The Land of Steady Hazards

Longtime readers may have noticed that in recent months I’ve dialed down my griping about the state of Connecticut on this blog.

Because why give away the milk for free! Over at the Yankee Institute, I’ve been turning my criticisms into hard currency with a series of spitballs aimed at Hartford.

To wit:

Most economists agree that while raising minimum wages benefits a majority of workers, some jobs are lost no matter how small the increase. A paper by a DC think tank duplicated the methodology of a similar Congressional Budget Office study and found that those job losses affect young, unskilled entry-level workers, thereby disproportionately hitting the workforce in already struggling cities like Bridgeport and Hartford. The study suggests that governments can aid low-income workers without jeopardizing any jobs by instead expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. I didn’t know this when I wrote the piece, but in 2011 Connecticut cut the state EITC to 25 percent of the federal credit, down from 30 percent.

Just last week I wrote about how CT’s Department of Labor mandates that employers report all new hires to the state within 20 days. The state even has a website telling you how to do it: just print out a form and either mail or fax it in. That’s right, unless you’re willing to use the state’s hyper-complicated FTP format, there’s no way to send the information online because the website hasn’t worked for at least three years. Instead you must send a piece of paper to Hartford, where presumably somebody manually punches it into a database. Connecticut — the land of tomorrow!

But my favorite so far has been a piece of investigative journalism in which I reported the state gave $5 million to a Wall Street company to move from White Plains to Stamford. You see, with companies like Aetna and General Electric routinely abandoning Connecticut for more salubrious shores, Malloy’s Department of Economic and Community Development has been throwing corporate welfare at anybody with more than two house elves on the payroll if they’ll move to CT or just simply stay put. In this case, the DECD handed out a $1 million grant and a $4 million loan to a company called FSC CT, of which only $1 million had to be paid back.

Except it turns out the guy running FSC CT, Leonard Tannenbaum, was a crook:

In October 2014, Tannenbaum went public with an IPO for Fifth Street Asset Management, a company which in turn invested in two other publicly traded companies he also started, Fifth Street Finance (FSC) and Fifth Street Floating Rate Corp. (FSFR). Both FSC and FSFR were business development companies (BDCs), financial instruments that offer loans to small and mid-sized businesses.

On the eve of the IPO, Tannenbaum owned 94 percent of FSAM, raising the value of his shares to $684 million once it went public.

Yet not long after the IPO, FSC revealed that many of its loans to businesses were considered nonaccrual loans, meaning they couldn’t generate interest because the borrowers hadn’t been paying them back and were in danger of default. On top of that, FSC had been overpaying fees to FSAM.

A bunch of lawsuits and one SEC investigation later, the whole pyramid collapsed, burying at least $2 million of the loan irretrievably. The state will probably never see the $1 million grant again either.

There’s more of my work to come at the Yankee Institute. In the meantime, Yay, Connecticut!

Blue Roofs

Baptist church, San Juan.

Last month, my oldest son and I spent a week in Puerto Rico volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service.

I first heard about MDS in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I subsequently learned they have a strong reputation within the disaster-relief world, largely due to the fact that they draw upon the Mennonite community for volunteers, many of whom have hard construction skills. At the time we had a newborn so running off for a week without my family was unfeasible, but I bookmarked MDS in the back of my mind.

Fast forward to 2018, where a combination of headlines, my son turning 16 (the minimum age for MDS work), and my dad’s passing inspired me to sign up. There was something else too. Looking at the world around me I notice the two commodities in scarcest supply are health and wealth, and it’s dawned on me that maybe I need to do more to help those who don’t possess what I take for granted. A common game to play with kids is, If you could have any superpower what would it be? The usual answer is the ability to fly or turn invisible. But lately I’ve wondered if maybe some of us wake up with powers every morning but don’t even realize it.

Somewhere between Cayey and Aibonito.

MDS has ongoing projects in Aibonito and Utuado, both in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, and Ponce, on the southern coast. I had been very concerned about the heat — real-feel temperatures in Ponce can break 100 — but as luck would have it we were assigned to Aibonito, which is nicknamed “the Fridge of Puerto Rico” for its cool climate. We arrived on a Saturday and, after waiting a few hours in San Juan for the rest of our party to arrive, drove into the mountains to Aibonito, 2,400 feet above sea level.

