Rating: 4 stars
Watch out, because this is a long one. Gumption has fed my brain and I’ve had lots of thoughts as a result. I’ll start with this one: O, Nick Offerman, how I love your drollness.
There are so many great things in this book. I didn’t agree with all of Offerman’s opinions, but I agreed with and enjoyed the majority. He talks sense but he doesn’t preach. He entertains but he doesn’t diminish the seriousness of what he’s saying.
Offerman appears in one of my favourite TV shows of recent years, Parks and Recreation. He plays Ron Swanson, a small c conservative man with a deep love for the outdoors, manual labour and meat. He’s everything I shouldn’t love, but he’s a joy.
Offerman shares many of Ron’s characteristics, except he is more free in the expression of his sense of humour and far less conservative. In this book, Offerman takes a look at the lives of significant figures in American culture and explains why they mean what they do to him. It covers politics, art, slow living, responsibility to the planet, to animals and to other human beings, and provides insights into Offerman’s own philosophy of life. It’s both interesting and funny.
There are things in the book that grabbed my interest less than other topics, but Offerman still managed to hold my attention. He’s an excellent storyteller. Of the things that did grab my interest, some have given me new reading avenues to follow – something that I think would please Offerman. Others grabbed my interest because they are topics that I already think about a lot.
The book starts with George Washington and Offerman’s reflections on what America is to Americans. I’m not American, so I’m not that interested in what it means to be American, but of course America has an impact across the globe and knowing how this nation has evolved is useful in understanding how that impact plays out. Offerman gave me pause for thought with a couple of his reflections. Particularly in his examination of Benjamin Franklin. I liked the line Franklin gave as he signed the Declaration of Independence:
We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.
At a time when politicians the world over are actively trying to divide people, when a man whose campaign centred on hatred, lies and bullying has become President of the USA, it’s difficult to imagine a world leader today expressing similar sentiment.
The thing I enjoyed most was Offerman’s willing honesty about himself. He measures himself against his heroes and finds himself lacking, but he takes their strengths as inspiration to be a better person. He comes across as just the same as everyone. He talks about serious things, acknowledging the failings of the nation of which he’s a proud citizen, but he twinkles silliness over it, so that you smile to yourself in recognition as the bigger point he’s making sinks in.
His passage on how he informs himself politically when elections or significant bills are being debated, from a starting point of mistrust of politicians, is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. The one because he’s mocking how most people behave, the other because it really is how most people behave, and they have the power to elect a lunatic.
I wanted to copy out the entire passage where Offerman considers reading alongside other forms of diversion, but it’s too long. Buy the book. It’s on pages 28 & 29. Here’s a key line, though:
The catch is that those activities [watching TV, playing a video game] do little else than divert my attention, while a well-chosen book can actually concoct a stew of betterment within me.
… I always prefer the book to the movie; even if Peter Jackson has spent considerable millions embroidering the astonishingly real world of Middle-earth, it cannot compare in verisimilitude to the Shire I imagine within my own cerebral laboratory.
His take on the Second Amendment is interesting, picking up on the consideration that most people defending it are privileged white men scared of relinquishing even an iota of their power. This is something I’ve thought about recently through my reading of They All Love Jack and The Descent of Man. Offerman makes the point that the amendment was written when the US was in danger of foreign military invasion at a time when weapons were muzzle loading and not automatic or capable of repeat fire. He also talks about the need to examine the behaviour of the US in the wider world and whether the right to bear arms is the best response to retaliatory actions.
If the bravest protagonist is the one who lays down his or her weapon, then doesn’t our desperate clinging to our guns make us cowards?
I liked his balanced approach throughout the book, in the way he acknowledges that everyone has weak points and unpleasant character traits, but that most people are doing their best to live decent lives. He praises positive action, but also calls out the negative things that co-exist: the positive nature of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in establishing the US as a free and fair nation, against a negative background of slavery and misogyny; the forward thinking environmentalism of Theodore Roosevelt in establishing National Parks, against his bloodthirsty love of killing animals as trophies.
