Non-Fiction: “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis

moneyballHi. My name is Alaina Patterson; and I love baseball.

**Note From the Future: Okay, so – this entry was going to be a review of Moneyball, but the first near-2,500 words are actually two stories: The Story Of How Alaina Came To Love Baseball, followed by The Story Of How The 2016 World Series Almost Killed Alaina. If you don’t enjoy learning about somewhat obscure baseball movies from the 1990s (no, the movie is not Field of Dreams, please check out my list at moviesalainasneverseen.com to verify that I’ve never seen it) or why I love the Cubs or a play-by-tweet of that fateful Game 7, I suggest you scroll down until you see a picture of the Fenway scoreboard – I begin talking about the book at that point. You can also save yourself the trouble and read the first (and better) review of Moneyball from when I watched the movie during Oscar!Watch.

Regardless of what you choose, thank you for choosing That’s What She Read for all of your least-effective book review needs.**

I love baseball. I love it! It’s a great game to watch! Some people complain that it’s too slow, to which I counter: It can take Tom fucking Brady eighteen minutes to advance ten yards. (I watch football, but I don’t enjoy it.) (Please, Patriots fans, don’t post statistics to counter that statement I obviously made up. I do not care.) (Yes, I know football quarters are 15 minutes long, what I’m saying is that between all the stopped clocks and interceptions and tackles and shit that 15-minute quarter drags for a fucking hour, don’t @ me.)

The rules of baseball are simple! Hit the ball, advance to base, four bases makes a run. Each run is a point. Three strikes and you’re out. Three outs end an inning. Nine innings to a game. Math!! Learning football was the worst – and a former coworker, Ken, can attest to this, as he thought it would be a good idea to try and teach me football. He learned you shouldn’t teach Alaina lessons the hard way:

Alaina: Wait, okay, so they’re on the fourth down on the goal line, and instead of trying to run it, they’re going to go for a three-point conversion?
Ken: No, Alaina, it’s a two-point conversion.
Alaina: Isn’t that a slam dunk?
Ken: That’s basketball.
Alaina: Why do we hate the San Francisco Giants again?
Ken: No, Alaina, we hate the New York Giants. The San Francisco Giants is a baseball team.
Alaina: Did you know you have a vein in your forehead that gets extra-throbby when I ask stupid questions?

So when did I first fall in love with baseball? Believe it or not, 1994 – when my dad taped Rookie of the Year off of HBO. I must have watched that movie a hundred times. And the team that young Thomas Ian Nicholas (who went on to star in the American Pie movies) and the relatively-sane-back-then Gary Busey (I know, you guys; I’m so ashamed of myself) played for?

The Chicago Cubs.

I also grew up loving Back to the Future. And in BTTF:II, Marty goes to 2015, to learn that the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series. And I vaguely remember learning of the Curse of the Goat – either my Dad told me, or I read about it somewhere. And I think, partly because I grew up a superstitious child — coupled with my love of David and Goliath stories — I kept the Cubbies close to my heart in valiant hope, and, above all, put a pin in 2015 in the hopes that Robert Zemeckis was psychic.

In the meantime, I watched and followed the Red Sox – because living in Maine, you’re not typically going to be able to watch Cubs games, unless they’re part of ESPN’s rotation. And believe me, if you even mentioned the Cubs not winning a World Series within hearing distance of a Red Sox fan, it would be a Pavlovian trigger to for them to start bitching about the Curse of the Bambino and Bill Buckner and even Bucky Fucking Dent and guys, we get it, your life sucks too, jeez.

But I still remember the elation I felt when the Sox beat the Yankees in the seventh game of the ALCS back in 2004, among other highs – Johnny Damon’s grand slam! Man, I loved Johnny Damon back then. I was so pissed when he went to the Yankees. I would yell “Noommaaaarr!” along with the televised crowd when Garciaparra would come up to the plate. Crying on my bedroom floor when the Idiots crushed the Cardinals. Oh, it was amazing.

I was at a Red Sox game where the Sox were playing the A’s – another team I used to follow, which I’ll get into in a minute, when I finally start talking about Moneyball – and Garciaparra was batting for the A’s, but Fenway, God bless ’em – all of Fenway Park stood up and gave him an ovation. Say what you will about Red Sox fans – and they are some of the worst, and I say that as someone who counts herself among them – they will cheer any one of the old-timers, so long as they don’t go play for the Yankees, Damon.

So the Red Sox win the Series three times, and in the meantime, Theo Epstein – the manager who brought the Sox to their curse-breaking win – has moved to Chicago to work with the Cubbies.

2015 comes along, and the Cubs move to the Wild Card slot. And every day, I’m posting on Facebook my glee (and also asking #WhereIsMyHoverboard). Because it’s 2015! It’s the year Marty goes to the future! It’s the year where the Cubs win the World Series! It was their density. 

Hashtag #ItsYourDensity.

In a horrible twist of fate, the Cubs lose the NLCS to the Mets — the same team they battled in Rookie of the Year! — on October 21, 2015.

The day Marty McFly arrives in the future.

Well – I guess we never realized, on all of this, that the timeline must have adjusted when Biff stole Gray’s Almanac and then Marty and Doc had to set things right again.

We’ve been in 1985-C’s future all along, guys. It just stings a bit.

(If it was any other year, I’d be rooting for the Mets equally. But this is 2015; it was supposed to be the future.)

Good game, Cubbies. And hey – maybe Marty was off a year. #ItsYourDensity
[My Facebook post on October 21, 2015.]

[Why would I be rooting for the Mets? Well, when my team goes out, I go and root for the team where I have the next-best feelings for. For instance, I will root for the San Francisco Giants, because they’re a good team, and also, Emily is from San Francisco. When it comes to the Mets, someone I follow on Tumblr is a huge Mets fan, as well as Alaina’s Eternal Forever Pretend Husband, Jon Stewart.

2015 was also the year that many Things happened: Jon Stewart left The Daily ShowHannibal was canceled; and I learned that Eddie Vedder, scourge of my soul, is apparently the third-biggest Cubs fan, after Bill Murray and Bob Newhart. I was quite torn during that NLCS: Obviously I was going to root for the Cubs, Team o’ my Heart, but it was weird rooting for a team loved by the same dude who had caused a lot of heartache for me over the years, over the favorite team of my Forever Pretend Husband.

2015 was weird.]

Fast-forward to 2016. Amongst all the terrible, heartbreaking celebrity deaths, TV show cancellations, and the horrifying shitshow that was the national election, one of the only things giving me solace was following the Cubbies. Watching Anthony Rizzo’s face when he scored runs! (He also started off playing for the Portland Seadogs – I may have watched him play in Portland and not know it!) Rizzo’s friendship with David Ross, and the stellar pitching/catching team-up that was Jon Lester and Ross! Kris Bryant’s unfairly pretty smile! JAVY BAEZ, being a FUCKING BEAST!

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And then – they made it to the Division series! Beating the Giants handily, they quickly moved onto the Dodgers in the NLCS. That was an interesting week – My Dear Friend Sarah’s wedding was on the same night of the sixth game, so I again apologize for checking my MLB At Bat app every five minutes. IT WAS IMPORTANT! And hey, your wedding was good luck, because they won!

The World Series started the week Emily and I were in Florida. #EmilysDisneyDay, I ran out the battery on my phone twice refreshing my At Bat app, to learn that the Cubs had won Game 2.

This was me watching Game 3, on the road in Virginia:

(Why yes, I did splurge and get a hotel room with a soaking tub. Because I’m an adult who deserves nice things!)

I spent Game 4 on the road, driving home. My mother, bless her heart, texted me updates, which Blanche the Rental Car would read aloud to me.

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And then, Game 5. The Cubs were in the hole 3 games to 1. They needed to sweep or we’d be lost. I was home for that, and the Cubs managed to eke out a win.

