Review: My Life in the Cleveland Zoo

Life in the Cleveland Zoo

My Life in the Cleveland Zoo, Adam A. Smith with Rob Smith. Huron, OH: Drinian Press, 2014.

Summary: A memoir recounting numerous stories from the author’s years of working at the Cleveland Zoo as a tour train driver, a night watchmen, and a animal keeper with pachyderms.

Most of us who have ever been to a zoo spend most of the time noticing the animals. Rarely do we notice the other creatures in the zoo, the human beings who make the zoo work day in, day out. I found this book, sent to me by the author’s brother Rob and cousin Craig (both former Youngstowners), a fascinating account of the people behind the magic of zoos. It also brought back memories for me of the Cleveland Zoo. We lived in Cleveland for nine years, and I have memories of pushing my son around in a stroller in the mid-1980’s, particularly up and down the hills that are a part of this zoo. One thing. If you were a county resident, you could get in free, at least when we went.

Adam Smith first started working at the Zoo as a college student in the late 1960’s and continued on and off until about 1983. The book recounting these years consists of three parts corresponding to the three jobs Smith held: tour train driver, night watchman, and animal keeper with the pachyderms. Each of the sections is filled with stories of the people, and the animals, that turn driving around and around the zoo, or walking night watchman rounds or mucking out elephant stalls and hippo pools into a combination of riveting adventures or laugh out loud funny accounts–sometimes both.

One aspect of Cleveland culture was the story of going to the teamsters union hall to sign up for the union before starting work, complete with the ripped enforcers guarding the receptionist communicating, “don’t mess with the teamsters.” In the tour train years the funniest story was the great Tour Train Race. Along the way are fun stories of hi-jinks with the concession and ticket girls, and the zoo manager who keeps rehiring him long after college while he sorted out what he wanted to be when he grew up. Time and again, he came back to the zoo after trying a range of other jobs.

Eventually he had the opportunity to work as a night watchman, a full time job. His sketch of John Sich, the longtime watchman who oriented him, fleshed out a person not unlike many of laborers I grew up with Youngstown–a combination of a hunter who loved killing rats, a guy with street smarts (“never punch in early”), and utterly punctual and regular on his rounds. Adam took a very different approach, and the stories of his adventures with the junior rangers who basically slept through the shift or accompanied him in his mouse eradication ventures were hilarious, except for the time when a bow hunter was in the park and killed a deer, and easily could have killed him as well. And there were those frigid winter Cleveland snow storms!

Then the job as an animal keeper turned up on the job postings–and no one signed up. Adam learned that it was because of the feared Simba, an elephant who had attacked and injured several keepers and could easily kill you. What’s more, she was utterly unpredictable. Perhaps one of the most edge-of-the-seat and heart warming stories was when the day came that he either would establish his dominance with Simba, or wash out as a pachyderm keeper. Coached by the diminutive woman head keeper Ellen, he succeeds, followed by the tender moment of rewarding and stroking the once-fearsome Simba. The scarier incidents were actually with the hippos.

For a memoir, this is a long book with a lot of chapters, a lot of stories. In the epilogue, written by the author’s brother Rob, who edited the book posthumously, we learn that this was a much longer book. It seems that Adam Smith was a storyteller, and the truth was that I didn’t mind, because his stories drew me in. At a deeper level, they were stories of camaraderie with other zoo employees, tinged with deep respect for a number of them. They were stories of love for the animals, even the ones that could endanger his life. Finally, it was a narrative that brought back memories of a part of our life I hadn’t thought of for many years.

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Thanks, Craig Smoky Roberts, and Rob Smith for sending me this book. As always, the views are my own, but I do hope they reflect well on your cousin and brother respectively, whose stories far outshine my rendering. His was a good life.

Review: Living in Bonus Time

living in bonus time

Living in Bonus TimeAlec Hill. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: The President Emeritus of InterVarsity/USA recounts his experience of surviving cancer, how he experienced disorientation and growth, and reframed his purpose in life in light of his “bonus time.”

I still remember the day when I opened the video from then President of InterVarsity/USA, Alec Hill, and heard the news that he was stepping down from his position to fight a rare form of cancer, Myelodysplasia Syndrome (MDS) that could take his life within eighteen months. I work for InterVarsity and Alec had energetically led us in fourteen years of growth. He communicated personal concern for us as a couple when my wife faced a cancer diagnosis for us. I was stunned, and joined with thousands of others in prayer for him.

alec hill

Alec Hill

This book describes his journey from that time onward. The first part of this book describes a journey of descent.  A bone marrow donor match was critical to his survival. As it turned out, his brother Grant was an exact match. For Alec, this meant toxic chemo and full body radiation to destroy his white blood cells, while Grant received injection to boost his stem cell production. Hill describes the side effects of this treatment, including the risk that any infection could kill him, requiring isolation from all but his wife Mary, and scrupulous sanitizing of surfaces. He also describes the struggles with depression and the “dark night of the soul” through which he went, and his struggle to hang on to the disciplines that had sustained him in health. He struggled with why this had happened to him. Had he done something to cause it? He warns against the prosperity preaching and false messengers who unhelpfully approached him. And when the treatment worked and his blood counts rose and health returned while friends in treatment died, he wrestled with survivors guilt.

