Review: The Education of an Idealist

The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power. New York: Dey Street Books, 2021.

Summary: A memoir on immigrant-American, war correspondent, human rights activist, and diplomat Samantha Power.

Samantha Power has led an interesting life, by any measure. Born in Ireland, she emigrated with her mother Vera to the United States as a young girl, leaving an alcoholic father who eventually drank himself to death at a young age. She and her mother became naturalized citizens and Vera married Eddie, who provided not only the love but the stability she needed. She played basketball and ran cross country in high school and is an avid baseball fan. After graduating from Yale, she ended up as a freelance war correspondent in the former Yugoslavia, where she encountered the genocidal efforts against Bosnian Muslims, culminating in Srebenica. Returning to the U.S. she plunged into law school while doing the research on her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell, (review), a history of genocide in the 20th century.

She returned to Harvard, teaching at the Kennedy School for Government and serving as Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. She left Harvard in 2005 for a one-year fellowship with then-Senator Barack Obama, helping shape his efforts to press for American intervention in Darfur. She campaigned for Obama, resigning at one point, when what she thought was an off-the-record conversation about Senator Clinton was published. She later joined his administrator on the National Security Council, where she served as a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights. In 2013, she was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, where she served until January 2017.

Leaving public office in 2017 afforded more time with her husband, legal scholar at Harvard, Cass Sunstein, and their two children, Declan and Rian as well as resuming teaching duties at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy. She returned to government in 2021 as the Administrator for the United States Agency for International Development.

The Education of an Idealist covers everything except for that last sentence. Fitting for an interesting life, Power tells an interesting story, an un-put-downable story at least for me. Beyond the curriculum vitae outlined above, we come to understand the shaping of a woman passionate in the pursuit of human rights and how she persisted when her passion ran up against political realities and limits. This is a woman who first of all knew both love and loss, and understood both the pain of feeling she’d abandoned a father, and the flourishing she experienced with her mother and step-father who were for her every step of the way. I was fascinated to learn that until about mid-way through her time at Yale, she was more interested in sports than international affairs. A European trip awakened her to genocide, oppression, and the fissures that would eventually erupt in Yugoslavia. An internship with Mort Abramowitz where she researched the Bosnian conflict led her to the adventure of trying to see that war up close as a war correspondent–setting the precedent for her commitment to get “on the ground” whenever she could to understand a crisis–whether the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the Ebola crisis, or even the missions of other U.N. ambassadors, who she visited rather than making them call on her.

The narrative is a story of a passion to save human lives, and to stand up for human flourishing, where ideals often ran up against reality. She learned how hard it is to do better. One senses her frustration when she thought she had a commitment from the President for U.S. intervention in Syria after Assad’s nerve gas attacks, only for him to backpedal and fail to secure Senate support. She learned to do what could be done, negotiating protocols with Russia to remove Assad’s chemical weapons. We see her frustration when political realities with Turkey prevent Obama from naming atrocities against the Armenians a century ago genocide. And we see how hurtful accusations against her could be when she had fought for the very things she was accused of not doing.

Part of the narrative is how she found strength in fostering community with other women both in her own government, and with women ambassadors at the UN. One of her last acts was to call attention to twenty women being held as political prisoners. Her efforts, and the political pressure applied, resulted in the release of 14 before she left office. They also, along with her live-in nanny, Maria, help her wrestle with the tension of high-level government service and parenting, and the unavoidable tradeoffs this involves.

Perhaps in light of the present situation with Russia and Ukraine, Power devoted her last speech at the UN to warning the world of the efforts of Russia to sow havoc, whether supporting Assad’s genocidal efforts to eliminate his opposition, the ruthless annexation of Crimea from Ukraine (bite by bite?), and the interference in American elections. I admire the fire with which she spoke:

“Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”

Power also reminds us of the difference immigrants make in our country, whether herself as an Irish naturalized US citizen, or the Turkish immigrant who founded Chobani Yogurt or her nanny Maria, to whom she administered the oath of citizenship. Her passion for refugees energized her efforts to get those “in the pipeline” settled as the doors were closing.

