Our Towns – Steinbeck Revisited At 10 000 Feet

My latest read has been Our Towns, a travelogue by James and Deborah Fallows. The 2019 book (a slightly updated version of the original which was released two years prior) owes a lot to a favorite of mine, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. It’s an obvious comparison and one the writers acknowledge early on. Both are essentially diaries of jaunts across the length and breadth of the U.S., stopping along the way to see interesting towns and talk to ordinary people. However, for all the obvious similarities, there are differences aplenty too, most obviously the 50+ years which passed between the two.

While Steinbeck famously traveled in his camper-back pickup truck with his faithful dog, James Fallows travels by air, piloting his own small plane, with his faithful wife and writing partner. That in itself leads to some big differences. For instance, while Steinbeck lamented how (even in the early-’60s) cities and landscapes were all becoming homogenized and similar from the road with lookalike fast food places and strip malls, the Fallows wonder at the differences of the landscape from the air. They simplify, for instance by noting that from a plane, the eastern third of the country is forest, the central part nothing but farm fields and the west all desert and mountain, save for a dense cluster of cities along the California coast. The mode of transport also affected how they encountered the land. Steinbeck, driving his own bed and breakfast could move around freely and quickly and often met memorable people at campsites or along the road; the Fallows usually stayed in hotels in their towns and spent a few days exploring, often on foot, talking to educators and business people as often as not.

The Fallows visit a range of cities and towns ranging from tiny – Eastport, Maine, for example, a fishing town and the easternmost point in the country and closer to Canadian cities like Fredericton than the nearest largish American one – to mid-sized ones like Riverside, California and Charleston, WV, and even a couple of large urban areas like Columbus, Ohio. For good measure they also visit a Prairie nature preserve in Montana and a lake in Texas being rehabilitated largely due to the work of rocker Don Henley. The one common thread is that all of the spots they stop at are areas on the move upward; areas which are getting better whether they were not bad to begin with or written off as almost dead and uninhabitable.

They strive to find the small stories of success in those places, and the reasons why. They find some fundamental similarities, but one isn’t political leanings. They note that they stopped in one of the most Liberal towns in America – Bernie Sanders’ home of Burlington, Vermont – and some in the heart of Republican red America, like Dodge City, Kansas. Surprisingly, the successes are similar, and one is an ability of local leaders to put aside national and partisan politics to work together for local good. Allentown, PA for instance, tends to be Republican but went against all “conservative” practises during the recession of the early-2000s and voted to increase local taxes, enabling continuation of the level of social services and policing as well as spend on redeveloping the downtown area. The counter-intuitive strategy worked.

The Fallows find some common threads in the cities doing well. Among them, a good community college training people in job skills that lead to good paying work in the area, a good public library system, public schools which adapt to local situations (whether it’s having expanded ESL classes in areas with high populations of refugees and immigrants or having local high-tech industries bring in people to help work with the kids on real world projects involving science and technology) , and a dedication to reinvigorating the downtowns , which usually leads to a number of cafes, boutiques and art galleries. Art too, is a common denominator, they find, although they admit neither of them were especially artistic types. Cities which thrive have a lively arts scene, from galleries and wall murals on old buildings to small theatre companies.

All that and beer . Yep, local microbreweries or taprooms were the last common feature they found in almost every city they visited; something that improved civic pride, usually resulted in a popular local gathering place and of course, some fine quaffs as well.

Cheers to that, I say, and cheers to the book which is interesting and makes me interested in seeing places I never would have imagined could be interesting, like Charleston and Dodge City. A book I recommend for anyone as entertainment, and to civic leaders for ideas.

The Crown – Story Of Queen Royally Good Drama, Maybe Not Such A Joker Of An Idea?

My sweetie and I have been watching The Crown this past month. We got to the current end of the series and are now counting the days until the new, fourth season begins in November.

For the uninitiated (which would have included me until a few weeks ago), the Crown is a Netflix series based on the life of Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth II to be precise, there was a previous one some four centuries earlier. The first three seasons begin by seeing her childhood, with her father (George VI) being thrust into the role of king when her uncle David (who was King Edward… don’t ask me why “Edward”) abdicated – quit – to marry a woman the family, and Church of England, didn’t approve of. George VI is a decent-ish man but a chain smoker and he soon dies of lung cancer. In what the country would have considered the ideal situation, he would have had a son, but instead left two daughters, so the eldest, Elizabeth became queen while barely out of her teenage years. Ironically it was a role her younger sister, Margaret coveted and Elizabeth didn’t want, preferring “country life” riding and selling horses. To her, the crown’s something of a burden. Small wonder “crown” and “anchor” are linked together so often.