Game 6, third inning. I was on my way to the fridge for a beer when I heard the dulcet tones of one of the most well-known sounds of the 1980s, and I remembered –

I have a t-shirt with “Save Ferris” on it. (Which scene, of course, took place at Wrigley Field, home of — the Cubs.) I go put it on, and IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING ME PUTTING THE SHIRT ON, Addison Russell hits a motherfucking grand slam! and the Cubs win!

And now, we’re at the big game. My Dear Friend Sarah is in on the action (at least, on Twitter), and she and I are live-tweeting the shit out of it. And holy shit – I still – anyway.

(Trust me – I would have worn it to work, but -)

So through five innings, the Save Ferris tee – and beers – are doing their job. The Cubs are CRUSHING IT! 3 to 1! 4 to 1! 5 to 1! I mean, it’s golden, guys. It’s so pretty. It’s so great.

And then, bottom of the fifth – and the Indians, god bless ’em, score. And they score HARD.

Fox had catcher David “Grandpa” Ross mic’d in the bullpen, and his buddy Anthony Rizzo goes over, and the following exchange happens:

Rizzo: I can’t control myself right now. I’m an emotional wreck.
Ross: It’s only gonna get worse.
Rizzo: I’m in a glass case of emotion right now.

Then, this happened:

(“Mizumono” is the second season finale of Hannibal, where everything goes to shit and everything is terrible and everything hurts. But in that moment, I swear to God, it would have been the balm of Gilead for me, the game was stressing me out so bad.)

Joe Maddon takes Hendricks out in the fifth inning, and brings in Jon Lester and catcher David “Grandpa Rossy” Ross in as relief. And in the top of the sixth, Ross hits a home run – his last home run, because he was retiring at the end of the season. And I cried.

Score is 6-3 Cubs for the next couple of innings. Then, at the 8th inning stretch, I post this:

And in the bottom of the 8th inning, the Indians fucking rally. RBI! Rajai Davis hits a two-run homer! Joe Madden doesn’t pull Aroldis Chapman from the inning!

I have gone completely Twitter-silent. I’m sitting on the edge of my love seat, trembling and muttering because seriously, I was almost insane.

The game is tied at the end of the 9th inning, 6 to 6. And then – the fucking rains came.

The teams go into their respective dugouts, and the tarp comes out.

In my desperation, I even offered this:

It was bleak, you guys. I had watched my team – my team! – make it to a goddamned tenth fucking inning in Game 7 of their first World Series appearance since 19-goddamned-45. I sucked down a third beer – on a Wednesday (at that time, technically, Thursday morning), which I shouldn’t have done, but oh well, who knows when this was going to happen again – and I was pretty much dying.

Unbeknownst to us at-home viewers, outfielder Jason Heyward took the opportunity during the rain delay to rally the troops. And when they came back to the plate, it was an entirely different team.

Schwarber hits a single! Rizzo got walked, sending Schwarber to second! And then Zobrist singled, driving Schwarber home! 7-6 Cubs!

Then Miggy Montero singled, driving Rizzo home! 8-6 Cubs! HOLY SHIT!

Then the Indians came back. They just needed to hold the line for three more outs. I am on the floor in between my love seat and TV, rocking myself and fervently praying to an angry god. The Indians score another run, and I am dying.

And then:

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SO. MUCH. CRYING.

I cried for half an hour straight. I was inconsolable in my joy. I am crying again right now.

You guys – you don’t even know. It was fucking amazing. I couldn’t – I can’t put it into words. How wonderful it was. How wonderful it is.

Do you want to experience joy? Watch this:

SO MANY HAPPY PEOPLE.

SPOILER ALERT!: I did not call in sick the next day. I should have, but I did not.

So. Hopefully that clears up why and how much I love the Cubs and how much the World Series meant to me.

If you would like to see an accurate representation in video form of How Alaina Watched Game Seven of the 2016 World Series, go ahead and watch this gem:

And please enjoy – and sing along – with the happiest song on earth.

And by now, those of you who have put up with my rambling, you can probably appreciate how how proud I am that I didn’t outright punch the Lids dudebro in the face when he tried to mansplain my own goddamned love of the Cubs back to me when I bought my hat back in April this year:

Dudebro: What’s your favorite team?
Alaina: The Chicago Cubs.
Dudebro: Oh really? Why, because you like Back to the Future?
Alaina: Uh, no … I like the team. I like rooting for underdogs.
Dudebro: Oh, so you rooted for the Red Sox until 2004?
Alaina:
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hanni jumpy
Missy: HEY ALAINA LET’S GO GET SOME CUPCAKES

I was so angry, I bought four cupcakes instead of one. NO REGRETS, MOTHERFUCKER!

But at least I was able to represent my team when I went to see the Cubs play the Red Sox at Fenway this year.

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Also, I was wearing the Save Ferris shirt that day, and when the Cubs won (GO CUBS GO!), it was determined that the Save Ferris shirt is actually Magic.

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(Also, Eddie Vedder was at the same game and NO ONE DIED. And in case anyone’s wondering, I can almost confirm: the Cubs winning the World Series may have ended the Curse of Eddie Vedder. Because I haven’t heard “betterman” hardly AT ALL since the Cubs won, and nothing monumentally bad has happened.)

OKAY. SO. WHAT DOES ALL THIS HAVE TO DO WITH MONEYBALL

Moneyball is written by the same person who wrote The Big Short. Michael Lewis has a financial background, and in this book, he applies that not just to baseball, but to one of the most unlikely seasons seen in recent baseball history: the 2002 Oakland Athletics.

The Oakland A’s – one of the first teams I rooted for, because a) they weren’t the Red Sox, but b) were in the same league as the Red Sox, and c) were geographically close enough to the San Francisco Giants that I could almost still use my friend Emily as an excuse. The A’s were managed by Billy Beane, who was driving internal baseball experts crazy with his draft picks and managing style. At this time in the early 2000s, the era of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, every team was looking for their Big Hitter. The Red Sox had just signed (or were about to sign) Manny Ramirez and David “Big Papi” Ortiz. Jeter was starting to make a name for himself. And the A’s had just lost Johnny Damon to the Red Sox; Jason Giambi went to the Yankees.

Instead of going after other big arms, Beane focused on players who played positions well and got to first base. This thought was anathema to traditional baseball thoughts:

For Billy and Paul and, to a slightly lesser extent, Erik and Chris, a young player is not what he looks like, or what he might become, but what he has done. As elementary as that might sound to someone who knew nothing about professional baseball, it counts as heresy here. [p. 38]

Most scouts would look at a high school or college player and say, “he plays okay now, but as he grows and trains, imagine what he’ll do”. Beane was saying, “look at his stats, and pick people on what they have proven to do well”. This was practically heresy for baseball.

Beane practiced sabermetrics, which took a statistical look at baseball and tried to apply it to being able to win more games. And Beane’s devotion to his craft led to the Oakland A’s winning 20 games in a row in 2002 – the fourth-longest winning streak in major league history, and the best since 1935 (who had the longest streak in that year, with 21? The Chicago Cubs).

One of my favorite things about baseball is how overjoyed everyone gets when they seriously win. The World Series, or the 20th game in a winning streak, breaking an American League record – the happiness that comes from that type of event is so heartwarming.

This is the story of Beane’s draft pick, Scott Hatteburg (“Hatty”), driving in the winning home run in the 20th game:

The second pitch is another fastball, but it’s high in the strike zone. Hatty takes his short swing; the ball finds the barrel of his bat, and rockets into deep right center field.

He leaves the batter’s box in a crouching run. He’s moving just as fast as he does when he hits a slow roller to the third baseman. He doesn’t see Grimsley [the pitcher] raging. He doesn’t hear fifty-five thousand fans erupting. He doesn’t notice the first baseman turning to leave the field. He doesn’t know that there’s a fellow from Cooperstown following him around the bases, picking them up, and will soon come looking for his bat. The only one in the entire Coliseum who does not know where the ball is going is the man who hit it. Scott Hatteberg alone watches the ball soar through the late night air with something like detachment.

