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Why Do I Love These People?
What Should I Do With My Life?
The blog Mental
Multivitamin (a perennial finalist for best literary blog) used
some good pull-out quotes from the text of Why Do I Love These People? as
provocative discussion fodder.
Do I Love These People?
questions are evolving and tend to change over time.
If you'd like
to hear me reading from the book's introduction, click here. This is an excerpt
from the Simon & Shuster audiobook.
reading, what memories of your own life came back to you? Do you see those events in any
different light, having just read what other families have been through?
are true stories, rather than fiction - how did that affect the way you read the
share this book with your family? With your parents, siblings, spouse, or children? If
they could only read one story, which one would you want them to read? What story would be
most scary or threatening to share with them?
commonly invoke that phrase, "You can't choose your family." But in this
century, while we might not get to choose who we come from, we do choose whether to live
in the same state, how often to call, and whether to see our family once a week or once a
year. We fine tune that relationship like a thermostat. In what ways has your relationship
to the various branches of your family been a relationship of choice? In what ways has it
not been a choice?
Cook's Story," the Louie family's fate turns when they get to visit their childhood
home. Have you had any interesting experiences when visiting your own childhood
Trial," Vince Gonzalez writes his mother, "Mundanity can be elevated to the
level of art by perception alone." To you, what does that mean? Do you think a key to
relationships is the ability to see the beauty in the everyday and ordinary?
"Bumpkin," Doug Haynes takes thirteen years to go from a young man who neglected
his son to a very sensitive man who takes full responsibility for his son. To pull it off,
and to build back trust, Doug becomes a listener, never telling Gabe what to do or
ordering him around. Where on this spectrum does your own father fall? How about your
grandfathers? Has your father changed much over the years, becoming more tolerant, or a
Po writes in
"The White Guy" that nearly every new couple today feels like they are bringing
two different family styles into their marriage. For those of you who have a partner, do
you feel you come from different family styles? How have you negotiated assimilating the
"Dorothy's Child," Jarralynne Agee is a trained psychologist, and part of her
training is to see dysfunction in the way her family interacts with each other. And yet Po
came along and observed, instead, that this chafing is just the scars of a miraculous
survival. In essence, when a family has dealt with such enormous challenges as neglect,
mental illness, poverty, and racial discrimination, we should see their situation today as
a very happy ending indeed, despite a minor amount of normal dysfunction. Do you agree? In
what ways do you think we as a society are prone to overdiagnose "dysfunction,"
rather than accept that some chafing is customary to all families?
"Boxes" is partly a meditation on romantic love versus pragmatic concerns in
choosing a partner. In your personal history, which relationships emphasized the romantic
allure, and which were based on pragmatic concerns? Do you tend to chose partners with too
little regard for one or the other factors?
chapter "Jamaica?," Po brings up the question of "When is it time to cut
someone off?" We try to protect ourselves, and yet we don't want to run at the first
sign of trouble. Has the book made you more inclined to hang in there longer with
problematic relationships? Or has it made you more inclined to cut people off who mistreat
Cautionary Tale," Po highlights the tension between being realistic about monogamy
(not expecting it to be endlessly entertaining) and yet that notion can just make monogamy
sound boring. What is your impression of monogamy: do we expect too much? What do you tell
your friends, who are concerned about this - whether they are in relationships or they
Butcher's Wife," Po talks about two styles of forgiveness - one that puts the burden
on the atoner, one that puts the burden on the forgiver. One voice tells us not to trust
again, the other voice tells us how important it is to forgive if just to move on and not
hang on to our enmity. Which voice is loudest in your head? Has reading the book affected
those voices - has it changed how you see forgiveness?
At the end of
"Silent Car Rides," Po writes that every family struggles with the trade-off
between familiarity and authenticity, between security and free expression. Between calm
and honesty. People don't want to confess their secrets for fear of disturbing the family
routine. How does your family handle this tradeoff? Do you think you lean more towards
openness, or more towards sweeping it under the rug? Do you think honesty is more
important, or is there some level of family routine that's worth hanging on to, even if it
means not fully disclosing everything?
