Beth Macy’s ‘Factory Man’ deserves every accolade

The beer is excellent, too.

The beer is excellent, too.

Beth Macy has received too many thumbs-up reviews of her new book “Factory Man” to count. We’re talking not one, not two, but three glowing mentions in The New York Times alone. This book is on fire.

And the attention is so well deserved. This is an important piece of journalism on many levels.

First, Macy tells the story of Bassett, a company town in rural Virginia whose trajectory was inevitably linked to the family who named it — and for a good part of its history owned everything from the bank to the hospital. That family at times rivaled the patriarchs of Dallas for soap opera-worthy drama, and Macy chronicles much of it, in note-perfect prose that preserves respect and dignity for every well-drawn character.

Next, Macy paints a rich, layered portrait of JBIII, the black-sheep son of the family denied his feudal right to the CEO’s chair. John Bassett III is a character whose story needed to be told. When speaking at the “Factory Man” launch at Parkway Brewery Co. in Salem, Bassett seemed to revel in  a former employee’s description of him: “He may be an asshole, but when he’s your asshole, that’s a very good thing.” Strong-willed, hard-working and much smarter than even his own family gave him credit for, JBIII didn’t fade away when his brother-in-law took over the company and made it clear that the prodigal son’s role would be as minor as he could make it.

Instead, John Bassett took over another company in nearby Galax, Va. He turned it around and, when the illegal dumping of Chinese exports threatened the entire domestic furniture industry, he fought back at the International Trade Commission. He didn’t stop there, though. He made sure his company and his factories were nimble and smart, and he did everything he could to maximize the advantages of domestic production. The portrait painted by Macy is every bit as complex as the man must be.

What drove him? Resentment over his treatment by his own family? A burning desire to prove himself? Concern for the hundreds of workers he felt responsible for? Or the stubborn, cantankerous inability to back down from a fight? A bit of all, most likely.

Finally, “Factory Man” is the story of free trade’s losers, from  factory workers nearing retirement when Bassett shut down most of its domestic production to workers in China who would see themselves priced out to cheaper labor in Vietnam and Indonesia. Macy makes much of the fact that she’s not a business writer. And she talks quite a bit about her own upbringing as the daughter of a factory worker in a town not unlike Bassett. It’s no secret where her sympathy lies, though she is clearly not naive about the stark, painful realities of a global economy.

But where she succeeds beautifully — and where a business writer steeped in years of conventional economic wisdom might have never tread — is her vivid look at those left behind by the “rising tide” of free trade: older workers who can’t afford to leave but can’t find new jobs; younger workers who hired on as call center workers, only to see those jobs also outsourced; parents who must watch their children move away, with nothing to keep them at home.

“Factory Man,” in its depiction of JBIII’s determination and drive, makes clear that not all of this pain was necessary. If other owners had found John Bassett’s faith in and compassion for their workers, and fought both harder and smarter to keep American factories working, the flood of imports might not have washed away so many jobs, and so many lives.

American manufacturing is dying, and, as Macy writes, many economists and other big thinkers believe that’s just fine. But it isn’t. Unthinking devotion to the bottom line has robbed America of a great strength, stolen the economic vitality of a broad swath of the middle class, and made the economy exceedingly vulnerable.

For the most part, this is not the fault of American workers, but of  business owners and shareholders who, for all their talk of being job creators, have overseen a decline we may never recover from.

JBIII is far from a perfect man. He and his entire family became enormously wealthy thanks largely to the sweat of others. But no one can doubt his own work ethic, and his drive to keep his business going, not just for his own sake, but for the sake of the hundreds of others whose livelihoods depend on it.

There’s a lesson there, if anyone out there is willing to learn it.

“Factory Man” is an enormously important book. May the accolades keep coming.

Worst phishing attempt ever

I received an email today purporting to be from Bank of America asking me to reconfirm my account information for online banking.

Naturally, I would have approached such an email cautiously in any event. I’m familiar with “phishing” scams: Someone sends you an email that appears to be from a trusted institution with a link that appears to be to that trusted institution’s website, and asks you to log in and provide some essential security information. Only the email’s actually from an identity thief and the trusted institution’s website is a clever phony. After you plug in your information, the identity thief will use it to log into the real site, or others, and engage in all sorts of mischief.

