Friday, July 30, 2004

Many Thanks, Sedgwyn Thigpen

My boss, Gary Hatch, teaches an Independent Study course. Yesterday I was mindlessly slipping papers into an envelope to mail to one of his students when I realized that this particular student's name was, get this, Sedgwyn Thigpen.

Sedgwyn Thigpen.

Stay with me. So I asked my boss about him, and he said that Sedgwyn had written an essay about his experience being an acclaimed high school football player. (Are you still with me? He's a high school football player. His name is Sedgwyn Thigpen.) He may or may not have been nicknamed "the Duke." While in high school, he didn't take school very seriously. He went to college (to play ball we assume), and while in college, he returned to his home town. There, at some community event, a kid came up to him and said that his father had told him to come and talk to Sedgwyn (Thigpen), because, you know, he was "the Duke."

At this point, Sedgwyn had a moment of stark realization. He was not just Sedgwyn Thigpen, acclaimed local football hero. He was Sedgwyn Thigpen, "the Duke." He was the Duke, and he'd better act like it. Take school more seriously, treat cats with more respect, not kick women.

Thus enters "the Duke" into my vocabulary:

That poster can be the Duke.

That interview you gave could make you the Duke--or it could be the Duke itself.

Each of us, in our own way, is sometimes the Duke.

Your mom is the Duke.

(Are you seeing the possibilities here?)

Thus, I would like to publicly thank Sedgwyn Thigpen, both for his name (which is so great I want to immemorialize it in a short story) and for his story.

It has changed my life and my vocabulary. At least this week.

P.S. (And I'd like to apologize for any myo-privacy infarction I may have induced.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Sarah's Frame of Reference: Submitted Draft

The following is the draft of my Frame of Reference Paper (see "Sarah's Frame of Reference: Draft I") that I actually submitted.
This is maybe a more telling account of where I think I am in the universe and how that couches everything I do or say.
Deciding how to approach this paper has been difficult for me.  Opinions and metacognition both come easily (they comprise the bulk of my daily thinking), yet I am on my fourth draft of this frame of reference paper.  I am afraid, it seems, of coming across poorly.  I don’t want the readers, the receivers, to think that I am not introspective or humble enough, nor do I want them, whoever they may be, to think that I am not critical enough of my own assumptions and stances.  I do not have terminology with which to label my perspectives or modes of thinking; this, too, I find is delaying the completion of this assignment.  I want to tap into the well-developed areas of thinking, to clearly identify what movements or modes my perspectives and habits fit into, but I don’t have the vocabulary on hand.  And at present, I’m either too lazy to determine what the soft-scientific names are for my ways of thinking, or I secretly believe that labels are typically pigeon-holing and cheap, easy to cast aside when the next wave of deterministic thinking comes in.

What I do know is this: I think I’m right.  I always think I’m right.  Even when I’m going to say something that I think may not be exactly true, or if I’m thinking something that I think may not be exactly true, I couch the thought in such a way that lets other people know that I may not be right.  Consequently, I can always be assured of my rightness, even when I think I may not be right.
This sounds like a cavalier approach to life.  And maybe it is.  But then, one of the most pivotal moments in my epiphanic history was when, during my first year of college, a new friend said to me, “We all think the way we live is the best way to live.”  I thought he was audacious at the time—audacious, prideful, limited, obviously unfamiliar with me—but I’ve since thought about it.  I believe he’s right.  We do, on some level, each think that the way we live and see the world is the best way to live and see the world, otherwise we would change.  When we realize (fully, not just with our intellect or our lips) that there is a better way to live or think, then we change.

My thinking has seen changes over the last eleven years.  I’m sure it saw changes before then, too, but I don’t consider myself sentient before I was twelve.  As a little girl, I blindly plowed through life, closed-eyed and self-centered.  I didn’t like myself, didn’t like the cocky, loud-spoken, sometimes dishonest, adult-aware little girl that I was.  I didn’t know life could be different; I didn’t know that I didn’t like myself.  This is, in retrospect, how I’ve determined that I didn’t then rank on the consciousness scale.

