Tag Archives: American culture

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

I wanted to write about this book BEFORE checking out reviews and other feedback, but it’s becoming more difficult every day! I just got a Facebook message from the man himself (Barack Obama) recommending the book, and offering a few other comments. He did not yet release his annual list of favorite books.

One of the first questions I was asked (by a friend) was whether Mrs. Obama had a co-author. There’s none on the title page. She mentions many people in her acknowledgements (which run to three pages and end, unpredictably, with a gratitude towards “every young person I ever encountered during my time as First Lady… Thank you for giving me a reason to be hopeful”). So, the answer is “no”. There was no co-author.

Michelle Obama emphasized one thing over and over. Each of us has a story to tell. Each of us matters. Much of her public speaking has involved telling her story – that of growing up on Chicago’s side, seeing her neighborhood change from diverse to decidedly minority dominated, wanting SO MUCH to achieve, to be approved of, to get high grades!

Once, when she was in high school, Michelle was asked (by a relative near her own age) why she talked “like a white person”. Surprised, she didn’t really answer. Her parents and other adult relatives had emphasized diction and standard usage. My guess is that Michelle Obama is functionally bilingual (in two forms of English).

So much of Michelle Obama’s life was spent “juggling”. Between being “too black” and “too white”, and everything else. Too tall. Too earnest. Too “pushy”. She found her path, but became, in many understandable ways, cautious. She was always aware of the balance she needed and/or wanted to strike.

I was interested in the First Family’s life in the White House. Michelle wanted her mother to join them, but Mrs. Marian Robinson was reluctant. She had lived all her life in Chicago. Michelle enlisted her brother Craig to help change her mind. Mrs. Robinson was able to occasionally evade the constant Secret Service presence. She slipped out of the White House to run errands. If someone said “You look like Michelle Obama’s mother”, she smiled politely and said “Yes, people say that…”

I get the impression that Michelle and the President didn’t play any games AT ALL with the Secret Service. They accepted the fact that the stakes were way too high for that.

We all wonder what’s ahead for the Obama family. Leadership is so urgently needed, but they deserve a break, at the very least a long vacation, and I wish them all the best in the future.

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“One Small Plot of Heaven – Reflections on Family Life by a Quaker Sociologist” by Elise Boulding

One Small Plot of Heaven: Reflections on Family Life by a Quaker Sociologist

Pendle Hill Publications, 1989, 216 pages plus bibliography and index. Why did I pull this old book off my shelf? Just looking for comfort, in these difficult times, and remembering Elise Boulding’s husband Kenneth from a lecture many years ago.

This book is a collection of twelve separate speeches and pamphlets. It’s far from coherent, but I’m glad these essays were assembled in one place, for our benefit. I read Born Remembering (third chapter) many years ago with a discussion group.

This time my attention was drawn to two chapters written THIRTY-FOUR YEARS apart, in 1952 and 1989. The essay from 1952 was entitled Friends Testimonies in the Home. My reaction to it was that Elise Boulding set an impossibly high standard for home making and child rearing! I mean, totally out of sight. On a scale of one to ten, my parenting (~1984 to 2010) would have rated about 0.3. When she wrote this essay, three of her five children had been born. Wikipedia describes her as “home maker and activist”. She lived in proximity to other Quaker families and attended a large meeting that provided substantial attention and support to families. A major focus was on how to raise children who would become peacemakers. Motivation, I think, sprang from post WWII international considerations and Cold War fears.

Thirty-four years later, Elise Boulding was looking at a very different world, and her focus was not on international considerations like war but on her beloved Religious Society of Friends. Quakers had recognized some of their failings, including the occurrence of  violence in Quaker families. How could she have missed this, she asks? She admits to “willful blindness” and describes the “strong effort of the will” it took for her to confront the ugly truth. Then she proceeds to offer analysis based on both Quakerism and sociology.

Boulding identifies and describes what she calls a “residue of emotional turbulence” and “the unacknowledged residue of anger” among Quakers. Yes.

The perfect Quaker family is a “fictive reality” (Boulding’s term).

This is an oversimplification. But I know from personal experience that trying to create the “perfect Quaker family” (or marriage, or persona) can lead to trouble.

The essay and the book end with hopefulness. More hopefulness than I can sometimes muster. Guess I better keep the book around, to help me through dark moments.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (Lingua Franca) and Allan Metcalf

A fringe benefit of my job is on-line access to The Chronicle of Higher Education, a must-read for college and university employees and anyone who supports or utilizes our strange and complicated system of post secondary education. The Chronicle covers everything from the fall of Silent Sam at the University of North Carolina to classroom access for underserved student populations. Every day, there’s something worth reading, and I always check the column called “Lingua Franca”.

“Lingua Franca” is all about language, and offers blog entries from a dozen academics, all highly credentialed, opinionated and amusing.

