When I was young the older men I knew were World War II veterans. My grandfather. My great uncle Harry. Larry Alvord across the street. They wouldn't talk much about their experiences unless you asked them. When they did talk about it they were very matter-of-fact. War was scary and often ugly. They were often confused. Sometimes they were bored. But mostly they were just happy they came home alive.
They didn't have to justify it because it was a manifestly necessary war against a manifestly evil foe. They didn't have to glorify it because there was, by the time I was around, several decades of books and movies and TV shows and documentaries and lore that did it in their place, often by people who themselves were not involved in the war. Actual World War II veterans who produced such things tended to be a bit more ambivalent about it all.
All of that aside, when I was little, war as I understood it was a pretty straightforward concept: it was bad, but sometimes necessary, and eventually it ended.
There were younger men I knew who were also veterans. My uncle would never talk about his experience in Vietnam. He once got in a car and drove away for hours on the Fourth of July so he didn't have to be near the firecrackers my cousins and I were setting off.
I also had a teacher who, while not yet 40, had a limp and snowy white hair and who, some parents said, was not always well because, "you know, Vietnam." He always seemed fine to me, but I always remembered what my friends' parents said and wondered if he was unwell in some way.
Unlike my grandfather or Larry Alvord across the street, I'd never dare ask my uncle or my teacher about their experiences. It seemed too scary. I began to understand it, though, through books and movies and TV shows and the like. That war was different, I learned.
As the 1980s went on, people began to talk about that war more and more. They began to talk about its mistakes and how its soldiers had been mistreated. But rather than make up for that mistreatment in any substantive way, they began to talk more about how, if we had done things differently, that war could've gone differently. People who, again, had nothing to do with that war, began to play-act alternative outcomes to it as a means of trying to make everyone feel better about it all. I've always regretted not asking my uncle or my teacher how they felt about all of that.
As all this was going on, our country did a couple of little practice wars. Even as a kid I felt like we did them more to make ourselves feel better than anything else. To make up for losing in Vietnam by putting a quick couple of Ws on the board.
My brother joined the Navy in 1989. In late 1990 his ship was sent to the Red Sea as our country prepared for another war. It's hard to remember it now since history has declared it such a walkover, but during the run-up to the Gulf War there were predictions that, while U.S. victory was all but certain, the conflict could be protracted and Iraq would nonetheless inflict massive casualties until it was defeated. Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski forecast 20,000 casualties. Pat Buchanan predicted 30,000. Ted Kennedy estimated that there would be 3,000 U.S. casualties per week. It was not out of the question that a random ship could be sunk by an Iraqi missile.
Not that most people thought too hard about it. For most people, the prelude to the Gulf War played out like the week before the Super Bowl. Cable news assumed the stance of a pregame show. The coming war even had a theme song, by the same guy who did the Monday Night Football theme song. Jingoism ran amok.
I was a senior in high school and I had been awarded an ROTC scholarship. I wasn't sure I was going to take it, but I visited a couple of college ROTC programs to see how that all worked. On January 16, 1991 my dad and I drove from West Virginia to Columbus. We had an appointment to meet the Ohio State University ROTC commandant the next morning. That night, after we got to our hotel room, the fighting in Kuwait started. Dad and I ate pizza as we watched it unfold in real time. Sometimes CNN would cut to video of a ship firing a missile. We wondered if it was my brother's ship. We were both worried.
The next morning at the ROTC building we passed a student lounge with a television tuned into the war coverage surrounded by a dozen or so uniformed cadets. Cheers and high fives erupted with each bomb blast and Tomahawk missile strike. The cadets’ glee at the outbreak of war was unnerving.
We went on to meet the Commandant. He was a nice enough fellow but he couldn’t go three sentences without making excited reference to the previous night's carnage. Since everyone else in the country had suddenly assumed a quasi-military vocabulary and deified military officers as if they were intermediaries carrying forth the world of God, I think he thought all that war chatter would help him sell me on the scholarship and coming up to Ohio State to join his program. I got sick to my stomach as the conversation went on. By the time it was over only he and my dad were talking By the time we left late that morning I knew that I wasn’t going to be taking the ROTC scholarship.
Subsequent history has made the first Gulf War seem almost quaint, not unlike those practice wars in Grenada and Panama. And, sure, I suppose those who predicted thousands of American casualties were way off. How people still manage to gloss over the rank carnage the conflict inflicted, though, still astonishes me all these years later.
Twelve years later our country geared up for war again. Or, I should say, since we had already been fighting in Afghanistan for over a year at that point, our country geared up for a second war. It was in Iraq again. There seemed to be no justification for it at all this time apart from the people in charge of our country simply being hellbent on going to war in Iraq again. They made one up though, inventing the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and were prepared to use them on us. Or something like that.
The war began just before I took off on a month-long road trip. On May 1, 2003 my trip took me to White Sands, New Mexico. At the White Sands Missile Range Museum there's a boneyard of old missiles, rockets, and bombs. A friend who had joined me for that leg of the trip and I got out and climbed on disarmed weaponry. Just days before the army had finished subduing a foreign country because it allegedly dared to acquire some of their own. That turned out to be a lie. The all-but-empty museum we were visiting had more weapons of mass destruction than all of Iraq did.
That night my friend and I camped just outside of Alamogordo. We listened to a news report on the radio which described how President Bush had, that very day, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, declared that the mission in Iraq had been accomplished. Not long after that guerrilla warfare broke out and an insurgency ramped up. The vast majority of casualties of the Iraq war, both military and civilian, occurred after the mission had, allegedly, been accomplished.
I found out I was going to be a father for the first time when I was in the middle of the road trip I was on at the time the Iraq War kicked off. Today I drove my son -- my second child, who was born more than two years after the "Mission Accomplished" banner flew -- to a job interview.
On the way there he, aware of the United States' assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, made some nihilistic "World War III" jokes, the sorts you probably saw floating around on social media today. I told him it wasn't a laughing matter. Chastened, he then more soberly wondered whether any of the kids he goes to high school with will be fighting in Iran or Iraq in a couple of years. It was a good question.
We've been at war, continuously, since before my kids were born. My kids who are now interviewing for jobs and thinking about what colleges they'll apply to. War that no one in power ever seems to seriously question. War that has killed millions and has cost trillions. War, a thirst for which those in power remain insatiable to this day.
War that, unlike the war of my grandfather and Larry Alvord across the street, no one seems to acknowledge is bad, no one ever asks if it was necessary, and one which will apparently never end.
A war we have all tacitly agreed that we will never seriously question because, somehow, we have convinced ourselves that to do so would be to once again mistreat my uncle and my teacher who went to Vietnam 50 years ago.
War based on the same arguments and lies and disingenuous prognostications which have been repeated and which have been proven wrong for two decades but about which no one learns anything.
I sometimes feel like I'm the only one aware of how ridiculous and absurd and tragic obscene all of this is. I'm not, of course. People see it and know it and feel it and have felt pain from it. Millions of them. Pain that almost no one in this country will ever feel and will never acknowledge.
Certainly no one in power will ever feel it. No one with the power to stop it. Those people are immune from the consequences of our forever war and are immune from learning a damn thing. It's a game to them and their surrogates and their cheerleaders. A domestic political problem at best, but one far easier to deal with than almost any other political problem because war is the only topic, it seems, on which both parties can find common ground. Everyone, to some degree or another, is for it. They dare not be.
I'm not for it. I'm tired of it. I'm disgusted by it. I'm disillusioned by it. It's impossibly sad and stupid. It's a ride I want off of. It's a nightmare from which I desperately wish I could wake. A nightmare that has now lasted most of my lifetime. And I am not a particularly young man.
I was bored and started doing a dumb thing over on Twitter: ranking each year of my life based on how, as I sit here right now, I think they went for me in the grand scheme. How I feel about them, mostly on a visceral level. I just ranked them on Twitter, but I have time to kill and more space here so I'll add some brief, oblique, and sometimes stream-of-consciousness commentary.
Note 1: I couldn't rank all 46 years of my life together as my 40s and my teens, for example, are apples and oranges. So I grouped them by decades 2010s, then the aughts, the 90s, etc.
Note 2: The rankings are strictly personal and relate to what was going on in my life and how I felt about it. Some pop culture may bleed into it as that affected me, particularly when I was younger, but don't read in any political crap, current events, news, or whatever into 'em. 2001 was pretty bitchin' for me overall. That I have it ranked high does not mean I was a big fan of 9/11. Get me?
Note 3: In case you need to orient yourself here, I was born in 1973.
It didn't matter. I was too young. For me it was mostly a big blur of Toughskins pants, my bedroom, very large Buicks, TV shows and movies with lots of car chases, the vaguest appreciation that times were tough economically speaking even if I didn't know what that meant, memories of my elementary school and my preschool which seemed gigantic and full of cinderblock and flecked linoleum and whatever else you probably imagine the 1970s looked like.
As an adult who thinks a lot about the direction of our country and society, I look back on the 70s now as a great lost opportunity. A time when Jimmy Carter told us that, maybe, it'd be a good idea to turn the thermostat down a tad and maybe wear a sweater to save some money and, in response, our entire nation threw a 40-year-long-and-counting temper tantrum in which it decided, screw that, we'd rather first bankrupt and then destroy the planet rather than sacrifice a single thing. But like I said, this is a personal list, so let's move on.
1985: Playing outside all day. Living in a neighborhood that felt like living in a city in the 1940s, where I could walk to shops and school and the library and everything. I think there was even a damn news stand. Obsessing on sports in a way I hadn't come close to doing before. Basically the perfect year for a kid. Assuming you, like me, often wished you lived in the 1940s.
1989: Driver's license, first job, first real girlfriend who I could, like, go pick up and go make out with and stuff. All the freedom all those things suggest. Life totally changed, as it tends to do, when you turn 16. I did, however, experience what I know now to have been my first real depressive episode that fall. I didn't know what to make of it at the time. It'd take therapy when I was in my 40s to actually process it. I wish I had been aware of it then. It might've made it easier to deal with the ones that would come later.
1984: Decades are artificial constructs. You don't have to count 0-10. Culturally, this is when it felt like the 70s actually ended and the 80s began. Maybe it was in 1983, but 1984 is definitely when my memories switch from black and white to color and everything seemed to leap into what was then a new, modern era for me.
1987: Started the 9th grade. Crushes on girls began to transform into something more serious. Not that I dated anyone. Maybe I was just a proto-emo kid. Definitely the year I began to listen to sad love songs and imagine that EVERY SINGLE ONE WAS ABOUT ME AND WHAT I WAS FEEEEEELING, MAN. Not gonna lie, though, that's not the worst feeling when you're wired like I am.
1988: MTV all day, every day. Learned to deal with the emo stuff better. Maybe because I discovered beer. Got in a monster car wreck but didn't get a scratch and assumed that meant I was invincible. Moved to Beckley, West Virginia and hated the idea until I actually got there and then I loved it.
1986: Played football for several years surrounding this one, but this was the one I felt the most like, yeah, I might play football for a long time. Was wrong about wanting that. Was probably just thinking that because I was awkward-looking, getting fat and kind of hated myself and didn't know what else a fat kid who was kind of good at football might do.
1980-83: Kind of a blur, not unlike the 70s. I remember the TV shows a bit more clearly, though.
1991: Started dating the girl I'd end up marrying and having kids with which, even if that didn't last, was good for a long while. Graduated high school. Went away to college. Turned 18. I do adult pretty well and this is where it started.
1990: Dated multiple girls and passed a -- er, um -- personal milestone in the process, but let's keep this clean. Smoked weed for the first time and, since it was pretty neat and I never developed a drug problem of any kind, I can look back at it as an unambiguously good thing that I'm glad I did. Got into a lot of punk and alternative music that set the course for my tastes in that regard for the rest of my life. Started DJ-ing at a top 40 radio station and got a bunch of leads in school plays, both of which caused me to became fairly popular which was quite a trick for a kid who, on paper, did not have any right to be popular. Damn, maybe this should be ahead of 1991?
1993: Shook off a bad fall of 1992 (see below), found myself in a very happy place, and hit my stride academically in college. Took all kinds of classes I loved and which helped form the person I am today, all while getting great grades. Stayed up on campus over the summer rather than go home and, as it would turn out, would never live at my parents' home again. Got my first apartment.
