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review 2018-02-21 10:05
Snow-Storm In August by Jefferson Morley
Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 - Jefferson Morley

On the night of August 4th, Arthur Bowen, an eighteen-year-old slave, stumbled into the bedroom where his owner, Anna Thornton, slept. He had an ax in the crook of his arm. An alarm was raised, and he ran away. Word of the incident spread rapidly, and within days, Washington's first race riot exploded, as whites fearing a slave rebellion attacked the property of the free blacks. Residents dubbed the event the “Snow-Storm," in reference to the central role of Beverly Snow, a flamboyant former slave turned successful restaurateur, who became the target of the mob's rage. In the wake of the riot came two sensational criminal trials that gripped the city. Prosecuting both cases was none other than Francis Scott Key, a politically ambitious attorney famous for writing the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” who few now remember served as the city's district attorney for eight years. Key defended slavery until the twilight's last gleaming, and pandered to racial fears by seeking capital punishment for Arthur Bowen. But in a surprise twist his prosecution was thwarted by Arthur's ostensible victim, Anna Thornton, a respected socialite who sought the help of President Andrew Jackson. Ranging beyond the familiar confines of the White House and the Capitol, Snow-Storm in August delivers readers into an unknown chapter of American history with a textured and absorbing account of the racial secrets and contradictions that coursed beneath the freewheeling capital of a rising world power.





The synopsis gives you the gist of the "snow-storm" portion of this book, the largely forgotten 1835 race riot in Washington D.C., primarily between white lawmakers / defenders and former slaves, a key (if unintended) player being the bi-racial (male) chef & restaurateur Beverly Snow. Snow not only suffers attacks on his business but also has his home vandalized and the safety of his family threatened. 


That story alone would be powerful enough but Morley's work here -- an expansion on his 2005 Washington Post article -- offers readers so much more. We also get an education in the early development stages of our nation's capital, then known simply as Washington City. Morley also gets into the topic of colonization and which of D.C.'s bigwigs were on what side. You might be surprised to learn how it pans out! 


Some of my takeaways from this book:




* Where to set up shop for the nation's capital? Hmmm. Well, the U.S. had racked up a mountain of debt after the War of Independence. Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton wanted to set up the capital in Pennsylvania but Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson countered, saying he had a debt plan but Southern members of Congress would never go for it unless Congress' Northerners agreed to set up the capital in a more southern region. Pennsylvania was also largely anti-slavery, had a strong Quaker (recognized abolitionists) population. Jefferson recommended putting the capital along Virginia-Maryland territory, where there were good banking options and slavery was still legal. Hamilton appeared to have no objection. 


* The design for D.C. was modeled after Paris -- the canals, boulevards, stately buildings -- so much so that George Washington even hired French engineer Pierre L'Enfant to oversee the project. Prior to this Parisian design, author Charles Dickens had had a visit to the city and likened it to a wild, western frontier town. Morley adds, " 'The whole affair,' said another visitor, ' looked as if some giant had scattered a box of his child's toys at random on the ground.'


* D.C.'s Capitol Bldg was designed by William Thornton, a slaveholder who pushed for colonization. In one story in this book, Thornton came to the aid of the battered wife of a French diplomat, proclaiming, "I know the laws of humanity and I mean to uphold them." Thornton was also rumored to be the father of Arthur Bowen, son of Maria, house servant to Anna Thornton (William's wife).


Personally, I was left with mixed feelings on Thornton. Morley describes him as having "a thirst for liberty but a weak will", creative dreamer type, high ideals, distracted easily but highly personable... but he also seemed to lack much of a backbone, often going with majority rule.






* The Commonwealth of Virginia had an 1806 law on the books that basically said that freed slaves must leave the state within a year or they could be apprehended and sold back into slavery, only being allowed to stay within the Commonwealth area past that first year IF they could get a signed endorsement from a white citizen, petitioning the state legislature to allow the freed person in question to stay. 


* By the 1830s, colonization had become quite the divisive topic around Washington. Colonization was the suggested idea that freed slaves could be sent back to Africa to set up a new colony of freed people. There were supporters for this idea in both white and black communities. White racists saw it as a way to get rid of those they deemed second-class citizens, while some black communities saw it as an ideal opportunity to distance themselves from said racists and slaveholders who seemed determined to make free life miserable for them. But colonization was sort of an all or nothing proposition... the intent was that if some went, everyone had to go... and some, as in the case with Beverly Snow, had a perfectly good life in DC that they didn't want to give up. There was quite a large group of supporters for the idea though, including some of Snow's white friends! 