This changed, or began to change, when I was in sixth grade.  My first conscious moment was in Mrs. Sinclair’s sixth grade math class.  Mrs. Sinclair came around, clipboard in hand, to see if we’d done our homework.  I hadn’t, though I don’t know why.  Because I wanted her still to think that I was an exemplary student, with impeccable studently performance, I pulled out a piece of paper and listed twenty or so random numbers.  Mrs. Sinclair passed my desk, looked down at my paper, nodded, made a checkmark on her clipboard, and moved on.  As she continued zigging through the desks, I sat back and considered my actions.  I had the distinct feeling that what I had done wasn’t right.  I hadn’t lied, according to what I knew about lying. 
There existed a possibility that I might actually have come to each of those specific answers if I had done my work (though I knew it was a very slim possibility, like stumbling upon my homework in Borges’ infinite library), but I knew that this reasoning wasn’t fair.  And though I’d never been taught in church or at home about the morality of this particular situation, I knew that what I had done was dishonest.  Then, out of the blue, I resolved to never do it again.  But I was specific: I would never fake answers again.  This was the first time that I made a moral standard for myself.

In retrospect, that sixth grade moment was the beginning of my sentience.  I began to suspect (finally, finally!) that I was actually an independent being and was, consequently, independently responsible to whatever higher powers or laws or forces are at work.  This shouldn’t have been news to me.  My parents and my religious training had both taught me this for years.  Though I knew the words for this (agency, accountability) and knew the principle, I hadn’t been individually conscious of it.  Thus, age 12, I began to open my eyes and negotiate my existence.

The subsequent eleven years have been marked by moments as epiphanic and determining as that one.  I assume, too, that the rest of my life will be led the same.  The provocative thing about these moments of revelation is that the revelations themselves are rarely forward-thinking.  That is, they don’t typically focus their illumination on the truth of future situations.  For example, they aren’t fortune cookie moments with omniscient prescriptions: “Do this and you will always be happy.”  Instead, what I’ve periodically learned things concerning the way things are, about the way things or I have been.  The learning has future implications, of course, but the epiphany and formative bang to my frame of reference most immediately changes the way I see things and the way I look at what I’ve already seen.

Let me be specific.  The summer before my senior year my family moved.  We moved from our home on Long Island to another home, an hour closer to New York City.  Thus, my senior year was spent building one-year relationships with people who were fully settled in their high school ways of thinking.  This required some negotiation on their parts and mine.  I believe what I believe pretty firmly, and while the friends I had before the move had become accustomed to my faith and beliefs (and codes of conduct) over the course of elementary, middle, and high school, my new classmates were wham-bang introduced to me when we are all almost fully grown.

There was one boy in particular who didn’t like the way I did things.  (Or perhaps he just had a crush on me.)  I didn’t like to watch Jerry Springer with the other seniors in the senior lounge.  I didn’t go out drinking with the kids in my AP classes over Halloween.  I sometimes asked people not to swear or tell certain kinds of jokes around me.  I thought both that there was right and wrong and that we will be held accountable for our actions (the tenderness and rightness of them).  Mike didn’t particularly like these things about me.  One day, towards the end of the year, he said in clenched-teeth frustration: “Sarah, you’re narrow-minded.”  My mind reeled.  I knew that saying “No, I’m not!” probably wouldn’t effectively combat the assertion.  And, too, he might be right.

I’ve given this moment with Mike a lot of thought over the years.  He was, in effect, commenting on my frame of reference.  Though his objections to my opinions or lifestyle were based pretty exclusively on political and moral topics, he was saying that he thought my frame of reference, the cognitive structure through and by which I had up until then viewed life and operated, was inadequate.

This is the great movement of the post-Modernist era.  We are each, in our ways, supposed to acknowledge the limits of our understanding.  We are to suspect that we are each hypocrites and are constantly being undermined by our own false truths and conceptions.  I do this, too.  I continually remind myself of the possibility that I might fundamentally be wrong.  Yet, we and I must live.  (Or at least, that’s one of my life assumptions.)  I suppose then, that we do what I did in Mrs. Sinclair’s sixth grade classroom: we step back, view our actions and the thinking that fueled/allowed them, and triangulate.  Does what grows out of what we see and believe contribute?  How does it compare/correlate/relate to what our faith and our families (those we respect and love) teach or believe?  Is it Good?  Does it hurt others?  If we continue, will it hurt others?

And, depending upon the answers, we open our view, expand or shift or refine our thinking, become more sentient, more aware of the fallout and the wake we leave behind us.  Our frames of reference turn, pivot, become reinforced, and we change.

I view the world through the lenses of my faith, my upbringing, and my own amateur though (v/r)igorous calculating and inspection.  I see the world as a place that can and should be shaped by our best efforts to think and to use that thinking to lift and build.  I know that while multiple seemingly contradictory truths are possible, Truth is also real.  It is available to us when our eyes are open.  That’s the task of this living: to take every opportunity to open our eyes, find Truth, and use our individual experiences with that Truth to change the world.