But this is the sloppiest attempt I’ve ever seen. The punctuation and formatting were awful, to begin with. How awful? Here’s a sample:

Dear Customer,

Account Requires Complete Profile Update, 

We have recently detected that different computer user had attempted gaining 
access to your Online account, 

and multiple password was attempted with your user ID. 

It is now necessary to re-confirm your account information to us. 

If this process is not completed within 24-48 hours. 

We will be forced to suspend your Account Online Access as it may have been used 

for fraudulent purposes. 

Sentence fragments. Strange line breaks. Strange capitalization. English-as-a-second-language phrasing. Nothing about the email seemed legitimate. The phisher didn’t even bother to download a Bank of America graphic to give the email the slightest hint of authenticity.

He couldn’t even use a real copyright symbol. The last line read: (C) 2014 Bank of America Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

But the real topper was this: There was no link to a phishy website. Instead, there was an attachment called Secure Form.html. Because, yeah, that’s how a multi-billion-dollar company like Bank of America rolls.

Yep. This was a complete and total phishing fail.

Al Bedrosian and the politics of ignorance

Roanoke County Supervisor Al Bedrosian has every right to his ignorance, but if other supervisors allow his views to win the day, the entire county will be poorer for it.

At a recent meeting with the  members of the Roanoke County Citizen Leaders Environmental Action Roundtable, Bedrosian’s ignorance was in full bloom.

“You’re about pushing man-made global warming, and I don’t believe in that,” he said. When RCCLEAR chairman Jesse Freedman informed Bedrosian that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is occurring and pollution from human activity is the driving force, Bedrosian said he was mistaken.

That, again, is Bedrosoian’s ignorance speaking. The scientific consensus is undeniable. The vast majority of climate scientists have no doubt that rising temperatures across the globe are due to the enormous amount of carbon pollution human industrial activity pumps out.

This is not a matter of opinion. It is the truth. It is not subject to political debate. It is a fact.

Bedrosian wants to ignore that fact. He wants to pretend it doesn’t exist. He would rather believe in some far-flung United Nations conspiracy than attempt to comprehend what thousands of scientific papers have concluded.

It was a sad day when Bedrosian was elected to the commission. What’s worse is that two of his colleagues appear ready to appease him, though they don’t share his rabid beliefs and ignorance.

Bedrosian won only one seat. That shouldn’t be enough to poison the entire Roanoke County Commission, even with Commissioner Butch Church in his corner.

But if, as appears likely, supervisors Jason Peters and Joe McNamara, side with Church and Bedrosian to end the county’s involvement with the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives, which helps the county track and find ways to reduce carbon emissions, and disband RCCLEAR, ignorance will have won over common sense.

Peters and McNamara are better than that, and the people who elected them to office certainly deserve better.

 

Getting the feedback I need

The cover for "Ghost in the Machine."

The cover for “Ghost in the Machine.”

I imagine that whenever any writer hands over a piece for feedback, he’s wanting (and probably expecting) to hear back just how great it is. It’s wonderful! Perfect! Ready for publication!

That’s what writers want to hear, but it isn’t what we need to hear, not if we’re going to make it better. (Still, if that’s what you want to hear, try your mom; that usually works for me.)

I’ve been putting out some early chapters of my novel to a few writer friends. Today, I got feedback from one. She said the bones are good.

Which is, you know, what you say when you’re house hunting and you come across a wreck of a fixer-upper. And as we talked, I wondered, is that what my novel is, a wreck of a fixer-upper?

But as we talked more I realized that, no, the novel’s not a wreck. But, as exhilarating as it was to finish the first draft, I do realize that I’m still in the early stages. It’s like building a house (or finishing a basement). The first draft lays out the framing. So, if I’ve got good bones, then I’ve done the framing right. Now I’ve got to wire it for sound and electricity to give it life. Put up the drywall and paint that make it look polished and finished, then install trim to hide any rough spots that remain.

In other words, it was a great feedback session that gave me what I need. Even better, she sparked an idea to transform the prologue into something that will involve the reader in the story more quickly and deeply. The idea was so inspiring, that I got right to work and rewrote the prologue. I’m going to let it sit for a day or two before I look it back over, but I think the idea worked.