A significant chapter for me was the one about Frederick Douglass, of whom I’m ashamed to admit I had never heard. What an incredible individual. He taught himself to read and write in secret, at risk of his life. He escaped a life of slavery and did everything he needed to do to be taken seriously as a free black man. He fought for women’s rights as far back as the 1840s. As Offerman says, he was a full-on badass. Offerman’s reflection in this chapter is on how absurd and unpleasant the sense of entitlement is that right wing (neo-Nazi) Americans feel, a sense of entitlement that leads to brutality, violence and murder in the name of patriotism and a continued (outdated) belief in Manifest Destiny. Behind the humour is a real sense of anger at and embarrassment for Americans who hold these views.
The chapter about Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the architects of Central Park, gave me a book title to track down: A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybczynski, so intrigued was I by Offerman’s examination of Olmsted. It also clarified and expressed how I feel about social media through a quote from the political (and social and computer and other kinds of) scientist Herbert A Simon:
In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
I’m trying to wean myself off social media. This is largely to do with the pointless name-calling and childish behaviour that has become more prevalent since people like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and their acolytes legitimised it, but also to do with the way in which it sucks away hours of my time with very little of worth in return. I used to read The Guardian newspaper daily because it used to provide clear analysis of current affairs. Now its content doesn’t seem as rigorously researched or presented and often has misleading click-bait headlines used to generate below the line content from the online, unedited commentariat. Because these days, clicks mean revenue. I used to use Facebook to keep in touch with friends, but now Facebook thinks it knows better than I do what I want to see on my newsfeed and I rarely see the things I want to see. I didn’t use Twitter as anything more than a radio channel until last summer, because I found its constantly updating timeline as stressful as the news ticker at the bottom of the screen on 24 hour news. Then mysteriously, even to me, I had a six month period of being obsessed with Twitter, talking shit with random strangers, using it as a vehicle to swear the anger and fear I was feeling about life out of my system. Since the Ascent of Trump, I’ve hated Twitter and the negativity expressed on there that overwhelms any attempt at bringing a positive challenge to how the world is collapsing back into a global patriarchy run by men with no consideration for anything other than their immediate satiety. I’m still hanging out on Instagram because photographs seem to temper opinion somehow.
Offerman puts what I’m feeling like this:
I feel that I am in a constant battle with the media channels of the world, which are incessantly trying to penetrate the inner sanctum of my focus, because if I switch on even one channel, be it TV, radio, or Internet, I am immediately exposed to the distracting jingle and tits of advertising and corporate agendas.
This is why I spend so much of my time reading books, rather than immersing myself in the pop culture of must see box sets and angrily scrolling through the internet in search of something spurious with which to feed my outrage. I feel more in control of what enters my brain when the vehicle for the content is a book. I choose what I read. I don’t have anything forced on me by stealth. And the amount of time I spend reading reduces the other leisure time left to me, so I necessarily become more selective of my TV viewing, my internet use, my other down time activities. One thing Offerman’s book is reawakening in me is a desire to spend more time outdoors, appreciating the beauty of the planet we live on.
Blogs, by the way, don’t count as distraction, especially not book reviewing blogs.
There aren’t many women included in the book, only four out of twenty-one, but the women Offerman does include are interesting characters. Perhaps because she doesn’t hunt or fish or do woodwork, Eleanor Roosevelt doesn’t ignite the same passionate reverence as the men, but Offerman admires her for her gumption. She was an inquisitive woman, putting herself outside her comfort zone in order to understand how people tick, an approach to life that stood her in good stead while First Lady of the USA and holding office with the United Nations. It was interesting to discover that she opposed her husband’s official stance on two key issues – supporting a bill to make lynching illegal, which FDR didn’t support, and opposing his decision to intern Japanese Americans during America’s involvement in the Second World War. Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t put popularity above doing the right thing.
