Friday, December 1, 2017

Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal, a review

          I mentioned Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal in a post in February titled “The Chickens Are Coming Home to Roost.” Here’s the link:;postID=4928010732861946006;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=13;src=postname

I hadn’t read the book, which I saw featured a couple of times on the PBS NewsHour. Sawbuck, one of my favorite readers, who had just gone through a period of prolonged unemployment that required him to move to another state to accept a lower-paying job and cost him his relationship, wrote me that the book was excellent and I really should read it. It finally became available through the library’s interlibrary loan program. Sawbuck is right.
          The book, by Elizabeth White, was independently published last year. I would like to have known more about Ms. White’s story, but even without that background, she has written a helpful book, and we know that as far as faking normal, she’s been there.
          Ms. White points out that today’s 55-year-olds who are in financial trouble are in the perfect storm of age discrimination, pay that has not kept up with inflation, the elimination of defined-benefit pensions, and a 401(k) defined-contribution retirement system that most employees don’t understand and that come with high fees that will reduce or eliminate much of the earnings that one would expect from constant investing.
On a personal note, Dan converted his 401(k) to an IRA when he lost his job (at age 56) last year. It is doing better than it ever did at his employer, Three Initial Company (TIC). Under a normal administration, we could expect, perhaps, some examination of 401(k) abuses. Perhaps we’ll see what happens when we have a normal administration again.
          Ms. White recommends forming Resilience Circles with a few friends who are in the same situation. The circles can meet in person or online. Each person must be honest, and put aside faking it at least during the meetings.
          In addition to Resilience Circles, Ms. White lists more than 100 online resources that may help with everything from food assistance to saving your home from foreclosure or you from eviction. I had no idea there was so much help available. It certainly doesn’t get advertised much.
          Ms. White explores ways to turn what you have into income—maybe renting a bedroom if you can. She discusses tiny houses and cohousing. Kansas City has put together a tiny housing community for homeless veterans. I’m curious to see how that works out. As for cohousing, my limited explorations into that option led me to, gosh, how to put this, yuppie nutjobs who were far more interested in style over substance, and, I suspect they would have been very much into power once the project was completed. For more than the cost of a freestanding home, they were proposing individual units and a central kitchen where everyone would share meals. Maybe I’m odd (OK, I’ll admit I’m odd), but I have times when I need to be alone and not share meals with anyone. It could be dangerous to their health. And the group was anti-car, so parking was inconvenient, which would make aging in place a challenge.
          And Ms. White has attitude advice. Probably the most helpful is, when you get offered something that’s a lot lower on the totem pole (or pay scale) than you’re used to, “Get off your throne!”
          As I mentioned earlier, the book was independently published, which means it’s a challenge to get libraries to order it in spite of its being mentioned on PBS and other media. (The copy I read came from a Jefferson City library.) As I write this, has it for $13.24 plus shipping. The ISBN is 9781530055852
          If you have someone on your shopping list this season who may fall into the fifty-five, unemployed, and faking it category, this would make an excellent gift. I have someone in that category, and this is what they’re getting for Christmas.

© 2017 Larry Roth

Saturday, November 25, 2017

I'm a Sucker for Self-Help Books!

                I picked up Neil Pasricha’s The Happiness Equation at the library because a book I thought I had on hold wasn’t there after all. Mr. Pasricha has nine basic suggestions for happiness, of which I’d agree with maybe eight. The one I’d take issue with is: Never retire. I was heavily influenced by Paul Terhorst’s Cashing in on the American Dream, Joe Dominguez’ and Vicki Robin’s Your Money or Your Life, and the 1938 film version of Philip Barry’s Holiday. I first retired in my mid-forties because I had a disagreement with my employer, Company L, over work-life balance. I thought there should be one.
                Mr. Pasricha presents many reasons for not retiring including structure and having a social network. I love being able to determine my own structure, and I wonder if Mr. Pasricha, who is Canadian, has set foot in corporate America recently. (He did say he’d visited Wal-Mart’s headquarters and was quite taken with the friendliness of the people he met there; perhaps the friendliness was real and perhaps not—sometimes these things can be faked, especially for a visitor.) With few exceptions—very few—I would not want the backstabbing brownnosers I worked with at Company L in my life, let alone in my social network.
                In Mr. Pasricha’s favor, his last suggestion is not to follow suggestions. And that’s a good suggestion.
                I found Cheryl Richardson’s Take Time for Your Life at an estate sale. I almost didn’t buy the book because the cover features a woman who appears to be having an orgasm, but having had my own experiences with publishers slapping inappropriate covers on a book (The Simple Life, a book primarily about frugality, which I edited, featured… a blade of grass), I took a closer look, and I’m glad I plunked down my 50¢ for this book. Ms. Richardson presents a seven-step program to help take control of our lives. I was most taken by her criteria for her clients’ choosing a job, which include:
                Work must never cause them to compromise their integrity
                The required hours must allow them to have a life outside work
                Their contribution must be acknowledged and appreciated
                Their work must be challenging and fulfilling
                They must have an opportunity to use their best talents and gifts fully
                They must be able to provide their input for important decisions
                They must be paid fairly for the work they perform.
                I guess if I could find a job that would do all these things (especially the last one), I might be willing to follow Mr. Pasricha’s advice and never retire. Perhaps there are unicorns out there after all.
                The final book, Real Cause, Real Cure, by Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, and Bill Gottlieb, CHC is another estate sale find I almost didn’t buy. I mean buying health books at an estate sale? These people died, after all. What good did the book do its previous owner? Anyway, I plunked down a whole dollar for this one and was pleasantly surprised. The authors give nine “real causes” of health problems. The chapter on prescription medications is worth the price I paid for the book. If the authors are right, many patients being treated for Alzheimer’s are suffering only from being overmedicated. The “real cures” part of the book deals with specific conditions.
                I definitely recommend this book. Most books I buy find their way to Half Price Books; this one’s staying on my bookshelf.

© 2017 Larry Roth

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Minimalism: As Black Friday Approaches Here's a Book for the Season, Some Shopping Advice and an Actual Gift Suggestion

            Earlier this year I reviewed some books on frugality, most of which would fall into the “Oh, poor me, I overspent and I’m now paying for it boo hoo hoo” category. This is not one of those books.
            In my last post I mentioned Kanopy, a streaming service offered free from the library. The first thing I watched after signing up for Kanopy was Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, which led me to check out the Minimalist’s book, Everything That Remains, from the library. (The book is available in the Johnson County libraries; the Kansas City library did not have it.)
            The authors, Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus, grew up in southwestern Ohio. Milburn’s mother left his abusive father who died when Milburn was young. His mother was an alcoholic who was eventually able to get sober. (What is it about that part of Ohio that makes people want to self-medicate?) Milburn got a good job right out of high school and was on the fast track complete with all the toys he thought he was supposed to want when his mother died and his wife left him—both in the same month.
            While he was sorting out his mother’s belongings, which he described as three apartments stuffed into one, he became overwhelmed. His mother retired to Florida but had never gotten rid of her winter clothes. He seesawed between taking her stuff back with him to Ohio or renting a storage unit in Florida. He finally realized he would never need his mother’s belongings, so he donated them. This started him on a journey to minimalism. He eliminated 80% of his stuff, gave up TV, the internet, his cell phone, and finally even his goals. He decided to go back to having internet and a phone, but by giving them up, he realized life would be possible without them. He recommended to his employer that he be laid off and eventually he was. Nicodemus, who worked at the same company was also eventually laid off, though not at his request.
            The minimalists contacted other like-minded people, formed a publishing company (Asymetrical, currently located in Montana) and started putting out books. They are having fun.
            They did a book tour that started small and ended up successful beyond their dreams. So many people showed up to hear them in Toronto they thought they were competing with another act. They wound up having to do more presentations to accommodate everyone. It seems there is a lot of interest in having less stuff and more life. As one of the people who attended their lecture in Toronto said, she was living the life she was supposed to want, but it wasn’t her life; she was living someone else’s dream.
            On a personal note, when I left my job with Company L in 1995, my parents were flabbergasted. Their reaction was basically how could I give up everything they ever wanted. My problem was what they wanted was not what I wanted.
            On yet another personal note, my mother died in 2003; my sister has just this fall let go of our mother’s clothes.
            There is an awful lot to think about in this book, including the astute observation that hoarding and organizing are pretty much the same thing. Hoarding is out in the open, but organizing is essentially well-planned hoarding. I’d add that “organizing” in today’s language usually implies buying containers and other items to contain our excess, so it may well be more expensive than hoarding plus we wind up with all the stuff we bought to hold our stuff.
            The book is independently published (the ISBN is 9781938793189), and it could use some editing, but since I’ve been there, done that, and had my own share of screwups, I’m in no position to criticize. Just read the book and appreciate its message.
            As we’re entering the Season this year, perhaps we could pause our spending for a few minutes and think about the things we buy both for ourselves and as gifts for others. If it’s something useful or needed, great. If it’s neither, well, isn’t it a waste of time, money, and the space it will occupy?
            And on one more personal note, don’t buy something simply because it’s on sale. I’m considering buying an Instant Pot. Walmart has a “Door Buster” ad with a 5-quart Instant Pot for $49. I’m looking for the 8-quart model. I almost fell into the trap of “$49 is a good deal; maybe I can live with the 5-quart model.” But I realized (in time) something you don’t want on sale is not a good deal. I know I’d wind up buying the 8-quart model eventually, so I might as well save the $49 (plus tax) I’d spend on this model and get what I want the first time. 

            One thing you might consider giving, if you still have anyone on your list who has a landline, is MagicJack, which I reviewed in my second post way back in December of last year. (Here’s the link: They’re having a sale. For $29.99 plus tax, you get the MagicJack and a year’s phone service. Please read my review because MagicJack does have some limitations. The link to the special is:

© 2017 Larry Roth

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Kanopy: Cord Cutting with Help from the Library

                Kanopy is a streaming video service many libraries, including the Kansas City Public Library, have begun offering to their patrons. Some libraries offer other streaming services, so if your library doesn’t offer Kanopy, you might check with them to see what they have available.
                Kanopy offers more than 30,000 titles, and it’s free. To get Kanopy, go to, hit “Watch Now,” and follow the instructions. You’ll need a library account.
                Kanopy’s offerings include documentaries, indie films, foreign titles, and classic and contemporary films. You can watch twelve selections per month, and you have three days to watch each one, which comes in handy at times, since Kanopy offers several of the Great Courses, most of which have twenty-four thirty-minute lessons.
                The first thing I watched on Kanopy was Minimalism, a documentary by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. That led me to check out their book, Everything That Remains, which is so good I’m going to review it in my next post. I also watched Beyond Food, another documentary that led to my reading Abel James’ The Wild Diet and Dave Asprey’s The Bulletproof Diet. Both books were interesting, but both authors have done very well financially and base their diet on food that is organic, grass fed, free-range, and every other euphemism out there for expensive, which puts strict adherence to their diets out of reach for most of us commoners—especially those with large families and small incomes. I did find Kerrygold Grass Fed Butter at Aldi, but it’s about four times as expensive as Countryside Creamery, Aldi’s brand.
                As I said, both books were interesting, and my take on them is we commoners can probably get some good out of the books if we do the best we can with what’s affordable.  
                In the meantime, those inclined to cut the cord can possibly save some money by eliminating cable and adding Kanopy to their streaming device. A word of caution, though: Dan and I subscribe to Acorn and Netflix, both of which offer an awful lot of good TV. There is a danger to having so much available, and that danger is we’ll wind up living vicarious lives, so I’d advise that you limit your viewing (my limit is 90 minutes a day plus the news) in order to give yourself time to have a real life.

