Dinesen’s Africa

Out of Africa

By Isak Dinesen

Published 1938

Read Oct 2017

The “about the author” information provided in the Vintage International edition I read gave me useful but not excess information:  “Isak Dinesen is the pseudonym of Karen Blixen, born in Denmark in 1885.  After her marriage in 1914 to Baron Bror Blixen, she and her husband lived in British East Africa, where they owned a coffee plantation.  She was divorced from her husband in 1921 but continued to manage the plantation for another ten years, until the collapse of the coffee market forced her to sell the property and return to Denmark in 1931.  There she began to write in English under the nom de plume Isak Dinesen.”  I will refer to the author by the name she chose as author of this book.

The information was useful because it gave me a sense of how long Dinesen had been in Africa.  Most importantly, however, it told me that the language in Out of Africa is Dinesen’s and not a translator’s.   The language is marvelous.   That she used all her senses in living her life in Africa is clear on the second page of this book:  “The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life it, was the air. …Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought:  Here I am, where I ought to be.”

The book is not an autobiography.  Instead, Dinesen tells us about her experience in Africa while she tried to succeed in the coffee growing business, which was difficult.  She tells us early on that the land was a little too high for coffee.  “But a coffee-plantation is a thing that gets hold of you and does not let you go, and there is always something to do on it:  you are generally just a little behind with your work.”

The opening chapter draws you into her experience quickly—her descriptions of the landscape, the sounds, the animals, coffee-growing, and the people.  Some aspects of her descriptions and comments on the Natives are somewhat surprising to us in 2018 but they reflect views of a European come to farm coffee in East Africa in 1914 as various European countries were continuing their conquest of Africa.  Her comments do, however, point out that the Natives were not homogenous but that her farm employed or interacted with persons from several tribes/communities with different cultures including customs, beliefs, approaches to economics, and more.  She claims, and we believe her claim, that she had genuine affection for them and it’s clear they respect and appreciate her.

Absent a viewing of the 1985 movie by the same name (which is more of a biography of Karen Blixen during her time in Africa), one would not know much about Dinesen’s relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton.  The first chapter she devotes to him is titled “Wings” as much of the chapter is about the flying they would do together in his small aircraft and the view of Africa from the sky.  The second chapter about Denys regards his death, funeral, and burial on her property and is part of the section called “Farewell to the Farm”.

The section “Farewell to the Farm” is some 60 pages and it has no parallel about her arrival to the farm.  She spends some effort relaying the various tasks associated with selling off the furniture and belongings, the house and land, separating from the people who lived and worked on the farm, and especially her efforts to resettle “the squatters” to new land elsewhere in East Africa so that they could remain together.  She provides much detail about her last days there and especially the day she left.  Clearly leaving Africa was extremely painful for her and she describes very well the sensation one has when one is making an end to a part of their life which must end but whose end is not fully chosen.  And then she is Out of Africa.

Gertrude Bell: Shaper of Nations Plus

Gertrude Bell:  Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

By Georgiana Howell

Published 2007

Read June 2018

One of the book clubs to which I belong gave an assignment:  choose, read, and present a biography (or memoir or autobiography) of your choice.  I choose biography to learn about the person through research done by someone else vs self.  I actually enjoyed working on the selection of the book to read.  I had learned about Gertrude Bell, and the meeting of 40 that divided up the Middle East into countries to be controlled by Britain, France, and Russia, through a historical fiction book.  Although many are familiar with the name “Lawrence of Arabia”, far fewer are familiar with Gertrude Bell, including myself.  I chose this book to learn about the person of Gertrude Bell and how she influenced the course of Middle East history/conflicts.

Apparently this book differs from other biographies of Gertrude Bell by NOT focusing on the part of her life devoted to the Middle East.  Rather, this book tells a rather complete history of Gertrude from her early youth through death.  The chapters are arranged somewhat chronologically but also tell about discrete aspects of her life.  Since during her adult life she was both climbing mountains and travelling in the Middle East and involved with two loves of her life, the chapters are helpfully focused on individual aspects.  While some reviewers complained about the amount of detail provided, I rather enjoyed it

Gertrude never married.  Her first love, to whom she hope to become engaged, was not deemed suitable by her family as a marriage partner.  Gertrude was understandably heart broken.  Her near finance died a few years later.  Her second love was a married man, a military hero turned military counsel.  Their acquaintance turns into friendship and then love.  Gertrude hopes he will leave his wife but he won’t; she doesn’t become his mistress although they pursue their unconsummated love affair through letters for quite some time.  Dick Doughty-Wylie also leaves Gertrude’s life completely through death, this time in 1915 in France in a battle.