Offerman’s manly love letter to the writer Wendell Berry has given me more books to add to my wish list. I’m going to start with his first novel Nathan Coulter. Once I’ve cleared a few more from my existing pile of books I already own, that is. The chapter about Berry raises two things that are bugbears of mine: that higher education and white collar jobs are intrinsically more worthwhile than technical education and skilled blue collar jobs, and that we should never be satisfied with what we have, we should always be seeking to replace it with something shinier and more exciting.
On the first point, there is family history behind it. My dad was a clever man. He had a cousin who was a clever man. Both only children, their fathers (brothers) and mothers (sisters) played them off against each other. Dad’s cousin took an academic route through life and did very well. Dad, partly in rebellion against the expectation that he would emulate his older cousin’s achievements, partly because he was more practical than academic, went into an apprenticeship and became a draughtsman. He was bitter about his cousin for ever more. Dad’s three children, my sister, brother and me, are also clever. My sister and I showed academic ability, my brother is more practical and hated school. My sister and I went to university and entered professions. My brother entered an apprenticeship and became a craftsman printer. Somehow, my Dad’s bitterness about his enforced childhood rivalry with his cousin rubbed off on my brother, who feels that his cleverness isn’t as good as my sister’s or mine and that his work isn’t as important. It’s also partly the fault of the education system presenting technical education as the domain of academic underachievers. And it didn’t help that my sister, as the eldest and first in our family to go to university, was held up to my brother and me as an example of what could be achieved by applying oneself academically. Even despite my Dad’s experience with his cousin.
This makes me cross and sad. When I used to watch my Dad make a technical drawing and saw the things he built using those drawings, the way he translated the idea in his head to a scheme on paper to an actual useful object (house extension, central heating system, whatever), I was filled with awe, because I know that I don’t possess the same skills to do that. When I used to talk to my brother about printing, typefaces, setting type, making plates, creating something useful, I was similarly filled with awe, because his work combined spacial awareness, appreciation of elegance and hard graft. I say used to because he is no longer a printer. There aren’t many lithographers around these days, since computers made it all so easy and turned us all into people who prefer to do things on the cheap without mourning the skills we have lost as a result.
Offerman says this, which rings true to my brother’s experience:
When I was in high school in the eighties, only the underachievers and burnouts were relegated to the area vocational school. It was considered a substantial demotion in life, brought on only by poor grades or attitude.
On the second point, I get heartily sick of the incessant pressure to upgrade. I’ve owned four cars in my life. My current car is the only one I’ve bought brand new. Every year I receive messages from the car dealership suggesting I might want to upgrade to a newer model. The car is only five years old. It doesn’t break down. Its fuel efficiency is good. It meets my needs. Why would I trade up? My mobile phone is three years old. I can make phonecalls on it, send texts, check the internet, take photos, it’s sleek and it fits in my pocket. Somehow I still feel as though I should be upgrading to a newer phone, something that does extra things I don’t want or need, that is shinier, newer, more sexy. Something that says I’m on top of my phone game. It’s bullshit, though. Offerman pins this feeling as consumer conditioning to believe that we’ll be happier if we can show our affluence through bigger, better, newer possessions. While it’s true that a new pair of trainers, a new item of clothing or, yes, a new phone makes me happier in the moments that those things feel new, I’m actually happier when I’ve spent time with people I love, done a good piece of work that satisfies me, or have climbed a big hill to look out over rolling countryside with my heart pounding in my chest from the exertion (I’m inherently unfit).
There’s also an interesting point made about work, that chimed with thoughts I’ve been having recently about my job. I started doing what I do because I believed it was important. The preservation of the historical record is vital for holding the state to account as part of the democratic society we live in, and important for giving us a sense of place and progress in time as part of being human. My job is to make sure that the historical record survives and to make it accessible to people who might not even know they need it to exist. It’s an underpinning kind of job. Gaining a sense of satisfaction about my work used to be easier when I worked in local government. Over the years I’ve spent in a museum, I’ve found it harder to keep believing that it’s worthwhile. A big reason for that is that the organisation I work for has different ideas about what is worthwhile about what we do, and I am tired of feeling that I have to explain what is important about my role. I’m tired of having to justify my existence within the organisation.
