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Book Review: The Stories We Tell of Others Tell Much about Ourselves

IMG_20180622_142207In April 2018, Magnolia films released a documentary entitled The Final Year. It is an intimate look at the inner workings of the Obama administration as they determinedly use every day of their last year in the White House to see some of their key initiatives realized. The film focuses on Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, President Obama, and an individual who had—until my viewing of the documentary—not caught my attention. He was Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes: a man who transitioned a degree in creative writing into a position as the political speechwriter for Barak Obama and became a close confidant of the president himself.

In April 2018, Magnolia films released a documentary entitled The Final Year. It is an intimate look at the inner workings of the Obama administration as they determinedly use every day of their last year in the White House to see some of their key initiatives realized. The film focuses on Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, President Obama, and an individual who had—until my viewing of the documentary—not caught my attention. He was Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes: a man who transitioned a degree in creative writing into a position as the political speechwriter for Barak Obama and became a close confidant of the president himself. In April 2018, Magnolia films released a documentary entitled The Final Year. It is an intimate look at the inner workings of the Obama administration as they determinedly use every day of their last year in the White House to see some of their key initiatives realized. The film focuses on Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, President Obama, and an individual who had—until my viewing of the documentary—not caught my attention. He was Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes: a man who transitioned a degree in creative writing into a position as the political speechwriter for Barak Obama and became a close confidant of the president himself. In April 2018, Magnolia films released a documentary entitled The Final Year. It is an intimate look at the inner workings of the Obama administration as they determinedly use every day of their last year in the White House to see some of their key initiatives realized. The film focuses on Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, President Obama, and an individual who had—until my viewing of the documentary—not caught my attention. He was Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes: a man who transitioned a degree in creative writing into a position as the political speechwriter for Barak Obama and became a close confidant of the president himself.

The FInal Year Poster
Photo Credit: Amazon.com

Upon researching more about Ben Rhodes, I discovered that the release of the documentary closely coincided with the upcoming release of Rhodes’ memoir The World as It Is in June 2018. I wanted to know more about this man whose career took the path I dreamed for my own in my early years as an undergraduate student. I preordered the book and waited impatiently for its arrival.

As I am currently living in Liberia, West Africa, mail takes a couple of weeks more than the normal wait period. So, when I finally received my copy of the book, I couldn’t wait to get started. Rhodes drew me in with an epigraph from Hemingway’s Old Man in the Seaa story that deals in many of the same themes that we witness and experience in politics. Coincidentally, Hemingway, like Rhodes, also bemoaned the publicity and lack of privacy that the success of the novella brought to his own existence. Then, Rhodes hooked me with an anecdote in his prologue that illustrated Obama’s humor and humanity in his casual interactions with his staff, and I looked forward to seeing more of that side of what happened in the Obama White House.

Then, Rhodes hooked me with an anecdote in his prologue that illustrated Obama’s humor and humanity in his casual interactions with his staff, and I looked forward to seeing more of that side of what happened in the Obama White House.

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Photo Credit: SABC Digital News

The timing of events around this book continued to be serendipitous. As I approached the halfway point of the 422 page memoir, Obama was scheduled to give the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. At this point in the book, Rhodes writes about how Obama spoke to the president of Egypt about lessons he learned over the years from Nelson Mandela (who was then very ill and in the hospital). The most significant lesson seemed to be about how small but lasting gestures are where to find the proof that a leader is dedicated to bringing the country together and that everyone is important to that effort (204). I had just finished reading these pages as I listened to Obama give his lecture in celebration of Mandela’s 100th birthday.I both cheered at the message he spoke and mourned the absence of this man of integrity in the political arena.

I both cheered at the message he spoke and mourned the absence of this man of integrity in the political arena.

At least I had Ben Rhodes’s stories to fill the void.

As I continued to read, Obama’s voice resonated in my head in those moments of dialogue or speech-making. In Rhodes’s particular style, he writes about meetings, special events, social gatherings, and private conversations in a way that makes readers feel like they were at least sitting in a chair against the wall in the same room as the moments transpired. We are made part of those situations by being allowed to witness them in their drama.

Getting to know more about Rhodes as an individual, too, was enjoyable and interesting. I have come to admire him for the reasons he made his career choices, for showing his humanity in the ways he struggled to balance his professional and personal lives, and for the dedication he showed to Obama and his vision. Early in the book, Rhodes writes, “The events of my twenties felt historic, but the people involved did not. I wanted a hero–someone who could make sense of what was happening around me and in some way redeem it” (7). As someone who is close in age to Rhodes and could empathize with his reactions to events that fed this need for a heroic figure (like the 9/11 attacks and the war with Iraq), I identified with this statement.

