Book Review: Fighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker

Fighting for LifeFighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First of all, Sara Josephine Baker lived an incredible life. Second of all, she has a totally relatable way of sharing her story.

Originally published in 1939, this autobiography tells firsthand the story of a woman doctor (at a time when that brought strange looks) who engineered the saving of thousands of infant lives in New York City slums at the turn of the century and became the first woman to earn a Doctor of Public Health through the program at NYU (because, when she was asked to lecture in the program that only accepted men, she refused to do so unless she could also enroll for the degree, opening the door for other women to enroll as well).

I originally read an excerpted version of her memoir (in Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women <– highly recommend). I enjoyed the excerpted version so much, that I almost immediately ordered her book.

The beginning takes a little while to get into, but soon enough, you’re following her to New York as she enrolls in medical school and later sets up her own practice with a fellow woman doctor and then gets involved with preventive public health and on and on it goes, as she steps into different roles and situations and seeks to fill the gaps she finds.

Baker has a no-nonsense style to her writing. Don’t come to this book seeking lyrical prose or a literary masterpiece. Her writing flows, as if she’s sitting and talking with you, recounting her life. I learned a ton — about her, her work, and the world as it was back then (think, women’s suffrage, “little mothers,” Soviet Russia — oh, and baby care).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning, values the work of women in the world, and is curious about history.

View all my reviews

Eric Metaxas on cynicism and the human need for heroes

Eric Metaxas, New York Times bestselling author of Bonhoeffer and Amazing Grace, was interviewed on this week’s episode of the Relevant Podcast about his most recent book, 7 Women and the Secret of Their Greatness. I’ve never read any of Metaxas’ work, so I can’t vouch for his writing, but in the interview he shared some worthwhile thoughts about Western culture’s over-cynicism toward heroes:

We’ve fallen into a place in the culture in the last forty or so years, really since the 60s, where we’re anti-heroic—we’re looking for the worm in every apple, every authority figure is suspect, everybody who looks like they have their lives all buttoned up, ‘Oh, they’re hiding something.’—this general negative narrative. And it doesn’t mean that there’s no truth in it, but if that’s the only narrative you put forward, you are lying, basically. Because there are great men and women in history. . . .

We’ve been in this terrible cycle of, we know everything that’s wrong with America, we know everything that’s wrong with the church, we know everything that’s wrong with every hero from George Washington on. Well, that’s not right, because what you do is you denigrate things to the point of being unable to appreciate what’s great about them, and at that point, you really are telling a lie. You don’t want people to deify heros . . . but you can go too far in the other direction. And I’ve argued many times . . . that we’ve gone so far in the other direction that young men and women are genuinely confused about, “What am I supposed to be? Who am I?” The way human beings are created, we need models. . . . Human beings were made to be inspired by other people’s lives.

You can listen to the whole interview here. It begins at 79:00.

If Medusa looked John Smith in the eye, this is what would have happened

In Greek mythology, Medusa was a monster with the face of a hideous woman and a head full of snakes (not hair). When a person looked her in the eye, he or she turned to stone.

That is a totally believable origin story for this lamp I saw at a flea market a little over a week ago.

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I think he looks like John Smith (at least, the Disney iteration — it’s all in the hat).

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Can you imagine the shadows this thing would cast from your bedside table at night?

Stories from my grandfather’s life

Last week, I was privileged to spend two and a half days with my grandparents. A lot of that time was spent in my grandfather’s office, where he opened a leather case containing the files of his life and unpacked stories.

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I now have a pad full of notes, a sampling of his past thoughts to read, and more than five hours of recordings. Something will be written.

Week Three in NYC: City of stories

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

How do you find stories in a city of eight million? Where the default safety feature is zero eye contact, and you’re more likely to hear a person talking to himself or yelling at someone to “back off” than you are to overhear a friendly conversation?

How — in this place — do you find someone willing to open up and share his story with a complete and total stranger so that stranger can turn around and share it with the world? Does it help to resemble a beagle, with big brown eyes and floppy ears, or will that just cause them to make things up, because an innocent person like you will believe anything?

Are they thirsty for human connection, or am I the only one?

Whenever I go to Manhattan, I stand or sit in public transportation for at least an hour and a half and barely say a word. Being quiet is normal for me: I’m only talkative with people I know or am trying to befriend, and then only sometimes. It’s not unusual (at least, it hasn’t been in the time I’ve been here) for me to go more than half a day without saying anything — because no one else is around. I’m in my room (or the kitchen or the bathroom) by myself.

But going for lengths of time without speaking when I’m surrounded by people? That’s a little strange. It’s like I’m an animal being herded here or there, only grunting when a neighboring cow knocks into me. No words, no laughs to lighten things up. Just grunting moos.

Only unlike cows, I’m faintly aware that literally every person I’m smushed against in the sardine can of a bus or train is living out a narrative all their own. Their lives are tracing the pattern of story — each pattern so unique that no other person in any of the City’s other sardine cans has a story anywhere close to theirs.

What these stories are, though, I can’t know, because to ask would be crossing an uncrossable line and the only accepted sound is a grunting moo to the sardine on your right.

But I’m a writer, a storyteller — I can’t spend four months in the same place as eight million people and never write a single true tale.

This week, the ache to tell someone’s story kicked in, and with it came a number of realizations.