The world may be a different place if Gertrude had married or if she had not had a substantial income by way of inheritance of family wealth.  Unburdened by a home to manage and children to raise or the need to work to make her own living, Gertrude literally traveled the world and became expert in many skills.  She became an expert mountaineer, gaining a reputation for both skill and courage.  She studied archeology and co-authored books on ruins she helped excavate.  These efforts win her election to Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society and becoming the first woman to receive a RGC award.   She traveled extensively and took on a quest to understand the geography and culture of what we now call the Middle East.  By means of her solo expeditions (she and her company that carried her equipment, set it up, and cooked for her) in 1900, 1905, 1907, 1908, 1911, 1913 she traversed (current day) Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.  Her travels demonstrated once again her focus, courage, and lust for learning.  Despite sometimes ferocious heat, cold, sun, and sand, she journeyed on atop her camel and successfully covered the routes she carefully planned.  She learned, through trial and error, how to gain audience with tribal chiefs and, by learning their language, was able to converse deeply and knowingly with them about their art, literature, and politics.

The knowledge she gained during her adventures provided her unique capability to serve in a variety of mainly non-commissioned military counsel roles in various parts of the Middle East and India.  She writes numerous papers on the governance structure her Middle East travels revealed to her.  She participates directly in the Paris Peace Conference on the future of Mesopotamia as well as the Cairo Conference that defines how Britain, France, and Russia will “divide up” the Middle East.  She influences and acts directly in establishing borders in the Middle East and in setting up governments in Syria and Iraq.  She drives for a referendum in newly formed Iraq regarding its leader.  As a result of the referendum, Faisal ibn Hussain ibn Ali, who she recruits after being deposed in Syria and recommends for the role, is crowned Faisal I of Iraq in 1920.  She continues to support establishing Iraq as a nation until she dies in 1926.  She is accorded a military funeral and is buried in the British Cemetery, Baghdad.

This book relies substantially on Gertrude’s correspondence as a primary source for the details provided.  Gertrude wrote at least weekly to her family whether or not she could post the letters during some of her travels.  Her correspondence with Dick Doughty-Wylie is also frequent and revealing of their feelings and actions.  I’m not sure such correspondence exists for current political, cultural, or business leaders or that it can provide the depth of understanding of their thoughts or character as we have of Gertrude Bell.  Fortunately Georgina Howell read her correspondence and used it, and other sources, to weave a fascinating look at this important, but little hyped, Shaper of Nations.

A Midwife’s Tale and More

A Midwife’s Tale:  Based on the Diary of Martha Ballard 1785-1812

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Published 1990

Read Aug 2018

This book came my way as many do, through a book club.  This time I was the assigned facilitator.  This book provided some challenges to me as a discussion facilitator as it is not only non-fiction but also a scholarly work that was a Pulitzer Prize winner (among other honors) for its accessibility to the non-historian.

The book is quite extraordinary.  The author was willing to read the entirety (27 years, 9975 entries) of the actual handwritten diary of Martha Ballard as no complete transcription exists.  While a few others have referenced the diary and used it to support their scholarly history of the area, no other author has so painstakingly uncovered the rich information available to us through Martha’s writing.  We learn of specific events in the rural Maine settlement that others chose not to discuss because of the potentially unsettling or embarrassing nature (rape, potentially a gang-rape, of a minister’s wife; murder/suicide event perpetuated by a man against his wife and 7 children and subsequent reaction of the community; the existence of a bastard child of the local Justice of the Peace, that the father acknowledged the child and paid Martha for nursing services during the child’s illness resulting in death).  But even more importantly, through Martha’s diary we learn about her life and the life of her community. We learn that as wife, mother, and homemaker she is literally making the home.  She and her daughters  prepared  thread from flax grown on their property and then wove it into cloth which then became towels, diapers, quilts, and garments.  Women managed their gardens so that fruit and vegetables were available to the family nearly year-round.  Women tended domesticated animals to prepare milk, butter, and meat for the family.  And of course they continuously cooked, cleaned, and washed for the family and the (surprising in number) guests that stayed with the family in highly cramped quarters.

In addition to being a wife, mother, and homemaker (more than a full time job at that time) Martha was also a midwife and in this role she played many other roles: nurse, physician, mortician, pharmacist, keeper of vital records, and chronicler of medical history.

We learn of the cycle of life for families at the time:  courtship and marriage rite customs, early part of married life during which many children are birthed and cared for, the mid-stage of married life when children become useful labor for the men’s work of clearing land and farming and for the women’s work of gardening, raising animals, weaving, cleaning, cooking, washing, and tending children.  During this period the family was made or not with regards to their ability to make a living that enabled both “home grown” and purchased goods.  It was during this time that Martha’s career as a midwife was made possible.  Her teenaged daughters (the ones that survived to that age) attracted other teenaged girls to work for the family for trade or money to tend the household, spin thread, and weave cloth they used and sold.  This allowed Martha to be away for deliveries and to provide other medical needs to her community as well as tend her herb garden and prepare the salves and ointments that comprised the medicines of the day.  In later married life, after the children had married and established their own homes, the married couple once again became devoid of “free” labor to help them manage the myriad of tasks that persisted.  Martha’s diary reflects the increased burden she felt as the washing, cleaning, cooking, garden tending, and animal management continued regardless of her ability to recruit and retain paid help.

