Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Off the Shelf: Give it Up

Confession time.

I started the book expecting interesting things – but after a few chapters, I found myself wondering why anyone would ever pay for this carnival of the obvious. The book is Give it Up: My Year of Learning to Live Better With Less by Mary Carlomagno. It had caught my eye in the bookstore. While I was at the library the other week picking up another volume, Carlomagno’s book winked at me from the shelf. I couldn’t resist the flirtation, so I picked it up and checked it out.

It’s no surprise the seductive appeal the very title had for me: after reading Crunchy Cons, I hungered to simplify. Indeed, I was putting that desire into practice by making use of the Library rather than the local peddler of pulp paper products. The dust jacket tantalized me with small talk:

“Like most people, Mary Carlomagno was stressed out, overscheduled, and tripping over the clutter of her days – until she decided to take control and simplify her life. Each month she renounced one thing: alcohol, shopping, elevators, newspapers, cell phones, dining out, television, taxis, coffee, cursing, chocolate, and multitasking. During the course of the year, Mary took stock of her life, discovered what was really important, and gained a deeper appreciation for the world around her. Give It Up! chronicles Mary’s life-changing experiences and provides a commonsense blueprint for anyone looking for a fresh start and a new outlook. It’s about simplifying your life, cherishing every moment of it, and celebrating what is truly important.”

Thus I committed. By the end of the first chapter, I realized that this wouldn’t be a relationship, but a one-night stand. Carlomagno described her challenges in giving up alcohol for a month – a challenge because in New York, apparently everyone socializes over alcohol (except, perhaps, when they’re socializing over coffee – as she explores in a later chapter). She describes an over the top drunken New Year’s Eve party and then the social anxiety that her choice to give up alcohol for a month creates. Now this is from a person who’s somewhere close to my age (she describes herself as “mid thirties”). I pretty much gave up that scene, oh, well over a decade ago (well before I went to seminary).

Then we were into shopping. Shopping?? You have to give up shopping? (I looked back at the dust jacket – indeed, shopping was there – I must’ve missed it while I was being seduced by the concept) Wow, for me that’s like giving up …. Flossing. It’s a pain the keyster, but you have to do it every now and again – but you can get by on a lot less than you think you do.

From that chapter, I could only see flaws in this book – giving up television? (again, I checked the dust jacket – yes, it was there. I must’ve been blind to miss it) Sorry, I kicked that one a while back too – without any angst. I just didn’t see my life suffering from not seeing Richard Hatch’s naked behind during the first season of Survivor (and obviously, if it’s such a cultural phenom, I’ll hear about it from other sources anyway). Coffee, cursing and chocolate? Giving these things up brings deprivation? Come on.

I began to believe that this author lives in a parallel universe of hipster Manhattanites running about from meeting to event, their uber-bright teeth flashing as they quite cleverly chatter about vanity. Perhaps this was really never-never land filled with Lost Boys and Girls – refusing ever to really grow up, but wandering about in perpetual self-indulgence. Don’t get me wrong, I have as much issues with self-control as the next guy, but I’m not peddling a book for $14.95 claiming that the story of my little struggles against chips and salsa will give you deep penetrating insights into leading a more fulfilling life!

And there in never-never land, I met the enemy within; my own personal Captain Hook, if you will: Self-control (Calvin tells us that the essence of the Christian life is self-denial). Carlomagno’s little book reminds me that in our land of plenty, the struggle for self-control is the daily struggle for us all. I have no claim to superiority here.

Facing this shadow within, I realized that the mirror was turned about on me; I thought it best to go back and look at Carlomagno’s conclusions again. There’s more there than a pithy “moderation in all things” message. She makes a pretty radical turnabout on Television and Shopping – drastically cutting down on both because they are cruel masters who howl for your soul, and give a happy meal toy in exchange. She extols the virtues of home-prepared meals, wonderfully reminiscing on her grandmothers’ and mother’s cooking lessons. The chapters on Elevators and taxis urged meditation on knowing your surroundings and being prepared for circumstances. The chapter on cussing caused her to think about and be more intentional in all her speech. Finally, the chapter on multitasking led her to the insight about focusing all your energies on the present moment and embracing it fully.

None of these concepts are new. While the book prompted me to self searching, it really only gave me one new idea – the idea of fasting for a month from something that I enjoy that for spiritual reasons I need to lay down for a season. Neither can I commend the book to Eagle and Child readers (at least those of you whom I know or who comment regularly) – my guess is that it has nothing to offer you. As you’ve shown from your comments on this blog, most of you have attained a far greater level of maturity and stability than the intended audience of this book.

However, all that means is that the book isn’t really for you. Right now there’s some college graduate who desperately needs to read this book before she gets caught up in the vanity of the offerings of the world. She needs to read this before she racks up a five grand visa bill and before she wastes her life with cardboard people holding semi-diverting conversations over martinis in a hazy bar. There’s a young man who needs to read this book before he posts his expletive laden comments about a drunken adventure on his Myspace page. He needs to read this before he turns 50 and realize that he knows more about the exploits of the characters on Lost than he does about his own wife. If this book exposes, in a somewhat winsome and lighthearted way, the vanities of the world, then all to the good, for our culture glories in vanity.

Perhaps, if nothing else, it may goad us to be more thoughtful and intentional in our words and deeds. And if so, then my hats off to Carlomagno, and my thanks for her efforts.