This quote from a conversation Offerman had with Berry reminded me that I need to keep believing that what I do for a living is important:
The reason to get into it [work] is because it’s right, and because it’s interesting work to do, and because you’re enjoying it. If you’re not having any fun you better quit right now.
In the context of the election of the 45th President of the USA, the chapter about Barney Frank made me feel sad. I feel sad (by which I mean angry and upset) at the thought of the undoing of what little progress has been made in civil rights, LGBT rights, financial reform in public office, all the advances made that speak to society being equal, free and civilised. In America perhaps more than in the UK (although having a Prime Minister who says that she doesn’t need a plan for Brexit because God has a plan makes me wonder), the conservative religious right has been growing in power and influence to the point that a self-serving demagogue has played them to gain election to that nation’s highest office. The self-professed Christian Mike Pence, now Vice President Pence, found it acceptable to tweet from a church service on Inauguration Day. Such dedication to God. The danger of these people isn’t their Christianity per se. People are free to believe whatever nonsense they like, if it makes them happy and doesn’t harm others. In America, this freedom is enshrined in the Constitution. What’s dangerous about these people is their manipulation of the Bible to justify their discriminatory opinions and their use of positions of power to, as Offerman puts it, “encourage the perseverance of discrimination.”
In this chapter, Offerman also addresses the way in which the bubbles and echo chambers we now occupy, and the almost entirely negative nature of the satire that feeds on modern politics, prevents any form of progress to be made. Political debate has become a polarised playground slanging match. The people responsible for running our societies behave like children, and we the electorate, the citizenry, follow suit. As I said above, it’s a reason I want to stop using social media so much. I’m just going to quote from Offerman’s book because he says what I feel pretty well.
… I have begun to feel like our politics are yet another area in which we are being trained to blindly consume the messaging that we’re being fed, either by the “liberal” channels of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, MSNBC and The Huffington Post, or conversely by the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh side of any debate. Regardless of our red- or blue-team membership, we all rather lazily follow along with what we are told to hate about the policies of the opposing side. This leaves no middle ground, which, it seems to me, is where most of life actually resides.
The delivery systems of each “side” may differ in taste and decorum by a wide gulf, but their net results are similarly low when it comes to fostering progress. When we tune in to either flavor of entertainment, are any of us lending any brain power to solving these problems? Or are we a righteous, chuckling choir, pumping each our respective fists at the drubbing our “entertainer” has just delivered to that asshole across the aisle? If we, all of us, just continue to call each other assholes, then what good is that doing anybody? Will we ever recognize and subsequently tire of the futility of this exercise?
As Mr. Frank points out, we used to cull our information from more unbiased sources so that we might then engage in our own conversations – millions of tiny debates on any given topic … All these disparate opinions, combined and weighed to strike a balance somewhere in the middle of our starkly polarized parties, were once a great strength in our nation’s politics, a strength we have evidently all but lost.
Offerman wrote this book in 2014. It was published in 2015. He couldn’t have imagined where that loss of strength would lead.