Thoughts," Po describes one of the greatest mothers he has ever met, Mary Naomi
Garrett. Then he admits that she rarely hugged her children, and one of her children is
missing (or might be dead) due to mental illness. Did that change your impression of Mary,
or did you hang on to your admiration for her? Do you have preconceived notions of what a
great relationship is supposed to be like? Does that ever get in the way of seeing the
good that's there?
If the story
of "The Tornado" happened to you, how would you have handled learning that your
son has been stealing to support a cocaine addiction? Would you have been more strict than
Charlie Taylor, or more lenient? What would you have done earlier, when you saw clues like
finding pot in his room? Would you have suspected your son had much bigger problems?
Tornado," did you think Charlie Taylor was more lenient on his children because his
wife Susan had given him a second chance? How would you have handled learning that your 15
year old daughter is pregnant? Would you have taken her out of school, as Susan did?
of this book are separated by questions that are meant to help us see all sides of family
life. Questions such as, "Do I need to have been taught what love is to give it to
someone else?" Or, "Is it harder for them to accept you, or for you to accept
them?" Did any of these questions stop you and make you think, either about the story
you'd read or how it related to your own family?
Many of the
protagonists in these stories are people who've made mistakes. They are portrayed as noble
and Po clearly admires them, and yet they have hurt their families, too - one neglected a
son, several committed adultery, many of the parents disciplined their children
physically, and several couldn't make their marriage work. How did Po manage to keep you
from disliking these people or judging them? Is Po simply recording the reality that
nobody's perfect? Did you ever find yourself judging them when Po abstained? If these
people were your friend, rather than a stranger on a page, would you judge them the same
Po talks about how some family problems are external, while some
family problems are internal. External is where the world puts the family in crisis, and
they can bond together or be broken apart by that external challenge - such as poverty,
culture, migration, discrimination. Internal is where their personality differences
and actions upon each other cause the crisis. These families show an abundance of both
factors causing strain in these families. Pick a story, and talk about which are the
external forces and which are internal.
A number of the stories involve families who leave their
homelands. How did the families' migration transform the families?
What is the role of higher education in affecting family
relationships? How did getting a university degree affect the family lives of Uma
Thangaraj, Yvonne Witter, and Denise Hughes? How about Doug Haynes? Did their education
bring them closer to family, or push them away? Even if it pulled them away from their
family, did it ultimately allow them to create stronger bonds?
families heal with the help of professional therapists and psychiatrists, there are some
notable examples of individuals surviving and healing without any professional resources.
Most notably the story of Kraig Emery, healing from his son's death, and the story of
Brian Olowude surviving via a strategy no therapist would ever recommend - by harboring a
fantasy. Do you think our society looks too much, or too little, for professional
help? Do you think we undervalue our homespun, "non-professional" survival
Most of these families sought religious and spiritual guidance
when facing their hardest times. How did their religious faith help them? Does it vary, or
is it reasonably consistent story to story? Some stories involve a particular faith's
interpretation of a general concept - such as the way Doug Haynes rethinks Redemption, in
"Bumpkin," or the variations on forgiveness raised by "The Butcher's
Wife." In what ways have your own notions of redemption, atonement, and forgiveness
been affected by your religious background?
Brian Olowude and Steve Murphy both grew up emotionally confused
by their families -- alone in a fantasy world of a movie theatre and a daydream. But
as adults, they woke up into a reality of huge, highly involved families from dramatically
different cultures. Can you imagine what an incredible change that must have been?
Would you have been able to consider these sudden hordes of strangers your family as
easily as Brian and Steve did? Which do you think would be the most significant
barrier to feeling like you really belonged to these new families -- the foreign cultures
or the fact that you'd grown up without these people? How would you overcome the
years of separation from them -- physical, emotional, and temporal?
