Community & Home

Aren’t road trips, exploring the byways, small towns, and back roads of America wonderful? Exiting the big highways, taking a little time with the journey and exploring local features is endlessly fascinating. Do it with someone equally curious and the country opens up, sharing clues of history, hope, community and conflict. It leads to questions about the people and their towns and villages. What is life like there? What is different and what is the same from where we live now? Or from that other place we visited?

Those questions have come up repeatedly on the many times I’ve traveled between Chicago and Minneapolis, just as they have on the back and forth between Chicago and Duluth, Minnesota. Over time that family has spent a fair bit of time in Wisconsin. We’ve stopped to check out Chippewa Falls, where the boots used to be made, the superb pies of the Norse Nook in its several locations, the old-time trains in Traigo – there are always things happening when we take the time to look and listen.

That same care and consideration is a key theme in Michael Perry’s outstanding account of New Auburn, Wisconsin, Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at at Time. When he wrote it in 2002, the town had eleven streets and one water tower. It’s not much bigger today, though the population his inched up slightly. Perry grew up in New Auburn, left, obtained an education and a nursing degree, and returned at a moment in his life when he wanted to write. He’s been writing ever since. With some time on his hands – his characterization, not mine – Perry decided to join the volunteer fire department. He is both insider and outsider in New Auburn. Perry is one of the townies, comfortable with deer hunting, beer, the Packers, flannel and snowmobiles. He’s also cut from a different cloth, an author observing and connected to a rich vein of scholarship.

Crafted from those traits, Population 485 is a series of related yet distinct essays woven into a coherent and moving book. Key themes appear in different guises: Perry’s meditation on the town, the community, and the ways that functioning as a first responder inserts him into the community. He addresses life and death – literally – and participates in the many ways that the town’s inhabitants hope, heal, help each other and die.

Perry teaches us about the processes and protocols of being a volunteer firefighter. They are the professionals that we call when there’s an emergency, from heart attack to car crash to barn fire. It is extraordinarily important work that I knew little about directly, particularly from the perspective of a first responder. This kind of crisis response and intervention calls for a special sort of caring, an ability to shut off normal emotions – fear, disgust, concern – and to be able to treat quickly and decisively. Perry and his colleagues do care, though. It is not just stopping bleeding and immobilizing patients. They have have to find ways to address their feelings and to process their intimate relationship with loss.

As the narrative unspools we learn about the history of the town and its people, the births, deaths, events and the day-to-day. Perry has a keen eye and a superb ear. His observations are sharp and kind, leavened with generosity and a gratitude for being able to pay attention. Perry does not romanticize. More than a good writer, he’s a good person – and that shines through the prose and the many ways he helps his neighbors.

Above and beyond specifics, Population: 485 opens a window into small town Wisconsin life, and through that, reflections on family, community, and what truly matters to us. It is a deeply philosophical book, though neither preachy nor didactic. Perry’s mind and work runs regularly to the deep questions that direct our lives. They are also sometimes the most difficult issues to address.

I heartily recommend Michael Perry’s book to you, and I will keep you posted, as well. I’m going to read more from this northern Wisconsin firefighter-writer.

David Potash

On The Run

Ricky Gates was a high school running star, a varsity college cross-country athlete, and eventually a professional runner who never crossed the threshold as a successful competitive racer. When his career as a professional athlete started to wind down, he was faced with the onset of middle age, or at least early middle age, and the scary prospect of growing up and accepting new responsibilities. His long-term relationship was failing. He was in crisis. A doer, not a reflective thinker, Gates decided to use his stresses and to look externally for what many of us search for internally. He wanted to do something big, something significant. He decided to run across the United States.

The factors motivating Gates make sense and also don’t fully add up. Certainly his desire to push himself with a noteworthy quest is understandable. Relatively unfamiliar with America, Gates wondered about the great diversity within the nation. The election of Donald Trump as president also stirred question for Gate. The difficulties with his then girlfriend and now wife, Liz, also spurred him. I would wager, too, that if one were to question Gates, he would not be able to give one definitive reason. He’s a man driven by the desire to push himself. Regardless of the cause, Ricky Gates did something special, a transcontinental run over five months in 2017. His account of that journey, the photos he took, and his later observations he crafted into an engaging and strangely curious book, Cross Country.

