American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales

American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales (Knopf, 2016) 404 pages

AG Sales

I actually bought this book when it came out in February and read it sometime in March, I think. But for many reasons, it just percolated up to the top of the pile recently. One reason is that I wanted to talk about it in contrast to Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex, but that will have to wait until next time at the earliest.

I raised one daughter who is now a wife and mother, and my wife Camille teaches K-8 Art (yes, from kindergarten through 8th grade, and she’s watched many a child, boy and girl, grow up and mature along the way). So I didn’t really read this book to find out “all about modern girls” or whatever. I just wanted to see how an author’s perception of the role of social media in the lives of modern American teenage girls corresponded to my personal experiences and the tales I heard my wife and other teachers relate—I promise there will be no titillating details.

For those who came for the “secret lives” promise in the title, the main point the author makes is that teenage girls often live rich lives that remain hidden to their parents, although not necessarily to other parents or the authors of books on social media and teenage girls. I was much the same way when I was a teenager—horrified of my parents finding out something that my friends’ parents knew already—because they caught us doing it. 🙂

I did struggle a bit with the overall organization of the book. A 20-page introduction introduces the reader to the new world of social media in high school and on college campuses, mentioning well-known incidents of sexual and drinking photos posted at Syracuse and ASU. Although I Knew a bit about the problems of early teens “sexting,” a lot of the newer apps like Yeti were new to me. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, I already knew that Facebook was all but obsolete among teens in general, thanks to talks with my wife’s students. Why use anything your parents know well? Are you crazy?)

After the crash-course-social-media introduction, the book is organized into seven chapters spanning the years from 13 (naturally) to 19. A short conclusion chapter ends the book.

I found the structure a bit limiting in letting the reader try to fit together the anecdotes into a coherent whole. And I already knew that some girls in some places at 14 are way ahead of (or far behind) other girls in other places at 16 (although these differences have become more homogenized than a generation or two ago: thanks, MTV et al). If anything, modern social politics has delayed entry into adulthood until after college or beyond, and, as a result, marriage and children come later and later as well. I don’t have to read a book to tell you that many of the kids I went to high school with got married right out of high school (17-18). Only about 50% went to college, and that was in Westchester County in NY.

The rigid structure all but forces Sales into unacknowledged “themes” for each chapter. After all, girls in college at 19 don’t need to watch YouTube videos on how to apply eye makeup like they do at 13 (or 9, if you want to freak out a bit). I did compile a sort of informal list on Sales’ main concerns for each age group:

13: the tech itself. (How many “likes” did I get?) Girls in this chapter deal with 50-100 texts a day (sounds low to me). The Internet traffic is 35% porn, and most kid’s first exposure to on-line porn starts at 6 (p. 13: still the giggly-looky stage…but still), usually through an older sibling or by a Google search gone wrong. (I still recall being absolutely shocked that a middle-school’s computers had no porn blocker…I hope they do today). But no matter: the boys go directly to the girls with “Send noodz” texts, and the girls often produce their own porn just to have some measure of control (p.41). If you want shock, you can ponder the 12-year-old Australian girl’s “I Love COCK” shirt (p.49)

14: The theme here is “Appearance”…it’s all about clothes, makeup, and accessories. There is a lot of Internet celebrities and following them, imitating them, obsessing over them. Sometimes, the girls themselves ARE them. Page 83 has a nice image of a flummoxed dad helpless to understand his daughter’s Internet fame: she won’t do the dishes but she has 100,000 followers on YouTube?

15: The theme shifts to bullying (p.128). About 50% of girls need to “manage their reputation” and for the first time issues of gay/lesbian come along (p.140). Another topic is who-is-cheating-on-whom (all that built-up sexual tension has to go somewhere).  I have to say, bullying is one place where schools I know about are really alert. But stamping out a negative storm of shaming texts is always a problem. For the first time, we meet cutters and other forms of self-harm (p.169).

16: There theme here is “Love” in all its teenage…I was going to say “innocence” but by now it should be obvious there is more innocence on a reality show like Lock Up Raw than there is among teenage girls today. The book relates the 2013 incident in California (p.205 on) where “Uncle Jim” abducts Hannah Anderson. But the usual pervert story is stood on its head when the rescued Hannah, after Jim’s death, becomes an Internet star and brags of her sexual conquests (p.207-208). At 13-14, I think, girls are not often aware of their effect on boys and men (maybe especially men). By 16, however, most know just what they are doing.

17: Love is so 16-ish, don’t you think? As we phase out of high school and into college, the theme is now dating (or rather, the lack thereof) and hooking up. Yes, why date when you can look at a hot guy online and have sex that night, or afternoon, or whenever? And if he doesn’t call, well, why would you want him to, silly? Free love has always been around (p.233), so what’s all the fuss if some of us like it?

18: Now we confront drunk sex and the rape culture. I don’t need to say much here: the case of the California swimmer from Stanford is all over the news. What should be the punishment for fingering a passed-out girl? Should he get points (as someone said) for “not having raped anyone before”? All I can say is it’s as bad as they say.

