Book Review by Zinta Aistars
• Paperback: 451 pages
• Publisher: Deadora Press (March 8, 2010)
• Price: $18.00
• ISBN-10: 0984281002
• ISBN-13: 978-0984281008
What a difference attitude makes. Author Scott Stevenson, in his narrative memoir Looks Easy Enough, tells the story of four years in his life with new wife Susan. These four years begin with the 46-year-old architect’s first marriage, preparing for an early retirement and building a dream home in Cuyamaca Woods in California—but instead of a bright and shiny dream, it all ends up something more like a nightmare. Susan is diagnosed with breast cancer; a forest fire threatens their new house; a sister requires financial and moral support through a messy divorce from an abusive husband; and the Stevenson retirement fund takes a serious hit in a stock market decline that overshadows the Great Depression.
Stevenson is anything but depressed, however. For him, this is not a nightmare as long as he steps back enough to see it as a part of the Big Picture. He calls it The Magic. He defines this as taking a positive perspective on all that happens to us in our lives as being experiences that we have chosen. We choose our experiences in order to learn lessons, all pushing us toward becoming better human beings.
New Age stuff, yes. To a degree, I follow that line of thought. We do choose a good deal of what happens to us, but I would stop at saying we choose it all. Somewhere in there, someone else’s choice overlaps. And I also believe, and have witnessed, in myself and others, that positive attitude can indeed affect outcomes and put us on a better track. Still, that’s all a little too neat and tidy for me. Positive thinkers tend to miss that so-called “negative” thinking and emotion have their place, too. Recent studies state that anger can actually work positive changes on our lives, motivate us to do better, and we all know repressed anger causes all kinds of health and emotional problems.
Personally, I believe there is time and place for the full range of emotions built into the human being, each in its own time and place, and I enjoy that people around me come in different shades of mood. Out of time and out of place, hanging out with outrageously positive people can, well, make you want to slap somebody … and yet more studies have shown that too many positive platitudes can actually undermine our making positive changes, making us feel bad about feeling bad. Sometimes feeling bad is the way to feel. At least for a while.
My little diatribe here aside, I will add only that finally learning how to express my anger after years of nice, nice, nice, can be one heck of a cleansing and growing and healing experience. It also sweeps a lot of dirt out of one’s life. It can make for powerful and positive change.
One has to admit, though, that Stevenson and his memoir, his perspective on things, is pretty irresistable. The guy really is nice. Even more, he is downright funny. Very much the kind of person you’d like to hang around, at least up until the moment you want to slap him. Lightly. Not only is he a very positive guy, but he’s a terrific writer, telling a story that is hard to put down, skillfully weaving in adventure with th suspense of a cliff hanger (that forest fire creeping ever closer to the house) and a good share of relatively pain-free moral lessons that go down with a spoonful of Stevenson sugar.
When Stevenson's wife Susan is diagnosed with breast cancer, she responds by screaming and sobbing. Susan is an emotional woman, and she responds to all the twists and turns of her journey through breast cancer with great emotional upheaval. Her husband is the perfect antidote, as he soothes and calms her, humors and comforts her, or sometimes just serves as a loving punching bag. I’ve experienced breast and other cancers in my own family circle, and some of that has touched my personal life, too. I, too, have had that phone call from the doctor. We don’t all respond with screams and sobs, and sometimes I had to work not to lose patience with these scenes of Susan's emotional drama … but I respect that the author, her ever loving husband, does not. We all handle life differently, and perhaps that’s why I balk at all that positive thinking—it can be a narrow range of emotional response, when our bodies, our selves, sometimes do need to scream and sob. Go for it, Susan. We do what we need and must to heal ourselves.
The overall lesson here is a valuable one. Quibbles with New Age-ism aside, this memoir is uplifting and enlightening, and many of the storylines worthy of contemplation. There is the story of trust—of being able to trust one’s partner implicitly to stand alongside through the worst of the worst. There is the lesson of being open minded, always a good thing. There is the idea of alternative medicine, other ways of approaching disease in our bodies, and that it is crucial to remember that when our bodies get sick, our hearts and minds need healing, too. Sickness in one more often than not results in sickness in the other. We are all of one piece. Susan's journey through cancer illustrates how one heals best when taking the whole-self approach.
Perhaps most valuable (and fun) of all is Stevenson’s lesson that it “looks easy enough.” So often we are stopped dead in our tracks before even attempting something new because we don’t yet understand it. The unknown can be so debilitating. But Stevenson doesn’t overanalyze. He just plows ahead, taking a big thing apart into many small things, and then taking on one small thing after another, ends up building a house … and a life. Because he takes this approach to life, nothing really defeats him. Not disease, not loss of money, not a fire burning hard work down to ash. He takes the lesson each experience offers and applies it to the next life task, one little bite at a time.
With Stevenson’s story, he also manages to tell stories about family members, and not only about his wife Susan. Sister Beth has to find the courage to leave an abusive husband. Once a strong and independent woman, she has succumbed to a man who, as she puts it, “has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality.” In the privacy of their home, her husband is cold and brutal, emotionally cruel to her and their children. The instant he is around others, he transforms to someone much more socially pleasing. Even her brother is fooled. Eyes opened, he helps her find the strength to fight for an independent life, taking on divorce proceedings that stretch across four years until she has finally won her freedom. Important to note what a difference it can make to someone so beaten down to have such family support as Stevenson—we should all reach out to give courage to the abused. Think of it as a matter of paying it forward.
In the end, as positive as any of us can be, we all need someone now and then to help us along when we are feeling less positive. Again and again, Stevenson lets his wife know that he can’t go it alone, and that’s important, too. Partnerships and relationships thrive when we take turns helping each other through tough times, or when we stand shoulder to shoulder to celebrate the highs even as we stand together to be a team against the lows. Looks Easy Enough is a story built on family love, and a love for life.
“Looking into Susan’s eyes, I say, ‘Babe-O, I couldn’t have built this house without you. You drove the Beast of a bulldozer, very professionally I might add, and you’ve become an expert trackhoe operator. You’ve learned how to build concrete forms, tie rebar, pour concrete, frame walls, set ceramic tile, and install a septic tank system. You’ve endured blisters, sore muscles, splinters, cold feet, poison oak, sunburn, and mosquito bites. You’ve worked when the temperature was above one hundred and in the snow and in the rain and in the wind and in the fog. And, through it all, you perservered without complaining—well, at least without too many complaints. During the process, we’ve cried, we’ve laughed, we’ve shouted in anger, we’ve worked in silence, we’ve been frustrated, and we’ve been exceedingly happy. Together we built this house, and together there isn’t anything we can’t do.” (pg. 400)
Ah yes, there it is, the full range of emotion. What matters, finally, is how one bounces back. And that one does bounce back. To do so with patience, honesty to self and others, and always integrity is key, and Stevenson’s story proves it possible. He almost makes it look easy (enough).