1994: Just college. Less fun than 1993 because I actually had to start deciding what I wanted to do with my life when, actually, I just sorta wanted to stay in college forever. For that reason I thought hard about grad school but then I realized I'd have to pick something specific to study and since I'm a dilettante at heart that seemed like a drag. Started thinking about law school which also seemed like a drag but a faster, better-paying one in the long run. Broke my collarbone in a bike wreck that summer. Went to a lot of rock shows.
1997: Summer clerkship at a law firm between my 2L and 3L law school years, spent in a sublet studio apartment. A great, pretty relaxed and drunken summer at, probably, the last age and the last time in my life when that would be socially acceptable. On either side of that I was getting used to life in D.C. and rather enjoying it. Probably because none of my friends had anything to do with my law school. Went to California for the first time to visit my brother and other friends. We're on 23 years and counting of me being convinced that I should live in California and not the places I've actually lived. Maybe one day.
1995: Graduated college, got married, moved to Washington for law school, started law school. Busy, eventful year. Maybe if that marriage had lasted and maybe if I still practiced law I'd rank these milestones higher.
1992: Spent the summer after freshman year back home and didn't really know what to do with that. Had a rough patch with my girlfriend, who had joined me up at college that fall, that was hard on us both and that I still think about sometimes. Experienced my second depressive episode for sure. That entire fall was steely gray and the sky felt heavy.
1998: Graduated law school, moved back to Ohio, passed the bar exam and started practicing law. There was enough that was new and exciting and kinda scary that I think it distracted me from noticing how unpleasant a world I was entering.
1999: The unpleasantness started to dawn on me. I distracted myself by doing things like buying a house and getting into expensive wine and crap like that. I mark 1999 as the beginning of a bout of sleepwalking from which I did not emerge until I managed to actually leave the practice of law in late 2009. I'm 46, but I often feel ten years younger. I think that's because I was basically in a coma for a decade.
1996: Law school and a summer clerkship at the DOJ. Both were drags. I wasn't used to D.C. humidity and felt like I spent most of the year sweating. Kinda like 1999 except I was poor all the time.
2009: Got my dream job and came out of my coma. I once wrote 8,000 words about that. I put my law license on inactive status where, frankly, I hope it stays until I'm buried in the ground. But before that came a month and a half of shockingly clarifying unemployment during which I got to pretend to be a stay-at-home dad and rather loved it. Played with the kids and read to them all the time and read a bunch of graphic novels after they went to bed. Kind of a law firm detox. Then I got a job with the State of Ohio -- we had to eat -- and that kicked off an eight-month stint in public service which did a hell of a lot to restore my faith in the legal profession and made me realize that I did not fail as a lawyer. Rather, the private practice of law failed me and served as a poor use of my skills and my temperament. If the dream job had never happened I would've been OK. All that adds up to 2009 being a truly transformative year for me that continues to be -- and likely always will be -- one of the most important times in my life.
2003: I became a father. No, I am not ranking the experience of becoming a father below getting my dream job. Being a dad -- the now 16+ years of actually being a dad, not one single moment or one single year -- is the greatest part of my life. I'm just ranking years here, and since my daughter wasn't born until December it's not like I was a father for most of that year. I did take a fantastic road trip, though, during which I'd find out I was going to become a father and that was all pretty cosmic and life-changing. I also got a job at the last law firm I'd work for which, even though that'd end poorly, was pretty good for a while and definitely seemed pretty good in 2003.
2005: Became a dad for the second time. My son being born props up what was a really damn hard year otherwise, though. My father-in-law, who I loved dearly, died. The dark side of my law firm -- and the dark side of my personality, which for a brief period my law firm brought out of me and which I did not fight -- really began to show itself that year. Anxiety, fear, and having too much disposable income caused us to move to the suburbs which, nearly 15 years later, I'm still stuck in even if I wish I wasn't. Seriously, Carlo: you being born REALLY saved 2005 for me. It'd be near the bottom otherwise.
2001: Went to Europe for the first time. That was cool. I think I've blocked out everything else that happened that year, personally speaking, even if I think of it as being kind of pleasant most of the way through. I really got into yard work. One of the lamer non-tragedies of my life is that I have always very much enjoyed mowing lawns yet, since that move to the suburbs, I live on one of those new-urbanist communities with houses on small lots and, what little grass exists, is maintained by the HOA. I haven't mowed a lawn since the summer of 2004. It's basically Greek tragedy.
2007: Started Shysterball, my little Blogspot baseball blog that would, over the next two years, turn into my new career. At the moment all I wanted was an outet where I could think about and write about things that were not unpleasant. With that I began the process of mentally checking out of the law, even if I didn't quite realize it at the time.
2000: A total blur. I remember going to see "The Road to Perdition" at the theater one night with some friends who were visiting from out of town. Otherwise I was just in my office or home mowing the lawn or reading books. I think I leased a car that year. I have no idea why I leased a car. I have no idea what in the hell I did with myself beyond that. Like, I'm sitting here drawing a total blank.
2002: Basically an identical year to 2000 except I saw different movies and read different books. I went to Las Vegas at some point. I dunno. I was neither young nor old. I was not yet a father but I was not living a particularly free-wheeling life. I worked too much at a time when other people my age were still figuring out their life and that figuring-out-their-life thing seemed kinda cool from where I was sitting. I imagine they thought me having it seemingly figured out and owning a home before 30 seemed kinda cool. I wasn't much for self-reflection at this point in my life. If I had been happy with my work instead of increasingly disillusioned by it, this is probably the time when I'd begin a 30-40-year stretch of just being some guy whose life could be summed up in a montage full of Midwestern professional class cliches. Like I said: kind of a coma.
2004: Was trying a lot of my own cases in court at this time but a great many of them were out of town. Had one in January in Great Falls, Montana. When I landed it was -22 degrees before windchill was taken into account. Had a month-old daughter at home I missed terribly. Had another in Portsmouth, Ohio, which required me to stay in a hotel in Portsmouth because my client insisted I do so rather than drive down. Between all that and adjusting to life as a father it was a hard year. One day in the fall I came home from work. It had been a rough day and I was grumpy. The baby had been crying all day and cried for an hour solid as I held her. The dishwasher had broken and leaked water everywhere. My wife suggested we order a carryout pizza. I called it in. When I got off the phone she said "I'm pregnant again." I looked at her blankly, kind of in shock and unable to really process it. I said, flatly, "Um, I'll go pick up the pizza." She said, with genuine fear, "Are you coming back?!" It was that kind of year.
2006: The depths of my private legal practice which, ironically, coincided with my greatest success in legal practice. I made pretty great money -- and I bought a BMW with it because, dammit, that's what I was supposed to be doing, I thought -- I was told I was on partnership track, and I was handling important cases and all of that. But it was dark. My wife had quit her job to be a stay-at-home mom, and that didn't really suit her, which made things tense. My coworkers and I were at bars most nights after work which obviously didn't help. I never did anything truly irresponsible. I didn't drink to the excesses that some of them did, I didn't cheat on my wife or behave in ways that made people think I wanted to like some of them did, and I didn't neglect my kids like some of them did, but I felt like I had to act, basically, like they acted if I wanted to put the ball over the goal line, career-wise. I wasn't ultimately willing to do that, but it took me some time to get my mind around that idea. In the meantime I felt like I was being asked to choose between being a good husband, father, and person on the one hand, and, on the other hand, being a successful lawyer. It was tearing me apart.
2008: In 2007, after making the decision that I didn't want to be a part of that ugliness -- a decision I made via my actions, not consciously, by checking out mentally, spending more time at home with my family, and diving into more positive things -- I was basically marginalized at the office for the next year and a half. I didn't really realize it until September of 2008, though. That's when the financial markets started crashing, tens of thousands of people were getting laid off each week, and the partner in charge of my firm took the unusual step of accompanying me on a trip to Kansas City to visit one of my clients. It became clear to me that he did so in order to get up to speed on my case because the firm was about to fire me. Which they did in October. That was bad. How certain people in my life reacted to it was worse, but we'll leave that for another time.
I don't talk much about work in this decade's entries. It was the same job the whole decade. And, since I love it, it doesn't cause the sort of agita that the old gigs did such that it might impact my year. For the most part career stress has been absent. And when it has suggested itself, it's been in the form of high-class problems like "I wish I was more famous" or "why won't someone give me a book deal." As Joe Walsh said, I can't complain but sometimes I still do.
Also: there's not a ton about the kids here. Mostly because they're smart and great and I'm constantly proud of them and that's the sort of consistency which does not lead to annual variance. They were, and continue to be, the best things in my life.
Back to the years:
2013: It occurs to me that if you are reading this and do not otherwise know the general narrative of my life that you might not know that my wife and I split up in 2011 -- I often think the seeds for that were planted in 2008 -- and we finalized our divorce in early 2012. In between those two events I met a woman named Allison who would become my girlfriend and, eventually, my wife. Well, that did happen, so now I hope the fact that the worst but most explanatory years of the decade are at the bottom of the list won't be as confusing. Anyway: Allison moved up to Ohio to live with me just before Christmas in 2012 and 2013 was a wonderful year in which we built a life together and with my kids that, after a few bumps here and there, we're still enjoying.
I also got in pretty damn good shape that year. I had ballooned up to like 210 pounds in the mid-aughts but lost 25 pounds in 2011 -- some stress-induced weight loss, but also a lot of time on my treadmill -- and by 2013, the year I turned 40, I found myself lighter than I was in high school. That shouldn't be as big a deal as I'm making it in this rundown, but I'm not gonna lie: there is a very strong connection in my mind between my physical health -- with an unfortunately large emphasis on my weight -- and my mental health. That's probably also something else left for a better time, perhaps with my therapist.
2017: The year Allison and I got married. It was cool. I also began writing on this site a whole lot, particularly about political stuff, social issues and the like. It sucked that I was inspired to do that by Trump -- definitely not worth it -- but the process of writing more, and about different things, was and continues to be good mental stimulus for me, whatever the inspiration. Indeed, part of the reason I'm writing this now is that I was bored and feeling some mild ennui this afternoon but these days I now know that writing -- writing anything -- will almost always pull me out of it.
2012: Allison and I maintained a long distance relationship -- her in San Antonio, me in Ohio -- and we spent a lot of time in airports and hotels in the process. At the end of the year I flew down and the two of us drove her car back up here as she moved. They're all good memories. This year is below 2013, of course, because being with her is far superior to being 1,300 miles from her, even if the travel was fun.
2010: My first year in the new job, during which I adjusted to being a full-time writer and working from home. I also transitioned nicely -- and enjoyably -- into being, for all practical purposes, a stay-at-home dad. I still dig it even if the kids don't need me now the way they did when they were six and four years-old. People at the grocery store know me. For a long time I'd get put on every volunteer list at school and would be the only dad there among the moms. There are some folks -- some teachers, some moms, and, like, ballet instructors and stuff -- who don't know how to deal with a dad doing these things. For a while it made life a bit awkward and I felt marginalized by the stay-at-home mom industrial complex at times, but I eventually got over it eventually and realized it was their problem, not mine. Anyway, a pretty fantastic year, probably the best I had had since I had been in college. Hindsight tarnishes it, though, knocking it down this list a bit, as I know now that it would be the last year in which my marriage was healthy -- if it even was; I still don't know -- and I know now what was right around the corner for me.
2016: It started poorly. The worst depressive episode of my life began the previous summer (see 2015 below) and I got to a point where I couldn't handle anything or deal with anything and I foolishly decided that that included my relationship, so I broke up with Allison. It was a terrible decision, caused by brain patterns which convinced me that if I eliminated anything even remotely difficult in my life, nothing could cause me worry.
Have you ever read an account by someone who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge but survived? Almost every one of those people express some variation on the idea of "I realized as I was going over the railing that I could, actually, solve every problem in my life . . . except this one." That's kind of how that all went. I spent a month trying not to think about it at all but then two months realizing I had made a big mistake and trying to fix it.
But something else happened too: after a couple of abortive attempts at therapy in the previous few years I found a therapist who I connected with and who helped me understand what the fuck I was doing with my life, why I was doing it, and who taught me how to deal with it. I wish it didn't take me descending into depression and screwing up my relationship to get that breakthrough, but dammit, it did. Yet, pushing four years later, it's a breakthrough which still teaches me and pays me mental and emotional dividends. Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, etc.
