Archive for October, 2010

The Take-Away

Monday, November 1, 2010

When you return from a two-week, twenty-two thousand mile journey, a frequently asked question is “what was your number one take-away?” It’s a good question. The one asking really would like to know. And it would be nice to have a ready answer to this all-too-common query.

But when you are sorting through an avalanche of information, a hurricane of new experience, a tsunami of new friendships and a Wikipedia-sized torrent of language, culture, religion, history and political turmoil to plow through, one has considerable difficulty reducing it all to a single life lesson. I come away wanting to write another book. The publisher would ask for a teaser to place prominently on the cover jacket that will compel a browsing public to purchase the volume, take it home and devour it. That is one tough assignment – better left to the marketing team. So how do you answer in a sentence or two that over-arching, gripping “take away”?

Well, I tried. We sat in a circle around a table in the hotel’s top story conference room, elegant by any standard, and all of us weary not just from the demands of travel and suitcase living, but something we once called “culture shock.” None of us would admit to a vulnerability to the onset of this malady. We buck up. We smile and listen and nod. We observe. We try not to make the expected judgments of the proverbial ugly American. We disguise our fears of exotic infection. We pretend that it is just another ordinary day in the slum or the village or the city streets. But we have been uprooted from all the things that make us comfortable. We have been transplanted into another world where the language is unknown and the traffic is chaos and the clutter creates an ambience of disorder. We recoil at a near miss at the intersection. We gasp at the oncoming, overloaded bus aiming at us head on. We wince at the gutter trash. We want to clean things up. Paint a building or two. Dump the billboard. Rewire the electrical.

And wandering through the maze of the unfamiliar, we see smiles. We hear laughter. The children play and sing and dance. They welcome us. They want to hear our English and engage in conversation. Our cherished assumptions explode, leaving us to re-learn the things we thought we understood. Emotion kicks in. We feel again. Our neat little categories disintegrate. Sadness overcomes us. Then joy blindsides us.

So I made a gallant attempt to express my “take away” to my fellow-sojourners up in that conference room with the high back chairs, chandelier, polished table and broad view of the city lights. It went something like this: “The moments I will remember are those when us tough guys got that choke in the throat; when emotion welled up and made it hard to speak. That’s when I was touched in an unexpected, powerful way.”

Like when Matthew spoke to us all, crowded in a private home, crammed in a living room; a gathering on the occasion of the twenty-third birthday of a promising young man named Rueben who just one year before accidently fell three stories to his death on the concrete below. His still tender mom and dad joined us, along with a gang of others who loved the boy. Friends gathered to remember. We watched a slideshow that captured his too brief life and the sound track added to the grief of loss. A collection of college friends was there, too and included several who did not share the family’s strong Christian faith. Matthew spoke as a seasoned pastor, finding scriptures and challenges that just fit. And then his eyes reddened and his voice cracked as he looked those friends eye-to-eye, scanning from one to the other with compassion. He challenged them. “I don’t want you to miss it,” he said, with a credibility that comes from utter sincerity. “I don’t want you to miss it,” he repeated. We all choked up with him.

And then the afternoon when Pat learned that the little boy named “Job” that his family had sponsored sight unseen from back home in California studied right there in the Hyderabad school where we stood. A computer operator found him in the database, identifying him with a bio and photographs. “That’s him,” Pat declared.

“It’s too late today, but we’ll see if we can track him down tomorrow,” one of the staffers said to Pat.

The following morning as we got ready to visit the campus, Pat told us, “You know it will be OK if we don’t see him.” He tried to convince himself. “Seeing his picture was enough,” he added. “That was too cool. It’ll be OK… either way.”

But what we all knew was how much this twelve-year-old Dalit meant to Pat, his wife and his kids. We all whispered our own prayer: Lord, please, help us find Job today.

We were there as over at the school, Brent walked up with two perky students: Persig (the young girl who plays Kavya in our movie, Not Today) and Job. Brent introduced him to Pat. Pat’s a tough guy. But when he scooped the boy up in his arms, tears in his eyes, he smiled a smile we’ll never forget. Job smiled back.

