Saturday, January 17, 2015


My family thinks I am preoccupied with death.  I don't know where they get that idea, but I have been "enjoying" two books and a podcast that are tied together by the fact that they involve the deaths of people near in age to me. Obviously, it is a shock for a young person to have someone his or her age die, but, as we age, that occurs more and more often. However, I am still only 33, so it is only real tragedy that causes the deaths of people that age.

The book I recommend wholeheartedly is The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs. It is truly an incredible story about Rob Peace, a brilliant African-American man who grew up in terrible poverty in Newark, New Jersey, and largely without a father because his father was in prison for murder. But nevertheless, Peace attended Yale and graduated with distinction in the school’s most difficult science major. While at Yale, Peace sold marijuana, and he continued to do so after he left. He taught science at the prep school that he attended, but then became seemingly aimless. He worked for Continental Airlines on the runway, and the most telling scene in the book is where he is sitting on a luggage cart reading an extremely advanced biochemistry textbook just to "stay sharp." Understandably, his co-workers could not fathom why someone who could actually grasp what was in that book was putting luggage in planes.

And this is the struggle that Peace faced in his life, and the book does an excellent job conveying through action, not simply by telling. Once he went to Yale, it was harder to belong in Newark. But when he tried to be the person he was in Newark, everyone thought he was pretending. It was not even that Peace could not go home again, it was that no matter what he did with his life, it seemed to be below his potential. These were obstacles that the overwhelming majority of Yale’s student body did not have to face.

Hobbs, the author, was Peace’s roommate at Yale. While he struggled in getting his work published after graduating, no one had an opinion about his potential or what he should be doing. He was simply allowed to keep working and learn from his mistakes. While it seemed that lots of other people wanted to put pressure on Peace to achieve certain things, he did not necessarily place that on himself. He wanted to vindicate his father, who always claimed to be innocent, he wanted to help his mother, and he wanted to change his life. In the end, Peace created his own "brand" of marijuana by using his chemistry background. However, competitors were not so pleased with that. He met his end like many drug dealers do, by being shot to death by unknown assailants in 2011. He was 30 years old.

Knowing the ending does not make it easier to stomach. It is a wonderful book with a truly humane description of an incredibly complex person. It powerfully shows how much it matters where a person comes from, even if it is not supposed to matter at all.  I’m sure someone will make it into a movie, but, trust me, you want to read the book.  It's a true story that is nevertheless a page-turner.

The second book is Boy on Ice by John Branch, which chronicles the life of Derek Boogaard, a gentle giant who became the National Hockey League’s "enforcer," only to be ravaged by concussions and injuries from fighting. He died in 2011 at age 28. Boogaard, like Peace, was also trapped in that he loved hockey but never had the talent for the sport to play at the highest levels. However, he did have the ability to fight at the highest levels, which allowed him to reach the NHL. He abused prescription drugs to battle the injuries and ensure he could keep fighting, and this pounding on his body caught up with him. His brain was found to have chronic traumatic encephelopathy (which numerous football players have been shown to have), and the story of his life raises serious questions as to why fighting is still allowed in the NHL.  It is terribly sad that someone could achieve his dream and yet simultaneously have this achievement kill him.

The last of the trifecta is Serial, a podcast you may have heard of. There was a bit of a backlash because it became so popular, but ultimately, I do think it was really good. As someone who likes true crime, likes the law, and likes podcasts, I am the prototypical listener, but I highly recommend it to anyone who has not listed to it (if such people exist). Hae Min Lee obviously was nowhere near my current age when she was murdered, but she was a senior in high school in January 1999 when she died. I was also a senior in high school in January 1999. Serial caused me to try to remember my activities back at that time, but I can’t say that I recall all that much.

I don’t have a neat takeaway from these three pieces of culture, except that they all are enjoyable.  While I normally like to be eclectic in what I consume, sometimes a theme just emerges.  My family would say that my taste in music demonstrates that the theme that emerges is always death, but I don't know where they get that idea.  Life is for the living -- and for meditating on death -- it's for that, too.

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