Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review - Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death & Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

My Take: 

This book was published in 2012, received lots of kudos and attention, and has been reviewed plenty. But since it’s my contention that this book is worthy of additional kudos and attention, I’m throwing my hat in the ring.

Katherine Boo, a journalist who won a Pulitzer for writing about poverty in the United States, fell in love with an Indian and moved to Mumbai.  She understood immediately that someone should bring the abject poverty of prosperous cities’ undercities to light; but being American, she felt unqualified.  

But she decided to try nonetheless.  Three years, one interpreter, hundreds of interviews, and hours of footage later, she wrote this book.  Since Katherine Boo uses actual words and phrasings of the slum dwellers, the prose is simple -- while managing to be incredibly powerful.

It’s almost incomprehensible to me that the stories in the book actually happened -- and that similar horrific experiences are very likely being played out in different parts of the world even as I write this review.  

Watching (from a virtual front seat) as the government exploits the poor, the poor exploit the poorer, and the poorer exploit the destitute -- all so that they will have money for food or urgent health care or basic education or to pay a bribe to free an unjustly accused family member from jail -- is both eye-opening and beyond heartbreaking.  Not to mention numerous untimely deaths that are a direct result of poor health and healthcare, abject poverty, and absolute desperation.

Moral absolutes, to me, have always seemed pretty much absolute.  But reading this book helped me (at least begin to) understand that if the high ground I have stood on all my life were to suddenly crumble beneath me -- and I had to decide between, say, saving my child’s life and doing something I have always considered reprehensible -- my moral absolutes might not be so absolute anymore.

Reading this book makes me want to take action, but I feel powerless and at a loss. The first step, though, is knowing -- so I guess I’ve taken that first step.

As Katherine Boo says in her Author’s Note (which is at the end of the book, but I strongly recommend reading it before the book itself):

"If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on
which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything
lie straight?"

Overall, this book is unbelievably heartbreaking -- and it seems (contrary to the message in the title) that hope simply can’t be found in the lives of these people.  But I looked closely, and I found it. Not much, not often enough, but hope does exist.  

That some people in Annawadi are able to use such a small amount of hope to sustain them is a testament to the human spirit.  And to the power of hope.

That people live in such conditions is a testament that all is most definitely not right -- or fair -- with the world.

Highly Recommend

Goodreads Summary:

From Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century’s great, unequal cities.

In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human.

Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting“ in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter—Annawadi’s “most-everything girl“—will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”

But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.

With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Dale Brannon - 20 Years of Pure Awesome

For my hero, Dale Brannon.

In February of 1989, my sister Debbie, a senior at Stillwater High School, was sitting in church when Dale, a freshman at Oklahoma State University, walked in alone and sat down. Mom nagged Debbie to “Be nice!” to him. 
So Debbie rolled her eyes (at Mom) and said “Hi” (to Dale).

As it turns out, Dale was quite a catch.  He was a sports super-star, a super smart pre-med student, and witty and charming to boot.  Before too long, Debbie began to suspect that she may just have met the man of her dreams.

That summer, Dale left for Georgia for two years to serve a mission for the Mormon church.  So naturally, Debbie took that opportunity to date as many other guys as she could.  But in the end, she concluded that none of 
them quite measured up to Dale.

So on December 27, 1991, Dale and Debbie got hitched.

And on October 26, 1992, Alexis Christine was born.

Dale was on track to attend medical school Fall of 1994, and began filling out medical school applications during the spring.  Then, on March 7, 1994, the truck Dale and a friend were traveling in hit a patch of black ice.  The truck rolled, Dale’s spine was severed between his 6th and 7th vertebra, and he became a quadriplegic. He was paralyzed from the chest down and left with extremely limited functions in his hands and arms.

Rehab lasted four months.  During the many dark hours and days and weeks, thousands of prayers were said by and in behalf of Debbie and Dale.  Those months were unimaginably difficult.  But one day and prayer at a time, they made it.

The Brannons returned to Oklahoma for Dale to finish his undergraduate classes.  His high grades and test scores made him a perfect medical school candidate, but his being a quadriplegic didn’t.  So despite his excellent credentials, Dale wasn’t accepted to any of the schools he applied to.  They didn’t know what to do with a quadriplegic.

