On The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Rob Peace since I tearfully made my way through the last few pages of Jeff Hobbs’ book chronicling his life. Although the title indicates, before even opening to the first page, that Peace’s life is somehow tragically cut short, the pain of how it plays out was still highly palpable in me when I reached the book’s end. The rise and fall of this promising young African American man makes for a heartbreaking journey throughout.

Raised by a single mother and son of a drug dealing father, Rob’s story started out not too dissimilar from that of most young men born to poverty-stricken families in the greater Newark, New Jersey area. But as Rob grew, his inherent intelligence was unmistakable. This promise led the young man to St. Benedict’s Preparatory High School and eventually Yale University. It drove Peace all over the world, starting with a trip to Rio de Janeiro after receiving his undergraduate degree. But like far too many young black men with great potential, Rob’s life was cut short by the kind of violence that can ultimately be attributed to the conditions of a life lived in desperate poverty.

Writer Jeff Hobbs, who mid-way through the book is revealed to be one of Peace’s randomly-assigned freshmen roommates at Yale, offers a heartfelt, well-written portrait of his friend while paying due attention to the larger social structure within which Peace existed. He covers Peace’s childhood and family life, including the many sacrifices Rob’s incredibly strong mother Jackie made in order to send her son to a prep school that would match his educational potential. Largely because Rob’s father, Skeet, was a known drug dealer, she made the conscious decision not to marry the man nor have him live in her home as a traditional father figure to Rob. In Hobbs’ efforts to carefully contextualize Rob’s family, a more empathetic and compassionate side of Skeet emerges, an image of a father who helped his son with homework, visited often, and protected the boy’s innocence as best he could. Hobbs demonstrates how hard Jackie worked just so that her son could attend a high school where he would have a fighting chance of being seen by a four year university, the efforts she took to keep her son separate from the drug culture rampant around them. This was a woman who did everything she could in an effort to help her son succeed despite an array of obstacles, from the color of his skin to his family’s income tax bracket to the town where he was born.

This background on Peace pre-Yale was easily my favorite section of the book. The culture at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, the way that Rob positively blossomed there, the group of lifelong friends he developed who fondly donned themselves the Burger Boyz. It was a treat to see this young man defy the odds and flourish in an academic environment, knowing that soon the world would be at his feet when he stepped onto Yale’s campus. It was encouraging to hear about a subculture within the Newark environment where teenage boys were formed into true men. It was inspiring to behold one man cashing in on so much promise despite the odds.

Once Rob moves on to Yale, I yearned for him to again construct the type of community he created during his high school years. It was a slow process, one that initially made me feel immensely wary, worried Rob would lead a friendless, solitary existence in the Ivy League. But in due time, Rob’s caring nature and easy way of connecting with others gave way to an ever-widening social circle until ultimately he became a friend to many on Yale’s campus, a standout student, an initiate into one of the university’s secret societies, and a known source for grade A pot. Since the time he first tried marijuana in high school, Rob smoked nearly every day. And at Yale, trafficking low level drugs to his fellow upper-class students was an easy way to turn a quick buck, build a generous financial cushion, and even direct some money toward his mom’s household without raising suspicion. Again Hobbs emphasized context, how Yale was a safe place for this kind of drug trade, how it helped to widen the scope of people with whom Rob interacted, how it was never detrimental to his academic performance (in fact, Rob proclaimed that the high he got from pot enabled him to complete his schoolwork). Rob seemed to be at the height of his game during his Yale years, majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, saving for highly-anticipated travel and the future, set to accomplish something few people from his station in life thought possible.

Unfortunately this four year high was followed by a slow decay in Rob’s ambition after graduation. I hated to read about this seemingly-aimless portion of Rob’s life, but I also found it to be the most compelling. The beginning of this downfall came with the loss of Rob’s drug money. He had saved $100,000 from his dealing days at Yale, all in cash. When Rob traveled to Rio de Janeiro after graduation, he stored this money with a close family friend, the type of man who would accept and store a large box for two months’ time without question. When Rob came home, however, he found the lock on his box busted and every last cent gone. Instead of having a nice financial cushion to fall back on while figuring out what comes next, Rob was put in a position of desperation not at all dissimilar to that of anyone existing in poverty without any savings to speak of. Even though he was fresh out of Yale, Peace began to put off graduate school applications in favor of first teaching high school science at his alma mater, then pursing harebrained real estate schemes just as the housing bubble burst, eventually performing manual labor at Newark International, and ultimately drug dealing again. But dealing marijuana at Yale was a completely different ballgame than contending with the gangs and powerfully competing drug interests of Newark.

Hobbs doesn’t paint Peace out to be a saint, especially as the years progress and Rob Peace the Yale undergrad begins to seem incongruous with Rob Peace the marijuana-dealing Continental Airlines luggage handler. Certainly the choices Peace made placed him in a position where drug-related crime and violence threatened, and ultimately ended, his life. But under Hobbs’ deft hand, you can’t help but recognize the forces beyond Peace’s control which lead him to do the type of manual labor and illegal activity that most college-educated people attain a university degree in order to avoid. Rob put off his grad school applications, he got overly comfortable with the Burger Boyz, he fell prey to one too many bad ideas that promised him a quick financial fix. Were he to have been a white, upper-middle-class Yale graduate, the kind of person with a strong web of connections built up over the whole of his and his family’s lives, maybe Rob would have made out better professionally. If he was able to be supported by mom and dad in the transition after college graduation, instead of being expected to become the family’s prime source of financial support, maybe Rob would not have fallen so far.

The sad reality is that these were not the conditions of Rob’s life after Yale. Looking at the post-St. Benedict’s trajectories of all five of the Burger Boyz really drives this point home. These were all prep school educated boys, four of who headed to college upon their high school graduation. Other than Rob, only one of his friends from this group successfully completed college. And their careers in adulthood were not the type of white collar, professional jobs a prep school or four year university graduate would likely aim to attain. That’s not to say that these men led unhappy or unfulfilling lives; it just goes to show that the pressure of existence in a place like Newark makes it near impossible for anyone, even the area’s brightest young people, to ever get much further than where they started from, let alone to the achievement of even their more modest dreams.

While this book is undeniably about a certain person’s life set within a very specific set of circumstances, it is irrevocably tangled with the social, economic, cultural, and political history of a notoriously rough neighborhood. If someone with all the god-given natural ability in the world can’t make it out of Newark alive, is there much hope for anyone? Not that getting out of Newark should be the goal. Rob was so deeply embedded in the lives of everyone he loved from Newark, finding a life that took him away from that place was never the goal. The fact that areas like Newark exist, where so many people don’t feel safe in their own homes but don’t have the means to leave and set up homes elsewhere, isn’t the problem but rather just one symptom of a dysfunctional society that fails to care for its own, that fails to make dangerous communities more livable again. I worry that too many of Hobbs’ readers will decry Peace for returning to Newark, that they would measure Rob’s success, were he still alive today, based upon his ultimate remove from the place where he grew up. Applying this kind of litmus test to success only reinforces the idea that places like Newark are inescapable, an idea I want so badly to believe is untrue. Unfortunately I also can’t shed the nagging suspicion that, if the place were Rob was born to were just ten minutes up the I-280, staying there would not have been so inextricably tied to his downfall and untimely death.

Most of the book’s critics cite the gaping difference in the life circumstances of the author and his subject as reason to avoid Hobbs’ work. What right does a privileged white Yale legacy novelist have to write about the life of a black man from Newark? Some, maybe even Hobbs himself, would answer very little. He is fully cognizant of his shortcomings as Peace’s biographer. Hobbs profiled his friend’s life with a thorough recognition that he, a Yale-educated white male from a long line of Yale-educated white males, could never fully comprehend what it was like to grow up as Rob did. I find it actually lends a certain compassion and insight to this biography of Peace that I appreciated. There’s an acknowledgement underlying every paragraph that we as readers and Hobbs as our narrator cannot truly understand what Rob was thinking or feeling, how he was holding it all together, why he made the decisions he made. In Hobbs’ fond portrait, Rob is treated as a remarkably kind, loving, intelligent, determined, and gifted human being, but also a flawed and unknowable one, as we all ultimately are.

Other critics argue that Hobbs is just profiting off the death of a young black man, one that he was barely even friends with. Admittedly, Hobbs was struggling to get his second novel published after the first was received with little fanfare. But a story as compelling as this one begged to be told and the very fact that Hobbs had ambitions of becoming a successful published author made him a prime candidate for writing this book. He was interested in the subject but also separate enough from him that he could do some investigative journalism, recount events in Rob’s life for which he was not present without the taint of foggy memory or his own subjective perspective. Hobbs obviously worked arduously to get the facts straight, to uncover the gritty minutiae of Rob’s life, to get to the anecdotes that would belie what meaning Rob made of his own existence. It would require a lot of trust and confidence from Rob’s closest friends and family, a very wide circle of people indeed, to write this book, let alone to do so this well. The faith that Rob’s loved ones demonstrate in Hobbs by opening up to him about their beloved friend speaks for itself.