The one question that Power fails to wrestle with is the tension between human rights advocacy and the question of whether there are limits to what any given government can or should do. These are the realities her idealism bumps up against. Given the unique place of America in the world, should vigorous international human rights advocacy be a cardinal doctrine of our foreign policy, and should this be backed with American military force if necessary? This seems implicit in Power’s advocacy, but this is not defended, and so foreign policy seems to end up a patchwork of idealism and realpolitik. Power’s resort at the end is that if we cannot change the world, then we change the smaller and individual worlds we can. That may be a good personal response, but is it sufficient for governments?

That said, this is a memoir and not a foreign policy treatise. In addition to a riveting read, I am grateful for the example of someone who does not give way to cynicism or despair, who works for the possible when the ideal eludes one. The importance of bedrock convictions, the support of a strong, loving family, and finding community are lessons from Power’s life in how to sustain one’s ideals, even as one is “educated” to the realities that bump up against the ideal. Hopefully it will help inspire a new generation, including many women, to the public service for the common good which has always been vital to the health of our country and our world.

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: No Longer Strangers

No Longer Strangers, Gregory Coles, Foreword by Jen Pollock Michel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: A personal memoir on struggling to fit in and giving up on belonging to pursue Christ, and in the end, finding both.

Gregory Coles grew up struggling to fit in. He was a third culture kid, American-born but raised in Indonesia, returning to the U.S. in college. He grew up pudgy, the least athletic kid in most rooms, thinning out in adolescence. He was a bit of an egghead and he holds a doctorate in English. He is also a Christian, openly gay, and celibate, about which he writes compellingly in his first book, Single, Gay, Christian which I reviewed in 2017. You can see how he might struggle with fitting in.

And yet in his pursuit of Christ, he found belonging as well. But first, something of the story.

The book is written as a kind of a memoir, on the theme of being an alien, an image at once biblical, one that fits his story, and that he plays with in his “Notes From an Alien Anthropologist” at the beginning of each chapter. He traces his family story of how he became a TCK (Third Culture Kid), raised by Jesus movement converts who pursued mission work in Indonesia. He speaks with nostalgia about playing Pooh sticks with friends by the open sewer near his home. He describes airports as his favorite place–where everyone is a misfit and all are passing through and his struggle with national anthems, when one connected more with where he’d grown up than that of the country whose passport he held, and none connected with the one nation he’d given total allegiance to that had no national boundaries.

As a first year college student, he struggles with the question of how he can be from Indonesia with white skin. Three years later, a Christmas trip home results in a case of dengue fever, meaning he only return at the risk of a re-infection that would be far worse, closing the door on that part of his life.

In the second part of the book, he moves from the idea of belonging in a place to belonging with others. He describes the wedding of his boyhood friend Zack to Anna, both the joy and loss, and a wonderful visit to Chicago and a hilarious bingo game he and Anna made up during a Lord of the Rings marathon that sealed a new friendship. Carrie grew up in Indonesia, she and her husband Evan welcomed Greg into their Santai (Indonesian for “relax”) Sundays. There is a wonderful friendship with the Hennings and their boys Grant and Max, who at one point turn a painful conversation after Greg’s “coming out” into “the best Monday ever.”

The last part of the book is about “belonging to.” It begins with his willingness to let go of the importance of reputation to follow Christ when his first book was published, and to know there was One to whom he would always belong. He recalls his habit of giving out carrot sticks in high school, the people he came to know, and the realization that neighboring is giving with no thought of return. He writes of a critical reviewer who became a friend because of her review of his book and concludes with the tattoo that became his Ebenezer of Christ’s love for him.

