Review: The Haygoods of Columbus

The Haygoods of Columbus: A Family Memoir, Wil Haygood. New York: Peter Davison Books/Houghton Mifflin, 1997 (The link is to a different, currently in-print edition).

Summary: A memoir of Haygood’s growing up years in Columbus, his extended family, the glory and decline of Mt. Vernon Avenue, and finding his calling as a writer.

Wil Haygood is a distinguished journalist and biographer, having written books on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Sammy Davis, Jr. He wrote  “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” which served as the basis of the 2013 movie, The Butler, A Witness to History. And he grew up in my current home town of Columbus, Ohio.

This work is one of his earlier works, after becoming established as a journalist with The Boston Globe (he would later write for The Washington Post). In it, he describes what it was like to grow up in Columbus. It’s a story of fishing on the Olentangy River, living for a time with his mother in the Bolivar Arms Apartments (an urban renewal project), and aspiring to play basketball, even faking residency in several different school districts to get a chance to play. He was never very good, but got enough of an education to get into Miami University, where an injury ended his career, and he majored in literature.

The book is subtitled “a family memoir,” and is as much about his family as anything. His parents met in the South and his father Jack, who eventually divorced his mother, Elvira, moved to Columbus because several relatives had jobs there. Elvira followed, Wil and his twin sister Wonder were born, and after the divorce, they moved into Elvira’s parents, Jimmy and Emily Burke. It’s a story of a troubled family. Haygood often didn’t know if Elvira would return from her jaunts on Mt. Vernon Avenue. His step-brother, “Macaroni” was a pimp and a hustler who only could evade the law so long. Another brother, Harry, had dreams of stardom, ending up in a homeless camp in Marin County. I suspect the influence of Jimmy and Emily, hard-working folks who owned their home in Weinland Park may have rubbed off on Wil. Often, it was will, after he was established, who would send money, and help one or another when they were down.

It’s a story about the glory days and decline of Mt. Vernon Avenue, a main street running east from downtown Columbus (before the freeways) that was the cultural heart of the Black community–theaters, jazz joints, groceries, restaurants and clothing shops and churches. Haygood focuses on Carl Brown’s grocery. Brown established his presence by hauling fresh produce, overpriced in other stores, from the South. He describes a chain competitor that came in, and rapidly went under, and Brown’s attempts to hang on, which he did until his death, employing many youth in his store over the years.

It was also the location of The Call & Post, a black weekly newspaper under editor Amos Lynch, one of those who sought to keep Mt. Vernon Avenue alive. After graduation, Haygood attempted a career at acting, ended up back in Columbus working odd jobs, and finally, on a whim applied at The Call & Post. He had a tryout that failed, but Lynch liked his energy and called him back. He covered sports and the courts, and leveraged the position into jobs in Charleston, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and eventually with The Boston Globe, for whom he was writing at the time of the book.

These three elements, the bonds of family even when it gets messy, the fabric of community, and the finding of calling weave together in Haygood’s account. Along the way, one glimpses the life of Columbus back in the 1950’s to 1980’s (we moved here in 1990), so it was a rich account of the backstory of our adopted home town (complete with Mayor Sensenbrenner, Woody Hayes, old downtown landmarks and Scioto Downs). I identify with the sadness of witnessing the decline of community–the story of Mt. Vernon Avenue could be the story of Market Street or Mahoning Avenue where I grew up–once-vibrant communities that are shadows of their former selves. One reflects on the mystery of finding one’s calling–how an aspiring basketball player ends up a journalist and biographer–the family influences, mentors, and the chance event of submitting an application on a whim. Finally, there are these mysterious bonds of family, a boy finding the love he longed for in his mother and father in his grandparents, how a family deals with its “black sheep” and those who struggle to find themselves, hoping that they will find redemption as “Macaroni” eventually did.

Haygood and I are the same age. His memoir makes me reflect on how the places, people, and times of our lives help shape the people we are. Our stories are different, to be sure, but the elements are not. This memoir helps me understand not only the place where I live but perhaps myself a bit better.