Which deterred Dale not at all.  He tried again the next year, and was accepted into medical school at the University of Oklahoma.  Huge kudos to whomever was on that acceptance committee.

Medical school posed significant challenges for Dale, but he made it.  In June of 2001, Dale graduated and was chosen by his peers to give the speech at convocation.

During Dale’s first year of residency, a downed power line in the Brannon’s backyard started a fire, burning most of their home and causing significant smoke damage to their remaining belongings.  Insurance was willing to pay for housing while their house was being rebuilt, but there were no rental homes available that offered handicapped amenities.  So the Brannons lived in a hotel for two months, then bought and remodeled a house to live in until their house was ready. 

After years of praying and hoping that they could have just one more child, Debbie and Dale’s prayers were answered -- threefold.  On March 12, 2004, Debbie delivered the first set of triplets in the history of OKC hospitals that did not have to spend any time in the NICU.

Debbie, Dale and Alex were over the moon 
(and sleep-deprived for a solid year).

Just a few months later, on the last day of June, 2004, Dale finished his residency in Nuclear Medicine, specializing in PET CT.  Because of his skill set and excellent work ethic, Dale never had to look for a job -- offers came to him.  He started a private practice on July 1, 2004.  

Dale still has a small private practice, and now works full time at the OU Medical Center.  He’s the residency program coordinator for Nuclear Medicine, and on the admissions board for the medical school.

Over the years, I’ve watched Dale be a hero - every day.

He has consistently made decisions that have made - and still make - all the difference. He has chosen

Hard Work

and Laughter

This is what the Brannon family looks like today 
(they finally got their boy!).  

From a pure probability standpoint, this picture should look very different.  Statistics are solidly against the Brannon's marriage lasting after the accident (less than 5% of marriages do), of Dale being a doctor, or of the Brannons being blessed with the triplets.

This picture looks the way it does because of Dale.
One day and prayer at a time, he makes it possible.

Thank you, Dale, for showing us how to live 20 years of pure awesome.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Chunky powdered milk: The upside

Published on - HERE's the link
Published in CrossTimbers Gazette - HERE's the link

Our house after the remodel - note the bedroom window where the garage once was.
For my remarkable parents, who were much smarter and possibly a tiny bit wealthier than their kids ever gave them credit for.
DALLAS — My parents raised a large family on next to nothing. The list of what we lacked while I was growing up is long, so here’s a shortened version:
A dishwasher. When I was 3 years old, our family of five moved into a small house that had been built before dishwashers became standard household amenities. When I left for college 15 years later, a dishwasher was still at the top of our “most wanted” list.
Square footage. My parents aimed high, and our numbers grew at a staggering rate. After Mom had her seventh child, she contended that nine people living in 1,250 square feet officially exceeded capacity. And that Dad would be wise to do something about it (the “or else” was more or less implied). Dad took the hint.
Because funds were scarce, Dad hired a college student to assist him and my brother in converting our garage and back porch into living space. The resulting 1,950 square feet felt palatial. So large, in fact, that my parents figured there was room enough to add one more. My baby sister rounded our numbers up to a nice, even 10.
A garage. See above.
Regular milk. Normal people buy milk in gallon jugs; Mom bought ours in 50-pound bags. We used spoons to scoop the froth and chunks off the top of the reconstituted powdered milk, but masking its dreadful aftertaste was more problematic. Our only hope was holding our breath while swallowing, and then being extra careful not to inhale until after taking a bite of food. Breathing too soon spelled taste bud disaster.

