Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 21, 2014
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Crisp Cookies, Sabbath, Triple Package
I never heard of Moravian cookies until I passed my first Christmas season in
Greensboro. However widespread the fame of those thin, crisp cookies might
have been, it had not penetrated to any of the places I had lived.
Now, however, I have found that same thin, crisp Moravian cookie style in a
chocolate chip cookie. The big baking corporations seem to try for bigger,
thicker, softer cookies, and I agreed with that quest, since my own chocolate
chip cookies are at their best soft and slightly undercooked.
But Salem Baking Co. of Winston-Salem went the opposite direction, with
delicious results. "The Art of Moravian Baking," proclaims the package, and
inside are fourteen perfectly thin, crisp, and subtly flavored chocolate chip
Will they make me forsake the thicker, chewier cookies I've enjoyed all my life?
Not possible. But as an alternative that I did not have to bake myself, they will
do very nicely.
When we moved to Greensboro, this was still a sabbath-keeping town. Of
course, it was observed on Sunday, the Christian sabbath. But in those days
when most of the big chains were not yet established here, most stores and
businesses shut down on Sundays.
Only one drugstore was open, to meet emergency needs; the rest closed up on
But those days are over. It wasn't long before Fleet-Plummer Hardware left
Friendly Center because the shopping center management demanded that all
stores open on Sunday, and the owners of Fleet-Plummer wouldn't do it.
I made it a point to shop at Fleet-Plummer from then on, even as they
converted from hardware to a fireplace/outdoor furniture/knick-knack store. I
never quite lost that sense of solidarity in a cause, as long as that never-on-Sunday policy remained in place.
It's a losing battle, though. A good friend of mine, who owned several
convenience stores, explained it like this:
"So a potential customer goes looking to make a purchase on Sunday, and
when he comes to my store, he finds that it's closed.
"He's not going to think, Good for them, keeping Sunday as a holy day! He's
going to think, I can't rely on this store being open when I need it.
"So the next time he needs a convenience store, I'm probably open -- but he
won't know that, because he'll go to the store he found open for him on
That's the economic reality. Store owners are free to keep the sabbath, and to
allow their employees to do the same. But the price they pay in lost business
and lost customers is too high for most of them.
The result is that while I'm part of a sabbath-keeping church, many of our
members are forced to choose between keeping their jobs and keeping the
sabbath. Supporting one's family is a high priority, and nobody criticizes those
church members who have to work that Sunday shift.
That's why so-called "blue laws" were so helpful. When the local government
required most businesses (those providing non-essential goods and services) to
close on Sundays, the playing field was even. Nobody could gain an economic
advantage by doing business on Sunday.
But those laws dated from a time when the overwhelming majority of people in
Greensboro considered themselves to be Christian, and the sabbath was taken
Nowadays the whole world keeps the seven-day week, or at least has to stay
aware of it. It wasn't always that way. The Romans divided the month into
calends and ides, with about fifteen days between.
But the seven-day week makes a lot of sense. Unlike months, which vary in
length in order to keep them matched up with the year, unvarying seven-day
weeks come only one day short of matching the 365-day year.
Calends and ides were reflected in the schedule of local fairs and market days;
now, when every day is a fair or a market, if we want it to be, we still keep that
seven-day week as if weekends were a natural right.
The seven-day week spread with Christianity, yet now that Christians are no
longer dominant in the West, and are savagely persecuted in many places, the
week continues to thrive. After all, the labor movement had to work too hard to
get Saturdays off and create the two-day weekend for anyone to willingly
surrender it now.
Yet all those workers needed something to do on Sunday. When they were no
longer required -- by law or custom or convention -- to spend the day in
church, what were they supposed to do except go somewhere and spend
And in order to do that, somebody had to be working in order to sell them stuff.
Under that system, one person's weekend is somebody else's required workday.
Nowadays in the West there are far more people professing other religions, or
no religion at all, and the attitude among most Christians seems to be that the
sabbath ends when they walk out of church services.
When we told the parents of our children's friends that our kids couldn't go to
a Sunday birthday party because the planned activities were not appropriate
for the way we keep the sabbath, they were baffled.
"But ... it's in the afternoon," they explained, as if we hadn't read the invitation
"Still Sunday," we'd reply, "and for us, that means it's still the sabbath. Till we
go to bed and then get up on Monday morning."
