Monday, August 31, 2009

Here If You Need Me: A True Story

Here If You Need Me: A True Story
Kate Braestrup (Little, Brown and Company, 2007)

Having committed the minor error of reading the jacket copy, I put off reading Kate Braestrup’s Here If You Need Me, because it sounded like it might be a little sappy. It’s the story of a courageous woman who went to seminary after her husband, a Maine State Trooper, died in a car accident. She took up his dream of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, and emerged as chaplain to the Warden Service, the law enforcement agency for the woods and waterways of Maine. I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for lyrical descriptions of the beauties of nature, or heart-rending stories of the rescue of children lost in the woods. No worries, friends. Braestrup’s book is indeed moving, (too moving to read in public,) but there’s nothing sentimental about it.
For one thing, Braestrup is too self-aware for that. Being the human at the heart of a human interest story (“The Tale of the Plucky Widow”) gives her a perspective that is both engaged and detached. She finds all the human stories interesting, but she’s learned to avoid projecting her own fear into every potential tragedy. She will witness what happens, and stand by with prayers, hugs, and Kleenex; or sometimes just small talk to make the frightening time go by.
There’s also an earthiness about her daily round. Here are the glories of Maine, from a small plane: “I like to look at Maine from this new angle and from the sky rediscover its familiar features--seacoast, church spires, winding roads, huge tracts of forest, silver lakes, trailer parks, rolling meadows.” She loves it all, the trailer parks just as much as the lakes.
She loves the forest rangers, too. Her ministerial charges (shining though their disguised identities) are accomplished outdoorsmen, and great cooks. They are funny, generous, and tender-hearted. “I tend to listen more actively to the police radio than the wardens do, because I’m nosy and like to know what everyone’s doing, and because it pleases me to hear a familiar voice and hold its owner, however briefly, in the prayers of my heart.”
How does prayer work? What can Braestrup pray for, and count on God to deliver? It’s a big question. She can’t pray for the rain to stop and the clouds to clear (“I’m a Unitarian Universalist. We don’t do weather.“) She can’t change nature, and she can’t bring everybody back alive--even if she could, it wouldn’t be forever. She’s enormously respectful of the intimacy of asking people to pray, but she’s willing to risk it. Giving an invocation at a warden’s banquet, she muses: “In a civil society that rightly separates church authority from civil authority, I must tread humbly and gently when I speak to and for God here. I hope that my prayers are not experienced as an imposition or an irritant or as simply stupid. I hope those moments feel loving to the wardens, whatever it is they believe or do not believe.”
The whole book feels loving. Braestrup doesn’t tell people how to answer the other big question, at times of tragedy: “Where is God in this?” The wardens may have religious answers to that, or they may just, angrily, have the question. Her own best answer runs all through these stories. Over and over, in myriad ways, God is in the hearts and hands of the people who show up: the neighbor on the front porch with tears in her eyes and a still-warm pan of brownies; the ranger and his dog, searching the undergrowth; Braestrup herself, standing ready to show, by her faithfulness and care, what God’s love looks like.
Thanks be to God.

Email edition, September 2009

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Man Without a Country

A Man Without a Country
Kurt Vonnegut (2005, Seven Stories Press)

My Vonnegut-reading days seem very long ago; I read most of what I have read before I went to college, so I was interested to pick up this slim volume and see what he's thinking these days, in his own voice. He writes --as in some ways he always did-- as an old man looking back. One of his distinguishing marks is a long memory for American history: Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain and Eugene V. Debs also lived in parlous times, and I am glad to be reminded of what they had to say.
I think that Debs, in particular, ought to be more widely remembered for this: "As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I'm of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Nearly one hundred years later, where is the politician (let alone presidental candidate) who would stand up and say such a thing? Yet Debs won more than five per cent of the votes in the 1912 election, on the Socialist ticket.
These essays are a complex mix of anger and idealism. "It so happens that idealism enough for anyone is not made of perfumed pink clouds. It is the law! It is the U.S. Constitution. But I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been." There's a chance, Vonnegut says, that he is running out of jokes, overwhelmed by the awfulness of life. "It may be that I have become rather grumpy because I've seen so many things that have offended me that I cannot deal with in terms of laughter."
But then--his humor has always been largely a matter of being willing to see things truthfully, which can be a generous and tender thing to do: his first ideas for a book about the incineration of Dresden was for the kind of book that becomes a John Wayne movie, until his friend's wife "...blew her stack. She said, 'You were nothing but babies then.' And that is true of soldiers. They are in fact babies.... They are not movie stars. And realizing that was the key, I was finally free to tell the truth." So Slaughterhouse Five bears the subtitle, "The Children's Crusade."
And he still believes in the public library and the post office, little miracles of the age. One of the tasks in this book of wrapping up a lifetime's work is answering some mail. Vonnegut makes a supremely humane response to a woman worrying about what kind of a world she was just about to bring a child into. His first thought is pessimistic--who knows what will happen? "But I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society."
Amen, and hallelujah--

