Discretionary Spending, CR-style.

Disclaimer: I have probably never done enough charitable giving.*

Disclaimer Explainer: This is largely for two reasons: 1. We don't have a lot of spare cash. Mr. CR and I are united in our desire to cover our own bills and to help the CRjrs cover theirs, and that pretty much takes what we earn. 2. When we go out to eat or do anything a service worker helps us with, I am such a ridiculously good tipper (like Mr. CR used to see what I was giving and ask things like, do you know what percentage that is? Yes, I do, that's the idea.) that for a long time I viewed that as part of my annual charitable giving.

I am also addicted to sending fruit and treat baskets to people who might need a bit of a boost. In short, my charitable giving is a lot like the rest of my personality: I favor individuals over the organization. (And I am too dumb to try and maximize any charitable giving tax deductions.) I laugh when my alma mater sends me letters asking for money. (Pro tip, UW-Madison: Don't bother asking people who majored in journalism and library science for money...WE DON'T HAVE ANY.) Ditto with my church, although I will give money and goods to religious organizations like the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Just recently my church hit up its members for $3 million to add some sort of fancy gathering space on to its church, and I proudly marked the "I do not plan to donate at this time" on my form. If they had asked me to kick in to put money toward their workers' salaries and health insurance premiums, on the other hand, I would have done that. 

This gets around to nonfiction, I promise. Periodically I email with my favorite nonfiction author, Stacy Horn, and I know that she has told me in the past that the passing of the Affordable Care Act enabled her to afford health insurance for the first time. I was appalled to hear that. (I wasn't surprised, having been self-employed for the majority of my life, but I was still appalled.) Then this year I interviewed another great author, Brian Alexander, with the hopes of maybe writing some kind of article about how nonfiction authors work. And he also told me he went without health insurance for his entire working life until the Affordable Care Act passed.**

Something about hearing this from two of the most talented and hard-working nonfiction authors I've ever read really, REALLY bothered me. I mean, these are people at the top of the "working nonfiction author" heap. Horn has published numerous well-reviewed and popular titles, and Alexander has done the same, while also working as a writer for The Atlantic and other extremely-hard-to-get-into publications. If these people at the top of their writing field can barely afford health insurance, even with legislation designed to make it easier to get, well, holy shit. It is hard to make a living writing.

This led me to rethink my own spending habits. Yes, I should give some more money to worthy causes. And you know what's worthy to me? Authors. People who write books. People who do good journalism that contributes to my understanding of the world.

I'm still going to tip well. But I have also started buying more books (from bookshop.org--fuck you, Amazon) either to read and to keep, or to read and pass along. I am also starting to subscribe to more magazines. Kids, the print word is dying. People like Horn and Alexander, who are willing to spend years researching and fact-checking their actual books, are struggling with poor sales. THIS IS NOT RIGHT.

So this is my ask for you for this holiday season and beyond: Turn off the Internet. Influencers don't need your cash and all that time you spend on Twitter (and Jesus it's addicting, I'm on it more just lately and it takes time) is taking away from the time you read actual books. Buy a new book for yourself. Buy new books for friends. Subscribe to magazines for any young nieces or nephews or friends you might have, or subscribe to some for yourself (just recently I have subscribed to both the Threepenny Review and Orion magazine and I have been pleasantly surprised with how exciting it is to get them and how reassuring it is to read quality writing after reading a lot of so-so writing on the Internet). When possible, shop through bookshop.org or go directly to the author's website if they sell their own books. Last week I bought a book of essays from Michael Perry's site, and it arrived signed and has been a wonderfully calming read.

Need suggestions for any readers you love? Comment or shoot me an email (see "Contact," above) and I'll talk through some gift options with you based on what sort of reader you're shopping for. Also, I've updated the "Favorite Authors" list over at the right--buying books from any of those authors will be money well spent.

None of the world makes sense to me anymore, except actual physical books. If I can help it they won't completely disappear on my watch. Join me in this quest, won't you?***

*My original title for this post was "Charitable Giving." I changed it, because buying books for myself and friends is not really giving to charity, and my support for great authors is not done out of charity, but rather because they provide a great product for the money. I didn't mean to be insulting. It's just that me and Mr. CR tend to be very cheap, so I tend to look on any "fun" spending we do as money I'm spending as much to help the seller as to help myself. How cheap are we? Here's a little story: Once Mr. CR looked at me and said, "Are you not wearing a bra?" And I said, "Not right now, it's in the wash." He suggested I treat myself and buy that second bra someday. I'll get around to it one of these days.