* By the 1830s, Washington D.C. had developed a solid horse racing community. Even President Andrew Jackson was said to make a big show of placing bets (though it seems his luck wasn't so good lol). Beverly Snow first developed clientele in the city as a street vendor outside racing arenas. After developing some success on that front, he went on to open an oyster house, becoming the first restaurateur to offer fine dining experiences in D.C. Pity that a cholera outbreak in 1832 ended up wiping out nearly 500 citizens, putting a bit of a dent in his business! But he hangs in there, and once the first restaurant does well, he moves on to open a second, even more upscale establishment. 


* Snow was pretty innovative for his time when it came to the restaurant business! He became well known for his turtle soup, which he would offer only periodically, advertising that the soup was "restorative"... see? promo-ing health benefits, whether they're proven or not! By the way, consider yourself warned here, vegans/ vegetarians: Morley includes a play-by-play of how this turtle soup was prepared. 




* Famously penned the poem that would later turn into the U.S. national anthem... many years after it was set to the music of a drinking song we stole from our British cousins ;-) The popularity of that poem turned out to be a much needed reputation restorer for Key after an embarrassing display of turn-tail-and-run during the War of 1812. Key had the poem published in papers, later got the idea to set it to music. Also, weirdly, barely mentioned any of this to his wife but thoroughly discussed with his brother-in-law, Roger Taney. Taney was a racist lawyer famous for the Dred Scott case as well as his backing of a South Carolina law allowing black seamen to be arrested once they stepped off their in-port ships.


* Supporter of colonization and, it seems, not quite so anti-slavery as you might have been taught in school. Key had a public persona for being an ally for black citizens, periodically defending them in court (at least at the beginning of his legal career), but his actions in his off-time suggested opposite leanings. 


* Key, who served as D.C. district attorney for 8 years, was called in as prosecuting attorney for both the Snow case and that of Arthur Bowen, (see Thornton sect. above). Bowen was said to have been found in the bedroom of Anna Thornton one night, holding an ax over her head as she slept. Arthur's mother was also in the room (asleep) at the time, once awakened was able to usher Arthur out of the room, tried to get him out of the house but police had already been summoned. Key sought capital punishment for Bowen. 

        > Anna Thornton tried to fight for Arthur's freedom. For his protection, she tried to get him resold before his trial date but everyone she appealed to declined to help her. Anna went directly to Key, even requested a meeting with President Jackson himself, after writing him an 18 page letter (which she got in a carriage, rode to WH and hand delivered herself!) pleading Arthur's case, this letter including a petition sheet full of signatures from others also begging for the man's freedom. Bombarded with all this, Jackson eventually instructed Key to go along with the request. 

       >Two days after Arthur's arrest, abolitionist Reuben Crandall was arrested for being suspected of distributing anti-slavery periodicals / pamphlets (Good laugh over the bit that discusses Key's own words being turned on him during this trial!). A white mob developed shortly after and since they couldn't get to Crandall, they went after Beverly Snow (after a rumor got around that Snow was liberally tossing around "coarse or derogatory remarks" regarding white women of Washington. Snow's professional successes combined with his perceived cockiness had already made him the enemy of many white men in town. 

       > Snow escaped harm to himself but the mob did trash his home & establishment, though they were instructed not to break any of the furniture, as Snow had it on loan from a white man.  



Though it does take a bit of time (approx. 120 pages) to get into the bulk of the race riot topic, the "snow-storm" as it's termed, the history here is fascinating. BTW, also mentioned in this book: the bungled / thwarted assassination attempt on Andrew Jackson.


It doesn't leave you with the most glowing image of some of our country's most notable names in history, but it is history that is vitally important to be aware of just the same. Morley also includes an inset of pages featuring photographs, paintings, and news articles of the period showcasing some of the key players in this unsavory bit of history. 