As this is a midwife’s diary, readers are also enlightened about the state of medicine and the special career available for a few women in the community.  We learn that the state of medicine is quite crude by our current standards—various botanical ointments and salves—which both midwifes and doctors used.  In parallel, the medical profession was beginning to claim a special standing based on their education and involvement in newly forming medical associations.  While Martha and her fellow healers/midwifes retained their botanical approach to healing, male doctors became more “heroic” using bloodletting, leeches, opium,  and harsher applications of the botanicals used by their midwife counterparts.

Ulrich provides an account of Martha’s success as a midwife based on her diary:  831 births, only 46 of which have comments about some kind of complication (5.6%).  Only 5 patients died—one who suffered from measles at the time of labor and delivery, one who was in apparent eclampsia and delivered a stillborn child, and three of probable puerperal fever when there was scarlet fever in abundance in the community.  Ulrich’s research allows her to compare and contrast Martha’s record with records of doctors in the area and region.

We learn that premarital sex is nothing new to the United States.  Of the 106 first births by women that Martha attends, 41% of the children (40) were conceived before marriage.  In most (31) of these cases the mother eventually marries, usually, but not always, the baby’s father.  We learn that midwifes perform a significant role in ensuring that babies conceived out of wedlock were recognized by the father and supported by him.  The midwife actually took the name of the farther from the mother as she delivers.  Martha’s own son, Jonathan, was named in one of these cases; he eventually marries the mother several months after the baby is delivered.

The book provides additional views of the life and times of Martha Ballard which we surely would not know without this diary and this author’s willingness to do the archeological “dig” necessary to unearth the details.  We learn about the remarkable fortitude of Martha Ballard, the monetary and, more importantly, personal rewards of providing midwifery services to the community as well as the challenges she faces over the course of this period of her life.

The author provides extensive notes that either indicate her sources (which include not only Martha Ballard’s diary but diaries and records kept by local townspeople for either personal or critical records purposes as well as other relevant scholarly books and articles) or provide additional detail about the topic at hand.

I strongly recommend taking the time to read this book and learn about the life and times of Martha Ballard.  Although not a short or easy read, it is a remarkably approachable scholarly treatise and one that has and will enlighten all who read it.

Reading About Wine –Impact of a Book Club

Summer in a Glass:  The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes

By Evan Dawson

Published 2011

Read Sept 2017

The beauty of book discussion groups!  A local library’s approach to book discussions is to set a theme and have each participant share a book within that theme.  I wasn’t sure how this would work but now I know:  IT DOES!

The theme of my first foray with this group was “Wine” — about wine or wine in the title.

A book shared at that meeting with a “thumbs up” recommendation:  Summer in a Glass by Evan Dawson.

I now provide a “thumbs up” and recommend you to read as well.

I live in the Finger Lakes in the summer and I listen to Evan Dawson’s daily show on Rochester’s NPR affiliate WXXI so this seemed a natural book for me to try.  I read it in only a very few sittings and was sorry to see it end.   Evan’s articulate and crisp voice comes through as he describes with clear joy and appreciation his encounters with some of the best winemakers/wineries in the area.  He provides some of their personal history in getting to their place in the story of Finger Lakes winemaking.    I was pleased to learn that collaboration and knowledge sharing is rampant in the Finger Lakes.  These wineries want to make world-class wines and they want the world to understand this.  They believe–and walk the talk—that success of any individual winery can raise the profile of the region and engage more people to visit and enjoy them all—now over 100 in number.

I knew pieces of the stories of some of these wineries—which I’ve visited with frequency.  Others I knew less about and now I know why—some of these winery owners are very private.  I’m glad to have learned more about them and will appreciate their wine and facility even more during future visits.

Evan’s writing is brisk, concise, and engaging.  He’s packed 12 stories with index and acknowledgements into 266 pages.  He’s revealed a little, but not too much, about himself as he’s not the focus of the work.  But his desire to understand the region and tell others about it required a dedicated journey so it’s appropriate to learn about specific days and encounters.  He starts and ends with the story of a young winemaker from Germany, his strong desire to stay in the Finger Lakes, and the immigration challenges he has faced.  The reader wants him to stay too as we learn about the great wine he’s made and especially as we learn about his desire and efforts to help make all Finger Lakes wineries great.   By the end of the book word from the Labor Department about his final appeal hadn’t been obtained so it ends with a cliff hanger as well as a toast to this winemaker for the positive impact he’s made on a number of wineries.

