Investigative

The Football Grinch Has Come To Town.

As I polish off my forties, I gotta be honest with you, I'm just DONE with a lot of things.

Football is one of them.

Football2I recently sat through a PTO meeting at my kid's middle school, and we talked for some time about how to raise five thousand dollars from a fun run/walk that we have the kids do. We do use the money for actual educational "enrichment"--we invite teachers to ask us for specific tools and resources they can use in the classroom--but still, the event is a lot of work and I'm not sure the kids enjoy it. Then, after we were done fussing about this five grand, our school superintendent came in to give a presentation on the state of the school district.

You know what she had to share? She's really pleased that the district has already raised $1.3 million to refurbish the high school's football stadium, and the district "only has to raise $1.7 million more."

(Yeah, I know. Don't worry. I've already tendered my resignation as PTO secretary and will be done at the end of this school year.)

In all honesty, I've been done with football since I read Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity. But I've always wanted to read Steve Almond's Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, so last week, I did.

It's a good read. I'll admit I've always had a soft spot for Almond, but I like the way he admits he is a lifelong football fan, and yet still...it's getting harder for him to look at the game. You'll learn a lot of information in this book--about how the NFL is a tax-exempt nonprofit that makes billions of dollars a year, about how athletes are suffering from brain injuries, about how everyone looks away from the violence and racism that run through the sport's many and various levels.

You might also get a laugh. Here's the section where Almond discusses the derogatory emails he got after wrting a New York Times Magazine article questioning the moral complexities of football, most of which included references to his vagina:

"I swear to you, nearly every piece of hate mail I received made reference to my vagina, which was usually characterized as very large.

As the son of two psychoanalysts, I suppose I am obligated to speculate on this odd size fixation. Fine. On one level my correspondents simply wish to convey the exaggerated nature of my femininity (i.e., larger vagina = more feminine). Still, it's hard to ignore that a large vagina suggests an unconscious fear of male inadequacy. Is it possible that merely asking these guys to examine their motives for watching football made them feel small?...

For the record, my vagina is slightly smaller than average." (pp. 98-99).

Yeah, I like Steve Almond a lot. If you're starting to question our nation's maniacal focus on football, you might find this an informative read.


Jeff Goodell's "The Heat Will Kill You First"

I'm going to be honest with you: I could only read Jeff Goodell's book The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, a few pages at a time. I also could not read it for an hour before I went to bed. It was just that depressing.

The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet - Goodell, JeffGoodell is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine and has written several other books, among them Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future (2007) and The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World (which I reviewed back in 2017). His prose reads like good magazine prose: it's thoughtful, but it's easy to read; gives you a lot of information, but is very readable and you don't really have to struggle your way through it. 

Which I appreciate, these days, because increasingly my attention span and brain both seem to be shot.

Now, if only the subject matter could have been cheerful.

It's not. Goodell talks about how heat affects humans, animals, and plants; what sorts of lethal heat waves people have endured in the last decade; how cities (where increasingly everyone lives) are becoming dangerous "heat islands"; how heat encourages wildfires and mosquitoes; how heat is affecting world crops and food supplies; and how hot water in the ocean is becoming hotter, faster, than anyone guessed it would.

Let's put it this way: As I've been reading it, I've been feeling a lot less anxious about other areas in my life. Namely because, well, who cares about what grades the kids are getting, the world's about to explode.

I can't decide if this is a good development for my anxiety level, or a bad one.

It doesn't help that not only do I believe most of the science and sources in this book, but I also feel the truth of this book in my bones. For nearly ten years now I have felt increasingly uneasy because the weather I can observe seems deeply wrong. For better or for worse, I've lived in the same region for nearly fifty years, and I have a history of paying more attention to weather than most, because I grew up on a farm and the weather is inextricably tied to your financial well-being when you live on a farm. So when I say the weather I can see is changing and is making me deeply uneasy, I say this with somewhat more seriousness than many people might.

So I got shivers when I read Goodell's chapter on agriculture and found this, in his interview with Andy Cruz, a farmer in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas:

"...the seven hundred acres of aloe have been a world of trouble for Cruz. For one thing, a plant that's well adapted to heat is not necessarily well adapted to the lack of heat. A cold snap in the valley in the winter of 2020 killed half the plants on the seven hundred acres. 'It was bad,' Cruz told me. 'We were out here for two days and nights with burners trying to keep things warm. This climate change thing is making the weather like a Ping-Pong ball--you never know where it is going to bounce.'...

