Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Complaint-Free World: Take the 21-Day Challenge

A Complaint-Free World: Take the 21-day Challenge, by Will Bowen

As I wrote about on Every Day Is a Miracle, I read this book as an encouragement to give up complaining during Lent (easier said than done!). It's a quick little read, and it gave me the structure and impetus I needed to give it a try.

Will Bowen is a minister at Christ Church Unity in Kansas City, Missouri. He started the complaint-free movement in his church by giving away purple bracelets (shown wrapped around the globe, on the book cover) and developing a technique to reduce or eliminate complaining. The idea is that you wear the bracelet on one wrist, and when you complain, criticize, or gossip, you switch the bracelet to the other wrist. The goal is to try to go 21 consecutive days without complaining, criticizing, or gossipping out loud. (It doesn't count if it happens only in your head.) Bowen says that most people have to move their bracelet 15 to 20 times in the first few days, and soon it gets easier and easier. If you complain after 10 complaint-free days, you start all over again to aim for the 21 consecutive days.

The book is quick and easy to read, and gives plenty of testimonials from others who have gone complaint free. When people have challenged Bowen by saying, "But every great thing in our country began with people complaining...think about Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King!" he points out that actually, those leaders have inspired millions because they had a positive vision for the future.

"On August 8, 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and say, 'Isn't it terrible how we're being treated?' No. He spoke words that struck a chord with our nation and still bring tears to the eyes of those hearing them nearly a half-century later. He did not focus on the problem; he focused beyond the problem...In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson did clearly state the challenges the colonies were having under the governance of the British Empires. However, his document, signed July 4, 1775, was not a litany of gripes."
Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks were all dreamers and visionaries, not complainers, although they certainly recognized and fought against the injustices in their times. But they focused beyond the problems, onto the solutions.

I do agree, in part, with Bowen that when you think things will go your way, they are more likely to do so. As he writes, "Our words are powerful. And when we change what we say, we begin to change our lives." I'm as much of a rose-colored glasses person as the next optimist, but I do have a small skeptical side in me that also believes that no matter how much positive thinking (or lack of complaining) you do, it does not exempt you from experiencing sadness or tragedy at times in your life. I remember reading Dr. Christiane Northrup's Women's Bodies Women's Wisdom, in which she theorizes that women's infertility or miscarriage could be caused by ambivalence about being pregnant or negative thinking. This concept upset me greatly as I experienced miscarriage after miscarriage. Although I do believe in a mind-body connection, I do not believe that it's absolute. If that were the case, our friends who have lost babies or children far too early would still have their children with them. So yes, avoiding complaining, worrying, and negative thinking can definitely contribute to a healthier, happier life. But sometimes...shit happens. And it's perfectly appropriate and healthy to complain about it, to a certain extent.

On the other hand, Bowen differentiates complaining from expressing one's feelings. Yesterday, I switched my bracelet to my other wrist after expressing that I was disappointed in someone not returning my calls at work. From what I understand, this is not a was an expression of my feelings. So if shit happens, yes you should talk about how it makes you feel. But wallowing in self-pity only hurts you in the long run.

Bowen also indicates that no complaining does not mean accepting things that are wrong. But it means asking for what you need in lieu of complaining or being critical. Understanding the difference is helpful. He suggests these alternate words and ways of thinking:

Instead of...                                       Try...
Problem                                            Opportunity
Have to                                             Get to
Setback                                            Challenge
Enemy                                               Friend
Tormentor                                         Teacher
Pain                                                   Signal
I demand                                           I would appreciate
Complaint                                         Request
Struggle                                            Journey
You did this                                      I created this

As a wise teacher (and my high school speech team coach) once told me, "you don't get to complain unless you're prepared to do something about it," when I complained about another high school's overly loud music across the university center (where we were camped out for the day). I've never forgotten her advice. Now it's time to apply it.

I did better than I thought yesterday (I moved my bracelet three times, including when I was trying to help Kieran choose a birthday present for a friend and he didn't like any of my suggestions...and I finally threw up my hands and said "I give up!"). Today I haven't had to move my bracelet at all. But just wait until something crummy happens (or the kids aggravate me)...that will be the real test!

So far, even thinking about not complaining has improved my mood overall!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Joshua's Oregon Trail Diaries

Westward to Home and A Perfect Place, Joshua's Oregon Trail Diaries (1 and 2), by Patricia Hermes

I just finished reading Book 2 with 8-year-old Kieran. We are going to visit the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City over spring break, and I wanted Kieran to have some historical context for the museum. I had tried to interest him in Little House on the Prairie, but either he was too young at the time or he was better able to relate to the male narrator. (Or perhaps it was the idea of traveling to Oregon that interested him.)

These books are very easy to read--he could have easily read them himself but instead I read to him while he was in bed. They depict the trail and homesteading from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy.
The only difficult thing about the books was the high number of deaths and tragedies. And it doesn't end when they finally arrive in Oregon. One of the deaths at the end of Book 2 (of Joshua's grandfather) really took the wind out of our sails, and at that point Kieran did not want me to read any more! A few days later, though, he wanted me to finish.

