I went to see my parents on Saturday that I might set up their internet access. They were given an old (P2, 64 MB of RAM, takes a week to boot) computer by a friend of theirs and it has a modem and they get an AARP discount with the ISP they chose, so they were ready to go but had no idea where to start. I spent hours teaching them how to log in, what to wait for to know they were connected, then how to send and receive email. I set them up on Firefox and Thunderbird, but didn’t have time to spend hours downloading everything else I feel they should have (Spybot S&D, for instance).

Doing the round-trip-in-a-day circuit to Horse Shoe and back is always taxing. It didn’t used to be, but now it just slays me. I was up early, on the road by 10:30 after a stop for gas and breakfast, and by early afternoon I was pulling into their driveway. While Firefox downloaded we ate one of my favorite homecooked meals: cornbread and potato soup. The soup was made from potatoes my father grew this year, just recently out of the ground when he plowed up the rest of the potato patch. My parents grow a bunch of hot peppers, too, and these are another part of the traditional cornbread-and-potato-soup feast: fresh cayennes, washed and then sliced up over one’s bowl of soup. We’d grab a couple of peppers, taking turns with one of the good knives, slicing up our peppers, sampling the soup, slicing more, sampling again, sweating profusely and talking all the while about how good the peppers are but always finding room in the bowl for another few slices. My mother’s potato soup is not bland – by potato soup standards – but it’s always a medium for cayenne transmission and little more. My mother and father and I were all red-faced and gasping by the time we were done, but none of us would ever conceive of eating it any other way. As we did so, we talked about how my sister can best any of us at this game; as my mother put it, “They can’t make it hot enough for Maria.”

As we sat there eating and sweating and coughing – I had a sinus infection all last week, and a couple of bowls of scorching-hot potato and cayenne soup opened me up like no medicine can possibly do – I abruptly realized that the little endurance trial my family undergoes whenever there’s spicy food to consume is probably an apt metaphor for everything about our relationships with one another. My parents know that I have a partner I’ve been with for years, and while no longer at all antagonistic about my being gay they have yet to really work themselves into being comfortable with it. I don’t expect them to change everything about their worldview overnight – this is the point of family, isn’t it, that we love them even when they’re wrong or stupid? – but neither do I grant them full access to my life if they wish to judge any part of it; as such, I see them rarely but when I do we have a good time. We aren’t distant, but there’s a distinct wall there. I have my life, they have theirs; the two largely intersect at gift-giving occasions, because all of us are greedy. The rest of the time, we silently try to wait each other out – they hoping that if they keep their mouths shut long enough the whole gay thing will just go away, me hoping that if I keep a distinct distance between us long enough they’ll relent and fully embrace everything about me. I drive eight hours round-trip to spend a couple of hours in front of their computer, eat some soup, spend another couple of hours in front of their computer, hug them goodbye and then bid them farewell. By the time I get 3/4 of the way back I am weary of driving but don’t want to stop to take a break because I’m so close to home. This time I honestly considered just stopping at one of the cheap hotels outside Greensboro and crashing until the morning, but as I came up on an exit for one I noticed its enormous sign, reading: YOU’RE ALMOST HOME, and I just kept driving. I was, after all, almost home. It was another thing to endure, another trial through which I could put myself. It occured to me as I pondered this all on the drive back that people from the mountains basically define themselves by this exact sort of bullshit: ancestors who proved to themselves and anyone else who cared that they could forge ahead into a mountainous frontier and make lives for themselves there, always on the extreme ends of any spectrum available to them.

Even this whole internet access thing is a big self-engineered endurance trial for my parents. My father is eager to learn something new – anything – and wants to prove he can still do it. My mother has always sought to prove that she could still be hip and now. At sixty-six, she wants to prove that the technology which is so second-nature – hell, first-nature – to her grandchildren is within her grasp. She spent the whole evening saying she’d never learn it, but her cynicism was a smokescreen for a poorly concealed enthusiasm; she instantly got the concept of strong passwords, and both my parents came up with really good passwords right off the bat. My mother also instantly understood the concept of phishing scams, and was able to spontaneously name things that they should look out for to identify such. This is yet another thing they shouldn’t, by some standard (quite possibly only their own), be able to do that they can prove is accessible by them. Sending their first email isn’t just fun or useful, it is a contest with themselves, a contest with a culture that they fear may have left them behind.

My great-grandfather founded the first public school system in the mountains, in his tiny little town, building support for it by preaching the virtues of education from his own pulpit in his own church; on the other hand, he was the town dentist because he owned the pliers. Whether fighting ignorance with organized education or decrying the advancement of pain killers as a sign of weakness, we are a people that always feel like we have something to prove. The Boyf’s gentle tease whenever I refuse to put on a coat to go outside in winter is, “Alright, mountain man…” It’s true, though. We build our psychic houses of just that sort of insanity. I wonder what it is that drives us to be like this? I wonder if there’s any way to drop it, or whether whatever stupid cultural cornerstone has left us all with the feeling we’ve got something to prove would turn out to be our very identity as a people and in releasing ourselves from it we would find ourselves unfettered, adrift, uncertain of who we are.

I wondered, as I drove through Burlington and hit the 85/40 split towards Chapel Hill, whether in fact that is what we’ve got to prove: that we’re not adrift, that we have an identity, even if it’s an identity we’ve created for ourselves, that always having a chip on our shoulder is worth it because that chip is who we are.