Less obviously political, I had a lot of time for the subject matter of the chapter that introduced me to Michael Pollan. Pollan is linked with Wendell Berry through the belief that food is better for us if it’s sourced locally and prepared naturally. I’m a vegetarian. Not because I think animals shouldn’t be eaten, but because I don’t like the way animals are intensively farmed. We’ve been conditioned to eat more meat than is good for our bodies in order to increase the profits of large scale farming. I didn’t like the effects that the drugs and hormones pumped into animals to counteract the bad animal husbandry utilised in large scale farming had on my body, and I didn’t like the way eating meat made me feel, so as soon as my parents accepted that I knew my own mind I stopped eating meat. It’s not just about the meat industry either. I equally don’t like intensively farmed fruit and vegetables, in particular the pesticides that coat our fruit and veg that are used so invasively that they now threaten our very existence through the adverse effect they’ve had on the bee population. I don’t like that you can eat what you want out of season, either, although I do it because supermarkets make it too easy. I try to grow some of my own greens in my tiny suburban back garden in my limited leisure time, but I’m not very disciplined. Reading this chapter has inspired me to try harder at this.
For me, the first two sections of the book, Freemasons and Idealists, were largely about politics, whether in the guise of active politicians or people who think politically. Moving on from politics (although everything is political), Offerman devotes the third section of the book to Makers. Featured here are the craftspeople, musicians and comedians that Offerman admires. As the daughter of a man who liked to make things himself, who converted the garage into a workshop filled with lathes, saws, grinders and other machine tools that enabled him to fix cars, make his own screws, build staircases and add rooms to buildings, I have slightly more than a passing interest in the Maker Movement. I don’t do much myself these days, but I have been known to wield a drill, saw, a sewing machine or a pair of knitting needles in my time. I also work in a museum that preserves the history of humankind’s interaction with science and industry, so am surrounded at work by objects and documents recording how science has been applied in industry, and how people have invented and adapted technology to enable our progress as a society. It’s interesting, and I enjoyed meeting the toolmaker, the boatwright and the woodworker.
Offerman then moves on to people I would classify as entertainers, starting with Carol Burnett. In Carol’s chapter, I was surprised to learn that an amendment relating to equal rights, first proposed in 1923 and passed by Congress in 1972 still hasn’t been ratified by enough states for it to be adopted as an Amendment to the Constitution. Wow. When I read up on this astounding fact, some of the arguments made by women against the Amendment astounded me further. An Equal Rights Amendment might lead to abortions being freely available to any woman who needs one and might also lead to homosexual marriages being permitted are two of the standout anti-ERA arguments that I read. Again, wow. Unsurprisingly, the campaign to adopt the ERA was the thing that politicised Carol Burnett.
Carol is followed by one of my musical loves, Jeff Tweedy. I love Wilco. I decided to put the exceedingly mellow Sky Blue Sky on while I read his chapter.
Tweedy, like Dylan, has the knack of composing and delivering his poetry so that everybody feels that it’s about him or her personally.
The music of Wilco … has been delightfully mercurial through the years. It changes and transmogrifies, much like, well, a maturing personality.
Yes, to both these things. Yes. Most of the songsmiths I love are actually poets who engage fully with life, challenging and being challenged by it, and who present their experiences via the medium of song in a way that makes the listener feel known. As Offerman says, popular music today is frequently devoid of meaning, filled only with platitudes. Fun to listen to in the moment, but lacking any deeper purpose.
A band like Wilco, however, can provide similar feelings of blood-rushing elation with the added bonus that their songs stimulate one’s imagination … much as I love feeling the visceral rush of rock and roll through m’blood veins, it always comes back to the lyrics, which recalls Wendell Berry’s adulation of the human brain’s ability to embroider words and images in its imagination more poignantly than can ever be grasped in the light of day. So many of Tweedy’s verses are wrought of an inscrutable poetry that leaves the listener no choice but to interpret it personally, which leads to inspiration and a much more personal, mutual experience between author and recipient.
He’s summarised everything I feel about my favourite troubadours neatly, there. He goes on to have a conversation with Tweedy about smartphones and the incessant demand for photos, whether in a one on one social interaction with a person you admire or in the guise of capturing memories you’ll never look at again in an out of focus, distant photo or video at a gig. I feel strongly about this, too. I’ve only once asked a musician I admire for a photo. When I saw how uncomfortable he felt, I decided I’d never ask anyone for a photo again. I’ve also taken photos at gigs, but started to realise that I was spending more time fiddling with camera settings and getting annoyed about people being in my way than listening to the artist I’d paid to see, and started to feel disrespectful. I didn’t like the way, either, that taking photos of gigs and posting them on social media felt like I was somehow proving I was having an experience, and that it wouldn’t be valid without that photographic evidence. I very rarely take photos at gigs now, and I’ve found that I enjoy the moment more because I’m fully in the moment.