Outside our own religion, few are the Christian sabbath-keepers we meet
anymore. Most of the people we know who still keep the sabbath strictly are
Jews who keep the original Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown
Saturday, and Seventh-Day Adventists, who would have to rename themselves
if they stopped keeping the sabbath on Saturdays.
Now, please don't imagine that I'm advocating any attempt to return to those
old Sunday-closing laws. That was another time, and any such attempt would
doubtless be sued into oblivion by people who felt someone else's religion was
being rammed down their throats.
But recently I ran across a book that encourages personal and family sabbath
observance -- for all the old reasons, and for some powerful new ones as well.
Sabbath As Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, by Walter
Brueggemann, is a slender book, and because his points are so simple and
clear, there's a bit of repetition.
He makes the traditional religious case for sabbath-keeping, pointing out that
throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites used sabbath-keeping as the
marker of a righteous people.
But his greatest eloquence is in his critique of the Culture of Now: The sense of
urgent competition to get every advantage we can get. We never have enough,
which is why it's almost unbearable to take one day off out of seven.
There are things we don't own; how can we bear to have a day in which we
refuse to buy those things? Everything must be new and improved. Old
possessions are inadequate and incomplete.
It's a culture of squandering: We overproduce, overuse, overspend. We
generate astonishing piles of waste -- yet are not willing to invest 24 hours out
of every 168 in stopping the race toward nothing long enough to think, reflect,
read, worship, bond with friends and family ... to rest.
How many Christians see their devotion to watching professional sports on
Sunday as sabbath-breaking? There'd be no game to watch if the players
weren't required to earn their living by laboring on the day of rest.
But even if you're not a believer, the benefit of taking Sunday as a true day of
rest is undeniable. If your values are not utterly competitive or materialistic,
Brueggemann's picture of a sabbath-keeping life is attractive.
It's a weekly retirement from your career. You can find out who you are
without your job getting in the way, without your purchasing and competing
distracting you from who you are rather than what you've won.
It's a different kind of economy he's talking about. Six days, we labor and buy
and compete, which keeps the market economy moving forward. But then, for
a day, we take part in an "economy of neighborliness." We rediscover who we
One of the things we love about Greensboro is that it's still largely a town of
church-going people. When we dress in our Sunday clothes and drive to
church, there are plenty of people going to other churches, and though we
won't see most of them in our meetinghouse, we know that they'll be gathered,
like us, in congregations giving thanks and praise to God.
And I don't begrudge them the choice to go home after church, change into
street clothes, and spend the rest of the day as a second Saturday.
As for me and my house, as far as possible we avoid Sunday commerce and
activities that are too strenuous for us to feel that they're sabbath-appropriate.
We make our own list of what may or may not be appropriate, but one of the
guiding principles is this: Will we be rewarding someone for requiring
employees to work on Sunday? If the answer is yes, and the activity isn't a
genuine emergency, we don't do it.
But our boundaries were getting more and more relaxed. Brueggemann's
Sabbath As Resistance was a good reminder to get back to a more faithful
treatment of the day we consider to belong to God. We reap the benefits of that
day of rest, and I mention the book to you, because you may be attracted to the
notion, and wish to restore a full sabbath day to your life.
I never thought I'd regard sabbath-keeping as a revolutionary act. As
subversion of an eroding culture. But now that I've read Sabbath As
Resistance, I no longer feel any need to apologize for inconveniencing other
people by my sabbath rules.
It's the most peaceful revolution you can take part in. Yet it can reshape your
life, all for the better.
America is a nation obsessed with "success." This can be defined in so
In most ages of the world, for most people, "success" is the evolutionary
minimum: You live long enough to have children, and if you're very fortunate,
to see your children have children in turn.
But the modern nation of America was founded by English immigrants, who
from the beginning defined success in different ways. The Puritans sought to
discover whether they were chosen by God, and worked hard to demonstrate to
themselves and others the outward prosperity that would mark God's favor.
Over time, though, this became a relentless pursuit of personal
improvement. Nothing is ever quite good enough as it is -- it must be added
to, built upon, improved, perfected. Possessions, family, career, reputation --
if you are not always growing, rising, perfecting, then you are failing.
