The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown

So, lately I can't sleep.

Either I can't get to sleep, or I can't stay asleep, or I wake up early and can't get back to sleep. It annoys me no end, particularly as we are heading into fall and winter sickness season and the CRjrs are back in their regular schools (Germ Elementary and Germ Middle School, yup, they're in two different schools so basically when they come home it's like we're living with all the germs of the roughly 1500 other kids they attend school with) and I would like to get sufficient sleep. But it is what it is.

The good handAll summer I would just lie in bed, not sleeping, and stew about not sleeping. Now I am learning to just get up and go read something. It doesn't help me fall back asleep, but it also doesn't mean all those hours are wasted.

So a book I spent a lot of time with at 2 a.m. last week was Michael Patrick F. Smith's memoir The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown. Perhaps all books are surreal when you read them from two a.m. to four a.m., but this one was a particularly unsettling read.

When he was in his thirties, actor and stage worker and playwright Smith decided he wanted to take on a North Dakota oil fracking boom town, and see if he could make some money working an oil field job. So he headed out to Williston, North Dakota, where he spent nearly a year trying to become a "good hand"--a skilled laborer in the oil fields.

Let me just tell you right now, I don't know how people live and work in oil boom towns. I mean, I do, because I've now read Smith's book on the subject. But I don't know how (mostly) men move to North Dakota, live in close quarters with one another in tiny apartments and squalid houses (because there's not enough housing for all the men trying to find jobs), and then work ten to twelve hour days in North Dakota weather while moving around huge and dangerous machinery.

Smith is very good at describing his surroundings; it's a vivid book:

"At lunchtime, I sat in the back of the work van and ate cold Chunky soup out of the can. Bobby Lee sat with the driver's seat kicked way back, his boots up on the dash. He wore a Resistol brand Diamond Horseshoe cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes. At one point the hat had been the color of pearl, but it was beat to shit, dirty, greasy, and floppy--incongruent with his studied look. 'Now you know why gas is so expensive,' Bobby Lee said.

I stared out the window of the van. The work site was cluttered with tractor trailers, pickup trucks, forklifts, a hydraulic crane, a lattice boom crane, rows of stacked piping, giant metal structures, and crews of men." (p. 3.)

The bad part about reading at 2 a.m. is that I wasn't with it enough to stick bookmarks in all the parts of this book that I wanted to remember. So I don't have as many quotes as usual to back this up, but you should read this book. You won't look at oil or gas or filling up your car or using any sort of plastic in quite the same way ever again, when you read how unbelievably hard it is to extract petroleum from the earth, and how many people break their bodies and their mental states and their families (since a lot of them move away from families to go where the oil work is) to produce it for you.

But it's not just about work. It's a very male book, and there are so many stories of men interacting with one another violently (even their affection seems to be shown violently) that it's hard, at least for this female, to read. Smith also tells a family tale about his large family and their abusive father (and also he and his siblings' unbelievable grace in dealing with that father), and discusses what he calls the "father wound"--how so many men he worked with had abusive or uncaring fathers whose approval they were still unconsciously seeking.

It's a great book, even (particularly?) when it's unsettling.


Changes Coming to Citizen Reader.

Hello, dearest Citizen Reader readers and lovers of all things nonfiction and books!

It's been a summer of change after a year of change and I'm looking forward to some more change this fall and winter. I hope that change does not involve the CRjrs picking up Covid now that they're back in school, and perhaps developing MIS-C or Long Covid, and I'm sure all of you are hoping for a similarly healthy winter.

What are the changes?

Well, for the first time in about eighteen months I am not with the CRjrs every single moment. I miss homeschooling them and I'm in the middle of quite the midlife crisis (which I thought I had passed through years ago; evidently we're not done yet), so I'm a bit discombobulated right now. But I'm trying to get over it. And here is the plan:

  1. Take care of my family, including my Mom, who is struggling (please note: getting old is not for weenies), and
  2. Make some money without leaving this house.

To some extent, this has always been the plan. But it is time for me to take both items up a notch, because I'm kind of an anxiety-ridden mess and not terribly good at number 1, and also if number 2 continues to fail I am going to have to leave this house and work some kind of hourly job. And I am terrible at leaving this house.

I've been doing all sorts of writing online this year, with varying degrees of success. For a while I played around at Medium, trying to make a little supplementary income, but I'm done with that now. I'm still trying to write some journalism, and I'm exploring writing "content" for cash, and I have a few other projects in mind. I want to write. So it's time to get serious.

On that note, I'm going to try and make Citizen Reader my online home for book reviews, as well as for news about writing projects I'm doing. This means I need to fix it up a bit and clean up the sidebar links and do some other things that I haven't done for years now.