I soon learned Aibonito is home to a substantial Mennonite community, which includes a parochial school and a hospital. Our hosts, Harry and Linda, had restored what was once the hacienda on an old sugar plantation. Linda’s father had been a leading figure in town and she had grown up in the casa. Years later, she returned to the island to learn the house had fallen into bad disrepair; one thing led to another, and the couple stayed to renovate it. I didn’t know what to expect before arriving — I guessed we might be sleeping on bunk beds in a trailer — so to me staying in a historic early 20th-century plantation house was five-star accommodations.

A closed special-education school in Aibonito.

Last year, as a result of its ongoing financial crisis, Puerto Rico closed 167 schools and another 265 are scheduled to be shut down soon. According to the PR education secretary, enrollment is declining by 20,000 students every year and more than half of the island’s schools have less than a 60-percent occupancy rate. We saw three different shuttered schools in the seven days we were on the island.

Only happy when it rains.

Because my son and I were the only ones to bring rain gear, we volunteered to work outside on Monday, which is when “hurricane remnant” Beryl hit the island. Hurricane Maria had torn the roof off the largest building at the Academia Menonita Betania, the local parochial school. Getting the Academia into functioning condition before the fall was a priority, and our project leader John was staring at a hard Tuesday deadline for a pump truck and cement mixer to arrive and pour concrete for the footing of the new roof. Unfortunately, the forms — the molds for the concrete — hadn’t been completed, so the three of us worked in Beryl’s downpour, climbing and hammering on second-floor scaffolds. We finished the following sunny morning and the concrete was poured successfully. Steel trusses will arrive in August with the roof following afterward.

Once the mad scramble to finish the forms was done, we didn’t have much to do beyond standing around and watching the concrete crew work.

The rest of the week we worked with the others in our group (there were five of us, along with John) to complete work at one house — paneling with T1-11, doing finish trim, hanging doors — and install the metal roofing on another. This second house, located in the bush far west of town, was the highlight for me as I’d always wanted to install a steel roof.

Blue roofs are an ubiquitous sight on the island; FEMA has distributed 126,000 blue tarps and the US Army Corps of Engineers has installed temporary roofing on almost 60,000 homes, though neither FEMA nor anyone else can give specific numbers on how many roofs need replacement. Bear in mind that neither FEMA nor the Corps has actually replaced any roofs — that’s been left to either homeowners or volunteers.

We installed the fascias and gutters too.

Because building codes aren’t well enforced on the island, MDS has its own engineer-designed protocols for rebuilding, many of which echo Fortified techniques. Studs are anchored to the foundation and beams are strapped to the studs; plywood is screwed (not nailed) to the beams and joists, and a weatherproof sheeting is laid over the plywood before the steel roof is screwed down with more than a thousand screws. Overkill for sure, but meant to survive any future Cat 5 storm that blows off the sea.

The homeowner was living temporarily in his parents’ house across the street, taking care of both his elderly father and his brother, who is wheelchair bound with multiple sclerosis. He and his wife cooked lunch for us everyday — following it with some of the best café con leche I’ve ever tasted — and they couldn’t have been more gracious. They struck me as good, honest people who’d been dealt some bad cards, and all of us were grateful that providence — or maybe Providence — had aligned the teeth of our cosmic gears.

The beach in San Juan. Actual color.

Strange as it might sound, by the end of the week I felt energized and refreshed, almost as if I had been on vacation and not making forms or screwing down roofing. And, in fact, one of the best ways to help Puerto Rico is for tourists simply to return. While damage from Maria is prevalent, PR is far from any sort of post-apocalyptic setting — one night, my son and I ate at the McDonalds in Aibonito — and unemployment on the island is 9.3 percent, still staggeringly high by US standards but the lowest rate for PR since 2000. MDS isn’t the only relief group active on the island; at the airport we saw Mormon volunteers as well as gaggles of teenagers belonging to various groups, and there are many opportunities for voluntourism as well.

For once I’m too humbled to have any grand takeaways about the experience, though it warmed this shaggy steppenwolf’s heart to be surrounded by folks acting upon their faith to help others in very tangible ways. I truly believe you make the world you live in — if thoughts become actions, then our shared reality is an expression of our individual minds. The implications of this can be both disturbing and hopeful, and while I’m by nature inclined to dwell upon the former, I make it a point to focus on the good.

