Climbing Lessons, by Tim Bascom

Members of St. Timothy’s Brew, Books and Banter book club had the great opportunity to visit again with author Tim Bascom, this time to discuss his new book, Climbing Lessons, via Zoom.  A couple of years ago we enjoyed his visit to discuss his first book, Chameleon Days, his memoir of growing up in Ethiopia, where his parents were missionaries during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the honor of his presence after his second book, Running to the Fire, about his return to his teenage life in Ethiopia, during the Marxist Revolution that overthrew the emperor.

Climbing Lessons is a collection of moving stories illustrating the bond between fathers and sons, a bond often nurtured through outdoor adventures, and how that changes with generational time. Beginning in small-town Kansas, these tales span three generations. The first part of the book focuses on his life as a son and grandson. Early on, he describes how his over-eager father, while trying to demonstrate how to climb a huge sycamore, ends up dropping 12 feet and landing on his back, unable to move. Stunned, he finally recovers, and gasps, “So that’s how it’s done.” In that moment, he becomes a symbol for all fathers, trying to lead, failing, but getting back up to continue showing the way.  This “climbing lesson” is just one of 40 stories, drawing on the experience of four generations of his Midwestern family.

I was struck by the fact that, during the book, there were so many comparisons between Tim’s and my lives, beginning with the fact that we both grew up in rural Kansas communities, graduated from the University of Kansas, taught in college, and authored books. In the indented sections below, I describe some of those similarities. 

While Tim had two sons, I had two daughters. In one of the stories in this first section Tim talks about spanking – some he got from his father, and those he gave to his sons.  I was reminded that, by contrast, I only got spanked once by my father, who was unhappy that I spilled mercurochrome on my parent’s new blanket. 

The book’s second part depicts stories about his life as a father where he experiences failures also. When Tim takes his own turn at fathering, he realizes that his previously devoted toddlers are turning into unimpressed teenagers. No longer their hero he had hoped to be, he must accept a new, flawed version of himself, not unlike his father before him. 

Tim and his wife Cathleen, an Episcopal priest, parent a couple of boys, the first one nearly dies of “failure to thrive.” After three more years, another son is born, and Tim takes them on hikes and tells them stories. In one chapter, he goes hiking with his youngest son, his brother and nephew. He takes great pleasure in seeing the strong bond between his 16-year-old and the mischievous nephew. Several months later, the family moves through a terrible crisis as their nephew commits suicide. When Tim’s sons go off to college, charting their own courses, they both struggle to deal with the loss of their cousin. 

Tim talks about his sorrow that his first girlfriend left town with her family.  That happened to me too. Also, in Taking a Hit, he describes his initiation to football, where he got smeared, but didn’t quit.  By contrast, in my first game, I received the kickoff and ran down the field until I got smeared. Upon being tackled, my helmet fell off and rolled down the field. Several guys from the other team thought I fumbled the ball and jumped on it.  When I got to the sidelines, I found that our coach also thought I fumbled the ball and was livid, critically yelling at me.  At halftime, we were behind, and our coach went on a rant about how we should be doing better – for him. Not for the team, or the town, but just for HIM. It was such a bad environment, after the game I quit the team. Although I always felt guilty about quitting, but in retrospect, given all the current issues with brain trauma, I’m glad I didn’t spend a lot of time on the football field afterwards.

The last section mainly deals with the health problems of his father. After his father shatters a hip, Tim races home to Kansas.  Drawing on his father’s strength and experience to care for his boys, he realizes he must now assume a caretaking role.  When he later receives news that his father has had a massive heart attack, he races back to Kansas again. His father conveys to Tim that it will soon be time to take the role of showing his sons the way. “You’ll get your turn.  Trust me, we all do.”

In the final section, Tim describes his two cats. The kitten is hyperactive, constantly leaping toward any distraction.  The older cat, by contrast, likes to snuggle.  We have two cats with identical tendencies. He also describes his grandfather Doc Bascom, as being extremely smart, productive and admired by all.  It reminded me of my grandfather, Hank Mayse, who was a lawyer, postmaster, editor of the county newspaper, and very much admired by all.

While many can tell family stories, few can tell them with such warm-hearted detail as Tim. He succeeds in creating something both intensely personal and irresistibly universal. Although the book’s primary focus is on the beauties and difficulties of father-son relationships, the stories in Climbing Lessons warm the reader’s heart. Bascom’s skillful prose style immediately draws one into these moving tales.  These brief inter-linked stories show that abiding affection can prevail, bringing fathers and sons closer, even as they tackle the steepest parts of the climb.

