Friday, December 24, 2010

Wish I Were A Millionaire

’Tis the season for giving. So here I was, out chasing sales in that place I try hard never to go: the mall.

I had plenty of company. Great swaths of people washed up against me as I moved upstream from door to department store nirvana.

Perhaps it was the limp that prompted me to pick a single face out of the crowds. I looked down as she passed, almost subconsciously nudged to see the cause of the awkward gait. No socially-imposed politeness to “not stare” could wash away the feeling I got when I saw the answer: a leg that must have been twisted nearly 180 degrees. One foot walking forward, one walking backwards.

I stole a glance at my shopping companion to insure I wasn’t hallucinating.

I wasn’t.

How can I be shocked at this? It is not uncommon to see such sights in third world countries. But this is the land of the modern medicine man.

I looked down at the trinkets in my hands. Cheap items to appease in that culturally-mandated dance of swapping stuff I don’t need for items that friends and family can buy for themselves.

Instead, if I could have done it, I have found the gift I would rather have purchased.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

To Have a Heritage

When I think back over the three decades I’ve dabbled in researching my family tree, I can’t help but wince remembering the biblical injunction against devoting oneself to “endless genealogies.” The message seems to be that it is of no lasting purpose to know one’s roots. My hope—or at least something I often wonder—is that there is a benefit to knowing one’s heritage.

I guess I was just born wanting to know my family’s story, though I’m nowhere in the league of bluebloods, cognoscenti, or even the lowly glitterati. Historically, the only ones deemed worthy of recording forebears were those who were making history. Many of those pacesetters were accorded notice because of agreements: covenants establishing a bloodline (kings), a right of service (priests), or a right of inheritance (nobility, landholders—or, in the case of the ancient nation of Israel, descendants of a particular promise-holder). In my case, none of these applied, but I firmly held to a blind faith that I was, indeed, some type of heritage-holder. To know this, to uncover my heritage, I needed to dig for my roots.

Though the notable Apostle Paul was the one who penned those dreary words, “endless genealogies,” in a note to his protégé, Timothy, it doesn’t mean that all hope of learning from one’s roots is now anathema. The Bible itself is replete with examples of family lines. Genesis, I Chronicles, and Matthew provide ample eye-glazing family litanies.

The thought hit me one day that there must be something to this genealogy stuff—else why would there be so much emphasis on it in the Bible? Take, for instance, the Old Testament habit of identifying a person not only by his name, but by his father’s name. In other words, a person would be listed by his father’s name too, if “John Smith” didn’t do the trick. “Oh! That John Smith!” If “John Smith, son of Joe Smith” didn’t provide enough detail, then another generation would be added. Of course, this system usually only applied to people making history, such as kings or priests—people already handily equipped to know such minutiae.

I can just see the name-calling match between prophets: Zechariah lists his resume to the third generation. Not to be outdone, the lesser-recognized prophet Zephaniah whips out his C.V. to the fifth generation, just in case anyone confuses him for that other Zephaniah.

Or take princes. Ziza, in I Chronicles 4:37, has five generations of predecessors listed to make sure no one becomes mistaken about just who is boss. To his credit, though, he had taken some significant action to get to the top of his class.

But me? Little ol’ me? The one who spent an entire student career preening on the heady insistence of teachers that each of us would become something special, that the world lay at our feet, that success was just there for the grabbing? That “me” who, despite those marvelous promises of well-meaning educator-mentors, spent adulthood as a mole burrowed in the anonymity of eight-to-five life? Where was my heritage?

Today is my mother’s birthday. While she is no longer here to enjoy the celebration, she provides a date for me to reflect on that heritage. I still haven’t found it—not in its entirety—but page by dusty page, I am uncovering the mystery that was hers to pass on to her children. I find the anomalies of life she passed down from her own misty childhood remembrances confirmed through the cold, impersonal dates and data of life records: census forms, death certificates, shipping records, land deeds. I uncover attitudes and prejudices passed along—broadly, from generation to generation, or unwittingly, from mother to daughter.

There may have been a time when people solved the problem of “which John Smith” by answering with the litany of “John Smith, son of Joe, son of Ed, son of Kevin.”

