Backward and forward

We’re living in a pretty backward time here in America. We define our excess by poverty and our poverty by excess. If you saw a tanned, thin man wearing torn clothes and driving an all-terrain vehicle 60 years ago, he was probably a farmer scrabbling to make ends meet. Today, however, there’s a fair chance his tan came from a bottle, his clothes were bought pre-stressed, and his all-terrain vehicle is used solely for making the arduous commute from suburbia to the office.

Meanwhile, his opposite — the overweight man he passes on the sidewalk, the one who’s left the price tags on his clothes to show how new they are — that man is the poorest among us.

It ought to make us scratch our heads: Obesity is a sign of poverty in our country? But we’re so accustomed to these paradoxes, we don’t even realize how convoluted we’ve become. For example, we spend far more money on our educational system than developing nations do, yet many of our students resent school. They view it as work they’re required to do for someone else, rather than a privilege that someone else paid for.

These days, we glorify athletes more but are less athletic ourselves; we spend more time watching cooking shows than actually cooking. We’re connected via cutting-edge telecommunications, yet we’re lonely; we’re tuned in to the 24-hour news cycle, but we’re horribly uninformed.

One of the most striking examples of this inversion involves online video games in which players complete tasks and earn cyber rewards, such as slaying a dragon to get a magic sword. But that’s not the bizarre part. Get this: There are warehouses in China filled with young children playing these games so they can sell the virtual treasures to Americans for actual money. We’re paying them to play our video games for us! We’ve outsourced being entertained.

It’s troubling. I don’t know where American culture is going, and I worry about the country my daughter will grow up in. But I’ve found a way to take the edge off my anxiety. I live in Asheville — a beacon of rainbow light in an often dim world — whose residents still grow stuff, know stuff, brew stuff and do stuff.

At a time when more and more Americans do their socializing online, Ashevilleans are still getting out and about. I ran the Citizen-Times half-marathon in September, and it was less a race than a party. Don’t get me wrong: We were all moving, and moving fast (we’re an extraordinarily fit community), but while we were running, we were also running into people we knew. Friends, co-workers and even that shop owner who didn’t know our names but recognized our faces. We high-fived the police officers who were stopping traffic, thanked the volunteers at the water stations, and smiled at the kind folks who’d made signs to cheer us all on.

This is Asheville, and no, it’s not perfect, but over the last decade — as our country’s mainstream culture has continued to decline — this little mecca has only gotten better. West Asheville used to be little more than a succession of alternating pawnshops and gun stores, with the occasional “gun and pawn” thrown in for integration’s sake. These days it’s a buzzing community of bakeries and bars.

The River Arts District was just a bunch of crumbling warehouses. Yeah, I know: It’s still a bunch of crumbling warehouses, but now there are artists in them painting and sculpting and spinning and throwing, creating beauty that draws folks from all over the country. Meanwhile, thriving local businesses like Malaprop’s continue to dominate downtown. We’ve got farmers markets and breweries coming out of our ears.

If our clothes are torn, it’s because we’ve been working in the garden; if we’re thin, it’s due to our healthy diet, not liposuction or one of those weird-as-hell girdle shirts; and if we’ve got an all-terrain vehicle (most likely a Subaru Outback), it’s because we’re hauling our kayaks upriver.

And at the end of the day, we drink — not because our life is so hard but because our beer is so very, very good.

— Asheville resident Christopher Arbor is the author of the short-story collection Static to Signal.

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6 thoughts on “Backward and forward

  1. Viking

    “…this little mecca has only gotten better.” For Christopher and his family?

    This commentary say nothing of value. He attempts to show his eloquence as a writer in order to sell his book?

    I wish there had been a more meaningful commentary MX could have chosen this week. He’s correct that the challenge for America is a lack of positive, ethical value creation. But it seems like he wants the ‘overweight poor’ (yes, I’m aware of the research connecting poverty to obesity) to be more like him.

    That narcissism is the core of the problem. Getting out of poverty that children are born into–in the same Asheville Christopher lives in–might include individual will, but it’s not like the anecdote people are spoon fed. A more democratic and equitable America, or Asheville for that matter, isn’t what’s on Christopher’s mind.

    It would seem he just wants people to know what a fantastic human being he is. Follow his lead and you won’t be fat and poor?

    “Asheville Ч a beacon of rainbow light in an often dim world …” He’s growing ‘stuff’, for sure. All righty then!

    Are there any Asheville writers besides myself who can offer a contra position to Christopher, please?

    • Christopher Arbor

      Viking, I’m not entirely sure what you’re responding to with your various comments. I’m not suggesting that anybody be more like me or that I’m “a fantastic human being;” I am suggesting that America has a little something to learn from Asheville.

      Also, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind, but please don’t tell me what is and isn’t on mine.

  2. D. Dial

    Yes, the world in insane. The purpose of life is to escape from that insanity. This is nothing new.

  3. Barry Summers

    I don’t know. I kind of liked this piece – a little smug, but he makes some good points, and there’s nothing wrong with a positive note now and then.

    You’re angry that XPress ran this, Viking? Have you submitted anything better?

  4. RidgerunnerJ59

    So when was West Asheville lined with pawn shops and gun stores? And it’s now better lined with bars? I grew up there in the 60’s, it’s now white ghetto for the most part no matter how the new arrivals paint it.

  5. NvrSayNvr

    I must say that although I find it pleasant to find someone who is so satisfied with their life, I also find the shameless self-congratulatory attitude of this piece more than a little irritating. Instead of offering an attitude of help and hope to those who are less fortunate (the poor and obese, and what have you, that the writer mentions), he simply catalogues a laundry list of ways in which Asheville life, his life, is superior to towns where these unfortunates must necessarily dwell. It

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