Bourdain

Friday was a bad day for me. Over my morning coffee I learned yet another writer I loved and admired had asked himself Camus’s question and replied in the negative. Only a few days before, I’d seen an ad for Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and resolved to watch it as I had once obsessively watched every episode of No Reservations, sometimes repeatedly, before failing to follow him to CNN. Having forgotten Bourdain, there he was on a billboard, like an old coworker with whom I’d lost touch. It made me happy to catch up, to think of what adventures we would have together. Again.

A certain chill creeps down the spine whenever I learn of a writer’s suicide. By and large, writers are not well in the head to begin with. The compulsion to record, to constantly jot in notebooks, to write down every thought or trivial experience is not something ordinary people experience; it’s a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder sprouting from the anxiety each and every one of us feels, that black thing we try to keep hidden but which lies there like a wounded bear in a cave. Nor is our constant introspection, most of it self-critical, a looping Movietone news reel of past failures and mistakes and embarrassments, particularly healthy. There’s also the loneliness. And the rejection. Then too is our constant dismay at the state of things, in all places and all eras, at the injustice and stupidity of the planet. Scratch a writer and you scratch a glass half-empty, no matter how many teaspoons of jokes and one-liners he may stir into it.

And that’s the baseline. Spread a clinical mental illness like depression on top and it’s a wonder why more writers don’t rev the engine with the garage door closed.

Not all suicides affect the same way. I can only shake my head at Robert E. Howard, who at his death — at age 30! — stood in the doorway between the fantasy stories for which he is remembered and the kind of American adventure writing that would have probably shelved his works beside those of Jack London and Louis L’Amour. Ernest Hemingway’s shotgun-guzzling is easy to explain once you realize he very likely suffered from CTE after a lifetime of taking too many knocks — from amateur boxing, from auto accidents, from airplane crashes within days of each other — to the noggin.

On the other hand, the news of Spalding Gray bothered me. And Hunter S. Thompson rattled me hard, leading to several nights of face-on-my-desk consumption and a black umbrella that lingered overhead for weeks. I apologize, BTW, for anything I might have said or written on the Internet during that period.

To a writer, a writer’s suicide is always personal. You think about their spouses and children, and maybe even the works unwritten, but you can’t help suspect, deep down, that the act may be a prophecy as well. Is it future or is it past.

A few years ago I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which was met with less concern than relief. My father had bad OCD and was a hoarder while my mother was the victim of physical abuse by her parents, the reverberations of which it’s taken me some forty-odd years to recognize. You grow up thinking your life is normal, and only through the lens of hindsight do you think maybe not, and wonder if maybe it molded you a little, if perhaps it explains certain behavior.

“The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion,” Sartre tells us. “He will never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which fatally leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuse.” There’s a lot of sense in that. Yet if your default position is toward a certain passion and you have to consciously move yourself out of that position to avoid going in a bad direction, then it stands to reason you may not have always possessed the awareness that such action was required on your part. You went with the default, which wasn’t the right choice, because you didn’t understand you had a choice. For me, the diagnosis was a map. It’s easier to see the exit to the hedge labyrinth from overhead than from ground level.

I have a to-read bookshelf in my house — not a virtual to-read shelf like on Goodreads but rather an actual shelf where I have books queued for landing like airplanes at EWR. Plucking Medium Raw, Bourdain’s brilliant collection of post-fame essays from 2010, off the shelf this weekend reminded me what a writer we’ve lost. The book is, cover to cover, electric prose, mixing personal stories of adventure and behind-the-scenes anecdotes with calls for basic cooking competency to be taught in our schools and Asian-style hawker markets — basically food courts with independent food stalls instead of chains — in our towns. You can hear his voice in every word; every chapter reads like the longer, uncut draft of a No Reservations monologue. It’s a beer with that funny friend of yours, the one who’s been out traveling the world while you were home paying the mortgage and helping Johnny with his math homework.

It also makes me wonder about Bourdain’s default positioning. Suicide is mentioned often, usually in Thompsonesque too-weird-to-live hyperbole. In one chapter, Bourdain describes escaping to St. Martin after the collapse of his first marriage, where every night he drove drunk while listening to a local, maybe pirate, radio station that spun an unpredictable playlist of yacht rock and classic hits:

You never knew what was coming up. In the rare moments of lucidity, when I tried to imagine who the DJ might be and what his story was, I’d always picture the kid from Almost Famous, holed up, like me, in the Caribbean for reasons he’d probably rather not discuss; only in his case, he’d brought his older sister’s record collection circa 1972. I liked to imagine him out there in a dark studio, smoking weed and spinning records, seemingly at random — or, like me, according to his own, seemingly aimless, barely under control, and very dark agenda.