The book was published in 2011 so I hoped that I could learn the outcome of Johannes’s wait and that it would be positive.  I was delighted to learn that it was and he and his wife are making wine not too far from where I live.  Yeah!

In summary—a pretty fast and very enjoyable read to learn about the NY Finger Lakes Wine Region and the people who are enabling it to be considered one of the world’s great wine regions.


In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood

by Truman Capote

Published 1966

Read Aug 2017

The assigned topic for a book discussion group of which I’m a member was “True Crime”.  That’s not a genre I read, but of course the purpose of the book discussion group is to introduce new reading possibilities so I decided to join in.

I decided on “In Cold Blood” for two reasons:  1)  Capote’s book is one of the largest selling “true crime” books of all times and is a “classic” in this category; 2)  I attribute this book to the reason I locked my parents out of our rural home multiple times in the early 1970’s after reading this book at age 12.  I really wanted to see how I would respond to the book when reading it several decades later.

Bottom line:  the book is so well written I again read it in very few very long sittings. 

In the first section “The Last to See Them Alive” we meet the community of Holcomb and each member of the Cutter family, and learn what family members were doing on November 15, 1959, their last day alive.  His writing allows us to see vividly the landscape of the area, how ordinary the day was for the community, and how each family member was connected to the small community.  We are introduced to the killers’ activities that day.  We experience the shock of Nancy’s friends when they discover the families’ bodies and that of the community as they deal with the initial duties following the crime.

In the second section “Persons Unknown” we meet the crime investigators and feel their commitment to their task and the frustration they feel as the killers’ left little with which to trace them.  We begin more in-depth interactions with the killers as they start their post-crime “travels”.  We begin to see how damaged Perry Smith is and wonder at Dick Hickock’s capacity for compartmentalization of his actions.

The third section “Answer”, the investigators get a break and learn the identities of the killers through a cell-mate of Dick Hickock.  But it takes time to actually apprehend the killers and during this time the community continues to suffer.  We learn more of Perry and Dick’s story of their travels post-crime as well as their pasts. We learn the peculiarities of small-town jails and how the killers are kept separated during their incarceration before and during their eventual trial. Perry Smith’s correspondence is provided us and gives us an increasingly deep view of his past.   We experience with the investigators their surprise that the killers will and do confess to their crimes.   Perry’s confession finally provides us the simple specific details of the crime.

The fourth section, ”The Corner”, details the post-trial period.  Frankly the depth of details about the other death-row inmates felt unnecessary but this is Capote being consistent about providing the whole story of the killers’ background and experiences.  Apparently Capote provided the killers some help during their appeal process although his involvement is not discussed in the book.  Aspects of the appeals and conclusions drawn by various appeal boards are provided.

Capote’s writing enables us to learn much about the killers.  I use the term “killers” throughout this piece because that’s what they were as a result of this event.  They weren’t killers before but somehow they became killers and we never really know why.  Perry’s life was clearly horrendous and he is left a substantially damaged individual as a result.  Dick’s life was much more normal and he entered into criminal acts initially to simply pay his bills.  But something happens that tips the balance.  We don’t ever understand what causes that and likely neither did he.  The senselessness of the killings is remarkable and it’s not surprising that the members of Holcomb lost some of their sense of security.  Some moved from the empty countryside and some never fulfilled their dreams of building a home in that empty countryside.

Capote’s book remains “a classic” not because it’s a “what happened and who did it and keep you on the edge of your seat” kind of book.  It’s a classic because readers of this book will be left with sorrow that something so terrible could happen to such nice people; that individuals can become killers and we and they really don’t know why; that there are such damaged people in our society and that their damage is caused by other deeply damaged people; that there are people that grow up in good families that can take such a horrible path.  That there is nothing obvious we can do to prevent further incidents or prevent becoming victims ourselves.  We’re only left with locking our doors at night even when it seems we shouldn’t need to do that.

What We’ve Been and Can Be Again

That Used to Be Us:  How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We can Come  Back

By Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum

Published:  2011

Read:  May 7, 2017

We all know the US is facing significant challenges.  Some think it seems somewhat adrift currently.  These authors put together a useful look at the principals that made America great for two centuries, the challenges that face it now, the basic changes the US must make to correct course, and a possible way to start on that path.  Their book is written for the layman but is filled with acknowledgements for the various sources they used to synthesize their points.  It uses stories about individuals, companies, and countries to expand their points in a digestible and instructive, but not overly preaching manner.