© 2017 Larry Roth

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Unitarian Universalism--Found and Lost

                If you’ve read my book, Political Frugality, and the odds are you haven’t, you know that when that book came out in 2005 I had just joined a Unitarian Universalist church. I was enthusiastic. Back then we had a minister who was down to earth and, well, human. And he had a sense of humor. Once when he invited Dan to visit the church, Dan, who grew up Catholic, said he was not into organized religion. The minister said, “That’s OK. We’re not organized.” It helped, I think, that his wife was a Methodist minister. The church offered courses such as the History of Unitarian Universalism, Thoreau, Emerson, and so on. I loved it.
                Alas, all good things come to an end. Our minister moved, and the church moved on to a series of humorless dogmatic ministers who reminded me of the reason I left the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod I grew up in.  There was one exception, but she was only temporary. There was even a purge of staff who no longer “fit in.” Courses these days tend to be along the lines of “Concepts of White Supremacy,” which is the actual title of one of the courses. It’s estimated more than 90% of all Unitarian Universalists are white. Interestingly, we used to have a Protestant predominantly African-American sister church. We’d get together for a picnic on Labor Day. That, too is no more. Too much fun, I suppose.
                I’ll be among the first to agree we all need to learn about white privilege. I just finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson. The book is about the Great Migration of blacks from the south starting roughly during World War I and continuing to 1970 or so. I had no idea how bad conditions were in the south, and to what lengths, after the migration had begun and there was an increasing shortage of black labor in the south, southern whites would go in order to keep people from leaving. Amazingly, treating their help better and maybe not lynching so many never occurred to white southerners. This is one book I’d highly recommend. I’m now reading Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White, which is interesting and mercifully short, but he’s nowhere near the writer Ms. Wilkerson is. At any rate, yes, we need to be aware of white privilege, but even dog trainers recommend against rubbing puppies’ noses in their mistakes. And couldn’t we have some history of the church classes, too? And maybe—just maybe—could we have a sense of humor?
                Earlier this year the church made the news when a vacancy occurred in the church’s southern region. A white man was selected to fill the position, and the shit hit the fan. One of the finalists for the position was a Latina who criticized the selection. This led in rapid succession to the resignations of the President of the church (its first Hispanic) and some of his staff. A woman was eventually chosen to replace the President.
                This has all been written up within the church as a positive step toward more inclusion and sensitivity, and it may well be. But I’d like to know why the white guy was selected. How likely is it a church so bent on inclusion would select a white male if he were not the most qualified? I doubt we’ll ever know.
                Just when I thought things could not get stranger, I read an article in the latest UUWorld about Standing on the Side of Love, a song written in 2004 by a Unitarian Universalist minister to protest marriage discrimination. Thirteen years later it occurred to some people that the song discriminated against the handicapped. They can’t stand, you see. And I guess it didn’t occur to anyone to look up the word “metaphor.” The song’s being reworked.
                In the 1960s Li’l Abner creator Al Capp invented a group that satirized campus protesters. The group was called S. W. I. N. E., or Students Wildly Indignant About Nearly Everything. At the time I didn’t think it was funny because I was young and agreed with many things students were protesting--civil rights, Vietnam, and so on. But things have changed, and I’ve grown up. Being wildly indignant about nearly everything wears me out, and looking for innocuous things to be wildly indignant about strikes me as ludicrously unproductive.  
                Last year the Lutheran church near me had a breakfast. Dan and I went. I was extremely impressed with the minister, who reminds me a lot of the Unitarian Universalist minister who moved.
He didn’t look askance at Dan and me—even though he is Missouri Synod, and they’re not officially too accepting of gays. The church runs a thrift shop and food bank. It occurred to me this church is actually doing something to help the poor rather than just holding classes on white privilege. And they have classes on Martin Luther.
As part of a class on becoming Unitarian Universalist, we wrote our credos—what we believed. Part of my credo, from 2004, is:

“I believe, when it comes to churches, fellowship, not the official teachings of the church, is what’s important. I believe that each of us develops our own beliefs, that no two people believe exactly the same things, and that it is more important to be with people I enjoy but with whom I do not agree than it is to be around people with whom I agree but do not enjoy.”

Given how polarized the country has become since I wrote that, I’d say it’s even more important that we spend time with and listen to those we don’t agree with if for no other reason than to avoid sequestering ourselves in an echo chamber.
I doubt I’ll ever care about Transubstantiation or a host of other doctrines, but I’m going to pay a visit to that Lutheran church soon.     
                If it’s possible to be a lapsed Unitarian, I am one.

© 2017 Larry Roth

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Us versus Them, or Will the President Outsmart Himself?

                Shortly after two strong hurricanes hit the US mainland and North Korea launched a missile that flew over Japan and claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb, our president chose to attack… the National Football League.
                It was a successful attack in that it diverted attention away from the president’s more pressing failures and people were talking about disrespecting the flag and the national anthem (mostly by African-Americans) rather than, say, the president’s failure to get his party to repeal Obamacare, what to do about North Korea, why cleanup after the hurricanes was not progressing faster—especially in Puerto Rico, and all the other issues one would think might keep the leader of the free world busy. 
                It will come as no surprise to my readers that I’m not a fan of our president. I do agree with a couple of the things he’s accomplished, among them approving the pipelines (I’d much rather have flammable liquid transported underground than on poorly maintained rails that take it through crowded cities) and reconsidering the Title IX guidelines promulgated by President Obama regarding allegations of campus rape. But even a stopped clock is correct a couple of times a day.
                When I first heard the president’s attack, which seemed to be an afterthought at an Alabama rally for his candidate for Senate, Luther Strange, just a few days before Strange lost to Roy Moore, who undoubtedly will be an interesting addition to the Senate if he wins the seat, my initial reaction was something to the effect that doesn’t the president have something more important to do than get involved in sports?
                But maybe he doesn’t. David Brooks, who is nominally a conservative and who writes for The New York Times, said in a recent editorial, “[Trump] has a nose for every wound in the body politic and day after day he sticks a red-hot poker in one wound or another and rips it open.”
                It seems David Brooks believes our president is purposefully fomenting disagreement in order to keep us fighting each other rather than paying attention to what is going on in with our government. If we can get distracted by whether NFL players should be fired for kneeling during the national anthem, maybe we won’t notice Tom Price’s reimbursing the treasury $52,000 to repay the estimated $1,000,000 in flight expenses he racked up during his brief term as Health and Human Services Secretary or the tax reform Republicans in Congress are writing.
                I’m going to take just a slight detour here, so please humor me. Regarding the national anthem, most people don’t realize The Star-Spangled Banner became the national anthem in 1931 during the Great Depression. Perhaps Herbert Hoover thought people preferred a national anthem to help feeding their families during our country’s worst economic crisis to date.
                While I’m on my detour, maybe we should question why the national anthem gets played at sporting events. If it’s so divisive, maybe we could just skip it.
                OK. I’m back from my detour. The NFL controversy rages on, but I guess the initial rage has calmed down a bit, so just a few days ago our president started a fight with the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico because the mayor didn’t believe hurricane aid was being delivered quickly enough.
                Maybe the mayor had a point; maybe she didn’t, but did she deserve the president’s take-no-prisoners Twitter attack? Once again, this seems to be an “us versus them” divide and conquer tactic pitting mainland Americans against Puerto Rican (read Hispanic) Americans (and Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship in 1917, so yes, they are Americans) in order to divert attention from this administration’s “Heck of a job, Brownie” moment.
                I think the president is playing a dangerous game. He has a dedicated base who will support him no matter what. He doesn’t have to worry about most of those people. He also has a numerical (if not electoral) majority of people who do not care for him. It’s not likely that anyone in the second category will change their minds about the president no matter what he does. He has to be careful, though, with his base. If he goes too far he risks losing some of them. If he goes far enough, he may well become a real-life example of “Lonesome” Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd.      
                Let’s not be played.

© 2017 Larry Roth

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"Dark Money," "Hillbilly Elegy," and a Response to a "Hillbilly Elegy" Dissent

                Here are my takes on a couple of the books I’ve read lately as well as my response to an editorial about one of them. Enjoy.

                Jane Mayer’s Dark Money is a study of conservative billionaires who have taken advantage of the Citizens United ruling to attempt to direct the course our country takes by throwing massive amounts of money at conservative candidates who will advocate for their interests. Chief among her targets are the Koch brothers. The book is revealing—especially about the family history of these allegedly self-made billionaires. Although these folks are good about claiming they got where they are by working hard and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, almost without exception every one of them was born into families with money and inherited their positions and money, bringing to mind Ann Richard’s comment about George H. W. Bush, “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” The Koch family history is especially interesting. It seems Charles Koch didn’t feel he was inheriting enough, so he went after his brothers in an expensive, multi-year legal battle to increase his share of his father’s estate. One of his brothers may or may not be gay, and Charles was happy to break into his New York apartment, rummage through his stuff and threaten to reveal his guilty secret (or imply he had a guilty secret) to get him to give Charles control over his part of the company. All of this gives us an idea of the lengths to which the Kochs are willing to go to have their way. This includes trying their best to dig up or invent dirt on Ms. Mayer after she had written the article for the New Yorker which was the basis for this book. (She had previously written an article about liberal billionaire George Soros, who was not happy with the article but took no similar action.) And the Kochs aren’t the only ones skewered in this book. You won’t find me “saving big money at Menards.” Or buying Amway products—not that I would have, anyway.
                J. D. Vance has emerged of late as a spokesman for the conservative white working class largely as a result of his successful book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. This book is the story of Mr. Vance’s surviving his childhood largely through the efforts of his grandmother, a foul-mouthed and unrepentant hillbilly woman who loved him. His mother was at times a drunk, an opioid abuser, a heroin addict, and had serial boyfriends and a unique way of perceiving the world. (It’s always about her.) When his grandfather died, his mother objected to his and his sister’s mourning. (“He was MY father, not yours.”) The same happened when his grandmother died, although who was more of a mother in every way except biologically could be debated. When his grandmother died, she had virtually nothing because of all the money she’d spent on her daughter’s serial rehab stays. Mr. Vance said his uncle never spoke to his sister again.
                Mr. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, where his grandparents had moved from rural Kentucky for good jobs with Armco Steel. So many people from Kentucky moved to Middletown for those jobs the city became known as “Middletucky.” (Most Ohio cities have similar areas—in Columbus, Grove City is “Grovetucky.”) By J.D.’s generation, though, Armco had merged with Kawasaki, and most good jobs there were history. Thanks to his grandmother, J.D.’s grades were good enough to get him admitted to The Ohio State University, but he didn’t feel ready either for the debt he’d incur or for college, so he went into the Marines and was shipped to Iraq, where he was a communications director. After Iraq, he took advantage of the Veterans Administration’s tuition program and went to Ohio State. He eventually held down three jobs to pay his way through. He did well enough to go on to Yale Law School, where he met his future wife. At the end of this book he’s practicing law in Cincinnati.
                He compares his life to his former peers in Middletown, and notes he’s done much better, thanks to his grandmother, the Marines, and all the people who have mentored him. He worries about those left behind who didn’t have the advantages he had. He talks about those who are mired in a sense of victimhood, among them his grandmother’s able-bodied (white) neighbor who never worked and lived in Section 8 housing and on food stamps and who was always complaining about (black) welfare cheats. He gives examples of people who “can’t find jobs” while there are jobs all around them. It turns out they can’t keep jobs because, once they get jobs, they don’t show up for them and don’t do the jobs when they do show up. He says people can’t accept that the fault for their situation is theirs. Most of the people he discusses have the same background as Mr. Vance—Kentucky roots living in Ohio.
                Coincidentally, just as I finished this book, an Ohio man with Kentucky roots plowed his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia.
                One thing I really admired about Mr. Vance is he does not claim to be a self-made up-by-the-bootstraps man as do those born to wealth in Ms. Mayer’s book. Even though he held three jobs while going to school, he gives much of the credit for his success to those who helped him along the way. I wouldn’t be surprised to see J. D. Vance’s name on a ballot someday—perhaps in the next Ohio governor’s race.

