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Tonight I had the pleasure of meeting Brian R. Alexander, author of the new book "Glass House." He's a brilliant man who has written an extraordinarily important book at the exact moment it is most needed.
"Glass House" chronicles the downfall of Alexander's hometown, Lancaster, Ohio due to the downfall of Anchor Hocking Glass which, in turn, was due to the machinations of private equity and greed. It's a story about how one party to the Great American Social Contract -- big business and finance -- decided that it was more efficient to breach its obligations to the other party -- workers and the communities in which they live -- than to honor them.
Anchor Hocking was a Fortune 500 company which, along with some smaller yet still important companies, formed the backbone of Lancaster for close to a century. This partnership of business and community led Forbes to dedicate an entire issue to Lancaster in 1947, calling it "the quintessential American town" and the “epitome and apogee of the American free enterprise system.” The city was vibrant, the people were prosperous, the schools were strong and the sense of community forged by the shared goals of its corporate and private citizens provided the stability necessary to allow Lancaster's civic culture to flourish.
While the decline of industrialized cities like Lancaster in the 1970s and 1980s is now characterized by many as an inevitable fact of history, there was nothing inevitable about what happened to Lancaster. Glass manufacturing is not easily outsourced due to the fragility of the product, so it's not a simple matter of Anchor Hocking's business moving to Mexico or China in search of cheap labor.
Rather, Anchor Hocking fell victim to private-equity financiers like Carl Ichan and Cerberus Capital Management swooping in and milking the company for whatever cash they could, while providing nothing of value to the company itself, let alone the people of Lancaster. Ichan greenmailed his way to several million easy dollars. Cerberus leveraged Anchor Hocking to the hilt, bleeding it with fees and percentages via deals that thrust all of the risk on the company and its workers and none on the owners, all of which was encouraged by the deregulation of the financial industry and the perpetuation of "greed is good" culture of the Reagan years. Valuable assets were sold off and leased back at company expense, massive amounts of debt was incurred and pension obligations were not honored, all while the company's succession of owners raked in millions.
While Anchor Hocking continues to be a going concern, the effect of these machinations has been devastating for Lancaster. Most obviously in terms of the elimination of jobs, the reduction in salaries and benefits for existing workers, factory shutdowns and the elimination of pensions, all necessitated by the company's massive, unnecessary debt and the bleeding of its revenues by financial speculators and corporate pirates. The result: Lancaster's unemployment rate has risen and its underemployment rate has skyrocketed in the past 35 years. It's simply a poorer place than it once was for some very direct and very obvious reasons.
But it's also worse off for some less-than-immediately-obvious ones.
When new ownership came in, the entire management and executive class of Anchor Hocking was either fired or moved out of Lancaster to far away corporate headquarters, cutting a huge chunk of wealthy and educated citizens out of the civic fabric of the city. As Alexander notes, these people -- and their spouses -- were the ones who organized public festivals, led philanthropic efforts, served as elders and leaders in churches, took an active role in the PTA and spearheaded a large portion of the cultural initiatives of the city. They likewise formed a class of people who were prosperous enough to be able to participate directly in civic and government leadership out of a sense of duty as opposed to careerism, which has a way of encouraging ethical behavior. A healthy city in a capitalist system needs working people making good wages, but it also needs an executive and political class with a vested interest in the community. When the financiers moved in on Anchor Hocking and relocated the company's brain trust to places like New York and Chicago, Lancaster lost this practically overnight and its civic and political institutions have suffered tremendously.
The combination of economic suffering and the suffering of civic culture has waylaid Lancaster, Ohio. It has suffered from all of the obvious things associated with increased poverty -- crime, drug abuse and corruption -- but it has also suffered psychic blows which are harder to capture with statistics.
Alexander, who now lives in California, returned to Lancaster to write this book and embedded himself in his old hometown. He forged real friendships with people he met in local dive bars and in once-proud country clubs which now sell memberships for $100. He was no cultural tourist, treating the people he met as data points of subjects. He befriended them and talked to them and listened to their stories.
They are stories of hopelessness and aimlessness. Of financial struggle and of cultural and existential ennui. For 100 years, a person who grew up in Lancaster had an idea of what they might do with their future that allowed for the possibility of staying there. Now, those who do not abandon Lancaster after graduating high school find themselves wondering how they fit into their community and how their community fits in the world. Maybe they take a series of service industry jobs which require little of them and which do nothing to instill a sense of pride or meaning or commitment. Maybe -- after years of hearing politicians, both Democratic and Republican, who claim to care about them but who do nothing to follow up their lip service with action -- they simply lose themselves to disillusionment. Maybe they just buy guns and Oxy in order to feel safe or to feel nothing. Maybe, in desperation, they throw in with a charlatan like Donald Trump who promises to make things the way they used to be.
