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Hillbilly Elegy is a quite simply a must read

There’s a reason Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance has been on the New York Times’ best seller list for several weeks. It’s an amazing book. If you enjoyed The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, you’ll love Hillbilly Elegy for the same reason. Some might consider Vance a bit young (he’s only in his mid-thirties) to be producing a memoir, but many people including Walls and Catherine Gildiner who was the author of the wonderful trilogy about her early years, have lived young lives truly worthy of sharing. Memoirs by people who have risen above challenging beginnings to succeed in life have always fascinated me and we have so much to learn from them.

J.D. Vance was born into a poor, uneducated, unstable Appalachian family surrounded by a larger community of similarly dysfunctional people. His mother was pregnant at sixteen and although his father didn’t stick around he was never completely estranged. Vance was born into a life anchored by an alcoholic and ultimately drug-addicted mother with an endless stream of boyfriends and husbands, some good but most bad, an assortment of half-siblings and dismal prospects for a better life. The only stable element in his ever-changing life was the presence of an older half-sister and his gun-toting, cussing, mean maternal grandmother who truly loved him. His grandfather, although ultimately living apart from his grandmother was equally loving and loved by Vance and provided a kind moral compass for the boy. He moved back and forth between Kentucky and Ohio depending on his evolving family situation with all its domestic strife, his ever-changing sets of siblings and even changing last names.

Many of the social problems experienced by hillbillies are attributable to their own poor choices in life.

When children are born into a community of people who are always fighting and are disinclined to hold regular jobs or even have ambitions of doing better, they grow up without incentive, without hope and without direction. Those who are lucky enough to find someone in this quagmire of humanity who can see beyond their obvious limits is truly fortunate. Vance possessed a level of intelligence that allowed him to at least finish high school despite poor grades and poor attendance in the midst of his family’s turmoil. Despite their own lack of education, his grandparents encouraged and promoted education helping him by providing a safe home when he needed it, moral direction when he strayed and were successful in regularly putting him back on track. When a cousin suggested the only way Vance would be able to get a college education which was the key to a better life, he opted to pledge four years of his life to the Marine Corps to subsidize his later college education. He ultimately parlayed this into a law degree from prestigious Yale University and through Hillbilly Elegy shares the experience of his journey with others who might benefit from what he learned along the way.

Vance’s enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps was step two in bettering his life after step one which was completing high school.

Vance discovered a world entirely different from what he had always known when he enlisted in the Marines and to a greater extent afterward when he went to university and law school. “When I joined the Marine Corps,, I did so in part because I wasn’t ready for adulthood. I didn’t know how to balance a checkbook” he said. The Marine Corps assumes zero knowledge on the part of its recruits and even accompanied him to open his first bank account. He had received no early guidance in nutrition, fitness/wellness or personal pride during his growing up years and describes himself as a cultural alien. He came to learn and understand the value of interpersonal skills and what he refers to as social capital to help smooth the way through networking. New relationships with friends and fellow students introduced him to a completely new set of social behaviours that were not aligned with his temper and hillbilly upbringing. Most people acknowledge that not all education is gained in the classroom but Vance had no experience with such everyday basics as table manners, how to dress appropriately, how to handle conflict or even how to give and receive love. Interestingly, one of his valued law school mentors at Yale was Amy Chua, author of Tiger Mom.

While he’s circumspect about suggesting solutions to the economic and social problems that are rampant in the rust belt of America, the author provides a rare glimpse into the lives of those people who live hopelessly grim and depressing lives. He knows better than most how they reached this point and why it is so self-perpetuating. Poor life choices, poor role models and social problems breed generations of people with no hope for betterment.  His observations are informed, articulately presented and blunt. What I found particularly revealing was his perspective on how entire generations of rust belt people turned against the Democratic party and put their hopes in the Republicans. Vance explains the misconceptions and clever rhetoric that guide their votes and destroys any hope of a better future. They are told “premature parenthood, drugs, incarceration . . . what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: ‘It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault’.” Untrue and unproductive.

I can’t recommend Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance strongly enough. I learned so much reading this book and only wish the people of Kentucky and Ohio who are described in its pages would also earn from the wisdom he dispenses. I’d give it 10 out of 10.