19: A sobering look at STDs and the risks all this sex talk and action might involve. I have to admit I found the last two chapters a bit depressing (not that Hannah was really uplifting).

So what’s Sales’ conclusion? Well, whether we’re “misunderstood youth” or their well-meaning elders, the author points out that we all manage to grow up. What we want, in the end, is some feeling of intimacy with someone special. The means might change, but as long as the end is satisfying to the partners, people will be all right.

America’s War for the Greater Middle East by Andrew J. Bacevich

America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by Andrew J. Bacevich (Random House, 2016) 453 pages

AW by Bacevich

This is Memorial Day, so this book seems to fit right in. If I live to be 100, my fondest memories of growing up revolve around Memorial Day. In New York, that was the day the pools opened, the big Little League double header, and the day of the big parade (in New York, a lot of kids went away to camp, so the 4th of July parade was non-existent). We all trooped down to Village Hall and stood at quiet attention. There, after the high school band played the Anthem, in front of the statue of Dollar the horse and the War Memorial with the names of the dead, the Ladies Auxiliary of the American Legion (Mrs. Suda and someone else) brought wreath to the monument. Then came the highlight of the day: the firing of the salute…three rounds of three blanks into the deep blue spring sky, the kids scrambling on the ground for the ejected shells, still warm from the barrel. Yes, I still have a few, somewhere. Then, after the local minister or priest gave the blessing, the mayor gave a short speech, and then he read the Roll of Honor: the names of all the locals who had died in all the wars since the Revolution. I am old enough to remember the skinny but absolutely erect veteran of World War I who walked the whole mile of the parade without a cane of help until the year he died in the late 70s. By then, the names of the Vietnam Veterans had joined the rest.

Only when the last name was read did the crowd disperse to their cookouts and barbecues.

That is my memory. By the time I left town in my early fifties, about the time of the second Iraq War, many adults used their cell phones all through the service, their kids ran around the edges of the crowd shouting, and a lot of new residents from South America and Eastern Europe had no idea what was going on, if they bothered to show up at all. I won’t judge them or the times we live in, but books like this help to show where America went off the rails.

All you need to know about this book is on the flap and in the beginning:

From the end of World War II until 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in the Greater Middle East. Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere else. (p. 11)

Bacevich’s book explores how this happened.

Where is started to go wrong is open to debate. The early part of the book goes over a lot of history we have all but forgotten but should not. One key event is the overthrow of the vicious reign of the Shah of Iran by the religious mullahs who still rule the country today. U.S. support of Israel, even when the Israelis attacked U.S. vessels, cost this country the support of the Arab world.

Or maybe it happened even earlier. After Israel won the October War in 1973, the Arab notions retaliated by suspending oil sales to the United States. I still recall the days of gasoline shortages, when you could only buy gas on odd days if your license plate ended in an odd number, or even days for even numbers. (For those who wonder, A-L endings were considered odd, M-Z considered even…at least in New York.) That was when Nixon decided that oil was more important than almost anything else.

Bacevich, a West Point graduate, emphasizes the military aspects of our Middle East dealings, but he has good reminders about other events often overlooked. Everyone knows about how the Iranians took Americans hostage in their embassy in Tehran (p.24). But how many remember that the cause of the student’s action was the U.S. allowing the deposed and dying Shah to enter the US for medical treatment? The students feared that the U.S., which had the CIA kill the elected leader of Iran in 1953 to put the Shah in power in the first place, was plotting their old tyrant’s return. (In spite of repeated claims of conspiracy, there is no evidence that the hostage-taking was a well-thought-out plot.)

In any case, by the time Reagan came along in 1980, America’s policy in what Bacevich calls the Greater Middle East (roughly from Morocco to Pakistan) was founded on three key beliefs (p. 35):

  1. The Soviet Union would take over Middle East oil if we didn’t defend our right to buy it.
  2. Our allies needed the USA to defend them: they were too weak to do it on their own.
  3. Our military had to be strong enough to take the oil we wanted by force if necessary.

Following these tenets led to all kinds of odd things: support for Iraq, then Iran, then neither. Only the military and political mattered: that Sunni/Shia historical and social thing? Who cares! (p. 42).

The Iran-Contra scandal in 1987, which makes Hillary’s silly email problem seem like, well, a silly problem over email, meant that U.S. planes were in danger of being shot down by Hawk missiles that the U.S. had sold to one side or the other (p. 101).

The book slogs on through all the mistakes we made in the First Gulf War, then the Second, as well as our stumbles in Afghanistan and the Balkans (where, oddly, for once we were on the side of the Muslims), and our troubles with Arab revolutions in Egypt and Libya and elsewhere.

Throughout, the author focuses on our military failures, which compounded our shortcomings in the political (democracy for all, as long as you vote in people we like!) and social (get along with those Sunnis/Shia like we get along with minorities and illegal aliens!) arena. Basically, our biggest shortcoming has been to overestimate the impact of air power and modern mechanized warfare and underestimate the will of the people of the invaded country to resist our occupation in spite of a veneer of cooperation.