                Just as I was about to publish this review the local rag published an editorial written by Betsy Rader for The Washington Post taking umbrage with Mr. Vance’s book. Ms. Rader, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Northeast Ohio, says she was born in Appalachia in the 1960s. It appears Ms. Rader was born in Coshocton, Ohio in or around 1962 and grew up in Newark, Ohio, not too many miles northeast of Columbus (and known for its iconic Longaberger building). She says her parents divorced when she was nine, which would put that divorce in or around 1971. Her mother was the single mother of four children, and they lived on $6,000 a year. At this point Ms. Rader seems to forget (or hopes her readers will forget) that she’s writing about the early 1970s. In the early 1970s, as one person who responded to Ms. Rader pointed out, $6,000 was the equivalent of $37,000 today. Admittedly not a lot of money, but a great deal more than the $6,000 Ms. Rader emphasizes. Repeatedly. I presume Ms. Rader’s mother was not, like Mr. Vance’s, a drunk, an opioid abuser, a heroin addict, etc.
                Ms. Rader takes exception to Mr. Vance’s criticism of his own family and peers (“We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to the high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy… . Thrift is inimical to our being”) pointing out that her family certainly did not do that on (here we go again) $6,000 a year. Need I point out the dearth of giant TVs, iPads, credit cards, and payday lenders in 1971? Also, houses were much cheaper in 1971. A decent house in Columbus at that time could have been had for $20,000; in Newark, housing would have been even cheaper.
                Ms. Rader has some valid points, but she loses credibility when she counts on her readers’ amnesia about the differing circumstances between now and nearly fifty years ago. To me the most annoying statement in her entire diatribe is “I didn’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps. And neither did Vance.” I wonder if Ms. Rader even bothered to read the book. Mr. Vance explicitly says he did not pull himself up by his bootstraps.
                Hillbilly Elegy may well be due some criticism, but Ms. Rader, who we know will be on next year’s ballot, has written a response that brings just one word to mind, and that word is disingenuous.  

© 2017 Larry Roth

Thursday, September 7, 2017

More on "The Color of Law" and Related Topics

                I recently reviewed The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein. Our government’s involvement in making and keeping America segregated was news to me, so I decided to explore the topic further.

Mr. Rothstein cited Robert C. Weaver’s The Negro Ghetto, which was published in 1948. Thanks to the library’s Inter Library Loan program, I was able to get a copy of the book. The copy I read was reissued with a new preface in 1967 but was not rewritten or amended, so, with the exception of the new preface, the book is as it was written nearly 70 years ago. Mr. Weaver would become the first black cabinet member and the first secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1966, but that was all in the future when his book was published. Mr. Weaver was closer to the events of World War II than Mr. Rothstein, and he, unlike Mr. Rothstein, tells of several successful integrated housing developments that were built for wartime workers. These were exceptions, of course, but they were built. Mr. Weaver goes into the history of enforced segregation in the north, and settles on racial covenants (which the Supreme Court ruled were unenforceable in 1948, but continued on as a requirement for FHA or VA financing) as a major culprit. One thing I really admired about this book is Mr. Weaver came up with some practical suggestions for successful integration. One is occupancy standards that bar excessive roomers, require owners and occupants to observe and assist in the enforcement of all ordinances and codes, pledge observance of neighborhood standards of maintenance, discourage departures from established architectural design, and provide for participation in neighborhood associations for the preservation of community standards. These, he says, will allow integration while maintaining existing standards. He admits this will make it difficult for some with lower incomes, but he recommends not buying or renting property beyond our means, which is good advice for people of all races.
                Mr. Weaver also proposed mass production methods of construction as a means both to build more units in a shorter period of time and bring down costs. Mr. Weaver was writing during a massive housing shortage (the country had been at war nearly four years—from 1941 to 1945, and there was a shortage of everything; my parents said they had plenty of money but nothing to spend it on—cars were in such short supply that dealers expected bribes to let go of one at full price). Evidently many conventional builders were resisting mass production.
                But as Mr. Weaver was writing this book, Levittown was popping up in what had been a potato farm in Nassau county on Long Island. It was meant to be the answer to what the returning veteran needed. As it would turn out, VA would only issue loans if racial covenants were part of deal, Supreme Court or no Supreme Court, so Mr. Weaver turned out to be half right. Mass production did speed up production (Levittown houses were produced at the rate of twelve per day) and lower the cost of housing (to just under $7,000), but mass production and occupancy standards did not end segregation.
                On a personal note, I looked at a Levittown house in the 1970s. It was the basic “Cape” model that had been built with an expansion attic that had not been expanded. The 750 square-foot house was four rooms and a bath on a concrete slab with a one-car carport. The rooms were a living room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms. It was not much larger than the apartment I was renting. (In fact, it would almost qualify as a tiny house today). There were no sewers—each home had a cesspool under the front yard (though I’ve read that sewer lines were installed in the 1970s). In short, it may have been a step up from rental housing for a returning vet, but it was not a giant step. (For a decidedly unromantic look at the postwar housing building boom, see John Keats’ 1956 book, The Crack in the Picture Window.) 

                Picking up chronologically from where Robert C. Weaver left off is Edward Humes’ Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream, a generally positive view of the G.I. Bill, which improved the lives of many returning veterans. The book discusses how colleges were a tad standoffish about accepting the hoi polloi returning from the war but wound being generally impressed with how goal-oriented most returning veterans were. The book addresses the problems blacks and women had making use of their benefits. It’s amazing how patronizing benefits counselors were toward the “little ladies” who’d been sewing up soldiers, flying as test pilots, etc., and unfortunately, many benefits counselors did their best to talk black veterans out of college. One black soldier, who grew up middle class (his father passed as white for many years) was flat told his counselor would “recommend against” his attending college (he’d already been admitted). This man knew his rights and got by his counselor, but we have to wonder how many didn’t.
                The main reason the G.I. Bill was at times less beneficial to black veterans was one of its most powerful sponsors, Representative John Elliot Rankin, of Tupelo, Mississippi demanded and got local control of the administration of the program. Mr. Humes describes Rankin as a racist and a thug, but a thug with power. (He successfully fought the passage of an anti-lynching law in 1948.) As a result, local administrators in the south simply refused to allow the VA to insure loans to black veterans. Of 3,000 VA loans issued to veterans in Mississippi, two went to black veterans.
                Black veterans may have fought for freedom overseas, but that didn’t mean they were going to enjoy those freedoms when they returned to their homes in the south.    
                Mr. Humes mentions Levittown had racial covenants but does not confirm Mr. Rothstein’s assertion that Levittown’s covenants were required by the Veterans Administration.
                The book is a good read and many of the stories Mr. Humes includes are told by those whose lives were changed by the G.I. Bill.

                I came across A City Divided: The Racial Landscape of Kansas City, 1900-1960, by Sherry Lamb Schirmer at an estate sale. The book was published by the University of Missouri Press and is heavily footnoted. The book covers racial issues in Kansas City during the first sixty years of the last century. Much of the book is old history to those of us who’ve lived here for a while, but I found the last chapter, which covers 1950 to 1958, especially interesting.
                It seems whenever eating establishments or department stores justified segregation, it was never the store owners or management who objected to black customers, it was always there were “bigoted customers” who would object to integration. Finally, blacks decided to take action and boycotted downtown department stores during the holidays in 1958. Many white customers stayed away, and the department stores felt the impact. The bottom line is the only color that really matters in the end is green.
                And on the green front, Ms. Schirmer tells a story I’d never heard about how some white people profited from the white flight prompted by integration. Fred Curls, a black Realtor, went into white neighborhoods telling homeowners there that he had just sold a home in the neighborhood to a black man, and if he could help them by selling their homes, please give him a call because he had plenty of black customers who would love to buy their homes. Eventually, they’d call, he’d sell their house (he really did have a list of black buyers), and to get it financed (remember, FHA and VA generally would not guarantee loans to black people), he’d call a group of white investors who would finance the loans at 25% interest. For reference, the loan on my parents’ home, which they built in 1958, was 5%. Everybody made out like a bandit except the white sellers.

                I picked up Lucy Moore’s Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties at Half Price Books. The book is a sometimes entertaining look at the 1920’s. There is a chapter on the Ku Klux Klan’s emergence during the decade which sounds a lot like the far right’s resurgence today. As an aside, I don’t have a position on the removal of Confederate statues and other Civil War memorabilia, but it’s important to remember many of the statues being protested today were erected at the time of the Klan’s resurgence as a reminder to blacks, Jews, immigrants and (especially) Catholics to toe the line—or else.
                Unfortunately, this book is more of a first draft of what could have been a very good book. If a person’s going to write about an era, you’d expect that person would have more familiarity with that era, or at least their publisher would have a fact checker with that familiarity. A few annoying examples: “Middletown” is often referenced but never explained as the subject of a book by Robert and Helen Lynd. Franklin Roosevelt’s term began in 1933, not 1932. Frederick Lewis Allen, who wrote the definitive social histories Only Yesterday and Since Yesterday about the 1920s and 1930s, respectively, loses his middle name. Both J. Edgar Hoover and A. Mitchell Palmer lose their first initials. H. L. Mencken becomes Henry. Both the “Know-Nothings” and the great Mississippi flood of 1927 are attributed to the “Southwest.” (Ms. Moore was educated in both the U.S. and Great Britain, where she now resides; perhaps her education skipped over geography.) O.K., all the preceding might be minor, but a major clunker is encountered when Ms. Moore states (on page 157) that Florida was “made newly habitable by air conditioning and refrigeration.” Personally, I question whether Florida has ever been habitable, but the people who moved there in the 1920s certainly did not have air conditioning available to them in their homes. And Ms. Moore and her publishers should have known better.

