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If you’d like a definition for the modern euphemism, food insecurity, or to really understand the feel of day-to-day poverty, and the desperation it engenders, read my Grandmother Johnson’s personal letters to her daughter, Carol, who left Upper Glade, West Virginia, to move to Akron, Ohio in 1953, the day she graduated high school to find a job at Goodyear. 

Virginia’s weekly letters tell a story about her struggle to hold her family together during years of joblessness. The UPPER GLADE LETTERS are poignant and warm, weary and heart breaking. Virginia DeVaughn Johnson’s determination is the only glue she had to hold the family together.

Whipped by an economy that had too few jobs, and a husband who was afraid to tiptoe into the world, a son who slowly was lost to her through schizophrenia, and my father, who she feared was a failure because he dreamed dreams that didn’t include working in a coal mine. The letters are a daily correspondence written by my Grandmother Virginia DeVaughn Johnson during the family’s often joblessness between 1953 – 1968. The letters characterize my childhood, and chronicle my father’s climb from poverty to the middle class.

Neither she nor my Grandfather were born to poverty, in fact he was born in a house locally known as the Johnson Mansion. A college stands now where that house stood. The land for the college was donated by the Johnson family. My grandmother was a writer, a poet, and a musician. Poverty engulfed them the same as it has many talented middle class people of the recent economic crisis.

My father, Hays Johnson, made it out of the grinding poverty. He, my mother and my brothers and sisters, built an impressive home from the ground up with their hands and sweat, and my parents income from both their jobs. All of his children became productive, well-respected members of their community. His sisters migrated to Ohio to jobs and husbands. My Grandmother died in that horrible lifestyle in 1972.

Now, once again, I’m watching as others quietly trudge along rationing their groceries so they can stay in a rented home, but this time migrating to a new state will probably not find new jobs for the mass of people who are out of work, and have run out of unemployment compensation. Some, especially the well-educated are leaving the nation. Brain-drain. Brain drain is catastrophic for any country.

Noam Chomsky tells us there is a class war against the poor and the poor has been redefined as the middle class, and is even encroaching on the upper middle classes. Those are fine sentiments that mean something to those who stand up against corporations, and laws that make us less well than well off, and those powers that encourage joblessness, but those words as true as they are do not get down to the floor, and scrub up the nittty-gritty, dirty bottom of the poverty of soul, heart and stomach of joblessness that degrades our humanity in a nation that has sponsored democracy with our ancestors blood, and sometimes personal financial ruination.

Poverty for black & white and all colors between isn’t lack of initiative. It is the result of skilled predators who are good at privatizing others wealth, and ignoring the betterment of the whole. It’s time it stopped. As I read my Grandmother’s letters again, I feel sickened at the waste that was her life. She may or may not have become famous but she could have lived her life, and died with some dignity, if there had been adequate jobs. Jobs wouldn’t have solved all the Johnson family problems, like a son’s schizophrenia, but it sure as hell would not have been hell on earth for her, the idealist.

EULOGY

June 29, 1910 – March 8, 1972

Virginia Devaughn Johnson, mother, poet, writer of philosophy and above all, companion and friend to those around her.

During her life she tended to the sick of body as well as those of spirit, asking nothing in return. She was a totally unselfish person.

Her life style was that of a lover of all things and activities. Matter not, they be eccentric, for her philosophy was: no human activity is alien to me, for I too am human.

She did not follow a particular religious doctrine but instead imparted her own wisdom to those who would accept it. Many did and they are here today, be what they be.

Hays Johnson

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Photos by Salty Palette

Put a few things aside in the attic I wanted to keep. It’s like a museum piece, a memorabilia, signifying my digital awakening. Apparently, I’d set it aside amongst all those items I’d purged from the house. At the time it must have seemed important.

The name plate says Commodore 1541. It’s the wildly popular computer system that took the world by storm.  Obsolete Technology  says it was  sold first in January 1982. For purists, mine was made in Japan. It’s medium brown with rainbow bars across the head. It has a door for a large floppy, which I was so proud to own back then. The floppy was loaded with DOS, and if I remember correctly I could swap floppies, and store text or play a game. Found this thing at the old house.

My daughter brought it to me with a handful of books, and some family pictures. She had a car load of her own stuff but she hauled it eight hundred miles, and presented it to me like a long lost trophy. “I knew you’d want this.” It was packaged in a white box with the words Commodore Computer, Single Disk Drive written in large letters on the front.