The second part of the books focuses Hill’s transition to new realities as he realizes that he is among those who survive cancer. He describes the lessons of control–over-control like that of Steve Jobs, who thought he could out-think pancreatic cancer, or under-control, which becomes passive in the face of cancer. He recognizes that appropriate control involves humility, trust, gratitude, and rest. Cancer forced him to learn dependence on others–family, friends, professional caregivers, and other cancer patients. In this section, he also discusses the challenges caregivers face and the needs caregivers have for self-care. Perhaps the most significant chapter in this book was his one on identity. He talks frankly about the experiences he faced in self-perception, bodily changes including those affecting sexuality, social roles and spiritual identity. He writes:

Cancer is a watershed event that divides our lives between BC (before cancer) and AD (after diagnosis). If given a choice between our BC and AD selves–what we look like, how we feel, how we perceive others regard us–most of us would gladly select the former.

The final part of the book describes how Hill came to terms with “bonus time” (a phrase he draws from soccer, where at the end of regulation time, the referee can extend the play with bonus time. He identifies how survivors often show growth in grit, spirituality, and boldness (e.g. why am I afraid what people think when I’ve had cancer?). Surviving cancer can lead to a clarifying of purpose as one faces one’s mortality. He proposes that clarified purpose comes through surrender of control to reliance on God, assessment of our responsibilities, resources, capabilities and calling, and attentiveness that requires slowing down. For Hill, it meant a shift from executive leadership in a fast-paced collegiate ministry to the thoughtful mentoring of young leaders. He concludes with a pair of chapters on redeeming the time and on wonder that get to the most important aspects of bonus time–savoring one’s life, loving, living freely, giving of himself, and delighting in wonder.

No two cancers are alike. Neither are cancer journeys, some of which end one’s life and some that pass through the valley of the shadow of death into survivorhood. One thing that is true is that one is not the same–physically, emotionally, mentally. There are bodily changes, fears of recurrence and survivor guilt, and chemo brain. But there are also the opportunities of additional years of life and the question of how one will live those years. Alec Hill has given an incredibly honest, but also life affirming account of his journey. He takes us through his process in the hope that it will be helpful to others. In this, he practices something he learned through cancer–no one survives alone, but rather with a host of others who walk with one on the way–including other survivors. He supplements his own story with those of others, questions and scriptures for reflection, and a helpful bibliography organized around chapter topics.

This is a wonderful resource for cancer survivors and caregivers. It should be noted that Hill’s Christian faith pervades this memoir, not in a preachy way, but rather as what sustained him and helped him as he clarified what life in the bonus time of surviving cancer would look like. Hill’s aim is not that people imitate him, but rather through his reflection questions and insights, discern their own paths in “bonus time.”

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

Review: Brave New Medicine

brave new medicine

Brave New MedicineCynthia Li, MD. Oakland: Reveal Press, 2019.

Summary: When a physician trained in internal medicine experiences a debilitating autoimmune illness that the medical establishment couldn’t heal, she pursues a journey addressing both body and mind that allow her body to heal.

Cynthia Li was proud of her training in medicine. After surviving a tragic loss, she marries David and begins a family. And with the birth of her first child her own health begins to unravel because of an autoimmune illness beginning with her thyroid, an illness where her immune system attacked her body–a racing heart, sleeplessness, loss of energy and a host of other symptoms that left her unable to get off the couch. She had become the “difficult patient.” There seemed to be neither cause nor remedy that doctors who shared her training could find. She struggled through a second pregnancy, with tensions in the marriage growing.

The book traces her journey toward healing that began with asking a new question, “how to get off the couch?” She began with her sleeplessness by addressing her daily rhythms and sleep rituals. She gives herself permission to receive and become part of a community of support. She discovers the importance of daily doses of nature. She recognizes that toxins in her home and her body can contribute to inflammatory responses and takes steps to detoxify. She learns to pay attention to intuition for what to work on next. She discovers the connection between mental states and gene expression and learns the importance of moving from flight or fight stress to “rest and digest” states that heal rather than inflame tissue.

Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters was the one on learning to inhabit your body. She recognizes how we are often disconnected and out of touch with our own bodies. She found a great deal of help through meditative techniques, qiqong practice, and acupuncture to harness and release the power of qi. She mentions in passing weird occurrences in her home as she was engaged in these practices, and this raised a red flag for me. As a Christian, I believe in a God in whom we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and in whose presence and power we are strengthened both spiritually and bodily. I also believe there are influences not of God that may be malign. I think there is a larger conversation to be had about mind-body meditative practices than can be had in this review, and the need for spiritual discernment in their practice. None of this is to question the experience of Dr. Li, nor the importance of reconnecting mind and body.

She also discovered what many are discovering–that our gut health, the biological mix of organisms in our intestinal tract–can be out of whack.  She practiced and proposed a 30 day reset diet and ongoing dietary practices to address this. She found the importance of breaking old habits that no longer serve one well. It has often been said that “laughter is the best medicine” and she discovered how important play and laughter are in improving our immune function. She started investigating hidden root causes behind chronic conditions, especially food allergies and stealth infections like the Epstein-Barr virus. Having experienced loss, she learned how to “bring grief out of the shadows.” Finally, she learned that in coming out of chronic illness, it was important to reclaim one’s purpose and find and tell one’s story.

She summarizes this journey in fifteen steps of “how to get off the couch.” After the narrative, she includes a section with practical advice and websites for following the fifteen steps, practices she has now integrated into her own medical practice.

This work is a gentle but powerful critique of Western medical practice. She notes the pressure of fifteen minute patient visits, the shortcuts taken in listening to patient histories that may ignore childhood traumas and family histories that may be at the root of health problems, the over-reliance on lab panels that can come back normal even when there are real problems.  She observes the neglect of the factors learned in medical school that contribute over time to disease and our definitions of “health,” our neglect of the connections between mind and body, and the importance of seeing patients as whole people, and the importance of what our bodies are exposed to and what we put in them.

More importantly, Cynthia Li articulates a whole-life approach to health, nearly all of which happens outside doctors offices. It addresses how we eat, sleep, work, and play, and the environments within which we live, and our relationships with other human beings. Her book reminds us that before what we do, we are human be-ings. She explores how we “be” healthy, something no doctor may do for us, but can only do with us.

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Disclaimer: This review, like the book, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, which if needed, should be sought from a trained professional.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

 

Review: A Life of Listening

a life of listening

A Life of ListeningLeighton Ford. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: A memoir in which Ford sums up his life as one of listening for God’s voice, and the unique voice of his own he discovered as he did so.

I have been listening to Leighton Ford most of my life. As a young boy, I heard him preach on The Hour of Decision on occasions when Billy Graham was not on the broadcast. As a college student, I participated as a counselor in a crusade he led in Youngstown. Even then, his voice was different from Billy Graham, quieter, rich with cultural and spiritual insight. I was moved by his account of the death of his son Sandy, a parent’s worst nightmare, and how he went on with God afterward. I saw a turn in his ministry as he focused on leadership and found his book Transforming Leadership deeply helpful as a rising leader. Much later, as I found myself giving increasing attention to the inner journey, his book, The Attentive Life, captured for me what seems the connecting point between those who love God and love learning, the practice of attentiveness. Now, as I think of this question of what it means to finish well in Christ, comes this memoir, in which Ford looks back and sums up a journey of listening to God.

In the Introduction to the book, he describes his youthful response to the call of Jesus after listening to a retired missionary and a college student speak of Jesus:

   I was five then. Now, eighty plus years later, I can barely recall the voices and face of that missionary lady and that college student, but I know that through them I heard another Voice calling me, a voice I have been listening for ever since. So I write my listening story not because it is a perfect story or one to emulate but as a testament to the power of listening for the voice of my Lord.

The narrative traces this listening story from the early years as the adopted son of Charles and Olive Ford. Olive was the one who first taught him to read scripture and pray and took him to the Keswick conference where he responded to the voice of Jesus. He describes his teen years as he struggles to differentiate the voice of Jesus from Olive’s strong, controlling, and protective voice. He narrates his first encounter with Billy Graham at a Youth for Christ rally he had organized, and how, amid discouraging results, Graham encouraged him, encouraging his own response to the growing sense of God’s call to preach.

Graham also told his sister Jean about Leighton, and when they went to Wheaton, they eventually began dating, and in a decisive break with Olive, who disapproved, married Jean. The following years were one’s under Graham’s mentorship, first as an associate accompanying him and sharing some of the preaching, and then forming his own team and booking his own crusades as part of the Graham organization.

He describes the shift in his own ministry as he increasingly included social advocacy and outreach in his crusades, began discovering his inner life as he wrestled with depression,  and met his birth mother and understood more deeply the pulls in his life between the sense of loss and longing represented in his birth mother, and the impulse to separate Olive’s voice from the voice that was calling him. Then came the devastating death of his son Sandy, and the discovery of “places in our hearts we don’t even know are there until our hearts are broken.” His preaching was changing, and it became apparent, first to Billy Graham, and then him, that it was time to part ways organizationally, a move that actually deepened their friendship, and collaboration on things such as the Lausanne Consultation on World Evangelization.