This is a memoir that is funny at one moment, that takes one (at least this pudgy egghead) back to childhood at another, that catches you up with tears, and sparkles with the joy of one who has risked all to follow Christ’s call only to discover belonging on the other side of loss–of a congregation who does not let him go, of friends who welcome him for dinner and laundry and origami, and of a Christ who never stops loving. Through his own story, he points the way for all of us “aliens” who long to belong.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Shocking The Conscience

Shocking the Conscience, Simeon Booker with Carol McCabe Booker. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2013.

Summary: A memoir of Simeon Booker’s career as a reporter, much of it during the height of the Civil Rights movement from the murder of Emmett Till to the busing battles of the 1970’s and beyond.

I became interested in Simeon Booker because both of us grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. Booker moved there as a child from Baltimore, Maryland, his father the first director of the Black YMCA in Youngstown and later a pastor on Youngstown’s South side. Other than a poem in the Vindicator and his early writing experience for the Buckeye Review (the Black newspaper in Youngstown), there is little here about his time in Youngstown.

He went away to college when he encountered discrimination at Youngstown College. Following stints at Black newspapers in Baltimore and Cleveland, he qualified for a Nieman fellowship at Harvard and was hired as the first Black reporter at the Washington Post. After a few years of lackluster assignments, he was recruited to open the Washington bureau for Johnson publications, publisher of Ebony and the weekly news digest Jet. Booker occupied this post from 1956 until his retirement in 2007.

Much of the book chronicles his on-the-ground coverage of decisive moments of the Civil Rights movement. We ride on the edge of the seat with him and his photographer, trying to pass as Black ministers with a Bible on their seat to cover early Civil Rights gatherings in the deep South. We ache with him as he writes the stories of the murder and open casket funeral of Emmett Till and then sweat through the trial at the small table given “Negro” press until the acquittal of Till’s murderers. He covers the story of the Little Rock Nine who attempt integrate Central High School. Later he describes the confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the eventual march to Montgomery, Alabama

Perhaps the most harrowing account was his travel on one of two busses ridden by Freedom Riders testing the enforcement of laws integrating interstate travel in the South. He describes the worries he has for passengers on the other bus when it was firebombed and narrates the beating of passengers on his bus while the bus driver and police stay away. Somehow, he managed to get a call through to Bobby Kennedy, who he had become friends with and who invited him to call if he needed help. That call got the Riders out of trouble.

He gives an illuminating account of his travels in Vietnam, where he covered the treatment of Blacks in the military and the disproportionate numbers in the thick of the fighting. He went through fire fights, and a helicopter flight with William Westmoreland with rifle rounds pinging off the skin of the helicopter, describing it as feeling safer than driving into the deep South.

The other part of his narrative is his relationships with different presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama. He describes the promising talk and disappointing actions of Eisenhower, the promise of Kennedy, with increased access and the initiation of Civil Rights legislation accomplished under Lyndon Johnson, a southern Democrat. a cooler relationship with Richard Nixon, the advances under Carter in appointing Black judges to the bench and to many other positions. He has less to say about the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush years. In fact the period from Nixon to Obama is covered in about 25 pages, with a portion dedicated to the Congressional Black Caucus.

Most of the book is focused on about a fifteen year period from the early 1950’s to the late 1960’s. On the one hand, there is so much to which Booker was a witness in these years and his first hand narrative of many of these events fills out other histories of them I have read. Yet it seems so much more could have been told of the ensuing years and both the advances for Blacks and the shifts in the Republican party’s strength among white Southern voters leading to our current political divisions. One has the feeling that this might have been part of a two volume work were it not for Booker’s passing in 2017, a few years after its publication.

Nevertheless, Booker was an amazing journalist. His publisher said he never had to correct or retract a story by Booker, even under the duress of someone like Lyndon Johnson. He established high standards for journalism, not just Black journalism, while focusing on the issues and stories that concerned Black people. His career underscores the value of a free press, and the courage journalists have always shown to “get the story.” This is not a narrative of bombastic rhetoric but comes across as the quiet, deliberate unfolding of the larger story of which all those stories were a part, and Booker’s own witness to a critical portion of our nation’s history, when the Civil Rights movement “shocked the conscience” of the nation.