Anyway: Allison and I got back together. Then we got engaged. Then she moved back in. The rest of the year was a wonderful time for me. I've not felt lost like I did early that year since. I feel like I have the tools and the strength -- and the support from Allison -- to handle whatever bad comes my way.
2018: We went to England and followed James around on tour. Best vacation ever.
2019: It's been a mixed bag. I had to put a cat down way before her time. I had a book deal in place that fell through for reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of the book nor the willingness of the publisher, and we'll just leave it at that for now. There have been some financial challenges and pressures that I wish weren't there, but as 2006 demonstrates, being in a financially secure position is absolutely no guarantee of happiness for me, so we just roll with the punches, right?
2014: Some growing pains with Allison. We didn't break up but I asked her to get her own apartment because, after a honeymoon-like 2013, I was having a hard time of trying to balance dad life and boyfriend life and was worried that I was being a worse dad and a worse boyfriend than I needed to be. Even if we still spent a lot of time together we'd not live together for the next two years. We somehow made it work. Mostly because Allison has way more patience with me than anyone else would, God love her. This year ranks below 2016 because the bad stuff was not balanced out by any breakthrough or any enlightenment. I was just sort of flailing and wasn't yet aware of the less-than-productive ways in which I deal with psychological stress.
2015: Depression hit me hard. Maybe it was coming on its own. My therapist thought it was because, even four years out, she said I was still not fully over my divorce, even if I truly thought I was. That wasn't consciously on my mind at the time, but she was probably right. In the event the bad stuff hit after a series of little setbacks and disappointments, none of them particularly bad, but all of which just built and built until I got to a place where I caused myself not to care about anything or hope for anything. It was just a dull, flat, feeling that was so out of character for someone like me. I never want to feel it again. In any other decade it would've been the worst year of my life. But . . .
2011: My marriage imploded. And hell, it didn't really start imploding until the spring and the imploding was done by October, so it was all packed into a shitty six or seven months, which somehow makes it worse. I'm past it now but I still don't like to think too much about it. It was the most dreadful and traumatic experience of my life. The only things making it even tolerable to think about: (a) I ended up meeting Allison after everything went to hell, and she's a hell of a woman; and (b) The next decade won't have an entry this crappy. At least I hope.
Happy New Year!
There's a story in this morning's Columbus Dispatch about how the addition of a "smart lane" on Interstate 670 eastbound out of downtown has cut what was once a pretty annoying commute in half for most drivers.
It's a clever enough system: cameras monitor traffic flow and, when things start to get a bit slow in the middle of the afternoon, what was once the left shoulder turns into an additional lane, speeding everything up. A lot of cities have this sort of thing but it's pretty neat for Columbus.
But at the end of the story a caveat appears:
Removing the traffic congestion on I-670 might have pushed problems farther north, though, according to some drivers. Rackley said traffic backs up on I-270 near the exits for Route 161 and Easton now.
For now the much-improved I-670 portion of things will make everyone feel better about the commute between downtown and the northeast suburbs, with the "everyone" including developers, no doubt, who will now have a somewhat easier time convincing people to build, buy or rent in that part of town. Eventually, though, the congestion that is getting kicked further up the road will get worse and, like vehicular acid reflux, traffic will gurgle back west on 670 and we'll be right back where we started.
This is a prime example of "induced demand."
Induced demand” describes the phenomenon in which increasing roadway capacity encourages more people to drive -- and, in turn, for more development to occur along and at the terminus of the route -- thus failing to improve congestion. It's a phenomenon which has been studied extensively for the past 50 years or so, but one which most federal, state, and local departments of transportation fail or refuse to take into account as a part of their long-term planning. All that seems to be seen is the perceived need for more roads and more lanes with little thought to how they'll all work together to fix, or more often, to exacerbate, traffic problems.
Not that it'll ever become a Los Angeles or Atlanta-level nightmare or anything. Columbus traffic is not all that terrible for a city its size. And it's not like this affects me all that greatly, as I work from home and can easily plan trips downtown or around town around rush hours.
But I think about Columbus traffic and, specifically, think about I-670 for two reasons: (1) back when I did work downtown, 670 was my commute; and (2) I-670's very existence is a monument to all the mistakes Columbus -- and almost every other city in the country -- made as it grew.
That was Columbus' Union Station. You're looking at the main entrance of it, as it sat on the east side of High Street, until it was demolished in 1979. When it was built, High Street in front of the station was elevated like an overpass. When you entered Union Station you walked downstairs from street level to the platforms.
After the demolition of the station, this portion of High Street looked like any other highway overpass. It just happened to be on overpass that was built before the highway. But that would come soon enough:
That's I-670, running along the path the tracks used to go. It was, for the most part, completed in the 1990s. That structure over the top of it wasn't done until 2003, however. Compare this next photo with the old photo of Union Station above. They were taken from roughly the same spot:
Yep, they built this restaurant/retail cap over the former tracks/current freeway in an effort to recall the railway station. It makes walking along High Street from the bustling Short North into downtown much more pleasant -- you pass by shops and cafes on a nice sidewalk instead of walking next to concrete and a chain link fence over a freeway -- but it's not exactly grand like Union Station was.
When Union Station was torn down a great building was lost (though the main arch still exists, and has been relocated), but so too was even a shred of commitment Columbus had to a means of transportation that was not the automobile. Columbus has had no passenger railway service for 40 years and now stands, after Phoenix, as the second-largest city in the country that can make that dubious claim. Even the near-ghost town of Thurmond, West Virginia -- population 5 -- has regular passenger railways service. It's rather messed up.
Columbus has a decent bus system, but like most urban bus systems, it is limited in reach, is under-utilized outside of a few major corridors, and is almost wholly ignored by suburban business commuters or those affected by the broader shift occasioned by the increasing suburbanization of poverty.
As is the case with intercity passenger rail service, Columbus has made no commitment to commuter rail, subway, light rail or streetcar service in any way. It's a city that grew later than most cities -- well after the automobile age had kicked into high gear -- and was built on a very large, automobile-friendly footprint. There was never a thought to NOT do everything at car, as opposed to human scale, the notion of building mass transit of any kind was at a historical nadir, and we continue to pay the price to this day.
One way we pay the price comes in the form of all of those traffic jams and the need for smart lanes. Another way is aesthetically. Columbus has made some decent efforts at re-urbanization in recent years, with as of yet, still relatively minimal gentrification issues compared to other cities of its size. But it's still a sprawling city which is much more friendly for malls and big box development than it is for pedestrians. Suburban development shows no signs of abating and even the most meticulously-planned suburbs -- including the one I live in -- continue to expand out into once rural areas.
There's also an economic cost. Right next to that story about I-670 in today's paper is a story about how Columbus' downtown -- about a decade in to dramatically attempting to increase its residential population after years and years of it becoming abandoned at 5pm each day and deader than vaudeville on the weekends -- cannot attract ground floor retail and restaurants. Sure, they've built apartments and condos like crazy, but the very, very wide blocks and three-and-four-lane one-way streets discourage pedestrian traffic and thus there simply isn't enough walkup business. As business owners wait for more residents, perspective residents wait for more shops and restaurants, all of which delays the development of downtown.
I don't know that anything can be done about any of this, really. The street grid is the street grid and the massive footprint of this city -- a city that continues to grow rapidly -- is not going to shrink. The notion that the city could build some rail-based mass transit -- The Columbus Subway -- is almost nonsensical, even if there was the will and the funds to do so. But I've dreamt about it often in the 28 years since I first moved here.
A few years ago a graphic designer and Columbus native named Michael Tyznik, who apparently shared my dreams, created an imaginary transit map for the city -- combining rail and rapid bus service -- that's so beautiful and thought-provoking that it almost makes me wanna cry. A glimpse:
You can see the whole thing -- as well as several earlier iterations from the past decade -- here. If you're at all familiar with Columbus you'll likely stare at it for hours, imagining what your life would be like if this thing actually existed.
I know this is an impossibility. I know that the ship sailed on Columbus having good transit eons ago when they decided that a gigantic footprint for a medium-sized city was a good idea. But driving on I-670 always makes me wonder what it would've been like if it was the main NE/SW artery of a commuter rail system. And seeing maps like this makes me wonder what things would've been like if the people who built this city had one-tenth of the vision and imagination of a guy like Michael Tyznik.
Yesterday the Washington Post told the story of Maria Farmer, an artist who was commissioned by the disgraced and deceased sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein to do some paintings in the mid-1990s. In reality, Farmer alleges, Epstein and his partner Ghislaine Maxwell used the opportunity to sexually assault her while she was held virtual prisoner in a secluded, remote estate in New Albany, Ohio. An estate that, as the crow flies, stands less than half a mile from my house, and from which all power that matters in both New Albany and in the city of Columbus practically flows.
Epstein's crimes are well-documented. Less documented is the role, if any, that Ohio estate and its owner, billionaire retail magnate Leslie Wexner, played in it all. Wexner was, for over a decade, Epstein's only client and his primary financial benefactor. Epstein was gifted his Upper East Side mansion by Wexner and was given a guest home in New Albany as well. He was likewise given power of attorney by Wexner to handle all of his personal financial and real estate matters. Billionaires have no shortage of advisors and employees managing their concerns, but Epstein was, apparently, given far more power than anyone in Wexner's immediate circle.
Wexner, his lawyers, and his associates say he had no idea about Epstein's crimes and that he was deceived by Epstein just as everyone else was. And, to be sure, there have been no allegations that Wexner knew of Epstein's wrongdoing. Wexner claims he cut all ties with Epstein in 2007, soon after Epstein was first arrested on criminal sexual assault charges and, what's more, that he was financially defrauded by Epstein. There is no known reason not to believe Wexner's account of that.
The Post story, however, paints a frightening portrait of the circumstances Farmer faced when, in the summer of 1996, she took up residence on Wexner's estate to do those paintings for Jeffrey Epstein.
Farmer tells the Post that she was placed in a privately-gated guest house adjacent to Wexner's 300-acre estate and patrolled by Wexner's security staff which included both contracted sheriff's deputies and by guard dogs. She says that her movements were monitored and that she was not permitted to leave without permission. The night she was assaulted by Epstein, she claims, she attempted to call the Sheriff's Department but was told "we work for Wexner." She claims she was told by Wexner's security staff that she could not leave -- a guard told her "you're not going anywhere," she says -- and, indeed, it took her father driving to the estate in person to get her before she was permitted to leave. A former security guard for Wexner tells the Post that, while he has no recollection of the incident, he doubts that something like that could have happened.
I have no idea what Wexner's security guards did or did not say or do, but based on geography and based on the character of Wexner's estate, I don't think it would even require such acts by the security team for Farmer to feel like a prisoner on that night.
Even today, Wexner's property -- which is nothing short of a fortified compound -- is pretty remote. New Albany is growing, yes, but it's a very well-planned and restrained growth, little if any of which has reached the 300 pastoral acres Wexner calls home. In 1996 Wexner's house may as well have been in the middle of nowhere. At that point New Albany's metamorphosis from farm town to anglophilic upscale paradise was already underway, but it had not yet reached critical mass and his home was far removed from anyplace a young woman recently relocated from New York City would've considered civilization.
Wexner's personal property -- on which sat the guest house owned by Epstein -- is bounded by four roads, which were then and now no more than country lanes:
It's about two miles from Dublin-Granville Road -- the east-west road at the top -- and the east-west road at the bottom, Morse Road, just below where it reads "Balfour Green" (neither it, nor Albany Farms, high-end, gated properties carved out of Wexner's land existed in 1996). Wexner's main house is in the middle there, next to the stand of trees. It's unclear where the Epstein guest house was, but I suspect it is where New Albany Farms is now. Either way, Farmer says it was a half mile from the main house.
Today, if you were on that property and wanted or needed to leave, it'd be a a good mile and possibly two mile walk, depending on which of the estate's gate you exited, down a dark country road to the nearest business of any kind -- a gas station, to the northwest of the property -- depending on what gate you used.
Except you would be unlikely to simply be able to walk out of the estate's gates, especially at night:
That's the north side boundary of Wexner's property along Dublin-Granville Road. I took that photo on a walk a year ago. That fence and those signs surround the entire 300 acres and have for many years. The Post story notes that the land was patrolled by dogs back in 1996 as well.