This has been a slow process. Almost as slow as the basement. Since finishing the first draft nearly a year ago, progress has been sporadic at best. But I’m getting back on track, and now that I have a framework for approaching the revisions, it will go better.

And that’s a wrap

I’ve been waiting a very long time to write these words: The basement is finished.

Construction actually wrapped up on Feb. 8, but I’ve been waiting to post this until I had pictures of the basement complete with furnishings (see below). The rest of the flooring went down as easily as I had hoped. The plumbing was a bit more problematic, but not much. The main issue I had was working out all the leaks in the drain under the bar sink, which ended up having way too many joints and sections. One joint would stubbornly leak — about one small drop every three or four hours. Maddening. I finally replaced the gasket and put a small bead of plumber’s putty on both sides. That took care of that joint, but then two others started with the slow leaks. It took a lot of tightening to finally lock them down.

Once the floor was down, I painted and installed the base trim and quarter-round. That — counterintuitively, at least to me — ended up being more difficult in some ways than the crown moulding, mostly because the quarter-round needed angle cuts at every doorway. And then … that was it. Construction was complete. We still had things to do: Glassware to transfer to the backbar. Sweeping and mopping the floors. Moving office furniture from the makeshift office in the dining room down to the basement. Deciding on furniture for the theater. Deciding how to finish the stairway to the basement, which we’re still pondering.

But the basement itself? Done.

It took just over two years. And it was a learning experience. As I’ve said before, prior to this little adventure, my only real exposure to power tools was a cordless screwdriver. Now, I’m comfortable using a compound miter saw, an impact hammer drill, a nail gun, reciprocating saw and more. Some blood was spilled during the course of the remodel, but there were no major injuries, and all my limbs and digits remain intact. I learned how to use a coping saw to make fairly exact, detailed cuts to trim. And, with the help of my DIY mentor, I’ve learned a lot about problem-solving. Most important, I’ve learned that most problems can be solved, one way or another. When I first started framing, I was nearly paralyzed with fear that something I’d do wrong would spell disaster later down the line. And there were things that caused problems. For instance, my spacing was off on some of the studs, meaning drywall sheets fell short or was too long. That was a hassle, but it could be overcome. I cut a couple of studs too tight and forced them into place, causing them to bow out under the pressure by the time the drywall went up. That, too, could be overcome (you cut the stud at the high point of the bow, then attach a two-foot length of stud to the side with eight screws so the stud is straight).

But nothing was insurmountable. I didn’t screw up anything so badly that there wasn’t some sort of fix. There was no mistake that meant, as I irrationally feared, that I’d have to tear everything down and start over.

I also learned that estimates are for fools. Looking back over these blog entries, probably the most consistently used phrase is: “Such-and-such took much longer than I anticipated.” I started out thinking this would be a six-month project. Often, I told myself I was within a month or so of completion, only to be tangled up in something that took much longer than I anticipated. In the end, it took two years — two very long years.

There were times as the project dragged on that I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew (see ceiling). There were times when, if we’d had the money or won the lottery, I would have gladly paid someone else of finish. But I saw it through, and, I think, the end result was worth the effort.

One last test of endurance

The theater flooring is finished.

The theater flooring is finished.

The bathroom, floored and equipped.

The bathroom, floored and equipped.

The floor is going down. Or I am.

It turns out that laying flooring is very hard work. I guess I figured it would be hard, but I didn’t realize the toll it would take. My knees hurt, my back aches, my carpal tunnel is kicking back in and my hands are a collection of cuts and scrapes.

I figure this is the final test of endurance. And I’m getting there. The theater and bathroom are done. With some help, I got the bathroom plumbing done and will have the wet bar plumbing hooked up by the end of the day, with luck. Once I get the office-side flooring in, all that’s left is the base trim and painting the stairs. After the flooring, that will seem like a piece of cake.

I think the office will go faster. There are no wet bars or entertainment centers to work around. The only oddity will be the angled fireplace, and the way that’s situated, it will be easy to place those planks. Plus, I’ve learned a lot on the way. For the nitty, gritty details of laying flooring, keep reading. Read more of this post

Hurtling towards completion

The ceiling in the office, finally completed.