Who is the person in the book you most wonder, "What happened
after that?" -- after his or her story ends? Why are they the ones you are
curious about -- what is it in their personalities or stories that makes you want to know
really told the story of entire families, but instead chose to focus on the relationship
between two particular people in the family. Were there other people in the families
you wished you had learned more about? Po, especially in his own story, Blue
Blankets, suggests that having a particular relationship with a single person may save
that person's relationship with the entire family. Do you agree? Do you have
any personal experiences that are similar to that, where a family member may be close to
just one or two others, but is estranged from everyone else?
Po has said that he hopes this book will give encouragement to
those who have been dissuaded from having a family because of endless reports on rising
divorce rates, single parenting, etc. Are you one of the people he's talking
about? If so (and even if not) do you think the book will help change that
In "The Tornado," the Taylor family fully considers it
Robin Taylor's personal choice of what to do about her pregnancy at age fifteen. However,
Robin chooses to carry the baby - rather than abort - and later decides to put the baby up
for adoption. Did you find this part of the story taking one or another side on this
deeply divisive topic? If so, which side did you think it endorsed? In general, families
cannot escape the political issues of the day. Did you sense one or another ideology
behind the book?
In the Butcher's Wife, Denise and Brian Hughes have to overcome
the weight of history to raise their family. What sort of historical forces did they
have to overcome? Personal? Cultural? Political? What
others? Do you think that you would be able to overcome history as successfully as
they did? How does history effect your family relationships -- both the family you
have now and the relationships you don't yet have?
Who in the
book did you most expect you would relate to? Who did you least expect you would relate
to? Did those expectations come true - or did you find yourself relating to people you did
not imagine you would?
statistics in the Halftime chapter paint a picture of a glass half full. Why do you think
it is that in the media, the glass is always half empty, or worse?
Most of the
stories are built around an indelible image that works metaphorically - Andrew's tree,
Jen's bracelet, Andy's greenhouse, silent car rides, a tornado, the river of family life,
Brian's palace, Uma's boxes. Did it surprise you to see such a literary technique applied
in a work of nonfiction? Which ones did you think worked particularly well?
included tended to work out their problems one way or another, but in the meantime they
went through some very sad, often scary years. Did you find the overall picture to be rosy
Po warns of
the danger of aggrandizing the present, and pretending that we have problems today that
are so much worse or harder than the challenges of previous generations. Do you know much
about the challenges your parents and grandparents went through? How did their challenges
compare to yours of today?
Most of the
stories Po tells are ones of reconciliation, but some of the stories involve breaking away
from the one person who most tortured the main character. Reading the book, did you find
yourself considering who in your life to hold closer, or who in your life to push away?
does not fit easily into traditional book categories. Po calls his book "a social
documentary." Do you think that's a good way to describe it? How would you describe
What do you
think the family of the future will look like? In 40 years, do you think the percentage of
children living in single-parent households will be higher or lower? Do you think the
average child will be getting a better education or worse education?
Some of the stories tell of events that happened years earlier,
while still others are about events which unfolded while Po was interviewing them over the
years writing this book. How do you think the families' memories colored their
stories? How are these older stories different from those that were told
contemporaneously? How does the passage of time color the stories of your own
family? Does it give you a better perspective - where you found out why something happened
years afterwards, or later experiences had taught you what the person must have been going
through? Or does time distort reality (making events better or worse than they
What Should I
Do With My Life?
If you'd like to hear me
reading from the book's introduction, click here.
This is an excerpt from the Simon & Shuster audiobook.
Strategies & Macro Influences
Finding Your Story
1. Po chose to weave in
fragments of his life when his memories were triggered by the stories of others. How did
this enhance or detract from your experience of reading the book? Did his doing so
encourage you to think about your own memories, or did it get in the way?