“It was always hard to explain what it was that I admired about this complicated man. Watching him, I felt that I would never have to explain it to anyone again.”

Throughout the book, there are numerous instances where Rhodes’s respect for Obama’s style of leadership, thought process, and decision making is evident. In one particularly moving section of Chapter 25, he begins by stating “A ten-day stretch in June encapsulated both the events that ensured Obama’s presidency would be a historic success and the clouds that would hover over his legacy” (316). Then, over the course of the following pages, he discusses the success of the Supreme Court Rulings on the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage. These victories, however, had a shadow cast over them by a mass shooting in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Rhodes’s play-by-play description of Obama’s subsequent memorial speech at that church, followed by the President’s singing of “Amazing Grace,” and his calling out of each of the victims’ names is perhaps the most emotional moment of the book; and Rhodes himself describes being moved to tears for the first time in many years as he watched the events unfold on the White House television channel that played whenever the president was speaking. He writes, “It was always hard to explain what it was that I admired about this complicated man. Watching him, I felt that I would never have to explain it to anyone again” (319). As the chapter came to a close, I was also in tears and felt overwhelmed by the compassion and humility of the most powerful man in the world.

Ben Rhodes writes in a relatable style with which anyone who has a passion for their work will identify. There are lines in his prose that bespeak his training in creative writing, but there is also the vast knowledge of someone who was immersed in moments that had domestic and international importance. In his recollections and retelling of those situations, he has distilled the Obama doctrine—“Don’t do stupid shit.” (278)—and has reminded us of Obama’s world view that made us all believe that “America’s leadership depended on our military but was rooted not just in our strength but also in our goodness” (25).

In his recollections and retelling of those situations, he has distilled the Obama doctrine—“Don’t do stupid shit.” (278)—and has reminded us of Obama’s world view that made us all believe that “America’s leadership depended on our military but was rooted not just in our strength but also in our goodness” (25).

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Photo Credit: Discovery Channel Southeast Asia

Finally, many readers will connect with the fact that Rhodes was a fan of Anthony Bourdain and pushed for the famous meal in Hanoi, Vietnam shared between the celebrity chef and Obama in 2016. Had I been reading this at any other time before June 2018, I simply would have been excited to see Bourdain’s name mentioned here and there throughout the narrative.Unfortunately, Bourdain’s suicide happened just weeks before I happened upon Rhodes’s first mention of him in the memoir. So, fond recognition was diluted by a sense of loss on those pages.

Unfortunately, Bourdain’s suicide happened just weeks before I happened upon Rhodes’s first mention of him in the memoir. So, fond recognition was diluted by a sense of loss on those pages.

Of all the possible celebrities to mention, however, Anthony Bourdain is one of the most fitting, for the philosophy that drove him in his travels—that “If people would just sit down and eat together, and understand something about each other, maybe they could figure things out” (737)—was not that different from President Obama’s mentality.

And, indeed, the optimism that Obama so frequently talked about throughout the years is something that transferred to members of his staff like Ben Rhodes who admires the man for his integrity, compassion, and pragmatism. No, Rhodes doesn’t agree with every decision the president made. Yes, there are times when Rhodes disappoints the president and feels like a failure. This makes him all the more relatable despite his unique experiences and opportunities, and we readers feel his ups and downs.

The Obama White House also had its “zig-zags” which spark equal amounts of frustration and elation in their recollection.  Overall, from Rhodes’s telling, it seems that the staff members of that administration felt on an even deeper level what many of us citizens came away from the experiences of those eight years feeling: an even stronger belief in the possibilities of what could be when there is leadership that is rooted not only in strength but also goodness.

And these days, a reminder of those possibilities give us hope we can believe in.

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Maharba (Hello) from Jordan!

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About to set sail on an Alaskan cruise!

“Live your life!  Live your life, have your adventures.  Just do it! …but you must also be careful and save your money so you don’t have to worry about later.  Be smart about it, but remember that what you do at 30 is not what you will do at 35, and what you do when you are 35 is not what you will do when you are 40.”

I met Lynn at a welcome party for Andrew and me.  She is a lovely woman who is small in stature, but tremendous in enthusiasm and personality.  Her silver cropped hair and blue framed glasses liken her in my imagination to a wise and friendly owl who is saying, “I did life right, and I want you to do it right, too!  Be happy!”

