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City girl at heart, but raised in the 'burbs. After 27 years in NYC, it was time to try something else. Living for family, friends, and adventures in the midwest.

Leslie Goddard Interprets 10 Famous Illinoisans

Leslie Goddard

Leslie Goddard

The Levy Lecture Series held its final lecture of the spring season on June 11, when Leslie Goddard spoke to the crowd at the Levy Senior Center about “Ten People from Illinois Who Changed History.”

Dr. Goddard prefaced her talk by stating Abraham Lincoln was such an obvious candidate that she would examine people from history in addition to our country’s 16th president.

The trailblazers she discussed were all leaders and innovators in their chosen fields, but their areas of expertise shared little in common. What piqued her interest was exploring how living in Illinois influenced these visionaries.

First were inventors who changed how people spend their leisure time, work, eat and shop.

Walt Disney, born in Chicago in 1901, invented Mickey Mouse and the concept of theme parks, and forever redefined family entertainment.

John Deere, a blacksmith who moved to Grand Detour in his 30s, manufactured innovative, ready-made farm equipment and transformed the business of farming around the world.

Ray Kroc, the genius behind McDonald’s, grew up in Oak Park. He brought the idea of consistent predictability to food and the dining experience.

Charles Walgreen, born in Knoxville, embraced innovation and fast delivery with his drug stores. One of those innovations was selling malted milkshakes in his stores, which became so popular that lines formed outside each one.

Another group included politicians and social reformers who influenced political consciences.

Jane Addams, peace activist and America’s first social worker, catered to her clients at Chicago’s Hull House Settlement.

Barack Obama, the nation’s 44th president, who campaigned on the promise of hope and change, worked in Chicago as a community organizer, taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School and represented Illinois in the Senate.

Ronald Reagan, movie actor and 40th president of the United States, known for his sunny optimism and called “the great communicator,” was born in Dixon.

Betty Friedan, born in Peoria, graduated from Smith College summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and wrote “The Feminine Mystique,” a book that sparked second-wave feminism and changed the course of human history.

The two final luminaries Dr. Goddard discussed were George Halas and Oprah Winfrey.

Mr.  Halas, a lifelong Illinoisan, was one of the founding members of the American Professional Football Association, which later became the National Football League, and the owner and coach of the multi-championship-winning Chicago Bears.

Ms. Winfrey hosted and produced The Oprah Winfrey Show for 25 years in Chicago while winning 18 Daytime Emmy Awards, and in the process redefined what made for good television.

Ms. Winfrey’s shows were compelling to watch, Dr. Goddard said: She was honest, empathetic, transparent and authentic, and audiences loved her. She embraced her vulnerability and shared with all of us her continual quest for self-improvement.

Dr. Goddard returned to her original question, “How did Illinois influence these people?” Despite their differences, she said, “their early experiences living in Illinois and other places in the Midwest contributed to their success.

“Illinois shaped who they were. They did not see themselves as sophisticated; they saw themselves as grounded, honest, down-to-earth.

“All these values came from the towns they grew up in and the people they met here before they achieved worldwide fame and success.”

Dr. Goddard shared a list of 50 other Illinoisans who could just as easily been included in this group of influencers. The list can be found on the Levy Senior Center Foundation website, levyseniorcenterfoundation.org.

Dr. Goddard’s lecture was the fourth this spring with a focus on Illinois. The three preceding lectures examined African American communities on the North Shore (Dino Robinson), a portrayal of Jane Addams (Annette Baldwin) and an overview of Walter Burt Adams’ paintings (Eden Juron Pearlman).

All lectures are free and sponsored by the Levy Senior Center Foundation.

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There is a crisis within the United Methodist Church (UMC) related to the role of LGBTQ clergy within its ministry. Evanston is home to four UMC congregations and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, one of 13 United Methodist seminaries in the United States and the only one located in Illinois. Tensions are high; it is unclear what the next steps will be for the UMC. The RoundTable wanted to know how Evanston’s UMC congregations and seminary are dealing with this crisis and what effect it is having, if any, on their respective religious communities.