The authors lay responsibility for our current state in the laps of both political parties and in the laps of all US citizens that elect them.  They relate that the federal, state, and local governments’ inability to act fiscally responsible reflects the general attitude of the public they serve—“we want everything right now; we can’t afford it but we want it now anyway”.  The authors are frankly more effective at delineating the issues the country faces than in providing specific prescriptions for “How We Can Come Back” but frankly getting a highly specific prescription to fix our problems is likely unrealistic.   The authors vigorously do encourage us to understand our own history and the principals that have served us well to make us a magnet for dreamers everywhere and learn from them to get back on track.    This is an appropriate plea and not an insignificant request.  We didn’t think about consequences of all our actions that got us where we are when we took them.  We DO need to stop and think about our past and we DO need to learn the lessons it can teach us.

The following summarizes some of the highlights of the five sections of the book that I want to remember and share to kick start that thinking process for myself and for readers of this article.

In Part I:  The Diagnosis, the authors define four major challenges facing the US:

  • How to adapt to globalization
  • How to adjust to the IT revolution
  • How to cope with large national debt and soaring budget deficits stemming from the growing demands on government at every level and unwillingness to raise enough money through taxation to cover those demands
  • How to manage energy consumption and rising climate threats.

The authors also delineate five pillars of prosperity that led the US to two centuries of increases in living standards and that made the US the “world’s greatest magnet for dreamers everywhere”:

  • Public education
  • Building and modernizing infrastructure
  • Open door for immigration, adding low skilled but high aspiring immigrants and adding the best minds in the world
  • Support for basic research and development
  • Implementation of necessary regulations on and incentives for private economic activity to safeguard against financial collapse, environmental ruin, and to encourage capital flow to the US

Several formula builders are called out from our history.  This list is a small sampling of the history recalled for us by the authors:

  • Alexander Hamilton: established a budget and tax system, a custom service, and a coast guard; developed plans for a peacetime army; and promoted the need for a strong and active although limited government
  • Thomas Jefferson: in addition to writing the Declaration of Independence and authoring the Virginia state statue for religious freedom, emphasized the importance of education by starting the University of Virginia
  • Abraham Lincoln: spurred the transition from an agrarian society to an industrial society;  during the course of the Civil war oversaw significant Acts of congress:  Homestead Act of 1862 opening the west for settlement; Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 that connected the eastern and western parts of the country; Morrill Act of 1862 establishing the land grant college system; and in 1863 started the National Academy of Science to bring together the best researches to “investigate, examine, experiment, and report on any subject of science or art whenever called upon by any department of government”
  • Theodore Roosevelt: established a system of rules and regulations to prevent abuses and hold business accountable; it is also remarkable that in 1907 1, 285,349 people came to the US from other countries, the largest annual intake in American history to that point
  • Franklin Roosevelt: significant public investment in building infrastructure (dams, roads, parks, airports, power stations, schools, libraries, etc) and education as part of the New Deal; the Securities Act of 1933, called the “truth in securities” law; re-regulation of the banking system; introduction of Social Security and unemployment insurance programs.  The authors suggest we recall that the free-market economy produces losers as well as winners and these programs provide some protection to the losers, thus stabilizing our overall system.  The “brain wave” of immigrant scientists, writers, artists, musicians, historians, and intellectuals occurred during this time as Europeans were fleeing Nazi Germany (ie recall the US behave home to Albert Einstein).
  • Harry Truman: a 1944 act known as the GI Bill of Rights provided training to 7.8 million of 16 million WW II veterans by 1956.  The National Science foundation was initiated in 1950
  • Dwight Eisenhower: initiated the Advance Research Projects Agency (later known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)) from which flowed the technology powering many of today’s tools (ie the internet, GPS, weather satellites among others).  Eisenhower also won support for the creation of the interstate highway system.  He also was a defender of the immigration and pushed for liberalization of restrictions on immigration.

In Part II:  The Education Challenge, the authors discuss significant forces on jobs we must recognize, the current state of our preparedness to meet the challenges resulting from these forces, and what we need to do to correct course.

Globalization and the IT revolution are here whether we want them or not.  “The genie is out of the bottle” and there is no going back.  A huge impact of these is the loss of jobs in the US.  The authors remind us that after the last three recessions (1991, 2001, and 2007), the time required (or projected) for jobs lost to come back to the peak prior to each recession has progressively increased.  Jobs are being automated, digitized, and outsourced.  The authors argue that “blue-collar” and “white-collar” are no longer the ways to describe jobs.  Rather, they suggest there are two types of workers:  creators and servers.  Creators are driving productivity and servers service these creators.  They caution” many servers will be replaced by machines, by computers, and by changes in how business operates”.  They describe a model of 4 types of job holders:  1) “creative creators”, people who do non-routine work in a non-routine way—the best of the various creators.   2) “routine creators”, people who do non-routine work in a routine way—the average of the various creators.  3)  “creative servers”, non-routine low-skilled workers who do their work in an inspired way—the extraordinary servers; 4)  “routine servers” who do their work in a routine way, offering nothing extra.  They caution that types 2) and 4) are the job holders most vulnerable to job loss.  So the focus for individuals—and the educational system that prepares them—is to “be “present” all the time, in whatever we do, so that we can be either creative creators or creative servers.”