More than one book I’ve read recently points out that US casualties increased when the Iraqis stopped “fighting” with modern weapons and started using IEDs. And that didn’t start in earnest until the Iraqis realized that the US forces were not there to get rid of Saddam and go home: they were obviously digging in to stay while (and chasing rumors of those “chemical weapons” that had to be hiding somewhere).

The book ends on a depressing note as drone strikes are making a generation of new enemies for us in Libya and Syria (p. 325). And although we can save the lives of more and more of our wounded troops, we have created a large pool of people who will need care for the rest of their lives, not only because they lack arms and legs and faces, but because their ordeal has shattered their minds as well as their bodies.

No, Memorial Day is not the way I remember it. I hope the oil was worth it. I fear it’s not.


Too Much of a Good Thing by Lee Goldman, MD

Too Much of a Good Thing: How Four Key Survival Traits Are Now Killing Us by Lee Goldman, MD (Little-Brown, 2015) 344 pages.

TMOAGT Goldman

One of the things we are finding out (see the March 2016 issue of Discover magazine) is that, as a species, homo sapiens isn’t a unique type of animal. What we are is the sole survivor of a large group of similar species who might have lived in the same place at the same time in Africa. We survived and they didn’t because our species was more than likely better at four things than all the competition. Ironically, the very traits that let us prevail when climate change, animal migration, warfare, and other forms of environmental stress tested our species are now the biggest threats that we have to endure far into the future.

Goldman’s book is the first I’ve seen to systematically explore some of these characteristics. He focuses on four things (and as a doctor, I trust him to be able to judge these kinds of things). These four things once helped us, but now hinder us as civilization replaces the wilds our species grew up in. There are three possible outcomes to the situation humanity finds itself in (p. 6): first, everything can keep getting worse until our children’s children’s children down the line no longer live long enough, or remain healthy enough, to raise enough people to keep the species going. Or, we can radically change our lifestyles enough so that we are able to counter the negative effects of these four things and continue, as a species, to make progress (although some might not be able to make the journey). Finally, we can take advantage of new scientific discoveries to either counter these four things genetically (through genetic modification) or treatments designed to counter their effects as we live our lives.

Before going on, just what are these four things Goldman focuses on? Here they are, as I would translate them (from p. 4) into all their simple glory:

  1. Hunger
  2. Thirst
  3. Fear
  4. Blood clots

Of course, there has to be a bit more about how these four basic characteristics, obviously critical to the survival of any individual in primitive surroundings, have become as much as liability as a benefit in modern civilization.

Let’s look at the list again and add some details:

  1. Hunger: We are still genetically a species that is programmed to eat and eat and eat when food is available in order to stock up on calories in the form of body fat to get us through the lean times between feasts and good harvests (I’ve read elsewhere that without fertilizers and irrigation, 4 out of every 10 crop years were utter failures). But now we’ve eaten ourselves into a world where half of the people in it are overweight, a significant portion of those are downright obese, and “lifestyle diseases” like heart disease and weight-related diabetes are rampant.
  2. Thirst: Our need for water, and the related need to replace the salts we shed through urine and sweat, makes us crave salty foods to the point where we are all at the risk of high blood pressure (HBP). This in turn elevates our risk of heart attack and stroke (the same process essentially causes both).
  3. Fear: We were and are a violent species, understandable enough when we had to fend off lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), but civilization has allowed most of us to turn our violent tendencies onto each other and assign peacekeeping tasks to police and armies. As a result, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the related mental distress caused by bottling up much of our impulsive rage are making “normal” life hard for those we rely on the keep violence from spreading everywhere. I wrote about this type of thing before, in 2015 (Deep Violence by Bourke).
  4. Blood clots: Our species benefited in a violent environment by being able to stop bleeding quickly, before we all bled to death from a deep scratch. But this ability also can complicate our normal aging process, especially when coupled with high blood pressure (see #2 above). Fast clotting was even more critical in the days before hospital births, when bleeding to death was a frequent complication for women who had just delivered (this still occasionally happens, even in a modern hospital).

One thing struck me as strange when I read Goldman’s book. I was amazed at how many of the things we take for granted as leading to a “healthy lifestyle” were only discovered recently. For example, a cardiology textbook in the 1940s defined a blood pressure of 200/100 as high, but “mild” and “benign” (p. 110). Walk into any doctor’s office or ER today with that blood pressure and your next stop is likely to be the hospital and a heart monitor.

President Franklin Roosevelt died on 19 April 1945 of a stroke, but what killed FDR was really his high blood pressure (p. 88). FDR was 63 years old, an age considered very old back then, but not even of normal retirement age today (FDR had been US president for 13 years by then: how many presidential candidates are over 63 in 2016?) . Oddly, the effects of his high blood pressure were masked somewhat by his polio and the resulting inability to walk at all or stand (with hip braces) for any period of time.

