Friday, December 12, 2008

Review of the Day: Scratch Beginnings



Fresh out of college, Adam Shepard set out with $25, a sleeping bag, and the clothes on his back to prove that the American Dream is alive and well. Shepard was concerned by the pessimistic attitude of many of his friends – an attitude he thought was fostered by the popular but gloomy Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, both by Barbara Ehrenreich.

He wanted to learn for himself whether it is still possible to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Using the same “undercover” approach as Ehrenreich, Shepard got off the train in Charleston with his meager possessions and a down-and-out cover story that did not involve a college degree. He also had the goal of obtaining a car, a place to live with furniture, $2,500 in savings, and career-advancing opportunities (either through school or business) by the end of one year. Scratch Beginnings chronicles this adventure from Shepard’s first night in a homeless shelter, through job searches, setbacks, conflict, and accomplishment.

There is no denying that this is an adventure tale. Yes, Shepherd addresses weighty issues, but he is not a sociologist and his book is not a policy polemic. This is the story of one young man’s year spent building a decent life from scratch. His hands-on approach to experiencing and then explaining things for himself brings to mind bygone explorers or early journalists like Mark Twain. It would be easy to pick on Shepard’s premise and poke holes in his arguments. But Shepard is quick to acknowledge this his is just one man’s story, not a comprehensive analysis of poverty in America. And he admits that his experience was made easier because he was not encumbered by children, addiction, or mental illness.

To fault the book for not providing scholarly economic analysis is to intentionally ignore its value and deny its charm. In fact, Shepard’s few attempts to address larger policy issues are the weak spots in the book. The book is not political – Shepard goes out of his way to disavow any particular political affiliation or ideology. But his lack of political clarity shows in the fuzzy thinking apparent in his few policy suggestions. A couple of his ideas – like why raising the minimum wage will not help poor people – show some original thought. But others, such as, “Affordable housing needs additional support from both the legislative and executive branches at the federal and state level” are political pablum, demonstrating neither insight nor innovation.

Fortunately, Shepard keeps his policy suggests to a minimum. He concentrates on explaining the personal lessons he learned from finding and keeping a difficult job as a house mover, making the most of difficult living accommodations, and denying himself easy and immediate pleasures in order to save his money and energy for a better future. These lessons range from the amusing (“Broccoli Au Gratin” is the best flavor of Rice-A-Roni and a one dollar box is enough for two meals) to the avuncular:
We adjust. That’s what we do. We seize the opportunities that are given to us, and we adjust to make up for what is kept from us. In some cases, . . . we don’t have a choice. We embrace change or we fight it off. In the end, they say, change makes us stronger. Even if we deny the change and retreat back to the norm, the experience has helped us to grow and understand what is on the other side, and it has given us the freedom to make more informed decisions in the future
The appeal of all Shepard’s lessons is that he culled them from his own experience; he did not learn them on a theoretical level from a college seminar or a self-help book, he lived them. He accepted advice from other men at the shelter about how to look for work and get a job. He learned the skills of house moving from the men he worked with. There were times when Shepard’s credulity and open-eyed wonder show him to still be a little wet behind the ears, but that is a big part of the appeal of his book – these life-lessons seem fresh coming from him because they were fresh to him.

In the end, Shepard learned from observing the people around him just how difficult life can be, what a difference culture and upbringing can make in a person’s life, and that personal responsibility is the key to achieving goals. As he explained:
All the while, we have to be more focused, keeping our eye on what we really want to do with our lives: move up. Or not. We’re either on a mission or keeping our flight grounded. Either way, we are the pilots.
Scratch Beginnings is exuberant and refreshing, especially when Shepard sticks with describing his own experiences and impressions. Shepard’s was a brash experiment and its very undertaking proves his premise: the American Dream is still kicking.

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