Hobbs doesn’t treat his book as a mission to seek justice for his friend nor as an account of Peace at Yale, the only time in Peace’s life that Hobbs can truly speak to. The author makes his best effort to remove himself from the picture of Rob’s life to the point that I spent the first hundred pages wondering how Hobbs had ever come to learn about Rob in the first place. He speaks to his perceptions and understanding of Peace’s life as his roommate when he can, but this doesn’t color the narrative throughout. Clear and concise, Hobbs’ prose captured both the facts and the unanswerable in his friend’s short life. He elucidates the sadness of losing a remarkable friend, inseparable from the much larger problems that led to that lost. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is an important book, a timely one, and the type to encourage discussions about race and class that we can’t afford not to have.

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On The Unspeakable

 

Image retrieved from meghandaum.com

I’m pretty smitten with this Meghan Daum character. I read rave reviews of her recently released essay collection The Unspeakable, only to find that every other reader in town found these same reviews and requested the book from the library before me. So I get my hands on the only other Daum work offered by the Baltimore County Public Library system (which marks a shamefully huge omission in their catalog since she has published a total of three essay collections and one novel), Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in that House, a surprisingly delightful read about Daum’s years-long obsession with finding the perfect home. When the library’s automated system emailed to let me know The Unspeakable was finally mine for a short three weeks, I jumped straight in to this volume with even more enthusiasm for having had a taste of Daum’s talent already.

Daum is a dazzling writer, there’s really no other way to put it. Her essays are ripe with gorgeous metaphor, display her unparalleled intelligence, and steal readers’ attention with their painfully honest wisdom. I found myself reading certain passages over and over again, caught up in the beauty of their perfect structure and artful parlance. But Daum doesn’t just have a way with vocabulary and phrasing; she pours her whole heart into every last sentence she composes, producing profound truths that left me marveling at the depth of her grasp on everything from life’s most meaningful mysteries to the dark fathoms of her own psyche.

Take Daum’s essay “The Best Possible Experience” which recounts her participation in a panel on delaying marriage trends, peppered with reflections on the poor example of marital bliss provided by her parents and tales from Daum’s own bizarre dating history. Personally, I wish I could have witnessed Daum deliver her carefully prepared piece, a meditation on the intersection of materialism, marriage, socioeconomic status, and the randomness of falling in love, to the aging audience members of the halfheartedly-attended event. Daum’s recollection of this (seemingly brilliant) speech isn’t self-aggrandizing so much as self-deprecating, poking fun at her audience’s complete disinterest in and, what she initially believes to be, misreading of her speech. The audience then proceeds to sap up every word from their next panelist, a best-selling author who simply reads from the introduction of her book in which she humorously derides women for being so choosy when it comes to love.

When one audience member labels our author as the romantic one and her fellow panelist as the practical one, Daum is completely taken aback, then ensues on a thoughtful consideration of romance and authenticity rivaling the brilliance of her previously recounted speech. You see, Daum always categorized herself as a profoundly unromantic person, given her aversion to traditional notions of commitment and long-term partnership. But upon further inspection thanks to a vocal audience member, she realizes that maybe her openness to experience and near-religious belief in the importance of authenticity are actually evidence of a nascent romantic nature, that her desire to meet wildly diverse types of people and to hear their stories indicates a sentimental hope that a stranger’s life could come to intertwine with hers in a great, unlikely love story. What I love about this piece is its display of Daum’s uncanny talent for slyly reeling readers in so that they end up just as surprised as Daum at her concluding discoveries; at first we, like her, are duped into thinking Daum’s no-holds-barred approach in these essays is far from sentimental, only to realize upon further consideration that her sincere efforts at writing authentically are better classified as heart on your sleeve, an undeniably romantic approach.

Basically “The Best Possible Experience” completely stole the show for me, and it was only the second essay in the book. In fact, I would have desperately loved The Unspeakable even if every other piece downright sucked. But that isn’t to say that the following essays are a drop off in any way; I simply connected with this piece and immediately wanted to ponder it at great length and depth, while also fighting the urge to forge on to the next wonderfully insightful installment.

Many of the other essays are actually much darker than this one, but the book never borders on depressing or cynical. Daum brings a refreshing degree of honesty to her writing that touches on those unspeakable things (hence the title) that most people would find ways to skirt around. She contemplates her mother’s death, their troubled relationship, and her ambivalence of feeling toward a person so overly concerned with appearances and desperately lacking in motherly warmth. Modeling after her mother, Daum worries how the home health aide, hired to care for her mother through her final days, views this family that faces its matriarch’s death in such a matter-of-fact, unsentimental, and tearless way. Daum forces readers to face truths about aging that are blatantly unpleasant, from the misguided nostalgia we feel for a youth that was never as good as it seems in hindsight, to the irreconcilable loss of a future ripe with possibility once certain decisions force our lives into corners and dead ends we can never hope to navigate out of. She highlights the contradiction between our overly-sappy, sentimental affection for animals, particularly canines, and their patently genuine animal nature, exploring her own fathomless love for these “ticking time bombs that lick our faces,” a species which she would rather have present at her deathbed over any human companion.

One of the more unspeakable topics that Daum touches upon in many of these pieces is motherhood, or rather her lack of interest in entering the realm of motherhood, even after learning that she is pregnant by her husband who desires to raise a child, followed by a miscarriage that is both a welcome relief and a source of great sorrow. These disclosures are heart-wrenching and at times unbelievable. They fall outside the lines of civil conversation, verging on bold truths we would be equal parts scared and shamed to admit even to ourselves. But what makes Daum such a gifted and unique writer, what makes her work so necessary to read, is that these harsh and unpleasant admissions also readily evoke deep empathy from readers.

In a piece reflecting on her experience meeting Joni Mitchell, Daum attributes to Joni the lesson that “if you [don’t] ‘write from a place of excruciating candor you’ve written nothing’.” The Unspeakable itself is a testament to this teaching, an exercise in exploring the ungenerous and unexplored sides of life with poignancy, frankness, and comedy (because what reveals the darkness of things with more honesty than humor?). Daum truly takes Joni’s words to heart, and luckily she is gifted with the rare ability to speak the unspeakable and gain so many devotees in doing so.

On Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House

Meghan Daum’s pseudo-memoir “Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House” is an account of her life told in zip codes, outrageous home prices, swoon-worthy woodwork, disastrous architectural layouts, and soul-crushing house hunting failures. I worried that I would quickly grow weary of a 245-page book about the trials and tribulations of real estate, despite my love of all things interior design and HGTV which, like Daum, I can wholeheartedly attribute to my mother’s influence. But “Life Would Be Perfect” is far more engrossing than even a final reveal episode of Rehab Addict. Via her constant search for the perfect home, Daum takes readers on a deep and entertaining exploration of her life story and the seemingly-innate desire for homeownership. Our author is a fascinating and intelligent personality in her own rite which makes her book so readable; Daum writes brilliantly, with great wit and an expansive vocabulary, but also frankly, exposing her flaws, pretensions, and ridiculousness to readers with no holds barred.

By meditating on her history of homes, and a very robust history it is as she tried on dorms, apartments, and houses with more fervor than most brides search for the perfect gown, Daum explores the way our abodes cradle not just our daily lives but also our very precious identities. We follow Daum in her exhausting efforts to fulfill her childhood dream of renting a sprawling and elegantly bohemian New York apartment to her more adult (but still childlike) desire for a Laura Ingalls Wilder-style prairie farmhouse, farm included notwithstanding the fact that Daum has really only ever lived in suburbia or New York City.

Over each incarnation of Daum’s elusive, imagined perfect home, she explores what longings were at the heart of her search – the desire to be among the New York literary elite, living in a home filled with the warmth of worn Oriental rugs, the sound of intellectual conversation, and the subtle essence of effortless wealth; a display of rugged individualism and the pull of a vast landscape in her own little house on the prairie; the appearance of self-possession, confidence, and excellent taste conveyed via careful interior design as a prerequisite for introducing one’s home, and thus one’s very self, to a new suitor. This theme of home being mixed up with imagined identities and real hope is perfectly captured in the very title of Daum’s book, playing upon the equal parts ridiculous and rational belief that our homes define us, that our houses can make or break or alter our lives, that the places we live are of profound significance, that our decor has meaning all its own.

Though this is a story of housing dreams and disasters, it also encourages readers to engage with Daum, at once a frustratingly impulsive and entirely relatable narrator. As she signs yet another lease or completes the paperwork to purchase a home in Lincoln, Nebraska the very same day she first saw it, readers will at turns cringe, be consumed with jealousy, wonder at the cost of all those damn movers, cheer her on, and wish to see these homes, both the gorgeous and the ramshackle ones, in the flesh. I reveled in descriptions of her beloved New York City apartment on 100th St between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, pursed my lips in disgust at her search for a home in the smog- and traffic-laden, over-priced hills of Los Angeles, and envisioned what my own prairie farm home would entail. I wished I could try on homes for size just as much as Daum, then gently reminded myself how much I deplore the reality of moving. But my shuffling thoughts were always followed by a wistfully envious phase, envy of Daum’s freedom both financial and geographical, her bold search for a perfect place to call home.