And it's not just dogs, either. Wexner has 24-hour security that patrols the property and closely monitors the public roads adjacent to it. Indeed, everyone who has lived in New Albany for any amount of time knows of someone who, while lost, pulled to the shoulder of Kitzmiller or New Albany-Reynoldsburg Road or attempted to turn around in what looked to be an innocuous little driveway, only to have dark SUVs descend upon them and ask them what their business was.
Which is to say that if you were on Les Wexner's property and felt threatened in any way, I am certain you would feel extremely isolated and unable to leave. You would, for all practical purposes, feel like a prisoner, regardless of what was explicitly said to you by security guards.
Does any of that make Les Wexner responsible for what Jeffrey Epstein did to Maria Farmer? No. But it's certainly the case that Epstein's residence at the Wexner compound certainly made it easier for him to prey on her.
My kids are studying 9/11 in school. Yesterday my son was talking about it and described a video they watched featuring victims, family members of victims, and witnesses as "old people talking about 9/11." He spoke of it in the same terms as we might've talked about History Channel shows featuring World War II veterans.
My son is a 14-year-old freshman. September 11 happened almost four years before he was born. On my timeline, the moon landing and Woodstock are equivalently remote historical events. Which is a reminder that while, for many of us, 9/11 seems like it happened quite recently, it's not viewed by younger people in the same way. This should be an obvious sort of observation. "Time marches on" and all of that, but I feel like we're not letting time march on naturally with 9/11.
Unlike so many historical events, 9/11 continues to dominate the zeitgeist in a host of ways, many of them unhealthy. Most obviously, we're still fighting wars, either in response to it or for which it served as a pretext. But it likewise continues to inform our country's policies, business practices, political rhetoric, and mood. Post 9/11 life is so thoroughly shaped by it that I think we often forget just how different things are now than they were 18 years ago today.
There's a balance to be struck between "never forgetting" and "respectfully moving on." I'm not sure anyone has a great grip on exactly how to do that, but it's probably tied up in the difference between simply, "remembering" and having historical events serve as the fulcrum around which most current events continue to turn.
It seems we should still be able to remember the history of 9/11 without it serving as a conversation-ender or political third rail. It seems that we, as adults, should begin to think of 9/11 more like my son and his classmates are thinking about it today. As an important historical event and tragedy. As something which should be remembered and something from which we should learn. But as something that is, in fact, in the past and something which should not so thoroughly dominate the culture that it keeps us from moving forward into the future.
School starts for my two high schoolers in a week. Today was pick-up-the-schedule day, and I was required to be there with them for various little administrative tasks. It all went well except for one thing: "E + R = O."
"E + R = O" is a motivational concept developed by Jack Canfield, the guy who came up with the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books. The kids' school introduced it as some guiding concept of their own a year ago and, from the looks of things, it'll be back for the 2019-20 school year.
Why is a public high school in Ohio running with some motivational speaker's schtick? Probably because it was very prominently adopted by former Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer, who made it part of his motivational schtick several years ago.
Meyer put it in his leadership book and won a ton of football games and a national championship while giving voice to the concept. If you're from central Ohio and understand just how insane people here are about Buckeye football, it's not hard to imagine how such a thing might be picked up by school administrators who want to associate themselves with success. I mean, there may be a lot of smart educational ideas floating around out there, but how many of them were used to go 7-0 against Michigan? Yeah, I thought so.
So what is E + R = O?
The letters stand for "Events + Response = Outcomes." Here's a short version of the idea, as put by Canfield:
If unlimited success is your goal, looking outside of yourself is a strategic error. The most important lesson you must understand that you are 100 percent responsible for your life – the good and the bad . . . The basic idea is that every outcome you experience in life (whether it’s success or failure, wealth or poverty, wellness or illness, intimacy or estrangement, joy or frustration) is the result of how you have responded to an earlier event in your life. Likewise, if you want to change the results you get in the future, you must change how you respond to events in your life … starting today.
Meyer has his own spin on it, but it's basically the same thing:
You can’t control the Es of life—the Events you encounter. And you don’t have direct control over the Os—the Outcomes. The only thing you do have total control over is the Rs—your Responses to the Events you encounter.
Meyer's version goes on to set forth six mental techniques to make sure your Responses to Events help you achieve optimal Outcomes. Things like "press pause" to give yourself time to think about how you react and "get your mind right" to focus on positive things rather than negative things. Taken together, these techniques are called "The R Factor." The idea is to use "The R Factor" to "Own your R," or your Response, and thereby achieve good Outcomes when confronted by life's Events.
My kids' school's version of this is basically identical to Meyer's. There's lots of talk about the R-Factor and "Owning your R." They had a months-long program about it last year, complete with video seminars and rallies and stuff. They hand out the wristbands shown above to kids who want 'em. They even had a damn logo.
Given the misuse of the word "everyday" on it, it's pretty clear that this is 100% a function of school administrators and that the English teachers were not consulted. Maybe more than just the English teachers should've been consulted, actually, because if they were, maybe someone would've pointed out how fucked up all of this really is.
It's fucked up because E + R = O is not just a means of supplying kids with problem-solving tools. As is made plain by Canfield and Meyer, with it comes an inherent promise -- you will be successful if you do this -- that cannot possibly be kept, it completely discounts the nature of the "Events" people face in the real world, and it demands that we ignore the advantages and disadvantages some people have to begin with, which changes the nature of the Events they face. Some people will fail in life, at least temporarily, no matter how much they "Own Their R." Others will succeed, no matter what, even if they do very little.
That's because not all "Events" are created equally. Nor, despite what we are so often told to believe, are all people. At least in terms of means and privilege.
In the real world, some kids wake up in the morning with no food to eat or go to bed at night having suffered abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to care for them. In the real world the deck is stacked in favor of the wealthy, white people, straight people and men while it is stacked against the poor, people of color, LGBTQ+ people and women. In the real world people get sick or suffer from chronic diseases. In the real world people suffer from mental illness. There's a lot of bad shit out there wrapped up in that "E."
People like Canfield and Meyer, however, would have us discount all of that. "You are 100% responsible for your life," says Canfield. "Unsuccessful people focus too much on the E part," says Meyer. I'm struggling to think of how anyone other than someone who has not had to deal with much in the way of adversity -- or someone who has far more non-self-motivational tools at their disposal to deal with it such as money, power or privilege -- could discount the potential power and magnitude of adversity so cavalierly.
Which, in some ways, makes it understandable why my kids' school so readily took up the E + R = O concept.
New Albany is a wealthy community. While not everyone here is rich, there is much more money here than in almost any town or any school district in the state. Yes, everyone is fighting a battle outsiders know nothing about, but it's also the case that most people in New Albany have much greater resources to fight those battles. Poverty or economic insecurity is not a concern for the vast majority of kids here. Neither is crime. It's an overwhelmingly white place too, so most of the kids at my kids' school have never and will never have to deal with discrimination or bigotry the way many kids do.
In light of all of that it's probably true that, in a great many cases here, some simple positive thinking and R-owning will result in a great many positive Outcomes. But that's because almost any techniques -- be it "getting one's mind right" or "calling Daddy for help" -- is going to result in a great many positive Outcomes for kids in New Albany. The deck is stacked in favor of most of them and most of them are going to be dealt a better hand regardless.
That state of affairs underscores just how pernicious E + R = O is as a philosophy. It demands that people forget external inputs such as basic inequality and biased institutions and credit themselves with all outcomes. When the idea is applied to a group of people who are inherently privileged, it serves primarily to reinforce that privilege by having its practitioners believe that they, and nothing else, are responsible for their success. It demands that they forget that they were born on third base while giving them permission to celebrate hitting a triple. Meanwhile, it demands that they look at those who are not so privileged -- those who may be crushed by a wave of Events far bigger than most New Albany kids will ever know -- and blame them for their failure to achieve good Outcomes. Studies have also shown that constantly telling disadvantaged kids that society is inherently fair can be harmful.
No, I don't think that's what New Albany school administrators had in mind when they adopted E + R = O. I don't think they rolled it out as an explicit means of reinforcing the plutocracy or whatever. To the contrary, I suspect that aspect of it wasn't dwelled on much if at all and, instead, the idea's proponents focused on the "R Factor" stuff which, boiled down to its essence, is some pretty straightforward power of positive thinking stuff.
And I'm sympathetic to that.
There are better and worse ways to respond to life's challenges. It's true that it's better to be positive rather than negative if possible. It's true that it's best to find constructive ways to address adversity if we can. I want my kids to be good problem-solvers and I want them to face adversity with as much rationality, determination and positivity as they can muster. I've spent their whole lives trying as best I can to instill those ideas in them and if the school wants to help me with that, I'm happy for them to do it.
But it's possible to do that without going all-in with a toxic, prepackaged and celebrity-endorsed philosophy like E + R = O. A philosophy that casts anyone who falls short of their goals as a failure and blames them for that failure when, often, they are not to blame, and credits anyone who has achieved success as responsible for and worthy of that success even when, often, they did nothing but be born to achieve it.
And I'd say that even if Urban Meyer wasn't suspended and then forced into an early retirement because he refused to Own his R in the face of a big E that happened with one of his employees about a year ago. God, screw that guy.
Baseball and literary legend Jim Bouton died today. He was 80. My full story about his life and work can be read over at the baseball site. Now, though, something personal.
I have spent most of my life as something of a square peg in a round hole.
What should I have done with all of those past uneasy fits and what should I do about the present ones?
It's natural for some to simply assess the landscape and do what needs to be done to conform and fit in. I can't do it and never have been able to. There are times I desperately wished I could do that. I often think about how much easier my life would've been if I could've done it. But I simply can't. It's not in me.
By the same token, it's natural for some to rebel. To embrace iconoclasm and nonconformity and to wear those things like a badge of honor. That's not me either. My inability to readily fit in is not a point of pride and lashing out at authority or the establishment is not a part of my DNA, even if its opposite is not either.
I've always been caught in between. I am aware that I have always been different -- aware that I don't fit in well with my surroundings -- and I am proud of those differences. But I have never been able to shake the reluctant realization that I want and need at least some semblance of the approval of others. At least some validation from my peers, however defined. At least some place within the institutions I respect and which I superficially inhabit. This conflict has often caused me to exist in the world I live in uncomfortably, torn between my desire to find peace within it and my inability to simply relax and let peace wash over me, chafing against those constraints.
Despite all of this, I am a man at peace. I'm a happy person. Not because I know how to solve this dilemma -- I certainly don't -- but because I know I am not alone. I know that there are many people who feel this way. I have even had role models who have faced these same dilemmas and managed to triumph. Jim Bouton was one of them. Maybe the greatest among them.
Bouton was a square peg in baseball's round hole. He figured out pretty early that he wasn't much like his peers even if his skills entitled him to a place alongside them. He might've done well for himself if he had managed to put his head down and conform like so many players before him and so many since. He might've pitched in the big leagues until the late 70s or early 80s as a rubber-armed knuckleballer. Or, at the very least, might've latched on as a coach and maybe could've become a manager or a front office executive one day. He was a smart guy. He would've done a good job with it, I bet.
But he simply couldn't. For all that he wrote I don't think he ever really explained why, but my sense is that, like me, it would've simply been impossible and self-denying for him to do so. He had to do what the voice inside his head told him to do, even when it was likely to send him into a bad place. Which, by the way, it did. It caused him to be involuntarily exiled from baseball and to be ostracized by his former teammates and peers. He landed well -- he became a sportscaster and an actor and did all kinds of other interesting things -- but there was no guarantee that would happen. Bouton did what his conscience and is id told him to do, foregoing the easier path that conformity would've offered him.
Yet, at the same time, he was no true rebel. He was no iconoclast and never claimed to be. He didn't want to burn down the game of baseball and walk away as he blew out the match. Even before the fallout, as he was writing "Ball Four," he wrote of his fear and anxiety about not being a part of the game anymore. He worried that he couldn't pitch anymore and openly wondered what and who he was if he could not get major league hitters out and stick with a team. Later, years after the professional success and professional calamity that was occasioned by "Ball Four," he still longed to play baseball. He worked his tail off in the minors and the Mexican League simply to continue to do what he loved, with his most famous written words -- "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time" -- no doubt echoing in his mind.