Review: A Big Life (in advertising)

A Big Life (in advertising), Mary Wells Lawrence. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Summary: A memoir of the first woman to head up a Madison Avenue advertising firm, producing some of the most memorable advertising campaigns of the 1960’s through the 1980’s.

From childhood on, she loved drama and story and envisioned her own life as one. At the end of this memoir she writes:

“I believe that whether you are a woman or a man you are supposed to stretch everything that you are, you are supposed to love with all your might, you are supposed to have a big life, so that when all is said and done you can say to yourself, with feeling, ‘I loved my life so much.’ “

Mary Wells Lawrence, p. 290.

This memoir tells the story of how she rose from a copywriter for advertising in the bargain basement of McKelvey’s department store in Youngstown, Ohio to become the first woman to lead a Madison Avenue advertising firm, and eventually the highest paid CEO in the business. Within a couple years of McKelvey’s, she was the fashion advertising manager at Macy’s. During this time she divorced and remarried her first husband, Bert Wells, only to divorce him again in 1965. What was apparent in the memoir is that he did not want the big life Mary did.

She moved over to working with advertising agencies, eventually going to Doyle Dane Bernbach, a major formative influence in her career. After a brief stint with Jack Tinker, during which she developed a campaign for Braniff Airlines featuring brightly pastel painted planes (“the end of the plain plane”), she left to form her own agency. Tinker reneged on a promotion he’d promised, and with two people on her team, Richard Rich and Stewart Greene she formed Wells Rich Greene.

The memoir tells the behind the scenes stories of ad campaigns from Benson & Hedges “cigarette breaks,” American Motors Javelin vs. Mustang comparisons, Alka Seltzer’s “plop, plop, fizz, fizz” and “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” and the “I love New York” campaign. Her agency taught us to “trust the Midas touch,” that at Ford “Quality is Job One,” and to “Flick your Bic.” She describes the lengths she went to to understand the interests of the mostly male clients she dealt with. She kept marginal products like Gleem toothpaste and Pringles alive for P & G.

Harding Lawrence, the CEO of Braniff was really the husband she should have married all along. He understood her world because he lived in one like it. One senses in reading the memoir that while she was a genius at understanding the needs of clients and creating television ads that told a story that engaged consumers, while he understood the ins and outs of business and organizational life. They made a great team.

Lawrence recounts numerous stretches of night and day creative efforts to meet deadlines and create these iconic ads. She describes the lengths she went to to understand the interests of the mostly male clients she dealt with, how difficult clients could be, and the day she resigned the lucrative account her firm had with TWA. As we read on, we sense the increasing exhaustion over years of chasing, catering to, and having clients drop her. Then came two cancer surgeries and the realization of neglected dimensions, including the spiritual in her life. In 1990, she sold her interest as the agency merged with a French firm BDDP. Sadly, by 1998, the combined agency was out of business. She accepts it philosophically with a sense that creative endeavors have their season.

One thing about the organization of the book is that it begins with her time in New York and the early efforts to build the agency. Then it reverts to her childhood in Poland, Ohio, her introduction to drama at the Youngstown Playhouse, and her initial entry into the advertising world working for Vera Friedman at McKelvey’s, learning to tell stories about clothing with a few words for the working people who purchased in the bargain basement. Then she returns to Wells Rich Green and the challenges of leading the big agency she built.

This is a fast-paced read, as fast-paced as one can imagine her life (she is still living at this writing). It does leave me wondering what the idea of a big life has come to mean in the intervening years. On May 25, Mary Wells Lawrence will be 92 years old. She has lived both a big and long life. Not bad for a woman who grew up in Poland, Ohio.

Review: World of Wonders

World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2020.

Summary: A combination of memoir and nature writing describing the variety of living creatures encountered by the author in the different places where she lived and her own lived experience in these places.