To order a copy of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance from Amazon, click here.

To order The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls from Amazon, click here.

To order the third book in Catherine Gildiner’s trilogy, Coming Ashore, click here.

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Who doesn’t enjoy playing house?

Gender roles were more clearly defined growing up in the fifties – or were they really? (L to R) My brother Ron (the victim of a bossy older sister), me and my friend Brenda, dressed for afternoon tea.

When boomers were growing up in the fifties and sixties, gender roles were more clearly defined than they are today. Little girls played with dolls; little boys played Davey Crockett. Little girls were Barbara Ann Scott; little boys were Maurice Richard. Sometimes we strayed into crossover territory though. I clearly remember cherishing my white straw cowboy hat with the chin cord and jeans with the Hopalong Cassidy patch on the pocket. And my girlfriends and I took great pride in being able to out shoot (toy guns were still politically acceptable then), out run and outsmart any of the boys in our neighbourhood.

One of the most common activities we engaged in as little girls was playing ‘house’. We’d play with our dolls in tents set up with clothespins and blankets, play in a corner of the room or the front porch creating little scenarios that for us represented domestic life as we knew it. Fortunately, most of us enjoyed reasonably stable home lives and for those who didn’t, playing make-believe was an escape. We’d push our doll carriages up and down the street, copying our mothers going about their daily chores. We’d prepare fake meals and serve fake tea in little sets of painted tin dishes. Life was simple and uncomplicated. And most baby boomers lived in neighbourhoods teeming with other children our age so we were always busy and socially involved.

Have you ever considered that now that we’re retired we’ve come full circle? Now that I’m free from the working world and the struggles inherent in building our lives, we’re in a very peaceful place. I enjoy the simple pleasures of life—tea in the afternoon with a friend, walking the dog after dinner, even doing the ironing while I watch a good program on television. My everyday routines give me a sense of satisfaction and feelings of pleasure. I’m thankful to be alive, to be healthy and to have options about how I live my life.

As I was cleaning up the kitchen this morning it occurred to me that I’m now playing ‘house’ once again. My life is full of domestic activities, cruising the neighbourhood with friends, matching wits with the men in our lives and those close to us. I can devote an entire afternoon to sitting in the back yard engrossed in a good book if I want. Instead of pushing my doll stroller, I push a grocery cart on a Tuesday morning when it’s not busy or I walk my dog up the street. I serve tea in real china cups now and serve it with real cookies I’ve made. I discuss the various dramas of life with close friends over dinners of lovingly prepared real food instead of pretend. Every so often I dress up in my fancy clothes and go out on a date with my husband, my life’s answer to a Ken doll. It took a long time and no small amount of strife and stress to get to this place in time, but damn, I thoroughly enjoy playing ‘house’.

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If I were in charge of the lottery system, ooh boy, there’d be some changes made

Not many of us are financially savvy enough to handle massive winnings.

One person winning $758.7 million dollars, nearly a billion dollars in a single lottery is just plain wrong. That’s what happened recently to Mavis Wanczyk, 53, of Chicopee, Massachusetts who won the Powerball in the United States, although she probably wouldn’t agree with me. The history of lives being ruined by winning multi-million dollar lotteries is common knowledge. Most of us are barely equipped financially to handle more than our weekly pay cheque or perhaps an annual bonus at work. I know when I was working my annual bonus usually went to pay off my Visa. How’s that for smart management of found money? Young people in particular are notorious for blowing their winnings on Corvettes and houses they ultimately can’t afford to maintain when their money is gone. They buy gifts and trips for friends and family, which is understandable but ultimately not smart. Before long, they’re back where they started—broke—and those so-called friends are long-gone. Money that’s not earned is like monopoly money; it is meaningless and like those former friends it soon evaporates.

What amount would you consider to be enough?

Wouldn’t it be so much more equitable to distribute lottery winnings over a larger group of people. Imagine nearly one thousand people winning one million dollars each rather than one person scoring the entire $758.7 million jackpot. I realize it’s those huge winning numbers that generate ticket sales but I think tweaking the system so more people win money is a simple case of packaging and marketing it properly. Increasing the odds of producing more winners could surely be an incentive to keep ticket sales up. I know I’d be just as happy with a  million dollars as I would with eight times that amount. What on earth could one person need that much money for?