'Up until five years ago, things were fairly predictable,' Cruz told me. 'But now, you never know what's coming. It's different. Something's changed.'" (p. 134.)

The book was interesting. Whether or not you'll be in the mood to read it right now, when other more cheerful news to balance it out seems lacking...well, I just don't know.


Tom Mueller's "How To Make a Killing"

I only picked up Tom Mueller’s new book How To Make a Killing: Blood, Death, and Dollars in American Medicine because Tom Mueller also wrote one of the best books I’ve ever read on whistleblowers (Crisis of Conscience).

I am no fan of American “healthcare” and think it is rapidly becoming one of the most expensive and least effective systems in the world. Actually, I don’t have to think this, I now know it (thanks to this book):

“In 1980, the year Reagan was first elected president, America spent around 9 percent of its GDP on healthcare, roughly the same as other member nations of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), and enjoyed strong medical outcomes compared to its OECD peers…In 2019, after decades of neoliberalism, the United States spent 17.6 percent of its GDP on healthcare…And America’s medical outcomes have dropped to the bottom of the OECD lit by nearly all measures: the United States currently ranks twenty-ninth in life expectancy, and thirty-third in infant mortality.” (p. 133.)

Mueller’s book is about the process and costs of dialysis (specifically) and the larger breakdown of for-profit healthcare as it is currently practiced in America (generally).

It’s also a perfect example of how nonfiction books can be a tricky beast to classify and offer to other readers. This book will primarily be given the subjects of “kidney disease” and “dialysis” and even “medicine,” but none of those quite hit the mark. It is in fact a very good investigative work on both the current practice of medicine that puts profits above patient health, as well as a readable history on the development and somewhat miraculous process of dialysis, which is the process whereby patients with advanced kidney disease have their blood cleaned (which is one of the things kidneys do) so, you know, they can keep on living.

On a regular day I would never go out looking for a book for dialysis. But it has been a great book to read, because Mueller is one of those authors who can use one very specific subject to illuminate entire other truths for you.

Consider this paragraph, which is one of my favorites in the entire book, and is about the corrupt current system of dialysis provided by for-profit corporations, but is also about one big human weakness:

“Since World War II, researchers in a range of disciplines have revealed the psychological tools that certain organizations — the Nazi Party, the Nixon White House, Enron and Purdue Pharma — use to compel basically good people within their sphere to do bad things. Many such strategies draw on deep human susceptibilities to authority and peer pressure, and operate at the subconscious level. Social and evolutionary psychologists have established that most people take their cues on what to consider morally acceptable from members of their in-group, rather than from their own conscience. When an organization creates an intense us versus them culture, often expressed in metaphors of sports and war, many of its members experience a fading of conscience, together with a heightened self-identification with that organization, and a sense that it can do no wrong.” (pp. 120–121.)

Read that paragraph a couple of times. It is a very succinct explanation of what is going wrong in health care, if not the entire world.

This book helped me learn about dialysis, and the business that is American medicine. But it also helped me learn what happens when a lot of basically good people go along with a lot of very bad ideas that are solely driven by the profit motive.


Do you know who has top secret clearance?

Sometimes when I am writing for The Progressive I find I am learning more than I really wanted to know.

Over the last few months, a story has been developing about a twenty-one-year-old Massachusetts man named Jack Teixeira, who, it has been found, has been leaking classified documents online for some time. Teixeira is now in jail and is being charged under the Espionage Act for revealing top-secret documents that he first accessed in his work as an Air National Guard member.

This is another one of those news stories that will come and go and which won't even register with many people. Let's face it, a lot of the news is that way lately. Complicated, deals with wars far away, includes vocabulary we don't understand (in the Teixeira story, I keep getting hung up on the phrase "Discord server," which I guess is something a lot of gamers know about, but it makes me feel old to think about and not really understand or care what that is), and, oh yes, most of us are kept busy in America trying to stay employed and retain access to our health insurance (even though interacting with our health insurance companies and doctors' offices takes so long and is often so unsuccessful that it actually makes it difficult for us to focus on our jobs).