The last part of the book covers the period from his fifties until the present as he embarks on what Susan Howatch called “the second journey.”  He learns both to listen more deeply for the Lord’s voice and to find his own. He recounts the several year journey to developing a new ministry focus on developing rising leaders and evangelists. His last chapters explore the anamcharas through whom the voice often comes, his growing appreciation of beauty and hearing God’s voice as he took up art, and the distinguishing character of God’s voice and how it comes.

No two lives are alike, no two paths the same. Yet, at least for me, listening to those who have been listening to the Voice of the Master is a rich source of wisdom. Such is this book by Leighton Ford; not a substitute for listening to the only Voice who can lead us safe home, but as sage counsel for how to recognize the only true Voice from the many competing for our attention.

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

Review: Bookmarked

bookmarked

Bookmarked: Reading My Way from Hollywood to BrooklynWendy W. Fairey. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015.

Summary: A literature professor who is the daughter of a famous Hollywood columnist writes a memoir interweaving her life with significant books and characters.

“I want to write of the private stories that lie behind our reading of books, taking my own trajectory through English literature as the history I know best but proposing a way of thinking about literature that I believe is every reader’s process. We bring ourselves with all our aspirations and wounds, affinities and aversions, insights and confusions to the books we read, and our experience shapes our response.”

In Bookmarked, Wendy W. Fairey draws upon her own life, both experienced and in books, as an illustration of this thesis. The daughter of famous Hollywood columnist Sheila Graham, she grew up in a home with one of many Graham’s lovers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who selected books for Graham, a “College of One.” Reading through Fitzgerald’s books started her on a lifelong journey with books, books that helped make sense of her life.

In David Copperfield, she sees in brutal Mr. Murdstone the violent male paralleling “Bow Wow,” one of her mother’s lovers. She takes us through Jane Eyre and Vanity FairDaniel Deronda, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Henry James The Portrait of a Lady, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Forster’s Passage to India, and more recent authors from India.

She intertwines four themes from these various books, also paralleling her life–the orphan, the new woman, the artist, and the immigrant. As she does so, she traces her own discoveries that her mother was a Jewish orphan (not unlike Daniel Deronda) and that her true father was British philosopher A.J. Ayer. She takes us through the ups and downs of her marriage to Donald Fairey, her own self-discovery as a woman in academia, and her love affair and eventual marriage to Mary Edith Mardis. She reflects on Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse as well as “Tonio Kroger” in Thomas Mann as she recalls her affair with Ezio Tarantelli. She considers the immigrant experience as she recounts her travels in India and growing familiarity with Indian, ex-pat Indian, and Indian-American writers.

As we read, we listen to a skilled literature professor critically reflect on issues of class and gender, even as she also considers her own life. We read someone who both thoughtfully engages books on their own terms, and yet not in a way detached from her life. She both reads these books with her life, and in some respects, finds the books reading her.

At times I wondered if all of this might be considered a bit self-indulgent. And then I reflected on the self-indulgence that is reading–an exercise in which we both lose ourselves, and sometimes find ourselves as well, making sense of ourselves, our lives as we have lived them thus far, and perhaps making some sense of our world. Isn’t this, as she contends, “every reader’s process”?

The book made me wonder what books I would use in narrating my life. It clearly would be a different shelf of books than the author’s. But I have no question that there were books that resonated with my experiences, and others that served to shape and crystallize my understanding of the world. It is an exercise I would like to pursue further as time allows.

 

Review: What You Take With You

What you take with you

What You Take With YouTherese Greenwood. Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 2019.

Summary: Therese Greenwood had minutes to evacuate her home as the Fort McMurray fire approached. The book recounts both her escape, and reflects on what she took, and what this revealed about her life.

A wildfire is rapidly approaching. Floodwaters are rising around you and you have minutes to escape. Thousands of people face this every year. Sometimes we idly think of what we would take if we only had minutes to flee our home. Therese Greenwood, who always feared she would die in a fire had such thoughts as well. She even worked in with an emergency preparedness organization for a time. And then she found out what she would really take when the order came to evacuate her neighborhood as the Fort McMurray fire bore down on her subdivision.

This book is both an account of her flight and a reflection on the articles she rescued and what her spur-of-the-moment choices told her about her life. Of course she had her “go bag” prepared that contained insurance policies and other important papers. These would prove necessary in the days ahead. It is what else she took that was revealing.