And then there was John K. who shared his sense of brokenness in our morning session. And John G. teasing and roughing up the boys as they squealed with delight. And Jay H. addressing students lined up in rows all crisp in those uniforms made by women who now have the skills of a seamstress and telling them all that there are no limits to the possibilities of their lives. Jay’s voice caught, choked with emotion. And then when Scott prayed over a staff couple who asked us to petition God that they might soon have their own little baby. These potent moments were take-aways for me.

But as good as all these are, they only begin to give you a sense of what happened those two weeks. To reduce it all to a single take-away may be a time saver, but it does not do justice to our journey into the unfamiliar, where God is doing some of his best work.

And maybe that’s my real take-away.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Penny Chenery Tweedy got the news while she prepared dinner for her family.  She dropped a bowl.  Her mother died that afternoon back in Virginia, the voice said.  Dad should be told.  They would wait for her travel back home to deliver the news to him personally.  That was 1968.

Christopher Chenery, Penny’s father, built the twenty eight hundred acre Meadow Farm Stable in Caroline County, Virginia from scratch.  The sprawling southern white house with wide porches and shady oak trees, the rolling hills and the glassy ponds and the fields lined with white fences on the perimeter of broad lawns and gravel roadways would be home to a champion line of thoroughbred horses; home to Penny and her brother, too.  They grew up in these expansive hills and grassy meadows, on horseback and in the big library; children of privilege.  Dad’s dreams fueled the family business.  Mom’s care prepared them for a world beyond.  Penny went on to college and graduate school, and married a successful attorney.  Her brother, Hollis, became a Harvard economics professor.

Dad’s failing health meant that Meadow Farm Stable suffered, too.  Christopher survived his wife’s passing, but barely.  His once laser sharp mind became clouded in by age and dementia.  He barely acknowledges Penny’s arrival or the terrible news.  She is not sure he comprehends the enormity of it all there in the office where he cut deals, trading and planning, analyzing meticulous records; filing cabinets filled with detail only he could assemble.  She sat with him in the room from whence all the energy came, the command center for an enviable life, and her heart broke.

In those days, the business of thoroughbred racing was a man’s world.  But Christopher raised an extraordinary girl.  It all flooded over her as she sat there with her dad.  It wasn’t just the loss of her mother and father; it was the passing of a way of life.  She left that amazing home out of high school.  She excelled in the classroom of a prestigious women’s college (Smith in Northampton, Massachusetts) and on to Columbia Business School.  In the early years, she assisted her husband as a young attorney.  They had three children of their own.  She raised them as she had been raised.  Tough.  Independent.  Fearless.  Expansive.  Literary.  Witty.  Principled.  But now, sitting there with Dad, she looked at him.  Still bearing that Southern gentleman’s charm, there in his favorite leather chair, his eyes were nearly vacant.  In that office on that ranch, something stirred in Penny’s heart.  It would not be denied.

The more she learns about the condition of the farm, the greater her determination.  Already, the proverbial vultures circled overhead knowing this rich soil, the structures, the animals and all the accoutrements of racing would soon be auctioned off at estate sale prices.  Penny steels herself, tapping into her business acumen, but more, her father’s heart, and resolves to protect the place her parents built.  The odds pile up.  Her brother wants out.  Her family wants her home.  She embraces a calling that will not let her go.

That calling leads her to “the greatest horse that ever lived.” I remember that June 1973 TIME Magazine cover: Superhorse – Secretariat.  It was the summer after my second year in the seminary.  Later that year, the oil crisis hit.  Cars lined up at filling stations.  In the first year of Richard Nixon’s second term awful revelations of lawlessness accelerated after the discovery of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.  (I spent a good portion of my senior year pondering the fate of our Republican President.  He resigned the August following my graduation the next year.)  In 1973, the country needed a lift.  They got it from Penny’s horse.

It had been twenty-five years since Citation won the Triple Crown (The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in the same season) back in 1948.  But after Secretariat won the first two of those races against his nemesis racehorse – Sham, a thoroughbred owned by Sigmund Sommer, Peggy’s nemesis – the whole world took notice.  The running of the Belmont Stakes of 1973 became a global event.  Would Secretariat accomplish the impossible?  The world sat spellbound for the entire mile and a half and the blazing average speed of 37.5 miles per hour.  Two minutes and twenty-four seconds.  A staggering record that stands to this day.  Secretariat’s finish left no doubt.