As every review of "Glass House" will no doubt note, Alexander contends with many of the same issues and themes as does J.D. Vance's bestseller, "Hillbilly Elegy." It's a logical comparison. Both are focused on small towns in Ohio which border on Appalachia. Both deal with social decline and decay, drug addiction, poverty and hopelessness. The differences between the books, however, could not be more stark.
Unlike Vance and "Hillbilly Elegy," which I reviewed a few months ago, Alexander and "Glass House" conclude that, rather than some ill-explained and spontaneous decision of working people to suddenly become shiftless and lazy, there are actual real, straightforward and understandable institutional reasons for Lancaster's decline. Vance, without any empirical evidence, views an entire swath of the country's problems to be attributable to a simultaneous moral failure on the part of millions of people. It's a view that, by shocking coincidence, absolves the sorts of investment banks and private equity firms for which Vance has worked of any responsibility.
Alexander, in contrast, makes a compelling and economical case that some very concrete causes led to real effects which flow logically from them. As a big fan of cause and effect over Vance's brand of magical thinking -- and as a bigger fan of assuming that people are rational actors and not lost souls, easily corrupted -- I fall SHARPLY in Alexander's camp when it comes to all of this. For what it's worth, he's also a much better writer who has seen much more of the world than has Vance and he comes off more intelligent and more empathetic than does America's latest literary and political darling.
Please, read "Glass House." Read it especially if you read "Hillbilly Elegy." Read it especially if you're a coastal liberal who nodded, uncritically, along with J.D. Vance's pablum as a means of assuaging your guilt about your ignorance of what has befallen middle America in the past few decades and felt that, by doing so, you were paying a proper amount of cultural penance. It's a better book that it better written and which has the benefit of making a boatload of sense where Vance's strains credulity every single time it strays from the memoir at its core. "Glass House" is not a simplistic fable like "Hillbilly Elegy." It's a smart, sensible, approachable and eye-opening book that treats a complex topic with necessary sophistication while treating the real human beings at its center with the respect they deserve.
"Glass House" does not tell us how to cure the disease which has infected American business and political culture, but it properly diagnoses it, and that's the essential first step.
It is Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday. My favorite book of his is “Mother Night.” It begins, in its very first paragraph, with its moral: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Ever since I read those words, I have done whatever I can to live my life by them. I cannot think of a better time to revisit them than this moment in history.
At the prompting of a couple of friends, I recently read J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.”
It was a major mistake. Don't believe Vance's hype and don't believe for a second that you need to read this book to gain some deeper understanding of "real Americans." It's a simultaneous exercise in (a) shaming the working class as shiftless and lazy; (b) ignoring why their plight today is what it is; while (c) ignoring why, exactly, they resent so-called "cultural elites."
I love baseball so much that I turned it into my job. I love bourbon so much that I drink it like it’s my job. The drinking parts of baseball are pretty much owned by beer, so the two of those things don’t come together very often, but when they do I am about the happiest camper there can be.
I am midway through a fantastic new book by Reid Mitenbuler called “Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.” It’s a bourbon history, basically. And so far a good one. My favorite part of it is that it is, in essence, a debunking. A debunking of the myriad myths surrounding bourbon, its history and its culture. About how those old frontiersman named on the bottle of your favorite whiskey had little if anything to do with it. About how hardly any of the stories about bourbon and its provenance are really true, even if you hear these tales on an actual distillery tour. Maybe especially if you hear them on a distillery tour.
“Bourbon Empire” is not a mean-spirited debunking by any stretch, however. Mitenbuler clearly has affection for his subject and the demystification of bourbon has led me to enjoy the two or three glasses of bourbon I’ve drank since I opened this book the other night even more than usual. There’s something uplifting about knowing the mess of history whence those glasses came. I’m a big fan of messes and chaos. Such things are far more amenable to the creation of great things than a neat and tidy order.