                That said, the book is an OK read, but if you’re in school and writing a paper on the 1920’s, by all means check a second source before using this one as a reference.

© 2017 Larry Roth

Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Review: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

                I grew up in the pre-Vietnam era. Our high schools taught a sanitized version of American history. I was in college before I learned about the country’s incarceration of ethnic Japanese, many of whom were citizens, during World War II. I was shocked. Our country had concentration camps, and we put our own people in them.
                I had a bit of the same feeling when I was reading The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein. I’d known that the GI Bill offered financing for veterans returning from World War II to buy homes, and how that financing led to suburban developments like Levittown on Long Island. What I didn’t know is that the federal government, through both Veterans Administration (VA) and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans, secured financing only for white veterans. And, as I’ll soon discuss, both VA and FHA went beyond merely not providing financing for black veterans. Further, the educational opportunities for black veterans were often limited to vocational schools. Some benefit administrators refused to process applications to four-year colleges for black veterans. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Black veterans, like their white counterparts, had just returned from fighting a nearly four-year war only to be treated like second-class citizens.  
                The book goes back to post-Civil War era and especially the end of Reconstruction, but I’ll start with a 1917 Supreme Court ruling in Buchanan v. Worley, which ruled that racial zoning violated the Fourteenth Amendment, not because of protections granted freed slaves, but because of a business rule—the freedom to contract, or the right of a property owner to sell to whomever he wanted.
                In our day, a Supreme Court decision would be final, but not in the 1920s. Buchanan was not only ignored, but flouted. As it would turn out, in the post-War housing boom, which was largely financed by VA and FHA loans, subdivisions were not only encouraged, but required to include covenants restricting the subdivisions to “Caucasians.” Our government, in other words, enforced segregation in any area where VA or FHA loans were used to finance homes. In one example, a man in Berkley, California bought a house financed by FHA and was not able to move into the house. He let a black teacher rent the house until he could move in. As a result he was advised he’d lost his participation in the FHA insurance program and that he’d never again be able to obtain a government-backed mortgage. And this was in 1959. In Berkley.
                The result of black people’s not being able to get financing was they often paid more than white people would in areas less desirable. Additionally, they frequently bought using a contract for deed, meaning the house was theirs only after all payments were made. These contracts for deed were frequently at high interest rates, and one missed payment meant the loss of everything they’d invested in the house. Because they paid higher prices for the homes and higher interest rates, they frequently subdivided the homes and deferred maintenance. The neighborhoods looked bad. Whites feared blacks’ moving in or even near their neighborhoods (when, had black families had the same access to mortgages whites did, their neighborhoods would have looked just as good). Realtors took advantage of white fears. They started moving black families into white neighborhoods and going door to door spreading fear among the white residents that their neighborhood was about to be “taken over.” Whites sold at a loss. Racial prejudice was a lose-lose proposition. Whites lost money on their homes. Blacks paid more for their homes, both initially and in interest, than whites. Unscrupulous Realtors made out like bandits.     
                Mr. Rothstein makes the point that the IRS was involved in housing discrimination by not revoking the tax-exempt status of churches and other tax-exempt organizations for advocating for, financing, and participating in lawsuits designed to maintain segregation.
                Cities that had integrated middle class neighborhoods in the 1920s, among them Austin, Texas and Raleigh, North Carolina, were effectively segregated by cities’ building segregated schools far enough away from these neighborhoods to require a move so children could easily go to school.
                Mr. Rothstein goes into the history of black labor during the Depression and World War II. Government programs often refused to hire black workers. When they did hire them, black workers were given the worst jobs and paid less than white workers. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is a good example (and for a good look at what went on with the TVA, see the 1960 film Wild River). Black workers were housed in shacks and paid less. The same thing went on in defense plants during World War II. During and after the war, most labor unions would not accept black workers as members, so again, black workers remained in the worst and lowest paid jobs. Government housing built to house defense workers was almost always segregated, and black workers were left to fend for themselves.
                He even points out how the Interstate Highway system was used to remove black residences from areas near downtowns across the country.
                And to demonstrate this is not all in the past, he even ties in how government agencies knew or should have known about “reverse redlining,” or the practice of getting black homeowners—especially elderly black homeowners--to sign up for subprime mortgages in the runup to the crash of 2008, pointing out that the most egregious lender, Countrywide, was regulated by the Federal Reserve Board until 2007, and that the Federal Reserve knew or should have known what Countrywide was up to.
                And now, as many people want to live near downtown areas, gentrification threatens the homes of those who live in formerly low-rent areas.  
                Mr. Rothstein makes an excellent argument that black people have been kept poor not because they did not have the same abilities as white people, but because they were denied access to the same opportunities—good jobs, union representation, government financing for homes, etc. that white people took for granted. Cumulatively this has left them far behind economically, and their economic status is a direct result of government policy.
                I would recommend this book to anyone who thinks poor black people should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and that their poverty is their own fault. I almost guarantee you won’t finish the book with that same belief.
                I have a few criticisms of the book. It needed a lot more editing, and it is not chronological. You might be reading one paragraph about the 1960s and the next paragraph you’ll find yourself in the 1920s. My concept of history is linear, and I find it jolting to have to “time travel” to keep what I’m reading in context. As for editing, one example is a photo on page 138 supposedly taken in Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1954 that contains a 1957 Ford. But I suppose that’s a minor complaint.  My biggest criticism of the book is there are no concrete solutions proposed.
                I’d like to hear from you. That’s what the comment section is for, after all. Our government discriminated against its own citizens for many years, leaving them far behind financially. What do you think should be done to make up for this discrimination?  

© 2017 Larry Roth

Sunday, July 16, 2017

F*ck: Are We Using the Word "F*uck" Too F*cking Much?

                When I was in first grade my teacher made me wash my mouth out with soap. I’m not kidding. I had said the word “panties.” Again, I’m not kidding. I would imagine if I’d said the word “f*ck,” the teacher would probably have had a coronary.
                I still remember when I first heard the word in a film. Barbra Streisand said it in “The Owl and the Pussycat.” In 1970. I was in a theater, and the audience gasped. How times have changed.
                The word is used so often and in so many contexts that it hardly raises and eyebrow these days. The word has lost its ability to shock. I wonder what we will find to take its place.
                At any rate the reason I bring all this up is I’ve read a few books that use the word. A lot.
                The first of these is The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have with People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do. Dubbed “a practical parody” (of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which I have not read), the book has some excellent advice. I wish I’d had access to the book years ago. Her advice on families (especially her point that simply because we share DNA does not obligate us to care about or require us to want to be around our families) could have saved me countless Christmas holidays on the road, in the occasional snowstorm, an ice storm, and, when I did not drive, in airports, all of which was expensive, and, in retrospect unappreciated and often unpleasant. The book has excellent advice in other areas of life, including work, friends, friends’ children, etc. But, weighing in at 732 f*cks (her goal, she says, was to beat The Wolf of Wall Street, which has something in excess of 500 f*cks), she may be depreciating the value of the word. Anything when used to excess tends to lose its value.
                Chronologically for me the second along the same lines is Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. I confess I really liked this book. Mr. Manson advises that we have so much stuff and so many opportunities that we really don’t know what’s important. He advises that we not try too hard to be happy—that the desire for a more positive experience is itself a negative experience and the acceptance of our negative experiences is a positive experience. He goes on to explain that the more we want something the less fulfilled we feel. His advice: Stop trying so hard.
                He discusses the way some people address their problems—denial, for example, which he says may work in the short term, but not so much in the long term. Having a victim mentality is another cop out, which, he says, is easy and feels good, but doesn’t solve anything. He even describes a “victimhood chic,” in which it’s become fashionable to push responsibility—even for the tiniest infractions—onto some other group or person. He writes this may be the first time in history that every single demographic group has felt unfairly victimized simultaneously. He advises emotions are overrated and that the reason a lot of people don’t get what they think will make them happy is they’re not willing to exert the required effort. He gives the example of his wanting to be a musician. He fantasized, but didn’t practice.
                What Mr. Manson reveals about his own life is interesting—he quit a job a few weeks after starting it and took off to see the world. He’s now living in New York. For someone who will soon be 33 years old he has a very mature view. He advises that we consider the world of 500 years ago and advises that, just as we look back in horror at their lives, we should realize people living 500 years from now will do the same—they will laugh at how we let our money and our jobs define our lives, how we were afraid to show appreciation for those who matter most to us but heap praise on public figures who didn’t deserve anything… . And there’s more. The book is 210 pages in length and is an excellent way to spend an afternoon.
                Finally on the list is Erasure, a novel by Percival Everett. Mr. Everett is African-American as is his protagonist, Thelonious Ellison. The son, grandson, and sibling of doctors, and a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard, Mr. Ellison writes scholarly books and papers that get little notice. When he hears of a middle-class African-American woman who visits some relatives in Harlem for a couple of days and writes a book about the experience titled We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, and when that book becomes a national bestseller, he writes a parody including most if not all of what the isolated literary class imagines goes on in a ghetto. He titles the book F*ck, and his agent submits the book as one written by Stagg R. Leigh. The book is contained in the novel. The book is picked up, becomes a hit, and the novel then becomes about how Mr. Ellison deals with the success of his parody without becoming associated with it. This is a fast read (265 pages), extremely funny, and a commentary on our times.

