Saturday, October 22, 2016

Book Review: "Treehab: Tales from My Natural, Wild Life" by Bob Smith

Bob Smith is a tremendously funny comedian—in fact, he was the first openly gay comedian to appear on The Tonight Show and have his own episode of HBO Comedy Half-Hour. He's also a writer, of both novels and essays. (I really enjoyed Remembrance of Things I Forgot, a twist on a time-travel novel, which I read a number of years ago.)

About 10 years ago, Bob was diagnosed with ALS. While he can no longer speak, or walk, he is determined not to wallow in his disease or allow it to hamper his enjoyment of his life. Treehab—named for a retreat cabin in rural Ontario—isn't, as I expected, a book about how he finds the courage to fight every day, or a tribute to his incredible support system. Those elements certainly do have their part in the book, but it's more a story about his lifelong interest and enjoyment in nature and the outdoors, particularly the Alaskan wilderness, and how he has derived peace, satisfaction, and enjoyment from his time spent with nature.

"It took a life-threatening illness to make me see that the reason most of us love the natural world is because it's a visual and vocal echo that we're alive."

Much of the chapters in this book focus on the sheer joy he feels when he and his friends are hiking, seeing the amazing array of birds that inhabit the places he has visited, and realizing that we are tremendously lucky to be witnessing the beauty of the natural world. He has a particular fondness for Alaska and the people (not to mention the men) he has met on his many visits. But even now, as he struggles to fight ALS, his time in nature provides comfort, centering, and security.

Treehab is also a book about friendship, as Bob recounts the relationships he has with his "Nature Boys," his closest group of friends who have helped him through many of the ups and downs in his life, and share his zeal for the outdoors. And it's also a book about fatherhood, since he fathered two children with friends of his, and his desire to instill in his children the importance of being good people, as well as loving and caring for the world around them.

"I definitely want to teach Maddie and Xander that being angry about other people's selfishness and lack of compassion is actually a virtue...I'm afraid I'll die before they are old enough to know—or even remember—me, and I'm immodest enough to think that people who don't know me are missing out on something terrific."

I really expected this book to be a maudlin read, given the seriousness of ALS. Bob had a very deft sense of when the tone was getting too somber, and quickly lightened things with some humor. But for the most part, this is a book that dazzles you with the imagery he recounts of beautiful, colorful birds, picturesque sunrises and sunsets, and the breathtaking beauty of Alaska. He also isn't above being self-deprecating, especially if he thinks he can get a laugh out of the readers.

While you know where Bob's story will ultimately end someday, and that adds a bit of a pall to the book, this book didn't leave me feeling sad. I felt inspired to appreciate the natural world around me a little bit more, and realize how lucky I am to have the love and support of my family and friends. But more than that, I felt thankful that Bob was willing to share his life's struggles and his life's joys with us. Both moved me, made me think, and will stick in my mind.

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