Like millions of others who traveled west, Gates started his journey on the east coast and finished in California. To make it all the more epic, he literally dipped his foot in the Atlantic Ocean and completed the trek with a foot wet in the Pacific Ocean. It’s important to emphasize that this was no glamour tour. The budget was minuscule. No big sponsors traveled alongside, showering Gates with press and goodies. In fact, showers were a treat along the way. The plan depended in great part on perseverance by Gates and the kindness of strangers he hoped to meet. Happily, all emerged. There are many generous and trusting people in America and Ricky Gates was fortunate to run into many of them.

Cross Country gives us that story while sharing details of hard running cross-country. The trip meant wrestling with bad weather, the challenges of mini-tents, exhaustion, blisters, and even the dangers of hydration. Suffering and overcoming challenges is a key part of the book. Gates pushed himself to exhaustion. He is a survivor and competition is in his core.

The real heart of the book, though, is about the people Gates met, the many encounters he had along the way meandering west. The book’s subtitle is apt: “A 3,700 mile run to explore unseen America.” There is much to see if we get off the major highways. Gates seems to have an engaging and trusting manner, leading to many stories and good. Gates avoided interstates, running where he could appreciate local customs and people.

There’s an entertaining cast of characters, from eccentrics to random “normal” folks in Cross Country. Unsurprisingly, Gates finds more and has more to share in the eastern part of the US, especially in the South. When he makes his way out to the lightly settled west, the running is isolated and grueling.

Gates is no de Tocqueville and he makes no pretense at theorizing. Cross Country is not a scholarly study. It is personal, direct and without an agenda beyond a man challenging his demons by pushing himself in truly amazing fashion. It is an affirming account of drive and the warm and welcoming nature of so many Americans.

David Potash

Rap Scholar Warriors

Daniel Levin Becker is a scholar, a critic, a translator, and a massive fan of rap. A wordsmith as well as a literary investigator, Becker knows his way around sophisticated prose, poetry, and lyrics. In What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language, Becker makes a compelling case for a reappraisal of the genius of rap and hip hop lyricism. It’s a love letter penned by a very smart, very knowledgeable fan. I was super impressed and the more I read (and listened), the more I learned.

The book ranges from early days to present, East Coast, West Coast, and local scenes. The chapters are short, akin to aphorisms, each taking up a theme, a question, a connection or a lyric. Becker’s skill is dazzling, drawing out histories and relationships, outlining meaning and meanings. He’s an obsessed expert and he wants to share, to give us the same sense of wonder and admiration. The wordplay, the interplay, the stories and the ways that artists reference each other, admire each other and dis each other is extremely interesting. You have to know to know, though.

It worked for me. I revisited tracks and listened to many new ones. Reading What’s Good is best with a Spotify account, a good pair of headphones, and rap curiosity. My default is to pay closer attention to the beat, but now I’m going to spend more time on Genius (formerly Rap Genius) exploring the wordplay.

And the title for this post? It turns out that many white fans of rap (count Becker and me among them) find an accessible entry point in the works of Jurassic 5. One of their tracks that always makes me smile is Quality Control. Check out the lyrics – it may be old but its message resonates, particularly when it comes to figuring out what is good. Ayo!

David Potash

Nice Shoes

In 2020, the global estimate of athletic footwear sales – sneakers – was just under $100 billion. That’s an extraordinary amount of money. Forecasts for growth are optimistic and aggressive. The world’s insatiable desire for sneakers is both understandable, for it’s been growing consistently for several decades, and amazing, for fifty years ago the athletic footwear market was much, much smaller. What gives?

Kicks: The Great American Story in Sneakers is fascinating account of how this happened. It’s a cultural history, packed with personalities and anecdotes. While not a business study, the book, nevertheless, uses a very effective lens to understand sneakers’ importance and relevance to modern life. Explaining how and why so many people care so much about their sneakers, it makes for a very interesting read.