**Brian Alexander dedicated his new book The Hospital to his brother, who kept putting off going to the doctor until he could get on Medicare and get covered. And do you know what happened to his brother? He died of a heart attack months before he got on Medicare. And you're telling me we live in a civilized country? What the actual fuck is going on.

***Also please consider tipping your service providers--waitstaff, Uber drivers, food delivery drivers, anyone who works in the "gig economy"--very, very well. Thank you.


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.


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.


Dancing With the Octopus, by Debora Harding.

Last week my laptop crashed, so I took it to be fixed, as I am never in the mood to buy a new laptop.

OctopusSo my laptop spent a week at the laptop spa, and I spent a week being forced to check my email and read the Interwebs on my phone, which never stopped being annoying and which led me to wonder, yet again, how everyone can stand to be on their phones every minute. I don't do any real complex reading online, but trying to follow the thread of any story I was trying to read while only being shown two lines of text at a time on my teeny phone screen was infuriating. I know why all citizens have lost the ability to see the big picture--and that is primarily because we all spend our days looking at extremely tiny pictures.

On the bright side, the week was a nice time to wean myself off my continuing and destructive recreational YouTube habit, which is cheap and doesn't require me to get a Narcan shot, but which wastes literally ALL OF MY TIME. I spent the week reading even more than usual, and it was glorious.

One of the stupendous books I read was Debora Harding's true crime memoir, Dancing With the Octopus. It is the story of Harding's abduction and sexual assault when she was a very young teenager. To make the story even harder to read, Harding also slowly reveals the abuse that was present throughout her life in her own home. Although she had a close and loving relationship with her father, and good relationships with her three sisters, her mother was, if not stereotypically physically abusive, psychologically cruel and neglectful. Although she could confide some of her and her siblings' problems with their mother to her father, he often worked away from home and usually refused to believe things were as bad as they said.

This, then, is a memoir of family trauma and crime trauma, so it's not easy to read.

But you really HAVE to read it, because you have to meet Debora Harding.

This is a woman who has survived several types of abuse and trauma, which she did for a long time by mostly not admitting to herself (or others, never to others), how much she was affected by everything that happened to her. Her focus throughout the early part of the book is how she started experiencing symptoms that she did not understand, and which she slowly comes to understand are her body's delayed response to her childhood and the kidnapping. I am a huge believer that our bodies hold all our secrets and can be a mystery even to our brains, so to watch her work through the process of understanding her own physical being was powerful.

This is also a powerful story about restorative justice and what happened when Harding eventually met the man who kidnapped and assaulted her. It is a story of trying to come to terms with all of her own family members, at a time when she was trying to raise her own children.

I'm blabbing on pointlessly here. It's a beautiful book and you need to read it.

 


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.


Live Work Work Work Die, by Corey Pein

Mr. CR saw this book, Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey Into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley, by Corey Pein, on the end table and he said, "Kudos to you, another depressing nonfiction book."

Which I think is rich, coming from Mr. CR, who is my partner in our natural (if not ideal) habit of always imagining the worst-case scenario. He's way more bleak than me, but he hides it better, mostly because he's very, very quiet.

I know. You totally want to hang out in our cheerful, laugh-a-minute home, don't you?*

Anyway. He was right. This book was super depressing.

PeinIt's been on that end table for a week now, because that's where I set it when I finished reading it, had a little cry, and then moved on to whatever homeschooling, caregiving, or freelancing stuff I had going on that day. I've been trying for a week to get myself to post about this book, because I actually do think you should read it.

Pein set out to live and succeed in Silicon Valley, figuring there's tons of start-up cash available there for whatever kind of start-up he might be able to dream up (and then kind of vaguely start, and then cash out of). In other words, and as the jacket copy proclaims: "To truly understand the delirious reality of the tech entrepreneurs, he knew he would have to inhabit that perspective--he would have to become an entrepreneur himself."

