The Man Standing

Last Guard Out
by Jim Albright

On our trip to San Francisco last summer, one of the most “touristy” thing we did was tour Alcatraz. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise; the self-guided tour was well-organized, paced just right, and heavy on history. The only problem I had was turning left when the recording said “right” … and vice-versa! More than once I found myself turned around.

When we got off the ferry, the ranger previewed some of what we would see, and promised that at the end of the tour we’d have an opportunity to talk to the “last guard out”–the guard to escort the final few prisoners as they were relocated to prisons around the country. Alcatraz, closed in 1963, was an aging prison, expensive to run: all food, supplies, employees, visitors, and even waste took the 30 minute trip across the Bay to “the Rock”.

Jim Albright began his tenure at Alcatraz as a young 24-year-old husband and father. Seeking secure employment to support his family, Albright was hired by the Federal prison system, and the young family traveled from Colorado to San Francisco to begin their new life. Alcatraz was his first job as a guard, and he was understandably apprehensive–Alcatraz’s reputation was one of hardened criminals and even harsher conditions. But, for the most part, Albright seems to think the reputation was not always deserved.

While he maintained a stern demeanor and followed the prison rules strictly, Albright found the prison well-run and disciplined. The problems that occurred during Albright’s term–attempted escapes, prisoner self-injury, a hunger strike–were nothing that the staff couldn’t manage. Albright retold first hand one of the most famous Alcatraz escapes, the 1962 Frank Morris escape through a hand-made tunnel, up utility pipes, and out on to the roof. While the stuff of legends (and a Clint Eastwood movie), to Albright, such events were all in a days work.

I found most interesting the life of families on the island–most guard families lived in apartments on the island, and life was a cycle of coffee klatches, movie nights, card parties, and ice cream socials … these in the prisoners’ exercise yard! The children played in the shadow of the three story prison block, and prisoners sometimes told Albright when his wife had baked a cake or pie, having seen it cooling on the window ledge of their apartment.

Quaint and colloquial, Albright’s writing will win no awards, but the story he tells is priceless. When I had Mr. Albright autograph my book I asked him if he missed prison work. The 74-year-old replied that he would go back tomorrow if he could.


Reading China

Oracle Bones
by Peter Hessler

This was our August book club read; the 458 pages was intimidating to some, parts I and II were pretty convenient at 218 pages–so we called it good at half a book (although some of us overachievers couldn’t resist reading the entire thing)! And author Peter Hessler provided plenty to talk about in our discussion even at the halfway point.

Beginning in 2002, Hessler spent years  traveling, teaching, and writing in China, living (usually illegally) in Chinese neighborhoods. That advantage gave him the opportunity to befriend locals who gave him rare insight into the lives of middle class Chinese. And so we meet William Jefferson and Nancy Drew (their chosen English names), a pair of Chinese teachers who left their rural village to become “migrants”, traveling to the coast where better lives were to be had in the city–or so they thought. Former students of Hessler, Willy’s warm  letters to him are dear, and reproduced verbatim, replete with misspelled words and raunchy jokes. Willy’s passion for learning and teaching English rival none and he was never without an English dictionary and notebook. By Chinese standards, Willy and Nancy lived comfortable lives; Americans, however, would not be content with the long hours, bleak landscape of the city,  shabby apartment, and low pay. We also meet Polat, an ethnic Uighur, who makes his fortune (and loses it) as a money exchanger, and finally emigrates to the U.S. where he is granted political asylum; a Chinese radio talk show host who gives advice to the lovelorn; and old Mr. Zhao, who fought to save his courtyard hutong from being razed.

Hessler frames his narrative by including chapters he labels as Artifact A, B, C, etc–all cultural and archeological treasures of the Chinese. The reader learns that China, rather than being the monolith we Americans seem to think, is, in fact, a vast region of many cultures and languages. We learn of an ancient city wall being unearthed by peasants spoonful-by-spoonful as it winds its way through farmland, and of the origin of Chinese characters. And, of course, of the oracle bones–really tortoise plastrons etched with questions, fired, and then “read” by diviners. Always a bit slow, it took me about 450 pages to realize the significance of the book’s title. Just as the oracle bones of the past revealed life’s mysteries, Hessler was also reading the cracks of Chinese culture to reveal the world of the Chinese to American readers. How exquisite that the journalist becomes modern-day diviner.

Next up: Miss. Hargreaves by Frank Baker. Published in 1940 this novel’s time space continuum is far beyond its time–so far, a great lark!

Laugh until you can’t read!

So Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is this month’s book club read–and when it was chosen, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to read it. When my copy arrived in the mail, the teaser was a little more intriguing: “Not long after Rhoda Janzen turned forty, her world turned upside down. It was bad enough that her husband of fifteen years left her for Bob, a guy he met on Gay.com, but that same week a car accident left her seriously injured” .  And so Janzen returns to her Mennonite family to recuperate, both physically and emotionally. Okay, so a memoir a little out of the ordinary–probably no “I-had-a-horrible-childhood” here. I did, however, seriously doubt the blurbs that assured me the book was laugh-out-loud funny. Cute, maybe. Sweet and endearing, sure. Crack-a-smile, of course.

I was wrong. By the time I read Janzen’s description of her cat trying to “catch” a drip of urine trailing down the catheter tubing (gross, I know, but I don’t do the scene justice), I couldn’t continue for the tears in my eyes from laughing so hard. While I have no experience being Mennonite, I do have the childhood experience of living in a frugal household where almost everything was reused, recycled, or bought on sale. Janzen had the lunchbox horror of Cotletten sandwhiches–I had “gooseliver”. Janzen wore pants extended by strips of cloth sewed along the hem–birdboned me wore “husky” elastic waist jeans my mom got on sale from Sears catalog. And while not Mennonite, anyone who grew up in an evangelical household can relate (at list a little bit) to the emphasis on Christian music and youth group “fun”.