Her description of the drive to pick up her husband captures the rising fear many must have felt, sitting in traffic jams, smoke all around, windows rolled up (and air conditioning failing), watching the gas gauge creep toward empty. She reaches Steve in an empty downtown office building as flames appear in the distant hills. Eventually they end up in Edmonton, staying in a hotel with many other evacuees, hitting the Walmart for the necessities they left behind, waiting anxiously to find out whether they would have a home to return to. Steve later watches a video of someone driving through the neighborhood. Houses on one side of the street are still standing. Those on the others are gone, a crater where a house once was. Their home was on that side of the street. Greenwood’s narrative captures what is like for evacuees who have lost everything, and the challenge a community faces when thousands have lost their homes.

There are many such stories. What distinguishes Greenwood’s is its reflection on what she had saved from the fire–a rolling pin, a plaster saint, sleigh bells, a Bible and a bee book, a special needlepoint, her father’s musical instruments, an unusual mirror that was a wedding gift, a quilt and an award. Each reflects a chapter of her life and reflected something that endured that was ineluctably hers amid all the loss.

It isn’t all fear and thoughtful reflection. One of the striking parts of the book was her relationship with Hudson, A.K.A. “Big Stinky Dog,” a high maintenance, smelly old dog owned by her husband’s parents, who they stayed with for a time, a time that coincided with Steve’s mother’s death. Steve’s  dad Ray had to leave for a time, and Therese ended up caring for Big Stinky Dog, and found herself refusing a suggestion to put the dog down.

Many of us live in homes made comfortable with the accumulations of years, perhaps carried on one move to the next. This book asks the question of what would we choose when our choices are stripped bare and we act on instincts that reflect our subconscious sense of what may matter most deeply. It explores the lives we forge, the places where we define identity, the people who are dearest in life and memory, reflected in what we take, and in what is left of us when we’ve had to leave most of our “stuff” behind.

One of the greatest treasures in life may be to understand both where we have come from and who we have come to be. It seems that Therese’s reflections gave her some of those insights. Perhaps reading and reflecting with her might do the same for us.

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

Review: Working

Working

Working: Researching, Interviewing, WritingRobert A. Caro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

Summary: Less a full biographical memoir than a description of the author’s methods of researching material for his books, writing them, and the question that has driven his work.

It seems that I have been reading one of Robert A. Caro’s books from time to time since I moved to my current home town nearly thirty years ago. He has been writing them even longer. The four volumes in print of his Years of Lyndon Johnson. His massive The Power Broker on the life and pervasive influence of Robert Moses on the city of New York and Long Island to this day. He is currently at work finishing the fifth, and hopefully final, volume on the presidency and post-presidency of Lyndon Johnson. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his work on Robert Moses, and one for one of the Johnson volumes, and just about every other major book award.

In contrast to his massive volumes, Working is a thin and pithy piece of writing in which Carol describes his process, and the question that has driven all his work. From his days as an investigative reporter for Newsday, he had a passion for discovering and explaining to people how things worked in government. That led to the realization that to explain this, you had to understand how power worked. Robert Moses, a figure who never held elective office and yet who probably displaced a half million people for his freeway projects through New York, who created parks for the people of the city and roads to connect them, taught him how power worked. Then to understand the exercise of political power by elected officials, he set his sights on Lyndon Johnson, who rose from the hill country of west Texas to the White House. Along the way, he gained a mastery of legislative processes and control over the Senate and his party that has not been seen before or since.

Such figures do not give up their secrets easily, if at all. Much of Caro’s books describe his exhaustive research methods, driven by his curiosity and instincts to get the whole story. One of his early mentors told him to “turn every page.” As he did this with Johnson, he discovered a notable change of pattern in the young congressman courteously seeking favor of others, to those others, even senior figures, seeking his attention. More careful page turning isolates the turning point to October 1940. More sleuthing in files pulled out of his House archives uncovered correspondence that indicated he had become the conduit for major campaign donations from a Texas fir, Brown and Root. And so Johnson began to accumulate power.

Part of his research was to see the things of which he was writing, and invite those who he was interviewing to the site of events to describe not only what happened but to describe the scene so he could see it. Soon, memories would flow, and Caro, could then write about events so that his readers could see them. To understand Johnson’s youth and gain the trust of area residents he wanted to interview, he and his wife Ina moved to the Hill Country of Johnson’s youth for several years. He describes movingly what it was like for Rebekah Johnson, Lyndon’s mother, to live in a house out of sight of any others as night fell on the Hill Country.

He describes his determination to get to the bottom of the question of whether Johnson stole his 1948 election to the Senate, won by a razor thin margin with the ballots of “Box 13” in Jim Wells County. His research took him to Luis Salas, who he tracked for years, who finally entrusted him with a manuscript that provided the evidence that the election had indeed been stolen. He recounts in interviews the times he “had the story” and yet sensed there was more and dared to ask one more question, and discovered there was more.

