Book Review: The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer; Part One: My New Year’s Resolutions

You might be wondering what this book and my new year’s resolutions have in common.  Never fear, all will be made clear in due time.  I am a little more than halfway through the book, and it is one of those books that has a profound effect on a thoughtful reader.  Last night in the dark and cold I was walking towards a supermarket, an empty backpack on my back, to pick up a few necessities, pondering as I walked my goals and ambitions for the new year, and it occurred to me to mesh the reading of this award-winning, iconic book with my own situation.

You see, I am caught, in a sense, in the unwinding of America.  As are you.

The book uses several key characters and situations to move through the decades from the 1970s to the present.  It tells a bit of each story, leaves it at some sort of cliffhanger, and moves on to the next.  Interspersed through these primary narratives are thumbnail sketches of famous people as diverse as Colin Powell and Jay-Z, and also stories of key areas of the country such as Silicon Valley near San Francisco and Tampa, Florida.  As the various narratives move along, you see the American dream erode before your eyes.  These are all true tales of those who have invested their lives in dreams and ambitions, believing that they are in the land of plenty where anything good can happen.  Instead, they are hit with the reality of greed, corruption, indifference, crime, betrayal, deception.  In Tampa the bloated housing boom brings in a horde of vulture-like realtors and pseudo-lawyers who feed on investors in real estate.  In Youngstown, Ohio, the steel industry implodes, sending whole communities into unemployment and poverty.  In Washington D.C. those who arrive with sincerity quickly fall prey to indifference, turpitude, self-interest, and greed.  And so it goes.  The American dream becomes the American nightmare.  People are not just spinning their wheels but sliding backward.

And that’s where my new year’s resolution comes in.  It’s hard to call it a resolution, though, if by resolution I mean a definite goal.  Dreams are visions we keep in our minds of that which ideally we would like to see happen.  Goals are definite steps we take towards realizing dreams.  To set dreams as resolutions makes no sense.  For example,  a realistic resolution is not that I would like to sell a dozen stories to magazines this year.  That’s a dream, because it’s out of my control.  It involves the conscious decisions of editors, and I have no control over their mental processes.  However, I can set as a goal to write and market a dozen stories this year.  That’s something I can do myself, without any outside intervention or hindrance.

Anyway, there is no way around the fact that my sons and I are struggling financially to get by.  As I thought about it recently, I see myself trying to push a great weight to the top of a hill.  The weight represents the responsibility I feel, but also day-to-day survival.  The only thing is, the hill is steep and muddy, the weight is too great, and struggle as I might, I find myself sliding backward.  For many months now we have not broken even but have been digging into our scant savings to eat and pay our rent and bills.  We have been losing ground, sliding down the hill in the storm.  What I want to do is to somehow arrest the slide, become self-sufficient, and slowly, slowly, begin to climb again, to gain ground.  Our aim is not to stay here in Yakima but to move on.  To do that we have to stop hemorrhaging money and start saving it.  That’s my resolution this year:  to turn this situation around.

But I don’t know how to do it.  Minimum wage jobs will never do the trick.  They are rigged against the worker.  Even if workers want to work more hours, even if they are needed, the employers will not schedule those hours, knowing that if they do they might have to increase salaries or pay overtime or benefits.  The American economy is in a horrible trap right now, a trap that puts a lid on low-income workers, that keeps them in the pit.  I have been making about the same minimum wage writing content for Internet websites that my sons make at the supermarket where they work.  Obviously that is not going to save us either.  I can try to put in more hours, but I already work seven days a week, and I also have a household to maintain and a son in middle school who needs help with his homework almost every night.  If I were alone I would work twelve-hour days, but at this time it is not possible.

And then there are my novels, stories, and memoirs which bring in very little but are actually the key to getting out of this mess.  In the long term, this work has the possibility of getting me off the treadmill, but it is hard to find any time for it now.  Remember, I am struggling up a steep muddy hill in the pouring rain, pushing a huge weight like a rock in front of me, trying to make progress instead of sliding back down.  This is the nature of my dilemma.  Somehow I must set a goal of getting this long-term work done too.  I have not yet figured out what that specific goal will be.  Usually I set something definite as far as word count or number of stories, it works for a while, and then I need to adjust it as circumstances change and time goes on.

Honestly, I don’t know what to do.  But because the new year is upon us, I have taken the milestone of the changing over to 2014 as a time for intense rumination.  The bewilderment I feel is similar to that experienced by the people whose lives are chronicled in “The Unwinding”.  The feeling of gradually losing control through no fault of your own.

And what exactly is unwinding in America?  I think a lot of it is an erosion of confidence.  People are finally realizing that the systems don’t work as well as they thought or hoped they would.  Seeing American attitudes from the perspective of having lived so long in Europe, Americans seem to me to think like adolescents with all their wonders and quirks.  Adolescents can be marvelous, intelligent, creative, witty, courageous, energetic, and resourceful, but they can also be petulant, petty, self-righteous, unreasonable, self-centered, vain, and blind to whatever does not concern themselves personally.  When I see what obsesses Americans in the popular media, and I see what sort of ridiculous scandals and anti-role models receive attention, I realize that there is a wisdom lacking here that only comes with age and experience.  It makes me long for Europe, where despite the problems that wisdom exists, the wisdom of the centuries.  Millennia have rolled over the Old World, and its peoples and cultures endure.

But it is not my destiny to live in Europe at this time.  I lived there for decades, and it does have its own difficulties and drawbacks.  No, I came here for the sake of my sons and their futures, and it is here, now, where we must make our stand.  The United States is a vast, complex, frustrating, and difficult place to live, but at the same time it has opportunities that do not exist anywhere else.  Sometimes in the past, when I was living in Europe or Asia, I would dream I was back in the States, and in the dream I would realize I was not supposed to be there and wonder how I would get back to wherever I was supposed to be.  Then I would wake up and realize it was a dream and breathe a sigh of relief.  But we are here, now, and somehow need to make progress.  It’s an ongoing uphill battle.

I’m a professional writer; I make my living by my words.  I’m happy to share these essays with you, but at the same time, financial support makes the words possible.  If you’d like to become a patron of the arts and support my work, buy a few of my available books or available stories.  Thanks!

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