Review: The Vanishing American Adult

vanishing american adult

The Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

Summary: Concerned about the passivity he observes among many emerging adults, the author proposes five character building habits to foster resilient, responsible adults and wisely engaged citizens.

As a college president, Ben Sasse quickly became acquainted with the passivity, fragility and a sense of entitlement in his student body. As a U.S. Senator from Nebraska, he is deeply disturbed at the implications this has for our republic. As a parent, he writes about the steps he thinks he (and we) need to take, beginning in our own families to reverse this trend.

His first three chapters chronicle the problem of endless adolescence, using the story of Peter Pan in Neverland as a metaphor. He describes a generation on more medications, addicted to screens, and for many pornography, as well as living at home longer and marrying later if at all, and intellectually fragile, wanting “safe zones” instead of fighting for free speech. He is not at all convinced that the answer lies with our schools and writes critically of the role John Dewey played in a public school movement that relegated parents and other mediating structures to inferior and subsidiary role in the development of children. He contends most crucially that schools are failing to teach children how to learn, harking back to Dorothy Sayers’ Lost Tools of Learning, and particularly the lost focus on the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Sasse then proposes five habits that he believes may begin to address the deficits he observes:

  1. Fleeing Age Segregation. He believes our society has become highly age segregated, isolating generations from each other, giving emerging adults no contact with life in its different stages, the changes that occur in body and mind, and the realities of death and birth, which he believes it important to witness.
  2. Embrace Work Pain. He observes that many youth never have experiences where they have to persist through pain or struggle to complete a hard task and encourages various volunteer and work experiences from childhood on.
  3. Consume Less. He observes the paradox of material affluence and the stress and lack of happiness that walk hand in hand and proposes steps to defer material gratification to focus on more significant life priorities.
  4. Travel To See. He argues that traveling early and often and learning to travel light exposes one to the world beyond one’s own enclave that helps one define more deeply the values one wants to embrace.
  5. Build a Bookshelf. He argues that America is fundamentally an idea, and that the stock of ideas we accrue from our reading is critical not only to the richness of our own lives but to our citizenship. He describes his process of developing both his own and his children’s “bookshelves” and gives us some interesting reading suggestions.

Sasse makes it clear that this is not a book about policy. But neither is it simply about parenting our children. It is about the polis. He believes what makes America exceptional is its ideas. It is critical to develop a rising generation of people who assume personal responsibility, who can face challenges with resilience, and know how to think rigorously and to engage others ideas with both civility and tenacity. He then concludes the book with imagining what Teddy Roosevelt would say to a high school graduating class.

This is both an engaging and demanding book. Sasse tells stories about his own upbringing, some of the stretching things he did with his friends that shaped him, and about how he and his wife Melissa are raising their children (including experiences one daughter had castrating bulls on a ranch where she worked). With each of his five “habits” he concludes the chapter with practical “stepping stones.”

He is also a person who believes ideas have consequences and devotes significant space in each chapter to the intellectual history of the things he is talking about. This could be off-putting for some, and yet it illustrates his conviction that the ideas we embrace, and that in turn, shape us both individually and collectively, matter. Reading Sasse, you will encounter Augustine, Rousseau, Dewey and Tocqueville, among others.

Sasse is a conservative and has the third most conservative voting record in the Senate. He clearly is one who believes in limited federal government and the importance of local “mediating institutions” and in the critical importance of a virtuous, informed citizenry.  He shares the Republican Party’s suspicion of public education (but advocates for public education may want to listen to his concerns that the role of parents is often usurped by education “experts,” and that more money and more technology often is not translating into better education). But he addresses a phenomenon that has to be of concern to every public official–the character of the rising generation, and how they are being prepared for responsible adulthood.

I don’t think Ben Sasse would mind if you disagree with him. He strikes me as someone who values a good argument. His internal argument, weighing Augustine and Rousseau against each other, suggests that all he would ask is that you give him a good argument in return. That, he would think, is what adults do.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Family

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State Library of Queensland, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Family. Not family values, but family, was important in the working class Youngstown I grew up in. They weren’t perfect, by any means. Then, as now, families could be abusive or even violent. Now we talk about it more, which is a good thing, particularly if it means protecting women and children.