But by 1945, the years of stress through WW II and the Depression had taken their toll. In 1931, before he became president, FDR’s blood pressure was 140/100. By 1937, as war clouds gathered, it went to 162/98, and then to 200/108 by D-Day in 1944 (p.166). At his fourth inauguration, in January of 1945, Roosevelt only spoke 500 words and was never seen on his feet again. At Yalta early in 1945, FDR was at 260/150, or “off the charts.” His doctors belatedly recommended a low salt diet (!), but by the time he complained of “a terrific pain in the back of my head” and died, his blood pressure was at 300/190 (p. 117).

Bottom line: always, always, always have the nurse or doctor take your sitting blood pressure in each arm, after five minutes of rest (p. 108). If they don’t, they’re taking shortcuts that put you in peril.

One more short take: as late as 1990, 1% of women died in childbirth in the poorest parts of the world, and 1 in 300 (one-third of all childbirth deaths) were the result of uncontrolled bleeding (p. 161), mainly as a result of unfortunate placenta separation (it turns out that much depends on where the attachment is made in the first place).

This book will teach you many things and, if you’re anything like me, scare you enough to make real changes in what you do and eat each day. (Last night, I went to a drive-through craving a burger and found they had just added to calorie count to their menu. Instead of the burger with 1150-1650 calories (plus the fries!), I ordered the simple chicken sandwich at 650 and fed the fries to the dogs. You have to start somewhere.)

(In a couple of weeks, I’ll talk about a little book I found called The Wandering Falcon that acts as a kind of counter-balance to the whole “what would we do without modern civilization?” line of thought.)

Population Wars by Greg Graffin

Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence by Greg Graffin (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 304 pages.

PW Graffin

Gosh, this is an odd book. I bought it in the bookstore, but a “signed edition” is also available online from several booksellers. The book is billed as a “signed copy” in a bullet sticker on the cover (absent in the bookseller image I used) and a notice on the title page says “This signed first edition…has been specially bound and produced by the publisher.” There is a thick line below this notice and the author’s name is handwritten on the line. Now, I have lots of signed first editions, some of which I obtained at book signings and others that I bought at bookstores after an author’s book signing, but I have to say I have never seen one offered online in quite this way. Either Greg Graffin sits and signs every single book as it rolls off the press, or the signature is “produced by the publisher” in a stamp of some sort. When I buy signed copies in bookstores, I always check to make sure that each signature is a bit different, like humans do. Graffin’s hand is remarkably consistent, but there is a reason that this might be so.

The reason is that Greg Graffin is not only a Cornell University professor with a PhD in Zoology who wrote this book, but the singer and songwriter for the music group Bad Religion. Therefore, I would expect him to be familiar with endless repetitions of his signature, and I know as an author myself that endless repetition often leads to a certain type of uniformity. Now, in the book Graffin says that Bad Religion is a prototypical punk group and all others are pale imitators, but I have to confess I was unfamiliar with his group’s work (my punk experience starts and stops with the Sex Pistols). Judging by the samples available online, I am convinced that Graffin is a much better professor and author than singer and songwriter. But musical tastes vary greatly, so everyone should form their own opinion.

I have to confess that Graffin’s background was the main reason I bought the book. I am a firm believer, along with science fiction author Robert Heinlein, that “specialization is for insects” and people should do as many different things as they can. (That quote is actually a line of dialog in Methuselah’s Children and not a direct Heinlein quote, but there is much evidence of this line of belief in his personal history.)

So what does a singer/songwriter and Cornell professor with degrees in geology and zoology have to add to the perspective on competition and coexistence?

To tell you the truth, the farther I got into this book, the more I had the sneaking suspicion that this book was more the product of academic pressure to publish than the thoughts of a person who just had to express his ideas in print. It makes sense, too: Graffin says he travels all over the world and sings his songs to audiences everywhere. So he has an outlet for expression that few others have, and most would envy. I liked the start and end, but got bogged down a bit in the middle.

I’m being too harsh, I think. After all, I read the whole book without any problem. I’ll just tell you what Graffin says and you can figure out why he wrote it.

Graffin seems to have two main themes. One, as revealed by the subtitle, is that competitions like war and even evolutionary “survival of the fittest” struggles are never completely successful, so coexistence is not only a good idea, it’s inevitable. For example, New York Native Americans like the Iroquois were never wiped out during Colonial expansion, and in fact are more populous and, thanks to casinos, more wealthy than ever before (page 31). (One of my favorite cartoons of all time, which I think I saw in New Yorker magazine, has two Indians and two Pilgrims talking out of the side of their mouths to each other as they get together for Thanksgiving. “Give them alcohol,” says one Pilgrim to the other, “and they’ll give us the whole country.” “Give them gambling,” says the Indian to his partner, “and they’ll give it all back.”)