At least, I think so.

Sarah's Frame of Reference: Draft I

The following is a draft of a paper I wrote for my Whole Systems Thinking class, Spring 2004.  The assignment was to explain my frame of reference, or a description of the way I view the world and what has formed that way. 
I thought including this draft would be a good idea because (a) I've never shown people two of my drafts, side by side, and (b) it includes information, I think, that was left out of the final draft.  (And it includes some beautiful/true paragraphs about my parents and grandparents.  Some first attempts at codifying the people who made me.)
The draftiness may explain its lack of a satisfying conclusion.  We hope.
I was raised by parents who were raised by parents who were, in turn, raised by parents.  Each of us makes decisions about the world, ourselves, God, and each other, and consequently raise children from a particular viewpoint.  Thus, I think it would be helpful to meet my parents and, briefly, their parents, in order that my own thinking might be contextualized and clarified. 
My parents change the world everyday.  My mother believes in doing things, in getting things done.  If she sees a need, she fills it.  If a bathroom needs to be cleaned, she’ll clean it.  If someone needs an accompanist, she’ll play.  If the community needs a library, she’ll contact her congressman, engage my family in a door-to-door grass roots campaign, and convince the neighborhood to approve higher taxes and the formation of a library board.  If she passes an ugly, weedy, trashy street corner on her way to Costco, she’ll call the Queens Borough offices and find out what she needs to do in order to get it cleaned up.  Then she’ll round up youth volunteers, spend five hours on a July afternoon in New York picking up rusty beer cans and disintegrating cardboard boxes, and then cheer when the town sends a machine in to mow the newly de-littered corner.  If I tell her wistfully that I want, more than anything, to take harp lessons, she’ll work out the budget, find me a harp, find me a teacher, and wait to hear me play.  She’s a doer.  But she doesn’t bowl people over; they fall in love with her, think she’s wonderful, think she’s an angel, think she’s a godsend, and say yes to whatever help she needs.  “Do good in the world,” she writes in her weekly family emails.  “Do good, love God, and love each other.”

My father is an unfailingly gentle man, though when we moved the summer before my senior year and he was, after a few months, introduced to my new school friends, this gentleness was apparently a surprise.  “We thought he’d be strict, severe!” they said.  “But he’s so gentle!”  I wondered how my stories about him could have not communicated that.  He earned both a JD and a PhD, which he uses as a university administrator-professor, though he wishes he could spend more time doing genealogy.  He’s always had leadership roles in my church and has, consequently, never had spare time, though he has always tried to attend the family’s concerts, parent-teacher meetings, track meets, etc.  He belies most stereotypes of men and fathers.  I’ve never seen him angry.  I have heard him apologize.  He tells me loves me every time we talk.  He’s recently taken sole control over the family’s laundry.