A lot of my baseball writing involves debunking the news and narratives of the day and a lot of my favorite baseball writing of others involves debunking baseball history, so this all has a natural appeal to me. Like bourbon’s origin stories, baseball’s origins were, for years, presented in as neat and tidy a manner as you could imagine. Baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday one fine afternoon. Or, if you don’t believe that, its rules were laid down by Alexander Cartwright. Or would you believe Henry Chadwick? OK, maybe we can’t agree on who the “father of baseball” is, but the idea that baseball was simply invented one day by some father figure is true, right?
Well, of course not. Baseball developed from any number of stick-and-ball games like rounders, bat and trap, and stool ball. The games which, over time, meshed together in important ways to form what we now know of as baseball. It’s a fascinating history, featured in a great documentary a few years back, which reveals that baseball wasn’t truly invented. Rather, it evolved like many other games, from some primordial common ancestor, probably in England, often due to pragmatism and random chance.
Modern baseball is likewise filled with neat and tidy tales. We don’t identify them as tales that often because they come to us in the form of news reports or commentary. But they’re tales. Whenever something can’t be sufficiently explained, fantasy is sprinkled on top of it in order to make it make sense. Sometimes that fantasy is old, unfalsifiable conventional wisdom. Things like a player’s “will to win” or “hunger” for success. Or his lack of fire, motivation or respect for the game. Sometimes people attempt to fill those empty spaces from another direction altogether. Analytics and sabermetrics which, though I am clearly partial to them, have their limits and are probably in need of some cosmic-level rethinking.
Such is the case with bourbon. It was born of a similar pragmatism. The availability of corn as opposed to other grains. The practicality of shipping it in barrels, which led to the serendipitous discovery of some interesting new flavors. The borrowing of distilling and aging concepts from other spirits like brandy and consumption and criticism habits regarding it from things like wine, even as the entire macho frontiersman gestalt of bourbon encourages a rejection of fancy-pants things like brandy and wine.
On page 52 of “Bourbon Empire” Mitenbuler quotes the author Julien Barnes in identifying everything you need to know about the marketing of bourbon. Specifically, that it can be characterized as:
“ … that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
And so it is with so much that is written about baseball. Most people in my industry are content to fill up that empty intersection with bullshit or false, tidy narratives. Hey, if you don’t buy it, prove them wrong! If they’ll stop appealing to their place of perceived authority long enough to even listen to you.
The longer I write about baseball, the more I prefer to allow that intersection to remain empty. And, at times, messy. The world is sometimes empty and messy, after all. Why should baseball, bourbon or anything else be an exception?
Someone snagged some alcohol and took it, quite illegally, to where it shouldn’t have been taken. It wasn’t an impulsive crime of opportunity, however. It wasn’t someone knocking over the corner liquor store. This was planned. Planned by professionals who knew exactly what they were taking and exactly who would be drinking the illegally-obtained booze. And the people who would be drinking it would be paying top dollar for the privilege. Far more than the retail price.
Why? Because the alcohol in question was scarce. Not the sort of thing you could find just anywhere. Its scarcity is what made it valuable. Its scarcity likely even made it taste better to the folks who would eventually drink it. Better to them than it would taste to someone who drank from the same bottles obtained through legal means. Better than stuff that, objectively speaking, was not much different and may have in fact tasted better than the illegal stuff before its qualities were enhanced by the air of danger and intrigue which infused it with … greater complexities.
The booze in question: Coors beer. Obtained illegally by Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed in the 1977 film “Smokey and the Bandit.” It was illegal to ship Coors east of Texas in 1977 and that illegality made it a highly sought-after commodity to Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette, who bankrolled the racket in order to get the stuff to serve, quite appropriately, at a banquet in honor of the winner of the Southern Classic truck rodeo in Georgia.
It seems preposterous now that the plot to the second highest-grossing movie of 1977 was set in motion by someone coveting Coors beer. Because, with all apologies to the good folks at the MillerCoors Brewing Company, Coors is kind of crappy. A mass-produced light lager that your dad probably drank because that’s about as good as he could do for the price and which you probably drank when you were in college because, Jesus, you didn’t know any better.
But drive the plot it did. Its believability as a McGuffin supported by its scarcity east of Texas. Its value supported by a small handful of wealthy men who used its scarcity and their ability to overcome it as a means of showing off to their friends. When the Bandit and the Snowman smashed their way through that last police blockade with that truck full of Coors and handed their haul over to Big and Little Enos, the retail price of their load didn’t matter a bit.