Here’s what Offerman says about asking for selfies:
… when the focus is shifted, as it so often is, to the photo, the artifact of the interaction, then that is plainly demeaning and sad to me. That instantly objectifies me, in your eyes, transforming me from a human being worth countenancing to a brass ring or chit to be snatched and cashed in, like any roadside attraction.
Tweedy, meanwhile, addresses another bugbear of mine: people talking loudly, shouting conversations, during gigs. Go home with your friends, put the record on and talk over that, is what I want to tell them. Stop disrespecting the event you’re at. For Tweedy, they’re missing out on being part of a communal experience.
While I enjoyed the chapters on George Saunders, Laurie Anderson and Willie Nelson, there was nothing that particularly jumped out at me about them. Offerman compares Saunders with Kurt Vonnegut. As I already love Kurt Vonnegut, I didn’t find anything to convince me that I should read some Saunders. Saunders comes across as interesting, and made an observation about religion that I liked – that at their hearts is something beautiful and valuable, but then people get hold of it and layer it in their own interpretation and narrow-mindedness so that it becomes impossible to see what was originally of worth. It becomes something black and white and closes the door on not knowing, on curiosity and on compromise. The same is true of politics.
I felt the same lack of inspiration about Conan O’Brien, until I came to a passage that I really hope turns out true. Offerman was feeling glum about the ruts of the two political parties in the US, and the way neither side will allow themselves to appear fallible by compromising. O’Brien offers the opinion that in comparison with the American Civil War, when politicians killed each other in duels, or bludgeoned each other almost to death in the Senate, American politics today is stubborn but not horrific. And if America could overcome the horrors of its Civil War, it can survive other dark, horrifying episodes.
I’m going to hold onto that. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the negativity of politics over the past nine months. Things don’t look great right now, but hopefully forward thinking people will work together to keep the worst excesses in check, and we will come out the other side with our planet and our humanity intact.
And that is the crux of this book: looking past the immediate to gain perspective and see that life on this planet for humans, as for all animals, has always been a struggle, but we survive, learn, adapt and progress. Offerman says in the epilogue that he emerged from the writing of the book with a sunnier disposition than when he started. I feel the same. I started to read on the day of the inauguration of the 45th President of the USA. I was feeling really quite down about the present and the immediate future. I feel in a better frame of mind having read it, and have some tricks to ensure that my day to day life runs the way I want it to run.
There’s a bonus chapter for the paperback edition of the book that lists the people who almost made the cut. It nearly made me despair again, because it talks about the campaigns of the people trying to secure the nomination for Presidential candidate and features this poignant paragraph:
… the Democratic race is quite interesting. As far as I can tell, most of the folks in my (cultural) community think Bernie Sanders is the clear choice for president, but nobody is going to vote for him because they (we) are afraid that Hillary will have enough of her votes split away that we’ll end up with an asshat like Donald Trump in the White House … Whether her experience proves to be an advantage or a set of velvet shackles remains to be seen, for I believe there is no stopping the election of our first woman president.
Hindsight, eh? It gets more poignant, as well.
To my way of thinking, no matter who gets elected next year, we’ll continue to see a continued evolution toward decency in our foreign policy as well as our domestic dealings. You might think me naive, but I will continue to expect our nation to pursue the path of the good neighbour …
But I’m not going to give in. I’m going to maintain my sunnier disposition and remember that I can make my corner of the world better. Try to, anyway. And I’m going to track down a few of those books Nick Offerman has recommended to me through his pages.