General Conference, 1972: Homosexuality “Incompatible” With Christian Teaching

It wasn’t always this way. In 1972, at the General Conference (an international gathering of UMC clergy and laity held every four years) in Portland, Oregon, a four-year committee had studied and made recommendations on the denomination’s Social Principles, including changes to the official position on homosexuality. The committee recommended this language be adopted:

“Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self. Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.”

A delegate from Indiana, Russell Kibler, asked what was meant by saying “homosexuals are to have their human and civil rights ensured.” This question led to a public debate, which resulted in a statement being added to the official record of UMC bylaws, the “Book of Discipline”: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Beth Swanick, an active member of First United Methodist Church in Evanston for 25 years and a lifelong (“baptized as a baby”) Methodist, remembers her hometown pastor in Libertyville returning from the 1972 General Conference and saying the rules over same-sex relationships “will split the Church.”

By 2015, the year before the 2016 General Conference, many clergy and lay people were still grappling with the topic of same-sex sexuality within the Church. This is the same year the United States Supreme Court established same-sex civil marriage as a constitutional right.

Lead-Up to 2016 General Conference

Moderate voices within the church asked that the 2016 General Conference consider eliminating official language that is “unnecessarily harsh and narrow.”

The Love Your Neighbor coalition, a group of 14 ethnic and special-interest Methodist groups, stated in a letter,  “We must insist that peace is not going to come through ignoring the demands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians for full inclusion in the church.”

The Reconciling Ministries Network, advocating full inclusion of LGBTQ people within the United Methodist Church, threw support behind The Simple Plan, which “equally honors all of God’s children” and removes any punitive language.

Another group, the Connectional Table, a church council comprised of clergy and lay members, recommended a plan called The Third Way, which supports decriminalization of homosexuality and allows for same-sex weddings within the church and for congregants to come out publicly.

A One Church Plan was also proposed, which would allow each congregation to choose the best option for that particular community.

Alternatively, a group of African bishops advocated “the return of our denomination to biblical teachings.”  Most of the UMC’s growth comes from outside the United States, and Africa is the fastest-growing segment. Many African countries are extremely conservative about sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. Consensual same-sex sexual acts are illegal in 32 African countries, including four (Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan) where it is punishable by death.

2019 Special Session General Conference Opts for Most Conservative Plan

The tensions brewing over the past 47 years culminated in two events. The first occurred in St. Louis, Mo., on Feb. 26, the last day of the 2019 Special Session International General Conference on human sexuality and the UMC clergy. There are five jurisdictional districts in the U.S. and each district sends a group of representatives to General Conferences. Every delegation in every country is comprised equally of clergy and laypeople. Individual delegates vote anonymously on resolutions via electronic ballot.

At the 2019 Special Session General Conference, there were 862 voting delegates; 36% of those were female, 64% were male and 12 delegates did not indicate a gender. These delegates passed the so-called Traditional Plan by a vote of 438 (53.28%) to 384 (46.72%). Forty delegates, 4.64% of the total number present, did not vote. Kathy Gilbert, a reporter for United Methodist News Service, said the UMC does not keep track of who or why a delegate does not cast a vote.

The Traditional Plan was one of four proposed and the most conservative one offered for consideration.  The other plans, mentioned above, called for some level of inclusion – referred to within the Church as “reconciling” – of clergy who identify as LGBTQ.

2019 Judicial Council Upholds, Extends  Prohibition on LGBTQ

The second event took place two months later, April 23 to 26. When the United Methodist Judicial Council (similar to the Supreme Court in the United States) met in Evanston and upheld most, but not all, of the amendments related to the Traditional Plan.

The Traditional Plan, as approved by the Judicial Council, bars LGBTQ clergy, prohibits same-sex marriage within the church, forbids bishops from “consecrating, ordaining, commissioning self-avowed practicing homosexuals” as well as recommending or approving them as candidates for the clergy, and strengthens complaint procedures and penalties as stated in the “Book of Discipline.” The proscribed punishment for clergy who ignore these edicts is a minimum one-year suspension without pay for the first offense and permanent defrocking for subsequent ones.