The ball doesn’t just leave the park; it lands high up in the stands, fifty feet or so beyond the 362 sign in deep right center field. When he’s finally certain that the ball is gone for good, Scott Hatteberg raises both hands over his head, less in triumph than disbelief. Rounding first, he looks into the Oakland dugout. But there’s no one left inside – the players are all rushing onto the field. Elation transforms him. He shouts at his teammates. He’s not saying: Look what I just did. He’s saying: Look what we just did! We won! As he runs, he sheds years at the rate of about one every twenty feet. By the time he reaches home plate, he’s less man than boy.

And, not five minutes later, Billy Beane was able to look me in the eye and say that it was just another win. [p. 261-262]

oprah_happy_tears

Now, I’ve talked a lot about what I love about baseball. But before I close, I have to mention one thing I hate: the broadcasters who call baseball games, and of those, Joe Fucking Buck.

(I do not know why I hate Joe Buck so …. much… I …

flames

I JUST DO. GOD, he bugs the everloving fuck out of me. ALSO, HE SAID ‘IRREGARDLESS’ ON A NATIONAL BROADCAST, AND WE ALL KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT ‘IRREGARDLESS’)

Ahem.

Joe Buck aside, my LEAST FAVORITE THING is when people say “the tying run is on deck.”

Art Howe virtually leaps out of the dugout to yank Chad from the game. On his way to his seat on the bench Chad stares at the ground, and works to remain expressionless. He came in with a six-run lead. He leaves with the tying run in the on-deck circle.  [p. 256]

And it’s not just the “tying run” bullshit – broadcasters love to assign meaning to shit. Here’s an example from Moneyball, where Joe Morgan assigned cause to the absolute wrong action on the field. Twice.

Down 5-4 in the eighth inning, Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano had gotten himself on base and stolen second. Derek Jeter then walked, and Jason Giambi singled in Soriano. Bernie Williams then hit a three-run homer. A reasonable person, examining that sequence of events, says, “Whew, thank God Soriano didn’t get caught stealing; it was, in retrospect, a stupid risk that could have killed the whole rally.” Joe Morgan looked at it and announced that Soriano stealing second, the only bit of “manufacturing” in the production line, was the cause. Amazingly, Morgan concluded that day’s lesson about baseball strategy by saying, “You sit and wait for a three-run homer, you’re still going to be sitting there.”

But the wonderful thing about this little lecture was what happened right under Joe Morgan’s nose, as he was giving it. Ray Durham led off the game for Oakland with a walk. He didn’t attempt to steal, as Morgan would have him do. Scott Hatteberg followed Durham and he didn’t bunt, as Morgan would have him do. He smashed a double. A few moments later, Eric Chavez hit a three-run homer. And Joe Morgan’s lecture on the need to avoid playing for the three-run homer just rolled right along, as if the play on the field had not dramatically contradicted every word that had just come out of his mouth.  That day the A’s walked and swatted their way to nine runs, and a win … Two days later in Minnesota, before the third game, Joe Morgan made the same speech all over again.  [p. 271-272]

Like playwrights, all national baseball broadcasters should be dead for three hundred years.

Anyway. Let me tie this all back to the Cubs, because I’ve written entirely too much about baseball and not enough about the book. At the end of the A’s season that year, Billy Beane is offered the general manager job of the Boston Red Sox.

All that remained was for Billy to sign the Red Sox contract. And he couldn’t do it.

**The job went to Theo Epstein, the twenty-eight-year-old Yale graduate with no experience playing professional baseball. [p. 279 & footnote]

Theo Epstein. The sabermetrics wunderkind who went on to lead the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series win after 84 years in 2004. Twelve years later, he’d do the same for the Cubs.

Grade for Moneyball: 4 stars
Grade for the 2016 Chicago Cubs: eleventy million hearts

Non-Fiction: “The Witches: Salem, 1692” by Stacy Schiff

the WitchesMerry Christmas Eve! Let’s spend the time between now and the annual live-tweet of Alaina Watches Die Hard, The Best Christmas Movie In History, No I’m Serious, Don’t @ Me, by discussing a) a book I finished reading six months ago, b) about witches. So, completely the wrong holiday. Whatever; deal with it.

As you can tell from the title of the book, Ms. Schiff’s research attempts to find out what exactly led to the events of the Salem Witch Trials. She goes through the years 1690 through 1694 in deep detail, focusing on each family of Salem and their interactions, and discussed how political and interpersonal relationships could have led to exacerbating the situation with the witches.

The first quote I dogeared (and then transcribed into a Word document, because this was a library book and I didn’t want to incur six months’ of overdue fees just to be able to quote things afterwards) speaks to the mystery still attached to Salem:

Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our [nation’s] first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories. [p. 4-5]

For as many details there are in the book – and there are plenty – there are no true, definitive answers. The source materials Ms. Schiff draws from are incredibly deficient – family diaries, incomplete court testimonies, and the biased opinion essays of pastors and preachers related to the trials.

While the bewitched commanded a rapt audience for much of a year, their voices are lost to us. Their words come to us exclusively from men who were far from thorough, seldom impartial, and not always transcribing in the room in which they heard those statements. They mangle and strangle the voices of the accused; they are equally inattentive to the accusers, not all of whose statements they committed to paper. [p. 12]

I think everyone here must be aware of the basic plotline of the Salem Witch Trials: young girls start acting weird and accusing other women in town of being witches and using their witchcraft against them, everyone believes them, and at the end of it all, nearly twenty residents were executed after being found guilty of witchcraft. In fact, everything the collective consciousness knows about the Salem Witch Trials most likely comes from our reading of The Crucible when we were in high school. But The Crucible was a parable Arthur Miller used to expose the hypocrisy and hysteria surrounding McCarthyism, and should not be considered a historical artifact, regardless of the fact that Mr. Miller used the names of actual Salem residents for his characters.

Ms. Schiff attributes the cause of the Salem Witch Hysteria to many things, including a general distrust of women, an incredibly oppressive religious atmosphere, and a contagious psychological disorder. Sadly, we will never know the true root of the issue, as that is lost to history. Thanks, Puritan judges and other people back then who didn’t realize they should really WRITE THINGS DOWN.

Relatively early in her narrative, Ms. Schiff discusses the attitudes towards the women involved in the Witch Trials. She points out that this is one of the few times in history where the actions are directly related to the actions of women:

History is not rich in unruly young women; with the exception of Joan of Arc and a few underage sovereigns, it would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins, traditionally a vulnerable, mute, and disenfranchised cohort. [p. 131]

Additionally, she discusses the power surrounding these women, and how the mysticism of witchcraft increased that power:

The wrinkle with Salem’s infernal onslaught of 1692 was that both the spirited victims and their oppressors were predominantly female. And in a New England first, women’s voices proved so commanding that the spectral testimony of two dead wives could prevail in court against an articulate, Harvard-educated minister. [p. 145]

Think about that: this is a period of time before the United States Consitutiton was even a thought. Alexander Hamilton and George Washington hadn’t even been born. The concept of “innocent until proven guilty” hadn’t been put forth yet. So our modern concept of a “trial” is not even closely related to what occurred in Salem. In Salem in 1692, a judge could accept the “testimony” of deceased women over that of a minister who had graduated from Harvard. That is a crazy concept to wrap one’s head around.