The ceiling in the office, finally completed.

IMG_1813

The wet bar, fully trimmed.

So, the big news … the ceiling is finally, finally, finally finished. I’ll be honest, it’s not perfect. The shadow lines that vexed me before remain, though there aren’t as many and they’re spread out more. But the tiles are up straight and it looks much better than it did before. And it’s done. Overall, I think it’s a good-looking ceiling, and the theater especially works well with the copper look. But, if I had to do it over again, I’d go with dry wall. My wife, who had to paint 800-plus tiles with four coats of paint, then touch up the finished ceiling, would most definitely agree.

The flooring, a resilient vinyl plank I got for a good price at Lumber Liquidators, is due in today. I’ll let it acclimate for several days, then start the installation next week. In the meantime, I’ve been preparing ceiling trim and beginning to put some up. I finished trimming the wet bar, which turned out really well. I wasn’t sure how to handle the ceiling trim around the wet bar, but decided to stain the crown moulding around the bar, then transition to the white moulding that will go around the rest of the basement with decorative blocks. They look a little funny now, but when the moulding is in place, I think it’s going to look really nice.

A detail of the back bar trim.

A detail of the back bar trim.

The first section of crown moulding in place.

The first section of crown moulding in place.

The only problem was figuring out how to handle the vertical fluted trim where it met these tapered blocks. After consulting Mark, my DIY mentor, I decided to take a coping saw (a very sharp, flexible hack saw that can, theoretically, make curved cuts in wood). I traced the outline of the tapered portion of the block onto the trim and cut it out, then sanded it down, sometimes using a screw driver or other tool behind the sandpaper to help get the right curve in the wood. It took a lot of trial and error, but I think it turned out pretty well. The picture to the left shows the trim on the left-hand side, under the stained decorative corner molding.

I played around with a scrap piece of crown moulding to try to figure out how to cut the corners. I have a compound miter saw borrowed from a friend that’s supposed to make the job easier, but I could not figure out how to get the proper combination of angles on the bevel and the miter to make it work. Finally, I came across some corner pieces that others said made the process much easier. Made to mount  at either inside or outside corners, the moulding simply slides into these pieces, requiring only straight cuts. It gives the corners an elegant dimensional appearance, to boot, and makes placing the crown moulding much easier. I’ll have all the trim painted today and should have it up either later today or tomorrow.

An elegant solution to a tricky trim spot.

An elegant solution to a tricky trim spot.

Another tricky spot.

Another tricky spot.

I consulted Mark again about a couple of areas where I wasn’t sure what to do with the trim. The entryway to the basement at the top of the stairs wasn’t quite flush with the ceiling. I envisioned some sort of transition to a flat piece of trim there, but Mark came up with a better idea: We ran the moulding across the entryway, then ripped a shorter piece of moulding to go on the stair side. Some blocking and a 1×4 set between them gives the entryway a clean, substantial look.

The soffit in the bathroom was also problematic (as it has been from the beginning). The angle of the soffit was going to be very tough to work around. I didn’t have a clue. Mark offered to come over to see what he could do. He came up with a pretty good solution. The crown moulding extends on the wall from the left far enough to cover the gap between the angled soffit wall and the ceiling and then ends in a return. He cut a piece of wood to fill in the back of the return. On the right, he put in a crown return, again, far enough in to cover the gap. But that still left the gap between the two returns. He cut a piece of 1×4 to fit between them. I’ll post a picture once I have that piece painted and put in place. I’d like to say I helped with this portion, but I was pretty useless. I really have trouble with the three-dimensional thinking needed to work with crown moulding.

Anyway, this is an exciting portion of the project, as it hurtles toward completion. Every day seems to bring significant progress, and soon the floor will be in (assuming, as I must to retain my sanity, that it will go better than the ceiling installation). After that, the base trim goes in, along with the bath fixtures and the wet bar sink hook-up. And then, it will be time for a party.

Overdue basement update

A stone fireplace.

The stone fireplace.

The wine rack, installed. We'll add more wine later.

The wine rack, installed. We’ll add more wine later.