In addition to describing how he researched, how he interviewed, recounting a number of those interviews, he describes his writing process. Someone has said there is no good writing, only re-writing. Caro is proof of that, moving from longhand manuscripts to typewritten copy marked up and re-typed, to corrections throughout the publishing process. He admits he would re-write the finished books if he could.

And now I understood how it has taken him fifty years to write those books, and still not be done with Johnson. He gives us an inside glimpse into what it takes to create these magisterial works: curiosity, diligence in the archives, dogged persistence in the interviews, working and re-working the material to get it right.

With investigative journalism struggling for its life, I concluded the book wondering whether I was reading the narrative of some of the last of a breed. It seems this is an important question because of the larger vision that drives Caro. The book ends with a 2016 interview in The Paris Review. The interviewer has observed that Caro hopes “the books serve a larger civic purpose.” Caro replies:

   Well, you always hope something. OI think the more light that can be thrown on the actual processes we’re voting about, the better. We live in a democracy, so ultimately, even despite a Robert Moses, a lot of political power comes from our votes. The more we understand about the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will be. And then, presumably, in some very diffuse, very inchoate way, the better our country will be.

We need investigators like Caro to throw light on processes. Will we find ways to continue to mentor and support them and offer them platforms from which to shine their light? And when they do, will we pay them any heed? One thing Caro is right about. Our democracy depends on it.

Review: The Way Home

The Way Home.jpg

The Way Home: Tales of a Life Without Technology, Mark Boyle. London: Oneworld Publications, (Forthcoming in the US, June 11) 2019.

Summary: A narrative of a year without modern technology, and what it is like to live more directly and in rhythm with the immediate world of the author’s smallholding and community.

“It was 11pm when I checked my email for the last time and turned off my phone for what I hoped would be forever strong. No running water, no car, no electricity or any of the things it powers: the internet, phone, washing machine, radio or light bulb. Just a wooden cabin, on a smallholding, by the edge of a stand of spruce.”

In 1925, only half the homes in the United States had electricity, which first was delivered to the public by Thomas Edison in 1882 in New York City. It is now hard for us to imagine a world whose technology is not powered by this source, or by carbon-based fuels. Most fundamentally, we relied mostly on the sun for light, with fires, oil lamps, and candles running a poor second. Mostly, when it got dark, people went to bed. Heat came from wood. Water came from springs or wells, was hand-pumped or carried. We wrote with pen or pencil and ink and communicated either face to face or by letter carried by the postal service. Most homes did not have indoor plumbing and provision had to be made for the disposal of waste. Much of one’s food was grown or raised either on one’s own property or locally or secured by hunting and fishing and preserved without refrigerators. Significant labor was involved in washing one’s clothes or one’s self. One’s community was those in walking distance or within a reasonable ride on horseback.

It was to this kind of existence that Mark Boyle decided to return and this book, the narrative of his first year living that kind of existence with his partner, Kirsty. Boyle doesn’t abandon all technology, but rather technology powered by anything other than his own energy, or the heat of a wood fire. What one is struck with on immediate reading is that this is hard, sometimes back-breaking and slow work that often takes up most of the author’s days. It often involves re-learning skills that were once common knowledge, but that have been all but loss, whether that be starting a fire by hand or fishing for pike in a local lake or preserving venison. It gets into the nitty-gritty of our existence, such as turning one’s own waste safely into compost.

Why does he do this? He recites a number of ecological and socio-cultural reasons, but the most critical reasons are ones of existential meaning:

“…I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of life again. I wanted to feel the elements in their enormity, to strip away the nonsense and lick the bare bones of existence clean. I wanted to know intimacy, friendship and community, and not just the things that pass for them. I wanted to search for truth to see if it existed and, if it didn’t, to at least find something closer to my own. I wanted to feel cold and hunger and fear. I wanted to live, and not merely exhibit the signs of life…”

One has the sense in reading this work that the author does find many of these things, most essentially how his life is intimately connected with the world around him, whether it is the stand of spruce nearby, or the pike he holds in his hand after catching it, that gives up its life to sustain his. He eyes his growing woodpile and food put up for the winter and realizes that these things represent his ability to live into another growing season. He explores the complexities of simplicity, and the complexities we avoid in our technologically simplified lives.

Boyle previously lived for a year without cash, and the cashless life figures significantly here as well. It is not a barter economy but rather communal exchanges: berries for wine, labor for food. Often it is not reciprocal, but rather a community where people help each other, and often “pay it forward.” One senses in the course of the year that his virtual community withers away, as few take the time to put pen to paper, but that he builds bonds with neighbors like Packie, musicians at the local pub, his mail carrier, and others in nearby communities. Even while the experiment goes on, the encroachments of technology continue: local post offices and pubs close, and land is cleared for agro-businesses.