© 2017 Larry Roth

Thursday, June 22, 2017

F*cked: A Review of Brian Alexander’s "Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town"

                An editorial in the June 1 edition of The Wall Street Journal by Warren Stephens bemoaned the fact that young people in this country are not embracing capitalism.
                Mr. Stephens worked hard and in 1957 was born to Jackson and Mary Stephens. Jackson and his brother, Witt, were partners in Stephens, Inc., which had come into existence in 1933, so you can see what hard work and the right family can do for a person. Mr. Stephens is estimated to have a net worth of $2.5 Billion.
                Capitalism has been very good to Mr. Stephens. For the majority of Americans, not so much.
                Perhaps our young people are not enthusiastic about the capitalism we currently have in this country—crony capitalism, or capitalism for the masses and socialism for the classes. A capitalism that privatizes gains and socializes losses, as we saw happen in everything from the bailout of Long Term Capital Management to the rescue of the banks in the aftermath of the 2008 global crisis.
                Perhaps our young have seen the effects capitalism run amok has had on their parents, their peers, and their communities, which brings me to Brian Alexander’s book, Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town. Mr. Alexander grew up in Lancaster, Ohio, which is about 30 miles southeast of Columbus. I’ve visited Lancaster a few times; Dan grew up there.
                Most of us probably have some Anchor Hocking products in our homes. Usually they’re marked with an anchor and or an “H” with a small “A” in the lower half of the “H.” This book is the story of how Anchor Hocking was repeatedly raped and pillaged by a variety of, for lack of a better word, crooks over the past thirty years and the effect that raping and pillaging has had on its workers and the city of Lancaster.
                The Hocking Glass Company was founded in 1905 in Lancaster. In 1937 it merged with the New York-based Anchor Cap and Closure Company. For the next fifty years Anchor Hocking was the main source of employment in Lancaster. It made good products. By the 1960s it was the world’s leading manufacturer of beer bottles, baby food jars, coffee jars, liquor bottles, etc. It also produced oven ware. It employed 5,000 people, or more than one of every six people in Lancaster. It allowed its workers a means to make a decent living. Its stock paid reliable dividends and was a boring widows and orphans kind of investment.
                In 1982 corporate raider Carl Icahn began buying up the stock. Anchor Hocking bought him off. Icahn netted $3 million.
                The Reagan Administration was influenced heavily by Milton Friedman, who preached that business had only one social responsibility—delivering profits to shareholders. Friedman believed that businessmen who concerned themselves with employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution, and whatever else may be “the catchwords of the contemporary crop of reformers” were preaching “pure and unadulterated socialism.” In 1983 the Reagan Department of Justice endorsed the tactics used by corporate raiders saying they were a very socially beneficial mechanism for assuring that corporate assets would serve the highest value.
                In early 1983 Bill Simon, who had been treasury secretary under Nixon and Gerald Ford and who had formed Wesray Capital Corporation, a leveraged buyout shop, enabled a buyout of a significant part of Anchor Hocking (the Container Division) by backing the buyout to the tune of $76 million, of which Wesray was on the hook for only $1 million. (That’s the leverage in leveraged buyouts.) The general consensus was $76 million would not even be the value of the real estate involved, let alone the business built on top of that real estate. Workers were given the option to move to Tampa. The company considered that a raise, since Florida had no state income tax. (As an aside here, let me assure you, as a former resident of Texas, any state that has no income tax will find a way to make up that revenue—in Texas it’s done through outlandish property tax rates.)
                In the brave new world of leveraged buyouts, the $75 million Wesray had “generated” was loaded on the back of the Container Division. Wesray then used this money to buy some of Anchor Hocking's remaining real estate and equipment, including some furnaces, which Anchor Glass, the remaining part of Anchor Hocking, then leased back from Wesray.
                Anchor Glass went public in 1986. Bill Simon cashed out. In 1989 Vitro, a Mexican company, paid $900 million for what had been a $76 million leveraged buyout just six years before.
                Sales at Anchor fell, and the employees were the next targets for cost cutting. Employees were presented with an ultimatum: walk back on wages, benefits, and work rules or the plant would close. The plant closed.
                Next came Newell. I don’t know what the big deal was in the 1980s. So many businesses were doing just fine, as were so many Savings and Loans. But everybody suddenly felt the need to grow at any cost. That’s what happened with Newell and its enabler, Western Savings and Loan. Newell went on a buying spree fueled by money from Western (which would fail in 1989). It bought the Mirro Aluminum Company, Foley, American Tool Companies, William E. Wright & Sons, Rubbermaid, and others. After every purchase, Newell fired people, cut product lines, and sold off bits of the company.
                In 1986 Newell began its move on Anchor Hocking. In 1987 the deal was done for $338 million, most of which was debt. Employees were fired, buildings were emptied (and some sold off), parts of the company were sold, retiree benefits were cut, machines were not maintained. Sales—surprise!—were down. It appeared Newell would abandon Anchor Hocking.
                Into the breach rushed the government subsidy crowd who believed if they made life sweet for Newell—at taxpayers’ expense—Newell would love them for the rest of its life. In 2003 Lancaster approved a deal to take money from the schools and give it to Newell. Newell was to agree to keep 900 jobs in Lancaster in return. After Newell accepted the deal it fired more employees and reduced its production by a third. In 2004 Newell sold Anchor Hocking to Cerebrus Capital Management.
                At this point things get really complicated, and I’ll do my best to give you an accurate summary, but I’d really recommend you read this book for the full impact.
                Cerebrus was founded by Stephen Feinberg, a veteran of Drexel Burnham Lambert, the ethically-challenged 1980s leveraged buyout and junk bond trailblazer, as a hybrid hedge fund/private equity manager. Cerebrus had its own banking operation, Madeleine. Immediately after buying Anchor Hocking, Cerebrus loaded it up with debt owed to Madeleine. In addition to the interest payments, Anchor Hocking (actually Global Home Products, of which Anchor Hocking was now a part, but, remember I’m trying to keep it simple here) was supposed to pay Cerebrus $841,000 per month in preferred dividends. Meanwhile, back at the factory, maintenance was ignored. Cerebrus skimped on IT, which hindered shipping, pricing, and invoicing. More workers were cut. Anchor Hocking was again in trouble. Again the government subsidy train rolled. The state of Ohio, Fairfield county, and Lancaster gave a 55% tax credit and $100,000 to train fifty new workers. The company was in trouble. It sought relief from its creditors, secretly stopped paying into its employee pensions, and stopped contributing to 401(k) plans as required by its contract with labor. The company began a series of shutdowns and stopped paying its vendors. It even stopped paying the rental fees on its forklifts and air compressors. Two years after Cerebrus bought Anchor Hocking it declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
                (Evidently Mr. Feinberg’s not paying creditors and vendors and screwing workers and filing bankruptcy impressed Donald Trump, who made Mr. Feinberg a key economic advisor to his 2016 campaign.)
                The results of the bankruptcy are detailed in the book, but briefly Cerebrus wanted not to pay for health care for future retirees, to downsize the pension plan, and eliminate several holidays. The bankruptcy court approved everything Cerebrus asked for.  In spite of all the help given Cerebrus by the bankruptcy court, it wound up losing Anchor Hocking to a smaller private equity company, Monomoy Capital Partners.
                Monomoy also bought Oneida and merged it and Anchor Hocking into EveryWare and imposed a $10 million special dividend as well as a new advisory agreement ($625,000 every three months) on the company. EveryWare was also obligated to pay 1% of the value of any transaction, including refinancing. In 2011 this amounted to $6.8 million.
                In 2012 Anchor Hocking was acquired by ROI, which was suckered into the deal by creative accounting on the part of Monomoy. The company yet again went bankrupt in 2015.
                The hero of the book, inasmuch as there is one, is Sam Solomon, who became CEO. Mr. Solomon believed he’d only stay a short time at Anchor Hocking, but he developed an affinity for the company and could see that it could become very profitable. He did everything he could to convince his various employers of that fact, but his employers were not interested in profit potential from making glassware. How boring. His employers were interested in making profits from taking a company, bleeding it dry, putting makeup on the corpse and finding a bigger sucker. It seems that’s the way to make money these days. Mr. Solomon was eventually fired for his efforts.
                I’ve concentrated on the effect all this capitalism had on the company. Mr.  Alexander goes into the effect it had on what once was the all-American town. Lancaster hurt its schools and the state and county wasted incentives trying to prop up the company. The residents of Lancaster are plagued by a drug problem that shows no sign of improving anytime soon. Young people have seen their parents and grandparents, who played by the rules, thrown out of work, losing pensions they’d earned, and unable to afford the health care their contracts said would be covered in retirement. In short, the residents of Lancaster have seen nearly every promise made to them by Anchor Hocking broken.
                Dan’s brother worked for Anchor Hocking from 1977 to 1997—twenty years. Because of all the givebacks, work schedules, and other shenanigans pulled off by Anchor Hocking’s various corporate raiders, he was taking home the same amount of money in 1997 as he had been in 1977. He was able to find another job—eventually.
                You might ask why people don’t follow Ronald Reagan’s advice to those thrown out of work in the 1980s and “vote with their feet.” That sounds nice in theory, but in practice, these people and their families have been part of Lancaster for generations. Their families are there. All their friends live there. It’s just not as easy as it sounds to pull up roots and move.
                Lancaster is growing somewhat but only because Columbus is growing. Lancaster’s new residents generally work in Columbus and are too tired by the time they get home to engage in the community.
                Mr. Alexander’s book is about one company in one town. But what he describes is going on everywhere. When I worked for Company L one of my vendors was Singer Kearfott in New Jersey. We bought guidance systems from them. I really liked the people I worked with. They were very professional and delivered a good product. In 1987 Paul Bilzerian took over Singer Kearfott (as well as other Singer divisions). He followed the path of disgorging the company in pieces and screwing over workers. Unlike Anchor Hocking, Singer Kearfott was in New Jersey, and there were plenty of jobs for Singer Kearfott employees to go to. The best talent left. Singer Kearfott’s products, like Anchor Hockings’s, declined in quality, which is not a good thing when you’re talking about guidance systems. Eventually we had to replace Singer Kearfott.
                Again, making money from making a good product had become secondary to making money from manipulating assets and screwing over workers.
                Which is becoming the American way.
                And Mr. Stephens wonders why the youth of America are not embracing capitalism.
                Maybe he needs to leave the various gated communities he lives in and get out more.             

© 2017 Larry Roth

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Kidnapped Brides, Arranged Marriages, and a Marble City, Oh My!: My Trip to the 'Stans (and Sicily)