Great nature writing enables the reader to envision at least in the mind’s eye, the landscape the writer is describing with fresh and wondrous eyes. Such writing is very simply, great writing. There is also something of the writer in the narrative, whether we think of Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, or Henry David Thoreau. This work has all these elements. Little wonder it has won numerous awards including Barnes and Noble’s 2020 Book of the Year.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil has lived in a number of places growing up and in her adult life, from the grounds of a mental institution in Kansas where her mother worked to the lake effect winters of upstate New York to the lush landscape of northern Mississippi. She caught my attention from the opening words:

“A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun. Don’t get too dark, too dark, our mother would remind us as we ambled out into the relentless mid-western light”

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, p.1

From these opening words, we discover that this book is both about the wonders of the natural world like a catalpa’s big leaves or long seed pods, but also the experience of growing up a brown-skinned Filipina in many white-skinned contexts. Yet this comes through with a strong sense of her own uniqueness, her own wonder amid the wonders she sees in the natural world.

She goes on to write of both common and uncommon creatures. She evoked my own memories of catching and releasing fireflies, which sadly, because of pesticides, seem to be declining.

“I know I will search for fireflies all the rest of my days, even though they dwindle a little bit more each. I can’t help it. They blink on and off, a lime glow to the summer night air, as if to say: I am still here, you are still here, I am still here, you are still here, I am, you are, over and over again. Perhaps I can will it to be true. Perhaps I can keep those summer nights with my family inside an empty jam jar, with holes poked in the lid, a twig, and a few strands of grass tucked inside. And for those nights in the future, when I know I’ll miss my mother the most, I will let that jar’s sweet glow serve as a night-light to cool and cut the air for me.”

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, pp. 13-14.

I am searching, at least in memory with her.

In subsequent chapters, she writes of peacocks, comb jellies, narwhals, the curious looking axolotl, the putrid smelling but impressive corpse flower, dragon fruit, flamingoes, doing a bird census with her children, and the Southern Cassowary, one of the only birds who can kill a human being with a swipe of its knife-like talon.

She describes being the new girl in high school in Beavercreek, Ohio, a toney suburb of Dayton. She wished she were like the vampire squid, who ejects a mucous luminescent cloud to evade pursuers. Thankfully, things got much better for her!

What is most surprising is that this woman teaches creative writing but spent one sabbatical studying whale sharks, allowing one to swim just beneath her stomach. She offers both biologically accurate descriptions of the various species of which she writes and her own sense of wonder in her encounters, and the life situations they recall.

All this made me want to pay closer attention to the things I see on my walks, whether bird calls, the bark of trees, the flow of sap in my maples, the skunks that occasionally visit my suburban neighborhood (but not too close), the squirrels racing up and down our lindens, and the fireflies that light up when we sit out on a summer evening. I think this would gladden the author, who laments that 17 of her 21 students had never seen a firefly, not because they are extinct, but because they were indoors on their videogames. She makes me wonder how we will care enough to act to preserve the creation when we do not attend to its wonders enough to not want to lose them.

Review: Cubed: The Puzzle of Us All

Cubed: The Puzzle of Us All, Ernö Rubik. New York: Flatiron Books, 2020.

Summary: A memoir that explores both the role of puzzles in our life, and the creation and afterlife of the eponymous cube that bears the author’s name.

You’ve probably tried to or even succeeded in solving the Cube. I remember when one of these turned up as a Christmas gift to my nephew. He was about the only one who didn’t get much chance to try to solve it that Christmas day. We all took a turn at it, but the real challenge was getting it away from my brother, the logical one in our family. I don’t think any of us solved it that day.

This is the story not only of how this puzzle came into existence, but also on the value of puzzles in our lives. Along the way, we learn a bit about the puzzle’s creator. Ernö Rubik. Rubik is a Hungarian architect who always has loved puzzles from the time he received a 15 puzzle as a child. Not surprisingly for an architect, geometric puzzles always fascinated him.