By email, May 2006

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Absolutely American

Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point
David Lipsky (2003, Vintage Books)

In 1998, David Lipsky's assignment from Rolling Stone magazine was to spend a few weeks at West Point, for an article about a bunch of plebes. Finding that story incomplete, he wound up sticking around for their whole four years. He had unprecedented access, at a particularly interesting time: the Army was trying to train a new kind of leader for new kinds of conflict. Hazing was Out, Respect was In.
West Point accepts a wide cross-section of highly fit candidates. They are Eagle Scouts, class presidents, and varsity athletes; some are the children of soldiers, others are accepted from the ranks of the army. The Academy subjects them to a grueling four years of study and training, under constant scrutiny and assessment. Lipsky says, "The process of character-building is designed to be exhausting, and when it's not exhausting, to be irritating."
For the results, Lipsky turns a microscope an Company G-4, home to some cadets who look the part, and others whose resistance to having their characters built takes idiosyncratic forms. Will 'Huck' Finn sleep through another class? Will George Rash break 15:54 for the two-mile run? Who will get caught with drugs, or 'sharing a piece of furniture with a cadet of the opposite sex'?
On a larger scale, Lipsky introduces us to the culture wars, West Point style. In the late nineties, the Academy's senior authorities embraced Samuel Huntington's idea that they should be turning out 'professional' military officers, who would thus command the respect and stature that society gives lawyers and doctors. But, Lipsky asks, is that enough? "In the best cases, cadets choose West Point because of hopes and dreams, the chance to feel strung to something larger than themselves--their shot at a range of emotions beyond personal consideration. The moments cadets treasure in Army movies are the unprofessional ones."
The senior year of the class of 2002 was marked, of course, by yet another critical moment in the Army's history. These officers will be serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, sooner than later, and they'll be leading America's sons and daughters into hazardous places. Absolutely American does the country a great service by putting a human face on that fact. Reading it, you'll want, more than ever, to support our troops and bring them safe home.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Pig Candy

Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home: a memoir
Lise Funderburg (2008, Free Press)

Pig Candy is a memoir about being the daughter of a powerful, frustrating, and beloved man in his last year of life; the story is as common as middle age, and older than King Lear. Lise Funderburg and her sisters have their work cut out for them, tending their father in his passage from being a Force of Nature to being a Frail Old Man. It’s a demanding and exhausting job, as so many of us know.
George Funderburg compounds the difficulty, and gives the story its juice, by keeping two homes, one in Philadelphia, and one on a Georgia farm. In Philadelphia, he is a geriatric cancer patient; in Monticello, Georgia, he’s king of all he surveys, handing out fishing rights, naming his ponds and meadows after favored relatives, and hosting his neighbors at all-day cookouts. It’s easy to see why he prefers Monticello, but right from the first page (“We drive from their suburban retirement community to Philadelphia International Airport, then fly to Georgia, them in business class, me in coach”) the added burden on his daughters is plain.
Funderburg adds depth to her story with some history of the place, including the vexed relations of the races. Her father is black, her mother and stepmother are white, and the past is never past in Jasper County. Although he purchased the farm only twenty years earlier, modeling the house he built there after his Philadelphia retirement place, it represents a homecoming. George grew up as the son of Monticello’s black doctor, who had some social and economic clout, but was also rightly cautious: Doc Funderburg took his bank business to the next town over, because it wouldn’t have done to let his neighbors know too much of his business.
That’s a level of independence, and control, that George Funderburg has been at pains to maintain his whole life. At the same time, because the farm has been primarily a long-distance hobby, he is deeply embroiled in a web of local relationships, with neighbors, tenants, and employees. They are a colorful cast of characters, especially to Lise’s outsider’s eyes, but she does a nice job of depicting them as local, but not yokels. They know things, like how to pickle peaches or roast pecans, that she finds she needs to know.
The whole book is a learning adventure, in fact; oncologists, nurses, and hospice workers also figure in the story of George’s decline. Bedsores and strokes loom as large as the cancer itself. The three daughters have their hands full, practically and emotionally: ”I am always saying goodbye to him now. Each phone call, each visit, each trip down south. Each procedure or complication. I am recording his voice, his quirks, trying to etch them deep into the wax of memory. And yet memory is so faulty, such a poor recording device.”
Common, and heartbreaking, as the story is, Lise Funderburg’s clarity and specificity make it beautiful. She conveys the sweet and salty flavors, not just of food but of places and relationships. She’s working out her acceptance of her father’s passing, but it does not feel self-indulgent, because she’s paying attention. She carries on the family tradition of storytelling: “Key elements include self-deprecation, suspense, and endless marveling at natural or mechanical wonders....We depict each other and ourselves as characters who frequently straddle the line between haplessness and ingenuity, both of which are substantially embellished.”
Aren’t we all such characters, straddling that line? When all we have left are photos and stories, we’ll be glad we paid attention, and we’ll be lucky if we can pay attention like this.

August 2009 email edition