Even though this is Janzen’s story, it is perhaps her mother Mary who most endeared herself to me. Mary Janzen is the queen of non-sequitur and so incredibly accepting of her daughter it almost broke my heart. When Janzen decides to accompany Mary on a visit to an eighty-six-year-old shut in, she asks her mom, “Is [Mrs.Wiebe] mentally alert?” To which her mom replies, “Oh yes! She wears a wig!” And Mary Janzen’s unconditional love is touchingly sweet. Janzen’s life outside the Mennonite community has had the biggest impact on her relationship with her adult brothers. Questioning her mother on why her brothers are more conservative even than her parents, Mary Janzen replies, “Oh, they’ll mellow over time. When you’re young, faith is a matter of rules … But as you get older, you realize that fiath is really a matter of relationship–with God, with the people around you, with the members of your community.” Would that all people of God showed such compassion and humility.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress takes a peek back into Janzen’s childhood, and also details the joys and struggles she had when she reached her twenties and made the decision to leave her community. Janzen talks openly about her abusive husband. And in her return home, Janzen finds that maybe accepting and incorporating her roots is more valuable and healthy than rejecting them outright. I had the pleasure of attending a book reading Rhoda Janzen gave at the public library one evening. When I went, I had only read fifty pages–but her strong voice, wry and sardonic tone, and effervescence made me run home and read the book even more quickly. And laugh out loud I did.

Next up: The Color of Lightening by Paulette Jiles. I’ve only read a couple chapters, but it’s already tempting me away from doing school work for next year!

Mindfulness

Savor
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Having read Living Buddha, Living Christ and skimmed Hanh’s Meditations on Mindfulness, I was pleasantly surprised by the time I finished Savor, co-written with Dr. Lilian Cheung. The practice of yoga first introduced me to the idea of living in the moment several years ago, and Thich Nhat Hanh writes compellingly about the practice. Yet I had always thought of mindfulness as a spiritual practice–a means to deepen my relationship with self, others, and the Divine.

The opening chapters of Savor were a primer on the practice of mindfulness, and I so skimmed much of them. Then followed some information about the necessity of healthful eating and exercise for weight reduction–and anyone who has gone through years of Weight Watchers as I have knows the score on that front. So it is probably safe to say that for the book’s first half I was a bit disappointed.

Until, that is, I came to Hanh’s idea of habit energy–the idea that many of our harmful eating patterns are no more than a habit, and that habit exerts an energy that often governs our behavior. The way around the habit energy of poor eating are the Seven Practices of a Mindful Eater. Now this was a little more food for thought (pun intended): honor the food, engage all six senses, serve in modest portions, savor small bites, eat slowly, don’t skip meals, and eat a plant-based diet. Pretty basic, but at least a fresh look at what I already should know. And since we’re finally entering the summer season, the idea of honoring food when I shop at the farmer’s market is easy, as is engaging all senses.

But it was the Mindful Living Plan that more fully incorporated the idea of mindfulness and made the practice … well, practical (would you believe I just now noted the root of the two words is the same?)! Hanh’s plan is composed of three components: InEating, InMoving, and InBreathing. Each of these practices incorporates the mindfulness breathing technique–“I breathe in … I breathe out …” InMoving has me walking mindfully, becoming aware of my feet and focusing on their contact with the ground–walking in the moment, no “to-do list” racing through my head. InBreathing is given the most consideration, with breathing meditations for everything from teeth brushing to emailing to traffic jams. The thought of applying mindfulness to brushing my teeth seemed both ridiculous … and sublime. Of course this is mindfulness, and at its purest.

In the end, I would recommend Savor to anyone who wants to deal with poor eating and exercise habits in a more holistic manner. Those who are familiar with the practice of mindfulness can skim through the first half of the book; those who are new to the idea will find it easy to understand and accessible.

Snow Day!

Mornings on Horseback
by David McCullough

I was intrigued with McCullough’s premise–to unfold TR’s life to the point where he “came to be” the TR we know from history. And so McCullough writes of Roosevelt up to his run for mayor of New York. I have to admit I knew so little of Roosevelt–mainly, the caricature we have of him in our 8th grade history books: he of the spectacles, bushy mustache, and toothy grin. So with a day off school after we were blanketed with 10 inches of snow, I finally finished the biography I’ve been chipping away at since Christmas.

McCullough spends a great deal of time on TR’s incredible childhood. Wrapped in love and privilege, his interests in science and nature were nurtured and encouraged–in part, because his frequent asthma attacks sometimes brought him to death’s door. Small, bookish, incessantly curious, and wonderously intelligent, Thee (as family called him) was adored by his sisters and brother. The family of six (plus the requisite servants) toured Europe for a year and spent months on the Nile.

I also had no idea that Roosevelt was married to the beautiful Alice, only to lose her four days after the birth of their child. It was in the three years after her death that he spent in Dakota, living the life of a rancher. Baby Alice was left in the care of her Aunt Bamie. Pushing himself to the brink physically, Roosevelt drove cattle, chopped wood, and hunted grizzlies at a furious pace in an attempt to bury his grief. TR never spoke again publicly about his first wife and felt he had failed when he married again three years later. He had hoped to “he would never remarry–as a testimony of love for his beautiful, dead wife, his first and only great love.”

A page later and the book is ended–TR is off to England to marry his second wife, Edith Carow; he has just lost the race for mayor of New York. McCullough felt that at that moment, the historical Roosevelt was finally formed and he would go on to become the Rough Rider, Governor, Secretary of Navy, Vice President, and, finally, President who made his mark on American history.

Next up: The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker