Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope

Tightrope tells the tale of an America that is still in the process of losing well-paying jobs, where people work two or more jobs just to make ends meet, where one illness can turn into a bankruptcy for those who are uninsured or underinsured and where opioids and other drugs lead to incarceration, early death and family destruction

              “You wrote about my life,” I say when Nicholas Kristoff and his wife Sheryl WuDunn call me from their hotel room on a stop of their multi-city tour promoting their new book Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.

              I tell them about growing up in East Chicago. Sure, it was always a blue collar town but when I was young both East Chicago and, across the Columbus Avenue bridge, Indiana Harbor where I grew up, had a vital economy, two separate but thriving downtowns and work for all those graduating from the two high schools, Roosevelt and Washington.

              My mother worked at the East Chicago Public Library for 50 years and in the 1960s bought clothes at Broadway Dress Shoppe with its sleek curved window exterior. Albert’s Jewelers had a store on Main Street, and I remember my dad saying they held on as long as they could as Indiana Harbor continued to lose population and other stores closed as the manufacturing slowed down before moving. My friends and I perused the racks at the Mademoiselle Shop on Main Street, wondering if we could talk our parents into buying the latest Bobby Brooks sweater and skirt set. We bought Nancy Drew books, dress patterns and sodas at one of the two dime stores just down the street.

For children’s clothes there was Jack and Jill’s owned by my friend’s family. After he retired, my father would walk from our home by St. Catherine’s Hospital to the Olympia, the ultimate busy Greek diner or as a family we’d eat at the Trolley Diner.  I’d buy freshly made bread on my way home from school at the bakery; my Romanian grandmother would get freshly butchered chicken at a meat story further south on Main always asking that the head remain on so she could make sure it really was fresh. Both the A&P and Kroger’s in Indiana Harbor gave out stamps that you’d paste in books and exchange, when you had enough for items in a catalogue.

Both downtowns were vital and busy, there were no empty store fronts. I told Kristoff and WuDunn, the only husband and wife journalist team to win a Pulitzer Prize. about how kids would graduate from high school and go straight into the mills, even those who in other cities would have gone to college. The starting pay was at least four times more than minimum wage at the time. It was hard work, sometimes dirty and dangerous but my friends whose parents worked in the mills had good solid middle class lives with the added values of health insurance and pensions and saved money because they wanted their kids to go to college. When there was a strike—particularly one that lasted for weeks and weeks—there was a feeling of unease and sadness and even fear. The annual fair held at the Katherine House where I went to day care was canceled. My friends’ families couldn’t afford to get candy and comic books after school like we used to. But then the strike was settled, and the world righted itself until it finally didn’t.

              I wasn’t the first person to tell Kristoff and WuDunn about such a loss—because seeing your hometown hollowed out, losing population and good paying manufacturing jobs, echoes through you–it’s a sadness because I loved growing up there.

“Sheryl and I are so struck with stories like yours,” Kristoff tells me, noting that he’s familiar with what happened to the steel mill cities of Northwest Indiana and even their current commitments to rebuild/reimagine their identities. “wherever we are, whenever we talk about the book, people come up to us and say I grew up in a tiny town in Tennessee, Ohio or West Virginia, anywhere and say this happened to me.”

Tightrope tells the tale of an America that is still in the process of losing well-paying jobs, where people work two or more jobs just to make ends meet, where one illness can turn into a bankruptcy for those who are uninsured or underinsured and where opioids and other drugs lead to incarceration, early death and family destruction.

Like me, like most of us, Kristoff has seen it firsthand as well and he propels the book from that point of view. He grew up in Yamhill, Oregon on a sheep and cherry farm and traces what happened to the kids who rode with him on the Number 6 bus to Yamhill Grade School and then Yamhill Carlton High School. Kristoff went on to graduate from Harvard and as a Rhodes Scholar, studied law Magdalen College, Oxford. He’s a New York Times columnist, won two Pulitzer Prizes, is a frequent CNN contributor and is the author of several books.

Life wasn’t as good for many of his bus mates. About one-fourth are dead from drug overdoses, suicide from depression and despair, alcohol, obesity, reckless accidents and from what WuDunn and Kristoff call “pathologies.”  Of the five Knapp children who lived next door to the Kristoff family and rode Number 6, four are dead and the fifth most likely survived because he spent 13 years in the Oregon State Penitentiary.

“We wrote this book to help change the narrative and to put human faces on issues,” says Kristoff. “Our hope is by using the narrative of the old school bus we can help generate a conversation that would lead to change. It’s deeply painful to see this happen to a community which Sheryl and I loved, where those I grew up with were opportunistic about the future when we were young. Now people are dying unnecessary.”

Each time Kristoff returned home he’d hear more horror stories. He was, he realized, watching the lives of his classmates implode and along with them, the lives of their children.  

“We have so many young children now growing up in toxic environment,” he says.

              “That’s why the situation is so critical,” says  WuDunn, who also worked at the New York Times and is now a senior banker specializing  in growth companies in technology, new media and the emerging markets. “It’s like compound interest rates on steroids –kids getting taken away by the state, trying to place them in stable foster homes, their progeny going through the same cycle.”

              But WuDunn and Kristoff aren’t just about detailing the destruction and despair, they’re all about solutions as well.

“Remarkably, even during the Great Depression life expectancy didn’t fall the way it is now,” says WuDunn.  “For the last three years in a row, life expectancy has decreased in the U.S. unlike other first world countries. That’s because during the depression they had a process and plans for getting back on track.”

It’s not only about the outsourcing of jobs to other countries where labor is cheaper and environmental rules lax, it’s about how America’s politicians react—or don’t– to it.

“Globalization is global, and it affects all countries, particularly our peer countries in Europe but they’re not exhibiting the same challenges that we are, to the degree that we are experiencing them,” says WuDunn. “We’re absolutely capable of changing. There’s evidence based research showing the solution of these issues. Great Britain decided to do something about children living in poverty and were able to reduce it by 50%. Portugal is the best example of dealing with drug use, they don’t jail drug users, they place them in rehab.”

Indeed, statistics indicate that a dollar invested in addiction treatment saves about $12 in reduced crime, court costs and health care savings.

“We’ve been paralyzed by this idea that nothing works,” says Kristoff. “The narrative is we waged the war on poverty and poverty won, this obsession with personal responsibility and that poverty is a choice, these false narratives are powering what’s going on in this country.”   

America is crippling itself by not taking care of its own, by spending more money on incarceration that rehabilitation, by short funding schools and by a tax system that benefits the rich and takes away from the poor.

WuDunn worries about how we can maintain our primacy in the world when so many of our families are failing.

“Change will only work if everyone says we need to advocate for this,” she says. “One man came up to me and said it’s really important to invest in human capital. We need to do that if we want to be able to compete against China and India. Taking care of Americans is an investment in all of America.”

Kristoff sums it up succinctly.

“There’s real desperation out there,” he says.

Books for Kids for the Holidays

Who Is Stevie Wonder? by Jim Gigliotti (Grosset & Dunlap 2016; $5.99). Gigliotti, a former editor at the “National Football League,” has written numerous “who are biographies for about famous people such as Olympian Jesse Owens and baseball star Roberto Clemente. In this book, he explores the life of Steveland Judkins, who at age 11 auditioned for Motown Record Corporation, wowing most of the listeners with his ability to play multiple instruments and sing. What many didn’t know that day, the boy who would become Stevie Wonder and win 25 Grammy Awards as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was blind.

Megan Stine does the same thing in Who Was Michael Jackson? showing young readers how the gifted singer from Gary, Indiana went on to become an international star.

Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley (Knopf Books for Young Readers 2017; $17.99) tells the story of two teens—Henry and Rachel who meet again after years apart. When she was younger, Rachel had a huge crush on Henry and the day before she moved, she tucked a

love letter to him into a book.

Now the two are working in a bookstore together. But life has changed so much in that intervening time. Rachel’s brother has died and she feels numb. Will working with Henry in the bookstore and discovering books together change all that.

You betcha.

 

King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World

For her new book King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World (Alfred A. Knopf 2017; $35), Joan Nathan, the multiple James Beard award winner, followed in the footsteps of Jewish traders as they circumvented the globe centuries and even millenniums ago. As they traveled, they brought the food cultures from the lands they’d visited before and adapted new ones but keeping close to their dietary laws, traditions and homelands.

Nathan, who has written almost a dozen cookbooks, recounts the culinary history and geography of these early travelers in her sumptuous new book featuring over 170 recipes.

It begins at the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi, Kerala where Nathan spies an inscription indicating Jewish traders might have crossed the Indian Ocean from Judea to India during the reign of King Solomon. Already a world traveler, Nathan next made her way to Chendamangalam, a hamlet 20 miles north of Kochi surrounded by a lush landscape of mango, coconut and cinnamon trees and pepper and cardamom vines.

“As I walked toward the bank of the nearby Periyar River, which flows into the Arabian Sea, I imagined ancient Hebrew adventurers and traders arriving on the shores and marveling at the lushness of the terrain,” writes Nathan in the introduction of her book.

And so we too are seduced by her journey into exotic lands, looking at how foods and ingredients have crisscrossed the globe originating far from where we first might have thought.

We chat about Malai, a Romanian cornmeal ricotta breakfast pudding that she features in her book and I tell her how I learned to make a polenta-like dish from my Romanian grandmother.

“Oh mamaliga,” she says, like everyone knows about mamaliga.  But then what would you expect from a woman whose book contains five recipes for haroset, a thick sauce or paste typically made of chopped fruits and nuts. It, like so many recipes, has morphed, bouncing back and forth between countries and continents, each time being tweaked just a little and Nathan includes a version from Brazil, Persia, Ferrara and, of all places, Maine.

Asked what recipes she’d recommend for those just starting using her cookbook, Nathan suggests Yemenite Chicken Soup with Dill, Cilantro and Parsley (“a really old recipe,” she says noting that historic records dating back to 12th century the healing power of chicken broth). She also suggests Malai, the Romania dish and Roman Ricotta Cheese Crostata with Cherries or Chocolate, a cheesecake recipe dating back to Imperial Rome in the 1st century. She also included a recipe from her friend, her friend Injy Farat-Lew, an Egyptian-Jew who grew up in Cairo and Paris, for a flourless chocolate cake and one for hard boiled eggs traditionally served ruing Passover on the Seder plate but can be used as a side for any meal.

“This recipe for long-cooked eggs with spinach came from the island of Corfu, Greece to Ancona, Italy, a seaport on the Adriatic coast,” writes Nathan, who first taste the dish in Rome, in the introduction to this recipe which also exemplifies the convoluted origins of food.

As she traveled (Nathan says her quest took her to approximately 30 countries over a six-year time span), the scope of her book changed. But it was all part of her culinary journey and one she continues to take.

Ifyougo:

What: Joan Nathan has two book signings

When & Where: Monday, May 1 at 6:00 pm, Bookends & Beginnings, 1712 Sherman Avenue, Alley #, Evanston, IL. 224-999-7722.

Tuesday, May 2 at 11:30 am-2pm, Standard Club Chicago luncheon, 320 S. Plymouth Ct, Chicago IL.

2:00pm.

 

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