Reporter's Notebook

The American Futures Notebook
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On this page you’ll find notes arising from American Futures project that Deborah and James Fallows have had underway, with some appearances on Marketplace radio, since 2013. Their full archive is here.

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Rules for Engagement, From the University of Vermont

The scene this morning in Burlington (Josh Brown, UVM).

This morning I had the privilege of giving the commencement address at the University of Vermont—UVM, home of the Catamounts, in Burlington. My wife Deb and I, and our colleague John Tierney, visited UVM several years ago and wrote about it in our American Futures series, notably with John’s piece about the school’s emergence as a “public Ivy.”

Seven Days, the financially-and-journalistically successful weekly based in Burlington (which I’ve also written about), has a story about today’s commencement, here. The University’s story is here. Since the talk drew on various themes that recur in this “American Futures” thread, I’m attaching the text, below.

Go Catamounts!

* * *

Commencement remarks

University of Vermont

May 21, 2017

James Fallows

President Sullivan, Governor Scott, honorary degree recipients, faculty and staff, friends and family, people of Vermont and beyond, and above all members of the class of 2017 — greetings, and congratulations!

On behalf of your parents and grandparents, your brothers and sisters, and all the known and unknown supporters who have cheered and aided your journey to this glorious day, I salute you on your achievement. And I am glad as well to use the words I heard at my own college commencement many years ago, and officially “welcome you to the company of educated men and women.”

Every one of you realizes that not a one of you made this journey entirely on your own. Thus I’d like you to take a moment to stand and turn around, and look for a face of one of those crucial supporters in the crowd —or to envision an absent one in your mind—and express with cheers and applause your gratitude for what they have done.

I’ve just completed the first part of my job, which is to celebrate this moment. I turn now to the second part, which is to be brief.

In these next few minutes I’m going to try to convince you to feel good—energized, confident, important—about this very uncertain-seeming world onto which you’re about to make your mark. I’m going to argue that the generations ahead of you, including people like your parents and grandparents, and me, and those that will follow you, like the children and grandchildren you will someday have, need you to feel as if you can change the world, and to get busy doing so by putting your UVM training to maximum use.

Let’s go into that case. What’s most worth noticing about the circumstances in which we meet — right here, right now, as you begin your post-college life?

Nearly six months ago, I announced a hiatus from online life (except for Twitter), while my wife Deb and I decamped to my original hometown of Redlands, California and a house we rented on the campus of the University of Redlands, to finish a book on what we’d discovered in traveling around the country over the past four years.

The book is now (nearly) done; we’ve been occupied wall-to-wall over the past week-plus at the 2017 installment of the Aspen Ideas Festival; and tomorrow we begin the small-plane journey back to the East Coast, where we’ll rejoin the Atlantic staff, actually finish off the book, and get ready for our upcoming relocation to England.

This is a placeholder note with an aviation angle, on the way you deal with the Rocky Mountains if you’re flying a small, piston-powered, single-engine airplane.

***

Usually we have had to approach Aspen from the east, coming from Washington. Twice I’ve flown our propeller plane into the Aspen airport, and — having survived  — I choose never to do that again. Instead we’ve landed at some flatland airport in the Denver area, either Centennial to the south of Denver or Boulder to the north, and then rented a car for the three-to-four hour drive into Aspen.

This year we were coming from the west, from our early-2017 base at the San Bernardino airport in California, with its elegant facility called Luxivair. A week ago we flew from there to the airport in Rifle, Colorado, on the relative flatlands of the Colorado River valley on the western slope of the Rockies, and rented a car for the hour-plus drive into Aspen.

Tomorrow, we start the route back east, in placid weather and with a comparatively benign course plotted to get past the Rockies and out onto the long descent eastward — across Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and then over the Appalachians to the eastern seaboard. Here are the waypoint for the lowland route out of Rifle, through a series of valleys and passes, until we escape from the really challenging terrain around Laramie, Wyoming:

The Rifle, Colorado airport, where our airplane has been for the past week, is the orange dot on the lower left; our current location in Aspen is the light blue dot at the bottom; and the path our plane will take through a series of valleys and passes, until the end of the Rockies near Laramie, Wyoming, is shown in darker blue. The metropolis of Denver is in the white box at lower right. (From the Foreflight flight-planning program.)

Then we’ll spend tomorrow night somewhere in Iowa or Illinois — maybe Red Oak, maybe Ottumwa, maybe Peoria, all dots on the map below, and all depending on how we feel, and the weather — and then onward to the DC area in time for festivities on the Fourth of July.

Various waypoints for gas and possible overnight stays.

I’ve sort of missed, sort of not, having an online outlet. But ready to re-enter the fray. More to come — and if you’re in Nebraska or Iowa tomorrow, look up and wave.