The books served their purpose: I know that Kieran will be able to relate more to what we see at the interpretive center...and 5-year-old Nicholas, too!

The Power of One: Glad to have finally finished it!

The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay

Although originally published in 1989 (in the height of apartheid), I'd never heard of The Power of One until my sister read it for her book group. The plot sounded appealing to me, so I put it on hold at the library. Some actually call this "a classic novel of South Africa," although I think that title should belong to the work of Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing instead (whose books I read years ago).

I think my opinion of this novel will shift some as I sit with the ending for a few days...but I wanted to write this review while it was still fresh in my mind. It feels like I've been reading this novel for a long time...although it stuck in my mind when I was not reading it, I was also really ready to be done with it. Not a great sign...

English boy Peekay is sent to boarding school at the age of 5 (!) because he has no father and his mother has had a mental breakdown. He is horribly, mercilessly bullied by his South-African schoolmates, who all see him as the enemy because of the Boer War. Right away, I felt dubious because I kept thinking about my own 5-year-old son and realizing that Peekay seemed more like 10 than 5. His only friend is his pet chicken, Grandpa Chook, who understands Peekay thoroughly and can do magic tricks. (Seriously.) In spite of the bullying, Peekay survives and finds a way to rise above it all. (His extreme genius assisting him in this endeavor.)

The story begins to get more interesting when the school year ends and he's sent on a 2-1/2-day train journey to join his family in their new home. (Yes, a 5-year-old, sent alone on a 2-1/2-day train journey...) Along the way he makes some true friends, among them a train guard named Hoppie, who teaches him all about boxing and inspires him to become a boxing champion one day. (In spite of this great friendship, Hoppie goes off to war and is never mentioned again...which seems odd to me.)

When he arrives in his new home in Barberton (where he is to live with his grandpa and his born-again-crazy mother), he makes more true friends in Doc (a German professor of music) and Mrs. Boxall (the town librarian). When Doc is interned in a nearby prison because of his German ancestry, Peekay develops friendships in the prison and begins taking boxing lessons there. Biracial prisoner Geel Piet becomes his dedicated boxing coach and teaches him everything he knows.

Years later Peekay goes off to another boarding school, where he becomes friends with a Jewish boy, Morrie Levy. In the final book of the novel, Peekay spends a year working in the mines in Rhodesia. This is a very MALE book...about the world of boxing, boarding schools, prisons, and mines. Few women live in this world, and the black ones do not even have real names.

First, what I liked about the novel:
  • Learning more about the history of English-Boer hostility during World War II
  • Reading about life in South Africa during that period--especially as a former coworker was visiting South Africa while I was reading the book and blogging about her adventures and perspectives on the country's crime and racism
  • Peekay's unlikely friendship and adventures with Doc
  • Some of the earlier stories during the train journey, and the colorful characters such as Hoppie and Big Hettie
  • Peekay's efforts to transcend his difficult beginnings and become his own person
  • The imagery of the African singing and the music Doc wrote as a tribute to the African tribes (in fact, I really enjoyed all the musical bits, especially the prison concert)
Well. My biggest beef with this novel is that Peekay is too damn perfect. For example (spoilers below!):
  • He is several classes ahead of all his peers, wherever he goes, because of his sheer genius.
  • He knows several African languages, in addition to Latin.
  • Everywhere he goes (after the initial boarding school disaster), people come to worship him.
  • He develops a highly successful scheme to smuggle in tobacco and other goodies into the prison, and smuggle letters to prisoners' families out. All while he is a child.
  • He NEVER loses a boxing bout. Never, ever.
  • He becomes a cactus expert under Doc's tutelage.
  • Peekay and Morrie become chosen for the most select group of students to be tutored by the headmaster. Of course.
  • Peekay and Morrie make a mint in boarding school through various schemes dreamed up by Morrie, all of them rip-roaring successes.
  • He exceeds in every single task he takes on (academics, languages, boxing, rugby, mining), with the one exception of the piano, at which his talent is merely passable.
  • He becomes a virtual god for the African people--referred to as the "tadpole angel."
  • Even the Black Mamba he faces does not bite him.
  • He displays superhuman strength and will as a 17-year-old miner and survives an accident that would have killed anyone else.
  • He gets the opportunity to take revenge on his most bitter enemy.
The book was far too could have lost 100 to 150 pages and been much stronger. Courtenay often resorts to getting preachy and "tells" far more than he shows. The bad people are REALLY bad, and they all get their due in the end...every one of them. Several people lose their lives because of Peekay, and he doesn't seem to have any sort of self-reflection or guilt that he caused their deaths through his arrogance. He takes all his privileges and success for granted.