Director Randall Wallace (who wrote Braveheart) puts us in the race.  The visuals are stunning, but the thunderous soundtrack, too.  A thoroughbred at full speed in slow motion is a wonder to behold.  Secretariat, the horse, inspired a nation back in 1973.

Secretariat, the movie, inspires me.

And if you go see it, watch for “O Happy Day.”

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2010

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Monday, October 4, 2010

Steven Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, looked at the popular assumptions that drive people’s attitudes with suspicion.  In our information age, the avalanche of data bits has gone way beyond calculation.  And there is no end in sight.  Levitt wondered, who verifies those commonly accepted assumptions anymore?  The claims?  The conclusions?  In our media age, filled with sound bytes and slogans, we too easily accept the things that fit our presuppositions and reject the rest.  If what we hear or read affirms our preconceived notions, we embrace it and move on to something else.

But what would the data show if someone took the time to assemble the information that exists in all those databases out there?  The professor pondered.  Data mining may well become a brand new discipline in the information age.  Levitt proposed some experiments.

Leo Laporte interviewed Don Tapscott, author of the new book Macrowikinomics, the sequel to his 2007 bestseller Wikinomics.  After thirty years studying the impact of the Internet, Tapscott is convinced that much of the conversation about the recent economic meltdown is entirely misplaced.  The idea that we are just going to have to weather the storm until our beloved pre-crash economy returns is wistful nonsense.   The pre-crash economy will never return.  Many hope for a return to “normal.”  Normal gone, says Tapscott.  We now live in post-industrial America.  The corporate model of success and job security has been crushed.  Every sphere of our economy is affected: government, education, medicine, manufacturing, information management, financial services, retail, all of it.  Reinvention is incumbent for all of our institutions.

We are in that unsettling macro-transformation as I write.

So Levitt the university economics professor teamed up with Stephen Dubner, a New York Times journalist.  They set out mine data, and see if their research might show how our esteemed assumptions fare in the glaring light of the assembly of existing data.  Their conclusions freaked them out, so to speak.  They titled their book Freakonomics.

I suppose most college professors have a special interest in cheating: how to detect it, how to identify culprits and how to prevent it.  Levitt used his data-mining tools to find out.  The data did not encourage.  The propensity to cheat, he found, is ubiquitous.  If it is possible and if there is a reasonably good chance of going undetected, most everyone will cheat in order to improve the chance of improvement.  Levitt and Dubner studied two unlikely groups: high school and (of all things) Sumo wrestlers.  The big city teachers in their study live under intense pressure to improve scores in order to secure budget money and increased wages.  The giant Sumo athletes continue a Shinto tradition hundreds of years old.  It involves rites of purification.  The referee in a Sumo match is a Shinto priest.  Some consider it a sport, but many view the dual of the massive Japanese wrestlers as a religious ritual.  Levitt and Dubner analyzed the data, and to everyone’s shock and dismay, found widespread cheating among both the teachers and the mammoth Sumo wrestlers, where shame is a most serious offence.  The authors’ conclusion: the assumption of character is no deterrent to cheating.

The authors tackled other widely held assumptions.   They studied the premise that real estate agents have no conflict of interest in representing their clients.  They analyzed the widely held view that crack cocaine dealers live in affluence.  They scrutinized the reasons often given for the dramatic drop in crime rates in America’s cities during the 1990s.  (Was it better policing?  Higher conviction rates?  Bigger prisons?  Tough politicians?)  They investigated the belief that parental involvement, particularly from infancy, has a verifiable effect on intelligence and academic success.  Their conclusions, based on comprehensive data mining, surprised everyone.

The researchers asked another question: does a child’s name have a determinative affect on his or her future achievement?  The results are fascinating.  It is true that we are living in a period of highly innovative naming.  There are name consultants.  Computer programs will assist young parents in the all-important selection of just the right name.  Does it matter?  Levitt and Dubner designed and implemented their data-mining program.

Their findings have given birth to a new cottage industry.  While they point out that other factors (like nutrition, safety, socio-economic health, tutoring) have even greater significance, names matter.  You can look up their database and check on how a specific name might fare in the future.  (One clear warning from Freakonimics: don’t name your daughter “Temptress.”)

We have entered into a new world.  Our institutions (including our churches) are facing questions that haven’t been asked before.  We rely on assumptions that may or may not be valid.  We need to be ready for those cherished assumptions to be challenged.

Change is in the wind.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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