The Judicial Council also approved an “exit plan” for disaffiliation that will permit churches who disagree with the Traditional Plan to leave the UMC with their property providing all future pension commitments to living former clergy are honored.

A proposal to review a clerical candidate’s social media posts to ascertain whether or not that person identified as LGBTQ was deemed unconstitutional by the Judicial Council and rejected.

The plan is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, and in May 2021 in Africa, the Philippines and Europe, one year after the 2020 General Conference.

Evanston United Methodists React

Recent conversations with local United Methodist ministers and congregants about the vote reflect palpable pain, disappointment and uncertainty. Grace Imathiu, pastor of First United Methodist Church, 516 Church St., is the spiritual leader for approximately 600 families. First United was founded in 1854 by the same group of people who founded Northwestern University (1851), Garrett Biblical Institute (1853, which later became Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary) and the City of Evanston (1853). First United Methodist is open to all regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Pastor Grace Imathiu

Pastor Grace Imathiu

Pastor Imathiu said she felt crushed when the final vote was taken in February, saying “It’s about people. I didn’t know how I was going to get in the pulpit the following Sunday without weeping. I felt ashamed and scared. To talk about God is to talk about diversity. One cannot legislate God.

“After much prayer, on that first Sunday after the final vote, my sermon encouraged the congregation to join Jesus on the mountain of Transfiguration. The service broke our normally formal mood and there was participation with even the children joining in.  Around us were rainbow flags and ribbons showing our welcome and support of the LGBTQI community.  When we celebrated communion that morning, we had arranged that at every station the servers were our LGBTQI siblings. It was a moving hour of worship filled with tears and laughter and hope as we journey with Jesus.

“We do not know clearly what the future holds, but in the meantime, we are faithfully praying, deeply listening and imagining God’s church. We ask ourselves very Methodist questions such as: What does Scripture say? What does our tradition say in interpreting scripture? What does our experience say? And what does reason say? Although we are disappointed, angry and grieving, we will not give in to our lowest instinct. We do no harm.  We do good.  We stay in love with God.  We are a church for everyone.”

Ms. Swanick of the First United Methodist Church emphasized that she “very much favors inclusion and fully supports overturning the Traditional Plan.” She says this issue is similar to the way integration was a controversial issue during the 20th century, and that those who do not share those ideas “resist coming into the modern age.”

Ms. Swanick continued, “It’s the elephant in the room every Sunday and part of every sermon, but our clergy keeps bringing it up and saying what they believe. There is so much good that the Methodist Church does and all of that is being overlooked now. I love this Church. It’s too much a part of my life for me to leave it. Yes, I am sad and disappointed. But we are not giving up. We will keep fighting the good fight.”

Barbara Ulrich, a 30-year member of First United Methodist, was also sad and disappointed with the results of the St. Louis conference, but not completely surprised. A retired former math teacher, she framed the issue from an educational perspective. “Does one have the open mindset of a lifelong learner or that of a closed mindset?”

Ms. Ulrich sees no way forward other than an “amicable divorce” between those congregations who want to disaffiliate and those who wish to follow the Traditional Plan.

Scort Christy, pastor of Emmanuel United Methodist Church, 1401 Oak Ave., leads a congregation that is predominantly Indian. Each Sunday he leads three successive worship services, one each in Hindi, Gujarati and English. His congregants drive from all over the suburbs and Chicago to worship in their native language and be with those who share their cultural background. Pastor Christy said, “At Emmanuel, we welcome and love anyone who wants to worship with us, but we choose not to comment at this time.”

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Rev. Dr. Barbara Morgan

Reverend Dr. Barbara Morgan is the Pastor of Sherman United Methodist Church, 2214 Ridge Ave., the oldest African American congregation founded on the North Shore by an African American woman, Lula B. Sherman, in 1922.  In a series of email exchanges, Reverend Dr. Morgan shared her dismay over the current situation and how she is ministering to the congregation’s more than 100 families.

“I am saddened by the recent decision handed down to us by the Conference in reference to ‘The Way Forward.’ It saddens me because we see our Church dying every day due to our differences. You would think that we, as the Church, would be the last to become critical and judgmental towards one another. We, as the Church, supposedly understand what Jesus meant, upon His departure from earth, when he left us with the one commandment that totaled all the commandments combined. That was, ‘To love the Lord with all thine heart, soul and mind, and to love thy neighbor as thy self.’ If we, as the Church, would strive to keep this final commandment, then we wouldn’t have time to sit and judge and criticize one another as we’re doing at this very moment! The Gospel of Jesus Christ is simple but seems to be extremely difficult to do.”

Pastor Reuel Talapian, leader of Hemenway United Methodist Church, 933 Chicago Ave., did not respond to repeated phone calls and email attempts to speak to him.

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Dr. Lallene Rector

Dr. Lallene Rector, President of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Associate Professor of Psychology of Religion and Pastoral Psychotherapy, spoke at length about what happened at the conference and what effect the decision has had within the seminary. Dr. Rector is Garrett’s first female leader and the first lay person to lead in its 166-year history.

She noted that the 2019 Conference was a rare “single issue” conference outside the typical General Conference held every four years. She said the outcome of the vote has been “devastating.” She described students who are “frightened, not sleeping, anxious” and worries that there could be a “witch hunt” when the edict goes into effect on Jan. 1. “The Traditionalists are trying to take over,” she said, but added, “It is an organizational mess. I believe we can’t keep this [the church] together, especially when it comes to finances and who owns the name, ‘United Methodist.’”

Shelby Ruch-Teegarden, a Garrett seminary student scheduled to graduate in May 2020, works as a youth minister in Palatine and attended the St. Louis conference with a contingent of Garrett students. She was not a delegate and thus did not vote. She is active in Sacred Worth at Garrett, an LGBTQ organization whose name comes from a section on inclusiveness in the 2012 “Book of Discipline”: “The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth …”

Ms. Ruch-Teegarden grew up in rural Tennessee and was not totally shocked by the conference’s support of the Traditional Plan. She grew up with people who “100% believe that homosexuality is a choice and that you can change, and if you can’t change then you should be celibate.” She says she refuses to live her life in fear, instead “choosing to live my life as God has called me to do. I know there are queer kids in every conference, and the Traditional Plan leaves them behind. I am not willing to do that.”

She feels the vote has “galvanized” plans for the upcoming 2020 Annual Conference and has prompted much rethinking in Methodist churches across the country. She knows of churches that have passed inclusivity declarations since the vote in St. Louis. Nationally there has been a push to nominate more progressive delegates to attend the 2020 Annual Conference. Some  hope that this change will also spread to UMC congregations abroad.

Currently the UMC is polarized, Dr. Rector said. If there is to be a split, the Church’s name, property and finances will need to be separated. Pension funding is already off limits. One of five regional bishops in the United States, North Central Bishop Sally Dyck, has said publicly that the pension requirements for individual congregations disaffiliating are already so expensive that the option may not be possible for some who wish to leave.

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Rev. Brittany Isaac

Rev. Brittany Isaac, the District Superintendent of the Chicago Northwestern District, part of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, said of the 51 churches in her district, half are reconciling and several others are leaning that way. Ironically, the efforts to regulate same-sex clergy are already too late: there are at least 265 members nationwide in an invitation-only Facebook group of Methodist LGBTQ clergy.

When asked about the “un-Christian-like” attitude of those who favor the Traditional Plan, she suggested that “when you dial all this back, it’s about how we envision God and how we interpret Scripture. If you believe in a God of fear and retribution, then you want to do the right thing and keep God pure, and will do anything to protect that. But if you believe that God is grace and we are all children of God, then how can we legislate people?”

Dr. Rector is aware of “conciliatory efforts” of many people working to “find a way to honor our differences leading to an amicable separation,” but it is too soon to tell if anything will change. Enrollment at Garrett has not been affected, and the faculty, Board of Trustees and student body’s commitment to equality and justice remains strong, she said.