Interspersed in his own narrative of the practicalities of his life and his reflections upon it is a narrative of Great Blasket Island, once a self-sufficient island but now deserted with the advent of modern technology. The island stands as a mute symbol of a former way of life.

I did not find this modern-day Thoreau so much making a statement as holding up a mirror to a world where the boundaries of human and electrically-driven technology are becoming increasingly porous, and asking, is this really a life well-lived? While I suspect that most who read his book won’t embrace the same life he did (in the end, even Kirsty does not), his narrative invites us to ask what kind of life we are embracing, and is it truly life-giving? How are our minds and bodies and communities being shaped by our advancing technology? How in touch are we with our elemental connection with the earth from which we come and to which we will return? It seems that for each of us, asking these questions are important for finding “the way home.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this advanced review copy from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: In This World of Wonders

NW

In This World of WondersNicholas Wolterstorff. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: A memoir tracing vignettes of the different periods of the author’s life from childhood in rural Minnesota to a career in higher education in which he was instrumental in leading a movement of Christians in philosophy.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, along with Alvin Plantinga, is a leader of a movement of Christians who have thoughtfully engaged the academic discipline of philosophy, including forming the Society of Christian Philosophers. His teaching career included permanent academic positions at Calvin College and Yale University as well as visiting professorships at a number of universities including Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Notre Dame, the Free University of Amsterdam, and the University of Virginia. His academic works have included publications on aesthetics, Reformed epistemology, justice and political philosophy, metaphysics, and the philosophy of education.

His memoir is composed of “vignettes,” from the different periods of his life. He begins with his roots in rural Minnesota, the loss of his mother, the family dinner table that anticipated philosophical discussions, and the opening vistas provided by his education in a Christian high school. He traces his educational journey through Calvin College, and the influence of Harry Jellema and Henry Stob, his marriage to Claire Kingma, and his graduate education in philosophy at Harvard. He chronicles his early teaching experiences at Yale, including an embarrassing class he offered at a nearby prison. Much of his career was spent at Calvin College, and he recounts his friendship with Alvin Plantinga, and the turbulent times of the sixties and the seventies. He also recounts a fascinating consulting assignment with Herman Miller, manufacturer of the famous Eames chair, and the questions about aesthetics Max DePree and others asked, rooted both in Christian conviction and a concerned for excellent craft.

He recounts his “awakenings,” including his rejection of foundationalism for a Reformed epistemology that contends that there are certain beliefs, for example concerning the existence of God, that are properly basic. In Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, Wolterstorff elaborated these ideas. He traces his exploration of aesthetics, a growing concern for justice in his encounters with South Africans, Palestinians, and Hondurans, and his developing ideas of a philosophy of education, all subjects on which he wrote.

The most poignant part of the book is his narrative of the loss of his eldest son, Eric, in a mountain-climbing accident. He describes the writing of Lament for a Son, and admits both that he cannot make sense of what God was up to in such a loss, and yet that he cannot give up on a God who he believes performs the cosmos. Personally, I found this one of the most compelling discussions of the nature of grief and the profound questions it raises in anything I have read.

His narrative of Amsterdam brings out his love of architecture and well made objects, including chairs. It was clear throughout that Wolterstorff not merely writes about aesthetics–he loves beauty in both the creations of God including flowering gardens and in the creations of good craft on the part of human beings.

The final parts of the book include his later years at Yale, his retirement and visiting appointments, his life in Grand Rapids, and his family. A thread here that comes up throughout is that he is a lifelong churchman of the Christian Reformed denomination. Not only has the legacy of Calvin and Kuyper shaped his philosophy, but also the liturgy of the church shaped and formed his life, another subject on which he later wrote in a book on liturgical theology, in which he explored the understanding of God implicit in our liturgy.

This memoir is a wonderful example someone who has lived the life of a scholar Christian, one whose faith serves to draw together all the threads of his life, including a rich marriage and family life, enabling him to see and rejoice in worlds of wonder, and whose faith shapes his engagement with his chosen discipline of study, philosophy. Anyone who has read the resulting scholarship, and particularly his books, will find this memoir a fascinating journey describing how he came to write these works. Most of all, he captures so much of what is best in scholarly work, endangered by the corporatization of higher education. He writes:

“What do I love about thinking philosophically? I love both the understanding that results from it and the process of achieving the understanding. Sometimes the understanding comes easily, as when I read some philosophical text that I find convincing and illuminating. But often it comes after struggle and frustration. My attention has been drawn to something I do not understand, which makes me baffled and perplexed. Questions come to mind that I cannot answer. I love both the struggle to understand and the understanding itself–if it comes. The love of understanding and the love of achieving that understanding are what motivate and energize my practice of philosophy. For me, practicing philosophy is love in action” (p. 105).