It’s been a long time since I posted an update. Thankfully, it’s not because work hasn’t been getting done.

When last we talked, I was refocusing my attention from the $*#&$ ceiling to more constructive pursuits. I’ve been engaged in those ever since. The wet bar is done. The back bar is done except for the trim. The stone work around the fireplace is complete. The doors are hung. And I put together a built-in entertainment center under the projection screen.

I think I’ve about run out of ways to avoid getting back to the ceiling.

The side board and nailers installed.

The side board and nailers installed.

The vertical boards are all in, along with the stone inset.

The vertical boards are all in, along with the stone inset.

This has been an interesting phase of the project. The back bar and entertainment center required precision cuts, along with staining and sealing. I settled on a nice, rich cherry stain. For both, I used a construction technique I saw on Man Cave back when we still had cable. I built a base and attached it to the wall and leveled it. Then I put the bottom shelf on top of the base. I ripped down some 2x4s to the appropriate width and screwed them into the wall to use as nailers. Then I attached finished boards on either side, sandwiching them around the nailers, including identical nailers attached to the front of the finished boards.

The entertainment center, trimmed out.

The entertainment center, trimmed out.

I didn’t get real expensive wood, and I kind of like the rough look of the pine, which goes well with my rough cuts. The back bar includes a stone inset and a wine rack. Constructing the wine rack was harder than it should have been because I still need work on getting things square, but it fit great in the end. I went with edge-glued panels for the entertainment center because it came in the greater width I needed. That paint-grade wood looked even rougher, and really soaked up the stain. But, on both projects, I’m very pleased with the outcome.

The wet bar, with the stone work and countertops installed.

The wet bar, with the stone work and countertops installed.

The same goes for the fireplace and wet bar. The Ply Gem stone veneer was easy to work with and looks great. These features are really going to make both rooms, I think. There will be some quirks. The wine rack isn’t quite level, and I got the front lattice reversed, so it doesn’t line up quite right with the rear lattice, meaning the bottles will tip a little bit to the left when they’re in the rack. I’ll chalk that up to character.

So, what’s next? I’m going to paint the door trim and get it put up, then, I guess, I’ll tackle the ceiling again. Once the ceiling is finally in correctly, it’s time for the flooring. I’m leaning toward Trafficmaster Allure, a nice-looking laminate designed to be water resistant. Then the trim. After that, we’ll clean the place up, decide how to furnish it and call it done (except for figuring out how to finish the stairs down to the basement). I’m hoping to be done by Christmas, New Year’s at the latest. Of course, that depends on the ceiling. I’ve underestimated that before, so I’m making no firm commitments this time. I just know I’m really, really ready to be done.

 

Progress and setbacks on the basement

I can’t believe it’s been a month since I wrote an update for the blog. I’ve been working on the basement a lot, but, I don’t have as much to show for it as I’d like. Oh, there’s been some progress I’ve mentioned on Facebook, but not here. Like finishing the wet bar framing and installing the kegerator. The countertop for the wet bar has been ordered.

Tiles, out of whack.

Tiles, out of whack.

But, unfortunately, I have a few days ahead of me of undoing work already accomplished. Yes … I did it again. I don’t quite know how I managed it, but, after getting the ceiling tiles up properly in the theater room, I somehow managed to let them get out of whack in the hallway. By the time I was almost done with the office ceiling, I realized, once again, that the result wasn’t acceptable. I tried to tell myself, like last time, that no one but me would notice. Then my wife came down to check the progress and said, “Whoah, those don’t line up.” Unlike last time, I could have completed the room without running into any unsurmountable problems. But when I looked at the ceiling, I realized I didn’t want to live with that look for the next 30 years (give or take). So, I’ll take them down. The entire room, plus a good portion of the hallway, getting back to the one twisted tile that I think started it all.

Cutting stone.

Cutting stone.

But before I get to that, I decided to do some constructive work. I bought a tile saw and started laying out and cutting the stone for the fireplace. The stone veneer, Ply Gem True Stack, had been delivered a few days earlier, about 1,000 pounds worth. The tile saw, a cheap 4.2-Amp 7-Inch Wet Tile Saw made by Skil, is quite the mess maker. The saw blade spins through a water bath to keep it cool. The water mixes with the concrete shavings and sprays out. There’s a shroud to direct the water back down, but I have to remove that when I’m making lengthwise cuts to the stone. Without the shroud, the water sprays straight up. After cleaning mud spots off some ceiling tiles (ones that WON’T be coming down), I vowed to do the rest of the wet saw work outside.

