“No Heated Toilet Seats in Marshall”
Editorial by William Choslovsky
December 22, 2010 Chicago Tribune
Two recent trips exposed me to what is right with America, and wrong. Let’s start with the wrong, as that was quicker. I was recently in Las Vegas, visiting some of the money I’d left behind on previous trips. In the middle of my first night, I awoke and stumbled into the bathroom where I was met by something wholly unexpected: a heated toilet seat. Don’t get me wrong. It felt good, and I know Sin City is home to excess, but let’s ponder this for a moment. To enjoy the warmth on one’s rump for two minutes per day, the seat is heated for 1,438 minutes more! As I sat, I thought of my father’s stories of how he used to dig the pit for his family’s outhouse, which made me feel particularly guilty. I am convinced that when historians look back in 500 years on the downfall of American civilization, they will trace it to heated toilet seats in Vegas. Reality television and bacon martinis may also be on the list, along with competitive kindergarten. Now, as for what is right in America, I take you to Marshall, N.C., where I recently spent a long weekend with family. Marshall is in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina about 30 minutes from Asheville, a hip town. But to give some perspective, Asheville — at least culture and pace wise — is closer to Manhattan than it is Marshall. And therein lies the joy. On our first night, we found ourselves at a little restaurant in “downtown” Marshall called Zuma. It was packed with soft-spoken locals, and a number of musicians engaged in an impromptu bluegrass jam session. One was better than the next. When I asked a regular who one fiddler was, he said, “Bobby Hicks, he’s pretty good, ain’t he?” As my urban impulses got the best of me, I Googled Bobby Hicks and learned he only has 10 Grammy Awards not that he, or any of the other talented musicians, would tell you. And here he was playing for nothing. Nothing, of course, other than true joy and the comfort of a night spent well with neighbors. Later in the weekend, I found myself in the parlor of Pat Franklin, whose family’s roots in these parts go back to the early 1800s, if not earlier. Strumming guitar and sharing some gritty lyrics in her parlor was Larry Norton, who lives nestled in the mountains 15 miles away in an even smaller “town” called Sodom. Sodom, I am told, makes Marshall look downright cosmopolitan. Larry, who likely lacks an eighth-grade education, played hymns and tunes so pure, some of which are unchanged in these hills for hundreds of years. Even Johnny Cash might have felt like a sellout in his presence. I also learned during my visit that it was in these hills that the American revolution turned, where the British suffered some of their first setbacks. It was also here in the Civil War where brother literally fought brother, with the area bitterly divided over slavery. And truth be told, these “Bible-thumping folks” in Marshall are not only more welcoming than any of my urban counterparts, they are actually more open-minded as well. They combine sincere appreciation and contentment with respect and openness. It is easy to dismiss places like Marshall and their people as “hicks in the sticks.” These “hicks,” however, can surely teach us city slickers more than we can teach them. If the grid went out, they’d survive a lot longer than you or I, but it runs deeper than that. Even if the grid doesn’t run out, they may fare better — or at least understand and appreciate life better — as they practice balance better than most others. Now I am sure I am romanticizing my weekend a bit, but between the majestic mountains, quiet streams and earnest locals, it may be well-deserved. While so much of our world is pre-fab, contrived, hyped and artificial, Marshall is — in a word — authentic. And to be clear, authenticity does not mean all is candy canes and roses. Quite the contrary, much of life in Marshall is hard. But hard or not, in Marshall, what you see is generally what you get, people mean what they say, and there are few mixed messages. If you visit, you’ll find much to like, just don’t go looking for a heated toilet seat.
William Choslovsky is a Chicago attorney.