I'm not really here today to tell you why you should care about the Teixeira story. I totally get it if you don't. However, I recently did have the chance to write an op/ed on this subject, titled "For Whistleblowers, Motives Matter," that was published at The Progressive (and elsewhere; The Progressive does this really neat thing where they help train you to write op/eds and then they share them around, called "Progressive Perspectives"). This was a new experience for me; I've got lots of opinions and my partner could tell you I love to editorialize, but I had never written an op/ed. Nor had I ever co-written anything, and for this piece I had the honor of working with Lisa Ling, a military veteran and whistleblower (she was featured in the excellent Sonia Kennebeck movie National Bird, which you should watch, if you haven't yet).

It was a new experience and I learned rather more than I wanted to know, from Lisa, about today's military and what it all does and where it all is (and I was grateful to her for writing this one with me). While you're still alive, you have to learn, right?


A word about The Progressive magazine.

Kissinger1My career, such as it is, has not been filled with many highs, but I had one last month when I got an article published in a national print magazine for the very first time: "Kissinger's Culpability."

This is the first line in that article, and I stand by it:

"Henry Kissinger is still alive and still in possession of the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 1973. Time will eventually address the former issue; as to the latter, the Nobel Foundation has declared that 'none of the prize awarding committees in Stockholm and Oslo has ever considered [revoking] a prize once awarded."

The article was published in the April/May 2023 issue of The Progressivewhich had an antiwar theme and included a lot of great pieces on the lasting impacts of the Iraq War and the expensive boondoggle that has been the F-35 fighter jet program (among many others). 

I learned a lot about Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, a lot of atrocities I'd never really known much about, and how the Nobel Prize Foundation surrounds itself with a shocking amount of secrecy. But I also learned, thanks to Martin Edwin Andersen (himself a whistleblower) about an ambassador and State Department employee named Robert C. Hill.

Hill started and ended his career as a Republican, but while he started it as one of Nixon's cronies who helped to derail the 1968 peace talks that might have shortened the Vietnam War, he ended it as an ambassador to Argentina who was more than a little disturbed at the "green light" that Kissinger gave the leaders of the military junta there during their "dirty war" in the 1970s. I won't give you all the details of Hill's story, but overall he appears to have been a person who was ideologically motivated, but who could still look around the many places to which he was posted as an ambassador (El Salvador, Mexico, Spain, and Argentina) and at least NOTICE when something was going murderously awry.

The world needs more people like that. People will always have ideological leanings, and opinions, and experiences...but if those same people can actually look at what is happening around them--and strive to understand it--well, that would make the world just a little bit better. At least that's what I choose to believe.

Now, I am of course biased. I have written online articles for The Progressive, and I have been published in their magazine, so you may have to take my words with a grain of salt. But I just wanted to take a moment here and tell you how much I have enjoyed working for them. In a world where most journalism outlets seem to be publishing everything as fast and with as little fact-checking as possible, I have found writing for The Progressive to be refreshingly rigorous. Every online article I submit to them seems to be read and edited by four to six people, up to and including their publisher. They expect rigorous fact-checking and research, and they also do a stupendous job of cleaning up my writing (which can get wordy, so I am grateful for their help).

In addition to good strong editorial work, the magazine also clearly appeals to a group of people with whom I feel an affinity. A while back the magazine put out a call for donations (they are a nonprofit organization), and when a friend of mine asked about sending a check rather than giving a donation site her credit card information, I asked the publisher if that was possible (and where to send the check). He not only answered my friend's questions promptly, he noted that many people who subscribe or donate to The Progressive are not over-comfortable with sharing their information online. Those are my people, friends.

The April/May issue of the magazine in which my article appears can be purchased in bookstores or online; but if you are at all open to a progressive take on the news stories of the day, I can promise you that The Progressive will give you a lot of good, actually fact-checked bang for your buck


Jenn Budd's Border Patrol memoir "Against the Wall."

WallYesterday I got another book review published at The Progressive. This one was of Jenn Budd's memoir Against the Wall: My Journey from Border Patrol Agent to Immigrant Rights Activist.

You really need to read this book.

I cover most of the reasons why you should read it in the review, but let me just say on a personal note that Budd's book made me learn and think about a lot of our national immigration "policies" that I hadn't previously. Did you know, for instance, that the Border Patrol reserves the right to patrol any territory 100 miles from any land or maritime border? Look that up. That rule covers two-thirds of the American population

Really. Go look at that link (the two-thirds one). Brings this issue a little closer to home, doesn't it?