Ms. Ruch-Teegarden said, “Fear equals silence. People don’t know who we are. They are invested in their own context, and not thinking about people who are actually hurting.”

(This article was originally printed in the Evanston RoundTable on July 24, 2019.)

 

 

Sexual Health Expert’s Advise: Communicate

jeff headshot[This is a reprint of the article I wrote, published in the Evanston RoundTable, 5/3/17.  I cannot rave enough about how wonderful Dr. Albaugh is as a speaker.]

The Linden Room of the Levy Senior Center, 300 Dodge Ave was filled as Dr. Jeffrey Albaugh, Director of Sexual Health at NorthShore University Health System, began his presentation on “Sexual Health and Natural Changes as We Age.” The presentation was the second featured Levy Lecture, a new program sponsored by the Levy Senior Center Foundation, a non-profit organization established to provide enrichment programs and activities for the benefit of seniors 55+ who frequent the Center.

Dr. Albaugh is a board certified Advanced Practice Urology Clinical Nurse Specialist and an internationally recognized speaker on the topics of sexual health and sexual dysfunction. Currently he runs the NorthShore University HealthSystem William D. and Pamela Hutul Ross Clinic for Sexual Health. He treats both men and women and has won numerous awards for excellent patient care. Dr. Albaugh’s research in sexual health has been funded by many sources including the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Albaugh is an expert at explaining complex health information in a way that non-medical professionals can understand. He is also a skilled communicator and comfortable discussing sensitive subjects – like sexuality, intimacy, and sexual problems – that might make others squirm. His open, upbeat personality and use of humor immediately put the audience at ease. Men and women alike sat rapt as he talked with compassion and understanding about one of the most basic drives human beings have, the need for touch and connectedness.

Communication between partners was one of the main themes of Dr. Albaugh’s presentation. He clarified some of the differences between sexuality and intimacy: sexuality is the sense of being male or female, whereas intimacy is the process when two people move toward “complete communication” and connectedness on all levels.

Dr. Albaugh explained how human beings need the feeling of being connected in order to thrive, but those same feelings make us vulnerable. Allowing oneself to feel vulnerable with another person can be very scary, but it is the only path toward love and creativity, according to Dr. Albaugh. Part of that vulnerability is learning how to communicate openly and honestly with your partner about sexual pleasure, which does not come naturally for most people. Practice helps!

Another theme of the presentation was understanding how men and women change as they age and the effects those changes may have on their bodies. It is essential to maintain good health overall as it affects one’s sexual health. Dr. Albaugh emphasized the importance of watching one’s diet, weight control, exercise (at least three hours of cardiovascular exercise per week), and managing medical problems.

Much of Dr. Albaugh’s work with his clinic and private patients focuses on issues of sexual impairment due to hormonal or physical changes to the body, sometimes due to disease or trauma as well as aging. Fortunately, there are many therapies available to address those issues, including counseling and behavioral therapy, pelvic floor physical therapy, hormonal therapy, vacuum devices, prescription medications, surgery, and herbs. Sexual and intimacy issues can be successfully resolved with patience and expert medical care.

As Dr. Albaugh wrapped up his lecture, he was inundated with questions
from the audience, which he patiently answered until he had to leave for his next patient appointment. The overriding message [Dr. Albaugh] communicated was that it is possible to enjoy sex and intimacy throughout one’s entire life. And if there is a “bump” in the road, don’t be shy: expert help is available.

Moonglow, A Fictional Memoir

I loved Michael Chabon’s most recent book, Moonglow. I am also a big fan of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, one of my favorite books. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

I liken his writing to a Wes Anderson movie. Both have their own particular style, but if you like the style, you love the creative output of the author or writer/director.

Moonglow’s storyline is complex and weaves back and forth between the past and the present. The main character’s grandfather, a curmudgeonly, silent type, is dying and in his Dilaudid haze he has become verbose, confessionally talking to his grandson, one Mike Chabon, telling him never-before heard stories about his childhood, his adventures during World War II, and how he met his wife, the author’s grandmother.

