house and build an addition when my brother and I were older and needed more room.

Mom was less sure of these plans.

Some evenings, Id watch her curl and tease her dark hair at the vanity mirror that my dad had built next to their master-suite bathroom. She smelled of hair spray and Calvin Klein Obsession perfume. She left in the darkness and turned her car wheels from our dirt road on to the highway for Wichita.

When Mom went to a George Strait concert at the small Cowboy Club in Wichita, when Strait was newly famous, Dad sat at the stereo next to our brick fireplace, listening to a radio broadcast of the show on a country station. George would pick a woman from the audience to join him on stage, the man on the radio said. Dad held his breath, worried that Mom would be picked and swept away by a handsome celebrity in tight Wranglers and a cowboy hat. The men I knew more often wore ball caps stained through by the salt of their foreheads.

Dad didnt even like country music. Too sad, he said.


In college, I began to understand the depth of the rift that is economic inequality. Roughly speaking, on one side of the rift was the place I was from laborers, workers, people filled with distrust for the systems that had been ignoring and even spurning them for a couple decades. On the other side were the people who run those systems basically, people with college funds who end up living in cities or moving to one of the expensive coasts. Its much messier than that, of course. But before arriving on campus, I hadnt understood the extent of my familys poverty wealth previously having been represented to me by a friend whose dad was our small towns postmaster and whose mom went to the Wichita mall every weekend.

Even at a midwestern state university, my background agricultural work, manual labor, rural poverty, teen pregnancies, domestic chaos, pervasive addiction seemed like a faraway story to the people I met. Most of them were from tidy neighborhoods in Wichita, Kansas City, the greater Chicago area. They used a different sort of English and had different politics. They were appalled that I had grown up with conservative ideas about government and Catholic doctrine against abortion. I was appalled that they didnt know where their food came from or even seem to care since it had always just appeared on their plates when they wanted it.

There was no language for whatever I represented on campus. Scholarships and student organizations existed to boost kids from disadvantaged groups such as racial minorities, international students and the LGBTQ community. I was none of those things, and professors and other students often assumed from looking at me or hearing me speak that I was a middle-class kid with parents sending me money.

To pay my room and board during my freshman year at college, I worked as a tutor for poor middle-school kids in nearby Kansas City and Topeka in the afternoons, as a stage technician for a performing arts center in the evenings, and as my dorms front-desk attendant overnight. During spring break, I was the trail boss for an environmental cleanup crew. I waited tables, too, late-night shifts worth a 45-minute drive to Kansas City because the tips were better there. I knew other kids with jobs but not many who had no choice but to work.

There are many complicated reasons why so few people cross a socio-economic divide in any lasting way, but one of the reasons is simple: it is a painful crossing. Those were the hardest years of my life.

We were the breadbasket; Id helped harvest the wheat that fed the world. Photograph: Jeff Cooper/AP

When I called home, I heard the familiar stories: my 30-year-old cousin didnt know how shed pay her hospital bills, but shed survived colon cancer. At a party Grandma threw at the farm, Grandpas daughter-in-law rifled through unlocked parked cars to steal cash to buy drugs, my mom speculated and in the process took my cousins last $20. Well, shed had it, so she beat the shit out of her while my mom cheered her on and my uncle tried to pull them apart. Dad was on a new job site. His wife was having more health problems, due to painkillers that an unscrupulous physician had carelessly prescribed. Bills bills bills.

Then I hung up and went to class.

Few people knew how much I was struggling both emotionally and financially, because I didnt talk to anyone about it or even understand how bad off I was. Knowing Id never ask for it, my high school cheerleading coach mailed me $300. I put it in a thank-you card and mailed it back.

Like the conservative laborer who spurns the idea of handouts, my pride was bigger than my need. I didnt know the term first-generation student and didnt grasp yet that I had in fact grown up poor and was still very much living in poverty. The best I could come up with for describing my situation was that I was a financially independent student and that I grew up on a farm.

I once took a roommate, a funny, sharp girl raised in lower-middle-class Wichita, to the farm and was stunned to see it through her eyes. Everything was worth exclaiming about the cows, the pigs, the chickens, the butchering shed, the cow tongue pickling in a jar in the refrigerator, the way every single adult was drinking alcohol. My friends mouth fell open when my uncle boomed through the front door, carrying a plate of flayed raccoon meat to put on the stove.

Eating raccoon was remarkable even for us. The occasional turtle or rabbit ended up in the kitchen as novelty, maybe, but raccoon seemed plumb trashy. I was embarrassed when my friend told the story again and again back on campus a situation I found I could control by telling the stories myself.

Cows are more pleasant than goats, Id say to explain why we had one and not the other, and my college friends would crack up like it was an amazing joke. Grandpa had bought a few goats when I was little, and they had turned out to be a menace.