2. Journalists are supposed to
be impartial. Theyre not supposed to overtly care for the people they write about.
In rejecting that method, Po seemed to be suggesting that caring for others is necessary
for a meaningful life. Do you agree? What would Po have gained or missed if he had adopted
a journalists customary detachment?
3. Most of the stories have
positive outcomes, but the subjects have to endure a painful period to get there, and
theyre still tinged with regret and uncertainty afterwards. Did you find the overall
picture rosy or sad? Did you expect otherwise?
4. Po chose to include several
stories of people who are still struggling, or who have found only part of their solution.
He also chose ordinary people, rather than famous ones. Why do you think he made these
choices? How does it influence the overall tone of the book?
5. Was part of your enjoyment
the fantasy of being welcomed into the intimate lives of strangers? Was part of your
enjoyment the sense that theres someone out there who would be willing to listen to
your life story? How important to your enjoyment was getting concrete wisdom from the
6. Po recorded the stories of
over 900 people. That suggests he wanted to be encompassing and representative of
everyone, but he freely admits that his research was biased heavily towards the kind of
person he used to be (and the kind of people he used to write about). Does this influence
the legitimacy of his conclusions? In what ways has your perspective also been limited by
where you come from?
7. Po categorized the stories
in a way that highlighted the psychological issues we have in common. He rejected methods
of categorization that would have sorted people by profession, age, or class. Thus, the
story of an electrician is followed by a political appointee, and the story of a mother is
followed by a trucker, etc. What is the author trying to say about the way people usually
8. Po clearly chose not
to write a How-To guidebook. But he seems torn between two ambitions his desire to
be a serious chronicler, which dictated recording the stories straight, and his desire to
help readers, which lead him to distill helpful insights. When did he cross over too far,
in either direction? Do you work in a field where wanting to help others means you are
taken less seriously?
STRATEGIES & MACRO
9. Did you think any of these
people should have stayed put, rather than leave their old life behind? Whose choices did
you question or criticize? For instance, did you question Carl Kurlanders decision
to write Louie Andersons autobiography, rather than his own? Did you accept or
reject Mark Kraschels appreciation for Muslim culture? Did you respect Katt
Clarks decision to set aside her Olympic dreams for her daughter a second time?
10. Many of these people left
professions where they would have made a lot of money, and in some cases did. What message
do you extract from this that its necessary to resist the temptation of
money, and the sooner the better, to avoid being locked in by golden handcuffs? Or does
their example suggest that its possible to follow in their path, aiming for money
now and postponing your calling until later?
11. Katherine James, Warren
Brown, Debbie Brient and Jennifer Scott were among the many who believed they were being
steered towards the right decision. Do you believe in destiny, or a guiding hand? If so,
what should one do when the universe seems to be making it very, very hard to succeed?
is that a sign youre going in the wrong direction?
12. Po concludes that a calling
isnt something you know, in the absence of experience, its something
you grow into. Many of the people in this book werent able to figure out
where they really belonged until the second half of their life. How should this influence
the way we counsel students, who want to find their answer now, not later?
13. Every industry has a
culture. And every culture is driven by a value system. Po urges us to recognize how these
value systems have shaped us, for better or worse. What is the culture of the industry in
which you work? What does it value in a person, and what doesnt it value?
14. How have you and your
spouse (or partner) helped each other in your pursuit? How have you hindered each other?
Have you chosen partners because they helped you succeed? Po confesses that he used the
support of his first wife like a crutch that he didnt take sole
responsibility for his own situation. Do you agree that generous support can lead to
neglect of responsibilities?
15. Roughly half the people in
the book are parents. The other half arent at least yet (either because
theyve delayed doing so, or they havent found their partner). Did you read
their story differently if they had children? Did you relate to them differently?
16. When youve had to
counsel friends or family who are facing an agonizing decision, how have you balanced the
need to be supportive against the need to be realistic? To what extent is your counseling
strategy reflective of your own successes and failures?