He then talks about playing Russian roulette with the station and a stretch of cliffside road.

For a second or two each night, for a distance of a few feet, I’d let my life hang in the balance, because, depending entirely on what song came on the radio next, I’d decide to either jerk the wheel at the appropriate moment, continuing, however recklessly, to careen homeward — or simply straighten the fucker out and shoot over the edge and into the sea.

The French investigator in Bourdain’s death has said the evidence points to it being “an impulsive act.” That I believe.

I imagine death to be the ultimate earmuffs and blindfold, the only and best way for a writer to finally shut up the voices and the critics, to shut off the looping film reel projecting all of the bad memories and bad thoughts onto the screen behind their eyes. I can imagine peace there, and I suspect that’s what those writers who answer Camus with a No are really looking for — not attention, not you’ll-miss-me-when-I’m-gone spite, but just simple peace and quiet. What they don’t realize is that in the absence of their words, their blog posts and impressions and stories scribbled in notebooks and on the backs of envelopes and napkins while sitting in the waiting room or at the bar, the noise and lights are that much louder, that much more glaring, for the rest of us.

The Privateers of Black Rock Harbor

On Wednesday, May 30 I’ll be giving a presentation at the Fairfield Museum and History Center on the privateers that sailed in and out of Black Rock Harbor.

There’s a fine line between a pirate and a privateer — and it’s as thin as a piece of paper issued by the government. Come hear how such Fairfield luminaries as Thaddeus Burr, Samuel Smedley, and Caleb Brewster as well as many other “gentlemen of fortune” banded together to attack the British on the high seas during the Revolutionary War.

I’ll talk about the differences between privateers, pirates, and traditional navies; how the booty from captured ships was divided not only between the owners and the crew but between the officers and sailors themselves (a scheme that relates back to the Golden Age of Piracy); and how many of the privateers in Black Rock didn’t sail aboard large ships but rather hunted in wolf packs of armed whaleboats.

The lunchtime presentation starts at 12:30pm. Full details here.

Remember That Thing I Wrote

Woman pouring alcohol from a cane into her Coca-Cola.
Library of Congress, 1922

Here’s a blast from the past: I just learned the entry I wrote on the Prohibition of Alcohol for the Cato Institute’s Encyclopedia of Libertarianism was put online last summer. Way back in 2008, I was asked to contribute a thousand words on the subject as a result of an article I had written in Reason on Prohibition in and around New York City, but until now the Encyclopedia was only available in very expensive print.

America’s discomfort with alcohol developed in the mid-19th century. Previously, alcoholic beverages were an established facet of American society: George Washington operated a whiskey distillery, Thomas Jefferson dabbled in viticulture, and Samuel Adams had his brewery. Hard cider and rum enjoyed mass appeal, and rum was a common barter item in the cash-strapped New World. Even religiously rigid groups such as the Puritans and the Quakers stressed moderation rather than abstinence.

Not long after the book was published, I read a review of it on a libertarian website which spent a disproportionate amount of pixels criticizing my entry. The issue lay in my very different interpretation of how Prohibition’s repeal came about in 1933. The standard libertarian narrative states that repeal occurred once politicians realized they stood to make more money by taxing alcohol rather than banning it, and therefore as rational actors they responded to market incentives and re-legalized booze, albeit under heavy regulatory control.

It’s true there were some politicians at the time who justified repeal to their constituents with such logic, but the real story is a lot more messy and, frankly, human. While in the beginning Prohibition was popular among certain groups of Americans, opinion had turned against it by the end of the 1920s, mainly because of its association with crime and violence. Arguably the biggest turning point was the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of seven gangsters in Chicago, which seems quaint considering how habituated we are today to an endless stream of violence, imprisonments, and overdoses in the name of the War on Drugs.

By 1932 — an election year — politicians had jumped upon the issue, which (if you read my entry) ranked higher in people’s minds than the economic crisis. At the Republican convention, Herbert Hoover, who was a staunch temperance man, refused to buckle to overwhelming public pressure for all-out repeal, so as a compromise the Republicans chose a “moist” platform, which called for the legalization of beer and wine but a continued prohibition of hard spirits. Like most compromises, this satisfied no one; the American public wanted full repeal while the Anti-Saloon League and their acolytes wanted to stay the course.