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review 2018-02-04 06:38
Truth Doesn't Have A Side by Dr. Bennet Omalu
Truth Doesn't Have a Side: My Alarming Discovery about the Danger of Contact Sports - Bennet Omalu,Will Smith,Mark Tabb

When Dr. Omalu discovered a connection between head injuries and cognitive dysfunction, he thought the sports industry would welcome his findings. Instead, this gentle man of faith became the subject of a controversy that threatened his career, his family, and his right to live in the United States. In Truth Doesn't Have A Side, the doctor who inspired the movie Concussion shares insights that will change how you view your family's involvement in contact sports. This is a riveting story of finding new life in America, new strength within the heart, and renewed faith in God's call to speak the truth no matter what. 

~ from back cover




The book Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas (the basis for the movie by the same name starring Will Smith) explored the topic of "mild" brain trauma within the NFL and Dr. Bennet Omalu's role in bringing the dangers of brain trauma in athletes to light. In Laskas' book, we got to know a bit of Omalu's personal story. In Truth Doesn't Have A Side, readers get the expanded version (though, in all honesty, the bulk of the first 65 pages or so of material in Truth are pretty well covered in the Concussion book).


Yes, he does talk about his discovery of and work with CTE cases, but the majority of this book focuses on the years prior to his time in the spotlight -- the journey from a small community in Nigeria, through years of red tape and racial prejudice to finally finding a new place to set roots in the United States. What a journey it's been for this man!


In his own words, Omalu discusses his family history, the good and the bad. The story of Omalu's father is particularly harrowing: Omalu's father and aunt were abandoned by their mother after her husband's supsicious death, leaving them to survive as street children until a visiting missionary was able to arrange housing for them. Unfortunately, it didn't pan out well -- Omalu's father was beaten, often starved, treated as a servant, but endured it because the family did provide him with schooling. The way Omalu tells it has an almost biblical tale kind of ring to it! 


During the Nigerian Civil War (aka Biafran War), the time during which Omalu himself was born, his father's accomplishments -- college degree, years of dedicated employment as a civil servant -- were minimalized to "You're Igbo", forcing the entire family to have to relocate to a refugee camp for the duration of the war. The crazy thing is Omalu's father STILL worked as a government employee while they forced him to live in a refugee camp! 


My father's name was Amaechi, which means, "I may be down today, but no one knows what tomorrow may bring!" 


~ Bennet Omalu


As mentioned a bit in Concussion, Omalu explains how medicine was actually not a natural calling to him. His true dream was to become an airline pilot, but since his parents had their hopes set on him studying medicine, that's what he went with (though he does admit that science DOES feed his natural curiosity quite nicely). Imagine where the medical community would be had he take the "I do what I want!" stance. Truthfully, it made me a little sad for him that he didn't feel the freedom of choice to pursue his heart's desire, but I applaud his commitment to fully dedicate himself to his field regardless, as his work has opened the way to research that is on its way to helping so many in future generations.


Omalu describes the journey of how he came to have SO many degrees and certifications, the process of earning medical degrees in both Nigeria and the US. Through it all, he reveals his struggles with deep depression, racial prejudice in his new American community once arriving here in 1994, and the frustration of having certain people wanting to bar his progress every step of the way. It certainly seemed like an act of God that he managed to get a medical degree here at all.


The CTE material, Mike Webster case that started it all, all of that... actually takes up only a small portion of this book. The book in its entirety is not a long read, less than 300 pages total. The bulk of his discussion on his CTE years starts in Chapter 11 (approx. 120 pgs in, hardcover ed.).


For those interested in behind-the-scenes movie facts and trivia, Omalu also dishes on his very first meeting with Will Smith, who was chosen to portray Omalu in the film Concussion, how Smith originally wasn't interested but once a friendship developed between the to, he was quickly and happily immersed in the role. 


Omalu tells a powerful story, but it was sometimes hard to follow, as he would jump back and forth between his days as a medical examiner in Pittsburgh and his time as an ER doctor in Nigeria... with little to no transition or chronological explanation in between. I will say though, Omalu closes on a wonderful prayer for the future that left me quite moved. 


Following the close of his story, Omalu offers parents a Q & A guide on the topic of sports and head trauma, should their children want to play contact sports. He strongly urges readers to keep their kids out of such sports altogether, but admits that if you choose to go forth with sports anyway, it's best to at least go in informed. 