And he was successful. His five games with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, eight years after he was more or less drummed out of the game, served as validation for him. He had bristled against baseball's culture of conformity and, as a result was pushed out of the game, but he still needed it and wanted to be a part of it, badly. And he got it.
I was only a teenager when I first read "Ball Four," but something in it beyond its merely enjoyable prose resonated with me, even if I had no idea what it was. When I re-read it in my 30s it hit me harder. I felt a push and pull in my life that I couldn't really describe and I saw something akin to it in Bouton's pages even if I didn't know quite how it all fit together.
Now, on the day he died, it has finally crystalized for me. The battle between Bouton's inability to conform and his inability to truly rebel was not one either side of him was ever going to win and success or failure in his life was never going to be defined by the outcome of that battle. Rather, Bouton was defined by that push and pull. His success in life -- which I believe he achieved in spades, and I hope he died believing it too -- was a function of his finding grace and peace in the midst of it all, knowing that conflict would never be truly resolved.
In this, Bouton provided a sterling example for all of us who find ourselves in that same dilemma. In this, Jim Bouton became the patron saint for those who chafe.
33 and Me: Fallen nobility, losing wars, arbitraging the Black Plague and my further adventures in genealogy
I recently took a dive into genealogy. I blame bourbon and Donald Trump.
If you’ve read my political posts you know I fight the good fight and all of that, but sometimes I just get tired and discouraged. Tired of the direction I see our country heading and discouraged at the realization that there are a great many people who seem OK with that direction. And, in all likelihood, always have been even if I didn’t want to believe it. It’s sobering stuff so, sometimes, the only way to deal with it is to get drunk.
A couple of weeks ago, once again tired and discouraged, I got drunk and asked myself if I had any claim whatsoever to citizenship or permanent residence anywhere but here. Then, before doing a thing about it, I went to sleep. The next morning I was back to wanting to fight the good fight, but it’s always good know if you have an exit, so I decided to run out the ground ball I’d hit the night before. I signed up for a trial account on ancestry.com and began climbing up the tree trunk.
While I waded into some of this before with my mother’s family in service of a good, bloody yarn of murder and insanity, I knew virtually nothing about my father's side of the family until these past couple of weeks. I won’t bore people with a full-on family tree, but here are some fun facts and random observations one finds when one dives into this stuff.
Thirty-three fun facts:
1. I didn’t go too crazy building my family tree out horizontally because that gets really labor intensive really fast. Exponents are no joke. Besides, cousins are mostly bullshit anyway. Sure, we can all trace ourselves back to the same few thousand homo sapiens who survived the last ice age, but you only have to go back a handful of generations until we’re all basically fucking cousins. I’ll leave the bullshit cousins to people who are super into genealogy. Instead I just focused on direct patrilineal and matrilineal lines, figuring they’re a bit more meaningful.
2. While my name is Craig Calcaterra I didn't look too deeply at Calcaterras, either, because I'm not really a Calcaterra for genealogy purposes. My dad was born Richard McIntyre, was adopted and had his name changed by his stepfather, Garfield Calcaterra, when he was in his early teens. I didn’t know any Calcaterras beyond my dad and his sister growing up and, frankly, the name doesn’t have much significance for me beyond its current record-keeping function and the love-hate relationship I have with being extremely Googleable;
3. I took a quick look back at the Calcaterras out of curiosity, of course. Garfield's father was from Milan and his mother was from Austria. They immigrated in the late 1890s, settled in Iron Mountain, Michigan and had a zillion kids (there are a LOT more Calcaterras than you may imagine). One of them, Garfield’s youngest brother, Ralph Calcaterra, ended up being a super successful real estate developer in Palo Alto and Las Vegas and died in his 90s, just a few years ago, a pretty wealthy man. There are Calcaterra Streets in both San Jose and Las Vegas, both of which are named after him. For years friends have sent me photos of themselves in front of the signs and we’ve joked about it. I had no idea until the past couple of weeks, though, that they were named after someone I’m actually related to. Well, sorta related to. Certainly not related to enough to have gotten a piece of that Bay Area real estate scratch, sadly. Which, by the way, is literally the only money that has been in my family for about, oh, the last 300 or 400 years or so. But more about that in a moment.
4. My dad has known he was born a McIntyre for most of his life, but apart from an aunt who sort of floated in and out of his childhood, he didn’t know any of them or anything about them. He assumed the name was Irish. Actually, it’s Scottish. I suspected this because of the spelling but I was able to establish it for certain when I traced the direct male line of McIntyres back to the early 18th century when my sixth-great grandfather, Nicholas McIntyre (1712-63), came over from Islay, Scotland with his wife Margaret and a couple of kids.
5. The McIntyres were part of the Argyll Settlement, which consisted of three boat-loads of families, totaling 400 some-odd people, which settled in what is now Washington County, New York between 1738-1740. The McIntyres arrived on the second boatload, in June of 1739 on a ship called The Happy Return. Lachlan Campbell was the captain. I only know this because there are a whole bunch of Lachlan Campbell descendants who seem to spend a lot of time on ancestry.com. Note: your ability to figure out your family tree without actually doing shoe-leather research in old libraries and government offices is directly proportional to the kind of PR your ancestors gave their ancestors.
6. The Argyll Settlement (sometimes called the Argyle Settlement, which gave the name to the town of Argyle, New York) was kind of a scam, actually. Captain Campbell put it together, getting the King and the Governor of New York to promise families 1,000 acres of Hudson Valley farmland for each adult and 350 acres for each kid. The motivation: respectable Englishmen and their families in Albany and points south kept getting raided by Indians and they wanted some Scottish tomahawk fodder to create a buffer.
Don’t judge, man. People have done worse things to get some land.
Anyway, when the Argyll families got there, guess what? That’s right, no land. They were allowed to settle and farm but they didn’t get title for another 25 years when the Governor of New York finally gave in. The McIntyres got their land — only about 500 acres in all, so they were still kinda ripped off — in 1764 in what is now Fort Edward, New York. They’d spend the next several generations farming that land. For all I know they still are. My third-great grandfather, Nicholas McIntyre (1821-96) went west in the 1840s, however, leaving them to it. I should maybe look and see if I have any cousins still living in Fort Edward. Wait, no, forget that. Like I said: cousins are bullshit. Let’s carry on.
7. I can’t find anything about the first Nicholas McIntyre or his ancestors beyond the fact that he was born in Islay, Scotland around 1712 or so. I can trace his wife Margaret’s family back pretty damn far, though. She was a Patterson, and a direct line of Pattersons go back to my 14th-great grandfather, Thomas, who lived around Edinburgh in the late 1400s. If you trace other various matrilineal lines up through that family you can find your way into Scottish nobility, including the Park Clan (going back to the mid-1400s, also around Edinburgh), the Cockburn Clan (early-1400s) and the Home Clan (late 1300s). The most distant direct ancestor of that line I have found so far is a dude named David Home, 1st Baron of Wedderburn (1382-1453), who is my 18th-great grandfather. His family resided in Wedderburn Castle in Berwickshire, Scotland for quite a few generations. The old one, not the current one. The current one only goes back to the 1770s and is so nouveau riche. Must be embarrassing for the people who have it now, really. They probably have fish knives and stuff, bless their hearts.
8. At least I think that was my 18th-great grandfather’s title and at least I think he lived in Wedderburn Castle. I’m a tad uncertain because one thing I discovered in all of this research is that people who do amateur genealogy seem to enjoy fudging it a bit if it makes their family look better. I couldn’t find any reason to question these particular lines, but some other person on ancestry.com who was looking at another random line to which I am related — some bullshit cousin, I’m sure — tried to tie in some pretty famous Anglican Bishop who was involved in a bit of history with Queen Elizabeth I as a something-something-great-grandfather of ours.
That would’ve been pretty cool! Except it made no logical sense for about 11 reasons that took only about ten seconds to Google.
Among those reasons: as far as I can tell via non-ancestry.com research, that guy had no kids and was never married because, in his heart, he was really still a Catholic priest even if he converted in order to keep from being imprisoned (note: he was imprisoned anyway and died there; do NOT fuck with Queen Elizabeth, man). So, yeah, that seems pretty dubious and is probably the case of a similar name and a bit of aspirational exuberance resulting in a sketchy family tree connection. There’s a phrase in media about stories being “too good to check.” There’s a notion in the law and in law enforcement about cases being a bit too neat. I think that applies to a lot of genealogy stuff too.
That being said, I think what I found out about my family between the 14th and 18th centuries is more or less correct. The specifics are less interesting to me than the patterns, however.
9. One clear pattern: my male ancestors, going back to those old Lords and castle-dwellers, were really good at falling down the social ladder as generations went on. I’m the direct descendant of a lot of third sons of fourth sons who were squeezed out of titles or land holdings in favor of older brothers or their sister’s husbands or by simple bad luck or bad choices. After their downfall they’d drift out on their own, somewhat aimlessly it seems. Thankfully they were, occasionally, lifted back up by good women and their more stable families. My family is still a pretty itinerant bunch, but when they have managed to stop and breathe for 50-70 years it was because a woman slapped some temporary sense and respectability into them. There’s probably a lesson in there someplace.
10. My family also had a really bad habit of picking the wrong side in wars. What follows is a brief survey.
11. One of those Lords of Wedderburn — my 15th-great grandfather — fought and died on the losing side in the Battle of Flooden Field. Thankfully for my sake he did so after having kids. This was offset by another ancestor — some random English nobleman who was one of those third sons of fourth sons — who fought on the winning English side at Flooden Field. We’ll call that one a draw.
12. Those two branches of the family would not meet up again for about 350 years, this time in Indiana of all places, when my great-grandfather — descendant of the dead Scottish guy — married my great-grandmother — descendant of the victorious English guy. Imagine fighting a war for the survival of your name, your clan, your land, and your life, only to have it all end up in some podunk farmer’s wedding in friggin’ Indiana.
13. I can trace my mother’s family, the Kniffens, back to the English village of Kniveton (the name was a bastardization of he village) in Derbyshire. The family became fairly wealthy landowners by — I shit you not — buying up a bunch of dead people’s land after the Black Plague. That was pretty savvy! It also got them granted a title of minor nobility, which just goes to show you how messed up capitalism is, now and then. Or maybe that was feudalism. Whatever.
14. Things went well for the Knivetons/Kniffens for a couple of hundred years and they eventually owned several thousand acres. The rents were pouring in. Again, savvy! What wasn’t so savvy, however, was when my tenth-great grandfather, Sir Andrew Kniveton (d. 1669), began to believe he was an actual knight instead of some landlord with a courtesy title earned over the dead bodies of plague victims and spent WAY too much time and WAY too much money fighting on the Royalist side of the English Civil War. The Royalists lost, of course, and while grandpa Andy didn’t lose his head like Charles I did, he had his title stripped, lost a ton of money and ended up having to sell off almost all of his lands. His son, my ninth-great-grandfather, wisely bolted Oliver Cromwell and England for the New World.
15. The Kniffens were born to lose, it seems, because after about 130 years of some rather prosperous farming in New York and New Jersey they went Royalist again during the Revolutionary War. The king lost again, natch, so they had to flee to Canada in 1781. As I’ve noted in the past, subsequent Kniffens became farmers, roofers, murder victims, truck drivers and such. We get by as best we can.
16. Finally, the whole reason the McIntyres and all the others of the Argyll Settlement left Scotland was because they either took part in or were the children of those who took part in the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715 which — anyone? anyone? — yeah, was a losing cause. As a result, political and economic conditions for people in western Scotland went south, crops failed and a famine hit. By the 1730s there was every reason to leave, so they left.
17. Thankfully, my family got their heads on straight, militarily speaking, after that:
Since then my grandfather, father and brother have all served the U.S. Navy during wartime. We’re due for a traitor, frankly. If I had to wager right now it’s Anna, but time will tell. Carlo has some moxie too, and they both have a strong distrust of authority.
18. After some time as a farmhand, my great-grandfather, William Woodford McIntyre (1881-1960), left Indiana where his people had been for a couple of generations and married the daughter of that Civil War hero. They moved up to Detroit, presumably for a job in an auto plant. He has a passport application from 1917 in which he said he intended to go to England and France to study aircraft manufacturing and design, but I don’t know if he ever went. As it was, the 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses have him listed as working at a tool and die place. His son, my grandfather, Jim McIntyre (1914-1983), was listed as working at the same tool and die place on the 1940 census. At 25, he was still living at home. That year he met and married Irene Lazar (1916-1978), my grandmother.