And so he does. The first hurdle, of course, is finding a place to live on a journalist's budget in Silicon Valley. It's pretty much impossible, and it involves either living with many, many other tech workers in tiny, tiny, tiny (and shared) living spaces, or actually in a tent that somebody is renting out as an Airbnb. The second hurdle is dreaming up an idea for a start-up, and then getting that idea in front of investors. Third? Try not to lose your soul.

I think I left this book sitting on the end table because I knew it was going to be hard for me to do it justice in a review. It's sort of a strange concept, but there's no doubt that Pein does a very good job of dropping the reader right in the middle of Silicon Valley culture, and WOW, I find that a hugely scary place to be.

The most disturbing story (for me, anyway) in a book of disturbing stories came at the end, when the author describes his and his spouse's life in India, where they lived in 2016. At that time, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, implemented a policy of "demonetization," because he wanted people to move to smartphone apps for all of their transactions. So Modi's government announced that two denominations of Indian currency--two denominations that comprised nearly 90% of all cash in circulation--wouldn't be considered legal tender and had to be turned in for larger bills.

That sounds fairly benign until you learn that the Indian government partnered with a tech company on a start-up app called Paytm, that was in no way able to handle the massive amounts of Indian citizens' daily transactions. It was a disaster:

"In the cities, many sick and elderly people died in the long ATM lines--in at least one case, a doctor refused treatment after demanding cash, which was, of course, what everyone was waiting in line for. It was easy to spend an entire day traipsing from one machine to another, only to find them all out of cash. But these problems were largely invisible to India's wealthy and middle class, who hired servants to do their shopping and thus escaped the battle of will and endurance that suddenly characterized routine commerce." (p. 290.)

Does that last bit sound like anywhere you know? Maybe everywhere, just recently when wealthier people paid desperate people (not enough) to go out and do their shopping or driving or other basic commerce for them? I thought, huh, I'm surprised no politician here has demanded that we all turn in cash and use only a Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos approved/created payment app.

Then I remembered, that just hasn't happened YET.

I know, it's depressing. Read this book anyway.

*Actually, we all do laugh a lot. First off, the CRjrs are hilarious little animals, and also, if you have an absurdist sense of humor, there is a LOT of material in our current world at which to laugh.


It's not everyone's cuppa for comfort reading, I'll grant you.

Over this past weekend, being completely out of Agatha Raisins, I turned my attention back to nonfiction.

On Friday night I watched a documentary titled We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, which was about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Bonus points: I learned that Assange is actually an Australian. Why this struck me as so strange I have no idea; but for some reason I had the idea he was from a Nordic country.

It was a good movie; WikiLeaks is a fascinating concept and Julian Assange, whatever else you think about him, is one strange and unique dude. The hardest part of the documentary was learning more about Chelsea Manning, which, I'm not going to lie, was mainly heartbreaking. She mainly tried to let people know how many civilians our drones were killing in Iraq, and her life has been never-ending torture ever since.

RadicalThen, on Saturday, for something a little different, I turned to the book A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura, about four nuns who were murdered in El Salvador in 1980. Another light read. But wow, is it stupendous. A compelling biography of Maura Clarke, one of the women who was murdered, as well as a well-told history. It's by a journalist named Eileen Markey, and I'm not kidding: it's a compellingly told story in which nearly every single paragraph is footnoted and referenced. I don't even know how she did that. It is an amazing, and inspiring, book, and I do not throw those words around lightly.

On Sunday I treated myself to a refresher course on the My Lai massacre and one of the whistleblowers who revealed it, Ron Ridenhour, in order to write a story on Medium called "The Soldiers Who Told the Truth."

It wouldn't have been comfort reading for everyone, I know, but reading so many difficult and heartbreaking stories made me more determined to find the good in each story. Learning about Chelsea Manning makes me want to cry for Chelsea Manning, but WOW. Talk about a person who tried to tell other people about a massacre that was making her sick, and how she paid for it. Such bravery. Ditto with Sister Maura Clarke and so many others who tried to rebel against corrupt (and American-backed, ye Gods) regimes in Central America, in Nicaragua and El Salvador specifically. Such bravery. And of course any of the soldiers in Vietnam who chose to defy their superiors' orders and NOT kill civilians in My Lai, as well as Ron Ridenhour, who listened to soldiers' stories and wrote thirty letters to various politicians and top Army officers until somebody paid attention. Such bravery.