FTC Disclaimer: BookLookBloggers.com and Zondervan Publishing kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2018-01-29 07:55
Waking From The Dream: Struggle For Civil Rights In The Shadow Of MLK by David L. Chappell
Waking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. - David L. Chappell

The author of A Stone of Hope, called “one of the three or four most important books on the civil rights movement” by The Atlantic Monthly, turns his attention to the years after Martin Luther King’s assassination—and provides a sweeping history of the struggle to keep the civil rights movement alive and to realize King’s vision of an equal society. In this arresting and groundbreaking account, David L. Chappell reveals that, far from coming to an abrupt end with King’s murder, the civil rights movement entered a new phase. It both grew and splintered. These were years when decisive, historic victories were no longer within reach—the movement’s achievements were instead hard-won, and their meanings unsettled. From the fight to pass the Fair Housing Act in 1968, to debates over unity and leadership at the National Black Political Conventions, to the campaign for full-employment legislation, to the surprising enactment of the Martin Luther King holiday, to Jesse Jackson’s quixotic presidential campaigns, veterans of the movement struggled to rally around common goals. Waking from the Dream documents this struggle, including moments when the movement seemed on the verge of dissolution, and the monumental efforts of its members to persevere. For this watershed study of a much-neglected period, Chappell spent ten years sifting through a voluminous public record: congressional hearings and government documents; the archives of pro– and anti–civil rights activists, oral and written remembrances of King’s successors and rivals, documentary film footage, and long-forgotten coverage of events from African American newspapers and journals.






Waking From The Dream examines the years immediately following the murder of Civil Rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and how that tragedy affected the movement as a whole. This book covers a good chunk of history you likely were not taught in school. 


It turns out a number of men tried to step in as MLK's successor as one of the key leaders in the Civil Rights Movement -- Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and even actor Ossie Davis (who later portrayed Dr. King in a 1978 NBC documentary) were all approached with offers to take over. 


One of the sections of the book that held my interest most were the years concerning MLK's widow, Coretta Scott King, and the journey she took to build and maintain her husband's historical legacy. Following the death of her husband, Coretta was often brought out as a kind of figure of the cost of the movement, but she came to really despise this move. She said she was tired of being used as a pawn to drum up sympathy and anger in crowds. While reaching large audiences was important to the cause, she felt this method just felt wrong. She decided she would try to fly solo while continuing her husband's work. 


Dr. King & wife Coretta Scott King


In 1978, Coretta King heads up the Full Employment Action Council, whose purpose was to address the plight of impoverished black and white citizens alike. By 1979, Coretta begins to campaign for a national MLK Day. Other activists in the Civil Rights Movement had tried for this immediately following Dr. King's death and every year after -- musician James Brown even met with President Richard Nixon AND President Ronald Reagan to try to get the process moving -- but their requests continued to fall on deaf ears. Those in opposition to the holiday would often give speeches tying Dr. King to communism or would imply that his work actually low-key incited violence.  Dr. King's opposers would claim that he was okay with prejudiced behavior as long as it swung in favor of the black community. They'd also imply that he knew how to work around the law, not with it. Surprisingly, even the Congressional Black Caucus came forward and said there were bigger fish to fry.


                                    musician James Brown & Rev. Al Sharpton

at the White House in 1982




Even with Coretta's efforts, the holiday wasn't made official until 1983, under President  Reagan (though it took some time before he was fully on board with the idea). Once MLK Day was made official, Reagan came forward with this statement:


"Though Dr. King and I may not have exactly had identical political philosophies, we did share a deep belief in freedom and justice under God. Freedom is not something to be secured in any one moment of time. We must struggle to preserve it every day. And freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. History shows that Dr. King's approach achieved great results in a comparatively short time, which was exactly what America needed...What he accomplished -- not just for black Americans, but all Americans --- he lifted a heavy burden from this country."


Ronald Reagan signs document making MLK Day 

a national holiday


Mrs. King went on to develop a friendship with President Jimmy Carter, even awarding him the MLK Nonviolent Peace Prize in 1979. Senator Ted Kennedy and Carter started using the award as a icebreaker that would develop into a platform to win votes for the Democratic Party. Coretta Scott King was not given credit whenever the award was mentioned. 


The portion of this book that's the toughest pill to swallow is the light author David Chappell sheds on Dr. King, the man, not the historical figure. This means readers will read information regarding such topics as MLK's fondness for ladies and rumored infidelity as well as the plagiarism scandal around his college papers (and whether his PhD had been honestly earned) that rocked Boston University. 