I won't lie. The book is a really tough read. Budd details her rape (perpetrated against her by a fellow agent in training) as well as a million other ugly racist and sexist things that go on in law enforcement. 

But at its core it is still a hopeful book. It is also the story of a person living their life, trying to understand their own history and choices, and questioning why things have to be this way. In that way it reminded me of Debora Harding's superb Dancing with the Octopus, another superlative true crime book that was hard to read but really held out hope that humans can learn from and heal with one another.

Budd has also pledged that a minimum of 10 percent of any profits she receives from the book will be donated to organizations assisting migrants.


Happy Labor Day 2022!

Labor Day weekend snuck up on me.

So I was thinking about Labor Day, my favorite holiday ever (no family gatherings, no war celebrating, no religious component), and realized, D'OH! I have been shamefully neglecting the labor of updating Citizen Reader. So I thought, I need to put up my annual list of my favorite nonfiction books about work for the holiday, and then I paused. It literally seems like I JUST did that. I don't know where the time is going any more. 

But, without further ado, my favorite nonfiction books about work from the past year:

Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, edited by Edvige Giunta and Mary Anne Trasciatti. From my Citizen Reader review: "Here's the neat trick, though: the essays are not so much about the fire as they are about how the fire affected its survivors, victims' families, and countless labor activists since 1911."

I also reviewed this book at The Progressive. I liked it a lot, and I enjoyed speaking with its editors.

The Farmer's Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm, by Sarah Vogel. This book blew my mind. Almost my entire review: "a totally fascinating memoir and history of farm economics in the twentieth century, and most particularly of Ronald Reagan's (and his minions') shameful role in foreclosing on every single farmer they could possibly do it to in the 1980s."

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis (a re-read). About the financial crisis of 2008, which seems almost quaint now but which is still fucking us over in various ways. Just go read it or see the movie or both.

Stories from the Tenth-Floor Clinic, by Marianna Crane. Written by a nurse practitioner, this one's a bit rough around the edges but still an engrossing memoir about Crane's experiences helping (primarily) elderly, very sick, and very poor people in Chicago.

Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, by Robert Jackall. Can you believe I've not made it through this book yet? AND YET I LOVE IT SO MUCH.

Here's its opening paragraph: "Corporate leaders often tell their charges that hard work will lead to success. Indeed, this theory of reward being commensurate with effort has been an enduring belief and a moral imperative in our society, one central to our self-image as a people, where the main chance is available to anyone of ability who has the gumption and persistence to seize it. Hard work, it is also frequently asserted, builds character. This notion carries less conviction because business people, and our society as a whole, have little patience with those who, even though they work hard, make a habit of finishing out of the money."

Fucking Amen, Robert Jackall.

This year is the year I am finally going to make it through this whole book. I swear it.

American Made: What Happens To People When Work Disappears, by Farah Stockman. A good book, but if you're going to read a work on manufacturing and what happens when you devalue the people who do it, you should read Brian Alexander's Glass House. But there were interesting things here too.

From my review: "Stockman followed three workers over the course of several years, in Indiana. One was a white woman named Shannon, one was a black man named, and one was a white man named John. She interviewed and got to know them and learned about their work at the Rexnord plant (a plant that made industrial and ball bearings)."

They Wished They Were Honest: The Knapp Commission and New York City Police Corruption, by Michael Armstrong. Read this one after you read Serpico, by Peter Maas. And if you don't know who Serpico is, go learn.

The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown, by Michael Patrick F. Smith. Smith went to a North Dakota oil town to see if he could make some money as a skilled laborer in the oil fields. It's kind of a tough book to read--it drops you in a masculine world I may not have been ready for (and I live with three guys)--but I think it's important to read it for that reason.

From my review: "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."

Those are the books about work that I read last year, and that is also the list of books that I blogged about, meaning that when I read nonfiction, it was almost exclusively nonfiction about jobs and work. I adore labor books, and I adore Labor Day. I wish you a very happy one.

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


So Many Great Nonfiction Books, Such a Lazy Nonfiction Books Blogger

It has been a wonderful spring for reading. (Not so much for doing anything outside; we're expecting another rain/snow mix tonight. That's okay. All I really like doing outside is reading, too, and I can do that just as easily inside!)