The author is journalist Nicholas Smith. He’s not a sneakerhead but he clearly is a fan of stylish athletic footwear. Smith’s enthusiasm and dogged curiosity drives the book’s enthusiasm and pace.

Charles Goodyear was the father of sneakers. An American self-taught chemist who had an unshakeable faith in his ability to unlock the secrets of rubber, Goodyear invented the process of vulcanization, leading to the tire and sneaker industry. Smith tells Goodyear’s story and moves quickly through the late 1800s and early twentieth century as the footwear industry adopted rubber in various formats. The book digs into the rise of sneakers with the growth of professional sports in the 1920s. Athletes became major media figures and major sporting events, like the Olympics, were massively important public spectacles for the use and success of athletic footwear. Chuck Taylor was a consummate salesman of Keds and a very good basketball player. Jones is great on the German Dassler brothers, whose footwear company and dramatic split led to Adidas and Puma. We learn about innovations in the 1960s and the connection of sneakers to teen life in Southern California and skateboarding. Footwear initiated and tracked many trends.

Where Kicks truly takes off is the story of Nike and the relationship between sneakers and urban culture. Smith is very good on Nike’s gamble to invest everything in Michael Jordan. He rightly explores the many connections between hip-hop, Black culture, and footwear. It’s a relationship actively sought by footwear companies, which were growing into lifestyle brands. What’s most telling is that Smith highlights the skillful marketing and campaigns that captured millions upon millions of Americans – and later the world. He is not critical, but the very story he tells opens up all manner of questions about race, racism, and many ways that modern capitalism and advertising/marketing structures cultural identities. The story simply begs for discussion and consideration.

Reading Kicks was enlightening and troubling, entertaining and thought provoking. It calls into question the many ways that we’ve been marketed into ideas of what is and is not stylish, authentic or cool. It’s informative and fun. I will never look at my sneakers the same again.

David Potash

Grim & Real: The Costs of a Mill Town

Why recommend a work that asks more questions than it answers, or suggest reading a book that tells a terrible story without a villain or resolution? Don’t we seek clarity in our non-fiction? Usually I do, but I have been wrestling with this after reading Keri Arsenault’s haunting Mill Town: Reckoning With What Remains. Part personal memoir, part investigatory journalism, part essay on a dying community and way of life, it is a messy and complicated book. It’s also one that I keep thinking about, a book and story that touches larger issues.

Arsenault is a writer, editor and teacher. She grew up in the tiny town of Mexico, Maine, which existed, in great part, because of a paper mill. The paper mill was the economic engine for the area and it dominated the lives of those in the community. Arsenault reflects on her childhood, what was and was not said, and the direct and indirect impact of the mill. As she moved out and explored the world outside of Maine, she began to think more critically about her childhood community. Increasing numbers of illnesses and cancer deaths deepened that process, particularly with the death of her father. The book is a investigation of her community, a hard look at what can and cannot be know about the town and the great costs of working for and around a paper mill. What is a “mill town” today?

Mexico is an insular, tough community, like many other working class towns. People try to take care of each other and they tend to suffer quietly. Once Arsenault taps her personal connections with townspeople, she collects more and more stories of difficult lives, rare cancers and quiet struggles. She finds inconclusive studies, ineffective environmental agencies, and a terrible sense of powerlessness. Her writing throughout is lyrical, honest and descriptive in a way that explains without filling in the silences. Members of the community are not given to emotions and expression. We can smell the chemicals, see the darkness of the forest, and recognize the small spaces of light, love and caring in the community.

Arsenault is strongest, I think, about her family and her personal story. Her family and friends, her jobs and her day-to-day attempts to navigate her home ring extraordinarily true. She gets it and she writes about with clarity, avoiding nostalgia and pathos. Nor does she cast blame; she has deep understanding. She uses the town’s river both as a narrative fixture in the book and also as a metaphor as it sweeps us and carries things along.