                I recently got back from my trip to the ‘Stans, and what a trip it was.
                First, a few preliminaries. In the early days of Living Cheap News, I was criticized by one of my nuttier readers for traveling. “You can’t be frugal when you’re paying for two places to live,” she huffed. “One here and one wherever you are.” I ignored her and traveled anyway. And, as for having to turn in my frugal card, I remind everyone I have always said frugality is deciding what’s important to you and doing without what is not important. Amy Dacyczyn decided having a house and a family was what is important for her; Jeff Yaeger decided not having a nine-to-five job was important to him. I decided seeing the world for myself rather than believing everything others told me the world was like is important to me. Unfortunately, as I’ll discuss later, between the airlines and the TSA, I may well decide the hassles of travel these days outweigh the benefits.
                The group I have been traveling with is Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), part of Grand Circle Travel. My first trip with OAT, to Tunisia in 2010, was a real eye-opener. It was my first exposure to older travelers. On that trip we had a couple—he was 85; his wife was 80—who were the first up the hills and probably the most energetic people on the trip. These kinds of people—older and physically active—were outside my experience. It was the first time it occurred to me that, yes, we do have to age, but we don’t have to become decrepit. That alone was worth the trip. The next trip I took with them was to eastern Turkey, and I met more of the same older yet energetic people. So, when OAT offered this new trip to the ‘Stans, I signed up. Ours was the second trip they’ve done of all five ‘Stans, and, while the trip needs a few adjustments, which I’ll mention later, I’m glad I did.
                A trip like this requires a sense of adventure and, perhaps more importantly, a sense of humor. Recommended also are hepatitis A and B and diphtheria vaccines, Imodium, and antibiotics. The overriding question—especially once you’re outside cities--regards toilets. Eastern or western? If you’re older, a woman, or a man needing to do a number two, eastern toilets are a challenge. Sometimes they are literally a hole in the ground. Oh, and never be without your own toilet paper. Never.
                I left Kansas City Sunday, April 9; the flights took me from here to Detroit, then to Amsterdam, and then to Istanbul where I had to pick up my bag and check it with Turkish Air for the flight to Bishkek. This is not as easy as you’d think. I had to go through Turkey’s long entry visa line to get access to the baggage, pick up the bag, take it to the Turkish Air counter, check it, and then go through Turkey’s long exit visa line to get to the Bishkek flight. By the time we got to Bishkek, at 3:15 AM local time, I’d been in airports and on planes more than 24 hours. The Detroit-Amsterdam flight featured a little monster in the row just ahead of me that did not allow anyone any sleep. It seemed to me his parents were trying to keep him awake—perhaps so the brat would sleep once they got to their destination. The Istanbul-Bishkek flight was one of the new Airbus planes that are so narrow that evidently there isn’t enough room for both my shoulders and the asses of people using the aisles, so there wasn’t much sleep on that flight, either.
                After a few hours in the hotel, we took off to see Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. One highlight was the American University of Central Asia where a variety of students from all corners of the world are taught in the liberal arts tradition and in English. This university is in a modern building and would do many of our universities proud. Most of the students we spoke with were interested in international studies.
                The next day we took off for the bazaar, which, as it turned out, would be like many other bazaars in Central Asia. But this one was the first. We met our local guide who so closely resembled—both physically and especially in accent--Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle that at times it was difficult to keep a straight face (and even though it was not her real name, we referred to her as Natasha). Natasha was not my favorite local guide. Someone once said Pinocchio is the patron saint of guides, and I suspect that was the case with Natasha, who could not have been very old when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 but who still missed the “good old days.” As we toured Bishkek she commented on the new apartment blocks that were going up, saying the old Soviet-era apartment buildings were built better even if they were smaller and more spartan.
                I would like to have seen more of Bishkek. It is a city that is growing by leaps and bounds (hence the new apartment construction Natasha bemoaned). And it is overrun by cars. We were told the cars “come from” western Europe. I suspect many come without the consent of their former owners. At any rate, even though people drive on the right side of the road, as we do, there are cars with right-hand drive and cars with left-hand drive, and traffic laws seem to be considered advisory. But in the too-brief time I was there, I didn’t see any accidents.
                We took a brief hike in a national park, where Natasha frequently talked about squirrels much to our amusement. Too soon we left Bishkek for Lake Issyk-Kul, which has very little to recommend it. The hotel was right out of the old Intourist days even though it was built in 2007. Old habits die hard, I suppose. The staff was trained to say “no” in several languages. The only “yes” I ever got out of anyone was when I asked if this is where I turn in my keys as we were leaving. In this part of Kyrgyzstan there’s just not much to see. There is a field of petroglyphs, but once you’ve seen one, … . The one highlight was a golden eagle. We got to pet the eagle and have it sit on our arms. It was darling—a one year old female that was very much like a puppy. It was supposed to kill a rabbit, but all it did was land on it, much to our relief and Natasha’s chagrin. One of the most memorable experiences—for all the wrong reasons—was our visit to the museum and memorial dedicated to the memory of Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalskiy, a noted Russian explorer who happened to die and be buried in Karakol. Natasha droned on and on and on and repetitively about this guy. I felt sorry for him, since she mentioned his 1888 death from typhus so often that it seemed like that was his major accomplishment. Several of us wandered off on our own to explore the grounds.
In Karakol we had lunch with a local restaurant entrepreneur who had been a kidnapped bride, so we got to hear first-hand about this practice which, though technically illegal, still goes on in the ‘Stans.
                The practice of kidnapping brides does not usually involve rape. Women—especially in the villages—are so incredibly restricted that simply spending the night away from home ruins their reputation. Strangely, the parents of the kidnappers will sit the kidnapped woman down and explain to them that their families will not take them back now that their reputation is ruined, and that their son is not really such a bad dude, after all. It comes down to a choice of marrying the kidnapper or well, who knows what? In the case of the entrepreneur who served us lunch, she married her kidnapper whom, she said, she learned to respect but never loved. Interestingly, her husband had come around to where he favored education for his daughters—quite a modern approach.
                Natasha claimed she was once in danger of being kidnapped, but I think the group found it unlikely that even in Kyrgyzstan someone would be that desperate.   
                Natasha impressed me as an extremely negative control freak with a tenuous hold on the truth. For example, when we were approaching the Soviet-style hotel, she gave us a cock-and-bull story about how expensive wi-fi would be and that there would be one password for each device. (I had suggested that if one person paid for wi-fi we could all have access to the password.) It turned out wi-fi was free although not very good. Given how lazy the staff was, it was ludicrous to think they’d go to so much effort to assign so many passwords. Why Natasha felt it necessary to invent such industriousness for a staff so lazy remains a mystery.
                While we were driving one day there was a big clunk noise on the bus, after which the air conditioning no longer worked. Natasha found it necessary to invent a story about how the buses were used and built for different climates and when the temperature got to a certain level the air conditioning would come on again. We’d all heard the clunk. Many of us actually knew something about mechanics. But Natasha persisted.  I’ve known a few compulsive liars in my time, and, sad to say, Natasha fit the profile. Hopefully OAT can find a better local guide.
                In my opinion, the Lake Issyk-Kul part of trip needs to be reevaluated. Admittedly the eagle experience was memorable, but I think more time in Bishkek and Almaty would be more meaningful. As it turned out, we only spent a day in Almaty, our only stop in Kazakhstan. I’d have much preferred at least another day there.
                We spent the better part of the day getting to the crossing for the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border. There are some very good roads in Central Asia, but many are really bad. OAT recommended women wear sports bras. It seems the border closes for two hours at lunchtime, and while we were there well before lunch it looked like we might not be processed in time to avoid the two-hour wait. Fortunately, one of our group was persuaded to have an episode. The border guards decided they didn’t want to be bothered with the paperwork in case one of the American tourists died on their watch, and we were soon on our way for our limited visit to Almaty.
                And then we went through the looking glass. 
                We left late in the evening for the flight to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. We arrived in the early morning hours to a huge but empty airport. As it would turn out, huge but empty would pretty much describe Ashgabat, but more on that later.
                I was already prejudiced against Turkmenistan because to get a visa requires a “letter of invitation” (and a sizeable visa fee). I sent the required information and copies in January. In March, just a few weeks before departure, OAT called and said I’d copied my passport too close to the edge and could I send another copy? Ummmmm. Well, since OAT’s visa service people had my passport, I couldn’t, but fortunately I’d kept a copy of my passport photo page. That worked, as it turned out. But it was just a hint of things to come. When you come through the cavernous airport, there’s an unmarked booth. As it turns out, that’s where you pay an additional $14 (in U.S. currency) and drop off a varying number of photos. (I had three—they took them all.) Then you go to another unmarked booth and get your passport stamped. And then you run into Turkmen, who refuse to que. It seems they all have a reason they should go ahead of you, and it seems the country tolerates this one area of rebellion. I wondered what the Turkmen word for “asshole” is. If anyone can help me out with that one, I’d appreciate it. I’ve tried Google, and while I find “asshole” used frequently to describe various and sundry border guards and officials, I’ve not found the actual Turkmen word for it. Anyway, if you ever visit Turkmenistan, that would be a good thing to know.
                As I said, we got there early in the morning. My first impression of Ashgabat was the fountain in front of the Grand Turkmen Hotel being scrubbed. As it would turn out, Ashgabat is probably the most scrubbed city in the world.      
                To get an idea of what Ashgabat looks like, I’d suggest you Google “Ashgabat Turkmenistan monuments.” Ashgabat is a city of white marble. From 1991, the end of the Soviet Union, to 2006 it was ruled by a dictator who took the name Turkmenbashi and proceeded to fill the city with monuments. I can’t decide which is the most pathetic, but certainly in the running is the Earthquake Monument, inspired by a massive 1948 earthquake that killed Turkmenbashi’s mother and two siblings. The monument includes a bull on which a cracking earth is mounted. The cracking earth is capped with a woman who is holding a golden baby—Turkmenbashi. Also in the running is a monument to—no shit!—a book Turkmenbashi wrote. He also built an over-the-top mosque and gravesite for himself. He’s buried there, but he also had four mock tombs for his mother, two siblings, and his father, who was killed in the Second World War.
                Ashgabat is filled with six lane streets that are almost devoid of cars. We had a great local guide who began by telling us that everybody in Turkmenistan is “heppy.” Even the women sweeping the streets are “heppy.” Everyone, she said, has at least two cars—especially the rural people, who have four-wheel drive vehicles for their farms and a sedan for fun. At first I thought she was serious, but I think it was a case of laying it on a tad thick. One day, and we were there four days, a schedule glitch enabled her to introduce us to a friend of hers at the friend’s house. The house was quite nice, but it was a far cry from the white marble and a good distance from the six-lane streets. And it was a nice break. It may what the the areas of white marble apartments were like before Turkmenbashi’s building spree.
                Turkmenistan is said to be the closest one can get to being in North Korea without actually being in North Korea. I believe it. Our tour bus was stopped because a guard thought someone had taken a photo of something forbidden. (And not to put too fine a point on the Turkmen, the area around the U.S. embassy in Ashgabat is another zone where photos are forbidden.)
                One thing I found interesting is women are not allowed to buy clothes off-the-rack. They must choose their material and have their clothes made. The clothes are colorful but cover the wearer from neck to ankle, and are worn by every woman—even the “heppy” street sweepers. Men, on the other hand, are not bound by these rules.