The second theme, with which I heartily agree, is that “I am more a result of previous circumstances than I am a fulfillment of youthful dreams and willpower” (page 30). I have no doubt that a man whose father was a coal miner can grow up to be vice-president, but I think it’s much more likely if your mom is a banker and you dad is a Harvard law professor. Even so, what we end up doing is more a result of happenstance or coincidence than the force of our will.

Graffin elaborates on page59: it’s very tempting to blame homelessness on a lack of moral fiber or ambition on the part of street people. But the truth is more complex: poverty, sickness, family tragedies, or lack of needed services play a much larger role in your chance of pushing a shopping cart with your belongings than your strength of character. Yet many of the more fortunate lack any sympathy and, perhaps only glancing at their own family history, conclude that “we’re all on our own.”

Graffin keeps coming back to these themes in chapters covering bacteria (people, we now know, are made up of more bacteria than human cells), viruses, and the immune system (that chapter will teach you more about the immune system than you’ve ever learned in school). There is a very long (20+ pages) historical examination of the effects of the French and Indian War and American Revolution on the Iroquois in the Finger Lakes region of New York (this starts on page 160). New York born and raised, I found it all fascinating, especially the part about the Iroquois’ abandonment of the lodge in favor of wood-framed homes, just like the colonials (page 186). But I’m not sure everyone else will enjoy this very detailed exploration of history.

The book picks up again toward the end, when Graffin starts to put it all together. The upper classes always opposed welfare because it removed the “stimulus” of starvation to make the lower classes serve the upper (page 193). The only cure for poverty is to try harder (page 194), right? As Graffin points out on page 201, we accept almost any amount of cheating and foul play to claw our way to the top, where we preen and insist it’s all “natural” and therefore “right” and just. This not only distorts Darwin’s original ideas, but harms society as whole.

I agree with a lot of what Graffin says, but not all. I had a hard time with page 212, where the author examines the story of a woman who drives her car and children into the ocean to kill them and end fourteen years of abuse by her husband and their father. The woman, he claims of page 213, was not acting of her own free will (see also page 220 and 221). I’m willing to grant the downtrodden a helping hand, but I have a hard time with dismissing all aspects of individual responsibility, especially when young innocents are involved.

All of us consider those who we agree with as wise, right up until the point where they diverge from our way of thinking. I think this is true when it comes to our views on education, politics, the homeless, other religions, guns, and many other things. Then we are tempted to try and wipe the others out, when everything in nature tells us we should coexist the best we can.

Of course, that is the entire point of the book….


Most Likely to Succeed by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith

Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith (Scribner, 2015), 296 pages.

MLTS Wagner Dintersmith

I like to read books on the problems of the US educational system. I spent 15 years as an adjunct professor (and 3 years on a tenure track) in computer science at two universities, one at the graduate level, and my wife has taught classes in art, journalism, and computers for grades from kindergarten through high school. So together we have every phase of education covered, K through graduate school. We aren’t just familiar the problems of the US educational system because we’ve read about them, but because we have seen them first hand over a long period of time, from 1984 to today.

Having said, that, I’m not sure I agree with every conclusion or recommendation this book makes, but in my eyes the current system is so broken that almost any change will be a change for the better.

I have a lot to say on this topic, so let me run down the authors’ major points and then I’ll add some comments of my own based on my own experience (and my wife Camille’s).

The subtitle is “Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era.” Dintersmith is a venture capitalist and entrepreneur and coupled with educational specialist Wagner to point out that kids in the US today are ill-prepared to think originally or even compose a decent paper designed to define a product or found a business. Instead, we focus on deeper and deeper “advanced placement” (AP) trivia and “teaching to the test” (formulated here as “Drill, baby, drill!”). This is all done in the name of “preparing children for college,” even to extend of citing that as the reason for cancelling the kindergarten play (I’m not kidding: that’s on page 38).

The book goes through the limitations of testing, especially the SATs and AP tests (page 211), and the fact that what most students learn in college today is NOT what they need to know (page 147).

I like the authors’ proposal that schools should give out “merit badges” for mastery of topics (page 227). You want an A? Get five merit badges and trade them in for an A at the end of the term. There’s much more, and I think anyone interested in where we need to go with schools today should read the book and form their own opinion.

Why is it like this? I’ve read that the school system in England – which America adapted with minor changes – being primarily adapted to the needs of bureaucrats and clerks for the British Empire. The system could take a child educated in New Zealand and post them to India without worry: their handwriting, vocabulary, math, and composition skills were absolutely compatible. This system was attractive to the growing US, which is not an empire but still one of the largest countries in the world (along with Canada, Russia, Brazil, India, and China).

One of the things I know that I wish I saw more often in books like this is why teachers have tenure, get to retire with pensions after (in many cases) 20 years, and are so poorly paid compared to almost any other occupation that requires post-high-school training.

I’d take these on one at a time, but they are all related. Even in the 1800s, there was no way a public school teacher (a state government employee) was going to make as much money as someone working in private industry. Even if we just consider women, the same is true (I’m not being sexist: just acknowledging most public school teachers were female back then, especially below the high school level). Women could work as nurses or for the telephone company (starting around 1880) and make a lot more than a teacher. What’s more, the telephone company didn’t require any training investment at all, which teaching did. So how could you make sure there were enough teachers for the growing population?