That all said, Arsenault is keen on shining lights on the great injustices faced by the people in and around Mexico, Maine. There are poisons in the air, soil, water and everyday environment – and no one is willing to own up to their risks or consequences. Science, after all, is rarely completely conclusive. It is enraging and all too understandable. Like Fagin’s Toms River – another study of a community and its environmental poisons – Mill Town calls into question a way of life and way of living.

So why recommend the book? Because Mill Town is a incisive and thoughtful study of us and our communities – and the costs that we are bearing for them. It is, in many ways, a reckoning, an accounting of benefits and loss. That’s extremely important for making sense of our today and considering what sort of tomorrow we might want for ourselves and our children.

David Potash

Puerto Rican Crisis, Heroism, and Food

Hurricane Maria caused tremendous destruction in Puerto Rica in 2017, killing thousands and wiping out much of the island’s infrastructure. It was a disaster in the true sense of the term. A few days after the storm subsided, Jose Andres, an internationally renowned chef who had a restaurant in Puerto Rico (among several others), decided that he was going to make an effort to help. He recounts his efforts, filled with successes, failures and challenges, in We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time. It’s a cheering, frustrating, and interesting read – and not for the reasons that I expected. I did not know what a relief efforts was like for the key volunteer organizations. While I imagined confusion and difficulties, Andres’s book offers a more complete level of understanding – and highlights the consequences of poor leadership. The people of Puerto Rico were not adequately supported after Maria.

Andres is a chef, writer, television personality, and humanitarian – a man of influence and ability. In 2010 following a crisis in Haiti, he created a non-profit, World Central Kitchen (WCK), to feed people after disasters. He’s received numerous awards and by every standard, is wildly successful. As you might imagine from such a profile, he is also comfortable expressing himself. He is not a scholar; he is focused on outcomes. We Fed an Island captures all of this: incredible generosity, a tremendous ability to get things done, great smarts and a perspective that is about goal setting and achievement. It is a first-person account through and through. If you are looking for a more comprehensive study of the disaster, this is not the study. And while this book would have been stronger with more structure and data, that was not the aim. I have nothing but respect for Andres and gratitude for his work and the book. Proceeds from the book go to WCK, too.

For people to survive and rebuild after a hurricane, many things have to happen, from health care to water to power to shelter. Andres arrived and focused on one of the most basic needs: getting people enough food to get by. He drew on his experience with WCK and other relief efforts, as well as deep connections to many on the island, from former co-workers to elected officials to media personalities. Andres’ team quickly established kitchens and then, fighting a host of indifferent or ineffective bureaucracies along the way, greatly expanded its reach. It took time, but eventually other organizations stepped up as well. All though Andres’ was not the only group providing food, it is not far off from asserting that they truly did “feed an island”

The book is peppered with wisdom about relief efforts, problem solving of all shapes and sizes, and how restaurants work. “When you cook at scale, you become expert at processes” Andres tells us – and much of the book is all about process thinking. It’s also about how knowing your customer and community, which can make all the difference. Reading about the many different kinds of sancocho Andres’ team prepared was cheering and also made me hungry. Good Puerto Rican food is very, very good and a good sancocho is fantastic. Andres cares a great deal about the food, its impact, and even explains how customers can become volunteers. The big picture realization is the many ways that thoughtful and caring relief work can bind a community.

Much of the book, though, is about the challenges. Above and beyond the difficulties that Puerto Ricans faced, Andres and his team faced many, most visible of whom was President Trump and other elected and appointed officials. Andres does not hold back his criticisms. Particularly galling, but not surprising, are the recurring gaps between what was happening and what was reported. There was a massive lack of coordinated leadership in the relief work, regardless of what was reported.

Through a different lens, We Fed an Island is a call for reform. It is essential. We need to rethink our disaster relief organization and processes. Without that, the next crisis could be worse. Andres is worthy of our thanks – for his work, his food, and his willingness to share.

David Potash

Worthy of Re-Reading, Again and Again: Kendi on Antiracism

Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist is one of the most important books on racism written in the last few years. Kendi, a brilliant and prolific scholar, writer and pubic intellectual, was named by Time Magazine as one of 2020’s most influential people. If you have not read this book, I urge you to find a copy and spend some time with it. And if you did pick it up over the past year, I recommend finding time to re-read it. It contains much to consider and reconsider.