These Yankees became merchants and traders, ranging far and wide to improve
their fortune; or they became the ministers and professors of the new nation,
teaching others how to become wiser and better ... however that might be
The Scotch-Irish tradition was closer to the root of human life. The goal wasn't
wealth in itself. It was enough to have land of your own, enough to support
your children and keep yourself into old age.
But you had to have land -- space for your own house and farm, and for your
children to farm. If your neighbors crowded in on you, it reduced your chance
to expand, to put more land under cultivation.
So these became the overland pioneers, searching, as Daniel Boone put it, for
"elbow room." They settled the isolated mountain glens of the Appalachians;
they kept encroaching on Indian lands; they cut down trees and tore up sod.
The goal was ownership and independence.
Another group were the would-be lords of the plantation system. They aspired,
not to be saints or freeholders, but to be gentlemen -- living by the labor of
others, engaging in no trade but mastery and lawmaking.
Naturally, none of these groups was monolithic -- but all three versions of
success persisted nearly to the present day. I grew up keenly aware of "the
American Dream" as being the Scotch-Irish one: To be independent, out of
debt, beholden to no one, able to stand on one's own two feet.
But the others were also clearly visible -- the relentless effort to rise in status,
to reach ever higher goals, or to achieve mastery and control over others.
Recently, as reported in the book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits
Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, Amy Chua and Jed
Rubenfeld sorted through many studies to find what traits lead certain groups
in America to "succeed" out of all proportion to their numbers.
Some are obvious to everyone -- we all know that Jews tend to become highly
educated professionals; that Chinese, Japanese, and Korean immigrants are
hyper-achievers, especially in math and computers.
These things are so well-known they have become "racial stereotypes."
But in The Triple Package, Chua and Rubenfeld identified a lot of other groups
who succeeded by measures like "income, occupational status, test scores."
Who knew that Nigerian immigrants earn way more doctorates than other
groups? South Asian Indians are right up there with Chinese-Americans, with
far higher incomes than other groups.
Of course, what piqued my interest is my own group, Mormons, who are among
the "most successful" groups identified in The Triple Package. Ours is the only
group that is not based on national origin or parentage alone. As a
proselytizing church, we keep adding to our numbers -- including plenty of
people who continue to belong to the other groups!
So how does a religious group that is constantly expanding its membership in
every group manage to become as successful as a high-achieving ethnic group.
Chua and Rubenfeld identify three attributes that these high-success groups
all seem to possess: A superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control.
The idea is that all these people come from, and continue to live within, a
culture that instills these virtues.
I'm not so sure. "Superiority complex" is an odd term for "having high
expectations." Indeed, one can easily make a case that America, as a nation,
has a superiority complex. Maybe it's really just a belief that you can succeed
and therefore should succeed.
"Insecurity" is a constant awareness that you might easily lose anything or
everything you have. Immigrants tend to be people who were willing to take
enormous risks -- to throw the dice, move to a new country, and then make it
Nobody knows that lesson as well as Jews -- people keep reinventing anti-semitism and labor to take away whatever Jews have built for themselves.
Look at how many Americans today are eager to believe the anti-Jewish
propaganda surrounding Israel, believing insane accusations that Israel is
committing genocide -- even though it's their enemies who are sworn to kill
all of them.
Jews live in the constant awareness that everything can be taken away in an
Cuban-Americans are largely descendants of people who lost everything as
they fled the totalitarian dictatorship of Castro, which systematically
persecuted high achievers.
Nigerians fled a country where prosperity comes from taking part in a corrupt
system; it's no surprise that those who come here are the ones who reject
corruption and prefer to compete in a meritocracy.
Mormons are on this list by default. Life in a Mormon congregation requires a
life of self-discipline and participation in a religious community where every
member is a minister with weekly or monthly assignments to fulfil. If you
don't live by the rules, and you don't faithfully perform your duties, you begin
to feel like an outsider and drift away.
So when they take part in surveys, the people who call themselves Mormons
are those who choose to live by rules that require impulse control, and to take
on and fulfil highly demanding yet unpaid assignments.
Since these are precisely the traits that allow you to become valued
employees and managers, and that help you succeed as a professional or an
entrepreneur, it's no surprise that those who call themselves Mormons are
likely to also be "successful."
Here's the thing you have to keep in mind. Not every member of these select
groups is "successful," and there is no guarantee that these three traits will
make you happy.