The solution, which also applied to government employees in general, was to compensate the teachers who had to struggle with sub-par wages in other ways. For instance, after some period of working in the classroom, teachers would be unionized and granted tenure, which meant they could not be fired except with great difficulty. Workers in the private sector, on the other hand, unionized with great peril and could be fired at any time for any reason whatsoever. Job security compensated for low wages. It was still a hard sell, so eventually teachers could earn a modest pension (and retire, leaving room for newer teachers) much faster than workers in the private sector. Oh, and when the farm kids were off during the summer to tend the herds and flocks and crops, the teachers were too (who would they teach when no one was there?).

For some reason, people lost sight of this public/private distinction and began stripping away what little job security or pension rights teachers had, in many cases gutting the power of their unions. Teachers became the focus of all the attention given to the US education system, as if the teachers had decided to neglect their field all at once. As a result, in Arizona (where we live) and some other states, there is a tremendous shortage of teachers. High school and college grads looked at the abuse heaped on teachers, as well as the tiny pay scales, and decided “Who needs that?” Here in Arizona, it is next impossible for a single teacher to buy a house (or even sometimes a car, because of crippling student loans), and if one teacher marries another (and many do), a house is still often out of reach.

In Arizona, there is also a great movement toward charter schools and home schooling. So let me say a few words about that (full disclosure: my wife is a public school teacher). I don’t mind charter schools per se. However, as the book points out (page 57), charter schools do only marginally better on standard tests than public school children.

Finally, I have to say that I don’t get very excited about home schooling. I tell people “*All* children are home schooled…” because I don’t think learning stops when you leave school. I think what you learn in a public environment is socialization (very important for young children) and that there are many types of people, adults and children alike, out there. Moreover, I remain unconvinced that a parent busy with ordinary household chores can find the time to educate himself or herself enough to teach children every subject in the broad curriculum to the depth needed to raise intellectually competitive citizens in today’s world.

Let me leave you with one other story, also based on my own experience with children as “learning machines.” It’s just what they do. If you look at the vocabulary of a child entering school at age five and the vocabulary of an eleven-year-old, the math shows that they have been learning four or five new words per day, effortlessly and without drilling, review, or tests. Yet if you put them in school and hand them a list of thirty or so words on Monday and say “Learn these! There will be a test on these of Friday! If you fail the test, you’ll have to take it again next week, plus the new words.” they couldn’t do it. And that, I claim, is what’s wrong with the American educational system today.

The China Mirage by James Bradley

The China Mirage by James Bradley (Little,Brown, 2015), 417 pages

TCM Bradley

I love books like this, the kind that take something you learned in high school (“Mao took over China and chased those others guys to Taiwan or Formosa or whatever…”) and expand on it until you realize that you really knew nothing about it at all. I knew it would be good because I had read Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise about how Teddy Roosevelt more or less gave Asia to Japan because Teddy thought the Western-suit-wearing  Japanese much more enlightened than the dress-wearing, pigtailed, opium-addicted “Chinks.”

The book starts with the opium trade and how way too many East Coast rich-folks families got their money in China in the 1800s thanks to the opium trade. Grown in India, the sale of opium in China (page 17) helped to address the flow of Western wealth to China as Europeans and Americans grew to love tea and silks and other products, while the Chinese mainly shrugged at the goods the “sea barbarians” offered for sale.

Americans, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather Warren Delano (page 19), made their way to the few places in China like Canton where foreigners were allowed to live and trade, relying on local corruption to smuggle opium past the emperor’s guards and sell it to peasants. Once their fortunes were made, $100,000 being the minimum “competence” profit made before age thirty, they returned to American and invested the funds in railroads or other legitimate business ventures. FDR’s granddad had the misfortune to lose his million or so and had to return to the dirty business of the “China trade” to make another million. Fortunately, the Opium Wars (pages 25 and 32) made it safe for outsiders to encourage drug use among the Chinese without worry.

Where Americans traders went, in Africa or Asia, missionaries followed. Most of them were restricted to the enclaves where foreigners lived a Western lifestyle in Western houses and strolled Western streets. Their converts—what few there were—consisted mainly of servants living among them (many of them placed there to keep an eye on the suspicious foreigners).

This set the stage for the China mirage, which is this: missionaries in China, mainly from America (although Lawrence of Arabia’s mom was there as well), sent home dispatches playing up their conversion success and representing everyday Chinese as eager to Westernize/Americanize and trade the Emperor and Mandate of Heaven for modern town-hall democracy. The missionaries did this mainly to raise money, and in this they were spectacularly successful.  But, as Bradley details, the truth was very different.