                In order to maintain control, I suppose, rules in Turkmenistan are arbitrary and inconsistent. For example, some of our group visited a museum. The museum would only take dollars, and the museum gift shop would only take manat, the local currency.
                I also noted there were almost no dogs or cats in sight. I was told people had pets, but they walked them after dark. I figured the pets were probably kept near all the imaginary cars we didn’t see on the streets. When I got home I discovered via Google that Tutkmenistan’s leader requires that stray animals be destroyed. (See one article at
                At any rate, our time in Ashgabat ended, and we flew (again at night) to Tashauz, a Turkmenistan city near the Uzbekistan border. The flight was on Turkmenistan Airlines. A meal of sorts was served, and passengers were not allowed to refuse the meal. We didn’t have to eat what was served, fortunately, but we could not refuse to accept it.
                OAT advised the weight limit for bags was 33 pounds for this internal Turkmenistan flight. As a result of that advice I took a much smaller bag than I had originally planned to use. It turns out the limit was not enforced (for us, anyway), and even when it is enforced the overweight charge is not all that much.
                Tashauz was much more like a typical town with a market and friendly people. We drove to the border, where we changed buses and drivers.
                I guess the border crossing was smooth enough if you’re used to that sort of thing, but it involved going through Turkmenistan’s exit process, carrying our bags about a mile over unpaved paths to a waiting van that took us to the Uzbekistan entry point. As many of you know, I take supplements, so I got interrogated about my supplements both leaving Turkmenistan and and again when entering Uzbekistan. In all fairness, I suppose there is a serious issue with drug smuggling, but really. Swansons? Puritan’s Pride?
                We entered Uzbekistan, which was by far my favorite of the countries we visited, and not the least because Batir, our trip leader, who lives in Uzbekistan, was also our local guide.
                We started in Khiva, one of the old Silk Road cities. I learned that, while the Silk Road itself is ancient, the name “Silk Road” only dates to the Nineteenth Century.
                Khiva is a charming and relatively compact city. It was here I ran into Uzbekistan’s confusing currency situation. It seems there is an official rate of exchange: 3700 som to the dollar. Most vendors will take dollars, and that’s the way to go when possible. I exchanged $25 at the official rate in Khiva. I stopped in a “mini market” and bought a small piece of cheese for the equivalent of $5 in som. I thought, “My God! These prices are outrageous.” As it turned out, the prices were not outrageous, they were based on black market exchange rates, which I’d learn more about in Bukhara, our next stop, and you’ll learn what I learned when my travelogue gets to Bukhara.
                On one of our Khiva days, we traveled all day to Nukus, which is in the autonomous Karakalpakstan Republic. It’s part of Uzbekistan (for now), but if it wished it could become its own country. The primary reason for the lengthy trip was to visit the Savitsky Museum, which contains art that was controversial in the Soviet times. If you’d like to explore the subject further, there is a documentary about the museum narrated by Ben Kingsley titled The Desert of Forbidden Art. There was some discussion as to whether the museum visit was worth the lengthy trip. From Nukus we returned to Khiva and then were off to Bukhara. Bukhara is where I got my education on Uzbekistan’s currency.
                We arrived on a Sunday, and as we were doing an orientation tour a young man approached me with postcards. I told him I might buy some the next day. He said he’d be in school, so I looked at what he had and bought a packet and some stamps. Then he said he’d like to change money. He offered 6,000 som to the dollar. It may not be the OAT way, but selling dollars for 6,000 som was a lot better than getting 3,700 for them, so I took him up on his offer. As it would turn out I was offered 7,600 by a man who would soon be travelling to the U.S. and needed dollars. I began to understand why the $5 piece of cheese was happening. Uzbekistan—at least urban Uzbekistan—is on a dollar (or euro) economy. Vendors who deal with tourists deal in dollars, and not too many people exchange at the official rates, which must make life hell for people who have no access to hard currency.
                For example, Chevrolet has a factory in Uzbekistan, and many people drive Chevys because Uzbekistan charges an import fee on foreign cars. Chevy makes, for example, a Cobalt that will run on either gasoline or methane (and has two tanks so drivers can switch between the two). The cars sell for $8,600, which is a lot of money for most Uzbeks. And it’s difficult to get dealers to accept som. And that’s just one example of why locals need access to hard currency.
                At any rate one mild criticism I have of this trip is I would like to have had a better understanding of how the currency situation worked before I exchanged any money at the official rate. Fortunately, I hadn’t changed too much.
                I think Bukhara was the most friendly of the cities I visited in Uzbekistan. People would stop and try out their English on me—which was always better than my Uzbek. This old city has many remnants of its days on the Silk Road including beautifully tiled madrassahs which have been converted into hostels, the Ark—the old city fortress, and, of course, bazaars and the usual souvenir vendors. In Bukhara I ate something that disagreed with me violently. Immodium would work for a while, and then it would hit again. Finally I gave up and used the antibiotics my doctor had prescribed “just in case.” Eventually that worked.
                Our next stop, Samarkand, was one of my main reasons for the trip, and it didn’t disappoint. I’d seen photos of Registan Square, but, oh my, they don’t do the place justice. Three blue-tiled madrassahs face the square. One, with its portrayal of lions (which look like tigers), would seem to violate Islam’s dictate against portraying live animals, but Islam in this part of the world had to compete with Zoroastrianism, so it’s a bit different and much less rigid than what we usually think of when we think of Islam.
                I was still fighting my whatever-it-was, so I learned to be on the lookout for restrooms and, to the best of my ability, not be too messy when the restrooms inevitably turned out to be eastern. We saw many of Samarkand’s sights including the beautiful necropolis and the observatory of Ulug-Bek, which was built in the 1420s.
                We were scheduled to visit Shakhrisabze, the birthplace of Tamerlane, but thankfully, we didn’t, since it would have resulted in yet another day of driving many hours. From Samarkand we next visited Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. I didn’t know much about Tashkent before I went there, but it is a charming town. To get oriented our driver dropped us off a few blocks from the hotel. Our walk took us through a flea market. The next day I visited the flea market and found my favorite souvenir of this trip—a plexiglass trophy from 1961 commemorating Yuri Gagarin’s space flight orbiting the earth.
                We were in Tashkent a short two days and then continued to our last ‘Stan, Tajikistan. The border crossing was another of those where we were also changing buses and drivers and walking between the two countries. At least this border crossing was paved. When we made it to the Tajik side we discovered the thirteen of us, our trip leader, and the two local guides (more on that in a moment) would be traveling in a 20-passenger bus. Our luggage would follow us in another bus.
                Our local guide, Shabazz, was pretty good. I think he’s new to the guide business and not quite as, um, inventive as Natasha. He is from one of the villages. At first he was accompanied by a female guide whose name I never caught. She is one of these very accomplished (a legend in her own mind) people who are always so cheerful that people tolerate (because she is so nice) but would like to escape at their earliest convenience. My first encounter with her was when she insisted on taking my bag with my laptop and I insisted on keeping it. I won that one. If anyone thinks Muslim women in Tajikistan are not allowed to speak their mind, I’d suggest spending some time with her. She interrupted and contradicted Shabazz at will.
                We drove to Khujand and stayed in the worst hotel I’ve experienced in my life, and that includes fleabag hotels in Prague and Montreal that until now were in competition for the worst ever. As one of our group commented, “This reminds me of a women’s correctional facility.” And I would say that’s putting it kindly. Khujand is kind of a nowhere, and it’s where some tour groups (notably Road Scholar) end their ‘Stans tours. If it had been the only city in Tajikistan I visited, I’d have advised people to forget the whole country.
                But since I spent a couple of days there, I’ll tell you what I remember. We went to Arbob Palace, which Lonely Planet’s Central Asia guide describes as “strangely pointless.” I’d have to agree, but it’s modeled (loosely) on the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and it seems couples about to be married use it as a backdrop for their wedding photos. Weddings are a really big deal in Tajikistan. There were people having their wedding photos taken at the palace. And Shabazz’ female helper simply insisted that we be in those photos as a treat to the wedding party. To me it was clear the last thing the bride and groom wanted in their wedding photos was a bunch of dirty, badly dressed Americans who’d been on the road for nearly four weeks. It would have been obvious to someone suffering from severe Aspergers, but helper girl insisted and both we and the unfortunate couple found it easier to yield than argue. She asked the couple nosy questions about how long they’d known each other (four years), how they met (I forget), etc. At any rate, we finally had to say goodbye to helper girl because she had another group to guide. Awwwww.
                Shabazz proved to be surprisingly competent without all her help. He told us about how, when one area got too crowded, the Tajik government would establish another city and “encourage” people to move there. We noticed Tajiks drove very nice automobiles, mostly Mercedes and BMWs. Shabazz explained that the cars were used. It seems, according to Shabazz, that when Western Europeans tired of their cars after a couple of years, they’d allow them to be stolen, and their insurance would pay for them. Many such cars wound up in Tajikistan. But no right-hand drive cars were allowed. I think Shabazz believed this.  And then Shabazz told us about marriage customs in the villages of Tajikistan.             
                Shabazz told us of his own marriage. His parents and those of his bride-to-be arranged their marriage. Shabazz did not meet his wife until the day of the wedding, although he said he’d spoken with her a few times on the phone. After the wedding she told him she’d seen him in town a few times. And this is the way it’s done in the villages. This is so common in rural Tajikistan that Shabazz seemed surprised we didn’t do the same in America.
                We asked him what would happen if a woman chose not to be married. He said there had been one unattractive woman who had a job and a car in his village who did not get married for years. Eventually she married a widower and had to give up both her car and her job. I don’t know whether to consider that a happy ending.
                Once a couple is married they generally live with the husband’s family. The wife is permitted to visit her family when her husband and his family allow it. The youngest son is expected to care for his parents, and, as a result it is the youngest son who inherits the bulk of the family’s estate.
                From Khujand we hit the road for Dushanbe, and what a road it was. The reason we downsized to a 20-passenger bus became obvious—the roads through the mountains were simply neither good enough nor wide enough for the larger bus we’d given up. On the way we stopped at Istaravshan and visited traditional artists who made wood combs and knives. We had lunch at the home of an artist who is (allegedly) the last person in Tajikistan who specializes in the art of block printing on textiles.
                This artist is (allegedly) so famous that the president of Tajikistan (allegedly) came to his house and (allegedly) was so impressed the president (allegedly) gave the artist the president’s car. The artist has a very nice house. For some reason the (alleged) toilet available for visitors is (literally) a triangular concrete hole that appears not to have been cleaned this century (and maybe not a good part of last century, either). The smell was enough to trigger my gag reflex, and I’m not all that finicky. After using that restroom—or actually not using the restroom because it was just too filthy, we were supposed to eat. Thank heavens for Purell. If this guy is truly the legendary artist we’re supposed to believe he is, he really needs to do something about that bathroom.
                Anyway, we were soon back on the road to Dushanbe. We stopped at a couple of scenic sites, one of which had vendors selling dried fruit. At this site we were able to witness a man yelling at the vendors that they were unfair competition for vendors selling the same products elsewhere. Eventually we descended into Dushanbe, which is a charming city for the most part. For some reason, though, whoever designed a good portion of the tourist attractions seemed to have a stair fetish. You go up stairs, then down stairs only to go up stairs again. Go figure. The Tajik Museum of Antiquities is a definite must-see if you’re ever here. We had a museum guide that started taking us through the museum, but it was obvious that if I was going to see the whole thing, I couldn’t rely on the guide, so I broke off and did a self-guided tour. I was glad I did. One really nice thing about this trip is our trip leader did not take it personally if we split off from the group. I really appreciate Batir for allowing us this flexibility. We visited a museum of musical instruments and the local bazaar, but I simply must tell you about the Palace of Nowruz. This is a fairly new building decorated by 4,000 (or so) local artists over the course of five years. It was completed in 2014 at a reported cost of $60 million. According to a source I won’t name the actual number is closer to $2 billion. Supposedly this was all private money.