I've been in a bit of a mood, and when I'm like that I sometimes enjoy re-reading things I've enjoyed. So I re-read Peter Manseau's disturbing but very, very thoughtful and interesting memoir Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, and if that title alone doesn't make you want to read it, I give up. (If you're more of a fiction reader, Manseau also just published the The Maiden of All Our Desires, a historical novel about a nun in the fourteenth century. I really like Manseau and want to support him as an author, so I bought a copy of that at Bookshop, but haven't read it yet. Also thinking I need to give some money to one of the numerous groups trying to prod the Catholic Church into allowing women and married clergy. Talk about a lost cause, but traditionally I am a huge supporter of lost causes, so that seems about right.

Farmers lawyerI also revisited Michael Lewis's The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, after watching and LOVING the movie of the same name. (Also: You need to go watch the movie right away; it explains a lot about how money is made--and lost--in this country.) Re-reading the book after the movie was fun; I thought they did a fantastic job of adapting the movie from the book, so it was fun to look at them together and look at what they changed. One of the few instances I've ever seen where the book and the movie are equally fantastic, for different reasons. (Another example of that is Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. Great book, great movie, for entirely different reasons.)

When I was done re-reading, I picked up a few new titles, namely Matthew Stewart's The 9.9 Percent: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture and Sarah Vogel's The Farmer's Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm. The Farmer's Lawyer is a totally fascinating memoir and history of farm economics in the twentieth century, and most particularly of Ronald Reagan's (and his minions') shameful role in foreclosing on every single farmer they could possibly do it to in the 1980s. I grew up on a farm in the 1980s, so that subject was near and dear to my heart.

Spring has been a bit of a wash (literally; it won't stop raining or snowing or rain-snowing here) otherwise, but I'm at the point in my life where, you throw a few good books at me, that's about all it takes to keep me happy. Happy Spring to all of you as well.


Do you know what's going on at your favorite tech company?

Take your pick: Tesla, Meta, Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, Microsoft, and especially Apple. What do those companies have in common? There's a lot of sexual and racial harassment and discrimination going on at all of them.

I got to speak with Apple whistleblower Cher Scarlett, and I am grateful she is out there advocating for such companies to be more transparent, and also to allow workers the rights they already have under current law. To read about what she has to say, please read my latest at The Progressive magazine:*

Blowing the Whistle on Big Tech

*And yes, I am always aware of the irony of complaining about big tech while using big tech products seemingly every minute of my life. Their very ubiquity in our lives is just one of the reasons we should be watching them a lot more closely.


Wherever You Go, Just Take Enough Books.

Last weekend I spent a night at my mom's house, as she is getting older and sometimes needs a little additional help.

It actually turned out to be kind of a nice night without the Internet (she doesn't have it at her house) and TV (which I didn't want to watch because I didn't want to be too noisy). Luckily I had planned accordingly and taken enough books. What was in my travel bag?

Edward Snowden's memoir Permanent Record, which I have read before but wanted to read again because, hello, Edward Snowden, I could read about Edward Snowden for a thousand hours and still not get bored.

Terry Brooks's The Elfstones of Shannara, because even us nonfiction kids need a little fantasy every now and then, and it's a good nostalgia read, since I haven't read any Terry Brooks since I was about twelve.

Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, because I'm reading it for background info for a novel project I'm working on, and might I just say, goddamn, Jane Jacobs even makes sociological writing interesting.

Kathy Aarons's Truffled to Death: A Chocolate Covered Mystery, because sometimes lately I just need a cozy mystery.

The essay collection Table Talk from The Threepenny Review, because I just subscribed to The Threepenny Review in print and have really been enjoying the short essays I find there. (And, let's face it, I am trying to learn how to write essays because I had a lot of essay rejections this year and I'm desperate to know what I'm doing wrong.)

Daniel Berrigan's Essential Writings, because the actor John Cusack responded to me at Twitter and suggested I read Berrigan and also Noam Chomsky. And when Lloyd Dobler talks, friends, I LISTEN.

Last but not least: Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, because I want to live blog reading this bad boy next year. I'm ten pages in and it has basically explained America to me.

I also wrote in my journal and did some other work and a few hours after she first went to bed my mom woke up and had kind of a surreal conversation with me, in which I learned a few details about my own birth.