The novel is essentially a series of love stories that build upon one another like Russian nesting dolls. Mike Chabon is the novel’s narrator, but he is not Michael Chabon, the book’s author. Mike is the one filling in the gaps left out from his grandfather’s stories, packing a myriad of footnotes, adding the tangents which serve as spicy addenda to the books many pages.

The grandparents are two broken people (but broken in different ways) who find one another and fall head over heels in love with one another. Their marriage is passionate and faithful, but the grandmother suffers from horrible nightmares and mental illness, a remnant from her experience as a hidden refugee in France during the war.

All of the characters have secrets that they hide from one another. The backward and forward lurching of the story builds to the pivotal explanation toward the end of the book, slyly inserted into the narrative almost as an afterthought.

This complex, layered book drew me in and had me spellbound. The phrasing is marvelous, so effervescent some pages sparkle.  I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, yet I didn’t want it to end. If Chabon is your thing, dig into this one soon. Savor it.

 

 

 

More Escapist Fiction

 

Still in despair by our country’s current political environment and horrified by the catastrophes unfolding in Washington, D.C., I am seeking relief (or hiding) in various ways. I tried floating in a epsom salt float tank and loved it…more about that later. I am getting back into yoga and grateful to have so many good studio options in and near Evanston. Most of all, I am reading a lot and taking advantage of my EPL card.

In quick succession I enjoyed these three mysteries and a tear-jerker: The Dry by Jane Harper, a first-time novelist; The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware; and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, author of the wonderful and highly acclaimed, Room; and A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

The Dry takes place in a section of Australia that has not seen any rainfall for two years. The land and everything on it is withering..cracking..dying. Crops won’t grow and livestock can’t survive. Financial ruin is everywhere. As the book opens, Aaron Falk, a federal agent, is en route to the funeral of his high school friend Luke. Aaron hasn’t been home in twenty years and is determined to spend as little time as possible in town, counting down the hours until he can leave without seeming rude. It seems Luke snapped due to the impending loss of his farm and shot his wife and young son, sparing only his infant daughter, before killing himself.

Twenty years ago Luke provided an alibi for Aaron when a young woman was reported missing. This mutual friend later turned up dead. Despite Luke’s insistence that Aaron and he were together, town gossip blamed Aaron for the death and effectively chased him and his father out of town. Luke’s father knows the boys lied and asks Aaron to stay in town a few extra days to see if Aaron can help clear Luke’s name. In addition to the unrelenting heat, the gossip and cliques within the community add their own type of oppressiveness, where the past is never really over and everyone seems to know everybody else’s business. The story builds logically bit by bit over the course of a week until its dramatic and combustible conclusion. The Dry is a fun read, perfect for a beach vacation or long flight.

The Woman in Cabin 10  is a psychological mystery. Lo, a travel writer, is under tremendous stress and possible PTSD due to a recent attack during a break-in at her home and later, an argument and possible split with her boyfriend. The timing of both events could not have been worse as she is scheduled to leave in two days on a highly anticipated press junket aboard a luxury yacht trip en route to see the Aurora Borealis. The break-in has left her unable to sleep without alcohol to blot out her nightmares. In her boozy haze the first night out to sea, Lo is convinced she hears and sees a woman being tossed overboard from the cabin next to hers. She notifies the ship’s staff, but the room is unoccupied and no one is unaccounted for among the ship’s staff or guests. The ship’s security officer politely but firmly dismisses her concerns and suspects she is hallucinating, imagining things because of her recent break-in, hung over or a combination of all of the above. To complicate things further, the WiFi on the ship is not working and Lo is unable to receive or to send emails. Is she going crazy? Paranoid? Is there a secret killer on the ship that only she sees? Combine fuzzy memories, a disoriented sense of time and personal space, and ample self-doubt for a toxic mix. Similar in some ways to The Girl on the Train, The Woman in Cabin 10 is a challenging whodunit with a surprise twist ending.