Why did he buy the goats? they would ask, as though the answer were complicated and perhaps had something to do with personal fulfillment.

Because they are cheap and eat weeds, Id say, and theyd bend over laughing. By then Id be laughing, too, because I was amazed it was so funny to anyone.

In those moments I saw that mine wasnt as much a sad story as it was a rare one, that better-off peoples fascination was not just derision but, sometimes, honest awe. The distance between my world and my countrys understanding of it had been growing because so few people from my place ever ended up on a college campus to tell its stories. It was a distance I wanted to make smaller.


About a year after Grandpa died, during the autumn of my junior year in college, I was editing a story in the campus papers newsroom on the night of the 2000 presidential election. The whole staff was on duty, watching election returns on a boxy television mounted to a wall above a Rosie the Riveter poster and a fax machine that press releases came across. Earlier in the day I had cast my first-ever ballot in a national election, for George W Bush.

A friend and fellow editor with reddish-brown dreadlocks, a head scarf, and plugs in her earlobes sat down next to me at my computer, looked into my eyes, and asked, How could you vote for him?

Something had changed my people politically in the 20 years since my then teenage mom had voted for Jimmy Carter when I was an infant, the year Reagan won. There I was to prove it a liberally minded young person from the rural working class who had somehow voted Republican.

Whatever caused the change, it crystallized with the popularity of a new conservative cable TV network. We didnt have cable at the farm, but in Wichita Mom had started listening to conservative talk radio. Shed nod along in the car as a host spewed venomous attacks on liberalism. Something in his apparent outrage about government handouts appealed to her. She was open-minded and progressive on most social issues but raised a defiant middle finger to the idea of so-called assistance, so I did, too. I voted for Kansas native Bob Dole in my rural high schools 1996 mock presidential election. Mom and I cheered when the GOP retained a majority in both houses that year.

One of my aunts was the only person in our family who I recall refusing to budge from older affiliations between class and party. The Democrats are for poor people, and the Republicans are for the rich, she would declare and slam her beer on the table.

No, Mom would reply. Democrats help people, and Republicans help people help themselves.

People on welfare were presumed lazy, and for us there was no more hurtful word. Within that framework, financially comfortable liberals may rest assured that their fortunes result from personal merit while generously insisting they be taxed to help the needy. Impoverished people, then, must do one of two things: concede personal failure and vote for the party more inclined to assist them, or vote for the other party, whose rhetoric conveys hope that the labor of their lives is what will compensate them. Its a hell of a choice, and initially I made mine based on my mothers ideas at the time. My liberal peers were no different in that respect, for the most part having shown up on campus with their parents beliefs.

A sociology course the spring of my junior year dismantled my political views about fiscal policy. Study after study that I found in my research for the class plainly said in hard numbers that, if you are poor, you are likely to stay poor, no matter how hard you work. As I examined the graphs over and over, my heart sped up with shock and anger. On the matter of my own countrys economic system, for all my family wisdom about what something ought to cost and who was peddling a con, I had been sold a bill of goods.

The people Id grown up with were missing that information. But the liberal people I met in college often were missing another sort of information: what it feels like to pee in a cup to qualify for public benefits to feed your children. A teenagers frustration when a dilapidated textbook is missing a page and theres no computer in the house for finding the lesson online. The impossibility of paying a citation for expired auto insurance, itself impossible to pay despite 50 hours a week holding metal frying baskets at KFC.

It wasnt that Id been wrong to be suspicious of government programs, I realized, but that Id been wrong to believe in the American Dream. They were two sides of the same trick coin one promising a good life in exchange for your labor and the other keeping you just alive enough to go on laboring.

My mother and other family members would soon make similar shifts just by following the news and seeing cracks in the political messages they had received. Without need for a college class, many abandoned their short-lived conservatism for progressive views.

As college experiences took me outside my home state, I realized that Kansas as a whole suffered from a disconnect with power that was similar to what I experienced on the farm. The broader country viewed states like mine as unimportant, liminal places. They yawned while driving through them, slept as they flew over them.

If youre cast as a stereotype enough times as a poor person, as a female, as the native of a place most people have never been you might feel who you truly are fortify in opposition to it. Where the shame I sometimes felt as a child in poverty had once been, as a young woman in a new setting I felt a quiet pride about that place thought forgettable or populated by trash.

We were the breadbasket; Id helped harvest the wheat that fed the world. Wichita was the air capital; my grandmothers had assembled warplanes there in the same factories where my aunts and uncles now worked. We were in tornado alley; we had ridden out storms in trailers and farmhouse basements and lived to describe the softball-size hail and the hay straw driven by the wind into a tree trunk.

Whether or not I got a college degree, those experiences would always be my first education.


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