Book: Introduction

I was born in 1950, the midpoint of the so-called American Century. I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, pretty much the center of the country. There was little about my early life out of the ordinary. My parents grew up on farms during the Great Depression and moved to the city to work in factories during World War II. My father was one-fourth Swedish. Aside from that, their ancestors came to America further back than anyone remembers, settling in Arkansas and Kansas after the Civil War. I was the oldest of three children. My mother quit her job before I was born, and was a housewife ever after. They worked hard, were frugal, saved, but we were never hard up. The year I was born they bought a new house in an older part of town, built onto it later, and lived there until they died, over fifty years. We had TV and all the usual appliances, including two freezers so we could buy beef by the side. My father could repair anything until electronics went solid state -- he never was happy about that. I would have said we were middle class, but I was surprised in a 1960 straw poll to find my neighbors' favoring Kennedy over Nixon. It turned out we lived in one of the poorer sections of town.

My parents had practical skills but very little education. I was precociously smart and pretty much on my own. I learned all the platitudes and verities, and pretty much believed them all. When I was in fourth grade Wichita won an All-American City designation, and I managed to give a speech to the whole school commemorating the event, like some politician on the make. I went through Boy Scouts, obsessively collecting merit badges until my inability to swim stopped me just short of Eagle rank. I got deep into church, earning a God and Country pin that people said was a bigger accomplishment than Eagle. We belonged to the Disciples of Christ, a mainline protestant sect so fundamentalist our churches were simply called Christian. Then my life fell apart: I went from believing everything to believing nothing, from honor rolls to flunking out. Nobody understood, and nobody could (or would) help. I dropped out of high school and spent five years a hermit holed up in my room, reading, thinking.

What happened was the notorious 1960s, a time when America was constantly challenged by its ideals and consistently found wanting. The Vietnam War hit hardest, especially when my next door neighbor, a dumb jock I grew up playing basketball with, came home in random pieces. His life, with a young widow and a baby, was utterly wasted. We had fought a war in 1776 to free ourselves from colonial tyranny. We had fought a war in 1861 to put an end to slavery. We had fought a war in 1941 to keep other nations from dominating the world. Why on earth were we in Vietnam, doing the same things we had fought all our history against? The lies, the treachery, they poisoned the whole culture. Deep down I questioned the driving impulse to anti-communism: more than anything else I saw it as an attack on the working class, the people who built this and every other country. Take away work and you'll have nothing left but decay.

In my room I read a lot. Literature at first, a lot of poetry and drama that fit my mood swings: modernist, absurdist, the beats and the radicals. Then politics, philosophy, history, psychology, some economics. I picked my religion apart until there was nothing left to believe. I latched onto Marx for the spirit of revolt, then settled into its logic. My breakthrough was when I discovered that reason could produce answers I could live with. I tried to reason my own life back together. I forced myself out of my room, got a GED, went to college. I should have graduated and gone into academia, but messed up again, got a job typesetting, and was happy just to be viable on my own. I went through a period when all I could read was rock crit, and wrote some myself. It earned me a ticket to New York. I wanted to start a business, first publishing, then printing -- for a worker there's nothing like owning the means of production. Never did, but I got interested in the technology. Bought an early personal computer and taught myself to program. Wound up spending most of my career in software engineering, on occasion moving into management and seeing the business world from the inside if not quite the top. I made good money, but never quite fit in. Most of the companies I worked for were distressed, and I got to where I could sense their failings clearly. I knew, for instance, that my last company was doomed, but stuck with it because I thought I could see a way out. Turned out nobody saw that as my job (and turned out they were indeed doomed), but that started to bring me back to my early ideals, merging in all of my accumulated experience.

I had off and on toyed with the idea of writing a book. Actually, I always had a book or two on my mind.