Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

becoming nicole

This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story that is told with a clinical detachment that is utterly unfortunate.

Nicole, who begins her life as Wyatt, an identical twin to brother Jonas, feels from day one that she is a girl.  Already identifying with female characters in movies they’d watch, she, before even turning 3 years old, told her father that she “hated her penis.”  She consistently yearned to wear girls’ clothing and to play with girls’ toys and fortunately for her, her mother, Kelly, was sensitive to her yearnings and did what she could to support her.  Wayne, her father, had a much harder time accepting this side of her and while he loved her, he took many years to mourn the loss of the second son he thought he had.  Finally, though, he did come around and rallied to her support and both parents fought for her legal right to use the girls’ bathroom in her school (although it did not save her from being horribly bullied by a boy in her school throughout middle school, egged on by his nasty grandfather).   Nicole and her family bravely fought to set legal precedents to protect future trans children from prejudicial and ridiculous harassment because of gender identity, at least in certain states.  Hopefully, they will lead others to continue the fight for equality for these people who only want the freedom to be who they are inside.

The only benefit of the “clinical” aspect of the writing is that there are segments of the book devoted to the scientific evidence for brain differences in transgender individuals.  I think that in addition to being extremely interesting from a clinical point of view, it also fuels the argument that these people are not going through “phases,” nor are they “seeking attention” as they are often erroneously accused of doing.  It gives more objective data for those who cannot just support people for who they believe they are – rather it gives medical justification for those who require this.

On the other hand, it is a shame that the writing could not be as beautiful and as engaging as the story itself was.  There was certainly the material there to work with.  The characters were certainly heroic and beautiful, the setting was pure Americana, and the story was definitely dramatic, culminating with a huge and wonderful courtroom win.  The only tragedy was that the telling of this young woman’s triumph was so terribly dry.

I hope that Nicole and her family know how much we all admire their bravery and hope that she and they do not have to fight any further for her to be accepted for who she is.

Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

option b

So as you can see by this blog, I am not a huge reader of self-help books.  Not because I am not in need of any help (!), but there are just too many other books that I’d rather read.  This one, however, captured my attention.  Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, experienced the tragic, sudden death of her husband, to whom she’d only been married for 10 years.  In trying to cope, she speaks with her psychologist friend, Adam Grant, who suggests that since she can’t have her husband back (Option A), she has to just kick the s–t out of Option B.  And there is the birth of this book and her finding her way out of her despair and learning the basic building blocks of resilience.

I think there are many useful and inspiring lessons here.  I love her 3 P’s, most of all.  She teaches that when we have a crisis, our first inclination is to assign it the 3 P’s:  Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence.  That is, everything is personal – ie. it’s our fault.  We might have been able to prevent the catastrophe that has occurred, even when rational thought would have us know that this isn’t true.  That the issue is pervasive – that everything is terrible and bad and that this will affect everything.  Most of the time, this, again, is not true.  And that the catastrophic event will have effects that will last forever.  Of course, if you are dealing with the death of a loved one, that is permanent; nevertheless, the affect of this on your life will evolve over time and your life goes on even if that of the loved one does not.  These are probably much easier to read about than incorporate into one’s life, but certainly they are important concepts and seemed to have been extraordinarily comforting to her as she was going through her crisis.

I found that the vignettes and stories that Sandberg uses to illustrate points are also useful to drive home her points.  She uses others’ stories as well as her own to generalize the concepts that she discusses, so that it is not all about her.  But she also bravely reveals a lot of herself in this book as well.  I am hoping it was somewhat cathartic for her to write about her experience – I’m sure it was extremely painful as well.

I think since life throwing curveballs is a universal experience, this book can universally be appreciated and utilized.  We can all learn how to catch those curveballs more gracefully and more resiliently!

Life’s Work by Dr. Willie Parker

life's work

This is a modest but monumental work by one of my newest heroes, Dr. Willie Parker.  Dr. Parker was born and raised in the South, by his single, very poor black mother who instilled in him a strong value system, prioritizing family, love and God above all else.  He managed to find additional role models and mentors who encouraged him to climb to heights even he never imagined he’d achieve, cultivating his thirst for understanding science, even in the face of his religious fervor.  He found his calling in the field of medicine and further in the speciality of OB/GYN and practiced in many areas of the country, ultimately ending up in a beautiful area of Hawaii.  While he did find himself advocating for women in some areas, his religious convictions still held him back from performing abortions.  He was not against referring his patients to others to perform them, but he himself felt he could not do them.