The same goes for another bunch of booze illegally swiped: 200 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, stolen from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky back in October 2013. Those bottles go for anywhere between $40 and $250 at retail but, because of their scarcity, can fetch over $1,000 in private sales. Some sales have netted as high as $5,000. And those are just the sales between friends and acquaintances on the so-called “gray market.” There’s no telling what they’d go for on the truly black market.
It’s not that Pappy is so much better than any other bourbon. Oh, it’s good. Thanks to a good friend with family near Lexington I was lucky enough to have some back before the bourbon bubble truly inflated. I enjoyed it a great deal. But it’s not hundreds of times better than the next best thing. It really can’t be.
All bourbon, in order to be bourbon, has to have a mash bill (i.e. the proportion of grains used in the fermentation process) of 51% corn. Up to that point, the stuff is all identical. It’s what makes up the other 49% that gives different bourbons their different tastes.
But here’s bourbon’s little secret: there are generally only three different taste profiles once you get past the corn:
Pappy Van Winkle is a wheated bourbon. It’s a good one, usually aged longer – 10, 15 or 23 years compared to the 3-7 years of most bourbons – but it’s still a wheated bourbon. Unless you’re in the bourbon industry and have tasted multiple different bourbons hundreds of different times as a point of professional purpose, you’re not going to be able to identify a great many bourbons by taste alone. it’s safe to say that the occasional bourbon drinker couldn’t tell the difference between Pappy and, say, Willett Pot Still Reserve, W.L. Weller or a Maker’s 46. After they’ve already had a couple, a novice bourbon drinker could probably be fooled with a bit of Old Fitz. Maybe even some of those occasional drinkers.
Yet there Old Pappy sits at the top of the bourbon pyramid, coveted, sought after and, yes, even stolen. Not because it’s so great but because the folks at Buffalo Trace produce only 1% of the amount of it as the folks at Jim Beam 70 miles to the southwest make of their white label bourbon each year. Because celebrity chefs like David Chang, Sean Brock, and Anthony Bourdain have conspicuously endorsed it. Because its annual release has been well-marketed as “Pappy-Day,” creating a land rush effect.
Of course, Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon is not unique in this respect. Simple economics suggest that the low supply of any product combined with its high demand will beget a higher price. But there’s something else going on with Pappy Van Winkle. There the low supply and great demand is baked into the price. It comes before the price is set. But then an after-effect of exclusivity washes over it where either the price or the overall scarcity of the product works to make people think it actually tastes better than it really does. Ask anyone who has been fortunate enough to drink some Pappy recently. They’ll tell you it’s the best they’ve ever had. Mostly because they’ve been fortunate enough to have it.
It’s not simple snobbery at work here, however.
Back in 2008 some Caltech economics professors conducted a study which found that changes in the stated price of a given wine influenced how good volunteers thought it tasted. But it wasn’t just an instance in which vanity and exclusivity entered into things. The lead researcher, Antonio Rangel, concluded that "prices, by themselves, affect activity in an area of the brain that is thought to encode the experienced pleasantness of an experience.” Put differently: the price tag on the wine bottle literally made the person drinking it think it tasted better.
Another product which, I suspect anyway, affects brain chemistry is In-N-Out Burger. Here it’s not about price. In-N-Out Burger’s menu prices are pretty low, actually. It’s really about exclusivity. As a result of the company’s obsession with quality control and its refusal to franchise, In-N-Out’s reach has been limited to five states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Texas.
My brother worked at an In-N-Out burger in San Diego for several years. He can vouch for the quality of their food. But the taste? It’s good. Quite good! But are the burgers better than Shake Shack? Five Guys? Any number of other burger joints across the country which use fresh, high-quality ingredients? Maybe a bit. Maybe a good bit if your palette is simply more amenable to the extra Thousand Island spread, mustard grilled patties, and extra pickles of an animal style burger. But it’s not so much better than the next chain down to justify the frenzy and the hype, is it? My brother grew positively sick of the stuff after six months and started taking his lunch breaks at the Del Taco across the street.
I’m a baseball writer, and an annual tradition among baseball writers is for the ones sent to Arizona for spring training to gloat about the availability of In-N-Out Burger to the sad, unfortunate baseball writers who have to cover spring training in Florida. Whenever I travel from Ohio to California to visit my brother, I’m always asked by friends if I plan to stop at In-N-Out before or after I go to his house. And there those celebrity chefs again – among them Thomas Keller and our old friend Anthony Bourdain – singing In-N-Out’s praises, stoking that perception of quality and feeding that demand.
I’ll leave it to Antonio Rangel and his colleagues at Caltech to parse all of that. But for now I will try to find “Smokey and the Bandit” streaming online and giggle anew at the fact that the whole damn thing was set off by Coors beer. And wonder whether, if and when there is a reboot of the franchise, Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette will send the Bandit after Pappy Van Winkle, In-N-Out Burger or something else entirely.
I wrote about home a couple of years ago. About what we consider to be our hometown and why. About how it doesn’t have to be where you live or where you were born but how subjective things – memories, emotions, one’s conception of oneself – can determine it. For a lot of reasons I said then that I considered Beckley, West Virginia to be my home, even if I didn’t move there until I was a teenager and even if I haven’t lived there permanently for over 20 years.
That’s been complicated for me in the past year and a half. Because my parents moved away from Beckley in he mid-90s, my strongest connection to the place came through my former in-laws who still live there. My wife and I would go back often. Her parents’ house was the closest thing I had to a childhood home. Christmas was there. Thanksgiving. Family gatherings, involving both her family and mine, over the course of 20 years. I came to think of that little house in the holler as my home and to think of her family as my own.
But when we split up I lost that connection. I still love my ex-mother-in-law. My ex-brother-in-law and his family. My wife’s aunts and uncles and all of their people. But they’re no longer regular parts of my life. I see my ex-mother-in-law once every few months when she’s visiting, but it’s nothing more than a hug and a hello through the passenger side window when they come to pick up the kids. Anything more would be awkward, in all honesty, so I can see how it really can’t be any other way.
I also lost the connection to southern West Virginia. I love it so and miss it dearly, but there’s no reason for me to go back there anymore. And there are a lot of reasons, mostly having to do with the maintenance of my mental health, to avoid it altogether. The past can be a difficult place for me these days. Even thinking about it for too long can derail me for a good while. In light of that, actually spending any real time in a place that is haunted by so many ghosts of the past is a terrible idea, no matter how important the place has been to me in my life.
Thank goodness, then, for Scott McClanahan and his book Crapalachia. A memoir of sorts – he’s called it “nonfiction lite” – it’s best described by its subtitle, “a Biography of a Place.” That place is Danese, West Virginia, not very far from Beckley, in western Greenbrier County, where McClanahan grew up. He tells of his life with his hypochondriac grandmother Ruby, his uncle Nathan who suffered from cerebral palsy and his friend Bill who, thanks to OCD, is constantly listening to “Dust in the Wind” and telling everyone the elevation of every surrounding hill.
McClanahan’s life and family in Danese are not a close approximation to my former life and family in Beckley, but there are enough intersections to make “Crapalachia” an exercise in safe nostalgia for me. He tells of a life of close connections to odd people, the likes of which he’s unlikely to ever know again. Stories of family members who worked in the mines. The weird mix of ancient mountain culture and 80s-90s cable television-driven pop culture which makes the place something less than old, something less than new and something altogether odd for a teenage kid in that place at that time. Eccentric people who might stick out in places like Columbus, Ohio but who were just part of the everyday in southern West Virginia. He name-checks the radio station I worked for. The K-Mart and the Captain D’s on Valley Drive. The kinds of places where I’d get beer and get up to no good when I was 16 years-old.
McClanahan says he wrote the book so he could remember these people and places. So he could document their existence and memory before they started to slip from his mind. But Crapalachia is more than just a personal document. His final chapter starts this way:
“My home was gone. So I decided to write this book. I tried to remember all of the people and phantoms I had ever known and loved. I tried to make them laugh and dance, move and dream, love and see … I put the dirt from my home in my pockets and I travel. I am making the world my mountain.”
I didn’t know McClanahan’s people but I knew people like his and I certainly knew his places. And like his home, my home is gone now too, at least for me. McClanahan talks constantly of ghosts in this book. I could feel my own ghosts swirling about me as I read it. It’s been years since I’ve read anything which resonated with me so deeply.
I write for a living, but a lot of things I write never see the light of day. Personal things. Bits of my history. Scenes in my life that I’m still trying to process and which I render in type so that I might go back to them one day when I am wiser and see if I can make better sense of it all than I can now.
I can’t explain the comfort I feel knowing that someone not terribly unlike me has done the same thing about many of the same sorts of people and places – ghosts, for all practical purposes – which haunt me still. And that he seems, from a distance, anyway, to have achieved some amount of peace about it all as a result.