People both freak me out and amaze me. For some reason I like books and stories that show me that whole continuum. And nothing gives me that like nonfiction does.


Evolution of a reading obsession.

I'm still reading everything I can find about whistleblowers.

When I finally finished every Agatha Raisin cozy mystery I could get (yes, the whole series, 31 titles, although I see there's a new one expected at the end of next year*) over the holiday season, I celebrated by going back to my typical fare: books that Mr. CR calls "depressing nonfiction."

BolkovacThe depressing book in question is The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman's Fight for Justice, by Kathryn Bolkovac, with Cari Lynn.

Former Nebraska police officer Bolkovac details her time spent in war-torn Bosnia at the end of the 1990s and early years of the 2000s, after she applied to and went to work for a private military contractor. She thought she would be spending her time helping support a UN peacekeeping mission in the region, but that turned out not to be the case, particularly when she began filing reports about how women were being trafficked into and out of Bosnia, and, more importantly, who was paying to use those victims.

Mr. CR was right. It was depressing.

Particularly when Bolkovac tells one story of how she started to realize that many members of the international forces (including her co-workers) were not so much helping in an already bad situation as they were taking advantage of it. Consider her tale about "Carl":

"That evening, as [Carl] drove me home, he was not his normal, happy self. He told me his girlfriend had left him. I figured he had been trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with a woman back home and she just grew tired of being so far apart. But then he sighed and said, 'Yep, she ran away.'

I did not understand. 'She's a local girl,' he explained.

'Did she go back to live with her family?' I asked, still confused, but thinking she was probably a language assistant or secretary who worked in our offices.

'Well, she's not exactly from Bosnia. I think her passport says Romania or Moldova or something...' His voice trailed off, and he looked helpless.

I could not believe what I was hearing. I looked straight at him. 'Carl, where did you meet her?'

'At the Como Bar.'

My eyes narrowed. 'Is it possible she'd been trafficked into Bosnia?'

'Oh, I don't know about that, Kathy,' he said dubiously. 'I bought her from Tanjo, he's the owner of the Como.'

I clutched my armrest, digging in my nails. I knew of Tanjo--he was one of the most notorious traffickers in the region. The Human Rights Office had been after this elusive man for several years--and all the while DynCorp's very own Carl had been having up-close-and-personal dealings with him?

'Tanjo gave her to me for 6,000 Deutsch Marks,' Carl continued as if he were talking about a puppy. 'I kept her in my apartment, and I wanted to marry her and brig her back to the States. But she ran away yesterday, and she took my mobile phone. I'd at least like my phone back.'" (pp. 148-149.)

Sigh.

Bolkovac's story followed the standard whistleblower plot: She noticed the problem, she tried to report the problem, her reports were covered up, she kept pushing because she didn't understand why her reports weren't being filed, and then she started to be retaliated against by her employer. It never fails to strike me as a really disheartening narrative, but she was (unlike many whistleblowers) vindicated in the end, although vindication did not really make up for her eventually losing the DynCorp job or the accusations she withstood during the entire process.

It was an interesting read, but dry at times. If you don't have the time to give to the book, it was also made into a movie starring Rachel Weisz; you might want to try that.

*The last Agatha Raisin I read was noted to be co-written by M.C. Beaton (the original author) and somebody named R.W. Green, and was published after Beaton's death in 2019. I stuck with it, but it sucked, and I can't say I'm too hopeful about the next installment, which I'm guessing will also be written by Green.


Everything you ever wanted to know about running for local political office.

Back in 2019, when I was young and still had energy for such things, I ran for local political office, also known as a spot on my city's governing Council.

Spoiler alert: I lost.

But that turned out to be an okay thing, considering the fact that in 2019 my mom had a stroke and my husband had a heart attack, and in 2020 the whole world went down the shitter and I became a full-time homeschooler. I've really had enough to do without keeping on top of what the powers that be in my municipality are doing.

Okay, I lied. I still watch a little bit what my city powers that be are doing. As far as I can tell, they're continuing to subsidize already wealthy developers to build luxury apartment buildings (except they call it "workforce housing" to act like there's an altruistic method to their madness) and talking a good game about "sustainability" while spending a lot of money on amenities for rich people, which seems like an unsustainable system to me, but that's okay. It's just the way of the world.