We’ve all had those fantasy talks over a bottle of wine speculating about what we’d do if we won the lottery—pay off the mortgage, pay for the kids’ education, take a trip, buy a new car and pay cash for it, quit work. How much do we really need? A million dollars would cover all those things and there would still be plenty left over for a Louis Vuitton handbag or new Tesla if we want to treat ourselves to something totally self-indulgent. Putting a cap of say five million dollars on individual winnings would spread the wealth.

When lotteries were legalized in Ontario several decades ago, we were promised new recreation centres and hockey rinks, improved community services and other goodies which like those good-time friends seem to have evaporated. As a citizen and a buyer of lottery tickets I’d sure like to know exactly where the profits are going, beyond the payout of winnings. Does anyone know? We desperately need new subways and expanded affordable public transit in the Greater Toronto Area. Our indigenous people need clean drinking water services and more affordable fresh fruit and vegetables on remote reserves. Many inner city schools and shelters could use help with programs for poorly served children. Many seniors cannot afford premium medical attention not covered by OHIP.

Show us the money. Where are all those good works we were promised with lottery profits?

As a former marketer in the corporate world it doesn’t strike me as being all that complicated to make our lottery programs more viable and equitable. A few changes would benefit everyone. In my opinion, it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3.

  1. Redistribute winnings over a larger number of people by reducing giant jackpots. Smaller jackpots = more winners.
  2. Market ticket sales to reflect the benefits to the community, the greater number of winners and the increased odds of winning.
  3. Show us the money. Make the results of the distribution of profits transparent and easily available to the citizens and tickets buyers. Prove you’re doing good work with the profits of lotteries.

Changing the lottery system is just one of many things I would change if I were running this show. But I’m not. I suspect lottery executives receive giant salaries and benefits which could probably also use some scrutiny. Where does all the money go? No one seems to know how lottery winnings are distributed or how the profits are spent. And because of that we’re all losers.

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Airing my dirty linen for the benefit of all

Not all linen is created equal.

I’ve always loved pristine white linen summer blouses as well as the yummy fruity colours that appear in the spring. When I see a linen blouse in the store it’s always just the right degree of rumpled and soft but until recently I couldn’t duplicate that texture at home after laundering. Putting linen in the dryer, even on a low air setting, never produced the kind of soft look and feel I wanted. It came out too wrinkled and some styles just don’t lend themselves to being ironed. I avoid using dryer sheets or fabric softener because they sometimes leave marks on clothing and add a layer of unnecessary and perhaps dangerous chemicals next to our skin. Although freshly pressed linen is lovely, that’s not the look I’m always after. So, I found the perfect way to handle linen so it’s not too wrinkled, not perfectly pressed—just the right amount of softly rumpled and wearable looking.

Here’s what to do.

  1. Put the laundered blouse in the dryer for no more than ten minutes until it’s still damp but a little bit dry.
  2. Lay it out on an ironing board or flat countertop.
  3. Using both hands, smooth the fabric using just the palms of your hands to iron it. Do not use your electric iron.
  4. Hang to finish drying.

Easy, peasey. If it needs freshening up after wearing briefly, simply mist it with water or linen spray and do the hand ironing thing again. Works like a charm. This will work with your partner’s linen shirts too if he’s the kind of guy who’s ‘cool’ enough to wear linen. Enjoy it. You’re welcome.

Footnote: Some linens demand ironing, such as tea towels and because I’m a huge fan of linen tea towels (as opposed to cotton), ironing is de rigueur. Fortunately, I love ironing linen tea towels. With a lovely bottle of scented linen spray, I mist and iron them into a fresh folded pile all ready to go to work. Feels good, looks good and smells good. (My apologies for sounding a bit Martha-like.)

3. Ta da! Just the right amount of soft casual linen hung to finish drying.
1. Not the right kind of wrinkled linen.
2. “Iron” damp linen with the palms of your hands or mist first if linen is dry.

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Remember when laundry was a chore?