It’s not that I’d never thought any of these things before (let’s emphasize the “re” in “realization”), but in my third week of unemployed intern-ment, they hit me a bit harder — square between the eyes.

I’ve been applying to jobs-to-make-ends-meet almost constantly. Mostly food service jobs that will schedule me long hours, pay me decently, and send me to bed each night more than ready for my pillow. I’ve had a couple interviews — in person, over the phone — and I have another scheduled for next week, but nothing’s worked out, yet, so this week, with the ache to write growing stronger and stronger, I started thinking about freelance opportunities. (Something I should think about anyway, if I truly want to write for a living.)

But I don’t know this place — how can I find stories to pitch?

My mind started working, thinking back to my Echo editor experience, remembering how I found local stories, analyzing my tactics. My curiosity, I realized, worked in my favor. My curiosity and my boundless desire to learn — they were what allowed stories like “Dallas, the bull-riding cowboy”, “Bibles on the bar counter“, and “Flying free” to reach print. 

Granted, I was also working with an incredible staff who never lacked feature ideas — “Gloves on, fists up” came via a tip from the News section editor — and writers who were willing to chase after my un-checked ideas (namely, Paula Weinman who, as a freshman, made cold calls, set up her own interviews, and pitched her own stories). But even with the help of Echo staff, the Features section would have been incredibly boring — had it not been for my over-involvement on campus, my radar for the unique, and my interest in just about everything: sports, fitness, art, airplanes, food.

“That’s what I have to do now,” I thought, the pieces connecting in this ball of spaghetti we like to call a brain. “I have to tap into my interests, channel my inner two-year-old and set out to explore . . . everything.”

Or (to give my mom peace of mind) choose a direction — topical, not cardinal — and go with it. See what I find. Stories don’t usually end up being what you anticipate pre-research anyway, and some of the best stories I’ve written started with feeling around in the dark. Exhibit A: “Gloves on, fists up“.

Topics I’m considering right now include parkour/free running, rock climbing, and graffiti. My current strategy is to find places where those things are semi-institutionalized (e.g. Bklyn Beast and Brooklyn Boulders) and use them as a starting point to gain contacts, learn about the topic, and get leads.

I’m up for additional topic suggestions, but I also need to be held accountable so why don’t we use the power of the Internet for both. Please fill out the form below to let me know by what day this week I should have investigated (in person) at least one topic and what topics you think I should consider pursuing. (Please take into consideration that my internship is all day Monday and Wednesday and I have a job interview on Tuesday.)

Bringing you up-to-date:

(This week seemed to revolve around food.)

Chinese Fish Pierogy Banana Bread

Sunday, after church, I went with my housemate, Lili, to a mall in Flushing, Queens, where I applied to jobs and Lili explained everything in the Chinese supermarket.

Chinese supermarket

Monday, in recognition of President’s Day and the United Charities building being closed, I worked from home for my internship. More arson research.

Tuesday, I worked on job applications basically all day (started looking into writing jobs, too), received a call from a Starbucks, and taught my housemate how to make pierogies, while making them myself for the first time.

Wednesday, I interviewed two arson experts, one interview lasting a full hour, the other thirty-five minutes. I got a lot of information, learned a ton and, as usual, stumbled upon something unrelated but interesting.

Thursday, I applied to a few more jobs, but was mostly a lump on a log until Lili came home and we made three loaves and two muffins-worth of banana bread. (I’m not huge on banana bread, but this stuff is awesome. Let me know if you want the recipe.)

Friday, I went job-hunting in two different malls, got side-tracked in Target’s book section (added these books to my reading list), went home, did a quick semi-workout, then hopped back on a bus to get to a train to get to church for youth group — which was interesting from the perspective of a 21-year-old college graduate. I also snapped this fuzzy photo of the Empire State Building from the aboveground subway station in Corona.

Empire State from A-track

Saturday, I went to a lady’s fellowship at church (where Lili and I gave up some of our banana bread), came back to the house, did a full workout including running outside in shorts (in February!), and read all of this Greatist article. I also watched the following video of a human running a loop-the-loop — something I’d always thought was impossible.

NYC stories: I call myself a writer

Being a nonfiction writer has been my reason for not writing.

“I don’t have any assignments,” she says, her voice raising from her throat to her nose.

That excuse doesn’t cut it.

If I am a writer, it’s because writing is an essential part of my being, it makes me who I am. If I do not write, I am no longer myself, but a weaker, lesser form of whom I should be. To fail to write is to fail to fulfill my purpose. To refuse to write is to cheat myself and the world. To say writing requires having an assignment is to imply that writing is only something I’ll do if commanded and, as a result, deny what I have been calling true for as long as I can remember: that I am a writer, and words flowing from pen to page, keys to screen — to me — is better than oxygen.

The tap, tap, tap on the keyboard is synonymous with the beat of my heart, blood pumping through veins filling a body with life. If I am truly a writer — one to whom words give life and who, in turn, gives others life through words — then no assignment is necessary in order for me to piece thoughts together. The blank page calls my name and I must answer with the scratch of a pencil, a click into a Word document, a deep breath, and a new letter, word, sentence, thought. 

If I am a writer, it’s because — assignment or no assignment — I seek stories to be told, words to be strung, thoughts to be shared.

Last night — two and half weeks in — I decided it’s time to start seeking the stories on New York City’s streets. (Tips welcome.)