My grandparents were the children of sheepherders, out-of-work handymen, and out-of-work food service men.  But my grandfathers went to college on the GI bill, one earning a PhD in Metallurgical Engineering and the other, an MBA and a degree in electrical engineering.  My mother’s mother was an RN (trained during WWII).  I attended my father’s mother’s graduation in the mid-80s—she finished her degree in History with a minor in Latin when she was in her 60s. 
I’ve been realizing recently that this is more than merely biographical information.  I am the children of my parents, who were the children of their parents, who learned, for themselves, that education and hard work can fundamentally change lives.  This wasn’t merely a post-War playing out of the American dream.  My grandparents each built lives, families, and careers because they believed that it was what God wanted them to do, what God intends for people to do. 
My parents do and are good for the same reason.  They are not gentle, warm, hardworking, and godly because it’s easy and part of their natures; they cultivate charity, patience, and habits of doing because they believe that’s what they need to do in order to improve lives around them and fulfill the measure of their creation, that is, to become the people they believe they are meant to be.
The question is, then, how this intentionality of purpose has transferred to me and to my thinking.  I operate everyday on the assumption that I have the ability—the freedom, the agency, the talents, etc.—to improve things here.  This assumption is fixed upon my belief that the world is shaped by what we do and, furthermore, that the world would be better off shaped in some ways than in others.  Thus, we need to be careful and conscious about how we (inevitably) use our influences.
My thinking extends further, deeper, and more elaborately than is explicated above, but I don’t want to rush ahead.  It’s important that I note that the clarity represented here is not, I don’t think, due to the prescriptive nature of this thinking.  I have, of course, been the victim of my own sloppy philosophizing (or sheer lack thereof).  I began life by blindsiding it, pushing ahead without consciously considering the people around me.  As a little girl, I indiscriminately lectured people, including my friends, my siblings, and, I’m sure, adults.  I’ve learned over the years, slowly and painfully, that I don’t know everything and that I’m not always right. 
But the growth in my thinking has been marked by an increase in sentience.  The last ten years or so has been a series of rolling-up-the-shades moments, each instance denoting a new inroad possibly bringing me closer to a life propelled by vision like my parents’.
The first such moment was in Mrs. Sinclair’s sixth grade math class.  Mrs. Sinclair came around, clipboard in hand, to see if we’d done our homework.  I hadn’t, though I don’t know why.  I wanted her still to think that I was an exemplary student, with impeccable studently performance.  So, before she came to my desk, I pulled out a piece of paper and composed a list of random numbers, including a scattering of mixed numbers and fractions (to make it look more plausible).  Mrs. Sinclair passed my desk, looked down at my paper, nodded, made a checkmark on her clipboard, and moved on.  As she continued zigging through the desks, I sat back and considered my actions.  I had the distinct feeling that what I had done wasn’t right.  I hadn’t lied, according to what I knew about lying.  I reasoned that there existed a possibility that I might actually have come to each of those specific answers if I had done my work (though I knew it was a very slim possibility, like stumbling upon my homework in Borges’ infinite library).  But I knew that reasoning wasn’t fair.  And though I’d never been taught in church or at home about the morality of this particular situation, I knew that what I had done was dishonest.  I resolved, age 12, to never do it again, to never fake answers again.  This was the first time that I made a moral standard for myself.
In retrospect, that sixth grade moment was the beginning of my sentience.  I became aware (finally, finally!) that I was independent and was, consequently, independently responsible to whatever higher powers or laws or forces are at work.  Thus I began to individually negotiate my existence.
This negotiation occupies the forefront of my thinking.  How do I love the people around me?  How do I show that love without making others feel uncomfortable?  How do I show that love without becoming treacly or artificial about it?  How do I keep my eyes open enough to see the world and others in ways that are healthy and contributing?  How do I gain clarity while maintaining perspective?  How do I know that I’m not deluding myself?  How can I know?
In the years succeeding the sixth-grade-math moment, I tightened my moral code, attempting to negotiate specific and tricky situations with greater conscience and consciousness.  I didn’t raise the bar indiscriminately.  I believe that though we are each obligated (morality) to choose our codes of conduct (agency), we should do so in conjunction with the wisdom of people we trust, preferably our parents and our spiritual leaders.

Just a midday Tuesday kind of thought.

1. My family is getting older, and quickly.  My 11-year-old sister called me twice this weekend, both times to tell me that she wears a size 8 shoe.  She left two voice mail messages, and when I called her back and the phone was handed to her, she said first thing, "I was wondering when you would call."  (And my even younger sister, Rebekah, the one who answered the phone, responded to my request for Rachel in a very college roommatey sort of way.  An "Oh, I know why you're calling because Rachel and I have already discussed this in detail, but I'm not going to ask you to talk to me first, because it is her call, and when she's done talking to you, she'll tell me everything anyway" sort of way.  She is eight.  I think.)
And now Rachel has a blog, which is articulate.  And not very much like the kind of thing a little girl who exclusively draws with crayon and likes to play games even though she can barely read would write.  (My point is, gone are the days of crayons and illiteracy.  She's a thinker--and a better writer than many of my high school students.)
I have so say, I love this.  It's new blood, new thinking, new Olsony life.  I'm excited to be with them again, talk with them, share what I've been reading with them, and try (with them and their adulty souls and brains) to negotiate solutions or approaches to the trickiness of our current intellectual and political lives in the American waterbed. 
I keep praying for guidance about fulfilling my civic duty.
I haven't seen the family since January.  This is 2004, it's July, and I haven't seen my family since January.  I'm not sure where we went awry.
2.  I love The West Wing.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

The Olson Family Exposed

Okay, I took another quiz. Ridiculous, ridiculous, but true. This girl, this lady who makes them and this site, I think she's a genius. (For lots of reasons, not the least of them being that the buttons you press to continue from page to page of each quiz say things appropriate to the topic. For instance, this one about a family: "You're grounded! Just Kidding. Proceed." All of that on one long blue tab button thingthing. Okay--that didn't really make any sense, so you might just have to go see it for yourself.)