Rubik believes puzzles are far more than mere diversions:

“Puzzles bring out important qualities in each of us: concentration, curiosity, a sense of play, the eagerness to discover a solution. These are the very same qualities that form the bedrock for all human creativity. Puzzles are not just entertainment or devices for killing time. For us, as for our ancestors, they help point the way to our creative potential. If you are curious, you will find the puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them.”

Rubik talks about his fascination with the nature of the cube, and his movement from a 2x2x2 to a 3x3x3 cube. His account made me think about how the thing works. How is it constructed? How can you turn sides or layers on different axes?. After all that twisting, why doesn’t the whole thing fall apart? Actually early versions using rubber bands did. The main hint Rubik gives us is the cube none of us see in the center. He leaves most of the rest to us.

For a period, the Cube became wildly successful, not only in Hungary but globally. One has the sense that he was blindsided by all the fame. More than that, he discovers that the Cube is something of an altar ego, a “he” with its own existence. He recounts the fascination of children, the gratitude of adults, and the incredible cult of gamers, some who are able to solve it in under five seconds–something Rubik has never been able to do.

He rhapsodizes on the form and functions and colors of the Cube:

“Some objects at first sight are as baffling as assembly directions in Japanese (for those who do not read Japanese), but the Cube in its calm state is dramatically simple. When all the colors are in place, it suggests peace, a sense of order and security. The regularity of its shape, the recurrence of identical forms, the tranquility of the planes, the compactness of the closed form are in sharp contrast to all it means once it is brought to life, when it is in motion and changes.”

Rubik awakens us to not only the joy of puzzles, but also the wonder of the shapes around us. We see them all around us. Rubik reminds us to really look at them, and what it is about us that so fascinates us when we notice the intrigue of the world’s puzzles around us.

Review: A Promised Land

A Promised Land, Barack Obama. New York: Crown Publishing, 2020.

Summary: The first volume of the presidential memoir of Barack Obama, tracing his early life, his entry into politics and rise, his first presidential campaign and first term up to the death of Osama Bin Laden.

I’ve always been a fan of presidential memoirs and biographies. So I had this on order when I heard about its release. I was richly rewarded by the elegant and flowing prose of this first volume of President Barack Obama’s memoirs.

The prose drew me in from the opening words of the first chapter:

“Of all the rooms and halls and landmarks that make up the White House and its grounds, it was the West Colonnade that I loved best.

For eight years that walkway would frame my day, a minute-long, open-air commute from home to office and back again. It was where each morning I felt the first slap of winter wind or pulse of summer heat; the place where I’d gather my thoughts, ticking through the meetings that lay ahead, preparing arguments for skeptical members of Congress or anxious constituents, girding myself for this decision or that slow rolling crisis.”

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, p. 3.

The first volume covers Obama’s early life, his work as a community organizer, meeting Michelle, and his rise in politics in the first seventy-eight pages. The rest in the book in six additional parts covers his presidential campaign and most of the first term up to the Navy Seals mission that resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11.

In the Preface, he sets forth his aim to give an “honest rendering” of his time in office. Certainly, this, along with his presidential papers, will serve as a resource for historians who examine this period. I suspect some will find it more honest than others. I do think he gives a fair account of the financial crisis and recession into which he walked and the stumbles and savvy moves his Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geitner executed that prevented the Great Recession from becoming the second Great Depression. I felt his account of passage of the Affordable Care Act a bit too perfect, slowed only by congressional recalcitrance. Yes, there was that but also things like mandated contraception coverage that violated the freedom of conscience of religious orders and brought major resistance, that is not mentioned.

He also wants to pull back the curtain on the presidency, to describe what it is to be a president. He takes us inside the meetings, the work with his staff, the appointment of people to key posts, like General McChrystal to Afghanistan, and then cleaning up messes like McChrystal’s unguarded and on the record comments to the press. He describes the constant tension between high ideals and realpolitic, as in the events of the Arab Spring and the tension of standing with reliable but corrupt allies and endorsing the democratic hopes of those engaged in the uprisings. Many will continue to debate whether he got that right. He also recounts the planning that developed as intelligence revealed the probable hiding place of Bin Laden, the weighing of options, the decision to send the Navy Seals, and the tense moments as the mission unfolded, with a presidency in the balance.