Then he suddenly found the way to reconciling this within himself.  He suddenly recognized that, just as the Good Samaritan in the Bible helped the injured traveler out of concern about what would happen to the traveler (ignoring what would happen to himself), that he, Dr. Parker, should also be concerned with what would happen to his patients if he did not do abortions and not what would happen to him (or how he would be judged).  Taking this further, Dr. Parker saw in this a moral, – no a religious! – imperative to carry out his patients’ wishes, whether they be to carry a pregnancy to term or to terminate that pregnancy.  Furthermore, denying patients the choice of what to do with their bodies, denying them access to safe, healthy choices, denying them the right to choose to continue their educations or their jobs or whatever they needed to do without interruption to have a baby – he realized, went against everything his religion and God stood for.  Really, the “anti’s” as he calls them, had it backwards.

He is extremely articulate about a lot of the arguments that the anti’s give about why abortion might be perceived as being wrong – and they’re all mostly devious.  They are mostly about controlling women, and usually about controlling women of color and/or who are poor.  Women, and particularly women in the south and the midwest, now have such minimal access to safe, healthy abortions,  and it is being chipped away –  mostly by white men – day after day after day.  It is merely a power play.

Dr. Parker is one of those rare brave souls who do perform abortions in the south, making safe, healthy procedures available to those who need them.  Thank God for Dr. Parker.

In sum, here is a gorgeously articulated argument for all of you who feel that just because you are religious, you cannot support abortion.  On the contrary, if you are religious – in this light, you are morally obligated to honor the choice and the freedom of the already living, as Dr. Parker does.

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

hillbilly elegy

This memoir from JD Vance is an eye-opening, articulate depiction of the “hillbilly” culture of the Appalachian region.  As Vance shares with the reader about his upbringing – bouncing between Kentucky and Ohio – he opens our hearts to the plight of the poor, often uneducated, white population in this region.  As we learn about his experience with his traumatized and drug-addicted mom and his angry, foul-mouthed, sometimes violent, but unendingly loving and devoted grandparents, we see how entrenched the culture is and how difficult it is to dream in this world.  Fortunately, for him, he was able to find love and support enough to find his way to success – but his journey was complicated and chaotic and he never forgot from where he came.

The honesty and self-reflection with which this story is told brings the reader right into the author’s life.  We are right there with him when his mother takes him on a death-defying car ride.  We are right there when his older sister cares for him as a devoted mother would.  The love and appreciation that he feels for his grandparents who were his constants in a very tumultuous childhood is palpable.  And we can understand when he reflects on how to improve the lot of his fellow hillbilly peers and come up short.  The poverty, the distrust, and the violence that pervades this culture are so entrenched that it feels impossible to overcome.

I think this is an important book for people who are not from the South to read.  It really provides an understanding of a whole sub-culture of people that comprise  part of the fabric of our United States.

A very, very worthwhile read!

 

Lasting Impact by Kostya Kennedy

51gam-ej-bl

So the bottom line, here, is that my friend, Kostya Kennedy must be a good writer to get me to read – and actually enjoy! – a book about football.  While I love some sports, football is not one of them and being a pediatrician experienced in treating concussions, I am really not a fan.  But in this non-fiction account of Kostya’s shadowing the New Rochelle High School football team for their 2014 season, Kostya manages to impress upon even me (a true cynic) why many tolerate the risk for the game.

In the course of the season, Lou DiRienzo, the NRHS football coach takes on the role of coach, teacher, mentor, father-figure, even therapist to many of the boys and he leads them with a kindness and honesty and integrity that earns their trust and respect.  Right from their intensive camp experience at the start of the season, the boys bond and their lives are knitted together as a family.  The team becomes an anchor for those with family issues and a sort of home base for all.  Even at the advent of the Ray Rice scandal, Coach D reiterates that no matter what kind of trouble the boys ever get themselves into, the NRHS football family will always have their back.  And even though the players are injured one after another, there is still an undying devotion to the game.  So even though I am one of those mean mothers who won’t let my son play football, I do see, through the reading of this evenly researched account, its allure.