In fact, the constant pursuit of "success," by way of high expectations,
insecurity, and impulse control, is a recipe for incredible amounts of stress --
not to mention deep depression and misery when you don't "succeed."
So as I read The Triple Package, I had to keep reminding myself that what they
call "success" is actually a pretty lousy measure of anything I'd call "the
good life." In fact, the most successful Mormons I know are those who don't
believe in the standards of "success" identified by the authors of The Triple
Or, I should say, who don't continue to believe in them. There's a point when
they step off the "success" train and make the choices that will make them and
their children happier -- having a close family, spending time enjoying life
instead of endlessly putting off happiness until they've "arrived."
Because when it comes to "success," the great cheat is that it's like an arcade
game -- you never arrive, you never win. The game just keeps getting harder
and harder until you die. (In the arcade, you then put in another quarter and
play again. We don't get enough quarters in real life.)
Happy people are the ones who recognize that you can't win the game, and
even if you do, the price has usually been too high. If "success" is measured in
competitive terms, then no matter how much you achieve, there's always
somebody who has done better or achieved more.
In other words, you always lose. I've known good people to be miserable all
the time because they're not good enough.
Happiness comes from knowing when to say when. It comes from deriving
your identity from something more under your control than money or status
conferred by outside agencies.
Happy people, in my experience, are the ones who turn outward, who stop
concentrating on achieving impossible standards of perfection, who don't want
to gain mastery over other people, who know how to live comfortably within
their means, who aren't trying to rise higher and higher, reaching for goals
that move away as quickly as you approach.
And it's the outward-turning people, the ones who devote themselves to helping
others achieve enough, who are most resilient when, in the ordinary course of
life, bad things happen.
You lose your health; you're damaged in an accident; loved ones die or become
ill; you get laid off in a bad economy; you lose status because of unfair criticism
or outright lies. Those things can happen to people who have done everything
If you measure "success" by the standards used by the authors of The Triple
Package, such personal downturns can be devastating. You can feel like a
failure and become miserable as you contemplate other, less-deserving people
who haven't been touched by such misfortune.
But the outward-living person adapts to new circumstances, and, in the
midst of disappointment or grief, can still reach out and help others. The
things they cared most about, they can still do; they things they lost were good,
but losing them doesn't make such people miserable forever.
The Triple Package is actually a good, thoughtful book. The standards of
"success" that they used were chosen in large part because they're independent
measures. They can be reduced to labels and numbers.
"Happiness," on the other hand, is a completely personal measurement. Good
people are often reluctant to call themselves "happy," and not just in a knock-on-wood, don't-tempt-fate way. Happy people are often not all that aware of
their own happiness, because they don't spend their lives contemplating
Yet that "Triple Package" -- high expectations, insecurity, and impulse control
-- might be desirable traits even if you don't measure success by the standards
of money or status.
"Impulse control" means you can keep yourself from getting distracted by
temporary pleasures or fears. Just because you want a drink (or an item in a
store, or a nap, or an affair) doesn't mean you're going to have one.
Lack of self-control is a recipe for a miserable, ruined life for yourself and
everyone who loves you. So impulse control is part of a recipe for happiness as
well as "success."
Insecurity can mean that you're aware that no matter how much good you do,
there's always more that needs doing. But insecurity as a fear that no matter
how well you do, somebody or something can take it all away from you, can
make you miserable. Fortunately, if you measure your happiness by the good
you've done for other people, there's nothing to be insecure about.
The things you've given away, the service you've performed, the consolation
and encouragement you've given -- you can't lose those things. You can't be
laid off from a career of kindness and decency, because you can continue it
wherever you are.
As for high expectations -- well, it depends on what you expect. If you expect
yourself to always be the best at everything you do, then you're going to fail.
But if you expect yourself to do good to others -- even those that haven't been
good to you -- well, that's a standard you can meet, and since it's
noncompetitive, other people's kindness and generosity don't diminish
your own achievements.
I'm glad I read and thought about The Triple Package. It helped break down
large groups into smaller cultural groups that get different results.
It helps you realize that you don't have to wait for your whole ethnic group to
get high expectations, a desire to keep striving, and self-discipline -- you can
work on those things yourself and help your family do the same.
You can create a mini-tribe of people with the Triple Package virtues.
And as long as your goal is happiness -- rather than to get rich or boss people
around or become famous -- there's no reason you can't succeed, regardless of
the culture you grew up in.