I mentioned last night that we’d devised a plan to pick our way through passes and valleys in the Rockies, to get from the western slope — at Rifle airport in Colorado, a little more than an hour’s drive west of Aspen — to the other side of the continental divide. Here, from yesterday’s installment, was the plan:

The Rifle, Colorado airport is the orange dot at lower left. The blue path shows the planned route through valleys and passes to the other side of the Rockies, just beyond the Medicine Bow mountains in the vicinity of Laramie, Wyoming. The path we didn’t want to take was straight across the highest peaks, just west of Denver.

Today things went more or less as forecast. We climbed out of Rifle and headed in the “wrong” direction, down the Colorado River valley toward the west, until we’d gained enough altitude to turn back eastward through the passes. (For the aviation crowd: we did the first part of this trip at 11,500 feet, and then 12,500 feet for the highest 45 minutes or so — and, yes, as is both required by rules and advisable for safety, I had a supplemental-oxygen can that I took hits from.)

Here is how the “actual” route looked today, via Flight Aware — “actual” in quotes, because of the odd mis-readings the Flight Aware recaps occasionally give. The green line is our path, according to air-traffic control radar as rendered by Flight Aware. This version picks up our radar track about 20 minutes into the flight, somewhere around the Kremling waypoint (the RLG VOR, for the aviation crowd). The path we took resembled what we’d planned:

The air-traffic control radar picked up our path as we were going through the passes on the western slop of the Rockies. IBM is the fueling stop in Kimball, Nebraska, and RDK is our overnight stay in Red Oak, Iowa. (FlightAware)

Also as foreseen, we made an early refueling stop in Kimball, Nebraska, which is just past Cheyenne and the Wyoming-Nebraska border and is marked as IBM on the map. I hadn’t wanted the plane to be any heavier than necessary for the high-altitude Rockies portion of the journey, so once we got beyond the mountains, and into Nebraska, we took on more fuel. (There are people who enjoy mountain flying. I am not one of them.) Then onward across Nebraska, at a comfortable distance south of a static line of thunderstorms, to an overnight stay in the familiar town of Red Oak, Iowa, which is not far across the Missouri River from Omaha and is shown as RDK on the map.

***

An early-ish end to the day’s travels, in a familiar locale (Red Oak, Iowa).

We decided to stop and stay in Red Oak, rather than pushing on across Iowa or into Illinois, because it is in a way responsible for all of the travels and reports Deb and I have done over the past few years. Back in the summer of 2012, when we were headed westward from Washington to that year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, by chance we happened to stop for the night in Red Oak. We were amazed by the intensity of civic activity at the airport itself, as we’ll describe in our forthcoming book — and then spent an evening talking with a family from Jalisco, in Mexico, who had opened a very popular restaurant called Casa de Oro on the main drag in Red Oak. We spent the next few days saying to each other: if so much is going on, by such a variety of people, in a little place we had not paid attention to, what must be happening elsewhere?

This afternoon we came back to Red Oak, in the dead-calm wind conditions that make an approach to landing feel like swimming through the sky. In the evening we returned to Case de Oro, which appeared to be thriving. Tomorrow, on to the east coast.

This evening on Senate Street, in Red Oak. I recommend the carne asada.

The picture below is how it looked six months ago, when we were headed westward from Gaithersburg airport, outside Washington, to Redlands, California, where we’ve spent the intervening months. (This note follows up on two previous cross-country flying reports, here and here.)

It was below freezing back then; the wind was howling; we had an electric heater (the yellow cord) plugged into the plane overnight to keep its engine block warm enough to have a chance of actually starting. The second before this picture was taken I was saying, “I cannot believe it is this cold!” And the stuff around our feet is more or less what we’ve lived off in the past few book-writing months.

That was then: in the 30-knot, 20-degree F weather at Gaithersburg, Maryland, outside DC, in early January.

This afternoon, we arrived back in Gaithersburg, on what will probably (sigh!)  be our final cross-country trip in this airplane. As we did with its predecessor when we moved to China 11 years ago, we must (sadly) sell this plane before heading to England late this summer. It has served us well. And we’ll hope to rent planes while overseas, and to buy back into the used-plane market on our return.

This is now: afternoon of July 3, 2017.

In closing the loop from the previous reports, here was FlightAware’s version of the route from Red Oak, Iowa, to the DC area today, with a stop for gas in Muncie, Indiana.

The pre-Independence Day trek, via FlightAware.

***

Long-term advice for your Fourth of July enjoyment: Nearly twenty years ago, when we were living in Berkeley, California, we happened to be flying in our earlier-model Cirrus airplane from southern California, where my parents lived, back to our home in Berkeley (really, the nearest airport, in Concord) on the evening of July 4. Going up through the Central Valley, in twilight, we saw from above the fireworks celebrations in Bakersfield, in Fresno, in Hanford, in Merced, in Modesto, in Stockton. Highly recommended if you ever have or make the chance.