This quiz is about the family, what our deal is, and what we're like. Below is the Olson family evaluation. (Let's just say--I love us. And it really helped that we don't ingest or inhale anything in the way of chemicals.*)

20 Questions to having a Better Family

Your score as a human being is 84.

This makes you like The Seavers.

This is actually the ideal score range. Right now I'm telling some 90+ user what a bunch of stifled self-denying WASPs his family is. Haw. But yours is actually the kind of family functional enough to take in a preteen runaway and send their anorexic daughter to hospice and still keep the kitchen clean.

We got the world spinnin' right in our hands, baby, rain or shine. All the time. We got each other, sharing the laughter and love.

Yeah, I bet you think you're so great.

*Except Flavor-ade.

Monday, July 12, 2004

(This Thought Sponsored by) Hugh Nibley

On Saturday night, my friends and I had a tribute party to Hugh Nibley. Hugh lives on the street next to mine, was even my next-door neighbor for eight months. I never saw him, though. Saw his head once, I think, old and white-haired and pressed against a southwest window. Word has it that he sleeps in a hospital bed in the front room. The front room light is always on.

Word also has it (from his daughter, Zina Petersen, my first English professor at BYU) that each morning when he wakes up, he swears because he's still alive.

Hugh Nibley is a legend. (We like to call him Nibbles.)

But on Saturday, during our discussion of Hugh Nibley, his teachings, his role in the church and in the world, we watched a little bit of an interview with him. During the interview he said this: "In this life there are only two things we can be any good at: repenting and forgiving. None of us is very smart or brave or strong or pretty. But we can become good at repenting and forgiving."

This has changed my prayers at night. I've recently decided--am deciding--that it's too hard to try to reconcile glorifying God and getting in a little glory for myself. It's too hard. I fail so often. If I do glorify God, then I take pride in that glory and glorify myself. But then, if I'm aware, I realize how poor that is, and then--wham, fail. And then, too, my efforts to glorify myself compromise the integrity of my real desires (which are there, but which aren't always the only things there) to serve God and love others. It's too hard to do both of those things.

I'd like, then, to only be good at repenting and forgiving. This doesn't remove from me the necessity to act in courage and faith, with verve and passion and planning. I still need to follow commandments, still need to develop my talents, still need to magnify (magnify, MAGNIFY) my calling and use my wit and brains and creativity to love the people around me and build the kingdom. BUT. But. It does mean that at night, when I pray, the only abilities I should be worried about having made improvements on that day are my abilities to repent and to forgive.

I'm not thinking I'm going to be good at any of this, really. Not the repenting or the forgiving or, especially, the giving up of my desires to be great, to be stunning, to be a star. But right now, on this Monday morning, in this office chair, the desire for exemplary repentance and forgiveness is here. Not exemplary, I guess. Just a good job at it. I'm practicing, too.

I'm sorry.
I'm really sorry.
I'm wrong.
I was wrong.
I will change.
I will try to change.

It's okay.
That's okay.
I'll be okay.
You're okay.
I love you (anyway). I love you anyway.
I love you.

And, too, the next time my plans to make God and me great at the same time explode all over me, that desire will, I'm sure, arise again. I'm just praying I can keep it close to me, keep it foremost, in the time between now and then. Til Wednesday, at least.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Beyond Myers-Briggs AKA I had suspicions...

I just took an online personality quiz. And it's the first one I've taken, really, that doesn't say, essentially, anything that personality tests usually say about me.

(Make special note of my apparent feelings about animals. I'm not saying this discounts the validity of anything else included.)

20 Questions to a Better Personality

Wackiness: 32/100
Rationality: 44/100
Constructiveness: 50/100
Leadership: 68/100

You are an SEDL--Sober Emotional Destructive Leader. This makes you a dictator. You prefer to control situations, and lack of control makes you physically sick. You feel have responsibility for everyone's welfare, and that you will be blamed when things go wrong. Things do go wrong, and you take it harder than you should.

You rely on the validation and support of others, but you have a secret distrust for people and distaste for their habits and weaknesses that make you keep your distance from them. This makes you very difficult to be with romantically. Still, a level-headed peacemaker can keep you balanced.

Despite your fierce temper and general hot-bloodedness, you have a soft spot for animals and a surprising passion for the arts. Sometimes you would almost rather live by your wits in the wilderness somewhere, if you could bring your books and your sketchbook.

You also have a strange, undeniable sexiness to you. You may go insane.