17. Po says that were all
struggling to transcend the way our class defines us. He seems to be saying that the
inequity between classes is a wound in our collective psyche. Do you think its that
relevant does it really affect our individual enjoyment of life?
18. At LSU, Mike
Blandinos Buddhism taught him to find his answers in his state of being, not doing.
In Indiana, Barry Brown was influenced by the sermons of an old-time Calvinist. Mike
Jenzeh was guided by Isaiah 58 of the Old Testament. At the Unity Church in Bandon, John
Butler taught that what we consider our strengths are limiting beliefs compensating
for our biases and weaknesses. At St. Agathas in Los Angeles, Father Joe preached
that helping others is the way to serve God. How does your religion affect your pursuit of
this question? Do you agree with your churchs teaching?
FINDING YOUR STORY
19. What have you been called
to, over the course of your life? Have you listened to those calls? Which have you acted
upon, and which have you chosen not to?
20. Write a one-page memory of
a time during your childhood or teen years that you managed to succeed at something that
you were afraid of trying or convinced you would fail at.
21. In the first section, Po
portrays various ways of arriving at "a sense of rightness," such as analyzing
your skills, or watching for synchronicity, or wanting to help others who have suffered
similar tragedies and losses. Po also says were as likely to simply stumble into a
place that feels right as arrive there by reasoned planning. Which of these ways have you
used when telling your story to others? Could you tell your story using the other methods?
22. Po concludes that its
in hard times that were forced to overcome the fears and doubts that normally give
us pause. To what extent have the changes in your life been self-selected, during good
times, or been forced upon you, during hard ones? When youve suffered hardship, has
it altered what you consider important? Has hardship changed your life, or have you fought
to get back to "normal"?
23. Po warns against editing
out important pieces of our story in order to make our story more presentable to others.
"Embrace your luck, pain and ghosts," he suggests in one chapter; in another he
writes, "look backward even more than forward, and chase away preconceptions of what
our story is supposed to sound like." He contrasts the Resume Version with the
Work-In-Progress Version. How do you describe yourself in a public situation? How do you
do so differently in a private situation? What failures do you rarely bring up? Do you
agree that we should be more revealing of our "real story" in public situations?
24. In the chapter "The
Brain Candy Generation," Po says the true search is for what you believe in
what kind of world you want to live in. In what ways are you making the world a better
place even if its just one quality interaction at a time?
25. Po tells Tom Scott that
happiness is too easy a test; rather, we should ask what will be fulfilling. Leela de
Souza found that fulfillment when she stopped asking what would make her happy, and
instead asked "to what could she devote her life?" Mike Jenzehs life
improved when he gave up that it was all about himself. Yet these stories are balanced by
the likes of Warren Brown, who stopped suppressing what made him happy, and Kurt Slauson,
who had been denying himself permission to enjoy his life. Have the most fulfilling
periods of your life also been happy ones? Is happiness essential?
26. Bart Handford tells Po the
parable of the three bricklayers building a cathedral, suggesting that even menial work
can be meaningful if its contributing to something you believe in. Have your most
meaningful accomplishments required a lot of menial work?
27. Po suggests that
temptations can come in many forms: in the form of money, respect, love, and convenience.
Write a one page memory about a time in your adult life that you resisted one of these
28. In the chapter "The
Ungrateful Soldier," Po recounts C.S. Lewiss assertion that belonging to an
Inner Ring is a powerful, wayward desire. Po asks Tim Bratcher whos sitting at that
table whos in his Inner Ring. Are there ways youve used status as a
surrogate for individual expression? What elusive ring do you long to belong to? Are there
people in your life (or in your past) that you dont respect, yet are still trying to
29. Both Stephen Lyons and Chi
Tschang tell Po that if you can develop into a person of good character, your chances of
succeeding in life improve dramatically. What do they mean by "character"?
Whats an example from your own life of good or bad character?