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Hiking in Boulder, Colorado (Sept 2018)

It just so happened that I approached her and Andrew discussing the home leave holiday he and I had recently concluded.  He was telling her about our hopping around the United States to visit family and friends and to have some much-needed adventure after the limited activity afforded to us in Liberia.  

Continue reading “Maharba (Hello) from Jordan!”

“I am Multi-Local”: Reflections on Belonging by a New-ish Expat

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Taiye Selasi’s 2014 TEDGlobal talk on identity and locality.

I thought my previous post would be my last from Liberia.  I did not anticipate having more time on my hands since I completed the requirements for my master’s program!  So, perhaps this one will be the final dispatch from this African tour.

This morning I started my day by watching Taiye Selasi (listen to her say her own name in the video — it’s hypnotizing!) expound upon the idea of belonging to a place in her 2014 TEDGlobal talk.

As a younger version of myself, I used to think “I am from nowhere.”  I am a bi-racial child of a U.S. Air Force family who moved more when I was a child than many people do their entire lives.  My mother is Mexican but was born and raised on the serene and idyllic Gulf Coast of Florida.  My father is Canadian-born of British and Canadian descent but was raised from boyhood in the same town where my mother grew up.  My parents married in their early twenties and my father joined the Air Force — a career that requires frequent travel, occasional TDY assignments, and relocation within the U.S. and abroad.  And no matter where I lived, I was never able to identify exclusively with a group of people because of my diverse background.  You can imagine the identity issues this can cause for adolescents who so desperately want to be recognized and accepted for who they are. 

Continue reading ““I am Multi-Local”: Reflections on Belonging by a New-ish Expat”

Farewell, Liberia: The Beauty and the Sadness

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T.I.A. (This is Africa)

If you look too closely — if you focus too hard on it all — Liberia can be overwhelming in its sadness.

Garbage in the form of innumerable plastic bags; pieces of broken plastic buckets, bowls, and chairs; discarded parts of this and that litter the streets and create heaps and mounds in empty lots.

Gutted and bombed-out skeletons of buildings stand all around with walls that bear the scars of civil war, and tin roofs that peel up and crash down with the heavy winds that bring torrents during the rainy season.

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A staircase in the long-abandoned Ducor Hotel

And remnants of the stresses and dangers of years of wars and the recent Ebola crisis show in people’s eyes and on their bodies.

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An entry in the “Moving Forward but Never Forgetting” art contest to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Ebola outbreak.

Liberia is a difficult place to live for anyone — natives and expats, alike.  There is so much need that it can be suffocating.

However, if you allow yourself to overlook those things — to get past the sadness and the desperation — there is beauty here.

Continue reading “Farewell, Liberia: The Beauty and the Sadness”

Book Review: A Journalist’s Career Shaped by Bullets and Bombs

And Then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engel

My husband and I are going to be relocating to the Middle East soon; thus we are devouring any text we can find that will help prepare us for our life and work there. Having background knowledge and context of any new home and work environment is helpful, but it can sometimes be an overwhelming task to obtain it. However, when I saw Richard Engel’s memoir, I was intrigued: “A first-hand recounting of a well-known foreign correspondent’s experiences in the middle east over a (so far) 20-year career?” I picked up the paperback, colored in the oranges, blacks, and greys of the blasts and ash of war.
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A Teacher-Turned-Trailing Spouse

How Being a Teacher Prepared Me for Life in Foreign Service.

I was a high school teacher for twelve years before I married into the foreign service.  

Each year, I would become intensely invested in the performance and success of each of my 200 students.  Before I became a mother, these students were the most important part of my life because I gauged my own success as an educator by their respective experiences and achievements (however great or small).

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Students from various years came together to bid me farewell before my departure to Liberia in 2017.

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Here and There: Comparing Life in Liberia with Life in the U.S.

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This is a post that has been in the making pretty much since I arrived in Liberia.

When one travels to a location for an extended period of time, it is inevitable that she eventually compares her destination to her city or country of origin.  The time frame is different for everyone; but, once the excitement and stimulus of being in a new place fade just enough, the individual begins to consider how THIS place is different from THAT place.

So, over the past 10 months, I have made some mental notes about the facets of life in Liberia that compare to life in the United States.  Some of these are completely subjective. Fortunately for me, the experiences I’ve had in my life have made me feel more at home in Liberia than perhaps others may feel when they are posted here.  Parts of life here that have struck me as particularly comforting or curious may not seem so to you as you read. And that’s perfectly normal. If you have been to Liberia, I’d really love to hear your take on some of these points–especially if you disagree with me. 🙂

So, here we go!

Continue reading “Here and There: Comparing Life in Liberia with Life in the U.S.”