Richard Swenson on Balance

Sobering thoughts from the book In Search of Balance by Richard Swenson:

“People with great gifts are easy to find,” Emerson wrote, “but symmetrical and balanced ones, never.” I wonder if we need more “great gifts” today, or if we need more grace? Where are the symmetrical, balanced people who are great because they have the time and energy to be kind?

The hunger of our day is not for inner-demon-driven, all-stress-all-the-time, switching-focus-at-lightning-speed, constant-rebalancing workaholism—we already have literally millions of twitching rascals with prodigious productivity racing faster than photons. We have enough stuff, we have enough speed, we have plenty of progress, and we especially have a superabundance of more. But will you permit me to inquire about the status of our truth, love, faith, relationships, health, joy, depth, and peace?

What corridor do we choose if we wish to rediscover the green pastures and still waters? What set of priorities will point us in that direction?

Balance is not the Kingdom, but if our priorities lie in that direction, balance can help us sustain our focus all the way Home.

Teaching Your Parent to Use a Smartphone

metro UI14jpg

First, the power switch, the volume rocker. The touch screen.
The front-facing camera, about which not enough cultural
commentary could be said. Then, apps. There’s one on
which you can read news, order food or a taxi, keep up
with the Joneses, or watch cat videos.

I know, you would say it’s the modern preoccupation
with distracting ourselves, as though “killing time”
doesn’t make assassins out of us. You’d say we don’t need
the luxury of a powerful pocket computer when there are
children out there who don’t have food.
And like you, I’d pick battery life and sunlight readability
over an abundance of bells and whistles any day.

But a gift is a gift, and wouldn’t it be a little unstewardly
to refuse it when providence has so placed you in a
segment of history where technology lets you talk
to your daughter and grandson halfway around the world,
digital face to digital face? It would be like refusing
to eat the vegetables that you said the farmers
worked so much for to bring to our table.

So I encourage you to explore the device and assure you
that you won’t break it—unless by break you mean making
it submit to you as its owner—because apart
from the fateful Reset button, which will give you fair warning
anyway, you won’t mistakenly press something that would
destroy it or render the memories you put into it
irretrievable, the same way you assured us (though perhaps
not in so many words) that we could never get off the
edge of your love for us.

But watch out for those clickbaits and pop-ups that
congratulate you for winning contests you do not recall joining.
They are the candy-dangling strangers you warned us about
when we were schoolchildren.

Moving on, the Back button, the stationary icon that says
return—one mark of our ability to connect to the
past, to undo, correct, revert, revisit; a reminder that
no matter how we may have mastered user interfaces, it is
still a jungle out there, and we are all still Hansels and
Gretels occasionally relying on the mercy of breadcrumbs.

And if all else fails, there is the Home button so that
whatever screen or however far down the menus you may find
(or lose) yourself in, there will always be a familiar place
that you can retreat to, with one tap. Just like home.


(Dec. 2015)

Jeepney-sticker Jesus


You are the one who blesses our way (keeping it safe
by night and day) and who blesses, by extension,
the sweet lover who happens to be our driver. You
are the original bleeding heart, the vivid painting
showing thorns snug on the ventricles, Your gaze able
to follow anyone from whichever angle, as any
perceptive child would notice—as if to say in no uncertain
terms, “God knows Hudas not pay.” But if by any
chance the crucifix (swinging to the rhythm of the
pendulous head of a dog or the waving hand of a
golden cat) is any clue to the roots of reality, of course
we all know who ultimately pays.

Meanwhile, on this side of eternity, it remains a
disappointment how seating capacity is not really about
seating, how it riles every self-respecting passenger
capable of counting that all too often, two or more things
are made to occupy the same space at the same time.
How the posted minimum fare and no-smoking sign
are sometimes simply decorative.

On this side, where the commerce of man meets the
economy of God, our madnesses, faith, and superstitions
mix, here with the request to please pay in coins in the
morning, to wear seat belts and segregate trash,
to vacate seats for the pregnant and disabled, and all the
other republic acts that make for good memorizing in
quizzes but somehow fall perennially short of making
our nation more than the metaphorical reference of an
old repurposed vehicle whose checkup has been
overdue for more than a decade.

But maybe from a wider view the reference is not just to
us as a people but to us as a race. Maybe Your traveling mercies
are for everyone, so that even if Your pictures often
function only as lucky charms, if anyone ever asks where
God was in the frustrations, the crises, and the tedious
uneventfulness, at least one could say with certainty
he was there all along, right with us on the ride.


August 2015

Fish for Breakfast

While the Web page loads to show me what inun-unan is in English,
I put the phone down, say grace, and—with the kind of nonchalant
ambidexterity we apply to things we’ll take for granted on this day—
pick apart the bones off one side of the fish, separating morsel from
nonedibles: red-orange scales, tail, spine, what remains of the head.

As if to honor its memory (or as though it would), I pause to marvel
at the fresh whiteness of this piece of sea meat, harvested at dawn
by fishermen who continue to fish despite being unenriched by the job,
from the bounty of a sea that continues to give despite being polluted;

and at how effortlessly fish-molecules—infused with vinegar—merge
with people-molecules so that at any given time, you have something of
sea and land, animal and plant in you; at how, no matter which specific
arc of the circle of life you bite, someone is bound to be offended, for

food is really a matter of one dying for another to continue living. And
it’s not your fault this is how things are, for how else do you in fact take
part in the dance of the universe but through standing on the shoulders
of giants; entering the world, for instance, through a life-threatening

event. You can only hope that by heeding the call to “take and eat,”
gracefully, grudgingly, gratefully, grumpily, any manner but guiltily,
you may eventually stop trying to live off the fat of your ability, off
the produce of your guarded, steely sufficiency, and like fish, broken but
multiplied, lay down your life.


In Memory of the Drop Call, or Turning a Consumer Cheat into an Asset

balance inquiry surprise

Remember the practice of drop calling? Back when flagship phones were the likes of Nokia 3310, we used to take advantage of drop calls–quick, walkie-talkie-like calls to exploit the fact that network companies did not not charge you for the first 5 seconds. Companies eventually learned about it and started the counter at the first second (to the surprise of customers who didn’t know soon enough). I was recently combing through FastCompany’s list of Most Innovative Companies 2014 and remembered this when I came upon a startup in India called ZipDial that allows customers to make orders, join promos, or get info from businesses by using their number but not actually calling them. Amazing. I’m excited for this to come to the Philippines.


By Saritha Ra

In India, friends intentionally call each other, let it ring once or twice, and hang up. That’s their way of sending a signal, like “I’m home safe,” without being charged for a call in a country with pricey telecommunications and limited Internet accessibility. California nativeValerie Wagoner moved to Bangalore, noticed the missed calls, and is now responsible for 416 million of them: That’s how many times people have used her company, ZipDial, to connect with brands including Gillette, Disney, Procter & Gamble, and IndiaInfoLine.

It works like this: She issues the brand a number, which it prints on its ads. Consumers call, hang up, and get a text or call in return—and thus are entered in contests, receive coupons, or place an order. In 2013, she expanded to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and is now setting up in Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines.

“Half the world’s population needs a better, more accessible mobile experience,” Wagoner says. She was once part of eBay’s international marketing team, but wanted to be truly involved in emerging markets—and knew she couldn’t do that from the Bay Area. “I was a rare entity, a foreigner and a woman running a startup,” she says of her early, rough start. “I didn’t know the right jokes in Hindi or come from somebody’s hometown, but I knew when to wear a sari.”