We see her develop into the role of Queen, come to understand its gravitas but also lose a bit of her own soul and self in doing so. We see her as a steadying presence in a country losing prestige in the world, but also a somewhat powerless one as a succession of prime ministers come and go and make decisions she often disagrees with but puts up with, because, well, that’s what The Crown does. From time to time we see small victories the Queen and her kin have; Margaret securing a huge “bailout” loan from the U.S. after a night of un-regal drinking and dancing with President Johnson in the ’60s, Elizabeth herself nudging a reluctant, frail and failing Winston Churchill into retirement when he was no longer up to the job’s demands. But for the most part, it’s a life and job of sitting politely and doing little. Where we’ve left off, the ’70s are rolling, her son Charles is stuck on Camilla Bowles but Diana hasn’t arrived on the scene and other son Andrew is just a lad, not the infamous “Randy Andy” who befriended Jeffrey Epstein. I’m more than a little curious to see her reaction (at least the show’s interpretation of it) to those events.

It might seem a weird one for me to get hooked on watching. I grew up in Canada, which is part of the “British Commonwealth” but has little real association with the UK these days. Nevertheless, growing up I saw the Queen’s face on every coin I used, most of the paper money and many of the stamps I put on letters… some of which were probably railing about how much I despise seeing a foreign leader on our money! No fan of the monarchy am I. It’s not so much that I ever really had it in for Elizabeth (watching the series only confirms she is an ordinary woman asked to do extraordinary things) but merely the two facts that she was from another country, not mine, and she wasn’t even picked by the people over there! Democracy people! Let the people pick the leaders.

That was how I felt. Now, in this insane year, I might be re-evaluating the idea. Hey, I still have a problem with someone being leader just because of the family they were born into. But I might be coming to see that Britain might have something going there with its two-part balance of power. Like the rest of us, Canada, the U.S., most other “civilized” lands, it still has its elected leader (a prime minister in their case) and the hundreds of elected politicians in Parliament, their equivalent to American Congress. That’s where the real power lies, where laws are made and changed, national budgets set and policies created. But then, quietly sitting there, taking it all in, is the other part, the monarchy. Sitting, politely waving once in awhile, not saying much in public beyond “Happy Christmas” every December 25th.

But, behind the scenes a force which can potentially influence a wayward government and could theoretically, change it. Laws there still give the Queen the “power to appoint and dismiss ministers (as in heads of branches of the government), regulate the Civil Service, issue passports, declare war or make peace, direct the military and negotiate and ratify treaties and alliances.” All that and be the official owner of all the swans in the country! That’s a lot of unused power. And maybe not such a bad system of checks and balances.

It all comes to mind because more and more, it’s becoming apparent that democracy as we know it, although better than the alternatives, isn’t working all that well. Lindsay Graham sits in Washington piously declaring in 2016 that it would be wrong to appoint a Supreme Court judge only nine months before an election and that if it happened in 2020 we should use his words against him. Now he’s blithely declaring they can do so, only six weeks before an election, so they will. And of course, the Democrats don’t shine by warning that if the Republicans follow through on that, they’ll simply expand the court to their advantage as soon as they can. Get your kids to take a high school law class parents, because if it keeps up, by 2028 Supreme Court judge might be one of the big growth jobs. (“Oh yeah, appoint four more judges will you!? Well when we win the next election, we’re going to put in 200 of our friends and make it a court of 213! Bazinga”). My Canada has long had a similar problem with elected government stacking the inexplicably unelected Senate with partisan patsies often quite unqualified for the role.

Add to that a sitting president urging his followers to vote twice – a criminal offense – to scuttle an election and make it null and void and an increasing number of voters getting their info from entirely unreliable sources (mainly social media posts) and one has to wonder where it’s all heading. Suddenly the concept of having an overseeing body watching it all, mainly observing passively, maybe yellling at a few dunces behind the scenes but ready to if necessary pull the carpet out from underneath any government that gets to be too delinquent or self-indulgent might not be a bad idea after all.

Of course,it’s still an unrealistic idea outside of Jolly Ol. They’ve had the concept and the practise of a ruling royal family for centuries and that’s the way it is. Having them requires nothing more than a bit of inertia and the occasional rolling of one’s eyes. Over here, we have no such tradition and needless to say, trying to install one would do little more than perhaps manage to miraculously unite the two polarized parties in Washington in outright frothing anger at the suggestion. Although the Kennedy’s have long been nicknamed “America’s Royal Family”, they aren’t and if we can’t agree on whether it’s OK not to stand during the national anthem or not, we sure as H-E-double- hockey sticks won’t be agreeing to a change of that magnitude. Who would get to be “the crown.”

Unrealistic? Yep. But a starting point in the discussion on how to “fix” democracy perhaps. By the way, I can sit and watch from the sidelines…just sayin’! I wouldn’t mind owning some swans…