Balanced by the reality that our homes, like ourselves, are imperfect and impermanent spaces, “Life Would Be Perfect” inspired dreams of my own ideal forever home and sparked reflections upon the places I have lived, been defined by, missed out on, and hope yet to find. Unlike the cookie-cutter perfection of interior design and home-buying shows that leave me bereft, covetous, and unsatisfied with my own slightly grubby, hand-me-down rental, Daum’s indulgent meditation on her housing history made me more fond of my own space and all its reflections of me (not including its grubbiness though). Culling wisdom from years of attending open houses, making more moves than I could keep track of, and renovating to perfection, Meghan Daum considers why home is so important to us, how the physical and aesthetic concerns begin to override the true function of a house, and the true measure of a perfect home.

On The Geography of Bliss

Image retrieved from http://www.ericweinerbooks.com

Positive psychology, freedom, self-help books, wealth, the American Dream. Just a few of the topics we cannot ignore when discussing the American understanding of one thing we all strive for, happiness. The United States treats happiness as a goal but an elusive one at best, the kind of thing we’re constantly reaching for but never quite able to grasp. And we’ll take any shortcut or quick fix available to get there. But while nearly everyone else is doing their damndest to secure happiness  for themselves, a wise few are giving happiness a little more thought, treating it as a serious and important matter of contemplation. Though Eric Weiner’s tone in The Geography of Bliss isn’t so serious, his commitment to uncovering the universal foundations of happiness certainly is.

As a self-professed grump and NPR foreign correspondent, Weiner decides to remove himself from the negativity of his demeanor and the unhappiness inherent in the stories he covers by embarking on an international quest for answers to his questions about happiness. Why do all those self-help books not add up to that much-promised sense of satisfaction? What makes some groups of people more happy than others? What are the conditions for ultimate happiness maximization? Where do we need to travel to find happiness in its most highly realized form?

Traveling to ten different countries to mingle with the natives, Weiner blends armchair philosophy with academic research from the social sciences and periodic bursts of pure Weiner brilliance, moments of our author’s enlightenment that are at turns wryly humorous, profound, alarmingly true, and hesitantly optimistic. As much as Weiner stays tethered to his central happiness theme, the book also stands as a fascinating exploration of national personalities, of the cultures that shape the attitudes and outlooks of an entire people. What makes the people of Moldova rate themselves as such an unhappy group? How do Icelanders retain their positive outlook through the winter days of total darkness? Is it really possible for Indians to achieve happiness when they’re constantly confronted with poverty and pollution, right next to decadence and spirituality? And what in the world do the Bhutanese mean when they talk about their nation’s Gross National Happiness?

For a topic that at first glance seems so lighthearted, if not frivolous, happiness proves a challenging topic to consider in The Geography of Bliss. My poor library copy of Weiner’s book was fattened with earmarks by the time I was done with it, the tops and bottoms of countless pages with particularly thought-provoking passages folded down for revisiting later. This book gave me so much grist for the mill of my mind, I was thinking about happiness for days and days – which isn’t such a bad way to achieve a certain kind of happiness. I’ve come to believe that just spending so much time with happiness on the brain is plain good for you, an exercise in personal philosophy building.

My own personal belief has long been that happiness isn’t some state of being we achieve and rest in peacefully forever after. Happiness requires constant effort and the experience of it is far from static. Presence is huge to happiness for me; focusing on the current moment, rather than dwelling in either the past or the future will yield much greater levels of joy and contentment than the alternative. Having a loving circle of people in your life, an occupation that provides a sense of fulfillment, basic feelings of safety and comfort – these are all necessary ingredients. But I’m also a white woman born living in one of the most powerful nations in the world during the 21st century. My understanding and experience of happiness may well be vastly different from that of people on other sides of the world, with cultures that place value and organize themselves in wildly different ways. By exploring happiness in those nether regions, Weiner provided me with an unprecedented feast of food for thought when it comes to my approach happiness, allowing me to see outside the box of the American happiness construction.

I won’t spoil too many of Weiner’s discoveries for you because it is just such a pleasure to delve into this book. But a few things ring true after unearthing the secrets to both happiness and sorrow across the globe. The happiest places seem to inspire a sense of life being bigger than just our own self, confined to our own personal histories and achievements. Connection to some larger group or idea grounds individuals in happier states of mind. You don’t need to move or even travel to find happiness, but you need to allow yourself to be moved by the places you go and the things you experience. Happiness is accessible in the most common of our relationships, in pure and joyful moments, no matter how humbly we pass the time. The Geography of Bliss emphasized for me how simple happiness can be. When we allow ourselves to realize that happiness doesn’t always come packaged in the same box, that what one culture dictates as the right form of happiness doesn’t hold true for all cultures, let alone all people that belong to that culture, we can truly open the doors to a more blissful life. And trying to write about this book has hit home Weiner’s excellent point that there just aren’t enough synonyms for happy in the English language.

On All Your Worth

It didn’t take much for me to fall in love with Elizabeth Warren. Her progressive politics, her earnest concern for the plight of all Americans, her frustration with policy decisions that routinely reward big finance over honest people, her ability to shut down detractors with facts and heart, her near-obsession with the stories of bankrupt families in an effort to figure out how we can help them… she just makes me swoon.

Warren’s memoir, A Fighting Chance, left me quite smitten with the Massachusetts senator. It also lead me to an even earlier work of Warren’s entitled All Your Worth that has the potential to transform the way most Americans handle their money for the better. Written with Warren’s daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi, All Your Worth is a financial how-to for the average working American. The two Warren girls set out strict but clearly outlined (and thus, easy to follow) rules for the way we should spend our money in order to maximize the value of both our saving and our spending. I don’t usually write about (or read about for that matter) financial books, but I couldn’t fail to provide some humble promotion to a book as rare, useful and comprehensible as All Your Worth (and much more practical than the lottery or a Mr. Money Mustache lifestyle). Plus I think a book like this, one that is so unfaltering in its commitment to helping everyday people, proves yet again why Mrs. Warren would be a wonderful leader of this country if she ever decides to take the Presidential plunge.

The basic formula set out by our authors is a 50-30-20 balance between our Must-Have expenses, our Wants spending, and our Saving, respectively. Challenging the way we conceptualize need in 21st century America, Elizabeth and Amelia define items in the Must-Have category as things you cannot cut out, the bills you would still pay without fail if you lost your job or faced a major financial downfall. So no, cable TV, an internet connection, and dinners out do not fall into this category. But beyond tightening the circle of need, Warren and Warren Tyagi explain methods to downsize on those Must-Haves that seem fixed in stone. There’s a very thorough beginner’s guide to refinancing your mortgage with a large emphasis on questions to ask a lender when shopping for new loans. There’s advice on how to tackle daunting credit card debt – lots of advice. There’s straightforward methods for lowering your insurance costs, exploring every possible option to get those Must-Haves to 50% of your monthly take home pay or less. And there’s clear and simple explanations as to why 50% is the magic, practical balance.

Then come the Wants. Trips to the movies, a trip to the local pub, subscriptions to HBO, vacations overseas, birthday and Christmas gifts. All those things, big and small, that make life a little more pleasurable or exciting or relaxing after the mortgage and the doctor’s bills are paid. What’s more, the Warren ladies make it super simple to track these types of expenditures. Just use cash. I know, it can be difficult to pay for everything you want with cash due to the proliferation of so many online marketplaces. And true, maybe that credit card company wants to reward you with goodies for a certain level of spending. But the only way to have a fast and hard idea of where you stand with your budget is to use good, old-fashioned cash for the things that aren’t budgeted for, the bright little spots of fun in your spending. I haven’t been one to use cash ever since I received my first debit card. I used to cringe at the thought a pocket full of twenties despite the eye rolls when I told people I only carried plastic. My mother, the kind of woman who is infamous for her ability to render exact change from her wallet, has stopped asking me for money when she’s at the register and needs a spare one-spot. But reading All Your Worth forced me to challenge my assumptions about this longstanding method of financial transaction. When looking at my bank account statements, it’s really a headache to parcel out where my spending diverges from my spending on wants. And of course I won’t stick to a Wants budget if it isn’t easy, or downright effortless, to do. So I’m trying cash for the first time in ages, just a budgeted amount I put in my wallet each week. If there are any leftovers, I’ll put that cash to the side in a little rainy day fund, ensuring I’ll have something to pull on when I want to buy a pricey concert ticket, take a vacation, or shower my mom with a really thoughtful Mother’s Day gift. The more I think about it, the more doable it seems. I may be required to pay with a card every now and then, but it won’t be difficult to remember to detract a certain amount from my weekly cash allowance when plastic purchases are made so sparingly. So far, it seems simple as pie.

Finally, there’s the savings category. I was actually a little surprised by the low budgeting – only 20% – to savings. But All Your Worth really stresses the importance of having a good chunk of Wants spending to enjoy life – and saving smartly to make your 20% grow it something much more than the face value of what you initially put in. The world of investing seems impossibly daunting to me. As often as I see my elderly housing clients barely subsisting on their monthly Social Security checks, I’ve kidded myself into thinking that smart saving will be enough to supplement that inevitable fixed monthly income. But the Warren ladies bring the world of investing out into a more accessible light, with overviews of what type of stock options to seek, defining all those acronyms like IRAs, explaining all the means of growing a retirement plan. They don’t even need to devote that many pages to their savings advice because it’s reduced to the simplest, most user-friendly tidbits that readers need to know before their money is off and running. After 15 minutes of research on my bank’s website (and of course reading All Your Worth), I set up a retirement account that I’m confident is a small step towards a more comfortable life when my working years are over. And once a down payment on a house is out of my pocket, even more of my savings will be invested in the type of investment options that are safe and just plain smart for someone my age. Thanks Warren girls!