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I didn’t recognize it at first until I unboxed it. Let me first say that I belong to that inexplicable set of people known as the “cult of unboxers” who like to watch home videos of nerds opening new technology gadgets. So, whether I could place this bit of nerdology or not, it was an unboxing and I was too happily busy to record it.

The box was musty and it’s second unboxing made my head swimmy. I stared at it for a long time like a stranger who after a bit of looking materialized into someone I once knew. And then it clicked, the chunk of metal stored in its original card board sleeve wrapped in Styrofoam, in good shape with the exception of a minor scuff on the top was an old friend.

Where did I get this? When did I buy it. I can remember every desktop computer system I’ve ever bought or built, and only two were bought, not counting my laptops. It took me back to when bits were so precious that spaces were counted and sentences shortened to save space on the disk. I’d thrown the large program floppy away, the one that held the operating system. The keyboard is gone, only the fourteen inch floppy drive remains.

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I remember how I felt when I saw this thing that cost a pittance, three-hundred-fifty dollars. Disbelief, joy, hustle, impatience to buy; I was breathless, not an exaggeration. It was actually a portable device, maybe five pounds, it wasn’t a main frame, it didn’t cost in the thousands of dollars. I could afford it.

I could actually own a bona fide computer. The screen might have been green with a block cursor that made a noise when the keys were banged. It didn’t seem like much of a system years later after Windows 3.1 with DOS 7, but then . . oh my!

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The system I remember didn’t have a real mouse, and oh, how I yearned for a mouse. This incredible piece of art came between my leaving and my getting a job, the custody battle, and a whole lot of history in only a few years. This little jewel gave me the first hint of knowledge that later I’d need to make a living.

Did I buy this thing before or after the divorce? That’s important. I have trouble remembering the ’80s. I was writing and fighting for my independence. I’d won a trip to a writer’s conference. Snatches, glimpses, foggy inklings come back to me. It’s a black hole, those memories for good reason.

A memory edges in, furtive, here and there, like a dog that you’ve scolded. It’s not sure whether it’s welcome but it slinks in any way. Forgive me if I don’t get this memory exactly right but there were disruptive changes happening in the computer industry and in my life.

It was 1978, and in a few months I’d get hellacious waves of morning sickness all day long with my third child, now that my two other children were both in school, now that I could take basic classes toward a degree in journalism, and explore computer languages, which were all any one could talk about, I was pregnant.

It’d wouldn’t be easy, but with help I could do it — drive two hours to the closest college to become a journalist. In a little over six-weeks the plans I’d held for ten years, crashed and burned. The brutal commute, morning sickness and a child, I could navigate – the other stuff, well.

Another memory – was it winter 1983? I was sitting with dozen other folks at the local Votech taking a night class in C++ I think it. Mr. Z., a computer programmer, Italian descent, taught a class in code. Again it’s vague. But that cruelly cold night was my introduction to computer systems. Rusty, my computer mate, was a natural at programming. I hung to his coding coattail, as he patiently explained the steps.

The class overflowed with adult students like Randy who worked at a coal mine on shifts that left him on the verge of sleep when he got there. There were maybe a dozen computers stuck so close together that our backs touched if we turned a bit. I finished the class got a certificate.

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Ah, now I remember. Mr. Z. introduced me to my first ever computer, the Commodore 1541 from Japan. He had a small computer supply store. It took 45 minutes to drive there — mountains you know, two lane highways that should have been one lane, they were so narrow, and coal trucks who took the road, slopping pieces of coal at your windshield, daring you to hold your side of the road, and don’t get me started on the logging trucks which didn’t have enough power or speed to travel more than 15 mph loaded. There’s a cliff on one side and a drop off that’ll land a car in the river on the other, and lots of gravel to slide through the hairpin turns.

The Sears electric machine with digital correction was showing it’s age. My Commodore 1541 supplemented my digital word processor from Sears Roebuck & Co. I didn’t have a printer but I had a computer. I could write a journal on it or write drafts for papers. I could get my thoughts down faster, rearrange my ideas, check my spelling with a paper dictionary, then type it out on the Electric. The Commodore improved upon a typewriter as far as I was concerned, but I was a bit-head from the beginning.