The article that motivated me to write this review was published on September 9, authored by Allan Metcalf (English professor and forensic linguist) and titled “Who is Anonymous? An Extraordinary Writer”. The anonymous missive was published in the New York Times around September 1, talking about President Trump and the discontents of his highest advisors. Of course everyone wants to know the source. Personally, I’m astonished that a paper with the stature of The Times published an unsigned document.

Metcalf’s discussion relies on rhetorical analysis and a variety of forensic linguistic approaches. (I’ve read several popular works of linguistic forensics. Remember the Unabomber?) I realize that my education, which was strong on grammar, gave little attention to rhetoric.

No, Metcalf does not put a name to Anonymous. His conclusion? “…look for someone who is noted for her or his extraordinary command of language, who knows how to recruit the exact right words and deploy them artfully and memorably in sentences and paragraphs and whole essays. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind, but he’s not eligible”.

Wow! That is high praise. I’m okay with leaving “Anonymous” alone for the time being, but I hope I live long enough to learn his or her identity.

“Unlearning God – How Unbelieving Helped Me Believe” by Philip Gulley

Amazon is having time trouble – you know, publishing reviews of a book before its publication date… Somebody better call the Chronopolice (Literary reference! Get it?) But, hey, Amazon is supposedly remaking America. So what if they mess with time?

The three reviews published by Amazon award Gulley one, three and five stars. The jury is still out.

The first two thirds of this book constitute a memoir. Gulley’s personal history is interesting, but bashing the churches of his childhood is small minded. Humor should be used very gently in such writing. Every author should have a “humor editor”, to help achieve desired tone and balance.

I liked the later part of the book better, when Gully wrestles with contemporary issues and discusses the role of change in spiritual life. Can you change your mind about an issue and remain faithful to your spiritual tradition?

So how did I acquire this book? It arrived unsolicited in the mailbox at my Quaker meeting. The publisher seems to have been unaware that there are several kinds of Quakers. Gulley is a pastor and has spent his adult life in paid employment with a Quaker congregation. My kind of Quaker, generally referred to as “unprogrammed”, does not ordain pastors or employ paid spiritual leadership. Nonetheless, we decided to look at Gulley’s book in our discussion group. His informal and lively approach worked well for us and supported several good sessions, so I recommend it to anyone interested in the role of faith in contemporary life.  But it’s far from the “whole story” when it comes to Quakerism!

Sign of the Times

I was idling in the Library parking lot, waiting for a meeting to begin, when I saw a bird flying over the tree line a few hundred feet away. I seemed to be flying in an unusually straight and steady line. I reached for binoculars.

Then I saw it flash a light! I did a quick mental search for birds with lights… Nothing…

It was a DRONE, of course!

I watched it turn and fly towards me. There was an event underway at the Police Station nearby. Squad cars were lining up. Officers appeared to be in dress uniforms. Perhaps there was a funeral?

The drone came closer and circled. I realized it was being used to photograph the assembly of police. After a few passes, it landed. The person controlling it was right beside the police station.

A drone really is the ultimate toy. Everybody wants one.

I guess this is something bird watchers and others will have to get used to. The first time a drone sets a package on my doorstep, I may freak out. Or check out, drifting into some altered state that will get me out of this decade where I sometimes feel like I don’t belong.

“The Book Shopper – a Life in Review” by Murray Brown

This book is fun, and useful to anyone looking for suggestions in the category of modern fiction and (to a lesser extent) non-fiction. Brown and I have several things in common. We’re both frustrated book reviewers. We both have blogs. His is at www.thebookshopper.org Neither of us is listed in Wikipedia. Or if Murray Brown IS there, he’s lost among a crowd of other people with the same name.

The memoir aspects of this book are as interesting as his opinions about books. One early influence was his grandmother, who loved books, patronized her local library and eventually asked her grandson to pass along his copies of the New York Times Book Review.

Did you ever hear of “competitive reading”? In eighth grade, Brown (unable to win distinction as an athlete) decided to read the most books of any pupil in his class. At the end of the school year, he received a trophy. Would he have been happier with a free meal at Pizza Hut, the bribe offered to my sons in elementary school?

One way or another, some of us get hooked on books.

“The Green Mile” by Stephen King.

My son, a Stephen King fan, knows that HORROR is not my genre, whether in books or movies. I’m such a wimp! Don’t scare me! I already suffer from enough anxiety.

Robert told me “The Green Mile” was more like fantasy. But I couldn’t read the whole book, I stopped before I got half way through. King is a compelling writer, and his tale of death row prisoners and executions in the Depression South was more than I could cope with. He created some great characters, especially the death row manager, who carefully eased the path of the miserable, violent men he ultimately executed. He narrates the story from the perspective of his old age.

What makes this “fantasy”? A condemned prisoner arrives who seems to have supernatural powers, a strange, poor, mentally challenged man who may accomplish miracles.

But I couldn’t face reading about another electric chair execution, so I can’t tell you more! Maybe I should check the Internet Movie Database for the plot. “The Green Mile” was made into a highly successful movie starring Tom Hanks.

Robert’s next book recommendation was considerably more cheerful.