Becoming by
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Prompted By Beach Reads

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Truth be told, I do very little reading these days. I used to love to read and long ago, I read a book a week, but my eyes have betrayed me. I developed severe dry eye 30 years ago and did all I could to maintain my vision. I cauterized my lower tear ducts shut to try to preserve what tears I am producing. I gave up contact lenses long ago. But nothing seems to help, including the various artificial tears I try. My vision is frequently blurry and (counter-intuitively), my eyes tear-up a lot, which also impedes my vision.

I try to read the Boston Globe daily, read parts of the New York Times on-line. Writing and reading for Retrospect takes a toll on my eyes and time. I can’t honestly remember the last book I finished, and I have a long wish list.

I usually read junky magazines at the beach, ones that I don’t mind if they get streaked with sunscreen. All my friends are in book groups, some in multiple, but I could never keep up.

However, this summer, I have two wonderful books with me on Martha’s Vineyard and I sincerely hope to read both. At the top of the list is “Becoming”, Michelle Obama’s autobiography. Not only do I admire this woman enormously, but the book was at the top of the best seller list forever, so I know it is well-written and she has a lot to say. I already know much of her life story, but still want to see how she presents it and the book was a birthday gift from a friend, so has special meaning.

The second book is “Stony the Road” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. a frequently-spotted celebrity here on the Vineyard, riding his special bike with friends (he has hip problems), attending all the best parties, speaking at forums; out and about. We saw his mini-series on Reconstruction and its aftermath on PBS earlier this year. I was so ignorant of the horrors that followed the brief, successful period of Reconstruction (we all think it was NOT successful) that caused a back-lash and ushered in the Jim Crow laws and much of the divisiveness that we live with to this day, so when I saw a review of his new book, I ran out and bought it as a companion to the series. I think it will further illuminate that period and how we got where we got to.

I am fascinated by history; of our country, of ourselves as people. Everyone has a story. I tell mine each week. We only have to listen to each other to learn a bit more and take stock of the world we live in. Listen and learn; we would all be better off if we did these simple, yet difficult tasks.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: Michelle Obama, Henry Louis Gates, Reconstruction, Jim Crow


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Betsy, I am so sorry about your eye problems and greatly admire the effort you make to read and comment on Retrospect posts. Some of my friends with vision issues use e-readers and enlarge the font. Others have become fans of Audible and listen to the books they want to read. We listened to Becoming over several long car trips and loved hearing Michelle Obama tell her story in her own voice. It was a great “listen.”

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Laurie. Books on tape (so to speak, these days), have been recommended to me, but I do very little long-distance driving. When I am in the car, just driving to the gym (7 minutes), or errands (in and out), I usually listen to NPR, or my choir practice CD. Years ago, when we took the kids on a tour of some of the national parks out west (2003), while Dan and David hiked down into the Grand Canyon, Jeffrey and I sat on the porch of the lodge (El Tovar). He read his Harry Potter and I listened to “John Adams” on tape. That was wonderful! So pleasant, and my eyes weren’t nearly as bad then. If I do long-distance driving (back and forth to the Vineyard), usually my husband is also in the car and he isn’t interested in these books, so wouldn’t want them playing while we are driving. So there’s the rub.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific story, Betsy. Like Laurie, condolences on your continuing eye problems and I am most impressed with all your efforts to still stay fully informed. And I love that you are reading Gates’ book this summer (I should, too), especially since I hear non-summer stories about “Skip” from one of my college roomies who is a next door neighbor of his in Cambridge. It should be fascinating.

    But most of all, I love your last paragraph, where you so beautifully tie in this week’s prompt with the underlying mission of Retro: to tell, listen and share all of our own stories. While I tend to narrowly fumble around and see if I can think of something — anything — to write about that might be of interest (at least to me), you, wisely, remind us all that what we really should be doing here is “listen and learn.”

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I bought Skip’s book. Don’t know if I will get through it. The TV series was informative and very disturbing. I found myself thinking about it for days after viewing; the mark of something important and well-conveyed, so I wanted, at the very least, to own the book so I could refer to it at some point in the future.

      Thank you for your thoughts on sharing our history. I do believe that IS the point here.

  3. Marian says:

    Betsy, I admire your persistence with reading and writing for Retrospect given your eye problems. You will really like Becoming! It’s so well written, and of course Michelle Obama’s story is entirely fascinating. I like books on tape, although I don’t drive that much, but Dick and I have the same issue in that we like different books!

  4. Betsy, so sorry to hear about your vision difficulties. And you’re reading my crap? Never advisable. I read Becoming earlier this year and loved it, particularly the arc of the journey. Made me think, and I still do, that the wrong Obama was elected.

  5. JeanZ says:

    Both are great books. Michelle’s book added a lot to a well known story. I’ll have to add Gates’s book to my reading list.
    Keep on plowing on!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks. I get so excited with the new Retro prompt each week, that it takes up my free time, leaving little time to actually read! Just got some photos for two up-coming prompts, one to add to a story in-progress, one to start, so away I go!

      • Suzy says:

        Betsy, it made me so happy to read this comment you made to Jean. Glad you get excited by the Retro prompts each week. And your photos are always wonderful. If you ever have ideas for prompts that you would like to write about, please let me know!

        • Betsy Pfau says:

          I had one a while ago, Suzy: “adventures in babysitting”. Whether one babysat or had weird experiences with nannies or babysitters (like I had when I went back to work), I think it is a broad enough topic that it might work. And though it is GORGEOUS here, I just wrote the latest prompt. It was in my head and had to get it out!

  6. Suzy says:

    Betsy, I echo everyone else’s sentiments about your vision problems. I suppose you have fully investigated medical or surgical cures for your eyes, and have concluded that there are none that will work for you. I encourage you to keep exploring.

    I hope you are able to read Michelle’s book, although I have heard from numerous people that it is better to listen to it, because she is the one doing the reading. It wouldn’t have to be in the car, if Dan isn’t interested, you could listen to it at home on your computer or probably even on your phone.

    Listen and learn is a great mantra. And you are right, we are here telling our stories each week. Maybe for the future, or maybe just for each other.

  7. Love Michelle Obama and her book – and thanks for the recommendation of Gates’ book.

  8. Interesting that your search led to these two authors in such conflicted times. They would be good reads in easier days, but I suggest we’re all looking for answers to the chaos that is so much easier to foment than it is to nurture democracy and justice. Gates suggests the past to me, Michelle the present or recent past, but who represents the immediate future. Thanks for stimulating the discourse.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      The author (of course, a Harvard politics professor), hasn’t quite given up hope yet, but he said there are three things that bring about the death of democracy (though he believes we have a strong Constitution that should withstand the threat). 1) Deep economic disparity (and we are in the worst times since the Great Depression). 2) When the two parties treat each other as the “enemy” (started by Gingrich, Trump is the symptom rather than the cause, McConnell is the embodiment with his “let’s oppose Obama at every turn and make him a one-term president”), and 3) Electing an authoritarian. Trump has turned out to be worse than even imagined. So we are in dangerous territory.

  9. Thank you, Betsy! You’ve given a clear, concise and credible look (gawd, I sound like an exam proctor!) at three deep strands that are definitely at play! I think we’re going to make it, but what scars will remain, and how completely will we be able to pick up the salvageable pieces and “drain the swamp.” Gee, where have I heard that phrase before?
    Thanks again!

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