I believe that Courtenay, who grew up in South Africa but now lives in Australia, had great intentions to write a book that examined the origins of apartheid and criticized the cruel way that blacks were treated. But instead, it's just another book about a white savior--a perfect white boy who triumphs over the odds. The black tribes all come to worship Peekay because he begins smuggling in tobacco to the prison and starts a letter-writing initiative so they can contact their relatives...and they've seen his expertise in the boxing ring. In fact, he becomes legendary across South Africa so that when he moves to his new school in another part of the country, they all know about the "Tadpole Angel."

I thought it would be more about the origins of apartheid and race relations in South Africa, but really, it wasn't. It was about this perfect boy and his life .

I'm not sure I understand the meaning of "The Power of One," especially because of all the friends and supporters Peekay developed throughout his life. They all lifted him up and helped him accomplish what he did. Yet when Morrie tries to help him by lending him the money to go to Oxford, he refuses his aid. This didn't make much sense to me, especially as Morrie wouldn't have had such success over the years without Peekay...and he allowed others to help him before. Instead, he puts aside his academic career to choose a rough, dangerous life in the mines.

And the ending...horrific, unredeeming, and sickening. Any fondness I had for Peekay as a character dissolved in the last few pages. In spite of all the love and support he received, Doc's wise guidance, and all the superhuman success he'd achieved, when he meets his nemesis, he must take revenge in a truly merciless manner? Maybe the message of "The Power of One," in the end, is that each person is alone and must fight to the death to survive? Closing the book, I felt sick to my stomach.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Second Fiddle

Second Fiddle,by Rosanne Parry

I finally got around to reading Second Fiddle, the middle-grade novel written by a long-time friend from our church, Rosanne Parry. Years ago Rosanne invited Mike to join her children's writers' group (which has been a great boost and encouragement for him), so she's been a great help to Mike in his own writing career.

Second Fiddle's focus on orchestral music and girls' friendship drew me in and kept me hooked through the novel. Jody is an army kid in Berlin, Germany, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She plays second violin in a string trio with her more sophisticated friends Giselle and Vivian; however, Giselle and Jody are due to return to the U.S. soon and Jody is feeling sad that their trio collaborations are about to come to an end.

Their last big hurrah is meant to be a solo and ensemble competition in Paris, but their music teacher falls ill and cannot accompany them. Just as they are nursing their disappointment about the thwarted Parisian trip, they venture into East Berlin to have gelato...and inadvertently witness an attempted murder of a Soviet Union soldier.

They rescue Arvo (who is actually Estonian) out of the river and revive him. In the ensuing days, they nurse him back to health as he hides under the bridge in East Berlin. Then they come up with a plan: why not go to Paris with Arvo disguised as their music teacher? Then he can meet other Estonians and return to his country.

They get into all sorts of adventures in Paris, and girls especially will enjoy reading about the friendship among the three young musicians. Rosanne has a special knack about writing about military families, because of her experience as part of a military family herself. (She lived in Berlin around the time the novel was set with her soldier husband and baby.) She also illustrated this knack and sensitivity in her first published novel, Heart of a Shepherd. Her web site has some great resources and tips for military families--and for supporting friends in military families.

Second Fiddle made me want to pick up my violin again! Stay tuned for an interview with Rosanne and a book giveaway in March, in time for the paperback release of Second Fiddle.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Song Yet Sung

Song Yet Sung, by James McBride
Runaway slave Liz Spocott has been captured by a brutal slave stealer and squirrelled away in an attic with many other slaves. Hit on the head as a young girl, Liz has the ability to dream the future and is soon named "the Dreamer." Soon she escapes the clutches of the evil, legendary slave stealer Patty Cannon and her henchmen (including Cannon's son-in-law, Joe) and she's on the run.

Set in the dark, mysterious, and mucky swamps of Maryland's eastern shore in 1850, the story also involves a widow, her sons, and her slaves; a slave catcher, Denwood, who Liz's master lures out of retirement; and a mysterious man who lives in the swamps, the "Woolman" and his son. Amid the wars over runaway slaves and the disturbing violence associated with slavery were the stubborn, rough-and-tumble watermen who fished the bay for oysters and were distanced from the slave owners and catchers.

McBride, who wrote The Color of Water (which I read and enjoyed many years ago), felt inspired to write this novel after studying the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and much of the book is based on historical events and figures (such as Patty Cannon). Liz Spocott shares the same condition Tubman did (the serious injury to the head resulting in vivid, futuristic dreams), and Tubman is referred to indirectly as "Moses."

Although others urge her to flee north, Liz does not want to leave Maryland (I'm not entirely sure why). She is taught about "the Code," the hidden clues and signals leading to freedom. Many of the slaves, while miserable in their bondage and feeling that their lives had no value, were conflicted about attempting to make an escape. Others involved in helping slaves escape found themselves facing horrendously difficult decisions about turning one slave in to save many others. Some of the whites, too, had moments of moral dilemma, when they wondered whether they were doing the right thing.

I look forward to discussing this book with my book group tonight. McBride gives us a chilling, sensory glimpse into the lives and losses of slaves and the horrors they faced when they tried to run away.