19. Speaking of the census, the pre-1950 censuses were amazing. Instead of sampling, they simply went door to door and wrote down the name of every man, woman and child in the place, by hand, including their age, their job if they had one, their income if they cared to share along what languages were spoken in the house. Given current attitudes about privacy — and controversies about whether it’s even legitimate to ask about certain things — it’s insane to even think about the modern census going into that level of detail. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine doing genealogy research without those old censuses because they are a goldmine. Indeed, it’s much easier to find out stuff about a dead great-grandfather than a living uncle because of them.
20. That said, it’s worth asking whether genealogy is really all that important to begin with. At best it’s an exercise in privileged distortion. There are loads of records, going back centuries, for those descended from people from the British Isles or the parts of Continental Europe lucky enough to not have been bombed to bits. If, however, your family came from places that were bombed to bits — or if your ancestors were black, Indigenous, Jewish, Roma or were people who were otherwise systematically enslaved or exterminated by the folks whose records are intact — genealogy is a bit of a different matter. It’s a pretty superfluous bit of business, really. Do people other than whites descended from well-off Europeans do it? I have no idea. All I know is that if your roots go back to bombed-out and/or exterminated and/or enslaved peoples it’s not exactly the kind of thing you can easily track, even if you want to. The people whose histories are well-documented have spent centuries wiping out the histories of those whose are not.
This was evident when I made a brief foray into my paternal grandmother’s side of the family.
21. My great-grandfather, Abraham Lazar (1882-1954), was born in Romania. The town is unknown, as are the names of his parents or siblings. All that is known is that he was Jewish and was coming of age in the 1890s at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise in Romania, with laws being passed to prevent Jews from attending college, voting and participating in certain trades. It seems likely that, against this backdrop, Abraham’s parents thought it best to get their son out of the country to find a better opportunity elsewhere.
22. And they did. How? I have no real idea. All I know for sure is that he somehow got to England, alone, and then immediately traveled from Liverpool to Montreal on the ship SS Lake Champlain of the Elder Dempster Beaver Line, arriving alone, on August 4, 1900. He eventually got to Grand Rapids, Michigan. I have no idea how. He then met his wife, Dora Sofferin (1886-1970), whose family, also Jewish, came over from Russia and settled in Grand Rapids in the 1890s. They were married in 1903 and eventually moved to Detroit. I recently wrote a bit about Dora’s youngest brother Sammy, but that’s all I really know about that family besides a few basic birth/marriage/death records.
23. Earlier I joked about bullshit cousins. It’s a 100% certainly that, between the Nazis and the Soviets, I have no cousins left in Russia or Romania, bullshit or otherwise.
24. My grandmother Irene married Jim McIntyre in 1940. My dad was born in 1943. Jim and Irene were not a good match — he was a drunk and they both had volatile personalities — and they divorced by late 1948. She married Garfield Calcaterra in early 1949. When you put it all together it was pretty clear that she and Jim had been separated for a long time by then. It’s also clear that she and Garfield had been shacking up for a long time by then too and they were just making it legal once their divorces finally came through.
25. Irene and Garfield raised my dad and his younger sister in Dearborn, Michigan, which at the time was easily one of the most segregated places north of the Mason-Dixon line thanks to both Henry Ford’s virulent racism and antisemitism and thanks to longtime mayor Orville Hubbard, who was George Wallace, North. I’m not sure how an Italian guy with a Jewish wife managed to settle in Dearborn peacefully in those days, but it probably had at least something to do with Garfield Calcaterra being, well, as crooked as hell.
26. Garfield owned a taxicab company, Lorraine Cab. My dad remembers a lot of shady business around all of that. He told me once that, at Christmastime, police would show up at the house, one after another, and Garfield would give them a free ham. He kept the hams in the trunk of one of his cabs. There are about ten things wrong with that, the least of which is that no one seems to know where the hell the hams came from, but I choose to let it remain a vague, unexamined, grifty mystery. It’s also worth noting that my grandmother did the bookkeeping for the cab company, it was an all cash business and my dad remembers there being piles of bills stacked on the kitchen table every day. That may not have been as sketchy as my great-whatever grandfather arbitraging the Black Plague, but it’s certainly a hell of a thing.
27. Garfield Calcaterra died unexpectedly in 1965 so, obviously, I never met him. Then things got weird.
28. Garfield was only 58 when he died. My dad was already in the Navy, His little sister was close to graduating high school. My grandmother, not even 50 yet, did not deal with it well. I don't know her exact diagnosis, but she, in layman's terms, went crazy. Catatonic. Stopped responding to the world. Needed to be taken care of by her sisters and her daughter. It was really, really bad. In my family people referred to it as "her trip to Europe." If ever something came up from the mid-60s through the early 70s and she didn't remember she’d say "oh that must've been when I was in Europe” or someone else would say “you missed that, Irene, that’s when you were on your trip to Europe.” I'm told that she snapped out of it when my brother was born in 1971. Having a grandchild helped I guess.
29. In the meantime, Jim McIntyre moved to Kansas City, where an older brother lived. He sobered up. He went back to work as a draftsman, which had been his trade before he hit the bottle. He was living a clean but spartan life in a small apartment. A few years ago I found photos of my grandmother and Jim McIntyre in his apartment in the mid-70s. They had reconnected. Both damaged as hell but both having found a bit of light on the other side. The pictures are sad. Haunting, even. But sweet. They were in their 60s, but they seem like children.
30. My grandmother died of cancer in 1978. She was only 62. I have only vague memories of her. I wish I could have talked to her when I was old enough to do so. I wish I could’ve learned how she dealt with what she dealt with and not only came out on the other side of it but found both grace and room for forgiveness. There’s so little of that in the world. They’re the hardest things to grasp and to give.
31. Jim McIntyre died in 1983. My dad never reconnected with him and never seemed to have an interest in doing so. I never met him. My mother, somehow, and for some reason, made a few trips to Kansas City to help take care of him before he died. She has some observations and we got some of his few belongings when he died, but he remains more of a set of genealogy records than anything else to me. Oh, and one photo that my grandmother took when she was visiting him in 1976:
Add a few decades, a few pounds and a little more hair and I suppose that’s me, right down to the eyeglasses. I’m not sure what to think about that.
I’m not sure what to think about any of this, frankly.
32. My dad was brought up without his biological father around. My mom grew up without her mother in the picture. My brother is adopted and had no connection to his biological parents until he was in his 30s. I’m the only person in my family who grew up with both of his actual parents. None of that seemed to matter to any of us one way or the other.
33. I know that, unlike a lot of people who dig into their family's past, I got no feeling of connection or identity discovering any of the dozen and a half generations of relatives I uncovered. I found things to joke about and riff on and a few things that were interesting, intellectually speaking, but they still all seem like abstractions to me. Characters in stories more than family of any kind. I only began to feel some things when I got to the people I either knew or at least who knew people I know. Connections that mattered to people I care about and had some sort of influence, even if only tangentially, in my life.
Blood never mattered much to my own, immediate family. It doesn’t seem to matter all that much when applied across the generations either. Relationships matter. That’s probably all that matters, really. That's all we have. The rest is just . . . documents.
Sammy Sofferin started selling cigars on Detroit street corners when he was a teenager. He was the youngest of five children and was still living at home with his widowed mother. By 1920 the then-21-year-old had parlayed his cigar money into owning, and living in, a flophouse on Henry Street with a couple dozen tenants.
By the mid-20s Sammy was the proprietor of the Powhatan Club, one of the most famous -- and notorious -- speakeasies and gambling joints in town. Around this time he bought a house in Dexter-Linwood, the upper-middle class Jewish neighborhood on Detroit's northwest side. Sammy was moving up in the world.
By the mid-30s Sammy and his growing family lived in a large mock Tudor on Wildmere Street, two blocks from the exclusive Detroit Golf Club which, then as now, was a center of power in the city. It was an interesting choice, as Sammy would almost certainly have been denied membership because he was Jewish -- Sammy was a member of Knollwood, a Jewish country club in West Bloomfield -- but it spoke to his ambition.
His true arrival came in 1940. That was the year he opened "Sammy Sofferin's Wonder Bar and Indian Room" on the ground floor of the Book Tower on tony Washington Blvd. It was an immediate hit. It, and Sammy, quickly became Detroit institutions.
A typical evening out at the Wonder Bar would start with strong cocktails followed by brandy-spiked turtle soup or "shrimp a la Powhatan," which was bread shaped like a pyramid onto which fried shrimp, chicken livers, anchovies and scallops were attached with frog legs arranged around the base. Beef was always the centerpiece of dinner, with reviews of the 1940s focusing on "roast beef so tender and juicy it melts on the tongue," prepared "so pinkly rare, sliced nearly half an inch thick, swimming in its own rich brown juice." Later steaks moved to the fore, with the Wonder Bar credited as the first restaurant to introduce New York strips to Detroit.
Entertainment was also on the menu. One night you might be treated to the jazz stylings of Lee Walters. On another it might be Pedro DeLeon's samba quartet or "Spanish blues singer" Linda Garcia. Or maybe you'd be lucky enough to visit the Wonder Bar on a night "Latin troupe extraordinaire," the La Playa Dancers, led by "the exotically beautiful Grace Conrad" were on hand. On more tame nights you might get something a bit more standard from Charles Costello and his orchestra. Still, you could dance to it.
Sammy's track record with the Powhatan Club and his connections with lawyers, judges and business leaders around town ensured success for the Wonder Bar, but its location across the street from the Book-Cadillac Hotel gave it an added boost. Visiting entertainers and athletes were regular fixtures. So too were criminals. Prominent members of the Jewish underworld patronized the Wonder Bar for both business and pleasure. The mobster Moe Dalitz took meetings in the exclusive Indian Room. He met his second wife in the cocktail lounge where he was a regular.
Between Sammy's history with gambling and speakeasies, the nature of his business, the nature of his clientele, and the fact that he was, quite clearly, a lifelong hustler, it's hard to imagine that Sammy wasn't, at the very least, on extremely friendly terms with organized crime. Indeed, it'd be hard to imagine how he'd be allowed to run the Powhatan Club in an era when the Purple Gang controlled the liquor and gambling trade in Detroit without being on very good terms with them.
When Sammy died in 1969, two years after retiring and selling the Wonder Bar, the Detroit Free Press' obituary nodded at all of that but didn't quite make it explicit. Probably because they didn't have to.
So that's my uncle Sammy. Who, for as much fun as that all was to write, may as well be a total stranger to me.
As I mentioned when I wrote about my murderous great-great grandmother a couple of years ago, my extended family is a total black hole to me. I didn't know any of that stuff about her when I did that research and I didn't know anything about Sammy Sofferin this time last week. All of the information included in this piece came from looking at census records, telephone listings, real estate records, some newspaper clippings, restaurant reviews and other assorted documents I dug into after impulsively signing up for a trial account on Ancestry.com last Sunday afternoon. It certainly wasn't well-known family folklore of any kind. At least among anyone who is still alive.
I'm not sure why I signed up for the Ancestry account as I'm actually not all that interested in genealogy for its own sake. Oh, sure, I've found out a lot of stuff about what ship my sixth-great grandpa McIntyre came over on from Scotland in 1739 and what castle my 10th great-grandpa Kniveton lost in Derbyshire after he chose the wrong side in the English Civil War, but that's not super important to anything that matters in my life or the world. We are what we do and what we experience, not what someone who shared genetic material with us 300 or 400 years ago did. Even if it was, my mom, dad and my brother were all raised by at least one adoptive parent, so I'm a very strong proponent of family being about relationships over blood and nurture trumping nature.
Still, it's amazing how much information is out there if you simply look for it. Or, rather, if you take Daryl Zero's advice at the top of this article and don't look for any specific thing and just see what appears before you. Indeed, in some ways I like finding out about my family's history this way. If I had grown up around these people -- or around the people who knew them -- it probably wouldn't be so fascinating to me.