This has already gone on too long. Mainly what I wanted to share with you today is that I am exploring ways to let readers sign up for email updates that will send when I publish a new post. I think I've found a way--see the "Get New Posts by Email" box over at the right side? If you'd like to get an email when I publish new posts, please sign up there.

Also, if anyone has already signed up using the "Subscribe" button that used to be in the top navigation bar, could I trouble you to subscribe again using the box over at the right side? I'm so sorry to have to ask that. I've been trying out a couple of email-sending services, and I'm going to go with Follow.It (rather than with another service that I had tried a couple of weeks ago). Thank you for your patience with me while I work on this site.


Labor Day 2021: Need a good book on work?

Hey, everyone, and welcome to the 2021 edition of my favorite holiday of the year: Labor Day! Now, avoid your family, skip church, don't go to work, and do all the other things that make this holiday so great.

As you may or may not know, I love books about work, and each Labor Day I round up all the job- and work-related nonfiction I read in the prior year. I'm off to look through the year and see what I've got...and here it is:

And that, friends, represents a lot of the books I wrote about here in general. Work is one of my favorite subjects to read about, perhaps because reading about work is so, SO much easier than doing work.

The books above were all really good reads; the links go to my reviews. I would particularly recommend Fulfillment, because if you need the incentive to break yourself of your Amazon habit, that might help. Amazon is killing us. It really is. And it's no good for the climate, either. Which is also killing us.

In other Labor Day news I read a stupendous book last week titled The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown. I read large chunks of it at 2 and 3 a.m. in the morning (I can't sleep anymore, thanks to perimenopause, and might I just ask why every stage of womanhood has to be horrifying?), which is a very surreal time to reading, and it was a very surreal book: fascinating and sad and crazy and thoughtful. More on that later. It deserves its own review.

So, Happy Labor Day 2021. And here, in case you want to see them, are our Labor Day lists from previous years:  2020, 2019 part 1 and part 2. 2018. 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.


I know it's easy to shop at Amazon, but please stop shopping at Amazon.

Over the last few weeks I spent some quality time reading Alex MacGillis's new book Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click AmericaIt is about Amazon, but more broadly, it is about how Amazon is ruining many aspects of American life. It is a super-depressing read.

Fulfillment jpgI absolutely adore journalism, history, and sociology books that help me see what I call the "big picture"--how specific actions, policies, and habits contribute to large-scale cultures and situations. To me the gold standard of this kind of writing is Brian Alexander--whose investigative books Glass House and The Hospital showed me how capitalism and health care, respectively, both suck in America. If you didn't want to call these books "big picture" books, I suppose you could call them "journalistic accounts that help you view the macro through the lens of the micro," but I would never say that because I hate the phrase "through the lens of..."

I got about 75 pages into MacGillis's book, when he was talking about how Amazon the company and Bezos the head of Amazon impact housing costs, manufacturing, and even the massive amounts of money to be found among the upper-class in Washington, D.C. The book at that point was so "big picture" that it was actually a little hard for me to follow, but I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did, because it is really a comprehensive and well-researched book.

It's gross. Amazon is gross from start to finish, and so is Jeff Bezos. I can't even pull out a representative quote for you because all of the book's stories rest on other stories and numbers and research and it all kind of has to be absorbed together to be believed. But trust me: the lengths to which this company will go to sell you absolutely everything--at a fairish price now but most likely at a nightmare-ish price later--are astounding. Forget about all of us citizens being fucked at both the national and state levels of politics, where money rules. Amazon reaches right down into local governments and seeks to remove all of your rights at the level of where you live.

So here are my suggestions:

  1. Read the book (of course). It's a challenge but stick with it.
  2. Stop shopping at Amazon. If you can't stop cold turkey, at least delete your Prime membership or don't sign up for one. More than anything, Jeff Bezos wants you to sign up for Amazon Prime. Don't do it. I'm begging you.

I have been trying to avoid shopping on Amazon this summer and year and I have mostly been successful. Sometimes you are going to pay more and wait a bit longer for merchandise, but you can do it. Sometimes you might actually find things elsewhere a little cheaper or nearer by you. Here's a little story to get you started:

The eldest CRjr needed a watch because we are trying to let him take baby steps to independence and walk with a friend to a nearby park. To do that, I had to be able to tell him a time when I needed him back, and he needed to be able to know the time, so, presto, he needed a watch. We looked at some on Amazon for $23, but I am now completely just sickened whenever I hear the word "Amazon" so I told him we'd go look at a local hardware store that has a time center/watch shop in it. And we found a watch that actually fits him better (the face is smaller) for $30. The guy was super nice and set the time and date for us, and the younger CRjr of course also then wanted a watch, but they didn't have any similar ones for a similar price (there was a fifty-dollar one but I am not strapping a fifty-dollar watch on a grade-schooler). So then we came home and found a very similar watch on Timex.com.