The accusations of witchcraft and witchery flew throughout the town, and created an oppressive atmosphere that centered on a form of gaslighting: fingers pointing at nearly every citizen of Salem, accusing them of witchcraft, and using previous actions as specious proof of interacting with the Devil:

For weeks the women had been stretched on the most pernicious of psychological racks: You are not what you think you are, they were hectored; you are what we think you are. [p. 235]

The biggest piece of new information regarding the Salem Witch Trials was actually a supposition or extrapolation: Ms. Schiff proposes that the cause was a form of mass hysteria, known as conversion disorder, where physical symptoms can arise following an emotional or mental crisis:

Where the seventeenth-century authority saw the devil, we tend to recognize an overtaxed nervous system; what an earlier age called hysteria we term conversion disorder, the body literally translating emotions into symptoms. [p. 386]

The witch hysteria began in the house of Samuel Parris, with his daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams. Samuel Parris was the pastor of the town, and one of the more religious ones they’d had in town for a while. (Which is hard to believe, seeing as how Puritan the whole area was.) As Ms. Schiff states,

Hysteria prefers decorous, sober households, where tensions puddle more deeply; it made sense that the Salem minister wound up with more witchcraft victims under his roof than anyone else. [p. 387]

So what would have been the inciting event that caused the mass hysteria? Possibly puberty – I mean, think about it. The two girls in Parris’s household that started the whole thing? Were 9 and 11. And in that type of oppressive religious atmosphere, who’s to say what emotional trauma may have been caused by a religious interpretation of changing bodies? Or even having a thought that went against what had been taught for years upon years? After all,

It would have been easier at the parsonage to have a vision than an opinion. [p. 388]

We will never know what really happened with the Salem Witch Trials – the causes of that trauma have been lost to history. We can only make assumptions and attempt to decipher the few documents from that era that still exist, and recognize that whatever was written down, was written from the points of view of extremely religious views and interpretations. But we can’t forget the Salem Witch Trials, or even attempt to ignore it. While the cause may have been conversion disorder, the unfounded persecution against a minority that led to the deaths of innocents was still the result.

The Salem Witch Trials endure in American history “not only as a metaphor but as a vaccine and a taunt” [p. 413]. We as a people use the Witch Trials any time someone feels unjustly persecuted. But instead of using it as a label, or a crutch, we should use it as a reminder: we have done this before. We have pointed our fingers, as a society, at fellow citizens and deemed them guilty of crimes that were not proven. We killed innocents out of fear of the unknown. That era is not a time we should hope to return to. We should look to that era as a warning of where we’ve been, and how far we’ve come, so as to not slide.

Grade for The Witches: Salem, 1692: 2 stars

Non-Fiction: “Bonk” by Mary Roach

bonkOkay, I’m going to try and bang this one right out. (thematically-appropriate puns for the win!)

Picture it: I’m getting ready to drive to D.C. for Operation: Pick Up My Dear Friend Sarah In D.C. So She Can Photograph My Sister’s Wedding. And I know I’m going to stop occasionally for food, and since I’m going to be alone, I intend to bring a book with me to read at the table. I don’t want to bring Alexander Hamilton – it’s way too big. The other book I was currently reading at time was What a Pirate Desires, and that cover would have surely inspired conversations that I didn’t want to have. Namely, I was using the drive as an escape from talking to people.

So I wanted a book that a) I owned, because I have previously left library books at someone’s house accidentally, which then caused that person to mail my library book back to me so I could return it (thanks Sarah!), b) was small enough to fit in my purse without weighing a metric ton, and c) interesting enough that I would actually read it on the road.

And Bonk was what I found. I know I bought it a while ago because of its subtitle: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. But I definitely brought it with me on my trip this year because the cover was innocuous enough that no one would give it a second thought:

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No one said a word to me aside from “More coffee, dear?” The answer to which was, “Can I get it to go? Thanks!”

Oh, I know why I bought this – I just looked through the book to find Mary Roach’s credentials, and I saw via the hand-written “$7.50” on the inside cover that I bought this at one of my trips to the Harvard bookstore – probably my first trip, where I bought Mildred Pierce. And that would have timed when I had Showtime and was into watching Masters of Sex, the story of Masters and Johnson and their human sexuality study. See? I’m not a pervert, I’m just curious!

And Mary Roach is, above all, curious. Other books she’s written before and since Bonk include: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (which I’m pretty sure I’ve seen on My Dear Friend Emily’s bookshelf, seeing as how she originally went to school to become a medical examiner); Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal; and her most recent, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans At War.

Additionally, Ms. Roach does not describe herself as a scientist: I just perused her website and her list of credentials are all her published books and magazine articles; not a single doctorate among them. As a writer who is immersed in her subject the same way I immersed myself in Hannibal – I know the subject inside and out, but I was not one of the creators of Hannibal, just an observer – she is able to write about these subjects in an amazingly accessible way.

Look, I read a lot of books – my book blog backlog as proof positive of that. And of those books, a fair amount end up being non-fiction. And there have been some non-fiction books which were written by people within that field, and the communication tends to get murky because I think the author doesn’t realize s/he should be writing for outside the industry. A perfect example of this is Michael Lewis and The Big Short: Mr. Lewis worked on Wall Street. He dealt with stocks and bonds routinely. So when he went to talk about the housing market crash, he knew what all of those terms meant, because he was within the industry. And while he made valiant attempts to explain those terms within the book, it wasn’t until Adam McKay and the movie did it visually that I was able to say, Yes, I kind of get this now. (I still don’t, and would direct anyone who wants to understand that subject to the film, because it did a really great job.)

But when I read Mr. Lewis’s Moneyball (sidenote, I’m rereading it now – GO CUBS GO oh my god they won the World Series I am still in shock and crying about it), you can tell he is using his statistical background and applying it to baseball, and he doesn’t have the language of baseball because he wasn’t in baseball. Therefore, I find Moneyball more accessible and understandable than I did The Big Short.

For Ms. Roach, as the only industry she is in is writing, any topic she puts her mind to will be like when Mr. Lewis tackles baseball: she’s not in the industry, she doesn’t have the language; therefore, she will make every attempt to explain the terms and concepts to make the concept accessible not only to her, but to her readers as well.

And I appreciated that, reading about Masters & Johnson’s penis camera while eating Momma’s French Toast Breakfast at the Tewksbury, Massachusetts Cracker Barrel.

NOTE FROM THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE: Hi, Readers! Thanks for sticking with me through my digressions. Now, look: this book is not a how-to book on sex; it gets into some serious sciencey discussions.  And I’m going to talk about the book now, and that is going to include some strong language: I’m going to be bringing up female genitalia, orgasms, and all sorts of stuff that you may not feel comfortable reading about in a Cracker Barrel. So if you don’t want to know about this or feel that it’s inappropriate to talk about, go ahead and skip to the last paragraph. It’s cool. But I wanted to warn you before you were knee-deep in a paragraph about female masturbation without notice. Cheers!

Masters and Johnson is where Ms. Roach begins, which is an excellent starting point: Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson began their research on human sexuality in the 1950s; prior to that, sex and the science behind it was definitely not an appropriate topic of study. The first season of Masters of Sex attempts to show the difficulties Bill Masters had in getting his study off the ground, but then the show veers into interpersonal relationships and while the show is good, don’t watch it for science, okay? In order to study what actually happens, physiologically, to a woman when she orgasms, they patented a penis-camera: essentially, a vibrator with a camera in it. That discussion leads Ms. Roach into the sex machine industry, where she ends up at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco:

The Center for Sex and Culture does not court the curious passerby. No sign is posted on the outside of the building or inside the entryway. It is a nonprofit in a plain brown wrapper. Eventually, you notice the street number, 298, on a window near the door. There is an intercom with a buzzer labeled CSC. When you ring it, a voice says simply, “Hello?” forcing you to announce that you are HERE FOR THE SEX-MACHINE EVENT. [p. 54]

Ms. Roach’s curiosity leads her through a number of topics: Does the distance between the clitoris and vagina affect the strength of a woman’s orgasm? Does orgasm increase fertility? Is surgery the answer to impotence? How can we diagnose and help low female libido issues?