If nothing else, All Your Worth gave me more confidence in myself as a financial powerhouse. Maybe that’s strong language, but I feel like I can get there someday. I know what to look for when mortgage shopping, something that was previously so scary as to make me reconsider my dream of home-ownership. I know how much money I should keep in the bank and how much to invest. I know that I’m doing what I can on a daily basis to make managing my money easy and effortless. I know how to still enjoy myself without a wracking sense of guilt every time I spend money on me. I know how to have difficult financial conversations with my husband even. All Your Worth lays out an incredibly easy plan for reducing debt and reducing worry, for building wealth and building financial happiness. The book is really more of a kick in the butt, than anything else, reminding us of our personal responsibility in our own financial security but also highlighting the often obscured ways we can exercise that responsibility. It’s unnerving to hear Warren hearken back to the days when there weren’t foreclosures in every neighborhood because the bank wouldn’t even think to lend you the money on a home you could not afford. While the financial rules and regulations certainly don’t make it easy for people to hold on to their hard-earned money, we as educated consumers can do just fine avoiding the loopholes and debt that banks and credit card companies prey upon. And if there’s one person that can elucidate everything a consumer needs to know about his or her money, I don’t think it could possibly be anyone other than Elizabeth Warren.

On Twelve By Twelve

The idea of living in a 12 foot by 12 foot cabin is likely more appealing and trendy today than it’s ever been before. I see articles about tiny houses flood my feed on facebook, posts that represent more of a fascination rather than a sense of disgust with how people are able to so remarkably downsize their lives. But William Powers took on the experiment of living small in 2007, before it was trendy to do so. And the extremely modest home he occupied belonged to Jackie Benton long before Powers’ stay there began. For these two, living 12 by 12 is more about a new way of life, commonly referred to among its proponents as “wildcrafting,” than just mere downsizing.

Fueled by admiration for Jackie, Powers recounts his stay in her home for a few months during the year 2007 while Jackie was away on travel. Without running water or electricity, Jackie was able to subsist largely off the land through the gardens surrounding her home and the alternative solutions she utilized for energy, bathing, and the like. Living in such a small space was partially a political move for her – structures which dimensions less than 12 feet by 12 feet are not considered to be houses in North Carolina, thus requiring no property tax payments. Jackie chose these dimensions for just such a purpose, similar to how she downsized her income as a doctor to about $11,000 a year in order to avoid income tax requirements. Dr. Benton was not a tax evader, but rather a citizen practicing nonviolent protest against tax money being devoted to war.

These types of thoughtful decisions infused nearly every aspect of Jackie’s life, so it was nearly impossible for Powers to not model some of his decisions after Jackie’s while staying at her place. What seems at first to be an account of an environmentally-minded lifestyle experiment comes to encompass a whole host of questions about the status quo and how we lead our lives. There are also profiles of the neighbors, other figures trying their hand at similar lifestyle experiments, accounts of Powers’ conversations with visitors who just don’t understand and then other exchanges with people who truly do get it. He compares his domestic simple living experience with his international travels, finding startling similarities between many of those people he purported to help in “underdeveloped” nations and Jackie, her neighbors, and even himself. And he details the simple days of traveling through the woods around his temporary home, observing nature without distraction or obtrusion.

Powers writes with a sharp self-criticism, casting Jackie’s chosen path against his own efforts to save the world through international aid. The two both lead intentional and meaningful lives, however our narrator questions his previous jet-fueled travels as efforts at assimilating those who tread lightly in third world nations to the environmentally-cumbersome lifestyle of Westerners. It is patently obvious in the best way that he spent much time and consideration on these issues before setting pen to paper, that he poured over every angle and challenged his own perspective before putting any of his views in print. A philosophic personality to start, Powers’ time spent leading a leisurely, self-subsisting life alongside other equally minded people obviously provided ample opportunity for him to dwell on a variety of ethical and philosophic issues, and the results are endlessly intriguing. I found myself repeatedly earmarking pages for further consideration and seeking anyone with whom I could discuss the ideas introduced to me by this remarkable narrator. There is so much thought packed into this 260-page volume, that I felt the need, almost immediately after finishing, to start from page 1 again in order to fully process all the information my mind was only beginning to process.

While writing about his occupation of the 12 x 12, Powers seems to anticipate all the questions I want to ask, raising them to himself as soon as they arise. Will he be able to maintain such a sustainable, wildcrafted lifestyle once Jackie comes back to her home? How do you reconcile the newfound philosophies of a 12 x 12 lifestyle with the environmental sins of your past? It was refreshing to see Powers ask those questions that were on the tip of my tongue, and to see him shamelessly admit to sometimes not knowing the answer. He even changed his answers, as more truths revealed themselves to him and changed his perspective on previously addressed topics.

I was not expecting this to be a story of inequality and racial progress, but since Jackie worked tirelessly as a civil rights activist, strains of thought related to racial division in the South infused Powers’ stay in the cabin. The result: an entirely thorough and intelligent analysis of all facets necessary to truly lead a sustainable lifestyle. Signs of the South’s history of slavery abounded and further evidence of enduring inequality surrounded Powers, from the old sharecroppers’ houses he encountered on long walks to the nearby chicken factory staffed largely by Latinos, to his neighbors’ attitude toward the Hispanic families living nearby. Powers’ concerns about inequality were so intertwined with his efforts to lead a sustainable existence while living at Jackie’s that the resulting narrative covers a range of ethical and moral questions – inequality, Third- and First-world notions of development, workaholism, addiction, consumption, ecocide – with the grace and wisdom that I’ve come to see as characteristic of Powers’ writing.

But despite the volume and depth of Powers’ ideas, this piece is far from inaccessible or alienatingly-intellectual. Powers’ thoughts are lofty but introduced through the everyday experiences that introduced them, drawing an easy to follow chain along which readers can connect the 12 by 12 concept to other principles of living, moral dilemmas, and social questions. Twelve By Twelve unquestionably proves how inextricably intertwined all the facets of leading an ethical lifestyle can be. As soon as he decided to live in a more environmentally sustainable way, Powers questioned his commitment to Western ideals of development, American workaholism, how we relate to others with different backgrounds than our own, our addiction to technology, and so much more. We cannot choose to align our lives to our values in piecemeal ways; rather, we must question the whole of it. If not, all the non-choices that have shaped our lives for so long without question will soon enough be thrown in the fray after the first small change is initiated.

Powers recognizes the way in which he takes 12 by 12 to an extreme; in fact, he is forced to re-evaluate his understanding of the wildcrafted lifestyle while still occupying Jackie’s cabin. His unfaltering commitment to the idyllic conception of 12 by 12 begins to render the entire challenge useless as he finds himself judging others and experiencing discontent.  Ultimately he uncovers a more balanced understanding of his and Jackie’s reconceptualized American dream, but his long-term transformation post-12 by 12 is ground in mindfulness practice. What Powers gained the most from his rather isolated, meditative time as a wildcrafter was the ability to think calmly, carefully, and thoroughly in each and every present moment.

Meditating and captivating, Twelve by Twelve challenges the contours of the American dream by profiling an exemplar of how we can achieve through other means the ultimate purpose of said dream: happiness. And his book impacted me in the best way, both encouraging me to question my current lifestyle choices and inspiring me to change. At times surprising, restlessly thought-provoking, and a great discussion piece, Twelve by Twelve left me itching for more and completely invigorated with a more holistic, mindful, and optimistic take on life.

On This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

 

Image retrieved from annpatchett.com

I’m a sponge for stories. I love to consume them in whatever format they’re presented to me – in a book, on film, or from the lips of a performer. But one thing I’ve never had the knack for was telling them myself.

I remember an 11th grade English class assignment that required I compose a short story. I felt completely unprepared to take on such a daunting task, and the finished product felt flimsy, shallow, and absolutely unreadable to me. Looking back, I can forgive myself that awful attempt at fiction on account of my youth and lack of guidance. I was such an avid reader back then as I am today, so I’m certain I judged myself too harshly against the shining paradigms of fiction which I poured over on a daily basis, the carefully crafted work of inspired and wizened and older professionals. It’s hard to say why this one high school homework assignment sticks with me so vividly even a decade later, especially when my inability to create plot, evoke emotion, coherently string together events, and engage an audience is not confined to the written word – I can’t tell a story (or a joke for that matter) to save my life.