A good fraction of the book is focused on the current state of education in the US and how the US stacks up against the rest of the world.  It’s not a pretty picture.  US fourth grade students perform reasonably well in standardized international math and reading tests but US high school student perform in the middle or towards the bottom in standardized tests applied globally.  Basically, the longer US students are in school, the worse they perform against international peers.  The authors suggest students either attend bad and/or dangerous schools or they attend “nice” schools that aren’t very good either.  The author’s prescription to address this:  “We believe six things are necessary:  better teachers and better principals; parents who are more involved in and demanding of their children’s education; politicians who push to raise educational standards, not dumb them down; neighbors who are ready to invest in schools even though their children do not attend them; business leaders committed to raising educational standards in their communities; and last but certainly not least—students who come to school prepared to learn, not to text”.

Part III is titled:  The War on Math and Physics.  In short, the US has pretended that routinely running budget deficits doesn’t matter and that human-driven global warming and corresponding climate change “is an invention of a global conspiracy of left-wing scientists and Al Gore”.

Ronald Reagan’s first term cut taxes substantially but deficits ballooned because the revenue base was reduced by 5% of GDP while domestic spending fell only 1% of GDP and defense spending soared.  In response, Reagan enacted five “revenue enhancements” which took back about 40% of the lost revenue.  Neither George H.W. Bush nor Bill Clinton wanted to raise taxes but they did to keep the deficit under control.  Simultaneously they either did not add new spending programs that can be seen as “entitlements” or they reduced spending on ones that existed at the time.  The outcome of their actions meant that America’s debt-to-GDP ratio improved, decreasing from 49% to 33%.

Unfortunately the administration of George W. Bush took us in a different direction.  The new generation of Republicans were no longer concerned about controlling the deficits and believed that the economy would outgrow the deficit if “plied with enough tax cuts”. We entered wars without increasing revenue to pay for them (the first time ever in US history).  Massive tax cuts combined with no spending cuts, an added a new spending/entitlement program—Medicare prescription drugs, and increased defense spending for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led to enormous deficits, funded by borrowing from other nations, especially China.  Spending further increased under Obama to prevent collapse of the US (and global) economy just as he came into office.

Also unfortunately, state and local governments are generally in a poor situation as well as they continued to sign contracts with their workers to pay generous defined benefit pensions and associated retiree health care benefits and now find themselves unable to pay for the promised benefits.

And finally and unfortunately, the willingness of the public to accept that human-driven global warming is occurring and the impact will be massive climate and geography change is a hoax is spilling over into general disbelief of experts of all types if their message is inconsistent with “truths” found in unsubstantiated sources on the internet and in the media.

A very brief summary of the authors’ prescriptions:

  • Get serious about our problems
  • Accept that we will all have to sacrifice
    • Raise revenues through various types of taxes
    • Cut spending overall
    • Shift spending by cutting some programs (ie Medicare and Social Security need to be reined in and likely reduced) and increasing spending in others—in particular education, infrastructure, and research and development
  • Start debating on how to generate more clean energy to slow climate change and stop debating whether to do so.

Part IV:  Political Failure provides interesting insights on the evolution of US politics.  In the 1950s and 1960s, both the Democratic and Republican parties were coalition of liberal and conservatives.  In these days, cooperation and compromise existed within and across political parties.  Opposition to the civil rights movement meant that Southern conservatives begin to defect to the Republican Party.  Social conservatism within the Republican Party over issues including abortion, school prayer, feminism, and gay rights pushed some Northern Republicans into the Democratic Party.  Centrist groups began to disappear while liberals and conservatives remained quite active in politics and became more impactful in their respective parties.  Redistricting every 10 years has been subject to “gerrymandering” since its initiation (the descriptor was coined in 1812).  Combining these effects means that the most extreme parts of each party are most likely to win primary elections and choices for voters in the general elections are between two extreme candidates.  The center has essentially evaporated.  Once elected, the extreme candidates face pressure to remain extreme or be removed by other extreme candidates within his or her own party leading to little moderation and compromise with the other party.  Fund raising is non-stop—there is no time to just focus on governing. The “24 hour news cycle” means every word an elected government representative makes is scrutinized, analyzed, and discussed.  This all makes for a pretty broken system.

The authors suggest that both Democratic Party has to move from a “you can’t touch Medicare, Social Security, and other similar programs” and the Republican Party has to accept that tax cuts alone will not solve our problems.  The authors suggest some “shock therapy” is needed.  Preferably the shock comes from within, not from a devastating circumstance such as an external foe, global economic crisis, or from Mother Nature.  The authors hope that a serious independent presidential candidate can capture sufficient traction to help moderate the parties and influence the governance following an election, likely won by one of the two major parties.  The authors teach about three times this has happened in the twentieth century.