Clayborn Carson, the editor of Dr. King's papers said that in his research he found that there were "instances of plagiarism" in King's works, but that "in most instances King was probably sloppy rather than deliberately deceptive." Dr. Jack Boozer, a professor of religion at Emory University, discovered that some of his work had been plagiarized by Dr. King. After Boozer's death, his widow was interviewed and said that Dr. Boozer never cared all that much that King used his words, instead was glad he could be of help to the man. But she also admits that when Boozer first heard the story that he didn't speak on the matter at all for a full two days. 


There were also quite a few pages in King's dissertation paper missing footnotes that should have cited source material. No one could quite agree whether this was intentional or not, but it looks especially bad when combined with suspected plagiarized passages. One of the large reasons it caused such controversy is that any other university student in line for a doctorate would have likely been failed over such oversights. King's naysayers were quick to point out that King held a C average while at Morehouse University, arguing that clearly this was a case of racial bias. Some were further angered by the fact that years later, when Brown U officials looked into the matter, they came back with the response that suspicious material had been found in King's files but that the college had decided against retroactively retracting his PhD. 


But this book isn't meant as a means to shatter the legacy of Dr. King, but to offer a balanced presentation of the man and his life, and the impact of his work generations later. It might not be the best book out there on the topic (which I cringe to say, after reading that the author spent a decade putting this material together). Some material, such as that regarding the Little Rock Nine, was pretty glossed over.  Still, it remains an important read towards developing a well-rounded education. Yes, it's disheartening to read of the struggle of civil rights activists, the way our government drafted Civil Rights Acts but watered them down so much before having them passed that they offered little to no help. But as some activists were known to say at the time, "If you are digging a trench with a spoon and someone offers you a shovel, you don't turn them down because they didn't offer you a bulldozer."


If baby steps is how we get to progress and success, then so be it. And in the process it's important to learn ALL the facts, take in ALL the information available and make informed decisions from there. That might mean that some of the veneer gets chipped off our heroes in the process, but I personally find it beneficial to be reminded that at the end of the day, these great feats were carried out by mortal, flawed, everyday humans just like me... not infallible gods. It helps make my little efforts all the more meaningful. 


Lastly, there's a footnote in this book that stunned me, which says that when Martin Luther King was leaning over the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, talking to Rev. Jesse James standing in the parking lot on that fateful day... well, it's hypothesized that had Dr. King been standing fully upright rather than leaning over the balcony, he likely would not have been shot in the face and could have possibly survived. 



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review 2017-03-05 11:39
Made for Goodness (And Why This Makes All The Difference) by Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu
Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference - Desmond Tutu,Mpho Tutu

In Made for Goodness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and international icon of peace and reconciliation, shares his vision on why we can find hope and joy in the world’s darkest moments by realizing that we were made for goodness, that we are wired so that goodness will win in the end. Archbishop Tutu is a spiritual leader and symbol of love and forgiveness on the level of Gandi, Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Made for Goodness, written with his daughter Mpho, is one of the most personal and inspirational books he's ever written.




Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a Nobel Prize winner (1984) and a survivor of not only an abusive childhood at the hands of an alcoholic father, but also of the apartheid era in Africa. In this book, which he writes with his daughter Mpho (pronounced mm-POH, btw) who is also an archbishop, finally addresses the topic he's been asked about most over the years --- how does he manage to stay happy, given what he's been through? How does he continue to see good in the world and not lose faith in humanity? In under 300 pages of illustrative stories of hope and faith, he gives you your answer. 


Desmond's path has not been an easy one. Remember the alcoholic, abusive father I mentioned? He was actually principal of Desmond's elementary school in Johannesburg, South Africa when Desmond was a child. No escape for the poor kid! But he endured, survived and went on to become educated and highly respected within a career of service. By the time apartheid in Africa reared its ugly head, Desmond was a father himself. One of the quietest actions to signal the fight to come was when the lunch program was canceled for all black children in South African schools, though white students were still served. Then Prime Minster Hendrik Verwoerd's official statement on the decision? "We can't provide for all the children, so we won't provide for any." That moment was cruel enough but ohh if only the fight had stopped there! If you've read up on your history regarding this time, you're aware of the bloodshed that was to follow all across the country. 


