J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Ellegy is a must read

I actually met J.D. Vance some years ago at a mutual friend’s wedding, though I honestly don’t recall much about him other than that he was a generally polite and intelligent gentlemen. Still, the mutual friend speaks very highly of the man, and given my respect for my friend, my ultimate conclusion is that J.D. is a genuinely good guy, which this book did nothing to change. If anything, hearing the story of his childhood amidst the culture of rural Appalachian whites only made his current state all the more interesting.

If you read this book without any intent to gain insight into societal issues, you will still not be disappointed. Vance’s writing is compelling and he spins a well thought narrative throughout. From the fiery rhetoric of his grandmother, affectionately known as “Mawmaw” (who frequently threatens to blow peoples’ body parts off upon any hint of threat towards her grandchildren), to the loving but ultimately tragic relationship with his mother, this is a story worth hearing for that sake alone. But I think to get the best out of the book, we must take Vance’s story in the context of the times, as window into a dark and rarely explored section of our society.

Vance’s paints a picture of a culture that at times exhibits admirable qualities. The hillbillies of Kentucky are fiercely loyal, protective, and insistent on handling matters themselves. When a child molester is caught, Vance’s grandmother brags about how he was found riddled with bullet holes before the justice system ever had a chance to be invoked. Mawmaw defends her grandchildren in a way that would make most mothers look like lightweights, at one point telling her own daughter that she will shoot her in the face if any more harms comes to Vance or his sister. And Vance credits her installment of the virtues of hard work and perseverance with his ultimate success. There is much to be imitated and lauded.

At the same time, Vance talks honestly about the darker underbelly of this forgotten corner of America. Physical abuse, drugs, and rampant familial chaos are commonplace, and often excused as normal rather than called out for the harm they cause. The so-called “nuclear family” is virtually non-existent, replaced by a revolving door of boyfriends through his life, ultimately causing him to grow cold and resistant towards forming any attachments. Underlying it all is a disturbing lack of personal accountability, where all problems are caused by some ever present, insurmountable external force. Vance tells of friends who complained after being fired from numerous jobs, seemingly blind to the fact that their own tardiness and poor work habits caused their demise.

Vance is careful not to give prescriptions for solving these issues that he feels he is not qualified to offer. But he does point out that the often simplistic outside view of poverty, that all poor people are merely downtrodden and working through hard times, is no more true than its polar opposite, that all poor are merely lazy and lack motivation. Rather, the picture is much more nuanced and painted in shades of gray. Yes, it’s true that welfare can be helpful in keeping food on the table, but it has led to the erosion of communal assistance and the larger familial unit, along with encouraging those in poverty to stay there. Child protective services, no doubt an overal force for good, inadvertently encourages children not to implicate their parents in abusive behavior, lest they be wrested from the very support structures they have known all their lives (in Vance’s case, his grandparents).

Ultimately, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable (though at times depressing) and informative read. Anyone who cares about the plight of the poor, especially white rural populations, should read this book. The vivid portrait of a culture in crisis may well reshape your views and ultimately the policies and actions you advocate for. In light of the rise of Donald Trump, whose emotionally targeted rhetoric plays directly into the fears and world views of those in the rust belt and coal towns of America, perhaps we can no longer ignore the plight of this silent majority of Americans.

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Ellegy is a must read

I actually met J.D. Vance some years ago at a mutual friend’s wedding, though I honestly don’t recall much about him other than that he was a generally polite and intelligent gentlemen. Still, the mutual friend speaks very highly of the man, and given my respect for my friend, my ultimate conclusion is that J.D. is a genuinely good guy, which this book did nothing to change. If anything, hearing the story of his childhood amidst the culture of rural Appalachian whites only made his current state all the more interesting.

If you read this book without any intent to gain insight into societal issues, you will still not be disappointed. Vance’s writing is compelling and he spins a well thought narrative throughout. From the fiery rhetoric of his grandmother, affectionately known as “Mawmaw” (who frequently threatens to blow peoples’ body parts off upon any hint of threat towards her grandchildren), to the loving but ultimately tragic relationship with his mother, this is a story worth hearing for that sake alone. But I think to get the best out of the book, we must take Vance’s story in the context of the times, as window into a dark and rarely explored section of our society.

Vance’s paints a picture of a culture that at times exhibits admirable qualities. The hillbillies of Kentucky are fiercely loyal, protective, and insistent on handling matters themselves. When a child molester is caught, Vance’s grandmother brags about how he was found riddled with bullet holes before the justice system ever had a chance to be invoked. Mawmaw defends her grandchildren in a way that would make most mothers look like lightweights, at one point telling her own daughter that she will shoot her in the face if any more harms comes to Vance or his sister. And Vance credits her installment of the virtues of hard work and perseverance with his ultimate success. There is much to be imitated and lauded.

At the same time, Vance talks honestly about the darker underbelly of this forgotten corner of America. Physical abuse, drugs, and rampant familial chaos are commonplace, and often excused as normal rather than called out for the harm they cause. The so-called “nuclear family” is virtually non-existent, replaced by a revolving door of boyfriends through his life, ultimately causing him to grow cold and resistant towards forming any attachments. Underlying it all is a disturbing lack of personal accountability, where all problems are caused by some ever present, insurmountable external force. Vance tells of friends who complained after being fired from numerous jobs, seemingly blind to the fact that their own tardiness and poor work habits caused their demise.

