Hyperactive America is at the mercy of new, nonstop demands at work and home
How We Got From the Company Man,
Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society
to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms,
and Economic Anxiety
By Dalton Conley
Pantheon, 221 pp., $24
THE THREE MARRIAGES:
Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship
By David Whyte
Riverhead, 335 pp., $25.95
Anyone who has a job, a mate, and a self, not to mention children, is a juggler. Must I attend the next professional conference? Dare I skip my kid's next soccer game? We yearn to be whole persons in an age that seems determined to dice us into little pieces.
Dalton Conley and David Whyte have been thinking a lot about these dilemmas. In "Elsewhere, U.S.A.," Conley, a sociologist, urges us to understand them within the framework of larger trends. Still, he insists we'd better get used to the inherent tensions. They're not going away.
Whyte, who doubles as a poet and corporate motivational speaker, suggests a Zen-like redefinition of the problem in "The Three Marriages." Forget the concept of balance, he counsels, and work toward merging these aspects of your life into a "marriage," whatever that melding concept means.
If Conley is the voice of tough love, Whyte is the dreamy devotee at the altar of Eros. One speaks in statistics, the other in poetry. Neither, in the end, is wholly satisfying.
In Conley's view, the current overload stems from three fundamental shifts in the past few decades. The American economy is now dominated by rising income inequalities. The family is adjusting to the wholesale entry of women into the job market. Computers and telecommunication have made around-the-clock work possible anywhere.
While the last point is a no-brainer, Conley's analysis of the other two is his book's signal achievement. The top third of earners employed in service industries compose what he calls the "Elsewhere class." While they are doing very well, they often do so only because both partners work. Oddly, the richer they are, the longer their work weeks tend to be. Conspicuous consumption substitutes for leisure time. The need to display wealth only reinforces the need for more income. Can't get no satisfaction, indeed.
Women may feel unable to spend enough time with the kids, but there are compensations. College-educated professional women are more likely to marry and remain so, Conley notes, than their working-class counterparts. Now it's not just females who look for a mate able to support them in style; today's male will marry the partner rather than the secretary.
As an exercise in pop sociology, "Elsewhere, U.S.A." is littered with the obligatory neologisms. Some are more ludicrous than useful. The author's boldest invention replaces the word "individual" with "intravidual." As a stab at making sense of the persistent invasion of data streams and multiple stimuli into the already shaky mix of desire, thought, and dream that is consciousness, this is not half bad. In an age of information overload, how can the self survive? Only time will tell if the concept takes hold.
In other matters, time hasn't treated Conley well. The rip-roaring recession and the 2008 elections have sabotaged some of his assumptions. Why, he asks, isn't there a greater backlash against income inequality? Because, he answers, "many of us enjoy decent long-term returns on our 401(k)s and home values." That joy has vanished. Overall, though, Conley is an astute, sharp-eyed guide through the maze of modern life. Just don't expect any aid in balancing work and family.
Whyte, on the other hand, is eager to help. After all, he's a motivational speaker. He just can't abide that word "balance." Instead, he wants us to extend the word "marriage" beyond the realm of personal relationships into the worlds of work and self.
Each, he says, involves courtship and commitment. And the final goal is "a marriage of marriages," a "conversation" between them. Beneath all this fuzzy rhetoric, one suspects, lies the kind of integration long extolled by psychotherapists. One can imagine Whyte delivering this appealing, heartfelt message at one of his seminars for clients like Frito-Lay, Gap, or
In "The Three Marriages," Whyte's method continually sabotages him because he relies on writers as behavioral models. Watch as Robert Louis Stevenson and Jane Austen find their calling and their loves. This approach may be raw meat to would-be authors. Nonwriters may simply feel perplexed.
Whyte also leaves an odd gap in a book about creating wholeness in our lives. The matter of children doesn't surface until near the book's end. So much for that little inconsequence.
Having dared to broach the topic, he quickly drops it and moves on to Austen, who neither married nor had children. So why choose her as a central figure? That she avoided such encumbrances, so that she could devote her life to writing novels, doesn't speak to the kind of integration the rest of the book encourages.
Writing about courtship and marriage, Whyte is perfectly credible but has nothing new to say. When he applies the concepts to work - "Learn how to be sought . . . Fall in love with future possibilities" - they ring true but trivial.
As a stylist, Whyte relishes metaphor. He likes to quote poetry, from Wordsworth to Chinese lyrics to his own doggerel. And he is especially drawn to the edgy paradox of Zen maxims. "Not knowing what to do is just as real and just as useful as knowing what to do," he writes. "Not knowing stops us from taking false directions." He also offers a corollary, in that "All paths to authenticity lead through the doors of humiliation."
I have nothing but admiration for Zen as a means of achieving the authentic self. It's just that this book promised, but failed to deliver, a different path.
Dan Cryer is a contributor to "Good Roots: Writers Reflect on Growing Up in Ohio."