Desmond takes up the position of archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa. During apartheid, he serves as president of All Africa Conference of Churches. In the apartheid's aftermath, he becomes chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, dedicated to helping shattered families emotionally and physically rebuild their lives. His daughter Mpho worked alongside Desmond as a counselor to emotionally, physically or sexually abused women & children, rape victims and / or drug addicts. So you can guess, they were in the thick of it, seeing humans at their darkest, lowest emotional states. There must have been days where Desmond and Mpho had to have lost heart! This whole book is Desmond describing how they were able to stay strong in a world full of cruelty and depravity, dedicating themselves anew each day to building up rather than tearing down. 


Your whole life is holy ground.

~ Desmond Tutu


Desmond's work in South Africa, as well as time spent working in a refugee camp in Darfur, drove him to develop the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Tutu the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 


Archbishop Tutu ends each chapter of the book with a prayer poem, giving the reader something to contemplate on, regarding struggles within their own life. If you wish to pray on something troubling you but don't know how to go about wording it, these can be a useful tool to help guide your mind to a peaceful place. Tutu hits upon some solid truths on the subjects of truth, faith and general perseverance through life. While his message did get a little repetitive in parts for me, I can't argue with the message itself. The man's been put through the fire and came out the other side an intact happy man. His words have been field-tested, you could say! 


One thing that Tutu stresses in these chapters that did really resonate with me is the need to be realistic with oneself. We should all be striving for everyday kindness for humanity, but also keep in mind you don't have to be a perfect saint. You will have days where you get angry, where you break down, where you feel like you're not doing enough or that your efforts are pointless because the world is just too damaged. To this line of thinking he gives the reader this in return:


There is a relief worker who resides in our soul. In each of us, there is a dignified Darfuri, one who can find occasion for gratitude and joyful laughter in almost any circumstance. To whatever extent we recognize and act on those traits, they are there and want to be expressed. We can always aspire to be more compassionate and more generous, not out of some dogged need to be good or to be lovable, but because to give love is our greatest joy.


I was also moved by Tutu's words on "ubuntu", the South African way of describing everything and everyone in the world being interconnected. 


Some of the hardest truth to take (though the guy is right!) is when he breaks down the idea of freedom of choice. Admittedly, an amazing gift, but as he points out... it comes with a caveat. Freedom of choice also means potential for people to choose wrongly or poorly, which will likely affect a great many people. Could be you, could be someone else. So then he says, if your life has been negatively affected by the poor choices of others, you THEN have the choice to CHOOSE to forgive them or carry the weight of that anger / sadness / disappointment etc within yourself for however long you choose. Freedom of choice doesn't always mean everyone wins, but it gives you the freedom to choose how you react to the options provided.


I did really love Mpho's stone exercise for releasing hurt feelings, so I thought I would share it here: Mpho says to take a small stone that can fit in a pocket (but some with noticeable weight to it), put it in your pocket and throughout the day tell the rock what is troubling you. Whenever you feel that hurt or anger bubbling back up, voice it to the rock. At the end of the day, find someplace to set the rock down and mentally set down your weighted mind with it. Then walk away. Leave the rock there and walk away with a lightened spirit. 


Worth a shot! 

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review 2017-02-27 01:14
League Of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada & Steve Fainaru
League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth - Steve Fainaru,Mark Fainaru-Wada

So concluded the National Football League in a December 2005 scientific paper on concussions in America’s most popular sport. That judgment, implausible even to a casual fan, also contradicted the opinion of a growing cadre of neuroscientists who worked in vain to convince the NFL that it was facing a deadly new scourge: A chronic brain disease that was driving an alarming number of players -- including some of the all-time greats -- to madness. League of Denial reveals how the NFL, over a period of nearly two decades, sought to cover up and deny mounting evidence of the connection between football and brain damage. Comprehensively, and for the first time, award-winning ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru tell the story of a public health crisis that emerged from the playing fields of our 21st century pastime. Everyone knew that football is violent and dangerous. But what the players who built the NFL into a $10 billion industry didn’t know – and what the league sought to shield from them – is that no amount of padding could protect the human brain from the force generated by modern football; that the very essence of the game could be exposing these players to brain damage. In a fast-paced narrative that moves between the NFL trenches, America’s research labs and the boardrooms where the NFL went to war against science, League of Denial examines how the league used its power and resources to attack independent scientists and elevate its own flawed research.