George Wallace won 13.5% of the popular vote and five Deep South states in 1968.  He ran against the civil rights laws passed between 1963 and 1965, for “law and order”, and as a populist hostile to the federal government and liberal establishment.  The Nixon administration, although actually quite liberal by today’s standards, adopted some of these policies and attitudes including opposing compulsory busing of schoolchildren to desegregate schools.

  1. Ross Perot won 18.9% of the popular vote in 1992. Bill Clinton won with 43% of the vote beating out the sitting president George H.W. Bush (who polled 37.5%). Perot focused on the federal budget deficit and raised the public’s awareness of it and concern with it.  Clinton’s presidency did work to reduce the deficit.

Theodore Roosevelt ran as an independent candidate in 1912 to regain the presidency which he held from 1901 to 1909 as a Republican.  He felt that the reform agenda he devised while president to support a successful transition of the nation from an agrarian society to and industrial one was not being pressed by his Republican successor, William Howard Taft.  Woodrow Wilson won that election although Roosevelt won 27.5% of the popular vote and earned 88
Electoral College votes.  Roosevelt’s ideas regarding regulation of business, a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday and a six-day week, unemployment, and old-age pensions were eventually enacted.

Running for president is expensive and both Perot and Roosevelt were primary sources of funding for their campaigns.  The authors hope that successes of Howard Dean in 2004, Ron Paul and Barack Obama in 2008 to raise substantial funds from small individual contributions can propel forward a new independent candidate.

In response to the question “But does it have a happy ending?” the authors remained positive in their conclusions.  By rediscovering our American history and the “5 pillars of prosperity” noted earlier, they believe the US can find its footing to remain a global leader.   They propose that mproving our educational system, addressing glaring infrastructure needs, resolving the status of  illegal immigrants and making it easier for new immigrants with needed talents and aspiration to come and stay in the US, and modernizing our regulations and incentives for business can and must be done and will make us successful.

Comments on the 2016 election:

As this book was published in 2011, it wasn’t possible for the authors to comment on the most recent election.  It’s interesting that an outsider candidate was chosen by the Republican party and ran on principals that  are in some cases  opposite to some of the “5 pillars of prosperity”:  anti-immigration and general relaxation of regulations on business.  Additionally his promises were consistent with a continuation of “we can have it all and have it not cost us anything”, specifically lower taxes and better health care with less cost to individuals.  At least he has promoted significant spending on the aging infrastructure, but with no increases in revenue to support it.  An outsider candidate running for the Democratic nomination pushed the successful Democratic nominee to be even more extreme than she would have been otherwise including a “we can have it all and not cost anything” plank as well with low or no-cost education for all.  The new president’s personality and approach combined with a continued attitude of “whatever that party is for we will block at all cost” doesn’t bode well for the US soon being on the path these authors promote.   We have much to re-learn and little time to do it before we are a has-been nation with a standard of living that takes an even bigger dive that is happening now.


Hilbilly Elegy Provides Important Lessons

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016)

(read 12/18/2016)

“Memoir” according to Merriman:  1)  an official note or report; 2) a narrative composed from personal experience; 3) an account of something noteworthy. 

J.D. Vance provides an apology in the introduction—he has written a memoir although he is only 31 and has not accomplished anything of note, save graduating from Yale Law School.  He does indicate that is an unexpected accomplishment by someone from his communities—Middletown, OH and Jackson, KY, the town from which his grandparents migrated in the early 50’s for a better life and to which he and his family remain strongly connected.  He certainly has an interesting story to tell regarding his challenging path to this accomplishment.  He doesn’t simply give us his own story, however.  Dispersed through the narrative, he provides some reflections on the drivers of those challenges which are both specific to his case and fellow hillbillies migrating to industrial communities, but also help us understand the challenges faced by those participating in the black migration detailed in Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” and those faced by all immigrants trying to make a better life than the one they left behind in a community foreign to their culture.  He provides some lessons he may or may not have intended regarding challenges faced by anyone trying to move onto and up the socioeconomic ladder and who is unfamiliar with the expectations of that new ladder.

Vance calls this an Elegy.  All of the definitions of elegy I found speak to a mournful poem of serious reflection, expressing sorrow of someone dead. 