Kendi’s book is both autobiographical and scholarly. He uses his own journey, his successes and failures, his strengths and his weaknesses, to guide us through the myriad of ways that race and racism intertwine and affect how we see the world and interact with each other. Kendi avoids the phrase “systemic racism” – and makes us understand how “systemic” is redundant. He explains how omnipresent racist thought is; it is in the air that we grown accustomed to breathing. To choose to become antiracist is a radical act – and demands a new consciousness. Lifting from DuBois and expanding on his work, Kendi recasts dual consciousness into dueling consciousness. He moves at a high level through twentieth century American history. He locates his own story within that larger history, giving his own development as much of a critique as that of society. There is great power in his vulnerability.

Kendi systematically observes, unpacks and challenges us throughout the book. His take on the half-steps and quarter-steps taken to address racism is especially insightful. He disdains the term “microagression” and instead calls it what it is: racist abuse. He calls biological racists what the are: segregationists. He shares how ethnic labeling can fuel racist thought. He employs facts and science to debunk racist claims. For example, if you want to find high crime rates, unemployment and poverty are significantly greater contributors than race. And he notes the influence of behavioral racism in our thinking, practice and culture.

As the book progresses, building a more comprehensive understanding of how racism operates, Kendi zeroes in what is at stake – power. He shows how power – both in the political realm, which is traditional and well-publicized, as well in the sociological sense of cultural capital – has an intimate relationship with racism. He picks apart the threads of capitalism, especially how it can exploit others, to strengthen the argument. The organization of this line of thinking is reinforced through chapter titles, too: Space, Class, Gender, for example.

The key take away for me is that Kendi draws a clear distinction between all that it racist and all that is antiracist. He denies the existence of a middle ground. Reading the book is like taking the red pill in the Matrix. After reading it, if you reflect, you can’t unsee the racism all around us – and the choice is clear. We have to be antiracists.

David Potash

White Fragility – White Racism

Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, was published in 2018. After the murder of George Floyd, sales of the book jumped. Many of us, hunkering down in the pandemic, read widely to gain a better understanding of our racist history and the country’s deeply embedded racist practices. What could we learn and do to bring about greater justice? White Fragility was one of the volumes that seemed to be everywhere, and DiAngelo, a former tenured professor of multicultural education who now does diversity training, was prominent in the media.

DiAngelo is a sharp writer. Her message, that racism is woven deeply into structures, practices and our lives, is not radical. However, decades of work on racial issues gives her a comfort and skill set to write about it ways that others may not. The book’s underlying premises, that most white people have a very hard time when it comes to talking about, or even thinking about, race and the consequences of racism, is a truism. The tendency is to shut down, to defend, defer, point the other way – anything that can refute white complicity in systemic racism. DiAngelo takes this apart, showing how responses and actions can paper over issues or even make racist problems and practices more intractable. The term “white fragility” was crafted by her in a 2011 paper DiAngelo wrote for the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. It describes a rigidity, based on power and defensiveness, that takes place when a white person’s racism is questioned. What hovers over this book, and the larger enterprise of DiAngelo’s approach, is the question of how productive and honest it is to examine and work against racism through the lens of white fragility.

Reviews and summaries of White Fragility are ubiquitous. I wonder if the book has reached a stage where it is almost a trope – a volume regularly referenced and rarely read. If so, those that know the material well and do read it will most likely will find the book frustrating. It offers little new or different to explain how things have transpired, why we are in a society that is racist, or even how to advance policies that might lead to social justice and make for meaningful change. It is is far from a definitive account of racism, as DiAngelo readily acknowledges.

The strength of White Fragility rests on its extensive knowledge of how white liberals often react when challenged about race: denial, tears, and more denial. That’s a personal dynamic that DiAngelo witnesses and fights through regularly as a diversity coach. In and of itself, this point of resistance is very much worth examining. The phenomena offers a useful viewpoint as to why we have not made more progress towards social justice, even with people who voice inclusive sentiments, and why change at an individual level can prove to be very difficult.