The Fainaru Bros. team up to deliver this in-depth investigation into the NFL's persistent denial that head traumas are a serious epidemic within the game of football, particularly on the professional level. With a whole team of journalists pitching in on this project to uncover the truth, investigating survivors of now-deceased victims, the Fainaru Bros. (ESPN journalists themselves) lay it out for even the most casual sports fan -- brain trauma is most definitely a thing in this industry and it needs to be more seriously addressed and managed. 


League of Denial focuses on the careers of some of the most high-profile NFL players, from the 1970s to the early 2000s, to be fatally affected by repeatedly unchecked incidents of brain trauma. The specifics of this brain trauma were first identified by neuropathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu after he found himself baffled by the odd results of the autopsy he did on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike "Iron Mike" Webster. The Nigerian born Omalu admitted that he didn't follow American football, so he had no idea of Webster's celebrity status when assigned to do his autopsy. He was simply fascinated and perplexed by the case from a medical standpoint. 


Mike Webster played for the Steelers during the 1970s-80s. At the end of his rookie year, the Steelers won their first Superbowl. Throughout his career, Webster would take a number of hard hits to the body, mostly to the head. He regularly complained to his wife of debilitating migraines, describing it as an "icepick" kind of pain, but his official NFL medical records only show two instances where the team doctor noted Webster having a head injury. TWO. In a career that spanned nearly 18 years. And those two were largely written off as simply mild dizziness and a bit of low blood sugar. There was one record of Webster suffering a neck injury and being given an injected painkiller, but he soon had an allergic reaction to the medication and had to be rushed to the hospital. Fearful of losing his place on the team, Webster checked himself out of the hospital and played in a Steelers game the very next day. 


After Webster's death at age 50, Omalu and some of his medical colleagues looked into Webster's medical history beyond what the NFL had documented. Conversing with Webster's widow and still-living former teammates, it didn't take long for Omalu and his team to start documenting history of Webster struggling with depression, OCD, and paranoia, not to mention marital and financial strife. All key commonalities that would pop up in the life stories of future autopsy investigations of NFL players who had likewise died under mysterious circumstances. Further investigation aired stories of past and current players who admitted to playing through serious injury because they didn't want to let down teammates or they feared losing their NFL positions (which would threaten the financial stability those incomes provided for players' family members). 


Dr. Omalu put together all his findings and named the condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Prior to that, the condition was most commonly known as "punch drunk syndrome" and was most widely known to be found in professional boxers. 


But it's not just Webster that this book focuses on. The Fainaru Bros. also look at the cases of other players who have now been determined to have died as a result of CTE, a condition that, to date, can only be diagnosed after death. These cases include detailed histories of the lives & deaths of NFL players Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk, Andre Waters, Merrill Hoge, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau (You can read details on these and additional cases by looking at this CBS slideshow). If you're concerned about not being versed enough in professional football to enjoy this book, don't be. I'd recommend you to try it if the topic at all interests you. Though I enjoy watching football, I would not describe myself as a fanatic by any means. Yet I had no trouble keeping up with the topic at all. There are a few parts that got a little more on the technical / dry side than I enjoy, but for the most part I found this to have a nice pace for a non-fiction piece. I was also surprised at the gamut of emotions it pulled from me -- at times I felt that sensation of reading an action novel, other times I was enraged at the lax attitude of the NFL, even with clear evidence shoved in front of their faces, or sometimes moved to tears at the pain these families were put through. With Mike Webster's story in particular, it broke my heart to read how he was pretty much abandoned by the NFL after he stopped being financially valuable to them. 


After you check out this book, I would also highly recommend watching the film Concussion which covers much of the same information this book looks at, and stars Will Smith, who portrays Dr. Omalu. 


I still watched & enjoyed this year's Superbowl after reading this book, but I definitely viewed the game through new eyes, having this book in my mind the whole time! 







PBS Frontline did an episode which accompanies the book League of Denial, which I have linked below for anyone interested:


League of Denial documentary



Also, while I was going over my notes for this write-up, I came across a news article on SI.com that gives a surprising (or not) little update on the work of Dr. Omalu that you might be interested in... looks like he's still struggling with the professional sports industry accepting the seriousness of his findings, this time with professional wrestling:


Boston University rescinds award to Concussion doctor Bennet Omalu

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