I think this describes what motivates many scholars. This is a great book to read for anyone who aspires to such a life, or for anyone who wants to understand those who engage in scholarly work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Clingan’s Chronicles

Clingan's Chronicles

Clingan’s Chronicles, Clingan Jackson. Youngstown: Youngstown Publishing Co., 1991.

Summary: A memoir of Youngstown political writer and office holder, Clingan Jackson.

Clingan Jackson was a newswriter, and later political editor of The Vindicator, Youngstown’s newspaper from 1929 until 1983. His life spanned most of the twentieth century (1907 to 1997), and this memoir, published six years before his death chronicles not only his life, but nearly a century of local and political history in Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley. As you can imagine, covering political life in the Mahoning Valley makes for an interesting narrative!

Jackson actually begins his account with family history of both the Clingans and the Jacksons that make up his lineage and how they came to Coitsville Township, what eventually became part of the East side of Youngstown. We learn about the family homestead on Jacobs Road (still standing) and how they were among the early settlers of the area. During part of his youth, his immediate family moved to Carbon, Pennsylvania, just across the state line, while he attended Lowellville High School in Ohio, holding his first political office as class president of his class of fifteen.

He spent his college years at the University of Colorado in Boulder, majoring in English and History, good preparation for a political writer. He describes the typical experiences both of learning and social fraternities, and the highlight of hearing Will Rogers speak. Reading this narrative, one senses he sought in his own writing to be a commentator on politics in the vein of Rogers.

After graduation, he returned to Youngstown in 1929, and almost immediately hired on with The Vindicator. At the end of 1929, he received notice that his job was ending, but when he went to turn in his key, the publisher let him stay on until he found another job. He ended up staying fifty-four years.  His account of covering The Little Steel Strike of 1937 was one of the most riveting parts of the book. Here is a portion:

“Ed Salt, a Vindicator photographer, and I were dispatched to Poland Avenue to cover the tense situation. It was growing dark by that time, lights were being shot out and hundreds of men were milling along the street. We parked near the fire station and started walking down the sidewalk. As we passed by a bush, we saw its leaves completely eliminated as a shotgun blast rang out. Being a brave man, I went back to the fire station; needing to take pictures, Salt pushed onward.

When I arrived at the station someone exclaimed, ‘Salt has been shot.’ Mustering my courage, I went to his rescue, and found him with his white shirt completely bloodied. I got him into the car, and we headed up Poland Avenue. Although the street was barricaded, I persuaded the pickets to let the car through by explaining I had a passenger who needed to go to the hospital.”

His tenure as political editor spanned the presidencies from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. Perhaps one of the little known facts about Jackson that came out in the book was that he was a pioneer in political polling and his polls more often than not were right on the money. The Gallup organization consulted with him on his methods. His book narrates his coverage of a number of the national political conventions during these years as well as the local politics of Youngstown, and particularly its shift over time to a Democrat Party-dominated town. We meet both office-holders and party leaders, including John Vitullo who helped lead the Democrats to their ascendancy.

One of the unique aspects of Jackson’s career is that he both covered politics and held office at the same time, and satisfied his publisher with his ability to impartially cover politics. He held office as a city council person in Lowellville, and state representative and senator. Later, he was appointed to a number of state commissions. His career was distinguished by introducing the first strip-mining act, helping create the state Department of Natural Resources, and participating in commissions that laid out the state’s interstate highways and later, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. As he writes about his various association with both Democrat and Republican governors and other leaders, one has the sense that he, like Hubert Humphrey, was a “happy warrior,” far removed from the partisan vitriol of the present day.

His final chapters reflect back over his career, his retired life (although he continued contributing articles for the Youngstown-Warren Business Journal into the 1990), and his three marriages. Though aware of his own failings, what makes this part of the book quite wonderful is the deep joy and gratitude evident as he thinks of his times, his acceptance of his own mortality, and his thankfulness for each of his wives, two of whom pre-deceased him. He wrote of his three wives, “Good fortune is a necessary element of most any man’s success, and mine was having three farm girls for wives.”

The book includes a number of photographs of his life, surroundings, and of the people and places of Youngstown. Between each chapter are columns he wrote between the 1950’s and the 1990’s.

The voice in this memoir is warm and personal and has the feeling of a transcription of oral history. It strikes me that his book is a memoir of what might be looked back upon as a golden age of journalism, politics, and perhaps, the Mahoning Valley. People interested in any of these subjects will enjoy his account.

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Although published in 1991, I learned that new copies of the book may be purchased by contacting The Business Journal (the last publication Jackson wrote for) at 330-744-5023 Ext. 1008, asking for Eileen Lovell. Cost is $20 plus sales tax.