“Finally,” he writes, “I wanted to tell a more personal story that might inspire young people considering a life of public service: how my career in politics really started with a search for a place to fit in, a way to explain the different strands of my mixed-up heritage, and how it was only by hitching my wagon to something larger than myself that I was ultimately able to locate a community and purpose for my life” (p. xiv). We catch glimpses of conversations with children of color in the U.S and other countries realizing that someone like them could also be president or accomplish other great things. We also see the kids on his daughter’s basketball team he helped coach before encouraged to step back as a perhaps-over-involved parent! He also recounts a moment after the news conference, coupled with the release of his long-form birth certificate, where he put to rest the patently false allegations of the “birthers.” He very simply said to the young people on his communications team, “We’re better than this….Remember that.”

Reading the memoir, one has the sense of being in the presence of someone of both subtle and supple intelligence, disciplined in thought and his work with cabinet officers and staff, one who presses for additional options and asks the hard questions, knowing the buck stopped with him. He acknowledges his own stumbles while praising the people around him. One does sense that while he deeply respected Hilary Clinton, they never developed the closeness he enjoyed with a number of others in his circle.

One of the quite wonderful aspects of this memoir is the evident respect and deep affection for Michelle, Malia, and Sasha. He doesn’t gloss over the differences between him and Michelle on running for the presidency, nor his struggles with the impossibility of a normal life for his daughters. At the same time we gain glimpses both into family dinner times, romps with kids and Bo, the dog given them by Ted Kennedy, and state visits to far flung places like the Kremlin and Rio de Janeiro.

This memoir, for all its detail, was “un-put-downable.” It is not only the flowing prose. While I did not always agree with this president (do we ever?), one gains a sense of the demands, the weight, and the dignity of the office in this narrative. One also has a sense of the high ideals to which this man aspired in public life, from the “Yes We Can” that gave hope that this country is for all its citizens, to an aspiration, not always fulfilled, for a better politics. I look forward to the next volume!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–My First Vote

A voting machine like the one where I cast my first vote. Dsw4, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As I write, over 75 million Americans have cast their vote in the upcoming elections. I plan to vote on Tuesday, November 3. It brings back memories of the first time I vote. Do you remember your first vote?

Mine was on November 7, 1972. Were it not for the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the Constitution in 1971, I would not have been able to vote until 1975. It was only the second year eighteen year-olds could vote and the first time eighteen year-olds could vote in a presidential election. The amendment read:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Twenty-sixth Amendment meant a great deal to our generation. Until the year I came up for the draft, you could be drafted and sent to Vietnam before you ever had a chance to vote for or against the people making those decisions. It seemed only just that those fighting the nation’s wars should be enfranchised to vote.

In 1972 Richard M. Nixon was running against George McGovern. After Kent State, Nixon began winding down the Vietnam war. That year’s draft lottery took place but no one was drafted. This was good news. My lottery number was 12. Nixon won in a landslide.

I don’t discuss how I vote and I won’t here. Both my wife and I grew up in families where we talked politics but believed in the privacy of the ballot box. We didn’t (and still don’t) think it is anyone’s business how we voted.

Earlier in the fall, I went down to the Board of Elections and filled out the form to vote. There were not a lot of different places where you could register to vote back then. It was the Board of Elections or nothing.

Washington School. Source unknown, reproduced from Old Ohio Schools

On voting day, I walked down the street to my former elementary school, Washington Elementary, to vote. I was a student at Youngstown State and came in after my classes. The entrance for voting was off of Oakwood Avenue in the school basement. Years before when I went to school there, I remember watching people go in to vote. Now I was one of them.

