In Lao Tzu’s Taoist teaching, the text often compares the relative simplicity of the village life and nature contrasted with the competitive humans’ wrangling “World of 10,000 Things” where people constantly rush about buying and selling. In Taoism, we read “Simplify and Simplify” again and again:
“Learning builds daily accumulation, but the practice of Tao builds daily simplification. Simplify and simplify, until all contamination from relative, contradictory thinking has been eliminated. Then one does nothing, yet nothing is left undone. One who wins the world does so by not meddling with it. One who meddles with the world loses it.” — Tao Te Ching
At one time in America, it seemed like there were just five or 10 channels on TV, basically 2 through 11 or 13, and in the 1950s cosmos, my Illinois family viewed only NBC, CBS or ABC. There were no cellphones, no terrorists, few controversies — and only the Cold War kept euphoria at bay. Republicans existed who believed in women’s reproductive rights, and we enjoyed the Internet’s absence, free of its gyrating worlds brimming with billions of “things” on offer to fix our collective attention.
My small southern Illinois town of Lawrenceville boasted a population of less than 6,000. Public services did not include a local hospital, so my birth — on Nov. 4, 1947 — occurred in the nearest hospital located a few miles eastward across the Wabash River in historic Vincennes, Indiana. I was not only the single son amid four sisters, but I always felt very different from my two dear younger sisters since I was a Hoosier while they belonged with the Fighting Illini (by 1952, Lawrenceville had a hospital).
Lawrenceville had flourished for several reasons, and a major one was the productive southern Illinois oil fields and the big Texaco refinery at the end of town. My grandfather and namesake, Dan R. McCaslin, ran a small oil well supply company and machine shop, where he labored six days a week and sometimes on Sundays after church.
Families enjoyed simple but nuanced Midwestern pleasures in those halcyon days, such as sandlot baseball, church picnics on Sunday afternoons, hiking in Red Hill State Park, canasta parties where my mother would daringly smoke a thin cigarette or two, and my Dad played tennis every Saturday. A tennis club would have been far too gaudy for guileless Lawrenceville, and he played ferocious tennis on shabby local asphalt courts. Ed McCaslin’s physical fitness loomed legendary, so he was like Mickey Mantle to me. He remained flat-bellied and very active into his mid-80s. Once a year, some of the men drove to St. Louis to see “Stan the Man” Musial’s St. Louis Cardinals tear up the National League.
Mid-century Middle America: easy living, and not so many of the myriad “choices” that challenge adults and children today. Folks stopped and made time to greet each other in civil fashion, and they avoided “contradictory thinking.” Attending the First United Methodist Church on 12th Street became both an essential family ritual that we never missed and a torment of sorts for the only boy in the brood. Mom obliged me to wear stiff and “fancy” nice clothes, and Dad forced me to laboriously shine my stupid and tight-fitting black dress shoes every Saturday night.
The McCaslins would sit in a row along the wooden pew: Dad, me, Mom, and the four girls in descending chronological order. Just as when we crowded together like slippery sardines in the green 1949 Ford driving to Vincennes for a visit with Aunt Reva and Uncle Armand, I endured special positioning since I invariably caused trouble if left in the backseat between my better-behaved sisters. No seatbelts, no air conditioning, no CD player, no ice chest, no GPS … and lots of self-generated fun. The natural nuances and infinite variety strengthened our “attention” (focus) faculties. We hassled with one another, played endless word games, and sang songs together with gusto.
Although church attendance mostly felt onerous to me, sometimes my mother would go an hour early with me to join in gospel singing in a small room apart from the main sanctuary-auditorium. Those catchy emotion-filled tunes like the Carter Family’s “Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By),” “Anchored in Love Divine” and “On My Way to Canaan’s Land” (1934) caught my attention. Sixty-five years later, they continue to resonate in the heart-mind and enliven the spirit as I still sing them in the shower and in the family.
Amid the relative simplicity of small-town mid-20th century, detailed distinctions (nuances) arose everywhere, and as well some gripping names: Dubois Street, the Big Muddy, the Wabash Cannonball, the often-flooding Embarras River (pronounced AM-braw in town), and legends about Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown, the local boy who made good as a famous baseball pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. I would listen to detailed discussions about just how the loss of a finger augmented his grip on an unhittable curveball.
My mom often pointed out the local Dairy Queen ice cream shop where she had worked as a teenager and showed us exciting toboggan rides down a hill near the high school.
Once a week, Dad would ritually walk “uptown” with us to the fascinating public library, then we’d have a cone at George’s Ice Cream Parlor next door on the way back, loaded with books. There were only five flavors available at George’s, and to this day I only want vanilla or chocolate ice cream, spurning the “51 flavors” and the fake choices that drown nuance in needless complexities. Savage attention-merchants at heart, our clever tech lords maintain slick media campaigns and endless social manipulations. Villages and small towns alongside nature may manage to evade the worst of these digital tyrannies.
“No, I cannot forget from where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be … .”
After the southern Illinois oil fields dried up and my father lost his job, we endured a couple of rocky years. In 1958, the McCaslins pulled up stakes and, like so many internal American migrants, fled forthwith west to California. From small-town digs in “Little Egypt,” these mid-20th century Okies sought out a petroleum El Dorado, and indeed Los Angeles had several oil well supply companies where Ed believed he could find work. He latched onto a job at a supply store with Honeywell.
All seven of us had piled into the small Ford two-door, sleeping in the car beside the roadway overnights — my father felt well-prepared for the Highway 66 desert route running through Albuquerque and Flagstaff by having some sandwiches, water bottles, and a cool canvas water bag hanging off the front grill.
We didn’t know anyone in L.A. outside of two aunts, and the intimate contacts and nuanced kindnesses of the small-town mores failed to materialize in Southern Cal. Yet, I discovered a new eco-zone in the dry hills of the San Gabriel Mountain above dusty Sylmar and San Fernando in which to roam on foot. Instead of catfish and summer baseball and swimming in the Embarras, I learned to love hiking in Angeles National Forest, the nuances of Mexican and Chinese food, outdoor handball, year-round baseball and studying European history.
Recent traveling in Munich, the so-called “big city with real warmth,” did reveal a slower living style, and citizens often greeted each other in simple good cheer that sometimes led to friendly conversations. The nuances and self-discoveries in these dialogues showed how we need to slow down over here, smell the roses and act like the humans we really want to be. How important is general friendliness to you? In short, get off the little screen and start talking and walking!
» Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching. The Lawrenceville United Methodist Church cornerstone was placed in 1837, but the photo shows a rebuilt brick structure. “Small Town” in John Mellencamp’s 1985 “Scarecrow” album (he attended Vincennes University).
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.