In most cases though, barring divorce (which was much more rare) or death, you could count on both a mom and dad being around. From what I remember, this was true in almost every house on our street. Families were usually larger than today. The Pill was just coming into use, and some still obeyed religious teachings that banned the use of contraceptives. Families of three children were common (including mine) and, if memory serves, a couple families on our street had five kids.

But family didn’t stop with mom, dad, and kids. Often grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins lived in the city, sometimes in the same part of town. Sometimes, an elderly grandparent would even live with the family. People didn’t want to die in a hospital or nursing home. They wanted to die at home, with their people.

My wife’s father had two brothers who lived within blocks. They built each other’s garages, went fishing together, and my wife grew up regularly seeing her cousins. One even shares the same birth day. Holidays were often a movable feast, going from one household to another, sometimes in the same day, sometimes over several.

Families looked out for each other. They helped each other get jobs, and helped out when someone was out of work. They started businesses–tool and die shops, groceries, restaurants, real estate development– you name it. Some of those names have become well known around Youngstown–Butler, Wick, Stambaugh, Cafaro, DeBartolo or Rulli Brothers. Some were more local–like Cherol’s Market on the West Side.

Extended families were important. If the worst happened and a parent died, or divorce happened, there were often aunts, uncles, or grandparents who helped fill the void of both love and mentoring that often was the difference of a kid succeeding despite bad circumstances. Networks of families, particularly in ethnic communities made for cohesive neighborhoods, good friends, and not a few marriages.

There was a dark side to this in Youngstown. Some extended families and family alliances pursued businesses outside the law and used force and the threat of force to bend others to their will, including public officials. No one wanted a “Youngstown tuneup.” A way of doing business that compromised public figures and siphoned public funds into private coffers drained resources from the city and undermined the rule of law.

On balance, though, families were good for Youngstown. They brought cohesion to neighborhoods, stability to kids growing up, and functioned as a kind of “safety net” when neither government nor employers offered much. Today we are much more scattered, and many families, particularly children left Youngstown in search of jobs. I can’t help but wonder if one of the things that might renew Youngstown and other cities like it would be to figure out ways to make it possible for families to stay together. Ultimately it takes jobs, but I wonder if it might also be a good idea to provide incentives for families to create their own businesses and stay together. Maybe that’s a pipe dream.

Families take a number of different forms today. Whatever form they take, at their best, they form character, provide mutual support and care, and a sense of identity (Callan, p. 2). Strong families helped make Youngstown a great place to live. I can’t help but think this is still true.

What did family mean for you growing up in Youngstown?

Thanksgiving in Troubling Times

From both personal conversations and following numerous online conversations, I sense there are many who are deeply troubled by our recent elections–many by the tenor of these elections, some by the outcome, and still others by violent protests by some, and verbal, and sometimes physical attacks on people of color, immigrants, LGBT persons, and those who voted for the President-elect.

As one who ordinarily (sometimes to the annoyance of some family members!) enjoys political conversation, I sense this is a Thanksgiving where it would be well to leave this at the door. I’m just not sure what can be added to the interminable conversation of this past year except to give people indigestion. I’m not proposing Thanksgiving escapism, or dismissing the importance of the continuing concerns people have. It is simply that “to everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) and this is a season for thanksgiving, first of all to the host or whoever has provided the food and space to enjoy a meal together, and for the others gathered around. Anything else is just bad manners.

Beyond this, a few thoughts:

  • Take a social media and news media break. Anything really important will still be around on Monday, and you might have a better sense of proportion to engage it. And as compelling as your insights are to you, it probably has been said.
  • If you are hosting a gathering, you might find some humorous ways to let people know this is a “no politics zone.” Like signs, or the threat that there are no seconds on Mom’s famous recipe stuffing for anyone who talks politics.
  • Do not, I repeat, do not bring your cell phone to the dinner table! Put it on mute and check it only when you are not with real, physical people.
  • Focus on the real people in your life this weekend and the ties that bind you together. True, you may not agree on everything, and sometimes you annoy the heck out of each other. As a mental exercise, try to think of something about that person for which you can give thanks. Try real hard. Working those thankfulness muscles will put you in better condition to do the same for those out there we have to share the same country with.
  • Take time to savor the meal. Silently give thanks for each dish and verbally praise the one who made it. We rush through most dinners. This is one to savor, to enjoy good conversation as we move from appetizers to salads to main courses to desserts. Think of the time it takes to prepare this meal. It shouldn’t be all done in an hour.