“Oh, that John Smith,” people may have nodded, remembering John’s great-grandfather.

I can’t say that many people today even know the names of their own great-grandparents.

In my quest to get to know just my own mother, I can be grateful that I am getting to learn those names. And I am getting to know a little more about each of their lives. In knowing where I have come from, I am reconstructing from lost memories my family’s own heritage. While I am not a king, not a priest, not a victorious warrior, even I can have a heritage. And it is the heritage, discovered, that benefits its possessors with significance.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Efficient Planning? Effective Planning?

It was a classic case of “You Can’t Get There From Here.” We were picking up our daughter from a mountainside retreat, and figured we could include a detour to another foothill town while we were in this part of the state. We had mapquested our route, but had been irked to see the required path included a half-hour backtrack along the main north-south highway to the junction with the main east-west highway before we could continue on our way. There had to be a more direct route!

Fine. We’ll just ask one of the local people at the retreat house when we get there. No sense wasting all that time with such an indirect route. Unless....

The route on paper looked a little flatter than it did when our rubber met their road. There was this little matter of a few hills in the way. “As the crow flies” only works for crows.

I’m afraid the same hindrance works its way into a lot of paperwork for planning. Especially the plans involving our family’s so-called three-year challenge. At one point, I had been awakened to the fact—at that time, in three years—we would be moving from our usual life and routine to some very different possibilities. Those possibilities looked so huge, I felt the great need to get started then, planning for the next step. So what if it was only another step; from that vantage point, it looked like a massive one!

And, as time always does, it passes and leaves us wishing for still more of it to catch up with what is left undone. So, here I am, facing the end of my homeschooling career with my daughter’s high school graduation only two months away. While I am concerned for her and what she is going to do with the rest of her life, I panic when I realize I have no plans in place for what I’m going to do with the rest of my life!

Being the designated navigator for many trips, I’m used to planning routes. When going from start to finish, pick a line (a road) that most directly connects Point A with Point B. It’s that simple. That’s what we call efficient planning.

When it comes to applying this technique to real life, especially something so personal as applying it to my bumpy life, the efficiency becomes more dull, uninteresting—wait a minute, who am I fooling here?—threatening. There are mountains hidden in between these here points, these Points A and Points B. You don’t understand! Insurmountable challenges, risks, sabotages conspire against my better intentions. At least, there have been enough of these usurpers to fill up the allotted time frame. And then: failure. That is the risk when facing the demanding Efficiency taskmaster.

Zigzag has never made for efficiency. Heading in one direction, only to find out you must U-turn and head in another direction, is never the highest efficiency. But it may allow you to qualify for effectiveness. And that may be so, thanks to how our own brains work.

I was recently reading about the wonders of the mind, revealed now thanks to the gifts of technology. Several studies demonstrate that learning to play a musical instrument, of all impractical things, enhances brain function. A 1996 review by the College Entrance Examination Board showed that students with experience in musical performance scored higher on both the verbal and math sections of the SAT than the national average. One university study even claimed that music majors had the highest reading scores of any students on their campus. Several other analyses reported significant correlations between the number of years of instrumental music instruction and academic achievement in totally unrelated fields such as math, science, and language arts. In studying the undergraduate majors of applicants to medical school, one researcher found that 66 percent of music majors who applied to medical school were admitted. Those Point A To Point B plodders, the biochemistry majors? Only 44 percent made the cut.

In citing these and other studies of musicians, psychiatrist Daniel G. Amen observed in his book, Making a Good Brain Great:

The world’s top academic countries place a high value on music education. Hungary, the Netherlands, and Japan stand atop worldwide science achievement and have a strong commitment to music education. All three countries have required music training at the elementary and middle school levels, both instrumental and vocal, for several decades. The centrality of music education to learning in the top-ranked countries seems to contradict the United States’ focus on math, science, vocabulary, and technology.

So there is another way to get from Point A to Point B. The way to get there from here is not always a straight line, especially when we look up and discover the mountain in our way. The zig and zag of life may not be efficient, but can provide enrichment and insight. Perhaps that is why—yet only after the U-turn of hindsight—we can call it effective. But we can’t always call it planning.
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