On page 21, Bradley outlines the way that raw Chinese culture appeared to Americans like Delano. In China, honored guests sat on the host’s left and ate food from bowls with chopsticks as they drank warm wine. Incomprehensible letters ran from up to down and right to left. They put family names first, let servants walk before them instead of trailing, and their compasses pointed south. Perversely, the men wore gowns and the women wore the pants in the family.

However, China’s culture, as mature as any in the world, could match Western culture point-for-point, technology-for-technology, writer-for-writer, artist-for-artist, right down the line. Not many Chinese were going to buy into America’s and Europe’s posture of superiority, not when things like gunpowder and spaghetti and paper had started there and then looped around and returned as great innovations. Especially when their big breakthrough (Christianity) playing up original sin and the need for saving. Most Chinese could not grasp what was sinful about living why a foreigner had to save them (page 40).

The missionaries, instead of converting whole tribes as they did in Africa, had to admit that they had little to no success in China. Reverend Sydenstricker, who went to China with Henry Luce, the father of Time magazine’s founder, admitted he had made only 10 converts in 10 years (page 41).

The book moves on the detail the rise of the “China Lobby” in the United States, a group of well-meaning Americans, many of whom had been born in China of missionary parents, who felt that China just needed one more little thing, such as more Bibles, to convert the whole nation into good members of a democracy and consumers of American goods. A man named Charlie Soong (note the Americanized name) came to America as a laborer and ended up at Duke University, where the young entrepreneur convinced missionaries that it would be more efficient to print the Bibles in China instead of shipping them over from the US (page 87). Most of the money went right into Soong’s pocket.

The bulk of the book follows the Soong family as he and his daughters form alliances and marriages with Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek, and even Mao Zedong. One of the great missed chances in history concerns America’s WW II backing of the (barely) Christianized Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife, Soong Mai-Ling, instead of the more well-liked Mao. While Chiang’s “locust army” always needed $100 million more to fight the invading Japanese (money spent futilely chasing Mao), Mao was busy gaining the trust of the peasants (their landlords backed Chiang) and inflicting losses on the Japanese with next to nothing.

Bradley makes another point few authors do: the Japanese did not view the attack on Pearl Harbor as a sneaky surprise. Americans in Chinese service with the “Flying Tigers” had been attacking Japanese for years, according to them, and the oil embargo in late 1941 (done without FDR’s consent) was seen as the last straw. Pearl Harbor was a side show for the real Japanese target: the oil in the Dutch East Indies (page 286). There’s lots more, but I’ve run of room. ..

You know, it’s Mother’s Day (Bradley dedicates this book to him mom), so I look back at how many things my mother told me that I took as gospel as a child. She loved FDR and told me that if he had lived to be 100, the people of American would have voted him president as long as he liked. I’m not sure about that, because Churchill did and they got rid of him quick enough once he had won the war. In any case, I will never forget Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Soong Mai-ling) for two reasons. First, she lived to the age of 105 (1898-2003), and second, my mother thought she was a nasty, evil woman (she brought her own silk sheets to the White House). And my mother told me solemnly that Generalissimo Chiang guy wasn’t any better (Churchill and Truman both called him “General Cash My Check”: page 306 and 336). In fairness, mom considered Mao Zedong (Tse-Tung back then) a dog-eating murderer.

Although the book goes up to the end of the Vietnam War (it used to be Viet Nam, remember?), the bulk of it takes place from about 1900 to the end of World War II. (Oddly, the Boxer Rebellion, when the Chinese tried to drive out the “foreign devils” once and for all, is barely mentioned on two pages: 65 and 93.) The Korean War breaks out on page 346 and Vietnam on 357 (the main narrative ends on page 371).

That said, there are plenty of books on the details of Korea and Vietnam. Bradley’s point is that once Joe McCarthy started asking “Who lost China?” around 1950 and costing Harry Truman any chance at re-election, the die was cast for future. We HAD to stay in Asia! And the “don’t trust China” lobby is still around today.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (Crown Publishers, New York, 2005) 430 pages

Dead Wake cover image
Dead Wake by Erik Larson

This must be record for length of time between publication and appearing on this site. It only came out on March 10, and here it is, 19 days later. (I have no idea why Amazon thinks this book has 448 pages: the last numbered page in mine is 430, and only one more leaf is added with author biography.)

So, yes, this is the story of the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania by the German submarine U-20 on Friday, May 7, 1915, at 2:10 PM local time, almost exactly one hundred years ago. But because it is an Erik Larson book, a reader can expect much more than a dry recitation of facts. Larson’s nonfiction books have the great attribute of giving a reader more of the emotional feel of the time and the place and the event. He usually does this by juxtaposing two main characters, one good and one evil, and treating them both with the same degree of precision and detail. It is up to the readers to experience the revelations that allow them to realize the heights of their imagination or the depths of their depravity.