It seems to me that it is actually quite a good thing that we have a day dedicated to giving thanks. From the Christian scriptures, the Apostle Paul writes, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV). Reflecting on, as some families do around the table, what each person is thankful for from the past year is a good exercise. Some have taken it further and come up with a “Thirty Days of Thankfulness” challenge. It may be that it is good to end the day thinking of at least one thing we may give thanks for in each day.

Underlying this is an assumption about the way the world is. Thankfulness assumes that no matter how bad things may seem, goodness wins out in the end. Actually even our complaints about what we think is wrong assumes that there is something that is better, some way that things ought to be. As the old proverb goes, “it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Perhaps that could be a good accompaniment to “thanks-sharing” around the table, a beautiful way to begin or end a special meal.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Three “F’s” of Christmas

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Our nativity scene from my wife’s family

This will be my last new “Youngstown” post before Christmas. I thought I would take a few moments to reflect on the three “F’s” that defined Christmas for many of us who grew up in Youngstown: faith, family, and food.

Faith was important in many of our families. It was “the reason for the season.” It was about remembering the birth of Christ. We had Advent calendars in some of our families building our anticipation of Christmas eve and Christmas day. Many of us grew up dressing up as shepherds, wise men, or Joseph or Mary as we retold the story of the nativity. Some of us remember candlelight services concluding in candlelit darkness singing “Silent Night.”My wife remembers midnight masses where at midnight the baby Jesus was placed in the nativity scene at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church.

Family gatherings were big in Youngstown. On my wife’s side, her father and his brothers all lived in the same part of town (Brownlee Woods and Poland) and the brothers would go from one house to another over the course of the holidays. I remember gatherings at my grandparents as a child with cousins from Texas and a living room full of people gathered around the Christmas tree (after we had gathered around the dining room table). We still have that table and buffet in our home, it having passed from my grandparents to my parents to us. Boy, my grandmother could cook, and I’m reminded of her whenever I see these pieces of furniture.

And that brings me to food, the third big part of any Youngstown Christmas. There were all those cookies  and candies–snowballs and rum balls, bow ties and clothes pins, pizzelles and kolachi, iced sugar cookies and peppermint bark. There was often a big dinner–a ham and sweet potatoes, or roast chicken or turkey and mashed potatoes. The challenge was often saving room for the next family gathering.

Faith, family, and food were important themes not just at Christmas but throughout the year in working class Youngstown. Faith wasn’t something you “wore on your sleeve” in some kind of showy way, but it was always a part of life. Families were hardly perfect, but somehow there for you when the chips were down and at any big life event. And good food (often accompanied with plentiful drink!) marked any celebration.

As I close, I would love to hear your memories of faith, family and food at Christmas. And I want to extend my own wishes that this upcoming holiday will be filled with all of the best for you! Merry Christmas, Youngstown!

Remembering Mom

It seems appropriate on Mothers Day to remember Mom, who passed away nearly four years ago at age 90. It is likely due to her that this blog exists. Not only did she do the obvious of giving birth to me (and my two siblings). She was an avid reader and I still remember lunch times at home. Part of the time was spent reading our books. Part of the time was spent talking about them–I guess that’s where the reviewing part comes in. I loved exploring the shelves of books in our house, including the stash behind the clothes rack in my closet. I guess that might explain the proliferation of books in my own home.

Mom after Carol was born

The first picture here is of my mom after giving birth to my sister in 1960. She looks pretty amazing considering she was nearly 41 and had just had her third child. The second picture was taken around 1990 when she would have been 70. I remember one of my male friends visiting our home when I was a teenager and when we were alone, he said, “Boy, your mother is hot!” I nearly punched him because you just didn’t go saying those things about one’s mother. But with the perspective of age, I have to say my friend was right!