Family stories have a way of insisting upon themselves and their own narratives in ways that make it difficult to question what you hear. If you've been told your grandma was 1/8 Cherokee for your entire life you're probably not very likely to easily accept the fact that, nah, actually she's not. It's too much a part of your family's folklore. The same might happen if I had heard stories about my great-great uncle Sammy from some grandparent or second cousin. I'd have some opinions about it all based on their opinions about it and all of it would be filtered through some storytelling and unreliable narration.
As it is now, though, I can kind of take this all in with fresh eyes and no expectations. I can think of Sammy as just some person who seems to have led a pretty damn fun and interesting life and not some family member from whom I feel obliged to glean some meaning or significance. Or, as I suspect happens more often with people who are super into genealogy, I won't feel obliged to project favorable or admirable things onto him and hope it reflects well on me.
Families are just people. Some of them are murderers. Some of them are gangsters or, at the very least, friends of gangsters. It's a lot more fun to find that kind of thing out yourself than it is to hear some sanitized or exaggerated stories about them that colors your impressions.
Not that it's all facts and data to me. I mean, now that I know all this stuff, I'm probably gonna fantasize a good deal about going back in time -- let's say 1949? -- to order some strong cocktails and eat some Shrimp-a-la-Powhatan at the Wonder Bar. And yes, in my fantasy, I get a table up close to the exotically beautiful Grace Conrad and I get it all on the family discount.
I haven't lived in West Virginia for a long time, but if you ask me today I still say that's where I'm from. It's the place that, more than anywhere else, made me who I am and helped me figure out what I cared about.
West Virginia has long been the poster child for states which are hurting or backward or down on their luck. There are some heavy stereotypes which come with all of that -- and there's a lot of misleading broad-brush painting when even the most sympathetic folks talk about its nature and its plight -- but there's a lot of truth too. I love my home state, but I also hurt when I see how much it and its people hurt. I want better for West Virginia.
Last night I met someone who wants better for it too. He's the first person who's come along in a long, long time who seems to understand how to make things better too. His name is Stephen Smith and he's running for governor in the 2020 election.
Smith is running hard now, early, because he has to. He has to because he's decidedly not the hand-picked choice of the Democratic Party establishment to take on incumbent Republican Jim Justice. When you listen to him speak, as I did last night, you quickly understand why.
Smith's aim is not merely to put an end to Republican rule in West Virginia. It's to end more than a century's worth of exploitation of West Virginia's people, its wealth and its resources at the hands of wealthy, largely outside-the-state interests. Businessmen, landowners and extractive businesses who have treated West Virginia as their personal piggybank but who have no stakes in its people, its future or its prosperity. It's a system of exploitation that was just as prevalent during the 80 years when the Democratic Party dominated state politics as it has been under the relatively recent phenomenon of Republican dominance. Its a system that the current Democratic establishment, led by former governor and current U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, has shown no interest in fighting.
Smith's argument is that West Virginia's problems are not a function of Democrats vs. Republicans. Not a matter of the left vs. the right. Rather, "it's the good old boys versus the rest of us." Smith says to, "find the West Virginians who are working the hardest and hurting most -- that's whose side we're on." That side is not one anyone in power or most of the people seeking to take power in West Virginia have cared too much about, historically. As such, when you're aligned against both the Republican and the Democratic establishment as Smith is, you have a tough fight on your hands. They're backed by powerful, wealthy forces.
Smith, however, has some things working for him.
Chief among them is organization. Smith has spent 20 years as a community organizer, running the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. Such work is not done from an office in Charleston. Most of it is done on a hyper-local level. It's the sort of work that lends itself to local organization and such organization has been the core element of his campaign.
Already, more than a year-and-a-half before the 2020 election, Smith has recruited campaign captains in each of West Virginia's 55 counties and has recruited 41 down-ballot candidates at the local and county levels to help spread his message. By the end of May he expects to have visited every single county in the state. That early work has already led to a network of volunteers and donors that, in numbers, are several times larger than his closest competitors. In a state where candidates tend to rely on a few TV commercials, a few mailers and the belief that West Virginians will simply do what they're told by the people in power, Smith's campaign has a remarkably uncommon energy that is sure to work to its advantage. West Virginians are hungry for candidates who will listen to them and talk to them rather than talk at them, patronize them and take them for granted.
The message, obviously, is just as important as the organization.
Smith is not afraid to speak frankly about class. About race. About people taking that to which they are entitled as citizens as opposed to politely asking those who have taken so much from them already to kindly give a little back if they can be bothered to do so.
His campaign appearance last night began with a video referencing the Battle of Blair Mountain in which striking miners took up arms against coal companies, bought-and-paid for sheriffs, strikebreakers and their hired guns. He talks about how he worked personally to help aid striking teachers during the 2018 work stoppage who, like the miners at Blair Mountain, wore red bandanas when they marched (he handed out red bandanas to people in attendance last night). He notes that some of those miners and some of those teachers were Democrats, some Republicans, some independents and some apolitical. He notes that the miners who took up arms and the teachers who hit the picket line were white and black. He notes that the majority of striking teachers were women. The common thread was that the wealthy and powerful will do anything they can to divide and exploit those who are less powerful, but that when the less powerful band together they can take back what is rightfully theirs.
Smith minces no words when he says how to do that:
All of these are things which make perfect logical sense but which, for whatever reason, political candidates are afraid to say out loud. Probably because they get most of their support from the wealthy interests who have taken for so long and stand to lose when the people stand up and fight for themselves. Or because they are simply afraid to fight those interests.
I'm a politically outspoken person. Anyone who reads this site knows that. I'm not, however, a person who has worked for campaigns, donated in any great amount to campaigns or who has spent much time advocating for a specific candidate. That's probably because I care deeply about a certain set of ideas and values and, in my lifetime, it has been extraordinarily rare to find candidates who share those ideas and values in more than the most temporary or tangential of ways.
That has changed with respect to the 2020 West Virginia gubernatorial race. I am supporting Stephen Smith, both with my time, my effort and my money. I'd ask that, if you share these ideas and values, that you consider supporting him too. I'd ask that you do that whether or not you're from or whether or not you live in West Virginia. I ask that because if Smith's organizational model, his energy and his message can win the day in West Virginia, it'll be proof that they can win anywhere.
And God knows we need more of that everywhere.
Learn more about Stephen Smith here. Help join the fight here. Help fund the fight with a donation here.
I just read that they're going to shoot most of the "Hillbilly Elegy" movie in Georgia, not Ohio because Georgia has tax credits for production. I know that's not J.D. Vance's decision or anything, but I find it amusing that the movie about a guy who got famous for a book in which he argued that people need to take responsibility for their lot in life and how they should not expect handouts is chasing government subsidies. The only way this could be more delicious would be if Vance cited the lack of Ohio tax credits as poor people's fault.
Still, this is pretty on-brand. I mean, Vance's book was all about enriching himself by leveraging a people and a place of which he is a not a part, so using Georgia taxpayers for this Ohio-set movie in about a guy who wants people to think he's from Kentucky is only right. I'm not sure how the dissonance between the whole taxpayer subsidy thing and his by-your-own-bootstraps ethos will be resolved, but I'm sure he'll make an effort to do so in some glib New York Times editorial soon.
If you're wondering why I'm so cranky about this, you can go back and read the stuff I wrote about Vance and his book in the past. It'll explain it all:
The short version: while Vance had a genuinely rough upbringing and talks about it in frank and often affecting terms in his book, he is far more interested in using his experience as a vehicle with which to advance a conservative political agenda which blames the poor for their own struggles. His doing so found an eager audience on both the right and the left, with conservatives citing his personal success as evidence of the efficacy of their blame-the-poor ethos while liberals nodded along with him, not questioning his portrayal of the rural poor because his version helped assuage their guilt and gave them license to continue to look away. It's pretty odious all around.
If you want two better books about what it means to live in Appalachia and which explains the actual, not imagined, struggles Appalachian people face, I'd ask you to go read Elizabeth Catte's "What you are getting wrong about Appalachia" and Brian Alexander's "Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town."
They won't make fancy movies starring Amy Adams out of those books, but they have the benefit of containing actual information.
The website I write for a living -- HardballTalk at NBC Sports -- is ten years old today.
The longest I ever held any other job was five and a half years. I only practiced law, in total, for eleven years.
Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.
. . . it points to something much more frightening — that love itself exists outside the framework of justice. There is no court at which to plead your case, no authority who can grant you recompense.
Over three years ago I wrote an essay about how environmental calamities that have hit the places where I grew up -- Flint, Michigan, Parkersburg, West Virginia and Southern West Virginia -- were not mere accidents. They occurred because those with wealth and power consider the lives of poor people in poor places like that to be cheap by design.
I ended the essay by noting that such has always been the case and that, in all likelihood, it always will be the case. It will happen again and again because politicians simply don't care about the people who live there and the general public, for the most part, cannot be bothered to care.
This morning I woke up to see this:
I've lived long enough and I know enough history to know that our system is frightfully efficient at crushing both hope and the hopeful. I know that powerful forces will align in an effort to thwart anyone who dares push back against the power and the priorities of the wealthy. I know that a handful of progressive politicians and activists are, at present, no match for both the machinery of corporate America and the apathy of most Americans.
But seeing a politician actually say things like this out loud is unbelievably inspiring. Every bit as inspiring as it is shocking.
A couple of years ago I wrote about my seven favorite movies in this space. Number one on that list was "The Conversation." It's still number one. I'm having a hard time imagining it will ever not be number one.
It's not a movie that, when you finish it, you say "ah, that was fun." It's not at all uplifting and there's very little action in it. Many people find it boring. I understand that. I don't blame those who don't like it for "not getting it" or whatever. Slow burns and character sketches are not for everyone. Most people watch movies to enjoy themselves and be entertained. They should, too. That's kind of the point of a movie, even if I like to torture myself with bleak, contemplative stuff like this on occasion.
Its lack of action and lack of feel-good appeal notwithstanding, aesthetically it's just a beautifully-shot and perfectly-acted movie. There isn't an ounce of fat on it. Gene Hackman is, if not my favorite actor of all time, in my top three, and this is his greatest role. And, as you can tell by our shared taste in eyewear, I like Harry Caul's personal style.
More deeply, I identify with its themes.
I've spent a lot of time in my life trying to find the right balance between observing the world with objective detachment and actively participating in it. When I was a lawyer I'd often find myself keeping myself too far removed from my clients when I found them or their interests objectionable or getting too close to them, sometimes losing my objectivity, when I did not. Since I've become a writer -- working at home, not interacting with many people in person on a daily basis -- I've felt like more of a voyeur than a participant in the world on occasion, with a tendency to disengage. This tendency is far more pronounced when I'm under stress or when I'm unhappy. It's not a good quality, and it's something I've worked hard to notice and head off when I slip into it, but I'll likely always have to work on it. To not become a low-tech version of Harry Caul, letting life simply happen to him. Either not caring to participate in the business of living beyond watching others do it or not knowing how to participate in it until it's too late.
I write all of this today because a friend of mine just pointed out a great interview of Francis Ford Coppola -- conducted by Brian DePalma of all people -- about the making of "The Conversation." It's from 1974, just as the movie was being released in theaters, so there is none of that reverent, "talk about your classic movie" stuff. You can tell Coppola knew he had a good movie on his hands -- it was nominated for Best Picture several months later, in a year that was stacked with amazing films -- but he freely talks about its flaws too, in a way I bet he wouldn't now if you asked him. It's also interesting because (a) there's an exchange in there in which I suspect DePalma got the seed for making the excellent "Blow Out" seven years later; and (b) based on stuff he says about his movie making style, you can see the hell Coppola would go through making "Apocalypse Now" a few years later coming straight down Market Street.
There are a lot of great technical details in the interview too. How Coppola went about filming the opening segment in the park, the choice of lenses to give it that voyeuristic feel and all of that. I've read a lot about that stuff before, but there's a new bit in there I hadn't read about the sound editing which kind of blew my mind. There are a lot of jarring transitions from loud to quiet in the movie and I used to think it was just because it was poorly mixed like a lot of 1970s movies are, but Coppola talks about how that was intentional and explains, quite satisfyingly, why that is so. It's one of those things that makes perfect sense and which I'm somewhat embarrassed I didn't think about while watching it, oh, 10 times.
It's been a year or two since I last watched it. After reading this interview, I'm going to have to make it 11 soon.
A couple of Twitter friends recently told me about how, as a fun exercise, they identified the number one song on the Billboard charts on their birthday for every year they were alive. It sounded like a fun idea.