But reading Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage makes it seem so damn easy. Not the writing it down part, but the creative element of storytelling. One of the longest and earliest essays featured in this collection recounts Patchett’s method of composition, how she creates an entire story in her head before ever putting pen to paper. She argues that developing a story is one of the easiest parts of fiction writing; all you need is a character or two and then you simply ask questions about those characters, put them in situations of all sorts, delve into their past experiences to understand why they are however you imagine them to be. You will find that you begin to write what you know, argues Patchett, but it won’t be long before something of interest develops too. In Patchett’s able voice, the construction of a novel sounds like a lovely pastime, a sort of daydreaming on a higher level. While I envy her ability to so effortlessly create interesting and engaging fiction, I have no desire to become a novelist. Nonetheless, it sure was interesting to read about and I almost wanted to try my hand at a short story or two. That’s the power of Ann Patchett.

Although entitled This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett’s essay collection is not solely about marriage and relationships, nor confined to her love of writing as the beginning of this review may suggest. Prior to picking this volume up, I knew little of Patchett and that is probably a large part of why I found this collection so intriguing. Essays are one of my favorite forms – I love how one writer’s nonfiction, read in close succession, can provide such a strongly nuanced feeling of a person. Every essay collection I’ve had the pleasure to read has been brimming with wisdom and left me feeling delightfully inspired and positive about life. Although there are certainly staple essay topics found in most volume across writers, each collection retains a highly specific and undefinable feeling in my mind, wrought by the particular author’s sensibility, writing style, and choice of topic.

Patchett and I don’t share nearly as much in common as I do with some other beloved essayists on my list, like Barbara Kingsolver and Jonathan Franzen. A child of divorce, a divorcee herself, a Southerner, a lover of Los Angeles, childless, and a product of a Catholic school education, Patchett’s upbringing and life experiences could not be further from my own. Voyeurism of sorts played a role in my fascination with this book. Her first marriage, doomed before it even began, is at once entirely foreign and alarmingly familiar, the type of relationship that someone could so easily fall into and, unlike Patchett, never emerge from. She explains her marriage as being ground in divorce in an essay that she wisely placed at the end as it trumped all the other relationship woes and advice previously disseminated. The close friendship Ann develops in later life with the nun who taught her to read and write in primary school is touchingly funny and still unfathomable to me, the child of vaguely Catholic parents who only shared horror stories about nuns during their Catholic school days. I find myself thankful for her account of training for the Los Angeles Police Academy, one of those experiences I’d much rather read about than try my own hand at. And of course, I was complete won over (and nearly brought to tears) with meditations on Patchett’s beloved dog Rose and her deeply adored maternal grandmother, a woman Ann cared for in the later years of her life.

Her friendship with Lucy Grealy is the subject of a controversial but touching convocation address at Clemson, leading into Patchett’s arguments for the right to read. Though she later goes on to admonish herself for the naivete of her speech, Patchett’s words rung so true to me: “A college education is about expansion. It’s about seeing many different viewpoints, hearing many different voices. You will find that the more you learn, the more complicated many things get, because you will have the intelligence to recognize many aspects of a single idea.” Maybe I was particularly drawn to this bit of wisdom because it sums up my hunger for essays, especially the type that Patchett composed and compiled in this book. I find myself eager to read anything of this form as a means to learn from people similar to and different from myself. The essay has a fairly express purpose of making a point, not veiling themes in metaphor and symbolism as a more artful novel would, but explicitly structuring anecdotes and arguments in thoughtful ways to evoke an idea.

I’m not sure what I can say to adequately prepare readers for this collection without denying them the pleasure of discovering and evaluating Patchett’s wisdom on their own. As Ann suggests, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage makes my world delightfully more complicated. Her engaging essay collection marks one more contribution to the multitude of ideas, big and small, planted in my head by a wide range of thinkers and writers. This book is a brilliant example of why I love to read.

On Overdressed

Image retrieved from ecosalon.com

Have you ever realized how clothing is restocked so much more quickly in stores these days than a decade or two in the past? Or how vintage finds produced prior to the 1980s stand up over time so much better than things purchased only a month ago? Or that finding a trendy outfit is increasingly easier and alarmingly cheaper than its ever been?

Elizabeth L. Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion uncovers the highs and lows of fast fashion. The term “fast fashion” was actually new to me upon reading this book but it perfectly describes the current state of the US clothing industry. Comparable to the fast food industry, fast fashion is defined by the ubiquity of stores and a high volume of sales, allowing for low prices but also forcing major sacrifices in quality, social consciousness, and environmental-friendliness of the product. Certainly everyone understands the horrors of sweatshops, and while Cline explores some of the off-shored factories where our favorite US brands produce the latest trends, she goes even deeper into the history and vast repercussions of our changing clothing culture.

Largely because of projects such as The Center for a New American DreamZero Waste Home, and the Story of Stuff, in the last few years I became more conscious of the sheer volume of possessions I owned. I couldn’t ignore  how carelessly I bought new clothes only to quickly discard them once they were out of fashion and wore out in a few washings, of how burdened I felt by the things that I owned. Part of my efforts to rectify the discomfort I felt about my consumerist habits of the past included donating as much of my stuff to charity as I could. We’ve all heard plenty of stories about the local Salvation Army being overrun with donations they could never possibly hope to process and sell. But there was something about purging my closet that felt so satisfying on a personal level and on a charitable one, I couldn’t (and still can’t) resist. Cline finally did the necessary legwork to help me realize what actually happens to all that merchandise we so generously drop off on Goodwill’s doorstep. Those colored tags on thrift store clothing correspond to the week when the item hit the floor. That way, employees can take items that haven’t sold after a specified length of time (usually four to eight weeks) out of the stores. And then what happens to them? Well I was happy to know that some of our donations are repurposed into other useful cloth items – rags, towels, and such. And some are donated to third world countries, largely to South Africa, wear the Western obsession with fashion trends has taken hold. But a sizable tonnage (literally, tons) of those clothes end up in landfills, having been deemed unwearable or undesirable. While it isn’t ridiculous to believe that someone less fortunate may be happy to take a few hand-me-downs, it is entirely unrealistic to think that there is demand for all the clothes that Americans of each and every class are trying to get rid of.

I also made efforts to source from thrift stores instead of buying new clothes with varying levels of success. While there were plenty of times when my will failed me, I also began to notice something very telling about the clothes at the thrift store. I had imagined that many of the items to be found at my Goodwill would be wearable, cast-offs in good condition but in need of a new home since their previous owner grew prematurely tired of them. In reality, most of what was to be found at these stores wasn’t in such good shape, with frayed fabric, torn hemlines, pills galore, and lumpy fits due to too many washings as the norm. Sadly, some of these clothes were ones I recognized from the racks at Target, H&M, or Old Navy no more than one season ago.

The reason so many of our clothes end up in donation bins and landfills isn’t just because we have so many clothes nowadays, though it is intimately tied to that fact. Why do we have so many clothes in the new millennium? Because we can afford sizable wardrobes built of $15 tops, $20 jeans, and $30 formal dresses. Unlike our counterparts from 70 years ago, clothing is affordable and ready to wear right out of the store. And why is it so affordable? Because the quality of our modern day garments is so significantly lower than that of clothes made in the past. From the original design to stitch and fabric selection, today’s clothes wear out faster, fit more poorly, do not wash well, and literally unravel in ways that our mothers’ and grandmothers’ clothes never would have. As Cline wisely points out, clothes that cost so little are more disposable in our minds because of their negligible price. We’re more likely to give up on a $20 shirt than a $100 one. But cheap clothing is also more disposable in a literal sense, given that it is so poorly constructed and not built to last. The life cycle of today’s clothes is grossly short, and oftentimes looking for second life at the thrift shop is a lost cause. But imagining our unwanted pieces in someone else’s wardrobe is much more pleasant than imagining them in a landfill.

Cline explains the rise of fast fashion, how affordable stores like Gap and Old Navy quickly gave way to uber-cheap and trendy lines at Forever 21 and H&M. The movement of garment production offshore, the decline of the American fashion industry, the ethical implications of fast fashion, the environmental impact of these changes, blog cultures that espouse trends, and potential solutions to these problems are all covered in Cline’s expose. From the plush carpeting of Bergdorf Goodman to the factory floor of Bangladesh’s garment manufacturers, Cline leaves few players untouched in the fashion game, fast or slow.

Though she ultimately focuses a bit more on alternate answers rather than changing the essential question (how to make more ethical clothing choices? vs. do we really need to buy that many clothes in the first place?), I do appreciate the author’s appeal to rediscover the lost art of sewing (though I can’t say that I’ve always been on friendly terms with my sewing machine – ours is a volatile love-hate relationship closely tied to the complexity of my project) and to visit tailors and to educate ourselves as clothing consumers. Far too few people understand the pros and cons of different fabrics and even less take the time to visit a tailor when the fit of a could-be-beloved item is just a bit off. She ends on an optimistic note, profiling the efforts made by talented sewers in her local Brooklyn neighborhood to transform our wasteful attitudes toward clothing and explaining how the current unsustainable system is bound to force production efforts back to the US. But I still cannot help thinking about the reality of our dilemma – where are all these unwanted clothes piling up? How can we force consumers to associate their purchase at the local mall with the overworked and underpaid factory ladies churning out thousands of identical products each day? And what will it take to make enough people change their ways so as to counter big fashion business? Here’s hoping that suggesting Overdressed to a few more readers will help.