Enlarge image
Susie Boyce stands with two of her sisters outside of their childhood home in February 2014. (Photo: Susie Boyce)
Superfluous, expensive stuff. We hardly ever locked our doors, and I remember once how worried my brother was about being robbed. Dad’s reply was strangely reassuring, “Any thief who walks into our house will leave disappointed — and probably empty-handed.”
My parents sold that house and moved away years ago, so I rarely find myself in my hometown. But just a few weeks ago, two of my sisters and I traveled there for the funeral of a dear family friend. Afterwards, we decided to check out our childhood digs.
As we pulled up in front of the house (which had shrunk dramatically), nothing we didn’t have while growing up came readily to mind. Instead, I considered everything we did have. The list is long, so here’s a shortened version:
“Character building” opportunities. Mom’s response to our incessant begging for a dishwasher was always the same, “We already have eight dishwashers! Why do we need another one? Plus, we can’t afford it.” Money from paper routes and other odd jobs went into our very own bank accounts. So we thought carefully — but often not carefully enough — before spending it on movies, clothes or junk food (since our pantry never provided any).
Faith. Strong and deep.
A sense of humor. Seriously, anyone who grows up eating beans and cheese over toast and sharing underwear is destined to one of two things: 1) therapy, or 2) developing an appreciation for the slightly odd, unexpected, and sometimes just plain weird. Since my parents couldn’t afford therapy, we settled on laughter (or shouting or skulking, depending on the situation). Humor has helped our family through heartaches, and makes hanging out together simply awesome.
Friends. Our house was often chock-full; no one (except for us kids, usually at the onset of puberty) seemed to mind our lack of junk food or space.
A few days after our trip, my sister commented, "Sometimes we try so hard to give our kids what we didn't have that we forget to give them what we did have." My sister always was pretty smart; I suspect she got that from my parents.
Love. Imperfections run in our family (I’m guessing we’re not alone). But as a kid, the peace and security that came from knowing I was loved — absolutely, completely, no matter what — pretty much trumped anything else. Even frothy, chunky powdered milk.
My sisters and I stood on the front lawn by the tree my brothers had once tied my sister to (only to get her out of their hair, and only until Mom pulled into the driveway minutes later). While we were laughing, I knew why our small house had been plenty big: we never lacked anything of true value.
Although convincing me of this at 13 would have proved near impossible, we were incredibly lucky. We had it all.
While driving home late that night, it occurred to me that my parents — had it been a true priority — could probably have afforded a dishwasher.
A few days after our trip, my sister commented, “Sometimes we try so hard to give our kids what we didn’t have that we forget to give them what we did have.”
My sister always was pretty smart; I suspect she got that from my parents.
1985.  All the sibs.  Rad.

2013.  Mom & Dad & all 8 kids.  Not too shabby.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Getting to the other side of impossible

Published for - HERE's the link
Published for - HERE's the link
Published in Cross Timbers Gazette - HERE's the link

Jeff and Susie on their 20th Anniversary
To my husband, Jeff — the guy who makes everything possible.
DALLAS — At around midnight this past Christmas Eve, I walked into our freezing garage and found my husband, Jeff, sitting in the middle of a large box that had been opened wide on the floor like a giant book. He was reading an instruction manual, surrounded by literally hundreds of small screws, nuts, bolts, hinges and various other parts.
Santa had decided to give our kids a commercial-grade Ping-Pong table in hopes that it would last for more than a few years. What the sales associate hadn’t fully explained to Santa is that such tables require a minimum of two dozen bodybuilders to move, and a team of engineering graduate students to assemble.
Jeff and my teenage son — neither of whom will ever be (or even remotely resemble) bodybuilders — had already practically died hauling the bulkiest table parts upstairs to our game room. Feeling a little guilty about ruining my son’s back, Jeff — a business school graduate — had decided to send him off to bed and tackle the assembly alone.
From where I stood, Jeff was delusional; the undertaking was impossible. So I offered him an out: Santa could write an apology letter stating that his elves simply didn’t have time to assemble their new Ping-Pong table, and that he’s very sorry and hopes they understand and thanks for the yummy cookies.
Jeff declined, one hand holding the instruction manual, the other sorting through a mountain of parts. When I checked on him two hours later, Jeff was far — and I mean super, super far — from being finished. Gently, I reminded him that Santa’s apology letter was still an option. Perhaps a little less gently, he again declined.
Jeff shrugged and said, "When you eliminate the impossible from the equation, just about anything becomes possible." ... That got me thinking about Jeff, our marriage, life — and what's truly possible.
I looked into Jeff’s tired, bloodshot eyes the next morning, seriously concerned about how the Ping-Pong table had fared. He saved me from having to ask by mumbling, “It’s done. I got to bed around 6.”
I stared, slack-jawed. My faith in Jeff is reasonably high, sure, but tackling that Ping-Pong table job had seemed beyond crazy — and in my experience, faith doesn’t generally compensate for crazy. Jeff shrugged and said, “When you eliminate the impossible from the equation, just about anything becomes possible.”
After our day of fun, food and Ping-Pong playing had ended (Jeff’s day ended a good deal earlier than the rest of ours, oddly), Jeff’s statement about eliminating the impossible came back to me.
That got me thinking about Jeff, our marriage, life — and what’s truly possible.
Approximately two days after returning from our honeymoon just over 20 years ago, Jeff and I were both a bit shocked to realize that the honeymoon was indeed over. It became clear that we wouldn’t be finishing each other’s sentences — or sandwiches — anytime soon.
Small issues loomed large during the first few years. Like who emptied the trash and where dirty clothes belonged (in the hamper, I argued) and who paid the bills and what kind of milk to buy (skim is nothing more than colored water, he argued).
In fact, at times it seemed as if it would be impossible to live — for years on end — with a guy who could drive me crazy, and whose views on clutter and fat content differed so radically from mine.