And it was a fun idea until I remembered that I'm older than them it takes me a lot more time to do this sort of thing. Which is fine. I got a lot of time. It's what I have most of, actually. So let's do this thing.
Per the Billboard Hot 100 chart archive, here is the number one song on July 14 of every year since I was born, along with a thought or two about each song or, short of that, a tangential thought or two each song inspired in my too-much-time-on-its-hands brain:
1973: "Will It Go Round In Circles" -- Billy Preston: Preston is one of many who has been called "The Fifth Beatle." In related news, just before this one took the top spot, a George Harrison song and then a Paul McCartney Song hit number 1, so he was the third "Beatle" to have a hit that summer. Note: I do not think he was the fifth Beatle. That was Clarence Walker.
1974: "Rock Your Baby" -- George McCrae: The second of three "rock" songs to hit number 1 in 1974, along with "Rock the Boat" by The Hues Corporation and "Rock me Gently" by Andy Kim. This one was the best of the three. In other news, I was baptized on my first birthday, so this is a fairly appropriate song.
1975: "Love Will Keep Us Together" -- Captain & Tennille: They actually divorced eventually, so this song was a lie.
Last year I wrote a long true crime story that hit close to home. Like, really close to home: my great-great grandmother killed my great-great grandfather with an axe one snowy December morning in Detroit back in 1910. You'll be happy to know that she did this after my great-grandfather was born, thus allowing me to exist. Thanks for holding off on that, Nellie. I owe you one.
I had published all of this as a short ebook on Amazon and many of you bought it. Thanks for that! It's been out a while now, so I figured it was worth publishing the whole thing for free here, so here it is, in all of its dysfunctional family glory. Feel free to share it with family members who annoy you. It will really creep them out and, I suspect, treat you more kindly in the future.
If you paid $2.99 for the ebook and feel ripped off now that it's free, well, sorry. I'll make you a deal though: if someone important and powerful reads it and decides to option it for a Netflix movie or something fun like that, I'll invite you to the screening and/or buy you a beer at some point.
Two weeks ago I wrote a story about the history of the namesake for the University of North Carolina's football stadium. The upshot: in 1898, William Rand Kenan Sr. -- for whom Kenan Memorial Stadium is named -- led a white supremacist paramilitary force which rode through Wilmington, North Carolina on a horse-drawn wagon, massacring dozens and possibly hundreds of black citizens with a machine gun. The aim: to commit a coup d’etat overthrowing the local government, led by blacks and their white Republican allies.
My aim in writing that story was to bring to light a dark chapter of American history the specifics of which had been long-buried, but the reverberations of which have lived on for 120 years. History has whitewashed the Wilmington Massacre itself, but a direct result of the massacre was full and thorough ushering in of the Jim Crow era, the effects of which are still felt socially and economically to this day. What's more, many of those responsible for Wilmington -- while having their crimes either excused or forgotten -- went on to fame, fortune, greatness and, in the case of Kenan, were immortalized in monuments to their memory.
When I wrote that story, I hoped that it would start a conversation that might lead to a greater awareness of just how much of modern American society rests on a foundation created by slaveowners and white supremacists. I hoped that, eventually, someone might ask whether or not a giant college football stadium, for example, should stand as a memorial to a guy like William Rand Kenan Sr.
I didn't think, however, that the conversation would last only two weeks:
UNC-Chapel Hill will change the name on a plaque at Kenan Memorial Stadium to distance the university from William Rand Kenan Sr., who was involved in the Wilmington racial violence of 1898. The plaque on the stadium will be altered to honor William Rand Kenan Jr., Kenan Sr.’s son . . .
While it's being couched as merely changing the plaque, the fact is that the place is "Memorial" stadium, with said memorial being the plaque. If you change who is being memorialized I think it's fair to say that, technically speaking, you are changing the name of the stadium. Or certainly the purpose of its name.
I likewise think that while changing the memorial to Kenan's son is something of a cute move by the university -- no new signs or letterhead or anything else needs to be ordered -- it is, in this case, significant enough.
As the university's chancellor noted in her official statement on the matter, the son -- William Rand Kenan Jr. -- is a far more important figure for the university. His multi-million dollar bequest to the university in the 1960s led to a $300 million+ foundation that continues to benefit the university in countless ways. While some of his money was, in fact, family money inherited from the Kenan's slave owning past, it was only a small fraction of it, earned at least a couple of generations before him. He built the vast majority of it through his work as an industrialist and inherited a great deal more through his sister who had married the oil man Henry Flagler who predeceased her.
To be sure, the slave holding past of the Kenans is significant and should be noted by the university (efforts are being made to do this) and, as I wrote in my story, Kenan Jr., like so many men of his time, chose to overlook and minimize what happened in Wilmington specifically and in America at large. They should not be absolved of that. It's the case, however, that Kenan Jr. was born after the Civil War, was not involved in Wilmington and does not have any documented history of active participation in white supremacist organizations, white supremacist history or white supremacist acts. Yeah, I realize that's a pretty low bar when it comes to memorializing someone, but in light of that and in light of his undeniable impact on the university during his lifetime and in the decades since his death, it does not strike me as inappropriate to memorialize him if UNC thinks it appropriate. Especially given that the alternative would be either keeping the current monument to a murderer or mounting a long and 100% certain-to-fail challenge to get any reference to the Kenans removed from the stadium.
Being satisfied with the move from Kenan Sr. to Kenan Jr. is not just a matter of pragmatism, however. I think there's a benefit to be had in doing it this way.
As a result of the removal of the current monument and the stadium's re-dedication, the university is committing to working with UNC's "history task force," which is charged with contextualizing the university's past. If they were to simply change the name of the place to "Tar Heel Stadium" it'd be pretty easy to paper over the Kenans and their history and pretend it never happened. By changing it to William Rand Kenan Jr., one holds out hope that there will be a bit more room, in the new memorial, to explain both his history and the history of the stadium's name change. That's what "contextualization" is, after all. William Rand Kenan Sr.'s actions in Wilmington were completely and utterly unknown by almost everyone before now. By keeping it Kenan, it'll be a lot harder to bury that uncomfortable history.
And that should make everyone happy, right? So many people who dislike the revisiting of our country's slave-owning and white supremacist past decry that to do so is to "erase" history. They should be pleased then, because this does the exact opposite. It brings history that had been intentionally obscured by darkness back into the light.
Good job, UNC. You have a long way to go to fully contend with your past, but at least in this instance you got it right.
I came from a couple of small and disadvantaged towns that did not have some prefabricated assembly line of future leaders. The people who came from those places and who did, in fact, accomplish things did so because they sought to transcend geography or race or socio-economic status or family history. They had to. They needed to break the mold of their surroundings or their ancestry in order to do good things in life because falling into the common expectations and routines of their environment meant doing less than they aspired to do.
Later, when I went to college and especially when I went to law school, I began to encounter Brett Kavanaugh types. The ones I met were angrier and jerkier than most because George Washington was their safety school and they were disappointing dad by not getting into Yale, but they were of that mold. A lot of them, actually, came from Bethesda and prep-school-laden suburbs like them.
I never heard of Brett Kavanaugh until recently, but I've spent my entire adult life thinking about guys like him. The ones for whom trying to transcend anything would be bad for them rather than good, because everything had been set up for them to succeed and they had better not fuck that up.
Most of them did succeed, of course, but almost all of them are boring, average and pathetic people, no matter their station, wealth or power. Pathetic because they never had to do a damn thing. Because they never once, in their entire lives, had to dream or to work particularly hard. Because they did not, in fact, ever consider the possibility of doing so.
Over at Jacobin today, Megan Day writes about Brett Kavanaugh, men like him and their sheer, mediocre banality. In doing so, she puts her finger directly on that which I've been feeling about guys like him my entire life. It's a feeling that is often claimed by others to be envy, but it's anything but. I feel sorry for these men. I feel sorry for those who have been handed everything in life and, thus, appreciate nothing.
I feel sorry for men who never stop to think of how far they have come because, really, they never went anywhere.
My daughter texted me from school today. She was in her freshman humanities class which is basically an English/social studies mashup. Anna texts me from school a lot. When she does so it's usually the best part of my day. Today, like most days, it was because she wanted to share something funny with me.
Today, however, my credentials and I were the butt of the joke:
Anna later explained that her teacher was not talking about me, my political science degree and my sports writing career specifically. Rather, she was just making a point about how, when you read something, you should be critical of the writer, who he or she is and what his or her background is. Today they happened to be discussing an article about the value of a liberal arts education and the teacher approvingly noted that its author had a history degree so, obviously, he knew what he was talking about. The crack about the political science degree-possessing sports writer was an imaginary horrible meant to portray a true ignoramus.
I won't lie: I was less than pleased about all of this. Not because I thought of it as some sort of personal attack, as I have never met her teacher and she doesn't know a thing about me or my career. And not because of the underlying lesson, as I agree it is vitally important to assess and be critical of one's information sources. Rather, I was pissed about how superficial a notion it is to look at a person's formal education to assess a person's credibility.
I've gone at length about my unconventional career path, but I'm not the only person doing something radically different than their college transcript might suggest they'd one day do. My father grew up working on cars at his father's taxi cab company and wanted to work on jet engines one day but, due to a typographical error by the United States Navy, wound up in meteorology school and spent the next 40 years as a weather man. Anna's mother has a degree in French but has spent the past 23 years working in the office furniture business. My best friend from college has an M.A. in history but has nonetheless spent most of the past 20 years working at technology companies in Silicon Valley. I'm sure all of us know many people who have careers that are completely unrelated to whatever it was they studied in college and who can speak as authorities on those topics regardless of what they happened to major in back in the day.
My displeasure with what I heard today was not, however, simply about a teacher who does not seem to appreciate that career paths are often crooked. It's about her seeming not to appreciate the value of a crooked career path in and of itself.
I am not exactly a typical or a popular figure in the baseball writing world. When I began this job a decade ago it was pretty unusual for a large media company like NBC to give someone with no journalism experience the kind of platform I have. One used to pay their dues for years, serving time as an agate guy, a high school football stringer, a backup beat writer and then, maybe, if everything broke right, they could be a columnist, which is roughly equivalent to what I do. I jumped the line. I had never been part of the baseball writing fraternity. What's more, my writing tends to skew pretty sharp and critical and includes a lot of media criticism as well so, while I have made many friends in the business over the years, I'm still not welcome in the club. If my credentials had been in order -- if I had gone to journalism school and if I had written game stories for the Des Moines Register or the Sacramento Bee -- I'd likely be invited to more meetings and parties.
But I'd probably also not have this job.
NBC was late to the online sports game and, when they launched my website, they wanted to make up for lost time. They did so not by aping what everyone else had done ten years earlier, but by making some noise. They hired a lawyer to be their football writer and, with that precedent set, hired one to be their baseball writer too. Our lack of a journalism background and our willingness to say and do whatever the hell we wanted to was a feature, not a bug, and nearly a decade later it's still working pretty well. It's working well, I'd argue, precisely because neither Mike Florio nor I approach our job like someone who went to J-school would and because, as such, we give readers something they can't get anywhere else. Our lack of traditional qualifications for our job were strengths, not weaknesses. NBC's hiring people with unconventional resumes helped them solve a problem they likely could not have solved (i.e. catching up with their competitors quickly) if they had done the conventional thing.
A couple of lawyers with liberal arts backgrounds are not alone in that, of course. There are a lot of people who contribute to society in ways far more important than writing about sports despite the fact that they are not doing what they had set out to do back in college. There are companies being run by people without business degrees, artists who never went to art school, musicians who never had lessons, and tons and tons of people making a difference in the world despite the fact that they simply fell into jobs adjacent to -- or often not adjacent to -- the disciplines they initially set out to pursue.
That's true even of the guy who wrote the article about the value of a liberal arts education they were discussing in my daughter's class today. The guy who was deemed OK by Anna's teacher because he had a history degree. His name is David Brooks. He's a columnist for the New York Times who didn't spend a day in journalism school and who hasn't spent a minute pursuing the academic study of history since he graduated from the University of Chicago 35 years ago.
There's probably a lesson in there someplace. If Anna doesn't learn it at school, I'll make a point to talk to her about it separately. I think I can do it too, despite the fact that I didn't study education.