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.

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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: The Long Night

The Long Night: Readings and Stories to Help You through Depression, Jessica Kantrowitz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2020.

Summary: Short readings and personal narratives reflecting the author’s experience with depression, both honest and hopeful.

I’m an odd person to review a book on depression. This just has not been my experience. I tend toward an even temper, and although I’ve experienced real setbacks and discouragement, I can’t honestly say I’ve experienced the “long night” of which the author writes. A book on obsessive compulsive disorder would probably be more in my neighborhood.

But I’ve known people who have lived through depression. In more than one instance, I didn’t see it at the time. In some instances, they didn’t initially either. In the general population roughly 6.7 percent of all people experience symptoms of depression at any given time (about 16.2 million in the US). Globally, the WHO estimates that 300 million experience depression (from this article on Healthline). Inside Higher Ed indicates that among graduate students, a population I have worked with, the numbers may be higher. One study found up to 39 percent scored in the moderate to severe range of depression.

All of this is what makes this book so valuable, whether you are experiencing depression, know someone who is, or, like me, was pretty clueless when it came to recognizing symptoms of depression. Jessica Kantrowitz gives us an honest account of her own experience through depression. She doesn’t offer promises of healing or “six steps out of depression.” She offers herself as a companion to those walking in the pain and darkness of depression. She doesn’t offer answers, but shares her own questions and how she has struggled with them.

She describes her own experience with episodes of depression, sometimes so bad she could not get out of bed. She describes the migraines that accompanied her depression, quitting a ministry job because she just couldn’t turn around her work performance quickly enough. She described the companions who helped her, the friends who simply listened, said “That sucks,” and stayed. She tells us about trying as hard as she could, and of those who stuck with her through barely incremental progress punctuated with setbacks. She describes other companions, writers like Henri Nouwen and Frederick Buechner, whose writings helped.

She narrates learning new prayer practices that involved the body and practices of centering prayer, that instead of suppressing emotions or distractions allowed her to notice them and learn to let them go, like clouds passing overhead. She tells us about leaving an unhelpful community and finding a new one, as well as a number of fellow travelers online. She names some of the ways depression lies and distorts reality. She talks frankly about suicide and what it takes to love someone in the pain of depression.

There is so much of value for those who haven’t been through depression. Kantrowitz helps us understand how much it hurts. She invites us to see how those in the midst of depression are “doing their best” to get out and the long process of dealing with medications, food, exercise, sleep (which often is a problem), and so much more, what she calls learning healthy coping mechanisms. From her own experience we learn that the way to help is to listen, to pray, to empathize, but no advice. Our best present is simply to be present.

At the same time, this is a book of hope. Not quick fixes, but the growing awareness that God accepts us in weakness, and that we are not alone in the dark night. There is the hope of becoming more truly and fully human and oneself in the process. She offers hope that it will not always be this way against depression’s lie that it always will. A quote on the book’s cover says, “You are not alone, and this will not last forever.”

The hope offered seems to be that one may live with and grow through depression. She suggests resources to help and offers in herself the hope of finding companions on the journey. Not sermons but stories. Not cures but companionship. Not happy thoughts but hope toward the dawning light.

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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: 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.