There was a bit of a community celebration when I walked in to vote. My mother was one of the poll workers in our Fourth Ward precinct. A few of the others were former customers on my paper route. It was a proud moment all around when I stepped up to sign the poll book and they matched my signature with the one on record. We didn’t have to provide identification back then. It felt like I had passed into adulthood. Our signature was our identification.

The voting machines were these big hulking gray monsters were you flipped levers beside the names of those you were voting for. When you were done, there was a big lever at waist level that you would pull which would register your vote and pull the curtains open. When you pulled that curtain, you knew that you had voted.

Since then I’ve voted numerous times in five different cities. In every presidential election. But also for local and state officials. For levies and ballot issues. It’s not a perfect system. But I’ve known people who either did not have a vote, or it was a formality in an authoritarian regime. I never forget what that first vote meant. In Youngstown.

What was it like for you to vote for the first time? Please, no comments about the current elections. Share your memories but not your political opinions.

Review: Sex and the City of God

Sex and the City of God, Carolyn Weber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A story of how the decision to choose “the city of God” transformed love, sexuality, and relationships for the author.

At first glance, the title of this book feels like a teaser, playing off the title of another book by Candace Bushnell and the popular television series that followed. But the book really is about one woman’s sexuality and how her choice to live as a citizen of the City of God led to a larger vision of love, healing of her relationship with her father, and a deeper understanding of the meaning of her sexuality. Add to that a heart-warming love story told by a gifted writer, and you have a truly great read.

The story begins with the father, hospitalized and near death. In his last years, he had come to faith, and drawn close to his daughter, the author. Her mind flashes back to the absentee father of her childhood, and her seventh birthday party, a picture of her in a dress he bought her, waiting for him to come home. He didn’t come.

The story moves forward to her graduate studies at Oxford, and the summer at home after she had started following Christ. In the background of that story is TDH (Tall, Dark, and Handsome) who had shared with her about God, one of the Christians she’d met with but a remote hope for anything more than a good friendship. Back home is Ben, an ex who shows up. A drive in his truck ends at a summer cabin, interrupted by a knock at the door, and a box of books. In the months ahead, she begins to live into not merely a single, but singular life belonging to Christ, a life oriented around Augustine’s City of God rather than the human city.

Through Bible studies at St. Ebbe’s and reading Augustine, she finds her understanding of sexuality reframed, oddly enough through biblical genealogies. The begotten are not merely part of a human family but the created and adopted family of God:

Sex as the template for genealogy is important because sexuality is a reflection of God’s relationship with us. Our relationship to sex speaks of our relationship to God. And because our relationship to God must precede our relationship with everything else, including our own selves, working from this first relationship changes everything. As a result, more often than not in a culture that neglects our dignity as spiritual beings, pursuing this foundational relationship can feel countercultural, though it is God’s norm, for in becoming children of God we become who he intended us to be (p. 63).

It was not as straightforward path. Many frustrating dating relationships. A tempting episode in another cabin with the heat out. Meanwhile, the conversations continued with TDH, who always treated her and other women with respect, was candid in discussion about his own temptations, and his commitment to a chaste life as a Christian. And then he moved back to the States…

The rest of the story, as they say, is a lovely courtship, and then an honest account of marriage with its ups, downs and temptations (including a writing retreat that turns out a walk through the forest from Ben’s cabin, complete with his truck parked in the drive!).

The story ends as it began, with her father, his last voice message and a reflection on how the choices we make in love may well shape who is with us in our last moments. Along the way, Carolyn Weber’s writing draws us into her life, her longings, her temptations and her struggle with them, her hopes and growing faith. Her writing draws us by her descriptions of scenes and places in which we enter into disappointment, into turmoil, into the cold of the cabin, the wildness of a windstorm, the insistent knocking upon a door. This skillfully written narrative, punctuated with poetry and Augustine, invites us into the the aching wonder of human love shaped by the growing pursuit of the City of God. We are left wondering if God has something better on offer, even when it comes to human sexuality.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.