Sunday, April 26, 2009

Book Review: Unbowed

Unbowed: A Memoir (Vintage) Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is like the trees that Wangari Maathai so passionately planted in Kenya - it is slow in the beginning, building its roots, but then it blossoms and grows into one of the most fascinating and inspiring reads I have read in a while. I also learned so much from this book about Kenya's struggle to have a real, thriving, democratic form of government. I did not realize that the first real elections that they had was in November of 2002!

Maathai is a very wise woman who came from humble beginnings, but through education and persistence forged this amazing journey into a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2004. Her writings about the struggle to form a democracy through the advocacy work of many organizations, including her own Green Belt Movement, illuminated just how hard it is to have a real, democratic society. Kenya's struggle for real democracy is unfortunately way too much like many other nation-states' struggles that continue to this day. Kenya has had to battle corrupt politicians who rigged elections, used the police and their own newspaper to oppress those who worked for freedom. Kenyan politicians who were in power deliberately antagonized different ethnicities against each other in order to consolidate their own power, causing untold internal strife, displacement and cultural antagonism that lives on today.

Maathai also hits the nail on the head with one of her statements that Kenya was always a land full of many nations, but a foreign power came, drew lines on a map, and clobbered these people together into one land and now they have to learn how to live together in a government that represents all of them. This is the truth for many states in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia and is part of the reason why so much strife still occurs today in these states.

Maathai is also a strident environmentalist and makes the point why environmentalism, good government, and human rights are all tied together. It is for this reason that the Nobel Committee chose Maathai as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 2004.

I really enjoyed this book. It brought back the part of my brain that loves and is fascinated by international relations, foreign affairs, learning new histories, and realizing how so many histories are connected and influence the events and world that we experience today. I love books that leave me feeling inspired about foreign affairs than jaded (because that is what my UVA education did for me). This is one of them and it is at its core an incredible story of persistence by a remarkable woman who through her persistence managed to help change a country.

View all my reviews.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What's On?

This is the question that I find myself asking most evenings when I finally make it out of the office and walk into my apartment, after facing the difficult task of figuring out what I am going to eat. There really isn't any good television right now - nothing that is a not-to-be missed show, with the exception of three shows:

Lost - This one should just go without saying. This is one of the best shows I have ever seen. I love every episode (for the most part) and it always keeps me interested. There are so many twists and nuances to each episode. The characters are amazing and the development of them is phenomenal. It just simply is a fantastic story/mystery that has me wrapped around it's finger. I will be very sad when the last episode airs this season. (Thank goodness summer baseball starts like two weeks later.)

Deadliest Catch - My favorite reality show right now. It probably should be called a docu-reality show. Every episode has me on the edge of my seat, because the conditions that these men work in and come through, are unreal. Last night a ship fishing for cod, away from the crab fleet that the show follows, went down in the Bering Sea, and the cameras followed the Coast Guard as they combed through seas that were experiencing hurricane conditions. This ship was 900 miles away from the nearest Coast Guard station and it took them 7 hours to get to its location. Watching them comb the sea was gut-wrenching because there was very little chance for survivors. And as they found an empty life-raft, my heart just sank further. The episode ended with them finding a man who, though he was in a survival suit, had succumbed to the treachery and conditions of the Bering Sea. This is the reality that the crab-men fish in, and to see the shots of the Bering Sea wash over their boats, and still watch them setting crab pots, with hurricane winds and seas was absolutely unreal. On a much, much lighter note, Crosby on the Wizard should be on the Bachelor - very hot. (Though, the last fisherman the Bachelor had, Byron, turned out to be a kind of a nut job - or at least the girl he picked is - so maybe not.)

My Boys - If you've never seen this sweet comedy, you should check it out. Such a sweet, fun comedy! Besides, the main character on the show, PJ, is a girl that is sort of after my own heart. The show has kind of grown from what it started as, but it has grown in a good way. Jim Gaffigan is absolutely hilarious on this show - I probably laughed for 5 minutes at his part last night. So glad that TBS continues to support this series.