But in a weird sort of way I really enjoyed running for local office, not least because I did a lot of walking around my neighborhood in the company of the youngest CRjr, who wasn't yet in school then. Those are good memories and will always be so.

But! I'm writing today to share the very exciting news that I wrote an article about HOW to run for local office, and it's been published by something called Better Humans at the Medium platform.* Here it is, if you'd like to peruse it: How and Why You Should Run for Local Political Office.

*Medium is a writing platform that will let you read some stories for free, but if you want to read more than just a sampling, you have to subscribe for $5 a month. I subscribed because I was finding some good stuff to read there, and it turns out you can also write stuff there and sometimes get paid for it, which is nice also. Anyone out there a subscriber or writer on Medium? Let me know in the comments and I would love to follow you on that platform.


What a very strange year.

I gotta be honest with you--2019 wore me out, and I was SO HOPEFUL that 2020 would be easier and more peaceful.

Or not.

Let's be clear: the virus is awful and I feel very badly for anyone who has had it, because a. feeling sick is terrible, and b. interacting with our health "care" system is a nightmare even if you have time and health insurance. I also know it is a nightmare for the service industry and as a former waitress, I feel deep-body sympathy for anyone caught in that shitstorm of a sector this year. On the other hand? If you could work at home and homeschool your kids, as we are lucky enough to be able to do in ChezCitizenReader?

Well, then, I'm not proud to admit it, but it's been my least anxious year ever. Mainly because it has removed interactions with other people and (mostly) with systems with which I don't agree and hate being a part of. If you think I missed social functions at the school of the CRjrs, you are way, way wrong.

If you think I missed any social functions at all, you are way, way wrong.

Are other anxious introverts feeling this way? I hesitate to even admit it because I know how tough and how ugly 2020 has been for many, many people worldwide.

No year-end round-up, because, truthfully, I hate those things. But I WOULD very much like to hear what you read and loved this year and why. Or just pop in and say hi and tell me how you're doing. Either way, and whatever havoc COVID-19 has wreaked in your life, I wish you and yours all the very best in 2021.


Ellen Ullman's "Life in Code."

This is now the third time I've had Ellen Ullman's book Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology, home from the library, and once again, I'm not going to finish it.

Life in codeThis is not because it's a bad book. I think it's actually a very good book. Unlike the last two times I've checked it out, this time I got through about 100 pages of it, and now it is overdue. (And it's perpetually on hold, so it's a popular book as well.)

Ullman (according to the book jacket), began her twenty-year programming career in the late-1970s/early-1980s. Evidently she is also the author of several novels and another well-known memoir, titled Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, which I'd never heard of. That makes sense, though; in 1997 I was still reading fantasy and studying film history, so the only nonfiction I read was biographies of James Dean and Montgomery Clift.

This book is a collection of pieces that have been written at various points in time; at the head of each chapter she tells you the year or the years when she first wrote it. This makes it a rather disjointed read (for me, anyway), but there's a lot here that made me go, "Oh, of course." A lot of things that bother me about our techie world, she talks about. She describes (in the 1994 chapter) how all programmers want to go "low," or "closer to the machine," so they can avoid the ridiculous work of creating systems for actual human users. She also describes a lunchroom conversation where all the techies try to figure out how long it would take to "wipe out a disease inherited recessively on the X chromosome." Eventually they get around to just killing every carrier. When she points out that that's what the Nazis did:

"They all look at me in disgust. It's the look boys give a girl who has interrupted a burping contest. One says, 'This is something my wife would say.'

When he says 'wife,' there is no love, warmth, or goodness in it. In this engineer's mouth, 'wife' means wet diapers and dirty dishes. It means someone angry with you for losing track of time and missing dinner. Someone sentimental. In his mind (for the moment), 'wife' signifies all programming-party-pooping, illogical things in the universe." (pp. 9-10.)

God. It's a good book. But you know the real reason I couldn't finish it? It made me so depressed I didn't think I could go on.

So I put it down and spent the rest of the weekend reading Agatha Raisin mysteries. I slept a lot better after those.