Wild times in CR Land. My hope for you this holiday season is that, wherever you are, you have enough books.*

*In other news, title links now go to my affiliate store at Bookshop.org; anything you buy there after entering the site through these links sends a small percentage of the purchase price my way. Thank you!


American Made: What Happens To People When Work Disappears, by Farah Stockman.

There's a lot to like about Farah Stockman's book American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears.

(Okay, except the subject matter. The loss of good-paying blue-collar jobs, and the difficult lives of the people who lose such jobs, is not a fun one. I admit it.)

American madeStockman followed three workers over the course of several years, in Indiana. One was a white woman named Shannon, one was a black man named Wally, and one was a white man named John. She interviewed and got to know them and learned about their work at the Rexnord plant (a plant that made industrial and ball bearings).

Stockman first began researching the plant and its workers in 2017, and decided to focus on the three workers to show not only what happens to people when they lose their jobs, but what those jobs meant to them during their whole lives:

"The more time I spent with Shannon, Wally, and John, the better I understood what the job at the bearing plant had meant to them. It had rescued Shannon from an abusive man, thrown Wally a lifeline out of a dangerous world, and handed John a chance to regain what he'd lost. The machines there might have been old and cranky. The floors might have been coated in grime. The roof might have leaked brown water when it rained. But for the lucky few who'd managed to get jobs there, it had been a place of identity, belonging, and redemption." (p. 14.)

It's a good book, but for me, if you're going to read only one of these types of books (American economy vs. American workers), then that book has to be Brian Alexander's Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town. BUT...there is a place for this book too. It's heavier on the human stories, and definitely lighter on the complex financial shenanigans that go on in American business, although there's some of that also.

Where I got a little annoyed was in the middle, when Stockman admits, basically, that she's a college-educated person who never dreamed globalization could be bad for anyone. Maybe I've read too many of these types of books, but I'm like, really? I'm college-educated and it never occurred to me that globalization would be GOOD for anyone. What must it be like to believe what the economic "experts" tell you? Well, here's how Stockman explains it:

"Then I went to Indiana and started interviewing steelworkers. After I heard Tim the machinist describe NAFTA as a 'sellout job' down at the union hall, I drove back to my hotel room and sat down at my computer, certain that I'd quickly find evidence to prove him wrong.

Every economist I had ever interviewed on the subject of free trade had assured me that it was a boon for the country. Sure, a few people would lose their jobs, they'd said. But on the whole, the nation would be better off. That's what I'd learned in college: if every country specializes in what it's good at--its comparative advantage--things will be made more efficiently, more wealth will be created, and everyone will win. In that narrative, the steelworkers were the unlucky few whose jobs had been sacrificed for the greater good." (p. 186.)

And she goes on like that for a while. It's deeply painful to read. How could someone so smart be so clueless? At least at some point she gets around to saying this:

"There was something deeply disturbing about the way that free trade was being championed by people whose own jobs were not on the line. The more I probed, the more I began to see what the steelworkers saw when they heard fancy people on the news talk about the future of the U.S. economy. 'Our comparative advantage is our knowledge and capital,' declared the men with the money and the college degrees.'" (p. 192.)

Well, no shit, Sherlock. During this entire chapter, I remembered reading Jessa Crispin's book Why I Am Not a Feminist, and how in that book she stated she really just wanted men to figure out their own shit without women having to teach them. That's how I felt here. Come on, "educated" people--figure out your own shit and catch up with the rest of us in the real world, would you?

But overall, I still give the book points for its overall readability and Stockman's obvious time investment in getting to know the people she was writing about.


Happy Anniversary, Knapp Commission Hearings.

On October 18, 1971, hearings began before the Knapp Commission in New York City.

What were the Knapp Commission hearings, you might ask? I'm so glad you did! I just published a whole article about them at The Progressive.

They wishedBasically, the Knapp Commission was formed in 1970 after police officers Frank Serpico and David Durk tried for years to get anybody in the New York Police Department (NYPD) to pay attention to the fact that the majority of its police officers were accepting pay-offs to look the other way on gambling, prostitution, theft, and a bunch of other crimes. The Commission helped bring national attention to the massive problem of police corruption. It focused specifically on the NYPD, but if you read its report, you'll find that a lot of what it suggests as problems and possible solutions would still hold up and provide helpful guidelines for any institution that wants to be less corrupt.