The Democratic convention followed afterwards. Seizing the opportunity, Democrats voted on a full repeal platform, and a group of them opposed to presidential contender Al Smith (who was Catholic and had enemies within the party) offered the nomination to Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. on the condition that he switch his stance from dry to wet. FDR was never one to let personal principles interfere with his ambition and flipped on the spot. Of course, he won the 1932 election, and before the end of his first year in office, the 21st Amendment had been ratified by the necessary 36 states.

I learned long ago to ignore that certain stripe of economist-slash-libertarian who assumes people are automatons single-mindedly programmed to chase dollar bills. My experience in anthropology and history has taught me that while, yes, humans are generally rational, the internal code that dictates that rationality is often a mix of fear, love, sex, vengeance, and a whole host of emotions beyond a simple appetite for monetary advantage. A man who pushes his child out of the path of a runaway car is not motivated by his economic desire to avoid hospital bills.

Anyway, I’m glad to see my entry finally made available to the wider world, even if its dated style has far too many thuses and therefores. Weren’t we just talking about writers being embarrassed by older work?

Let the Dead Bury the Dead

At Electric Lit’s Blunt Instrument advice column, an author asked how to absolve herself from the shame of publishing a book she now feels is “juvenile:”

I saw a tweet a little while ago from someone who said, “I would never forgive myself if I wrote a bad book.” I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself, either, and I can’t figure out how to move on. For a time I thought that I would just work hard and write something else that would be so much better and erase the collective memory of my first book (I think I flatter myself to even think there is a collective memory), but I remain filled with doubt. And self-loathing. This might be a better question for a therapist, but here’s the short version: how do you recover from publishing shame?

Elisa Gabbert, the Blunt Instrument’s fount of wisdom, replied in part:

It makes sense that young people, because they lack experience, would tend to undervalue experience and overvalue talent, which may be all they have. It also makes sense that older people would place a higher value on experience, now that they have it. I am not especially young, so you can take my bias into account, but I believe that experience is important, and that more life experience, reading experience, and writing experience are going to make you a better writer.

I don’t disagree with anything Gabbert said and her entire response is worth reading, particularly for her discussion of how the vagaries of publishing often result in a disparity between the fondness an author feels for a work versus its popularity among readers.

Yet what’s significant to me is that Gabbert explicitly underscores such shame being an issue of experience. Writers who are early in their careers — regardless of their age — have smaller portfolios and therefore are more conscious of it. If you only have ten published pieces to your credit and one is awful, that’s ten percent of your bylines; but if you’ve written 100 pieces and one is bad, the stink is confined to a negligible percentage.

All writers produce bad copy — God knows I have. Thankfully most of it is lost to the mists of time, but before you tell me that Google forgets nothing, keep in mind it works both ways: yes, some of my bad stuff has fallen down the memory hole but so have some pieces I’m particularly proud of, even though they were authored in the age of search engines. Publications come and go, and often they take their servers with them. The Internet is no elephant.

If you dug up one of those old pieces of mine, the kind I’d prefer were forgotten, and waved it my face, I wouldn’t be happy. But neither would I lose sleep over it. I have a number of aphorisms I’ve developed over the years. For example: The best response to a piece of bad writing is to create another piece of writing. When I start something and realize it’s not proceeding well, I set it aside and write something else. Sometimes I will cannibalize it for words or ideas but at the very least the act was a warmup, a prelude to a new thing. To the inexperienced, a setback or criticism can seem monstrous but to the jaded rodeo clown it’s like, Meh whatevs.

This subject resonates with me, I think, because this week I’m putting the finishing edits on my current WIP, a 37,000-word novella. Today I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but while I can’t imagine ever hating it, five or ten years from now I may view it more critically. That’s OK because I’d like to think that in five to ten years I’ll be writing even better stuff.

And that, ultimately, is what you have to ask yourself: Does what I’m writing today reflect the best I can do in this moment? Is it a product of my current talent and ability? If not, throw it in a drawer. But if it is, then hustle it, and if your future self doesn’t like it, then tell him to STFU and get cracking on something better. Move forward. Forget the past. Let the dead bury the dead.