He does a less crisp job communicating exactly what he is mourning. He appropriately includes the phrase “crisis in culture” in his title.   He does certainly lament the current state of Middletown, OH which is no longer home to Armco, the steel company that recruited so many from his grandparent’s Kentucky community, nor to its high paying jobs.  Unemployment is high, drug use is rampant, and many of those who could move away already have.  He notes, almost sadly, that although there are jobs that remain there, some of which are fairly decent paying ones that also feature health care and other benefits, these jobs go unfilled by local residents for lack of interest.  He laments the current state of his family’s neighborhood in Jackson, Kentucky, which is now sufficiently run-down and unsafe that his cousin doesn’t feel he can keep the grandmother’s house if it will be vacant for any period of time. He laments the assumptions he heard and hears in his community that those who “make it” are just really smart—that raw talent alone, not hard work is the cause.   He laments that his community seems to have lost their will to earn a living and their ability to recognize the inconsistencies they live by, in particular, the importance of taking responsibility but then never actually doing it.   He laments that his community has deep distrust of traditional media while eagerly believes unsubstantiated “news”.  He notes, however, that they retain a huge love for country.

His book qualifies as a serious reflection, not in fully academically scholarly way, but definitely in a way that can engage a broad readership and convey some useful research by others that he describes. Topics of others’ research that he cites, and has clearly digested personally, include challenges faced by participants of the black migration and the biological and psychological impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE).

He notes that Armco (like other “rust-belt” companies) recruited heavily in specific areas, instigating migration of many families from a single county to Middletown in the case of Armco.  While this preserved aspects of the overall culture of the area they left, many young families, like his grandparents, were away from their parents and extended families.  Since his grandparents were only 14 and 17 when they migrated, that isolation from older family members and friends meant they did not get the usual (although sometimes unappreciated) oversight and guidance about becoming an adult and a parent.  His own mother and self-father moved from Middletown at one point to be away from the guidance her parents were giving, although it would have been useful to listen to it.  Like blacks immigrating from the rural south, these immigrants brought aspects of their rural culture (such as raising chickens and having extended families share a single dwelling for extended periods of time) to an area that didn’t appreciate or would tolerate them so separation between immigrant and local cultures became more distinct and the immigrants increasingly isolated from the rest of the community.

Vance learned that subjection to Adverse Childhood Experiences (such as abusive language, being pushed/shoved/having things thrown at you, separated or divorced parents, living with an alcoholic or drug user, etc) has significant impact on children and can influence brain development.  This can lead to a situation where the part of the brain that deals with stress is always activated and the child/person is always in a ready state for self-defense or flight.  Vance notes that both he and his sister have fortunately married people with low ACE indices who are helping Vance and his sister move away from this tenacity and associated behaviors.

Vance discusses a situation not specific to Middletown or the Hillbilly culture but that this country and others have and are facing.  His grandfather and others working at Armco counseled their children and grandchildren to “do better than they did” and to seek white color jobs that used their head vs their body.  It’s natural to want better for your children.  However, these grandparents and parents were ill-equipped or incapable of promoting a home environment that stressed what is needed to be able to successfully pursue this path.  Coupling this issue with general distrust of the outside community, and fueling it, according to Vance, by conservative political heads indicating “this is all the government’s fault” provide at least some drivers for the current employment state of Middletown type communities.

Vance sprinkles learnings about what saved him and could save others throughout the narrative including:  a quiet house promotes studying and learning; a stable home life (same place and adults) for several years enables developing long-lasting friendships; parental/adults in the home having high expectations for success in school matters; working a job helps you learn about the world and clarifies what you want; getting outside your own community to see other ways of being and thinking about life opens your eyes to new possibilities;  networking is critical; mentoring makes a difference—you have to learn about things, how they work, what is expected, etc; you have to learn how to get ahead.   Although his grandparents weren’t great parents when raising their kids, they matured into grandparents that provided a stable home life for Vance during his later high school years, a situation he hadn’t had previously.  This enabled him to concentrate on studying, get placed in an advance math track where he made friends with high achieving students, and learn some fundamental work ethics.  He knew he wasn’t’ ready to go to college immediately upon graduation from high school, so he joined the Marines.  He credits them for teaching him how to be an adult.  He finished a degree at Ohio State University in two years by overloading credit hours and going through the summer and then followed advice/encouragement to apply to Yale University.  There he met his future wife who is a terrific stabilizing influence and he has the good fortune to get excellent mentorship from a professor who also used some social capital to help him get beyond a poor interview.

Vance does not provide a prescription for solving the crisis of his home communities.  He suggests the solution needs to come, in large part, from people switching from an approach of avoiding uncomfortable truths by avoiding them or pretending better truths exist to a more honest one that accepts responsibility for them.  His one request to government is to more willingly utilize family members to care for children that need to be separated from parents rather than sending them into a foster care situation with strangers.

His comments about feeling somewhat sad about having moved out of his “home culture” as he’s made a better life for himself resonated with me.  He only provides a small hint regarding the losses that accompany assimilation and/or economic achievement. That wasn’t his intended topic but it’s an open one for exploration.

Vance provides a useful look at a community and culture little known or understood by others and helps improve that understanding.  The understanding that is possible, however, is not specific to that culture alone but is applicable to the more general situation of a foreign culture moving into a community with the intent of making a better life.