What fascinates me is how the stigma of talking about sex – even in purely scientific terms – has caused our complete lack of education on these points. And I’m not even talking about abstinence-only programs and how we educate our teenagers on sex directly influences how they will approach sex when they’re old enough and how belief structures fit into all of that. I’m saying, we were able to put a man on the moon within ten years of Jack Kennedy saying we should do that, but we have yet to know definitively how a woman approaches sexual arousal, because we think it’s private and shouldn’t be studied, and who knows how many women could have benefited from that study?

Here’s an example: in Chapter 10, “The Prescription-Strength Vibrator,” Ms. Roach meets with doctors who are trying to find solutions for so-called “sexually dysfunctional women.” I say “so-called” because I don’t want a man to tell me what’s considered sexually dysfunctional to me as a woman; I am not discounting a woman’s sense of being dysfunctional in that department. But she brings up a theory: if a physical symptom of arousal is increased blood flow to the clitoris, and increased blood flow can also be caused by manual stimulation, would increased masturbation lead to increased arousal for a woman during intercourse? Ms. Roach emails this question to a professor of gynecologic oncology, who then refers her to Maryann Schroder, a licensed sexology at the University of Chicago.

“You have posed a very interesting question,” she said. “It hasn’t been studied, if you can believe.” She reminded me of what happened to the last person who got involved with masturbation as a beneficial activity: Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. Former President Bill Clinton dismissed Elders after she suggested, in a World AIDS Day speech, that masturbation was something that “should perhaps be taught.”

“Can you imagine if I tried to get funding for a study that had masturbation in the title?” And then, quite unintentionally, Dr. Schroder delivered the ultimate masturbation-research sound bite. “Masturbation,” she said, “is a touchy area.” [p. 209]

WELCOME BACK, Readers who skipped the sex talk but also missed the best pun I’ve ever seen in print!

I really enjoyed this book. Ms. Roach is a wonderful writer, who does not shy away from stigmatized topics, and infuses her research with humor. She’s incredibly welcoming and accessible in her writing, and in non-fiction, that is a huge bonus factor. I highly recommend this book – even if you’re not going to ironically read it in a stereotypical Southern breakfast environment, while escaping from a family wedding (NOTE: I went back, I have the pictures to prove it) – and look forward to reading the rest of Ms. Roach’s back catalogue.

Grade for Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex: 5 stars

The Collaborators!: “The Witches” by Stacy Schiff

Hopefully, this will be the push I need to get back into the swing of a whole bunch of things. Because true confessions, I have a review of Pride & Prejudice languishing in my drafts folder here – mostly because I know I couldn’t possibly add anything to any sort of Pride & Prejudice conversation – and I can’t seem to bust through it. So, thank you to Erica for hopefully being the kick in the pants my blogging life so desperately needs.

If the theme song isn't stuck in your head, I don't know what you're even doing.

Because yes, after a year-long hiatus (mostly brought on by my complete inability to post a Gee Dee review on time – seriously, I know I keep saying I’m going to get better, but I don’t think I am, you guys. I’m back to being eight reviews behind, and I haven’t even finished reading Alexander Hamilton yet!), The Collaborators! are back! And this time, it’s not the latest Gregory Maguire novel (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but change is good!)

the Witches

(We did consider After Alice, but my Local Library pulled through.)

Erica had given me a few choices via Twitter on what our first Collaboration for 2016 should be, including After Alice by Gregory Maguire, this book, The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory, John Cleese’s autobiography, and a title by Stephen King which escapes me currently, and I can’t go look it up because apparently Twitter is down.

I said that I would read After Alice if that’s all we had, but of the 7 books we’ve collaborated on, two have been by Mr. Maguire. I thought a change would be nice.

I eliminated the Stephen King title because I am a bad Mainer. That’s right, folks: I have lived in Maine my entire life and I love my state — I even work in state government! — but I am not a fan of Stephen King. The only book by him I’ve read is The Dead Zone, and the only reason I read that was because the adaptation was on USA at the time, and Sean Patrick Flanery starred in it as the bad guy, and Sean Patrick Flanery is one of the stars of one of my favorite movies, The Boondock Saints. I wasn’t impressed with the book, and to be honest, I never actually watched the series.

Also, please: do not. fucking get me started. on the goddamned Shawshank Redemption.

I also don’t like Moxie.

ANYWAY. Bad Mainer, no Stephen King. My Local Library did not own a copy of John Cleese’s autobiography – what the fuck, Yarmouth? – so that left The Taming of the Queen and The WitchesThe Witches was the first one of the two to be returned so I could pick it up.

So. What’s The Witches about?

I just spent about a minute trying to come up with a jackass retort, but I should have been in bed an hour ago. But I’m going to finish this tonight, dammit! So I’m going to move on and actually say what the book is about, and it’s about witches.

Guys, the subtitle is “Salem, 1692.” It’s about the Salem Witch Trials, okay? Okay, I’m done trying to be funny. It’s too late at night for me to try and be an asshole.

So this book is about the Salem Witch Trials. This book is also non-fiction: a first for The Collaborators! I’ve read a book here before about this time period – Susannah Morrow – but I’m very interested to learn more about this period. As I said in my review for Susannah Morrow, all I know about the Salem Witch Trials is what I’ve learned from The CrucibleSusannah Morrow, and the trip my sister and I took last October where we watched a film at the Salem Museum that had the worst actors I have ever seen on film in my entire life. And yes, that does include the porn we used to play drinking games to in college.

I’m very interested to see what new information is uncovered, and I’m looking forward to the discussion Erica and I will have when we finish the book. I only hope I read it quickly, and that I have at least three actual book reviews posted before then.

Non-Fiction: “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis

Big Short Revise 011316_978-0-393-07223-5.inddSecond on my list of Oscar-nominated titles to read was The Big Short by Michael Lewis. This film was the early front-runner for Best Picture, until it was overshadowed by Spotlight (and rightly so) and sadly, by The fucking Revenant.

No, I will never not refer to that movie in any other way. Go fuck yourself with a bear, Leonardo DiCaprio.

As you can tell by re-reading my review for The Intern’s Handbook, I had wanted to read The Big Short since at least November 2015. I mean, a movie starring Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling, and directed by the same guy who wrote and directed Movie of My Heart, Anchorman? And it’s about the housing crisis? Uh … sign me up, because I’m an even bigger nerd than I thought I was? But thanks, Barnes & Noble, for not believing in having a very organized and structured non-fiction section. Although serious thanks do go out to the Yarmouth Library, for having a copy that I could read.

Long-time readers of That’s What She Read will also recognize the author, Michael Lewis. He wrote Moneyball, another Oscar-nominated film which I enjoyed. With Moneyball, I watched the movie first and then read the book, so I was a little surprised – but pleased – when the book wasn’t as linear as the movie made it out to be.

In Moneyball, Mr. Lewis would use one chapter to tell the story of Billy Beane, the manager for the Oakland A’s who, using some new-fangled notion called “Sabermetrics,” was able to turn one of the most languishing teams in the American League into a World Series contender. That same Sabermetrics led the Boston Red Sox to winning the 2004 World Series. But anyway, one chapter would be about Billy Beane and his quest to transform the A’s; the next chapter would either be an in-depth look at another one of the players on the team, or a more detailed explanation about the math and statistical analysis that makes up sabermetrics. Billy acted as our guide, for lack of a better term: we learn about how he uses sabermetrics, we see his goals and his hopes, we see his struggles, and we see his successes. The math stuff falls by the wayside, because we the reader are following a hero on a journey.

The Big Short follows the same pattern, mostly. This time, our hero is a bunch of different Wall Street bonds-men. They interact with the housing market in different ways, but their stories are surrounded by the intricate and, at times, incomprehensible financial functions that all contributed to the housing crash.

I’m going to attempt to see if I can remember the financial stuff, but I’ll get into how I think the film was a better vehicle for understanding this stuff in a minute. Anyway. The housing market was always stable: housing is an actual need for a human, and while there may have been dips and spikes, there was never a crash like what we saw with stocks in 1929. People invest their equity in houses, and those mortgages were the base of the bond economy for decades.