The next system I owned was a Windows 3.1, 386 (maybe) that needed DOS to boot. I made a six hour trip to the nearest computer business, and the owner built my first Windows computer. I was divorced, I had custody of my daughter, the last child at home. I had a job in publishing, I had a new love. He asked do I want a diamond ring or a mink coat for my birthday. I said I want a Windows 95 computer and a printer, and of course it had to have a freakn’ mouse. He shipped a never-been-used Windows computer system and printer with a bona fide mouse, and I never looked back. At the time, they were both the love of my life. Since then it’s Linux all the way. Ubuntu lately.

stories that matter

THE EMERGENCE OF NOVEL IDEAS. Below is a blurb from the new site MATTER, which will introduce you to a journalism subscription concept that I’m excited about. It features emerging ideas on the fringe of our knowledge. If you’re like me you like to read magazine length, in depth stories about science, technology and the future. If you’re like me sometimes you like to listen to these stories or parts of them while you’re doing something else. Now you can. If you would like to download science journalism the length of a novelette to your Kindle or reader, you can. Read DO NO HARM, Why do some people want to cut off a perfectly healthy limb? Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). for your introduction to MATTER, a Kickstarter project that consolidated MEDIUM and MATTER.

Stories that MATTER


MATTER is the new home for in-depth writing about the ideas that are shaping our future. We publish a single piece of extraordinary long-form journalism every month, from tales of corporate misdeeds and untold environmental scandals to stories of radical new scientific ideas and the people behind them.

We also think it’s crucial to find smarter ways to fund this kind of journalism. That’s why we’re building a community of readers, contributors and supporters who agree. For just 99c each month you can be part of it too.

Sign up today, and you’ll get:

• Access to all of our stories, including each month’s new release and our archive.
• Audio versions of every story, so you can listen on the go.
• E-book editions to read on your Kindle, iPad or Nook.
• The MATTER newsletter full of amazing links and tips from great writers.
• Editorial Board membership, so you can help shape the topics we cover.
• Exclusive Q&A sessions with the authors and editors of every story.And it’s easy to change your mind: you can cancel your Membership at any time with a single click.
HACKING YOUR EDUCATION: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will

HACKING YOUR EDUCATION: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will

REVIEW: Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will


Dale Stephens says he wants to teach you how to navigate the Kafkaesque educational bureaucracy. If you are twenty-something buy this book, or if you are fifteen, and thinking about going to college read this book. If you feel helpless to find a job in this economy this book will have something concrete you can try like his “52 cups of coffee” focused networking, which isn’t anything new until Stephens tells his story, and why you should do the same.

In fact, the book was so full of new strategies and new ideas it wore me out reading about them. This isn’t your parent’s self-help book. This is real world stuff. If you can’t afford college, definitely read Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will.

Stephens talks about education like someone treading lightly through a mine field gingerly avoiding the financial education trap. He says that “there is a bubble in education and it is on the brink of bursting.” I agree.

Stephens says that “Universities do not train you for the real world: they exist to make money”; that an “MBA program is worthless”; that “schools can only teach what is settled”; that it “takes years for knowledge to become a part of formal curriculum.” And by then the expiration date on your education is stale.

Dale Stephens offers a path for the upcoming generation to get an education that is relevant, and not stale, and debt free, or at least less so that of those recent graduates who’ve spent a fortune on their masters degree, and work in the service industry when they graduate. He calls it UnSchooling or UnCollege.

UnSchooling is an educational philosophy that values learning over schooling. Dale Stephens says you need to “stop giving a s*** about grades and start building things.” He says ” Project-based learning is a style teaching in which students define problems they are interested in and then solve them with guidance from their teacher.” He talks about collaborative work groups instead of competition, creating a website and a personal portfolio, and networking with people who are interested in the same things you are interested in. He says make something.

Stephens says “hiring managers want to see experience. He says business has changed but education hasn’t kept up. He wants college age people to take their life into their own hands rather than handing it over to an institution that is trying it’s best to keep up in a fast moving century.

Stephens persuaded his parents to allow him to drop out of school in the fifth grade to school himself. It seems to have worked. He dropped into college then dropped out, again, forming a group to school himself. He founded UnCollege for non-traditional higher education. Stephens says he “agreed to write a book, never having written more than twelve pages.” The book is well-written. It’s more than readable, it’s enjoyable.

If Hacking Your Education . . . had a shortcoming it is that the book is ahead of it’s time. Degrees are still the currency that is valued, too often. The educational system is in flux. This might be the last decade for traditional education, but it is, yet, here. And, yes, Universities are a business first, but some are there to teach, to put the maker ideas into the curriculum.

Stephens probably had more financial and family resources available than a lot students heading for college, but he talks about strategies that work whether a learner has resources or not. He’s ingenious in his own life, and wants to teach others how to be ingenious. He asks for help from a friend or relative who works at Google, and gets a foot in a door he’s after. Too many will not have an uncle or friend of a friend at Google, or network connection in a high profile firm, but even that might surprise the ingenious student who buys 52 cups of coffee.