Assuming, that is, any of our remaining American institutions have any interest in not being corrupt.

There's a lot of good nonfiction out there to read about this event and time in history: consider starting with Peter Maas's bestseller Serpico (which, nearly fifty years after it was first published, is still a spectacular read). If you're interested in what all goes on when a "commission" and "hearings" are formed to investigate problems, you might also want to read Michael Armstrong's history: They Wished They Were Honest: The Knapp Commission and New York City Police Corruption. It's a very personal history; Armstrong served as the lead counsel during the Commission hearings.


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.


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?


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?

 


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.


Now I'm reading books about "The Wire."

If you knew how much of my mental energy in the past few years has gone to thinking about the collected works of David Simon (including his fantastic True Crime classic Homicide, his more personal and sociological book The Corner, and of course, the TV show he wrote and produced, The Wire) you would probably be a little appalled.

All the pieces matterI can't help it. When somebody knows their business--and I think David Simon knows his business of reporting by going to where people are and hanging out with them--I am powerless to look away. So a few weekends ago I plowed through the oral history All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, by Jonathan Abrams.

It's a great book, and if you're interested in how great TV is made, it's a great primer in that too. Actually, if you know any youthful aspiring drama club members or actors, this would be a very handy book about the actors' (and writers', actually) craft to give to them.

Abrams went and interviewed a lot of the star's main actors, writers, directors, and crew members, so the result truly gives you a picture of the TV production world (as well as of Baltimore, where the series really was filmed). Although I enjoyed the whole thing--and drove Mr. CR nuts by reading pieces of it to him all weekend long--I really enjoyed the interviews with David Simon and Ed Burns, who were the creators and main writers of the show. I also enjoyed the interviews with George Pelecanos, a crime writer who also wrote many of the show's most infamous episodes.

So, consider this quote from David Simon, in which he is talking about a discussion he had with one of the actors, about the possibility of reforming systems:

"I had told him it was much harder to reform a system. The things that reform systems are trauma. Great trauma. Nobody gives up status quo without being pushed to the wall. I believe that politically. The great reformations of society are the result of undue excess and undue cruelty." (p. 68.)

This came up at least once as he was explaining to the actors that the show itself was going to be a cruel world, where nothing was going to get fixed systemically. "I was going to promote all the wrong people, and the same policies were going to go on...that's how the show ended." (p. 65.)

And that's why The Wire is so hard to watch, and why it's so great.

I think I was reading this one too fast to even stick bookmarks in at every part I wanted, but I'm going to read it again someday. On this first pass it was just totally a much-needed and much-appreciated pleasure read.


Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City, by Rosa Brooks.

Tangled up in blueI'm a total sucker for police procedurals, in both book and TV form (hello The Wire, best TV program ever), so it should come as no surprise that I found Rosa Brooks's new book Tangled Up In Blue: Policing the American City, to be a fascinating read.

Brooks, a journalist and Georgetown University professor, decided to apply to become a reserve police officer in the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to try and understand what policing a community looks like. Although the job is a volunteer, unpaid one, it is no small undertaking; reserve police officers with the MPD go through the same police academy and eventually become sworn, armed police officers with full arrest powers (which they keep, as long as they fulfill their end of the bargain: working at least twenty-four hours of patrol each month).

Brooks's narrative takes you through her application process, her academy training, and what she learned on patrol. It wasn't my favorite book ever, but it was certainly engrossing. I wasn't really surprised by most of the problems Brooks faced while patrolling or the types of calls she dealt with (that's what happens when you read a lot of depressing nonfiction and police procedurals), but I was interested to hear how difficult it can be to get in and out of your uniform and juggle all the things you have to juggle, like driving while plugging information into your car's police computer, or how many different phones and radios you have to juggle because they police-issued phones that work with the radio don't make calls, so you have to have your personal cell phone with you at all times.

In another interesting twist, Brooks is also the daughter of investigative author Barbara Ehrenreich (who I sometimes enjoy reading but who is not one of my favorite NF authors), so I enjoyed the brief insights into Ehrenreich's thoughts on the police and how Brooks reacted to them.

An interesting read and a sometimes enlightening one. With all the focus on what police work can be and should be, now might be a good time to read it.