That said, there is much more to think through here. Economic, political and societal power structures, centuries of exploitation, how certain kinds of capitalism and economic structures can reinforce racism – the evil tentacles of racism are systemic, pervasive, and complicated. DiAngelo knows this, too; she regularly references other authors and other works throughout White Fragility. It’s a strategy that makes sense to me and one that I recommend. Ongoing study is essential. Read widely, investigate thoroughly, and don’t rely on one author – especially one whose strength is diversity training – to explain racism.

David Potash

Racism & Tragedy, Still Unaddressed

In May of 1991, nearly thirty years ago – let that linger for a moment – the body of a 17-year old Black male was pulled from the St. Joseph river, adjacent to Lake Michigan. Eric McGinnis was a goofy prankster, a normal kid with a taste for fashion who hailed from the Black and poor Michigan town on the north side of the river, Benton Harbor. The south side of the river is home to St. Joseph, a wealthier white community. Following an investigation of questionable professionalism and frustrating ambiguity, the case was closed – without a cause, reason, or official explanation for McGinnis’s death.

Alex Kotlowitz, an award-winning journalist, author and writer on issues of race and justice, because obsessed with the case. He spent five years researching it, taking it apart and putting it back together. Kotlowitz assiduously dug deep into the racial make-up and history of the two towns. He found example after example of racism and a consistent lack of justice. He found gaps in communication, in empathy, and in understanding. He interviewed scores upon scores, trying to make sense of the tragedy. The resulting book, The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, A Dean, and America’s Dilemma, recounts Eric’s story and Kotlowitz’s research.

Nothing would be more gratifying than to recount that there is justice, a resolution, and closure. There is not. Eric’s death, like the death of so many others of color, remains an injustice, a tragedy that lingers and haunts. Kotlowitz’s research hammers home the impossibility of closure, too, when there is no case, no evidence, and limited attention. He lets us see the perceptions from both sides of the river, making certain that we appreciate how lives, meaning and any real shared sense of values is undermined by the racism woven through the towns’ histories. It is enraging and all too common. And that there was this level of reporting and attention all those years ago – without any meaningful action – renders the racist injustices of recent time all the more gutting.

Listening, documenting and telling the story is vital. Kotlowitz has continued to write, to make films, and to report. This is necessary. But if the last thirty years have taught us anything, it is that telling the story alone is insufficient. The pursuit of justice – meaningful justice – requires structure, commitment and action.

David Potash

Phair the Writer

Exit in Guyville is a brilliant debut album. Liz Phair put it out in 1993, while living in Chicago, and she followed it the next year with Whip-Smart, another strong effort. I remember buying both all those years ago and noticing her lyrics. They were pointed, thought-provoking, and carefully crafted. Phair struck me as something of a poet. Her lyrics stuck with me more than her melodies.

Over the years I lost track of Phair as a musician, though I did see her perform. She came out with a memoir in late 2019.

Horror Stories is Liz Phair’s wholly original, non-glamorous, non-rock star memoir, though she is most definitely a rock start. It is a unique sort of work, off-kilter and de-centered. It highlight’s Phair’s way of looking at the world and her life. Her perception, candor, and ability to look at things differently gives the work an unusual flavor. She tells us in the introduction that she wrote it “to articulate those experiences that people may not always want to recognize, but describe them in a way that makes them worth the effort.” It is worth the effort. Had Phair not fashioned a career as a musician, she could have given it a go as a writer.

Phair’s non-chronological observations range from childhood to where she is know. She notices things, big and small, and describes them with intensity and feeling: from a girl who passed out to a break-in at college to her thoughts while being made-up for a photo shoot. She brings care and honesty to these moments, explaining quite a bit about her, her privilege, talent, pains and suffering. More intentional than a flaneur, she is a smart woman with creative edges.

What Horror Story lacks is structure. If you give it a chance, Phair’s creativity and voice will carry you along.

David Potash