Happy Independence Day!

David Hunter (left) and Shaun Rajewski, founders of Epic Web Studios in Erie, Pennsylvania Epic Web Studios

Two years ago at this time, when my wife, Deb, and I were in our fourth year of travel across the country to report on smaller towns, we found ourselves increasingly drawn to the lakefront city of Erie, Pennsylvania.

The initial attraction was a primal sense of topophilia on Deb’s part, or fondness for a particular landscape. She had grown up in a small town on the shores of Lake Erie, 150 miles to the west on the other side of Cleveland. The summer-evening sky, air, and sound of Erie’s lake walks were as familiar for her as they were exotic to me.

Summer sky, lakefront Erie, July 2016. (James Fallows)

As we made return trips (even in colder weather) and learned more about the layers of modern Erie, we became more absorbed by it, and connected to it, on both intellectual and emotional levels.

The intellectual appeal is one I set out two years ago in a post called “Erie and America.” It was based on the area’s role as a collision-point and real-time arena for almost every significant trend in modern American society, negative and positive alike. The way this balance plays out in Erie, and in similarly-situated places we visited like San Bernardino and Fresno and Allentown and Charleston, West Virginia, will help determine which will be the dominant tone in the next stage of American life. Will it be the poison, dysfunction, polarization, and mistrust of national-level politics? Or the widespread, dispersed signs of renewal that Deb and I have argued, in our Atlantic articles and our new book Our Towns, can be the proving-grounds and momentum-builders for the next era of national renewal?


That drama is fully on display in Erie.

This year a magazine has begun ranking colleges on vocational-training effectiveness. The Washington Monthly

As a one-time staff editor of The Washington Monthly magazine, I am biased in favor of that plucky enterprise and its approach to the world.

As a one-time chief editor of  US News & World Report, I am all too aware of the fatuousness imperfections of its college-ranking system. Being a pioneer in ranking has been the economic salvation of US News.  But the premise that vastly different institutions can be precisely ranked on overall quality has its obvious limits. What are the "best" ten lines of work, ranked one through ten, for your child to aspire to? What are the "best" twenty-five cities to live in -- or pieces of music to listen to, or food to eat? Or people to marry? The only sane answer is, "it depends," which is the answer when it comes to colleges and universities too.

***

As it happens, I wrote those two preceding paragraphs nine full years ago, during the 2009 version of “college ranking week” for a number of national magazines.

Back in the early 1980s, the number of prominent magazines doing the rankings was one: US News itself. You can read the background of how this became a business franchise for US News (which survives now mainly as a rankings organization), and why their decade-long near monopoly in rankings was so controversial, here in Slate back in 1999; here again one year later in Slate;  here at about the same time in The Washington Monthly; here in 2001 in the University of Chicago magazine; in The Atlantic in 2013 from John Tierney and two years later from Gillian White; and here in 2017 from Politico. (You’ll also see linked rebuttals from USN at many of those places, and for instance here.) And the Atlantic has some new features on the cost of education, out today: by Alia Wong and Amanda Ripley.

Maria Moreno, from the film Adios Amor, directed by Laurie Coyle George Ballis/Take Stock

Each spring, the music world hears the name “Coachella” and thinks of a major two-weekend arts and music festival. So attached are the name and the event that the web address Coachella.Com takes you not to the city’s official site but one where you can buy tickets for the festival.

The rest of the year, Coachella is a smallish farming community, in the sun-baked desert, where irrigation has supported a date-palm and grapefruit industry and where a mainly Latino farm work force has struggled over the decades for better pay and conditions.

This past spring, as the music festival was about to kick off, I did an item on “The Other Coachella” — the one I had known while growing up in the area, and the one that’s still there after the festival visitors have left. The occasion for the post was a new “Story Map” from our friends at the mapping company Esri, which gave a multimedia version of the city and people who dominate the town through the non-festival weeks of the year. The map, called “In the Valley of Coachella,” was written by the novelist Susan Straight and illustrated with photos by Douglas McCulloh. It is well worth a return look.


There’s one more aspect of “The Other Coachella,” and another kind of Coachella festival, that are also worth notice. Last month a group called Cinemas Culturas (plus other partners) put on the debut of “Festival in the Fields,” a film, arts, and education event meant to focus attention on the region’s working population. In a note earlier this year describing the project, Cony Martinez, director of Cinemas Culturas, the festival’s main organizer, said:

My mother was a farmworker for over 25 years. Therefore, I decided to create a platform that focuses and honors people like my mother.

The project focuses on the migrant community and the Latino community in general of the Coachella Valley.