Vance is careful not to give prescriptions for solving these issues that he feels he is not qualified to offer. But he does point out that the often simplistic outside view of poverty, that all poor people are merely downtrodden and working through hard times, is no more true than its polar opposite, that all poor are merely lazy and lack motivation. Rather, the picture is much more nuanced and painted in shades of gray. Yes, it’s true that welfare can be helpful in keeping food on the table, but it has led to the erosion of communal assistance and the larger familial unit, along with encouraging those in poverty to stay there. Child protective services, no doubt an overal force for good, inadvertently encourages children not to implicate their parents in abusive behavior, lest they be wrested from the very support structures they have known all their lives (in Vance’s case, his grandparents).

Ultimately, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable (though at times depressing) and informative read. Anyone who cares about the plight of the poor, especially white rural populations, should read this book. The vivid portrait of a culture in crisis may well reshape your views and ultimately the policies and actions you advocate for. In light of the rise of Donald Trump, whose emotionally targeted rhetoric plays directly into the fears and world views of those in the rust belt and coal towns of America, perhaps we can no longer ignore the plight of this silent majority of Americans.

What I Am Thankful For – 2013 Edition

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything here. For a variety of reasons, I’ve simply found that other things have taken a priority. I’ve been largely OK with that, but part of me has decidedly missed the habit of writing. And so, on this day of thanks, I sit here with my warm cup of tea beside me, and struggle to adequately describe just how grateful I am for all that I have been blessed with.

My life is far from perfect. But that doesn’t mean I don’t live an incredible easy life, compared to most. And that is a fact I remind myself of multiple times a day.

Being a parent brings its share of challenges and struggles, as anyone with children knows well. But I love my family more than life itself, and I would not trade my time with them for anything in the world. I’ve heard it said that no one will make you feel worse than your children, but no one will make you feel better than your children. That’s about as accurate a statement about parenthood as I know. So today, I am thankful for my two wonderful children, my loving, supportive wife, and the rest of our family, both blood and those incredible friends we hold so dear.

Work has been stressful as of late, with lots of deadlines looming and multiple demands on my attention. I’ve had a lot of difficult interactions where I struggled mightily to keep my patience intact. I feel that I may have engaged in a little too much complaining on the home front, but to her credit, my wife has listened to my rants with a patient ear. But I do love my job, despite those challenges. I’m given an amazing amount of autonomy and freedom to manage my time, and I enjoy being at the forefront of new initiatives. My company has always treated me with respect and appreciation, which is more than I hear from many. So today, I am thankful for the opportunities I have been given and continue to enjoy, even in these, well, interesting economic times.

Over the last year or so I’ve become far more interested in politics and the state of our nation. As a result, I’ve read a lot of negative things about the good ol’ US of A. Depending on what you read, we’re either becoming a totalitarian state, following ancient Rome into collapse, or on the verge of massive economic disaster. Maybe some of these doomsday prophecies will turn out true in the end, but then again maybe they won’t. I don’t know that anyone could argue that we do not still represent an amazing achievement in the annals of human history. Ask yourself: has anyone done a better job of walking the delicate line between freedom and anarchy? Has anyone been responsible for more progress in the realms of social, economic, and political liberty? Who else has endured through countless crises, only to emerge stronger and lead the world into what may be the most prosperous era in recorded history?

Does this mean that the good times will continue on indefinitely? That the so-called Pax Americana will stretch on ad-inifinitum? That we will face down all of the many challenges we will encounter in the coming years, from a dwindling supply of natural resources to a world economy that seems to be stuck in neutral, and come forth the same dominant force in the world? Certainly not. There’s any number of things that could happen that would result in a (quite possibly less than graceful) fall from power. Greater, more enduring empires have fallen before, and will surely do so again. Some day, America as we know it will cease to exist. It will become a thing of stories, a mere blink in the great expanse of history.

But for the here and now, I can think of no place where I would rather raise my children. Despite what many might say, I still believe we are the land of opportunity, where individuals are empowered with an incredible level of freedom and abundance, where one has the ability to make their way in life as they may choose. This is something that I strive to remember each and every day. And so, today, I am thankful for being a part of this still great nation.

The Importance of Making Junk

I was just sitting here looking over some old code projects of mine, and thinking “Man this stuff is junk. How’d I write this?! And why’d I waste my time on it?” These included a Java library for parsing tweets for data mining (boy that was going to be a great open source project), my first .NET application that was for work and used Microsoft Access as a back-end, and various other half-started works that never really took hold. At first this was rather discouraging, since it reminded me of my genetic pre-disposition to not following through on my projects (a topic for another day for sure).

Then it hit me: it’s only by writing all this crap (and believe me, most of it really is steaming piles of crap), trying out different routes and ideas, and ultimately letting them fall off that I’ve been able to improve my skills as much as I have. Picture the proverbial writer sitting at the typewriter with a pile of crumpled papers next to them, head in hands. But then, one day, something clicks, and out comes a masterpiece.

It’s not important that all we produce is wonderful, glittery, and perfect. No, what’s really crucial is that we keep going and pushing ourselves, especially when it seems like all we churn out is junk. That junk is gold, because it’s what teaches us to do better. As long as we keep learning from our mistakes and bad ideas, then we grow as professionals and human beings. And sooner or later, you might just produce that golden egg.