Until someone figured out that they could package mortgages into a bond on its own. The banks would sell the ownership of their mortgages to these bond companies and turn packages of mortgages into a single bond item, called a CDO. A CDO was made up of tranches, which —

Look, I work with taxes all day, and I’ve come to identify myself as a big ol’ nerd. But this stuff is totally beyond my ken. I may have an accounting and finance degree, but that’s because at the time, that’s the only way I could get the accounting degree (thanks, USM!). I took a total of two finance classes: Basic Financial Management, and International Financial Management. They were taught by the same professor, who was a horrible teacher. Made us buy a $150 textbook, told us to read it and do the homework, but never taught from the textbook, and never went over or even collected the homework. The only reason I got a B in Basic Finance is because my graphic calculator had a finance function, so I didn’t have to remember any fancy equations.

And I maintain that the only reason I got a C- in International is because the professor really didn’t want me to have to teach me again. Because seriously, I skipped a lot of classes and flunked at least one test. No amount of studying was going to make me understand puts and libors. So, I do have to thank him for Charlie’ing me out, because otherwise I’d still be in college.

[Puts and libors = the only things I remember from that class. To clarify: just the words, not the concepts. I have no idea what they mean.]

ANYWAY. Mr. Lewis really knows his shit – he worked on Wall Street, after all. So the book is rich with information on just exactly how the Wall Street firms – especially AIG, Deutsch Bank, and Bear Stearns were able to con all of America. The stories about the bankers – Steve Eisman, the individual with the loudest personality, who set out to short the banks to teach them all a lesson about greed, was easily my favorite. (It didn’t hurt that his character was the one Steve Carrell portrayed under a different name.) Dr. Michael Burry, an ex-neurologist who created a hedge fund and then poured all of his clients’ money into his attempt to short the banks, was very compelling as a character, but was in it to prove himself right as opposed to fighting for something.

All of these guys – Eisman, Burry, Greg Lippman from Deutsche – they all decide to short the banks. Essentially, they’re going to spend a lot of money at first betting that the CDOs and other shenanigans the banks have gotten up to are going to fail. The banks laughed at them while they took their money; Dr. Burry’s clients threatened to pull out. But these guys all could tell that a crash was imminent, and when the crash occurred, they won big.

In spite of all the financial stuff which was, admittedly, over my head, the book was a very interesting read. I actually would bring it to the gym with me, and it made my 25-minute elliptical workout fly by. I read because I could understand just enough of the shenanigans to know that they are all fucking shady, and also, the people within the tale were very compelling to read about.

Having said that, I do think the film does an excellent job in explaining all of these financial concepts – and not just because they rely on people like Margo Robbie and Selena Gomez. But they have fourth-wall breaks where, either Ryan Gosling’s character, acting as the quasi-narrator, or maybe one of those random celebrities will take a couple of minutes and use a metaphor to explain one of these concepts. I think Mr. Lewis explained how a CDO is built three times within his book, but once Ryan Gosling’s character used a Jenga tower to demonstrate it, the concept made way more sense. And the concept of trading CDOs was well-illustrated by Selena Gomez and … the guy who was in her scene that I can’t remember.

I really do have to applaud Adam McKay and Charles Randolph on their adaptation of the book: the book is extremely dense at points with hard-to-understand financial concepts, and they were able to turn that into a compelling, human-driven David-vs-Goliath tale that was charming and comprehensible. Even this early in my Oscar!Read – I still have two books to go at this point – The Big Short was my front-runner for winning the category.

I was mightily pleased when it won. Not just because I felt it did the best job adapting its source material into a script – remember, not just the best film whose screenplay was adapted from a different source; the film with the best adaptation of its source material — but most importantly, because now I can say that Anchorman was written and directed by an Oscar winner.

Which makes Anchorman an Oscar-winning film. If only by association, and retroactively.

I’ll take it.

Oh come on — don’t act like you’re not impressed.

Grade for The Big Short: 3 stars

Non-Fiction: “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich

Snickel and dimedo back in September – remember September, you guys? Back when the sun wasn’t going down at 3:30, and it was still sixty degrees out on the regular – I realized Banned Book Week was coming up. And originally, I was going to reread Lolita. I mean, I hadn’t read that in a very long time, and if there was any book banned, it was definitely that one.

Well, I have been doing a lot of reading on my lunch breaks at work, and one of the guys always asks me what I’m reading, and for the first time, i realized I would feel slightly uncomfortable if I said that I was reading Lolita. I mean, it’s a book, and Humbert Humbert I am not. But for a guy who had never heard Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” (which, I believe, is in and of itself slightly ironic), I was afraid I would have to spend part of the lunch period explaining what Lolita is about, and I didn’t feel comfortable doing that in a government setting. It felt icky to me.

So I’ll read Lolita at home, someday. But in the meantime, another book that I had spied on one of the many ALA Banned Book lists (and also one I owned but had never read) was Nickel & Dimed. This book had been recommended to me years ago by my former roommate Amelia, who minored in Economics. (Wait, or was it a double-major with Poli Sci? I can’t remember anymore…) I managed to find a copy at Bull Moose a few months ago for a whopping $3.97 (you guys, if you’re in the area of a Bull Moose that sells books, GO TO THERE, THEY’RE AWESOME), and when I saw it on the Banned Books List, I was very, very confused.

I mean, look – I get why some books are on that list. Now, I’m not agreeing that the book should be banned, or any book for that matter — except Fifty Shades of Gray, because reasons. But I can see, in most cases, the small-mindedness which would cause a book to be challenged. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance – sure, the use of the ‘n’-word is prevalent, and no parent should want their child to throw that word around as casually as Huck does, but when reading Huckleberry Finn one should also recognize the historical context – that word was common parlance during that time and location, and used very frequently and casually.  Mark Twain wrote of his time and culture, and someone should (hopefully) realize when reading it today that that type of language and those attitudes towards other human beings should be an historical artifact. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

When I read Brave New World last year, one of the reasons the book was on the Banned Book List was because of the promiscuity it championed. Parents didn’t want Little Johnny or Sally to read that book and think it was (*gasp!*) okay to have sex outside of marriage!  Or for fun, even! Oh, the horror!

And even I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – that’s non-fiction, and that is on the List because of the horrific actions suffered by Maya Angelou. But that type of history shouldn’t be swept under the rug -it’s important for teenagers to read these books, because it gives them a wider, braver understanding of the world and the people in it.

But … why was Nickel & Dimed on that list? It’s a non-fiction account of an investigative journalist who goes undercover as a minimum-wage worker, and attempts to make a living on said minimum wage. In what way would that harm the sensibilities of teenagers attempting to learn about the world?

As I read it, I began to understand why some individuals would want to see the book removed from curricula: it promotes that those who work for minimum wage have human emotions and human needs, and that trickle-down capitalism does not work.

Oh, the horror.

Ms. Ehrenreich – whom I should refer to as Dr. Ehrenreich, as she does hold a Ph.D. – began this journey in the late 1990s, before the first minimum wage hike:

How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How, in particular, we wondered, were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour? Then I said something that I have since had many opportunities to regret: “Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism – you know, go out there and try it for themselves.” [p. 1]

And that’s what she did. She gave herself $1,000 to begin her journey, so she could afford rent and other sundries before her first paycheck (admittedly, a fund most individuals do not have the luxury to afford), moved out of her house in Key West, and tried to get a job as a hotel’s housekeeper. The first obstacle she ran into was that at every hotel she attempted to get a job, they recommended she waitress instead. Ms. Ehrenreich presumed that it was because of her skin color – as she was not Latino, she was perceived as being higher-class than someone who would be a housekeeper; hence, the waitress positions.

She managed to find an apartment and also managed to survive waiting tables for fifty hours a week, something she hadn’t had to do since college. After her time in Key West, she moved up to Maine and joined a maid’s service. The rent in Maine was too much for an apartment (which, tell me about it), so for her tenure here, she had to rent a hotel room by the week in Old Orchard Beach. Thank goodness it was the off-season for her.

Her last stint was in Minneapolis, which was supposed to be having a booming economy. Jobs were plentiful, it was true, but there was a severe housing shortage. While in Minneapolis, she worked at Wal-Mart and nearly caused a union uprising.

I’m going to get more in depth, but basically, she discovered the injustices and struggles every minimum-wage (or below-wage) worker experiences. The lack of respect from management, the constant distrust, the monitoring of your every move … but also the sense of family and, in some cases, survivor-hood that develops between yourself and your coworkers. If there is anyone who has struggled to make ends meet, you should read this book. But actually, now that I think about it, the people who should read this book are those who have never had to struggle; never felt the pain in your stomach when you realize you need to save your last ten dollars until payday for gas, which means you’re not buying any groceries until payday; those who have never had to wonder if this check they’re writing is going to bounce; never had to suffer indignities bestowed upon yourself simply because you are working a lower-paid job than someone else. Those are the individuals who should read this book, and it should be required reading for those in Congress.  Although, with the exception of Elizabeth Warren, I wonder if some of them can read.

(Also: remember, this book was written prior to the year 2000. None of the individuals Ms. Ehrenreich came into contact with had student loans, because they didn’t go to college. So as you read this book now, realize that many of these situations haven’t changed, but more individuals are feeling these struggles to live as well as having to pay off enormous mountains of debt. Just … muse on that.)

ANYWAY.

Some sobering statistics:

With the prevailing wages running at $6-$7 an hour in my town and rents at $400 a month or more, the numbers might, it seemed to me, just barely work out all right. But if the question was whether a single mother leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, medicaid, and housing and child care subsidies, the answer was well known before I ever left the comforts of home. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in 1998 – the year I started this project – it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the Preamble Center for Public Policy was estimating that the odds against a typical welfare recipient’s landing a job at such a “living wage” were about 97 to 1. [p. 2-3]

Remember, this was written in 2000. You know what hasn’t happened in that time? The minimum wage hasn’t risen to $8.89, that’s for sure.

During her waitress stint, Ms. Ehrenreich was astonished to learn that she didn’t get a real break during her shift, and something she said about smoking, of all things, really made sense:

I complain to one of my fellow servers that I don’t understand how she can go so long without food. “Well, I don’t understand how you can go so long without a cigarette,” she responds in a tone of reproach. Because work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself. I don’t know why the antismoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so endearing to its victims – as if, in the American workplace, the only thing people have to call their own is the tumors they are nourishing and the spare moments they devote to feeding them. [p. 31]

Trust me, when you work in retail,  you cherish every freaking second you get to yourself. I’ll admit – there were a couple of times I wished I smoked so I could get out of the building for five minutes. Stupid freaking healthy workplace environment.

So the next place she takes herself to is Maine:

I chose Maine for its whiteness. [p. 52]

I cannot tell you how loudly I laughed at that. Because it is true – demographically speaking, according to the 2010 Census, the population of Maine stood at 1,274,923. Of those, 1,236,014 identified as Caucasian. That is 96.9%. Now, granted, the Census doesn’t literally count everyone, I’m sure, and that doesn’t take into account human error or human lying, but that is still a sobering statistic.

One of the first places she applies at when she lands in Maine is a Wal-Mart, where she is subjected to one of the most horrific things a job-seeker encounters: the personality survey. If you have never had to fill one of those out, then congratulations – you’ve never tried to work in a customer service environment with a tradition of severe management psychosis. The personality survey is an attempt to weed out the “good” candidates from the “bad” candidates, by asking a series of probing, contradictory questions about productivity, work ethic, and morality:

What these tests tell employers about potential employees is hard to imagine, since the “right” answers should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered the principle of heirarchy and subordination. Do I work well with others? You bet, but never to the point where I would hesitate to inform on them for the slightest infraction. Am I capable of independent decision making? Oh yes, but I know better than to let this capacity interfere with a slavish obedience to orders. […] The real function of these tests, I decide, is to convey information not to the employer but to the potential employee, and the information being conveyed is this: You will have no secrets from us. We don’t just want your muscles and that portion of your brain that is directly connected to them, we want your innermost self. [p. 59]

I could get into a rant about the above paragraph, and how it is so completely, 100% true, and how retail managers try to give you this phony spiel about how your personal life is important to you and therefore it’s important to us too, but not on weekends, or holidays, or after 6 p.m., or when there’s a floor set coming up, and while you may have some personal stuff going on in your life and it’s very important, could you please leave it at the door when you come in for your shift, and it’s too bad that your grandmother passed away but you only get three days off for bereavement and the funeral’s on the fourth day so we’ll need you back in for your 2-10 shift, and more horrible, atrocious things, but basically yes, once you fill out that personality survey, they own you.

Ms. Ehrenreich gets the job with The Maids, and while the cleaning practices will shock you so much that I wonder if that’s the real reason this book was on the Banned Books List – wealthy housewives were horrified to learn that their cleaning service was merely moving dirty water around and not actually cleaning anything – I’m not going to get into them. I will post this quote, because it speaks to the feminist inside of me:

I learn that Mrs. W [the homeowner] is an alumna of an important women’s college, now occupying herself by monitoring her investments and the baby’s bowel movements. I find special charts for this latter purpose, with spaces for time of day, most recent fluid intake, consistency, and color. […] Maybe there’s been some secret division of the world’s women into breeders and drones, and those at the maid level are no longer supposed to be reproducing at all. Maybe this is why our office manager, Tammy, who was once a maid herself, wears inch-long fake nails and tarty little outfits – to show she’s advanced to the breeder caste and can’t be sent out to clean anymore. [p. 82]

How many times have we heard mothers vilified in the same sentence as Welfare, food stamps, and low-income earners? There have been conversations today that those on food stamps or other government programs shouldn’t be raising families. SO RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE TO LET THEM GET OFF WELFARE.

Ms. Ehrenreich works at The Maids Monday through Friday; to make ends meet, she also works at a retirement facility, serving meals to their patients. About three weeks into her monthly stint at both jobs, she wonders

If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in? [p. 106]

Jeepers, I sure did dogear a shit-ton of pages. I’d apologize, but I feel it’s important to discuss this stuff.

So Ms. Ehrenreich leaves Maine and heads to Minneapolis, where she does in fact end up at a Wal-Mart. In her interview, she learns about Wal-Mart culture:

[The interviewer] personally read Sam Walton’s book (his autobiography, Made in America) before starting to work here and found that the three pillars of Wal-Mart philosophy precisely fit her own, and these are service, excellence (or something like that), and she can’t remember the third. [p. 125]

Oh, my god.

Much of her time in Minneapolis is dealing with the severe housing shortage – she housesits for a while, then ends up having to stay in a Motel 6. I think she manages to get an efficiency apartment in the last week of her experiment, but she is constantly juggling the distance from where she could find an apartment to the suburban Wal-Mart, the cost of gas, and other amenities. It is difficult to find the perfect balance between housing, transportation, and job location.

This next bit sums up the retail life something fierce. I apologize in advance for the lengthy quotation, but guys, this is important. It all starts when one of Ms. Ehrenreich’s coworkers gets sent to another department where she doesn’t know the product as well:

It’s the difference between working and pretending to work. You push your cart a few feet, pause significantly with item in hand, frown at the ambient racks, then push on and repeat the process. “I just don’t like wasting their money,” Melissa says when she’s allowed back. “I mean they’re paying me and I just wasn’t accomplishing anything over there.” To me, this anger seems badly mis-aimed. What does she think, that the Walton family is living in some hidden room in the back of the store, in the utmost frugality, and likely to be ruined by $21 worth of wasted labor? [p. 180]

And before I get into the other half of this piece: I had a friend who used to work one day up in the Women’s department. Now, his home base was primarily Footwear, and the rest of the time Men’s Apparel, but that one day a week he had to work in Women’s for one of the brands we were pushing at the time. And he said multiple times that he didn’t feel that … how did he phrase it? It was something along the lines of, “I’ll do it, because you tell me to and it’s my job, but I’m not as effective upstairs [in Women’s] as I am downstairs.” And his argument was not the same argument as Melissa’s above. He was gladly taking his paycheck, regardless of where he was working; he did not begrudge a cent given to him, and rightly so. He saw it from the customer’s point of view, where he was, admittedly, correct: women shop differently from men, he’s not as familiar with the women’s product as the men’s, so therefore, his skills weren’t utilized to the maximum potential. But his argument about working in a different department did not stem from the idea that he was wasting the company’s money.

So in the middle of this labor discussion, this happens:

[Melissa] suddenly dives behind the rack that separates the place we’re standing. […] Worried that I may have offended her somehow, I follow right behind. “Howard,” she whispers. “Didn’t you see him come by? We’re not allowed to talk to each other, you know.” [p. 180]

BECAUSE GOD FORBID TWO COWORKERS HAVE A CONVERSATION. GOD FORBID TWO PEOPLE SHARE STORIES AND EXPERIENCES IN ORDER TO BETTER THEIR WORK LIVES. BECAUSE GOD FORBID THAT THINGS OTHER THAN RESTOCKING SHELVES AND HELPING CUSTOMERS HAPPEN ON A SALES FLOOR. BECAUSE GOD FORBID YOU HIRE HUMAN BEINGS AND EXPECT THEM TO ACT LIKE ROBOTS.

Now, Wal-Mart — much like Mother Russia — does not like when you talk behind her back. Especially when that most dreaded word floats up in conversation – union. And this is how Ms. Ehrenreich commented on that situation:

So if low-wage workers do not always behave in an economically rational way, that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in any way democratic. When you enter the low-wage workplace — and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well — you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift. The consequences of this routine surrender go beyond the issues of wages and poverty. We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world’s preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship. [p. 210]

And in those various dictatorships, after taking those various personality surveys, what did she learn about the relationship between management and employees?

While I encountered some cynics and plenty of people who had learned to budget their energy, I never met an actual slacker or, for that matter, a drug addict or thief. On the contrary, I was amazed and sometimes saddened by the pride people took in jobs that rewarded them so meagerly, either in wages or in recognition. Often, in fact, these people experienced management as an obstacle to getting the job done as it should be done. […] Left to themselves, [the employees] devised systems of cooperation and work sharing; when there was a crisis, they rose to it. In fact, it was often hard to see what the function of management was, other than to exact obeisance.  [p. 212]

HELL TO THE MOTHERFUCKING YES, PEOPLE. JESUS GOD YES.

I promise this is my last quote from Ms. Ehrenreich’s book. I’m sure you’re wondering what else I could possibly have not included, as this is most likely one of the longest reviews I’ve ever done. But guys, if you don’t work retail – or have ever worked any low-wage job – you don’t get it. There is a corps of people I have worked with who have shared these exact same experiences – it doesn’t matter if your dress code is “blue shirt and khakis” or “green shirt and khakis,” or even “fashion-forward and fully made-up”: there will always be a severe disconnect between what is promised from management to employee (“we recognize you value your personal life, so we give you a work-life balance!”) and what is actually delivered (“look, all the other managers have families with little kids, so even though you requested it off as your number one choice, we’re going to need you to work Christmas night.” “…. So, I have to work because my womb has never been occupied?!”)

What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life. [p. 187]

So please – unban this book. Read it. Devour it. Hell, Christmas is tomorrow and Bull Moose is still open; buy a copy for someone. Buy it for your manager! It will be hilarious!

But most importantly, send a copy to your Congressman/woman – especially if they keep voting to keep the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour.

Grade for Nickel and Dimed: 5 stars

Non-Fiction: “The Race Underground” by Doug Most

race undergroundFor this year’s selection for American History Month (because yes, I am making that a Thing and no one can stop me), I went beyond the Presidents that I don’t know and Teddy Roosevelt, and went for a moment in history that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been discussed: the inception of the subway system.

Occasionally, I think deep thoughts.  And some of those deep thoughts occur while driving.  For instance, I could be driving to Boston to see my friend Jen (don’t forget to buy her book!), and all of a sudden, I’ll realize that a hundred years ago, the road I’m driving on didn’t exist.  There was no I-95 in 1914.  There were barely cars during that time!  And it’ s not like Boston built its city up, around and over the existing T – those tracks had to be created.  Basically, sometimes the things we take for granted scare me.  But then I listen to the next episode of Welcome to Night Vale and I feel a bit better.

This book was shown in one of my Goodreads newsletters, and luckily, my local library had a copy for me and I was able to read it in time for American History Month.  According to the subtitle, the book is supposed to talk about the rivalry that occurred between Boston and New York with regards to their subways, but while the story was interesting and intriguing, I wouldn’t say it was a rivalry.  I mean, the greatest rivalry between Boston and New York is between the Red Sox and the Yankees.  I’m not even from Boston, and I’m not even a big Red Sox fan, and I grew up with a deeply-ingrained hatred of the Yankees — y’know, when I bother to think about baseball.  If there was a true rivalry between Boston and New York while they were building their subways, I would have expected to have seen some Bostonians down in New York, booing the tunnel diggers and telling them they suck.

What really happened was that, between bureaucracy, red tape, and a monopoly on the cable-car system of the day, New York wasn’t as quick to adapt to the concept of a subway as Boston was.  Therefore, Boston’s subway opened up first (in 1897) and New York’s subway didn’t open until 1904.  That’s it.

The book talks a lot about the different inventors and innovations that occurred leading up to the first American subways.  London had the first Underground system, and in its first inception, was steam powered.  That meant a lot of disgusting air and smoke in the tunnels, which made the rides very uncomfortable.  The American cities wanted to avoid that, so they kept going with their above-ground trollies and cable-cars.  But eventually, between population growth and the width of the streets, traffic jams were horrible (imagine your daily rush hour commute.  Now imagine that with horse poop.  You’re welcome) and something needed to be done.

Two brothers from Brookline, Henry and William Whitney, were instrumental in both Boston and New York in creating the subway systems.  Henry stayed in Boston and was one of the first men to consider a subway as an acceptable alternative (imagine, if you will, Boston full of elevated train lines.  I mean, yes, the Green Line is above-ground from Lechmere to North Station, but imagine that ALL OVER).  William married into the New York scene, and in-between being assistant secretary of the Navy (before Teddy Roosevelt – I just can’t quit him!) worked very hard in the transportation department of New York City, monopolizing cable-cars and eventually, getting the required charter for the team that would actually build the New York subway.

I enjoyed the book – I thought it was very thoroughly-researched, but it wasn’t boring.  Unlike The Story of Ain’t, this author was able to keep the narrative through-line throughout the book; I didn’t feel confused by all the “old white guys” that populate its story.  As someone who rides the T at least once a month (I live in Maine, I’m not a native Bostonian), I love that I’m able to recognize landmarks like the Park Street Station, and Tremont Street, and the Common, and know about Somerville and Brookline – all of those words mean something to me.  I can also appreciate how god-awful old the Green Line actually is, which is why I hate riding it.  (And now Government Center is closed for two years.  Because yes, it needs an update, but two years?!  That’s crazy!)

I do not have any familiarity with the New York Metro, however.  It is on my list of Places to Go, but as of yet, I have not gotten any closer to New York City than driving I-95 through it at 5:30 in the morning coming back from Florida two years ago.

If you’re from Boston or New York, or are just interested in the engineering behind building a subway system, then you’d probably like this book.  If you don’t fit any of those qualities … you probably won’t read it.  And that’s okay, too.

And before I go, here’s the true difference between New York and Boston:

becausefuckyou

Grade for The Race Underground3 stars