Mom cropped

Mom was beautiful and smart as well. She was a good student and represented her high school (Chaney High School, the same school I attended) at a statewide Chemistry competition. If she were growing up today, she might have gone on to college, and perhaps a career in science or engineering. She loved learning all her life and was mentally sharp to the last.

In her later years, we would talk on the phone every Sunday, about what was going on in Youngstown, what she was reading, and politics local and national. She was a “died in the wool” Republican despite living in a heavily Democratic part of town. Consequently, for years she was recruited to work at her local voting place. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but you could always count on a lively conversation!

What I most remember was how she was always there for us as a family. I was sick quite a bit in my early elementary years until I got rid of my inflamed tonsils. I never was made to feel bad for being sick. Rather, it seemed like she always knew what to do to make one comfortable, whether it was a pain-reliever, a re-made bed, putting on the TV to watch (something we rarely did during daytime hours), or a glass of orange juice. She was also there to talk with when we came home from school. She wasn’t a helicopter parent running into school whenever there was a problem. Most of the time we talked it out and she helped me think through how to deal with a teacher, or a kid who was picking on me.

My mother’s name was Dorothea. I always thought that was one of the most beautiful names I knew. It means “gift of God” and I think we all would agree that she was that to our family. She stood by all of us in hard times and good.

Our own son and daughter-in-law treated us to a trip to Outback today and in ordering a steak, I was reminded how much my own mom loved a good steak, medium to medium rare. We were celebrating my wife, who also is a wonderful gift, but I could not help remembering with gratitude the “gift of God” my own mother was, and how much I loved her, and how much I miss her this day.

 

 

Baggage

This is from my post on Going Deeper, a blog dedicated to reflections on our church’s weekly messages.

In Rudy’s message on Sunday on The Christian at Home, he spoke about the baggage we bring into our family life. If you will pardon the pun, I think this is a mixed bag! Baggage is what we carry with us when we go someplace, in this case on our life’s journey.

Often we think of baggage in negative terms, the dysfunctions and unhealthy tendencies we bring with us into any situation. You might think of it as that shirt that isn’t really your color, or those jeans that really are ready to be converted into rags or those smelly shoes. But I would hope that most of us also pack some decent looking stuff in our bags when we travel, kind of like the qualities of temperament, the talents, and gifts, and perspectives that make us attractive and interesting to others. As I said, for most of us, our baggage is a mix of good and not so good stuff. And that’s what can make marriage and family life hard–or good!

What makes it hard is when we resent others for a good quality that they have that we feel we lack, or when we criticize the faults of another that we don’t struggle with. I suspect there was some of this kind of history between Cain and Abel that we read about in 1 John 3:11-12. Both our good and our bad baggage can be a source of conflict with others in our family in these kinds of situations. And sometimes it really can get bad! If you are in what seems like an unsolvable conflict, don’t keep fighting. Call “time out” and get some help–a talk with a pastor, or counselor. It is a sign of strength and not weakness when you can admit you need help.

The baggage we bring can be good as well. If you are a husband or wife, there had to be some pretty good things in the baggage of the other–or else you are a lousy chooser!  In some coaching training I had, we learned to make five good comments for every critical comment. It is funny how we tend to get it the other way around. I wonder if in marriage and family life it would make sense to try to affirm five things we appreciate about the other person each day, and apologize for one shortcoming of our own and, on most days, skip the critique all together!

At the same time, we are not always aware of our negative baggage. It is God’s mercy that we have families! Seriously! You remember the first time you tried to go to school with mismatched clothes and mom told you to go back and change? Sometimes, we can really get in trouble when we take our dysfunctions into public. Usually, there is some member in our family, often our spouse if we are married, who is trying to help us see our negative baggage. I don’t always like it, but often times my wife will save me major grief by pointing out something I’m not seeing in a social situation, or warn me against my tendency to “sermonize” when it would be better to keep my mouth shut and listen!

What I think is going on is that God has given us all good baggage that can both complement (and compliment!) the good things of others in our family. Also, if we are willing to face that we have some stuff in our bags that really doesn’t look (or smell) good on us and let others help us see that, we can save ourselves from grief  and make life more pleasant for others. That’s the kind of home I want to live in.