Enlarge image
Susie and Jeff Boyce are shown on their honeymoon, a little more than 20 years ago. (Photo: Susie Boyce)
But giving up wasn’t an option. So we slowly learned to work through issues that truly needed solving, and tried — sometimes even successfully — not to waste mental energy on trivialities.
Once kids entered the equation, Jeff and I stepped into new and frightening areas of impossibilities. But since giving the kids away seems a bit extreme (until they turn 13), we are slowly working through the thousands of issues that need solving, trying not to waste mental energy on trivialities (like matching outfits, except for maybe on picture days).
As if raising kids wasn't impossible all on its own, we’ve experienced our share of rough: career setbacks, long-term injuries, hiccups in our marriage, and each of us losing a parent — to name a few. Oh, and raising kids (or did I already mention that?).
A few of these blows knocked us so far off our feet, in fact, that getting back up felt utterly impossible. But remarkably, that’s never once been the case. Outcomes have often differed from what we hoped for or anticipated, but there’s always been possible.
I’d like to think that I somehow contribute to our making it to the other side of impossible. I’ve come to recognize, however, that a major force behind such outcomes is my husband.
When dealing with a new crisis or heartache, my despair mode kicks into high gear. I panic a little (OK, a lot), imagine worst-case scenarios and throw around pointless questions like, “Why is life so hard?” Jeff responds by offering his shoulder, handing me tissues, agreeing that life can indeed suck — and then he gets to work demonstrating possible.
He reads instruction manuals, sorts through hundreds of solutions, prays, stays up all night, and never takes easy outs. In short, giving up is never an option — because Jeff has already eliminated the impossible.
I feel incredibly lucky to live — for years on end — with a guy who can still drive me crazy, and whose views on clutter and fat content still differ so radically from mine.
Because with Jeff in the equation, just about anything is possible.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The doughnut run that led to a resolution rethink

Published on - HERE's the link
Published in Cross Timbers Gazette - HERE's the link