On The Man Who Quit Money

Image retrieved from cynthiaord.com

The title of Mark Sundeen’s account of the revolutionary lifestyle and philosophy of Daniel Suelo was what first caught my eye. The Man Who Quit Money. At once, a concept that is entirely unfathomable but deeply alluring. A glance at the cover photograph of the man himself, Mr. Suelo, further captivated my attention. With an easy smile on his face, Buddy Holly-style glasses, and shaggy salt and pepper hair emerging from a friendly bolera hat, Daniel Suelo looks the part of the gracefully aging, Pacific Northwestern hipster. Though he is certainly not someone I would categorize as trendy after having learned about him, Daniel certainly embodies certain of the more intriguing aspects of self-righteous hipster culture but on an entirely different level.

Sundeen’s book is, as its title suggests, the story of a man who renounced currency, both the give and take of money in all its forms, including charity and government benefits predicated upon taxpayer dollars. How he manages to do it still boggles my mind (more on the logistics later). But Daniel Suelo’s commitment to a moneyless existence was not an experiment in poverty, an attempt to see how the other half lives, nor a concerted effort to reduce his carbon footprint, though he certainly did so in the process.

Raised a fundamentalist Christian, Daniel Suelo was a follower of Jesus from a young age and believed in the Bible in its most literal sense. Though he doesn’t look the part of it today, Suelo actually continues to lead a life fairly aligned with the religious values upon which he was raised. One of my favorite Suelo-isms from the book relates to the contradictory nature of religion in the United States. “This is a nation that professes to be a Christian nation… and yet it’s basically illegal to live according to the teachings of Jesus.” Suelo questions the concept of free will, believing in a purposeful God that provides for the needs of humans and all living creatures such that we don’t need to rely upon consuming in the traditional big box store, supermarket fashion to survive. He comes back again and again to the Biblical passage, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat of drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” It is this unyielding faith that led Suelo to leave his last $30.00 in a phone booth and give up money for good thirteen years ago.

Suelo’s life seems to have reached a content stasis once he gave up money. But the principled, rugged picture of Daniel Suelo that Sundeen draws for readers at the beginning of his book is the product of religious questioning, travels the world over, family struggles, and a battle against deep depression. The journey that brought Suelo to his current philosophy is a beautiful one, well-told under Sundeen’s hand. What I find most fascinating, however, are the tenets of that philosophy and how brilliantly they highlight the struggles inherent in any attempt to lead a good and moral life in the US.

“The more people have, the less they give. Similarly, generous cultures produce less waste because excess is shared, whereas stingy nations fill their landfills with leftovers.” Suelo’s experiences lead him to such a conclusion and I don’t know if truer words could ever be spoken. For some time Suelo struggled to live within the confines of capitalism, recognizing the way in which it was nearly illegal to avoid the use of money. As Sundeen aptly points out, the monetary system by itself creates loads of anxiety for people, from taxes to mortgages to the regular outflow of cash required to clothe, feed, bathe, and care for ourselves. For people who try to lead simple and moral lives within this anxiety-ridden capitalist culture, people who make those small changes like buying local, driving less, purchasing high-efficiency appliances, reusing and recycling, the anxiety is twofold. Not only do they struggle under the expenses of everyday life that we all face, they are also cognizant of the environmental and moral repercussions of each and every decision they make. Sure, reusing a plastic baggie keeps one more item out of the landfill, but we’re still using a disposable item made of plastic that will ultimately never completely disintegrate (a major moral struggle that Sundeen devotes quite some time to recounting in this book).

The beauty of Suelo’s lifestyle is that he escapes both of these struggles unscathed by eliminating money’s presence from his life. One of my favorite moments in the book comes when Suelo gives up those last $30.00. He thought his life couldn’t get much worse at that point, then realized that the money did not make a bit of difference. He was already at his lowest point with money, how much worse could it get without that measly sum wearing him down? The onrush of freedom he experienced by setting down those bills, by letting go of the confines of a monied mentality, was euphoric just to read.

And now Daniel is a practiced dumpster-diver, a go-to house-sitter among his friends, a cave dweller, an expert forager, and a faithful servant of God – all without a cent to his name. Dwelling in the caves of Moab, Utah, Suelo avoids the worries and fears that go with owning land and a house and all the possessions inside. By scavenging the area’s dumpsters, he reduces the size of our landfills, prevents perfectly good consumables from going to waste, and challenges notions of socially acceptable eating practices. His life offers a perfect exemplar of presence, the kind pursued by practitioners of meditation and followers of many Eastern religions alike, since he has nothing to worry about beyond the present moment. He enjoys free meals with friends, finds beauty in the natural world, and has absolutely no notion of private property.

But what may be most empowering of all is the sense of community Suelo has found, despite leading a lifestyle that at first glance appears reclusive. Quitting money proves, ultimately, to be a persuasive argument against the pull yourself up by your own bootstraps mentality in America. Suelo is convinced that no person is entirely self-sufficient; he understands the world as a series of interdependent beings, from his dependence on the waste of others as a source of nutrition to his provision of joy and free labor and knowledge and friendship to others. Not only is this a beautiful way to view the world, it is a productive and practical one too.

Some, probably many, would call Daniel Suelo naive, an idealist, a dreamer, a quack. The roll call of derogatory names for someone like Suelo is seemingly endless. And that is one of the most frustrating but also hopeful things about a story like Suelo’s. He defies categorization in ways that confuse people. His ideology is difficult to grasp because it so deeply challenges that of our society. He is misunderstood beyond compare. But he also is one of the most principled, righteous, admirable, inspiring people I have ever learned of. I love individuals that push the boundaries of possibility, that challenge us to rethink what is accepted and expected. I find hope in the fact that someone like Daniel Suelo exists and that he has found success in his life. And I pray that people will read this book and find something of themselves in Daniel, whether it be similar religious upbringing, a passion for the outdoors, past travels to the same locales, a history of debilitating depression, mastery of the meditative arts, or any other commonality. In so doing, maybe we can all learn from, if not begin to embody, Daniel Suelo’s mind bogglingly wonderful means of existence. In reading Sundeen’s book, Suelo becomes much more familiar and his lifestyle, far less frightening.

On The Righteous Mind

Image retrieved from barnesandnoble.com

I was initially sucked in by the title – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Though I don’t get too caught up in political debate, I am a self-proclaimed liberal and often find myself wondering how those on the other side of the spectrum can vote as they do while still maintaining a sense of decency. So I knew Jonathan Haidt’s book, if it delivered even a fraction of what its title promised, would be informative and eyeopening. Plus, Haidt is a social psychologist, a brilliant combination of two disciplines that are fascinating to probe. Though I completed The Righteous Mind nearly one month ago, it has stuck with me like a bad habit – I can’t stop seeing the political and religious discussions around me in Jonathan Haidt’s terms.

Haidt’s book opens with an explanation of the workings of moral intuition. He makes a strong case that we experience gut intuitions first, then rationalize those feelings later, drawing on innumerable studies that the reader can’t help but exercise for him or herself. His aim is to elucidate how we make arguments to support our positions after we firmly entrench ourselves on one side or the other.

From there, he takes a global look at morality, proving American ethnocentrism in the process. In an attempt to define morality, Haidt suggests that the actual standards which define the moral code are far from universal. Though he identifies a distinct set of six moral principles held in the US, he determines that members of political and religious groups understand and use these aspects of morality in distinctly different ways.

Haidt’s book is not an admonishment of liberals, but he does encourage readers who fall into that category to allow themselves to entertain his argument (Haidt admits to being of a liberal mind too). Authority, liberty, sanctity, care, equality, and loyalty make the six “taste receptors” of morality, but liberals only make good use of a handful of these elements, while conservatives utilize the entire spectrum. Liberals are more likely to appeal to care, equality, and liberty – issues such as freedom from oppression, social welfare for the poor, and an end to animal cruelty are all typical causes that liberals advocate for and support. While liberals fail to address the tropes of authority, sanctity, and loyalty, conservatives pick up these arguments with gusto. This was the most clear explanation of why many poor middle Americans support the Republican party, although to do so seems anathema to their own best interest. For many of these people, a high premium is placed on submission to authority, religious practice, and loyalty to one’s country and family. Although the social policies of Democrats may favor these voters, the arguments of the Republican party appeal to their value system on a much wider basis.

But both political parties appeal to fairness and this is still a deeply divisive issue among the American people. Haidt suggests that is not that one party values fairness more than the other or even that one side’s appeal to fairness is stronger or more well constructed. Rather, fairness is defined in vastly different ways across the spectrum. Most liberals define fairness in terms of outcome – redistribution of income, for example, should be instituted in an effort to equalize the financial outcomes for everyone. Equality of outcome matters most for liberals. On the other side, conservatives believe in proportionality – everyone should be rewarded relative to the effort they put in. With taxation, for instance, a progressive tax policy would take from the rich in order to provide for the poor. To a conservative, such a policy violates proportionality, as the poor received much more than they contributed, while the rich received much less than they contributed. Though the entire book was worthwhile and eye-opening, it was this single argument that made the entire book worth reading for me.