For example, in The Devil in the White City, Larson contrasts 1893 Chicago World’s Fair designer Daniel H. Burnham with famed murdered H. H. Holmes, who posed as a doctor to lure his victims. His book In the Garden of the Beasts pairs the innocent American Martha Dodd, daughter of the American Ambassador the Nazi Germany in 1933, with the whole charm-you-to-death Nazi hierarchy. As a reader, I will never forget the scene during her outing with a top Nazi official when the couple is interrupted by a parade of irate citizens escorting a beaten woman whose hair has been rudely cut off. The crowd is screaming curses and carrying signs. Oh, the Nazi says casually, that’s just a woman who was going to marry a Jew. Don’t worry. They’re just going to stone her to death to teach others a lesson.

And that’s Larson’s way of saying “That whole Nazi-Jew thing got out of hand really quickly.”

The equivalent in Dead Wake—the title refers to the surfacing bubbles trailing a torpedo speeding to its target—is the pairing of two captains: Captain Turner of the Lusitania and Kptlt. (Captain) Schwieiger of Unterseeboot-20.  The stoic bravery of Turner, who rode the bridge wing right down into the water (page 278) and was picked up hours later by a rescue ship and ultimately survived, is obviously to be admired by every reader.  After watching seagulls swoop down and pluck the eyeballs from the floating dead, Turner brought a rifle onto his other ships and shot as many seagulls as he could (page 296). This is the kind of human observation that you come to expect from Larson.

Schwieger’s behavior after the fatal torpedo shot is more problematic. His girlfriend later claimed (anonymously) that Schwieger was “a shattered man” (page 292) because of the sinking and loss of life (only 764 of the 1959 on board survived). However, Schwieger’s own ship’s log (which survived when the U-20 later ran aground on a sandy beach) shows him taking another shot at an oil tanker only five minutes (!) after sinking the Lusitania (page 293).

Oddly, out of the 7 torpedoes on board U-20, only the G6 model fired at the Lusitania actually sank a ship. The rest either misfired or missed or did not cause major damage. Atop such small things does the world pivot.

Larson provides details on many of the passengers, mostly in first or second class. The new Boddy lifejackets caused the deaths of many because people put them on incorrectly or even upside-down, causing them to float rump-up until the sea claimed them. The loss of a rare copy of the A Christmas Carol annotated in Charles Dickens’s own hand is also lamented: bookstore owner Charles Lauriat took it into a lifeboat, but it then tumbled into the sea when the lifeboat overturned. (Note to Larson: the remark on page 311 about Nellie Huston’s bulky “derriere” is hard to reference because somehow the origin of the comment on page 166 is left out of the index. Fix that for next printing, okay?) J

One would think that three years after the Titanic catastrophe in 1912 and its lifeboat issues, the lifeboats on the Lusitania would not be a problem. But the Lusitania showed that sheer numbers of lifeboats is not the solution (the ship carried enough lifeboats for 2605 people: page 69). The British navy had siphoned off most of the experienced seamen and those grappling with the lines and “falls” on the Lusitania doubled as baggage handlers and servers. Because it was the day before landing in Liverpool, many of the crew were in the hold, reachable only by one electric elevator, marshalling the bags for arrival. When the torpedo hit, most of these were either killed instantly or drowned when the ship went under in an astonishing 18 minutes. As a result, the launching of the lifeboats, not commenced immediately because no one really thought a single 20 foot torpedo could sink a monster ship almost a thousand feet long.

Some lifeboats tumbled their passengers into the water, while others were dropped right atop others. Due to the list of the damaged ship, some released lifeboats crushed passengers waiting to board. The speed of the ship worked against them too, and not only by driving water through the 40-fott gash in the hull. Controls on the bridge failed, so the ship still drifted forward as it sank, sweeping lifeboats to the rear. As a result, only six of the 20 permanent lifeboats were launched properly.

A final mystery revolves around why on earth the British allowed the Lusitania to wander alone toward the Irish Sea when (a) the British knew U-20 had sunk other ships recently and was still around, (b) the safer alternate route north around Ireland was being used, and (c) the navy had provided escorts for other important ships before. Readers are left to wonder if First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was protected some very important derrieres himself when he tried to blame it all on Captain Turner (page 318).

Growing in America, I was of course taught that the sinking of Lusitania with US citizens aboard was one the primary reasons that the USA declared war on Germany. The truth is that two years elapsed before the USA declared war and this was mainly because of the Zimmerman Telegram promising Mexico the return of US territory if they joined the central powers. But the Lusitania was a big thing, and we expect big things to have big effects, even though they might not.

Larson’s book helps put the sinking in perspective, as does his little discourses on things like the history of submarine warfare. Submarine warfare went from a gentile form of piracy during wartime to a matter of life and death very quickly. Submarines were supposed to stop non-warships and, after allowing the crew to leave in lifeboats, either sink them or claim them as prizes. But it was hard to crew a prize and a submarine on the surface is at its most vulnerable, so the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later became the rule of the day. Even Sound of Music patriarch von Trapp sank a French liner and killed 684 (page 106). Purists cringed, I suppose, but there was a war to be won. So there.

This book is Larson’s way of saying “That whole submarine warfare thing got out of hand really quickly.”