The stone goes up.

The stone goes up.

I cut and laid out the stone up to the top of the fireplace, then decided I better go ahead and put what I had up to make sure my measurements weren’t off before I cut everything else. That was a good idea. I was a little bit off on both sides of the fireplace — a little short on the left side and a little long on the right. I recut the pieces without too much waste. Once I get above the fireplace, it will be smooth sailing. I won’t be able to finish the whole thing before I take down and replace the tiles, because the plan is to butt the stone right about against the ceiling, but I’ll get it most the way up. That’ll get some stone off the floor and out of the way, and give me some much-needed sense of progress.

The frame, put together.

The frame, put together.

I did get one other major project done, and I’m pretty psyched about it: The projector screen is built and installed. That turned into an all-day project. Actually, a multi-day project. Mark, my DIY mentor, helped me cut the poplar boards for the framing one day, then I spent the entire next day wrapping them in black velvet, putting them together using biscuit joints and brackets, then stapling the screen material on the back. I used an acoustically transparent screen material from Seymour AV, and followed their very handy and complete directions for a DIY frame.

Our first movie on the big screen: The Godfather. It was spectacular.

Our first movie on the big screen: The Godfather. It was spectacular.

It’s a nice-looking frame, if I do say so myself. My wife and I got the projector hooked up and decided to go ahead and have our inaugural movie, even though the room’s far from complete. We dragged a couple ratty chairs over from the other side of the basement, put a small table between them, dimmed the lights and put on The Godfather Blu-Ray (after pouring a couple of frosty mugs of Blue Moon from the kegerator, of course). The picture was awesome. The sound was fabulous. Even on a concrete floor with power tools and assorted other messes around us, it was better than a movie theater.

So, yeah, I’m disappointed about the tile. The ceiling has been a major, major pain and I cannot wait to have it finally finished. But, in the meantime, some good things have been coming together. And while I continue to work on taking tiles down and putting them back up correctly, we’ll be able to watch a movie anytime we feel like it.

Back on the straight and narrow

The framing for the wet bar.

The framing for the wet bar.

So, after determining that I had gotten them inexorably screwed up, we decided to take all the tiles I had put up back down and start over. Shannon took most of them down while I worked on other things, like getting the framing done for the wet bar. Then my friend and mentor came over to get me off on the right foot. We snapped a couple of straight lines across the room and got the first three rows of tile squared up. About halfway across, we hit the first snag: The furring strips (you know, the ones I put up twice) were out of alignment, and the way things were going, we were going to run out of furring strip to staple the tiles to by the time we made it across the room. Luckily, the furring strips are in two pieces across the room, so we were able to make adjustments without too much issue.

I felt a little better about my own mistakes once my friend got going, though. As careful as he was, he was still seeing variations in how the tiles came together. He managed to even things out, and taught me some tricks for getting the tiles in tight, like fitting a scrap piece into the edge and tapping on that to move the tile into position without damaging it. I don’t know if it’s true, but I could at least tell myself that if he hadn’t had my example of how not to do it, he could have made the same mistake.

IMG_1153

Now that’s a straight line of tiles.

The jagged edge.

The jagged edge.

Getting it right is s a slow process. He and I worked three hours and got maybe six rows of tiles up. Working the entire next weekend, I only managed to get about two-thirds of the theater room done. But, slow as it is, at least it’s going up right. Check out the photo to the right. See that edge? Compare that to the photo on the left, which is what was happening before. So, I’m pleased. Despite the despair at the decision, I know it was the right one. This will be a ceiling to be proud of. There won’t be mistakes I think only I’ll notice. And, more important, I’ll be able to get all 800 square feet up without running into major issues.

I wish I had gotten it right the first time, and I’ll be very glad when the ceiling is behind me, or over me. But I’m very happy to be getting it right this time. I knew this would be a learning experience. The ceiling has, I think, been the most painful lesson so far.