Though Haidt spends more time on the political side of morality, rather than the religious side, that was just fine by me. His arguments are clear, concise, and relevant, even if overly simplistic. But the real value of his book lies in how Haidt challenges people from any political or religious walk of life to consider the opposing arguments and belief systems. People are so quick to support their own intuitions that they fail to realize how anyone could think differently than themselves. If we all considered the thought processes behind one another’s beliefs, we might find ourselves in a more peaceful and productive world.

On The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Image retrieved from wikipedia.org

Social injustice and inequality get my blood boiling in the best way possible. Now that I’m out of school, I get less of a taste for these topics than I have in previous years (I was a sociology student) and it can be incredibly difficult to fill that void. The debates and class discussions, the readings and constant inundation with material on social issues are hard to replicate in the real world. So I turn to books as fodder in the hopes that I can find some small piece of enlightening, enraging, or difficult information, information to challenge and motivate me. Though I am still fine-tuning my ability to select the most engaging nonfiction, my alma mater UMBC helped a bit when it required incoming students to read Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I dragged my feet on this one at first but was rewarded for recently renewing it from the library. Reading Skloot’s account of Henrietta Lacks’ life and legacy is, after all, a deeply rewarding experience, and the true story recounted within this book speaks volumes on racial and social inequality, medicine, family, and ethics.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer in the early 1950s but made untold posthumous contributions to medical science. She came from humble beginnings in Clover, Virginia, a member of a large tobacco-farming family. Lacks later moved with her husband to the Baltimore area, taking advantage of industrial job opportunities in the hopes that Henrietta and her husband could provide a better life for their children than what they had known.  As a twentysomething mother of four with a fifth child on the way, Lacks felt a hard lump in her cervix which she believed to be cancerous. Seeking treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Henrietta suffered through radiation therapy and the painful spread of cancer to innumerable other organs. At the age of 31, Henrietta succumbed to the disease that spread throughout her body, leaving behind a husband, five children, and a multitude of close relations.

But while at Hopkins, a sample of Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells were taken and submersed in culture medium, as was routinely done with cells from a whole host of Hopkins patients. Unlike the cells provided by other Hopkins patients, which often died within a few days, Henrietta’s grew at an unbelievable rate. George Gey was the head of tissue culture research at the hospital at the time, and he was  quite generous with his stock of Henrietta’s seemingly immortal cells. Gey shared a few batches with other researchers who, in turn, were happy to share some of Henrietta’s cells with still more researchers since their initial batches multiplied so quickly. These cells, known within the medical community as HeLa cells, have been credited with assisting in some of the greatest scientific discoveries of the past sixty years, from the polio vaccine to cancer research, gene mapping, and cloning. But Henrietta’s permission was never secured before taking these cells and her husband only consented to a partial autopsy after much resistance. Further, the Lacks family did not realize until many years later that Henrietta’s cells were still living or that they had contributed to so many medical discoveries and research profits.

Skloot’s book covers not only the medical miracle of Henrietta’s cells, but also the racial, class, and ethical questions raised by the very existence of HeLa cells. In relentless pursuit of the Lacks family, Skloot travels to Baltimore and Clover, endlessly calling the Lacks family members to gather information for her book. Henrietta’s children were all reasonably distrustful of white people – the only time anyone with white skin tried to contact them, it was about Henrietta’s cells and it always left them feeling taken advantage of and unfairly treated. The refraining argument made by the Lacks family and Skloot is how their mother’s cells could provide so much to medicine, yet leave them unable to afford health insurance. Many members of the Lacks family had little education and thus a limited ability to grasp the complexity and details of how HeLa cells have been used. Though many of Henrietta’s children express great happiness to know that their mother’s cells have helped so many people in untold ways, it is a complicated and uneasy happiness, wrought with misunderstanding and the wrenching sadness of loss.

Much as Skloot attempts to uncover Henrietta’s story for readers, she also does so for the sake of Henrietta’s family since her children were so young at the time of her death. Skloot’s persistence as well as her sensitivity to the Lacks’ situation and her desire to share the story of the woman whose cells are so famous eventually help her break through to Henrietta’s children, in particular her daughter Deborah. Deborah has no memories of her mother and wants to learn more about Henrietta, to see her and understand how her cells can still be alive although she is not. Though Deborah is the family member to whom Skloot grows most close, even she was never fully trusting of her mother’s biographer. Deborah would only agree to go on long trips with Rebecca if they took separate cars and she frequently making frantic late-night calls to Skloot, questioning her intentions. Much of Skloot’s book rests upon not Henrietta’s story so much as that of her children, who are dealing with the repercussions of being HeLa’s kin and grappling with all that they never knew.

Ethical dilemmas are considered as well – in fact, Skloot devotes much of her afterword to the tissue rights debate, a realm of activism I never knew existed but have had a difficult time fleshing out. Henrietta Lacks is not the only person whose cells have made huge profits for scientists and the medical field, but her story has been by far the most unjustly obscured. Skloot does much justice to the myriad arguments for and against tissue rights at the end of her book, appropriately building upon her thorough exploration of the Lacks family’s experience.

Skloot gives voice to Henrietta and her family who, for far too long, were severed from the legacy of HeLa cells. By providing a name, a history, a family, and a voice for the woman who sacrificed these cells, Skloot forces readers to recognize the innumerable questions embedded in medical research ethics and their undeniable connections to issues of social and racial inequality.

On Bright-Sided

When I picked Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided up from the library, I was almost embarrassed to be seen with the book, even going so far as hiding the cover under those of the other books in my stack. The promotion of positivity is so pervasive in our society that I felt self-conscious checking out a book whose title suggested that positivity’s track record wasn’t so pristine. While it may seem counter-intuitive to practice anything other than positive thinking, Ehrenreich’s book questions the origins and virtue of blind optimism in a handful of the major industries, social groups, and academic fields in which positivity has gained wide traction. Ehrenreich’s argument is far from flawless and I’m not planning on embracing outright pessimism anytime soon, but Bright-Sided employs the type of critical thinking that is vital to improving America.

Starting with breast cancer support networks, then moving on to the origins of positivity and the industries of motivational speaking, corporate positivity in concordane with major layoffs, mega-churches, positive psychology, and finance, Ehrenreich tours the American optimism landscape in a handful of its myriad forms. While I appreciated each of Ehrenreich’s chapters for their own merits, her argument that these instances of blind optimism were undermining America, as suggested by the book’s subtitle, was not as well developed as expected. It was certainly interesting to take a glimpse into the bland, God-less, positivity-driven megachurch, televangelist, prosperity preacher culture, where religious teachings take a back seat to self-help sermons and weak anecdotes as evidence of the power of positive thinking. I’ve long held issue with the breast cancer survivor culture – in particular the “pink-washing” of products whose proceeds are purportedly directed to breast cancer research efforts in spite of the fact that many of these products (ie. water bottles, cosmetics, other plastics) contain cancer-causing agents themselves. I was delighted that Ehrenreich referenced Breast Cancer Action, a nonprofit challenging the dominant discourse on breast cancer in favor of one focused on prevention efforts and environmental changes to reduce exposure to carcinogens, although her main beef with the breast cancer culture is how blindly optimistic both patients and survivors are. It was mind boggling to recognize how the stories of those who have succumbed to the cancer are hidden behind the stories of survivors who consider themselves lucky to have been diagnosed with cancer for changing their lives in positive ways. Further, it was enlightening to have the holes in research supporting positive psychology revealed, as so often scientific findings are highly exaggerated by and for the media, while the null results and those that disprove desired hypotheses are buried.

But these disparate pieces failed to coalesce into a sound argument as to why having a positive outlook is comprising our entire nation. She did conclude with a chapter on the connection between positivity and the financial crisis, drawing a bit on the arguments set up in her chapters on prosperity preachers and corporations. I appreciated the way in which she tied issues of inequality and social justice in to this and the final section of her book. Despite the fact that upward mobility is more common in plenty of other nations, the fable of picking oneself up by his or her bootstraps is so pervasive in the US as to make Americans more tolerant of inequality and less cautious with our investments. Self-delusion was a large force behind the financial crisis, Ehrenreich argues, on the part of individuals, buying on credit they could never possibly repay and purchasing houses with adjustable mortgage rates that eventually forced them onto the streets, as well as bankers and executives, making unwise lending decisions, holding unbelievably high expectations, and failing to confront reality. The dissenters on Wall Street were routinely derided for their negativity and pessimism, so at odds with the new corporate culture. It is this portion of the book where Ehrenreich’s argument as to how positivity has undermined a nation becomes most solidified, though still not fully formed. And it segued quite well into her conclusion, in which she ultimately calls for realism, defensive pessimism, an acceptance of our vulnerability, and ultimately action to remove the threats to circumstantial happiness wherever we can.

As someone who partakes in meditation, I firmly believe in the immense power of our minds. Ehrenreich’s framing of positivity in the terms of “laws of attraction,” whereby you can exercise control over your world through your thoughts such that the things you want will come to you, did give me some pause. Her contention aims at the power of the mind in a more tangible sense; simply thinking hard about what you want will not make it appear for you as so many of the positivists referenced in this book profess. It is undeniable to me, however, that we exercise more than a modicum of control over our worlds with our minds – it’s why my wallpaper cellphone reads “Change your thoughts and you change your world,” a potent reminder of the way in which the things I dwell upon in my head shape my daily life experience. I do not disagree with Ehrenreich’s refusal to accept the law of attraction premise; it would be foolish to believe that we can get the things we want without working for them. But there is a fine line here that Ehrenreich fails to establish between the imprudence of meditating on prosperity in the hopes that it will effortlessly reveal itself and the faculty practicing meditation provides us in creating and controlling our experiences of the world.