Other shows that I am looking forward to recording this summer - Burn Notice and hopefully a new season of ABDC (fingers crossed!!). Check out Burn Notice on USA if you haven't had a chance. Jeffrey Donovan is awesome, as is the rest of the supporting cast.

Everything else you should just follow through the recaps on The people who write for are hilarious and you don't need to watch any episodes, unless you want to laugh in agreement with their assessments!

Miss You

Today is the second year anniversary of losing my grandpa unexpectedly to a heart attack. I miss him so much. He was one of the biggest sources of encouragement in my life - he truly believed that there was nothing that I could not do, more so than I even do. He would always call me up with a random joke. He gave all of us grandkids nicknames - mine was "Gator" - and would always call us by those names. He signed every card with the saying, "Stay on the attack arrow." He would send me at least 5 email forwards a day. He bought me and my sister sets of golf clubs because it was one of the chief passions of his life and wanted to do everything to share that with us. He was always sending me books, with notes of encouragement to reach for my dreams. He always would give us M&Ms whenever we visited, or bring McDonalds to our house whenever he and Grandma came and visited with us. Not a visit would go by without some money passing into our hands. He loved to celebrate everyone but himself.

His kindness and love for people went far beyond just us grandkids too - which I never realized unfortunately until he was gone. But he was a man who loved God and loved people and put himself last. He was an incredibly hard-worker, voracious learner, incredibly smart man. He was a connector and an encourager - he helped one guy in his company rise from janitor to management, and that man went on to own his own company and meet with various dignitaries from around the world. His reach extended far beyond himself - I remember getting my haircut once in Charlottesville and the lady who was working the front desk, seeing my name, asked if I was related to Robert Taggart :).

He had such an incredible sense of humor :). I know that why I laugh as much as I do and find humor in most everything is partly because of him - "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" was on AMC the other night, and I was just cracking up and remembering hearing Grandpa's laugh watching it as well.

My last memory, the last time I saw Grandpa was in the airport when I came back from the best trip of my life to Italy. He met my Grandma, aunt, and me each with a single rose for all of us, welcoming us back. I remember walking out of the airport with him beside me, not saying anything to each other, but so happy to be in each other's company.

I miss you Grandpa. S.O.T.A.A.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Measurements of Success

When I was a senior in high school, a select group of seniors were voted on for class "superlatives", which is really a sham vote for people who are known throughout your class for their particular quirks, attributes, or popularity. Much to my surprise (especially thinking about it today), I was the girl candidate who was voted "Most Likely to Succeed", which in retrospect, probably should have just been named "Most Likely to Remain a Nerd for Life", because that would have been more accurate! But nine, almost ten years (Lord help me), from that point in my life, I started wondering if my classmates looked at my life today, if they would take away that superlative.

The other thing that got me thinking about success and its measurement is that I recently got an email from the UVA Reunions committee (because our Reunions weekend is coming up this June), that had snippets of the lives of some of the "classmates" that graduated with me. One of them read, "So and So went to Harvard's Government school, then during her summer break decided to start a new UN NGO, and is now negotiating for world peace" or something of the like. Most of the other snippets were along those lines as well. Over-achieving UVA students...

This all got me thinking about success. What do I define success as? And I found that in thinking this over, this is a really important question to ask and figure out, because there are SO many different ways to define "success" for a person, depending on what you want to evaluate.

Do I define success based on what I do? Do I define it by what my peers at UVA have done? Those that I graduated from FHS? Do I define it by what my family thinks? By what my boss thinks? What about my friends? My coworkers? Is success defined by my passion? What if I have many passions? Is it defined by the level of education that I have received so far? If I get an MBA or a PhD, does that up my level of success? What about the way I look? If I can get myself to be a size 6, am I then a success? If I by a miracle of God get married, will I be a success then? Or if I have children and raise a family, am I successful? Is success defined by the position or title I hold at the office? The number of hours I work a week?