If you liked the tension and insular world of Room, I think you’ll enjoy The Wonder. Emma Donoghue has created another tight, restrictive environment, this time in 1859 Ireland. For the past four months, since her eleventh birthday, Anna has stopped eating save for a few teaspoons of water each day. A deeply religious young girl, Anna’s family and neighbors believe she is a living miracle in their midst. The local priest has doubts and wants to be certain Anna is a true miracle, so a group of townspeople hires two nurses to watch over Anna at all times for two weeks to determine if she is sneaking food or, as Anna maintains, living off of “manna from heaven.” One of the nurses is a young widow, trained by Florence Nightingale, and determined to uncover the scheme. Much to her surprise, Lib is charmed by Anna and believes her to be sincere, if not misguided.

Despite 24-hour surveillance, Lib and other nurse, Sister Michael, are unable to find hidden food or determine how Anna might be getting any sustenance. All outward physical signs show that Anna is slowly dying, yet no one — not her physician, her priest, her parents, her cousin who lives with them, or the other nurse, Sister Michael — is doing anything to actively save Anna from certain death. Why is the child willingly starving herself? And how can Lib save Anna before being run out of town, since Lib’s ‘by the book’ manner and irreligious approach have already provoked the ire of the local priest, the family doctor, and Anna’s parents. The Wonder is a story of love, commitment, and redemption. claustrophobic at times, the intensity builds as Anna deteriorates, but the end is nothing short of miraculous.

I know I’m late to the party about A Man Called Ove as it’s been in print since 2012, but better late than never. Ove is a curmudgeon. He is almost mean and very rigid, and he is determined to commit suicide to end his troubles. Thing is, his plans keep getting waylaid by the people around him…boisterous neighbors, a pushy cat, fainting commuters…there is no end to the interruptions! But little by little, his icy heart starts to thaw. This is his story. I loved this book — I laughed out loud more than once and was charmed to tears as the story of Ove’s life was slowly revealed. If you need a feel-good book to read or give, this is the one.

Happy reading!

Social Disconnect

I first heard about J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, from my Aunt Sue, who had read it as part of the syllabus for a college course she audited last fall. It was November, shortly after the election, and I was still in a fog of disbelief about the results. She recommended it as essential reading and promised it would explain a lot.

A few weeks later I was browsing for a gift in a small book store and asked the owner if she had noticed any differences in her customers’ purchasing habits since the election. She acknowledged that, indeed there were changes. In the days immediately after the election, there was hardly any store traffic. No one was in the mood to shop; people were hunkering down. But after a few days, things got back to normal — whatever that is — and she had two types of requests: non-fiction (explain the election, how did this happen?) or fiction (get me out of here, this can’t be happening).  In the former category, two books were in hot demand, White Trash: The 400-Year Old Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy. 

In Isenberg’s White Trash, “the poor are always with us,” and labeling the underclass of poor whites implies “an imposed inheritance” that almost invariably prevents them from escape and encourages demonization if not blame. For them, the American dream of upward mobility is largely “unobtainable.”

First known as “waste people,” and later “white trash,” marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children–the sense of uplift on which the American dream is predicated. The American solution to poverty and social backwardness was not what we might expect. Well into the twentieth century, expulsion and sterilization sounded rational to those who wished to reduce the burden of “loser” people on the larger economy. (p. xv, White Trash)

The book is long, dense, and at times, tedious. Isenberg weaves the history of how the poor in this country have been treated and viewed as expendable fodder as far back as the 1500s when the land was a colonial outpost of Great Britain and a dumping ground for undesirables. There are three main themes: the importance of our country’s rural past; the pervasive role class hierarchy plays in the United States; and how land ownership and class are connected, in that “the worst classes were seen as extrusions of the worst land: scrubby, barren, and swampy wasteland.” By the time these themes reach the likes of Honey Boo Boo and the current economic struggles of the lower rungs of the 99%, I was pretty discouraged although much better informed.

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of an unusual childhood. J.D. Vance grew up in the Rust Belt of Ohio with deep family ties in the hills of eastern Kentucky. He was raised by his grandparents; his mother had substance abuse problems throughout his early years and he nearly failed out of high school…except he didn’t, because of the love and support of a few people and a fair amount of luck. He graduated high school, joined the Marines, served in Iraq, graduated from Ohio State in two years, and graduated from Yale Law School. He made it out and he made it big.

The majesty of  Vance’s story is learning why, amidst such a chaotic start, he did not give up on himself and why he did not give in to the despair, pessimism, and cynicism all around him. He describes growing up in deep poverty with familial violence as a norm. Years later he learns that the yelling, fighting, and abuse he and his sister experienced had a name–“adverse childhood experiences”–and that children with multiple ACEs are statistically more likely to experience adverse health and behavioral issues. He is unabashedly loyal to his family and loves them unconditionally, but he is clear about the bad choices his family and neighbors have made and the impact those choices have had on their lives and on the lives of the children in their care.

Vance despairs about the rampant drug addictions tearing through his hometown, and how unprepared its residernts are to confront a knowledge-based economy. He assigns both fault and credit to certain aspects of government programs, family decisions, and cultural norms. Vance doesn’t pretend to speak for all of his kin or neighbors, but he does present a portrait unfamiliar to many Americans and one that is helpful to understand. He writes with objective emotion and sensitivity; he is not bitter or vengeful, and surprisingly forgiving, accepting, and understanding of his mother. He recognizes he is lucky to have had loving grandparents who instilled him with good values and self-confidence and good mentors who believed in him and taught him about things he was never exposed to at home.

Neither White Trash nor Hillbilly Elegy are the definitive answer about how and why our country elected this president, but they are important parts of the conversation. I recommend them.

 

 

 

 

 

Pick Your Tree Carefully

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Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is a beautifully written memoir about work, love, friendship, illness, and the tenacity female scientists need to succeed. This is a brave book; it is raw and honest and overall inspiring. I recommend it enthusiastically.

 

After reading Lab Girl, it is impossible to look at any tree or even a leaf without begrudging respect for everything it took for that respective piece of vegetation to venture into the world and live.

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is only known to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance–to take its one and only chance to grow.

Jahren tells of growing up in a family that rarely talked and barely emoted. (“The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.”) Her relationship with her mother was strained, but she drew comfort and strength from her scientist father whom she idolized.

I grew up in my father’s laboratory and played beneath the chemical benches until I was tall enough to play on them. My father taught forty-two years’ worth of introductory physics and earth science in that laboratory, nestled within a community college deep in rural Minnesota; he loved his lab, and it was a place that my brothers and I loved also.

Jahren is passionate about science and driven to succeed. She describes the obstacles female scientists often encounter — narrow-mindedness, failure to be taken seriously and be included, prejudice, sexual harassment — and how she barreled through and worked harder than anyone else to prove she belonged. Belong she does, and she has succeeded magnificently: three Fulbright Awards, one of only four scientists (and the only woman, natch) to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given in the earth sciences, tenured professor, and kick-ass writer.

There is a special skill to writing about science. It’s a secret language to those of us on the outside and one has to be especially adept to explain what’s taking place without losing the reader in complex jargon. Jahren is gifted with luminous prose when describing scientific experiments, the rhythms of efficient soil sampling, and proper laboratory procedures. I fell in love with her as she struggled and persevered, and cheered her professional and personal milestones. The passages in which she meets and falls in love with her husband, and regales us with tales of work adventures and friendship with her lab partner, Bill, testify to the depth of her feelings and the fullness of her heart.

She also wrestles mightily with manic depressive illness. Her raw candor about its effects on her life are mesmerizing and heartbreaking. I was awestruck by her strength, grit, and bravery, especially in the section where she describes the impact stopping her medication for 26 weeks (she was pregnant) had on her life. Thankfully what she had to endure worked successfully and her son was born completely healthy. She is fortunate: she has a true partner in her husband, who cared for her and advocated for the medical care she needed; she has access to the best medical care in the world; she has financial resources. That Jahren is aware of and appreciates these gifts make her triumph all the sweeter.

The Jahren Lab is in Norway now but you can keep up with her on her blog and be on the lookout for random op-ed pieces in The New York Times.