On the other hand, the negative side is presented quite clearly, too.  The statistics about sudden death from the game, about the potential long- lasting cognitive and emotional deficits, not to mention the broken bones and orthopedic surgeries, are exposed.    This feels to me like a high price to pay for something that another team experience might lend itself to.Still, what is conveyed here is that football, maybe because of its physicality, achieves gains for its players that transcend the immediate physical injuries.

So for all of you football fans, this one’s for you; however, even if you’re just human, you will feel the warmth and compassion of the writer toward the sport and the young people playing it.

 

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

51flAsKFoAL._SX272_BO1,204,203,200_ (2)

I can only start by saying that this book rocked my world.

After 3-4 years of extensive research, travel and investigation, Jonathan Safran Foer collected his findings and analysis into this very readable, very engaging litany of the horrors of the factory farm, through which over 95% of US meat is processed.  These “farms” are really not farms at all, but rather enormous, hugely overcrowded storage facilities for live animals (chickens, turkeys, hogs, and slightly less often, cows).  The animals are fed antibiotic-laced, genetically modified corn, given no fresh air, and crowded into either tiny cages or if they are “cage-free” they are still rarely given more than a few square inches in which to live.  The  drainage of sewage is poor and most live in their own feces.  The animals are sickly and prone to many diseases, including osteoporosis, which makes them susceptible to frequent broken bones.  The killing is generally horrific and not at all the painless, quick way we’d like to think.

In addition to causing animal suffering, the factory farms wreak havoc on the environment.  The sewage alone is enough to pollute the air with toxic gases and nearby water supplies because of run-off.  People living near these facilities have higher incidences of respiratory illness, nausea and other symptoms because of the toxins.

I did not read this because I was a vegetarian.  I did not read this because I am an activist and want to convince everyone to think as I now am thinking.  In fact, this is not even why the author wrote this book.  I have eaten meat all my life – especially poultry.  The author wavered in the past between eating animals and not, acknowledging that there is a shared experience of eating food with other people that perhaps can be impacted if one restricts in some way.  In addition, Foer describes a few farmers who actually have managed to salvage some of the more humane practices on smaller farms to improve the quality of life for the animals and to keep them healthier.  In this way, he presents a more balanced picture, even as these  examples comprise a tiny portion of the animals available for food.  Moreover, Foer does not try to make up anyone else’s mind about what to eat.  He merely presents the facts, gruesome as they are, about the source of our animal foods – and we are free to decide what to do with those facts.

I said it rocked my world and it really did.  I think, after reading this, that I cannot eat poultry.  I’d already cut out red meat awhile ago, so that isn’t a problem, but not eating chicken is going to be quite the challenge.  But I just don’t think I can go back, knowing what I know now, to supporting these practices.

Am I sorry I read this book?  Isn’t ignorance bliss?  I think I’m just sorry it exists at all.  I am not at all sorry that I read this book, though, and I encourage everyone to read it.  It still exists even if we don’t know about it.  Better, then, to know.  And better yet, to act.

The Teenage Brain by Frances E. Jensen, MD with Amy Ellis Nutt

41hjKMRKNzL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

A stark departure from my usual posts, this non-fiction book is the product of a neuroscience researcher who also survived as a single mom raising her own 2 sons through their adolescent years.  It is written for parents – not just for those of us who work with adolescents – so while it is somewhat technical, it also is quite readable.  While the authors describe many studies about how the brain functions and how adolescent brains function uniquely, they also pepper the chapters with anecdotes about specific individuals who illustrate their points.  The stories are quite poignant and really keep the reader engaged.

What I like about this book is that it is not all negative and bad news.  Adolescents often get slammed when written about, with emphasis only on the risky behaviors and the poor decision-making that they are capable of.  While there is some of that here, there is also explanation for why they are vulnerable to unwise decisions – their still developing frontal cortices, primarily.  In addition, there is also very positive discussion about the plasticity of their brains, which enables them to learn much more easily and quickly than those of us who are older.  There is interesting discussion about why adolescents are more vulnerable to addiction, whether to smoking or drugs or gambling, etc., and there is also discussion of mental illness and legal issues.  Finally, there is also discussion of the emerging adult, or the post-adolescent, which is a newer area of investigation.

In this text, you’ll find reasoned parenting advice, strategies to help teens cope with difficulties, and resources, which any parent of a teen can benefit from.  This book is not for everyone, but if you are a parent of teens and have questions or issues, I would recommend this as a resource.  Also, if you work with teens in any capacity, this is a must-read.   Check it out!