While I’m not a highly cynical person, I also don’t adhere to the other extreme of naive optimism. From my middle road stance, I cannot see any fault in putting a positive face on in the glare of this at times harsh world. Even if positivity does not necessarily cause or correlate with improved outcomes in indicators such as life expectancy and financial success, it does undeniably contribute to happiness, which is enough of an indicator for me to give a positive attitude a shot. Blind optimism is certainly problematic when it undermines the work ethic that Americans have prided themselves on for so long. When we rely on prayer and visualization exercises, rather than practice, effort, risk-taking, and a little industry to get what we want, positivity breeds a dangerous laziness, a naiveté which easily transforms into an unsurpassable obstacle, even an abyss of bottomless debt. Bright-Sided is important for its very stance on the American mentality of positivity, its practice of constructive criticism, its call for widespread realism, and its exploration of certain worlds where people are taken advantage of and even placed in danger by the promotion of positive thinking. But that doesn’t mean we can’t attempt to exercise control over our own thoughts and minds toward the brighter side of life for our own personal wellbeing and improved life experience, even if we do so with a grain of skeptical salt. If nothing else, Ehrenreich’s book provides us with a healthy dosing of reality so as to prevent our positivity from reaching dangerous extremes while motivating us to take action towards improving controllable circumstances in order to make happiness more readily available to everyone.

On Moranthology

Image retrieved from http://www.caitlinmoran.co.uk/

Caitlin Moran has quite quickly taken up residence as one of my new favorite writers. Though she is a renowned columnist across the pond, it all started for me with her New York Times bestselling book How to Be A Woman, a memoir of Caitlin’s girl- and womanhood. Spanning all matter of subjects relating to the fairer sex, Moran tackled pubic hair, abortion, undergarments, high heels, and motherhood in one seamless, hilarious, intelligent, and winning volume.

After that one, I couldn’t get enough Moran and so sought out her next book, Moranthology. Similar in structure to How to Be a WomanMoranthology is a series of essays on an array of topics that Moran handles with her trademark wit, sass, and wisdom. The content of the second book is a bit more varied than the first, including topics such as the Royal Wedding, her interview with Keith Richards, arguments for the preservation of chivalry, and the importance of libraries, but her reflections on each one were a bit brief for my tastes. The majority of the essays in the book are actually columns and articles that Moran had published previously, reprinted here for easy reading in all their concise glory. With each essay occupying little more than three pages on average, I felt as though I got to know Moran more widely than before, but not nearly as deeply.

Moranthology is highly entertaining, as has come to be expected of anything written by Ms. Moran, and a quick yet satisfying read. I aspire to be like Moran one day – making a living by writing about whatever quirky curiosity or everyday mundanity happens to light a fire under my essayist ass on a particular day. Despite her at times light-hearted approach to an array of subject matters, Moran demonstrates a thoughtfulness about the modern world that few pop culture commentators or members of the media possess. But it is this wisdom and depth that I wish Moranthology had provided more of – I found myself yearning for just a bit more out of each essay, hoping to prolong my move on to the next piece and the end of the book.

On My Love Affair with Nonfiction

I’ve always been a reader. While growing up, I was the kind of girl who would rather be at home with a good book than nearly anyplace else. I would gladly have forgone high school dances, movie theater trips to see cheesy chic flicks, and middle school slumber parties for a good book. Isolating myself with a novel was always the thing that made the most sense to me.

My love affair with non-fiction most accurately began as a direct result of an ex-boyfriend’s commentary on my extensive collection of novels. “You have a lot of fiction,” he noted in a tone that let me know my bookshelves were severely lacking in his opinion without any nonfiction in the mix.

I don’t want to waste too much time on this guy since he did play a large role in encouraging some profound changes in my life. In addition to not-so-subtly encouraging me to pick up some non-fiction, this particular ex also made a passive, if not joking, dig at my domestic skills, or lack thereof. This was in high school, mind you, so at the time, I had given little thought to food nor demonstrated any particular inclination to become the next Julia Child. But I took his comment as a challenge and forced my way into the kitchen, discovering a whole new world of passion within.

But I digress. Nonfiction had been starkly absent from my avid reading life and, when this fact was brought to my attention, I quickly righted the situation. My first foray into non-fiction was Counterculture Through the Ages by Ken Goffman. Goffman’s book provided an extensive overview of countercultural movements, from Socrates up to the punk music scene. I was initially drawn to the book because of the subject matter; countercultures and social movements felt impossibly cool and I held little doubt that this first piece of nonfiction would start to steer me in the right bibliophile direction. I adored Goffman’s book and so proceeded to seek more options that were not fiction at all.

A smattering of memoirs and biographies soon followed but my undergraduate workload kept me from reading much of anything for a few years. There was the occasional Chuck Klosterman collection of essays and Prozac Nation after struggling with depression. But when I did find the time to delve into a new book, I was more likely to treat myself to absorption in a well-deserved, if not rather mindless novel than an arduous piece of carefully crafted non-fiction. When life finally offered me another opportunity to read as I chose, Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone and Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple collections of essays. It was these writings that taught me about how meaningful and personal nonfiction could be. At the time (and probably still to this day) there was no piece of writing that I related to quite as much as the title essay of Franzen’s book, a thoughtful piece on reading and solitude. Kingsolver’s essay collections (one of which I reviewed here) were what first made me seriously consider writing. Though essay collections may not be the most profitable ventures, her books made me realize that personal essays and well constructed arguments on topics of all kinds can be elegantly tied together in a single volume. Reading Kingsolver’s nonfiction produced in me a powerful desire to follow suit; I wanted to write like she did on topics as varied as hers in such wise ways.

From there, I followed my interests and found plenty of nonfiction to read on food, agriculture, and health (think Michael Pollan). As I continued to explore the realm of nonfiction, it became increasingly apparent that such books are not inherently boring, nor do they necessarily lack plot, sentimentality, theme, or story. I always imagined that a book based on reality or containing research would be unimaginative and dull. But Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals proved to me that books about real life topics, in this case human’s carnivorous habits and how animals get to our plates, can be highly entertaining and follow a remarkably narrative path. Warren St. John’s Outcasts United is easily one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in the past few years and the story of a refugee soccer team was made more powerful and engrossing because it was true. Bill McKibbin’s The Age of Missing Information is dense but raised more than a few topics for consideration, things I had to think about deeply in order to determine my own stance on them. And there are few books out there, fiction or not, with more heart than Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains.

The range of work which falls under the nonfiction categorization is impossibly vast and largely delightful for readers who indulge in what is of interest to them. Nonfiction does not necessitate writing which lacks personality, interest, or excitement, but it is something which becomes most meaningful when carefully selected by a reader. Despite the sense of inferiority and shame I initially felt when my ex commented on how little nonfiction I owned way back when, I am now rather grateful that he vocalized this judgment, because it introduced me to a whole world of valuable reading materials which I may never have considered otherwise.

On Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Image from kingsolver.com

One year without supermarkets. One year of planting, watering, weeding, harvesting. One year without sugary cereals, Chinese food, delivery pizza. No processed foods. Everything local, hand-picked. It sounds like quite a daunting challenge: to give up mass-produced edibles and adopt a new food culture eating only what is in season and harvested by your own two hands, or by those of your neighbor. This is exactly what challenge Barbara Kingsolver and her family of four put themselves up to for an entire year, with all the struggles, joys, and recipes recounted in the entertaining and engaging Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Reading Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really encourages you to look at the food you eat, where it comes from, how it is made, and how you can change these factors to enjoy a diet more healthy for you but especially for the environment. The benefits, both personal and environmental, of growing your own food and eating locally are endless – savoring foods when they’re at their peak, reveling in the flavor of produce grown at your own hands, reducing the incidence of cruelty to animals in food production, lowering the number of miles each item of food must travel to reach your plate, supporting local business- and farm-owners, enjoying a more healthy, whole-food lifestyle. And the detriments of the alternative are shocking – to get to your dinner table, the items in a typical American meal have traveled an average of 1,500 miles, through transportation, packaging, warehousing, refrigeration, and other forms of processing. Isn’t is so much more satisfying, healthy, environmentally-concious, inexpensive, and delicious to eat a tomato plucked from your own backyard than one from a pile in the grocery store?

So you don’t have room for a vegetable garden at your place? How about trying the local farmer’s market? Not only a farmer’s markets becoming more easy to find every year, they carry the best of the best in-season produce so you don’t have to worry if you’re fruits and vegetables are going to be good. Another great option is to join a CSA, community supported agriculture, where local farmers will deliver food direct to you on a weekly basis. You’ll never know exactly what you’re going to get, but it is guaranteed to be fresh and in-season. To learn more, visit Local Harvest.

And to learn more about Kingsolver’s book, to get recipes, and more, visit the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle website.