Bascom completed his MFA at the University of Iowa, taught at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and now heads up the Kansas Book Festival in Topeka, Kansas, where his wife Cathleen is the Episcopal Bishop of Kansas. 

Ken Johnson

Songs of America, by Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw

In Songs of America, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer of Presidents Jon Meacham and Grammy-winning country singer Tim McGraw teamed up to trace America’s history through patriotic songs that shaped and reflected the country’s mood amid wars, social movements, and other times of conflict from before the American Revolutionary War up to the election of President Obama. Anyone who enjoys reading history or listening to music – or better, both – will find it irresistible. 

Meacham writes a celebration of the history and songs of the eras while McGraw reflects, as an artist and performer, on the songs selected in a series of sidebars. The two form an irresistible duo, connecting us to music as a force in our nation’s history. They begin their narrative early on, when tensions first arose between England and the 13 colonies. From there, they recount the next two-and-a-half century journey over our history’s rocky road.   

From the Star Spangled Banner and Yankee Doodle Dandy, to I Wish I was in DixieAmerica The Beautiful,This Land is Your Land and He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, in early years, to the more current We Shall OvercomeBlowin’ in the WindOkie From Muskogee, and Born in the USA, to name a few, they connect us with music as an unsung (no pun intended) force in our country’s development.   

McGraw’s engaging commentary fits well with Meacham’s artful delivery in writing about each song and how it fits into the era. Rarely do such diverse talents mesh in a way that produces a result of a whole greater than the sum of the parts.  

In summary, they have written a wonderful and moving account of how the sounds of America have inspired us and contribute to our understanding of our past.   Toward the end, Meacham quotes Shakespeare:

The man who has not music in his soul
Or is not touched with Concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for Treasons, Stratagems, & Spoils,
The Motions of his mind are dull as Night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such Man be trusted.  

Perhaps this is why the authors halt their story just before the 45th President….  

p.s. A personal note of a segment of my early history and music. While a ninth-grader in 1956, I joined a group of boys who were skipping school to travel to Memphis to hear Elvis Presley at the Cotton Carnival, an event much like the Mardi Gras. Elvis had recently made the scene with his hit “Heartbreak Hotel”, and we were entranced by his sideburns, swiveling hips, ducktail haircut – all of which we quickly tried to emulate. We got back home well into the wee hours of the morning, and of course my parents had been extremely worried and now mad, but glad I was safe.  I think I was grounded forever. Several years later, Elvis and I were both serving in the Army at the same time in Germany.  

Ken Johnson

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

In a nutshell, Becoming is a remarkable and inspirational story of an extraordinary woman. The book is a coming-of-age story; a love story of a pair of opposites; and a political saga by a woman who was skeptical, if not downright scornful of politics, but who became one of the most popular first ladies in American history.  

In telling her story, Michelle takes readers by the hand on an intimate tour of everyday African-American life and ambition, while recounting her rise from modest origins to the closest America has to nobility. Gracefully written and at times laugh-out-loud funny, she invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her from her childhood to the White House.

I particularly liked the titles of the three sections of the book. The first third (Becoming Me), covers her childhood, growing up in lower middle class in southside Chicago, with parents who made their high expectations clear. Despite her family’s challenges and her ‘female blackness’, she managed to go to Princeton, then Harvard Law, and then to work at a prestigious law firm where she met Barack, fell for him and his wanderlust, while Barack was grounded by her traditionalism. In the second section (Becoming Us), she covers their marriage, marriage counseling, raising two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare, winning the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and making it to the White House. But she never takes any of it for granted. On the contrary, her tone is one of wonderment as to how this all happened. Over and over again, from high school to the White House, she asks, “Am I good enough?”

She closes the last third of the book (Becoming More), talking about the stress of being in the spotlight, her desire to make an impact as First Lady, and the opportunity to offer her vision.  She knew that she would be held to a different standard, her every gesture scrutinized. Her story is not full of Washington gossip and political score-settling, though she does lay bare her contempt for Trump, who she believes put her family’s safety at risk with his false birther conspiracy theory.

Becomingis a warm, wise, revelatory and intimate, deeply personal coming-of-age story of a strong-minded girl who grew up to become one of the most powerful and influential black women in America. Her memoir sold more than 1.4 million copies in its first week and quickly became the best-selling book of the year. Through it all, her outlook is optimistic, her voice clear, witty, candid and insightful. She talks straight, with an openness and honesty rarely seen. She is gifted in her ability to express her emotions with meticulous attention to details, writing with tremendous insight and sensitivity from beginning to end. I loved it.

— Kenn Johnson