Some friends and I were discussing laundry the other day (our lives really are more interesting than this conversation would lead you to think), making the inevitable comparisons between how it’s done today and how it was done when we were growing up in the fifties and sixties. Our mothers had wringer washers and clothes were hung outside to dry, which was a giant leap in terms of convenience compared to how their mothers handled laundry. My grandmother raised eight kids washing everything by hand and only got her first wringer washer when her eldest son bought her one when he got his first job.

The upside was we could do four loads at the same time.

While living in various cheap apartments and bed-sits during my early working life, I was accustomed to taking the laundry, a box of detergent and a bag of quarters in my bundle buggy down the street a few blocks to the laundromat, or later, when I advanced in the world, having facilities conveniently located in the basement of my apartment building. That was luxury. When my husband and I bought our first (town)house in Pickering in the seventies, the greatest thrill was having my own washing machine and it didn’t require coins. I no longer had to use the same machine as hundreds of other people who’d put heaven-knows-what in the load before mine. At the time, we couldn’t afford five appliances and I really really wanted a dishwasher (my first) so I had to forgo a clothes dryer to stay within our four-appliance budget (fridge, stove, washer, dishwasher). It was three years before I got a dryer to sit alongside my beloved automatic washer. A friend who also bought her first house at the same time installed an old coin-operated washer and dryer that had been discarded from her family’s campground laundry building. She, too, could use it without coins. Such lucky girls. And to think young marrieds today can’t imagine living without all the mod cons including granite countertops.

And they called wringer washers a modern convenience.

Decades later, I still love my washer and dryer and it’s probably because I clearly remember when laundry was not such an easy chore for me and my boomer friends. When I was in high school in the early sixties and I did the household laundry it was in the “cellar” with our wringer washing machine sitting alongside a dual-tub concrete laundry sink. For those readers who weren’t born then, all the washing was done with the same tub of water that was recycled into the left laundry tub before being pumped back into the machine for each subsequent load and so on until darks were washed last. After several loads of sheets, towels and clothing, the darks were the least likely to show the residual effects of washing in water recycled from previous loads. This handy feature was called a “suds-saver”. The right side of the concrete laundry tub was then used for hand-rinsing the clothes in cold water before being manually fed into the wringer. A wooden stick was handy for keeping your fingers out of the rollers but not always successful and many women suffered painful hand injuries.

As kids, we thought frozen longjohns were hilarious.

In summer we hung clothes outside in the breezes where they dried quickly and the sheets and pillowcases smelled heavenly when you put them back on the bed. In winter, the clothes froze solid on the outside line and always made us kids laugh at jeans and pyjamas stiff as boards when we brought them in. When clothes weren’t dried in a warm dryer, everything had to be ironed—socks, underwear, towels, even pyjamas because everything was stiff and wrinkled. In the days before steam irons, everything had to be ‘dampened’. Remember that? At our house we used an old Pepsi bottle filled with water and a corked sprinkler gadget in the neck. We’d sprinkle all the clothes and roll them in damp towels that waited rolled up like cordwood in the bathtub until they were ready to be ironed. Cotton was the primary fabric used in clothing then (wool was hand washed in cold water) so wrinkles abounded.

They call this work? Not in my world.

Recalling those sequences of work with my friends reminded me of how lucky we are today. Not only do we have so many fabrics that require minimal care and no ironing, we are blessed with washing machines and dryers that do everything but dispense our wine. I load the machine, tap a setting and with a few ping ping pings, technology does all the work. But old habits die hard. I still hang sheets outside and I’m genetically programmed to always do the darks last, even though I don’t need to. No more cellars, no more recycled water, dipping hands in freezing rinse water, feeding clothes into the wringer one piece at a time, dampening everything for ironing and blessedly, no more work. Even our laundry rooms now get ‘decorated’ to be cheerful, efficient and enjoyable. I may not know how to use my cell phone to its full capability or how to program all the settings on my TV but I sure know how to tap out those laundry settings. And how to pour a nice cold glass of wine while technology does all the work. We’ve come a long way baby.

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Don’t toss your skinny jeans just yet. There’s still hope.