My son had requested doughnuts for his birthday. So on the evening of Jan. 28 last year, I drove to the grocery store, parked my car, and walked toward the entrance.
I didn’t give a second thought to the SUV coming around the corner until I realized with horror that it wasn’t slowing down — and that it was going to hit me.
I was knocked unconscious and in shock, so my memory gaps between the impact and being wheeled into the ambulance are significant. But during the ambulance ride and my time in the hospital, I began to process the basics: my head was bleeding, I could feel my extremities, I was shaking, various parts of my body were in serious pain, I felt nauseous, and I was extremely dizzy.
But I was alive.
As soon as my being alive fully registered — but before I knew the extent or seriousness of my injuries — the first thoughts to make their way through the fog of my shock-addled brain went something like this:
  • What had I last said to each of my children? Had I told them I love them?
  • What had I last said to my husband? Had I kissed him goodbye that morning?
  • When was my last meaningful conversation with my parents? Siblings? Grandparents?
  • To whom did I owe apologies?
  • When was my last meaningful conversation with my God?
A few of my answers were easier for me be at peace with than the others.
I’m blessed to have survived the accident with relatively minor physical injuries, which took about seven months to fully heal. Unfortunately, my head — which sustained a severe concussion when it slammed onto the concrete — didn’t get off so easily. I still suffer impaired cognitive function, with no definite end in sight.
But therapy brings progress, which sustains my hope. I’m currently working on fully embracing the attitude that my life can still be great — even if it’s never quite the same.
My 2013 New Year's Resolutions
Weeks after the accident, once the very worst of the pain and fog had dissipated, I picked up a pile of get-well cards and uncovered my list of 2013 New Year’s resolutions.
Last year, I had resolved to make New Year’s resolutions that would stand a better-than-average chance of outlasting January. I aimed to avoid unrealistic, overachiever goals while still proving to myself (and February) that I was capable of accomplishing a thing or two of significance.
So I had settled on a reasonable number of goals and worked for some time on getting them just right. I had decided in the end that my list, although admittedly incomplete and imperfect, was still pretty great (if I did say so myself).
My momentum built beautifully for 28 entire days; and for the first time in a few years, I had actually been on track to showing the world — February in particular — that I was, in fact, capable of reaching goals.
Then a doughnut run derailed everything.
Reluctantly, I picked up my list of goals and read through it. It was already March. Considering my rate of recovery (painfully slow), reaching even one resolution was highly unlikely.
"How flat my abs were, how clean and well-decorated my house was, how many glasses of water I had consumed that day ... when forced to think about what truly mattered, none of my goals had made the cut."
I’d never had a more legitimate excuse to fall short of reaching my goals, but that didn’t stop me from crying — a lot.
In time, I dried my tears and decided to rewrite my goals to better match my rewritten circumstances. So I picked up the list and read it again, slowly and reflectively this time.
That’s when it hit me, with at least as much force as the car had: a huge epiphany.
In the ambulance, at the hospital, through the shock and the brain fog and the being grateful beyond words that I was alive, I had never once — not even for the tiniest of milliseconds — thought about any of the goals from my carefully crafted list.
How flat my abs were, how clean and well-decorated my house was, how many glasses of water I had consumed that day, how many books I had read that month, how early I got my Christmas shopping done, or what the current word counts were on my writing projects: in the final analysis, when forced to think about what truly mattered, none of my goals had made the cut.
Every question I frantically asked myself immediately following the accident centered around relationships. Yet, every goal I had written centered around things.
I knew then that it was time to rethink my resolutions — not only for the rest of 2013, but for forever.
My (even better) 2014 New Year's Resolutions
I understand that being well rounded is important, and I would still love outcomes like flatter abs and a cleaner house and progress on writing projects. So, with my brain limitations in mind, I made a few cautiously optimistic goals toward those ends. These goals are good and should be helpful, but they are secondary.
The more important ones read something like this:
  • Tell your kids you love them. Every day. Say, "I’m sorry." Thank them for being awesome.
  • Kiss your spouse goodnight, good morning and goodbye. Say "I love you," and "thank you," and "I’m sorry."
  • Talk to your parents, siblings and grandparents regularly. Make every conversation meaningful. Visit as often as possible. Say "I love you," and "thank you," and "I’m sorry."
  • Have frequent, heartfelt conversations with your God. Include expressions of love and gratitude. Say, "I’m sorry." Visit your house of worship more often.
  • When deciding what to do with your time, remember that relationships trump anything else. Always. Think and plan accordingly.
  • Be thankful for every minute, every day, every week, every month, every year.
  • Treasure every person in your life. Each is a gift.
  • Use extreme caution when walking through parking lots.
This new list is admittedly incomplete and imperfect, but it’s a good start and a definite upgrade from last year’s “great” list (if I do say so myself).
I know that my time is limited, so I’ve decided to be OK with not all of my interests making the cut — because in the end, there are only a few things that truly matter.