Results? We spent a little bit more, but we got better watches and better-fitting watches (I think the $23 ones we were looking at on Amazon were Amazon knock-off brands of their branded better sellers, something Amazon does a lot to get you coming and going). We had a fun outing. Me and the CRjrs had a nice chat on the way out about how it was nice to spend $30 in our town, in a store where local people were working.

It felt good. It won't save the world but it's 23 more dollars that will not be added to Jeff Bezos's billions.


How did it get to be July 30, 2021?

It seems like just yesterday I was posting about July 30 as National Whistleblower Day, and here we are again.

Happy National Whistleblower Day!

I wish I could report better news on the "let's be more humane as a society to the people who tell us about all the illegal and immoral secret shit going on" front, but I don't. Whistleblower Daniel Hale, who revealed information to The Intercept about how America's "precise" drone warfare strikes were not really so precise and killed a lot of innocent people, was sentenced to prison for 45 months this past Tuesday for doing so.

The Biden administration was asking that he be sent to prison for nine years, so I guess 45 months in prison is to be considered "good news." It's still wrong.

It feels like I am reading all the time, and yet I don't have much to report here. For one thing a good chunk of my reading has been about how to implement a plant-based diet, as Mr. CR has developed more heart disease symptoms and I'm interested in keeping Mr. CR as healthy as possible for as long as possible, because I like him a lot. The other day we were chatting a bit about people who love to carry guns, and I said, Why would you need to walk around with 80 pistols? (because I like to exaggerate but also because it seems like some people want to walk around with a lot of guns) and Mr. CR answered, Well, what would you do, Miss Smarty Pants, if the first 79 you were wearing didn't work?

That's Mr. CR's sense of humor, and you can see why it's important to keep him on the planet.

In other reading news I am re-reading Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, which knocked me over the first time I read it and is knocking me over again. Also, I started George Orwell's 1984, because I never read it. Have you? Has anyone? It's interesting.

I'm also trying to write a lot more. And got this published at The Progressive, in honor of July 30: "Shining a Light on the Tales of Whistleblowers." It's a review of director Sonia Kennebeck's trilogy of fascinating documentaries: National Bird, Enemies of the State, and United States vs. Reality Winner. They are excellent films and nobody shows you how tricky (and important) it can be to ask questions and try to figure out the truth better than Sonia Kennebeck does.

So how is your summer going? Whatcha reading?


Should The Hunger Games series be messing with my middle-aged mind this much?

Hunger gamesRemember when The Hunger Games trilogy was big?

Yeah, me neither. The first book in the series came out back in 2008 and it was right about then that I was busy having an awful surgery, trying to create a freelance career, and eventually having my first little CRjr. I was aware of Suzanne Collins's three popular YA books (Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay) but I didn't pay much attention. I think I read the first one, was underwhelmed, and never finished the series.

So why all of a sudden I had the urge to watch the movies that were made from the book, I couldn't tell you.

I used to love movies (as only a person who started college as a film major can) and still do most of my thinking in mental movie memes. (Here's an example: Patrick Swayze as bar bouncer Dalton in the 1989 cult classic Road House: "Be nice. Be nice until it's time to not be nice." I think this a lot, because people annoy me a lot, and I have to remind myself to be nice until it's time to not be nice, which mainly for me means giving myself permission to simply leave any situation where people are annoying me. I'm no Patrick Swayze.)

Eventually TV (my first crush), particularly British TV, supplanted movies in my heart, so for years I have watched only TV series when I've had the time to watch anything at all, what with the copious amounts of time I spend reading and also trying and failing to make my own living. But lately I have been in the mood for movies. So I thought, well, what do I want to see?

And for some reason I pulled The Hunger Games trilogy (although they made the three books into four movies) out of thin air.

The movies are awful. No kidding. Simplistic in story, bare-bones in character development and dialogue, hard to see as most of the plot seemed to be set in the dark, no chemistry between the lead actors (and, I ask you, how do you throw together beautiful people like Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth and STILL have no chemistry?), glacial pace. Mr. CR is not generally a man who needs his movies (or his anything, frankly) to be "quickly paced," and even he kept saying, "Are these movies hundreds of hours long or does it just feel like they are?" And yet, I kept watching them. And I kept watching for one reason:

Peeta Mellark.

If you don't know the story, I'll try to nutshell it without giving away any spoilers, although I suppose this series is so old that anyone who cares has already seen it/read it/knows the ending. In a futuristic America known as "Panem," the country is controlled by the President in the affluent Capitol, while the rest of Panem is split into 12 districts that basically provide what the Capitol and its citizens require (and suffer greatly to do so). Each year, two "tributes" are chosen from each district--one male and one female--and all twenty-four tributes play against each other in the Hunger Games, until one victor kills the other 23 and is rewarded with getting to remain alive. The main characters are Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old from District 12, who volunteers to fight in the place of her sister Primrose, who was actually selected for the 74th annual Hunger Games. Another of Katniss's close friends, Gale, a slightly older boy, is also in the running, but escapes when Peeta Mellark is chosen.

Then Katniss and Peeta are taken to the Capitol, where they fight in the Hunger Games, and manage to change the narrative of what happens there. In the subsequent books, the 12 districts start to rebel against the Capitol, and Katniss, Gale, and Peeta all have their separate roles to play in that story.

Classic dystopia stuff, and classic love triangle, as Katniss eventually finds she has feelings for both Peeta and Gale.

But here's where the narrative takes a slight turn. Gale, a friend of Katniss's who hunts and gathers food with her, is a stereotypical strong, good-looking Alpha Male (with his softer side; he does pledge to protect Katniss's family while she is gone and if she is killed), while Peeta is presented as somewhat of a non-entity whose main characteristic is that he has noticed Katniss since they were both young, and has grown to love her.

So, anyway, the movies were so bad that I just went to the library and got the three books and plowed through those. And here's what I learned about these characters:

I'm in love with Peeta Mellark.

Peeta doesn't exist just to be in love with Katniss (although sometimes the movies seem to present it that way). He's good with words and he's clearly very clever, coming up with his own wily (and non-violent) plans to keep himself and Katniss alive. He's understanding of Katniss's independence, and even though it's easy for him to be committed to their "doomed lovers" narrative, because he actually does love her, he is ready to step aside in case she chooses Gale and--get this--he is prepared to remain friends with her if that's what she prefers. He does everything he can to stay alive and win the games, while also going out of his way to NOT kill other tributes; he bakes; he holds Katniss to help her through her nightmares when she asks.

Everything I read about today's dating scene at Medium (I really have to stop reading dating/relationship articles on Medium, which is big among millennials and tech bros) indicates there are not many Peetas in today's world.

So here I am, going through my old-lady life of raising kids and cooking meals and freelancing, and all the while I do it I'm thinking over the Hunger Games and Peeta Mellark.

Even a few years ago I don't think I would have given Peeta Mellark this much thought. But the more I read about men and women interacting with one another, and the more I see and hear out in the world, the more I think we really need to encourage men in particular to explore new ways of being. And that's why I'm so grateful for Peeta Mellark as a character.

Now on to the real question. Get your librarian/reader thinking caps on and tell me: Any other series, YA or otherwise, featuring male characters who are sensitive, intelligent, kind, and still end up succeeding/surviving/winning in their own way? Let's face it. Those are the kinds of books I want to give the CRjrs. Subliminal programming at its best: Don't be a bro, kids. Be a Peeta. (Or, as Lil Taylor's Corey character in Say Anything said to John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler, "No. Don't be a guy. The world is full of guys. Be a man." See? Movie memes, all day long.)


My summer of cheerful reading commences.

Mr. CR frequently tells me that periodically I should, perhaps, just maybe, consider reading nonfiction or fiction that isn't "as depressing as hell."

It's a fair point, and I want to work with Mr. CR, but the only book on my shelf I want to read right now is titled Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton. Evidently it's about rising death rates among middle-aged (mostly male) individuals who don't hold college degrees, and what about our current American system might be encouraging those rising rates. Or, as the authors say:

"Along the way, we had discovered that suicide rates among middle-aged white Americans were rising rapidly. We found something else that puzzled us. Middle-aged white Americans were hurting in other ways. They were reporting more pain and poorer overall health, not as much as older Americans--health worse with age, after all--but the gap was closing. Health among the elderly was improving while health among the middle-aged was worsening...

To our surprise, 'accidental poisonings' were a big part of the story. How could this be? Were people somehow accidentally drinking Drano or weed killer? In our (then) innocence, we did not know that 'accidental poisonings' was the category that contained drug overdoses, or that there was an epidemic of deaths from opioids, already well established and still rapidly spreading. Deaths from alcoholic liver disease were rising rapidly too, so that the fastest-rising death rates were from three causes: suicides, drug overdoses, and alcoholic liver disease...We came to call them 'deaths of despair,' mostly as a convenient label for the three causes taken together." (pp. 1-2.)

So there's that. And when that's too depressing I have, on deck, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, which I will actually be re-reading because it blew my mind the first time:

"Jessica was good at attracting boys, but less good at holding on to them. She fell in love hard and fast. She desperately wanted to be somebody's real girlfriend, but she always ended up the other girl, the mistress, the one they saw on the down-low, the girl nobody claimed. Boys called up to her window after they'd dropped off their main girls, the steady ones they referred to as wives. Jessica still had her fun, but her fun was somebody else's trouble, and for a wild girl at the dangerous age, the trouble could get big." (p. 3.)

Ahhhh. Summer beach reading, the Citizen Reader way. What's on your TBR pile for the summer?

 


Happy Memorial Day: Now Go Watch the Movie "National Bird."

Happy Memorial Day.

Now please go watch the 2016 documentary National Bird, about America's policy of drone warfare.

Today I am supporting our military personnel by asking that the United States change its drone warfare policy of dropping bombs on people who are maybe the target (and maybe not). As you will learn from National Bird, this policy is causing not only misery to many innocent citizens worldwide, it is also causing a lot of PTSD in our own soldiers.

Thank you.


Citizen Reader Elsewhere: On the wrongful imprisonment of whistleblower Daniel Hale.

Who wants to start their week by reading about a travesty of justice?

Of course you've come to the right place.

I really want you to read this whole post, so I'm going to keep this whistleblower story as short and as simple as possible (which whistleblower stories never are).

Right now there is a man named Daniel Hale sitting in jail.

If you follow national news at all, do you recall hearing about America's policy of pursuing drone warfare? That is, the art of using drones to drop bombs on suspected (mostly "war on terror" type) enemy targets? If not, much of the history of this policy, which began under George W. Bush and has continued, can be explained in relatively short order in the series of articles known as The Drone Papers, published by The Intercept.

Basically, military and intelligence personnel watch targets of interest by using drones, decide that they are the targets America's commander in chief has decided need to be executed, and then drop bombs on them (again by drone) to execute them.

There are some problems with this system. The data can be faulty and the wrong person can be killed. It can lead to death by stereotype; basically, in areas like Afghanistan, any "military-age male" is considered an enemy target. A lot of civilians get killed just because they're in the wrong place at the wrong time.*

How do we know this? At least in part to whistleblower Daniel Hale, who was in the Air Force from 2009 to 2013, and then worked as a contractor in the intelligence industry. He knew this was happening, and he revealed some classified information to the Intercept. For this, he has now been charged with multiple counts against the 1917 Espionage Act. Each count against Hale carries the threat of serious jail time. On the advice of his public defender lawyers, Hale recently pleaded guilty to one count and is awaiting sentencing this July. During the past few weeks, Hale was already arrested and jailed, supposedly to keep him from being a danger to himself. He has been put in solitary confinement in a Virginia jail and is there now.

This story makes me so furious with the unfairness of it all that I just don't know where to turn. Whistleblowers are going to jail to tell the American public information they need to know--regardless of who I vote for, I am complicit in our country's (racist?) war machine. It is not fair that people just walking around in other countries, living their lives, were killed or lost limbs because they were in the wrong place, near someone WE (yes we; it's being done in my name as an American) decided needed to be executed. So then someone came forward to inform the American public, and he is being punished. Severely.

See? Not simple. But if you are interested in some further reading:

A Drone Whistleblower's Quest for Justice (this is an article I wrote for The Progressive, a quick overview of the case)

Daniel Hale Blew the Whistle on the US’s Illegal Drone Program. He’s a Hero, Not a Criminal, by Chip Gibbons, at Jacobin. A longer and better article.

Watch National Bird, a heartbreaking 2016 documentary featuring Hale and other military personnel, as well as civilian victims of our drones.

Visit Stand with Daniel Hale and learn ways you can support Hale.

Sorry to go on so long. I just can't stand it when bullies win, especially when they win against decent people who are just trying to tell the truth. And it's starting to feel like they win all the time.

*On civilians being killed: "Since 2001, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) such as the Predator and General Atomics’ larger and more capable MQ-9 Reaper have completed thousands of missions, sometimes with unintentional consequences. While 2016 statistics released by President Obama revealed that 473 strikes had accounted for between 2,372 and 2,581 combatant deaths since 2009, according to a 2014 report in The Guardian, the civilian death toll resulting from drone strikes was, at the time, in the neighborhood of 6,000." Source.