                At any rate, after entering the palace by climbing the requisite couple of stories of stairs, we were treated to a giant room which is available for weddings and other functions. The guide, who was so enthusiastic about the palace, told us the room would rent for $2,000. If you wanted food with that, it would be $5,000. Given the average annual wage in Tajikistan is $1,600, this was clearly beyond the reach of most Tajiks. We were then treated to yet another room on yet another level of the palace. This room was more ornate than the $2,000 room. In fact, by now we were on the verge of tacky, but more was to come.  There was a crystal room, a marble room, etc. All of these rooms are huge. In one of the rooms I spotted an open door and a restroom. I pointed that out to one of our group who had expressed a desire about to become a need to use the restroom. As he headed for the door our guide flew to the doors and slammed them shut saying, “That is for diplomats only.” The final room was full of mirrors. In fact, the mirrors had mirrors. By now we were having trouble not laughing—OK, not laughing too loudly. When the guide said she hoped the building would make the Guinness Book of World Records, I wondered what category they were aiming for.
                We met with a French student who lived in Dushanbe and told about how she’d adjusted to life in Tajikistan. When some of the group mentioned that Facebook was unavailable in Tajikistan, she responded there were ways to get around that (which Shabazz confirmed). Facebook was also blocked in Turkmenistan as was CNN. (Please note I don’t know much about Facebook; I have met too many people who have let it become a job, and I’m not looking for a job.)
                We ran into helpful girl who was guiding some British campers. Those poor Brits. First Brexit. Now helpful girl. And not even able to escape to a hotel room.
                We had the afternoon to prepare for our departure from the ‘Stans and our one-day stay in Istanbul. Our flight (sigh, again) was a late night one. We arrived in Istanbul in time for breakfast. I was thrilled that our trip leader was one I’d had on my first trip to Turkey in 2003, but I was truly sad for Istanbul. There were armed soldiers everywhere, and the two tourist sites we visited—the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market—had metal detectors at their entrances. I hope the world and Istanbul will get back to normal one of these days.
                The next day we left Istanbul. I headed for Sicily (more on that later); most of the others in our group headed back to the U.S.
                I would say this trip was one of the best I have taken with OAT. The itinerary needs some work—especially the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan part of the trip, which has that “If-It’s-Tuesday-This-Must-Be-Belgium” feel, and I’d suggest that, rather than driving from Tashkent to Dushanbe with the stay in Khujand, it would be better to fly to Dushanbe and spend more time there.   
                All-in-all, I would take this trip again based on what I learned and the sights I saw—especially the Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan. Batir was beyond excellent as a trip leader. And finally, the trip could not possibly have been as enjoyable had we not had such a fantastic group. We had three couples and seven single travelers. We spent more time with each other in four weeks than most of us spend with our families, significant others, partners, etc. And we got along amazingly well. Oh, we got on each others’ nerves at times—and I probably got on a lot of people’s nerves—those who’ve read some of my writings know I can be a bit, ummm, er acerbic at times. You can imagine what I’m like in person.
                One question I’ve been asked a lot is what was the food like. It was very meat based. And the quantity of food was more than adequate for the most part. (There was one meal at a stop on a highway that consisted of a small hamburger patty and clumps of mashed potatoes and rice; that was the only meal I remember being really bad, and who eats potatoes and rice at the same meal, anyway?)
                Well, as I said, for me it was off to Sicily.
                I have done some really stupid things in my life. Doing what OAT calls a back-to-back trip may be right up there. OAT offers some really good discounts, and on a back-to-back trip there’s usually no added airfare. As a result my trip to Sicily was probably half price. But I hadn’t planned on being exhausted, and I was still on antibiotics when the Sicily trip began. And there was more I hadn’t planned on.
                The Central Asia trip is new, and OAT is still ironing the kinks out of it. To me, that’s OAT at its best—constantly tweaking to get the trip to be the best it can be. The Sicily trip is OAT on an assembly line. This time of the year there’s a trip leaving every day or so. I guess I should have known that, but it didn’t register. Unfortunately, I started on an assembly line that was not the one I was supposed to be on.
                I had a day between trips, and I thought it would be an opportunity to relax and unpack for an extra day. That would make me wrong. First, I had the issue of flying to Rome on Turkish Air and flying to Palermo on Alitalia. This meant I once again had to pick my luggage up and recheck it at a different terminal. When I landed in Palermo I found my driver, who was holding cards for both OAT and Explore. I got to him first, but shortly after I got to him a woman who was on an Explore trip walked up to him. He was holding the Explore sign, after all. He told her to call her driver, which was simply moronic, if you think about it. How was she supposed to call her driver? She didn’t know his number. And he was holding the sign, after all. I told him I wasn’t in a big hurry and maybe he could offer the woman more assistance. So he called her driver. He and I took off, and he delivered me… to the wrong hotel. I showed him I thought it was the wrong hotel, but he showed me on his phone that this was the hotel OAT had told him to drop me at. He wouldn’t stick around. And it was, indeed, the wrong hotel. My hotel was a mile away. OAT has said they’d give me a $100 travel voucher to apply to my next trip for the inconvenience, but there may well not be a next trip. I’ll talk about that later.
                I need to back up just a tad. Before the trip, while I was in Central Asia, I received an email from Plinio, our Sicily group leader, advising how difficult it was to exchange money in Sicily. Plinio advised using an ATM card. I hadn’t known I’d need one, so I didn’t bring one. So I changed money in Istanbul with a vendor at the Spice Market I’d done business with previously, and I didn’t change a lot of money.
                So here I was in Palermo at the wrong hotel with my luggage (thank heavens I don’t buy a lot of souvenirs) and on antibiotics. I sucked it up and walked to the right hotel. It wasn’t really that much different than walking between the border checkpoints in Central Asia. When I got there I discovered my room for the first night was really small and I’d get to move into the right room when the group arrived the next day. So I wouldn’t be unpacking for four days after all.
                The next day the group arrived. There were fifteen of us.    
                We explored Palermo, which had some interesting sights including a cathedral that had been built on the site of a mosque which, in turn, had been built on the site of a church. Another cathedral was decorated with (and I don’t think I’m exaggerating) millions of tiles. The workmen included people of all religions which resulted in a Byzantine look. One of many annoying things about this trip is it seems every city and site had a “local guide.” Some of them were very good. Some not so much. The guide in Palermo was one of the good ones. She pointed out an area of flea markets. The next day I visited them, which was interesting although I didn’t find anything.  That evening we were told about the Sicilian Mafia by the son of the man who was in charge of the Mafia for many years. This was probably the highlight of the trip. The next day we left Palermo for Mazara, where we explored the city, which included a Tunisian area built in Kasbah style. Our guide knew a resident of the Kasbah, and he showed us around. We saw the museum where the “dancing satyr” discovered in the Mediterranean by a fisherman is now housed. That evening we prepared a dinner in a restaurant. The next day we saw how salt is produced from the sea. This is about as interesting as it sounds. The next day we visited the Valley of Temples dating back to the 3rd and 4th Centuries BC (or BCE if you prefer). That night we stayed at an “agriturismo,” or an agricultural activity the Sicilian government has allowed to cater to tourists—sort of a B & B. The next day was one I was looking forward to—a tour of the Villa Romano del Casale, a Roman villa discovered buried in mud in the 19th Century. Our local guide knew every detail and wanted to share them with us. I just wanted to look at the mosaics. That day we continued to Ragusa. The next day we were treated to rides in Fiat 500s. This was a real treat for me as it may be the first time I wedged myself into a space smaller than a modern-day coach seat on a plane. The following day the group took a dairy farm tour. I took a much-needed break and rested.
                We then headed for Catania, stopping in Syracuse on the way. Syracuse was the birthplace of Archimedes of “Eureka!” fame. By the time we reached Catania, our final city, I was thrilled just to have survived. We visited the local World War II Museum which had a sign recommending we see a film. The group followed the local guide; I wanted to watch the film, which was an excellent history of World War II, starting well before the war and continuing until it suddenly stopped in 1943. It seems the film is supposed to take us to the Allied invasion of Sicily, and the museum takes it from there.
                We were in Catania as Sicily was preparing for the G7 meeting in Taormina, so I skipped the trip there and rested. The final day of the trip we took a drive to Mt. Etna. And the next day I came home.
                As you can tell I did not enjoy the Sicily trip. I take responsibility for being tired when the trip began, but there are some issues with the trip that OAT really needs to think about. The trip has too many activities that are questionable, among them the Fiat 500 drive and preparing dinner in Mazara. And there are a lot of activities that drag on longer than they should, among them the painted horse carts. These carts are indeed beautiful, and a brief explanation of their history would be interesting. The operative word being brief.
                Another issue is I was frequently not aware what we were going to do—for example, a visit to the chocolate shop turned out to be an opportunity to be told how chocolate was made, sample some tiny samples, and buy something. This was a “discovery?” I think it would be a good idea also to advise people in advance that the day will be strenuous when that is the case. It’s not great to board the bus, become part of a captive audience, and find you’ve wasted a day when, at worst, you could be doing something you’d prefer to do—even if that something is reading a book at the hotel. Every minute of a vacation does not have to have some activity!
                Again, I acknowledge I started this trip tired and not feeling great, but even now, a few weeks later even writing about some of these experiences is unpleasant.
                Which brings me to travel in general these days.
                I started flying on a somewhat regular basis in 1971. At that time I was 6’6” tall. I’ve since shrunk to 6’5”. In the 1970s I fit in airline seating. I do not recall having my knees embedded in the seat in front of me, inches away from someone’s kidneys. Nor do I recall having to sit with my legs in a V-shape with one knee in the aisle and the other keeping my seatmate from lowering their tray table (and I’m talking to you here, Alitalia—your seating sucks). With the exception of the flight from Detroit to Amsterdam and the flight from Minneapolis to Kansas City, every seat on every plane was taken. On the flight from Paris to Minneapolis I actually had to ask the man in front of me not to put his seat back. (“Excuse me, sir. My knees are embedded in your seat, and I’d like to be able to use my legs when we get to Minneapolis.”) And with the exception of the flight from Minneapolis to Kansas City, not one airline employee even noted my discomfort. On that last leg of the trip, a flight attendant told me there were seats in the exit row if I’d like one. I did. Thank you, Delta.
                Even when I flew to Greece two years ago airline seats were not this uncomfortable, even for me. I’ve been flying for a long time, and I’ve been tall for a long time, so I can truly paraphrase Norma Desmond here and say yes, I am tall; it’s the airline seats that have gotten small. And I guess that’s not going to change. I have reservations for a trip to the Suez Canal next February. After this trip, I’m about 85% sure I’m going to cancel. It will cost me to cancel, but when I think of getting on another long flight, I shudder. I have until October to decide.
                I’d hoped to be able to use some of the many American Airlines AAdvantage miles I’ve accrued over the years to fly business or first class on the Suez Canal trip. Even this far in advance that’s simply not possible. Even coach seats are not available. Evidently American has decided it’s enough that they let you accrue miles; using them for something of meaningful value is simply beyond the pale.
                Add to the discomfort and the inability to use frequent flyer miles the hoops TSA puts you through these days, and you’ve got a trifecta of reasons not to travel.

                In short, while I enjoy travel, traveling is more trouble than it’s worth. The cost benefit analysis does not work out when you take into account that the flying part of the equation is downright painful.

© 2017 Larry Roth