Friday, July 26, 2013

In Search of Balance by Richard Swenson

In the past, there was a closure on the end of every day. . . .  It was called
night. There also existed a closure on the end of every week - it was called
Sabbath, or the Lord’s Day, or weekend. Technology, with our permission,
has blasted that landscape clean. Today there are no natural closures,
just as there is no natural solitude. How do we find our way back? (p. 167)

Every five years or so I pick up a book on maintaining priorities just to help me stay on track. Swenson's book Margin was a huge help to me a few years ago, so when I saw this title free for Kindle, I grabbed it. Whereas Margin was a book on the overall benefits of establishing space in our lives, In Search of Balance is a book that tries to explain how our present culture makes that practically impossible. Swenson does not say there is no hope. But he spends a lot of time explaining how “turbocharged” progress inevitably leads to no space in our lives for the things that really matter.

When progress functions as a servant to the legitimate needs of humanity, it has no equal. Serving righteous purposes, it has delivered billions of people from conditions of deprivation and ignorance and brought opportunity, education, healing, and prosperity around the globe at levels unimagined in history.(44)  But progress lives in a fallen world, a world where nothing is pure, a world where the wheat and the weeds grow in the same field. As a result, progress is not only our friend but also our enemy. We have much wheat, but we also have many weeds. Progress always results in more of both.(43) The ultramodern version of progress has advanced beyond just more. Now it gives us more and more of everything faster and faster at exponential rates. (36)

Overload is the new normal.  We have too many choices and decisions, too many activities and commitments, too much change creating too much stress. We have too much speed and hurry.  We have too much technology, complexity, traffic, information, possessions, debt, expectations, advertisements, and media. And we have too little margin.(91) Yes, balance has become more difficult to achieve - without a doubt. But, if anything, balance is more important today than ever precisely because it’s been wrenched away from so many of us with such dramatic force. (19)

Modernity is very good at a great many things, but not a single one connects to depth.  Einstein once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Yet we have no longitudinal attention span today. Instead, we have “continuous partial attention.” Technology has enhanced our productivity and simultaneously destroyed our depth. (204)

Depth is born out of such disciplines as stillness, patience, solitude, waiting, intimacy, suffering, quiet, contemplation, submission, discipline, prayer, and yes, margin and balance.  Modernity, on the other hand, is suffused with such “non-disciplines” as speed, interruptions, noise, multitasking, clutter, alarms, advertisements, distractions, Twitter, texting, television, viruses, entertainment, cell phones, activity, obesity, information overload and internet. (205)

The only question is whether [overload] will be stopped by wisdom or by crisis. (102) Swenson advises his readers to pursue the difficult disciplines of simplicity and contentment.  Only when we consciously get off the default treadmill of modern times and devote ourselves to things of eternal importance, will we find personal peace and freedom.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

Normally I avoid books about extremely unhappy families and whose protagonist’s main vocabulary words are “shut up” and “stupid.” But having been won over to the YA fiction of Gary Schmidt through The Wednesday Wars, I was willing to take a chance on his Okay for Now.
Doug Swieteck is a minor character in Wednesday Wars, a fellow seventh grader to Holling Hoodhood. In this book, it is now 1968 and he’s heading into 8th grade. His dad has a new job in a new city and Doug is dreading all the changes.  Because of his very broken family, he and his brothers are mouthy and rebellious. In Marysville Doug is quickly labeled a “thug in training.”

A lot of heartbreaking things happen in Doug’s life from the mean trick his father plays on him for his twelfth birthday to the return of his brother (minus his legs) from Vietnam.  I shed many a tear while reading about his life.  I shed happy tears, too, over the grace extended to Doug by several compassionate adults. In so much of today’s media the kids are smart and the adults are dumb.  I loved it that Okay for Now has many sympathetic and wise grownups (an eccentric playwright, an elderly librarian, a kindly science teacher) who help Doug to break out of his hoodlum mold.

The themes of brokenness and wholeness run throughout the story. My favorite part in the book is when Doug decides he is no longer going to contribute to the brokenness all around him. His first step in that direction is just to keep his mouth shut when he wants to say something mean. Interestingly, Schmidt uses a series of Audobon paintings to wake up Doug’s heart and imagination. There’s even a thread about Jane Eyre that I especially enjoyed.   

Doug’s philosophy has been that if everything is going right, then disaster is about to strike. As he matures through his experiences, he learns to let go of his fear of the future and enjoy the good things that come his way, which is the inspiration for the book’s title. Instead of, “Things are bound to get worse,” he comes to peace with life when it’s “okay for now.”

Although Doug’s sarcasm will appeal to the junior high crowd, I think many of the references to the 1960’s (filmstrips, space travel, ditto machines) will appeal to older readers. Being familiar with Jane Eyre and John James Audobon made this book quite a treat.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Cy Whittaker's Place by Joseph Crosby Lincoln

A couple of years ago I picked up Cape Cod Stories by J. C. Lincoln and really enjoyed the folksy, funny yarns about life in a long-ago New England town. Cy Whittaker's Place is a bit different because it is one long story and is not quite as humorous, but it retains the down-home feel of the first book and was a very pleasant read.

Cy Whittaker left Bayport as a young man, vowing never to return. After he makes his fortune at sea, however, he changes his mind and comes back to the old homestead. All his relatives are dead and he has to start from scratch to make a name for himself in the community. Sounds simple enough. But add in an abandoned child, a fiesty school teacher, a corrupt politician and a few vicious gossips, and you’ve got quite a page turner.

Like the previous title I read, there are a couple of racial slurs, but for the most part this is fun novella that can be read in one or two sittings. Free on Kindle.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Man Who Knew Too Much by G. K. Chesterton

The Man Who Knew Too Much is not a novel as much as it is eight short stories with the same man as their protagonist.  It was written in 1922 and is not to be confused with the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title about a kidnapping in Morrocco.

Horne Fisher is a rich, seemingly lazy, man who is so brilliant that he solves crimes without much effort. He is described as someone who was "born tired." Yet he is the "man who knows too much" because he is related to several people in powerful political positions and has inside knowledge of how the English government is being run.  Many of the stories have a twist in which Fisher has to let a crime happen (or go unpunished) for the greater good of the country.  Harold March is the journalist friend who gets to watch the mastermind at work.

It is classic G.K. Chesterton with enigmatic phrases ("You never know the good in man until you've seen him at his worst") and surprising twists (especially Chapter 7.)

The original book has 12 chapters but the audiobook I listened to only had the chapters that included Horne Fisher. My version was excellently done by B.J. Harris over at Classic Tales Podcast.