When I read the heading of an article in The Globe and Mail “Scientists test blocking menopause hormone” my little heart skipped a beat. Whatever do they have on the horizon for us now? No more hot flashes? No more meno-brain? And best of all, no more weight gain with its accompanying ugly muffin top? According to The New York Times’ News Service writer Gina Kolata, scientists using research with lab mice, (which are a lot like us!! . . we’ll grab on to any ray of hope) have discovered that a single hormone called FSH is responsible for the universal characteristics of menopause including bone loss and weight gain which presents as abdominal fat. Blocking that hormone could not only mean the end of menopausal symptoms but goodbye elastic waists and calcium supplements. More importantly, it could launch a massive resurrection in fashion options for baby boomers. There could be life beyond Eileen Fisher.

Imagine the possibilities. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could keep the shape we so took for granted in our twenties. Would we start wearing mini-skirts again? Bare our midriff in saucy summer crop tops? Even start going sleeveless? Who wouldn’t love to rediscover her hip bones, buried for years under layers of abdominal fat? When I read the article my pulse raced as I envisioned digging out those lovely leather belts I haven’t been able to wear for decades. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to throw out those fabulous size 27 jeans with the red ankle zippers that I loved so much and wore in the seventies. The possibility of tucking a tapered blouse or tee shirt into my skinny jeans again just thrills me to my very toes.

The fashion industry today is irrelevant. It should not be solely the domain of the young and thin. Boomers wanna have fun too!

OMG. Maybe my feet would be also affected by this new hormone discovery and I could wear sassy heels again. Could I? Would I? The possibilities are just too delicious to fathom. Dare I contemplate once more wearing a pretty bathing suit without a giant bathrobe-like coverup? Perhaps I’m being overly-optimistic but already I’m mentally calculating my new pant size. And what if we weren’t restricted to utilitarian bras structurally engineered to minimize back fat, overflow and side boobage. Do I see lace underwear and sexy lingerie in our future? With no hot flashes maybe we could even start wearing sweaters in the winter again—fitted, fine-knit little turtlenecks like we wore in our twenties, in every colour, tucked in. The possibilities are dancing in my head like visions of sugar plums. Would it be the end of cellulite? Do I see shorts in our future? White ones worn with (spray) tanned legs? Would our hair grow back in, thick, shiny and luxurious like it used to be, and I don’t mean on our upper lip and chin? Maybe I could once again grow that gorgeous bob I looked so good in forty years ago. Would my eyesight improve allowing me to drive after dark? Or even stay awake after dark? I’d be happy with that. With our super powers restored, boomers would kick serious Gen X and millennial butt in the business and fashion world. Let them deride us at their peril.

Could this be the future me?

Single hormone blocker could topple worldwide economy

If this hormone blocker works, the worldwide economic implications could be massive. For starters, the absence of hot flashes would mean the global collapse of the entire ceiling fan industry. Duvets might even make a resurgence. Millions of yards of fabric in third-world sweat shops would no longer be needed to cover expanding boomer bottoms, upper arms and waistlines. Air conditioning in homes and public buildings around the world could be turned down to normal levels, conserving energy and eliminating the need for heavy sweaters and coats in malls and restaurants by non-menopausal customers. The effect on the environment would be better than anything The Paris Accord could have ever dreamed of. The entire diet industry would be threatened if boomer gals no longer had to worry about losing that last few pounds for their high school reunion or a family wedding. Diets would be redundant for an entire generation.

Call me.

Back to the present. The mice in the studies had their ovaries removed and produced no estrogen at all.  Instead of losing bone density and getting fat the test subjects who received the FSH blocker actually lost large amounts of fat which sounds like a boomer broad’s dream come true. The study undertaken by Dr. Mone Zaidi a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in New York comes with a caveat though. But (and there’s always a ‘but’), researchers caution that tests conducted on mice often do not produce similar results in humans. I don’t care. Sign me up as a test subject. I still have all those fabulous belts languishing in my closet. I’m tired of saying ‘no’ to dessert and foregoing ice-cream for carrot sticks. I’m sick of living on salads, kale chips and quinoa. I want to strut out once again in my skinny jeans with red high heels and a saucily tucked-in silk shirt over a lacey French bra. I don’t care if I develop a preference for nibbling cheese in dark corners under the baseboards. At least I’ll feel and look great rockin’ my newly slender old bod, and who doesn’t love cheese. Dr. Zaidi? Call me. Immediately.

Click here to read “Scientists test blocking menopause hormone”.

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