The list of questions could on and on, drilling endlessly into every little aspect of my life! Is success measured by how clean I keep my house? By how cute it looks? What about my car? Is success measured by the car I drive?

Then what about my life as a Christian? Is success there defined by how many quiet times I have? Or even if I have a quiet time? Is it measured by the number of small groups I participate in, or the number of "Christian" books I read? Is it defined by whether or not I agree with this person's theology or that person's? Is it measured by whether or not I go to Mass? Go to confession? Go to church at all? Is it measured by whether or not I participate in all the various activities that are put on by the church or Young Life? What about Young Life? What is success there? The number of kids that convert to Christ? The number of kids that show up at all? The numbers that go to camp? The numbers that keep coming after camp?

They go on and on and on. And in the midst of asking all these questions, I had to come to heart of the question - my own heart and what is that heart really based on? Is it based on all the hats that I wear? Is it based on the expectations of my family, my peers, my coworkers? Is it based on the pressures I put on myself?

In the midst of all these questions and analyzing them, one popped up: "Who here really matters?" Who matters in this scenario? And in asking that, I came upon, "Who do I believe in"? Do I believe in me? My family? My friends? My job? Young Life? No to all of them.

I say I believe in Jesus to myself and to other people. So if I truly do believe in Him, then what is my measurement of success? "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind...Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:37-39).

I have come to accept that this is the true measurement of success in my life. What is hard, is how unbelievable it can be to keep this at the center of my life and to believe that this is the Truth. But as I have further reflected on it, there is no other way to measure success that brings peace to my heart and life. Because if I try to measure success based on all the other questions that I listed above, I will never succeed - I will utterly and miserably fail. I believe that life has to be measured by something more than what I do, because I can "do" a lot of things. If I measure success in my life by how much is in column A versus column B, I will never be successful. Because column B will always be longer. There will always be more to "do", more to "succeed" at.

And doing or not doing things is a lot easier than loving God and loving His people, His creation.

So I have determined that success in my life is going to be measured by how I love God and His people, His creation. If I can make it to the end of my life, whenever that may be, and say at the end that I kept the love of God at the center of my life and I loved people the best I knew how, in spite of themselves and in spite of myself, then I can consider my life to have been a success.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Why "Fast and Furious" Topped the Box Office

I have this new theory/philosophy about movies. There are so many movies out there these days, and they are SO expensive to go to, that it is hard to justify spending your hard-earned dollars on innocuous fare that you may or may not like. And with the economy the way it is, you think twice about spending your $12 to go see an "artsy" movie, or a movie that all the critics love, because when you go see, you wonder why you listened to the critics in the first place because the movie ends up not living up to its expectations. There is just a lot of unpredictability in these kind of movies.

Then a movie like Fast & Furious comes along. The ONLY thing that is different about this movie is that they have dropped the "The" from the first one. Everything else is the same - same stars, same plot, same cars, guaranteed ridiculous action sequences, and guaranteed really bad dialogue. You cannot have a more predictable kind of movie. And that is EXACTLY why so many people went to go see it! If I could have found someone to go with me, I would have gone to see it as well, because a movie like this is just fun and dumb! You don't have to think about the plot, you don't have to wonder what one character is thinking, there is no nuanced acting - it is all about bad acting and awesome fast cars. And who doesn't love that? I like knowing what kind of product I'm getting for my money, and I would have considered it well spent if it would have guaranteed me an hour and half of laughter and cool car chase scenes.

What do you think? Am I off base here? Do people like to spend their dollars on unpredictable movie plots and characters, despite basically seeing the movie in its entirety in previews? Or do people enjoy more light-hearted fare in which there is no thinking involved - just fast cars and lots of laughs at really awesomely bad acting and plot?