Sunday, December 26, 2010

Idiot Savant

If you haven't seen Temple Grandin, you should. If I could meet her, I would. She, and others with various types of savant syndrome exemplify our scientific ignorance. Incredible documentaries also exist of Kim Peek, the man who inspired Rain Man, Stephen Wiltshire, a man called "The Living Camera" due to his ability to draw detailed and accurate maps of cities such as Rome after only looking out during a 45-minute helicopter ride, and a host of others.

Wow. I wish they could see Boondock Saints II, as they could actually claim the line: "I'm so smart, I make smart people look retarded." But of course, they might not get it. Even better. Innocent intelligence. Almost an oxymoron in our culture today.

I tire of parents who constantly tell their child (and everyone else in earshot) how brilliant their child is. Affirmation is one thing, but overconfidence can kill character a lot quicker than insecurity. Encouragement is healthy, but cockiness is easily bred and hard to handle.

I never knew how smart I was until I taught school and learned that some people try very, very hard and just can't get it. I never knew how dumb I was until I went to law school and learned that some people don't try at all and always get it. I respect the ones who try; I envy the ones who don't have to. Sad, but true. I've discovered I'm somewhere in between: sometimes a lazy learner who gets things easily; sometimes a disciplined learner who never gets as much as I want.

Back to the savants. Kim Peek's parents were told when he was 9 months old that he was severely mentally retarded and should be institutionalized; instead he read (and memorized) the first 8 volumes of the encyclopedia when he was 4 years old. Science is awesome, phenomenal, and often way beyond our imagination. But science is not perfect, nor will it ever be. It is the quintessential intelligence, gathering and sorting information, but it makes human mistakes along the way. Because it is humans that translate knowledge. What we think are scientific absolute truths are only hypotheses we are able to prove by today's standards. The alchemists of old may be foolish to us today, as we may be foolish to scientists of the future.

Kim Peek was a megasavant, with the ability to remember virtually every page he ever read, every music he ever heard, every statistic he ever saw. But he could not conceptualize. He could not understand metaphors, as his mind worked on an extremely literal level. When asked what it meant to "get a grip on himself" he would grab himself all over. Apparently his brain lacked a core component that connected the left side to the right side, and the nerves that usually support such connection were scattered in unusual directions as a result. His mind made up for his inability to make connections and read nuances by remembering details. Like not seeing the forest, but seeing the trees in detail.

I like Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, that IQ tests only reveal standard intelligence levels, and there are many more types of intelligence, such as musical, kinesthetic, and interpersonal. When we judge someone merely by how smart they are, we are surely showing our own ignorance. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

Xmas Cheer

We Christians often bemoan the commercialization of Christmas, i.e, no one cares anymore about the real meaning; it's all about getting presents; Santa Claus is bigger than Jesus; it's sinful the way Christmas is all about shopping; they've taken Christ out of Christmas.

Yeah, well, I say look on the bright side. Jesus' birth is still celebrated, after 2,000 years. It's an annual reminder of God sending his Son to earth, humbling him to dwell in human form. It's an affirmation of a miracle. Many miracles.

But even more, I don't think I will complain about Christmas over-commercialization any more. When friends, media, and society in general who aren't Christians celebrate the holiday season of Christmas without Christ in their hearts, how does that harm us? Isn't it actually incredibly wonderful that they associate (even subconsciously) the holiday of Christ's birth with giving gifts from the heart to others, making an intentional effort to spend time with family and loved ones, inspiring children to be good, spreading joy and hoping for peace? 

We should pray for their understanding, not curse them for their shallowness and hypocrisy. We have been forewarned to not be like the Pharisees who prayed only to be seen and honored by men. And yet are not our judgments of others often vocal condemnations given so that we are seen and honored by other "true believers"? 

Perhaps we should view Christmas as a modern-day parable offered to the world. Jesus said to his disciples "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside, everything is said in parables." Mark 4:11. We should count our blessings that we understand the fulfillment of Christ's birth, not criticize the uninitiated. We should pray for their comprehension, so they might share in our joy.

Jesus also told his disciples to "let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them" (Mark 10:14). Isn't Christmas a wonderful rite to bring children to Him? Perhaps we should care about young (and old) unchurched and unbelievers in the same manner as Christ cared about the children, loving them into understanding. Christmas is all about love, and we Christians should exude love regarding this holy holiday. Only then will people see Jesus in us.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Poor Camp

Recently, the girls and I were reminiscing about their childhood years, and how in retrospect, we are glad we had very little money during their formative years. We are certainly happy that we have more money now, as we love the benefits (travel, jobs we like, more choices, etc.).  However, there is definitely a blessing to being poor enough so that the rest of your life you never take things for granted, do not have a sense of entitlement, and know that true happiness comes not from things, but people. 
The girls developed the idea of Poor Camp. One week a year, their kids would relive aspects of their childhood:

  • have use of only one car; if you need the car that day, then take Dad to work
  • no soda or "fun food" in the house
  • lots of pinto beans and hamburger meat
  • go shopping at the grocery store that only carries generic canned food (not store brand, but the white label type that say only "Corn") and sack your own groceries
  • use coupons
  • no cable TV or internet
  • go clothes shopping with a limited amount of cash, and go to Goodwill, resale or discount stores only
  • go garage sale hunting
  • no cell phones
  • make a Christmas or birthday present by hand for someone
  • make the wrapping paper out of paint and butcher paper, or use colored comic pages
  • cut a cedar tree for your Christmas tree
  • cook every meal; no eating out
  • swim in a tank or lake, not a pool
  • gather and cut your own firewood
  • buy cheap toilet paper and Kleenex
  • make sack lunches and/or picnic if away from home during the day
  • take free tours of any place that will let you
  • get books from the library
  • play outside
  • earn allowance by doing chores
  • play board games and Scrabble (without all the letters)
Character often develops through hard times. I pray I never quit developing character, even through good times.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Rare Sights

First-hand sights I'll never forget:
  • a coyote sitting atop an upturned round bale in early morning light
  • the devastation of the Murrah Federal Bldg in Oklahoma City soon after the bombing
  • a beaver crossing FM 708 leaving a wet trail from his tail
  • a lion fight

  • a starving fox in Leicester Square, London
  • a school of hammerhead sharks from a helicopter over the Gulf of Mexico
  • a complete double rainbow above the SD Badlands
  • green and blue icebergs
  • a grizzly annoyed by my presence on his river
  • a hawk with a snake in his claws flying overhead
  • the birth of my daughters
  • a meteor shower
  • crocodiles mauling wildebeest and zebra during their migration crossing
  • the Colosseum
  • twin beams of light shining in the NYC night sky in remembrance of the Twin Towers
  • a flasher's Mr. Happy in the Paris Metro
  • the Sistine Chapel
  • Masai warriors
  • the Great Theater where Paul preached to the Ephesians
  • the Marfa Lights
  • a lionfish scuba diving in Tahiti
I am so grateful for my eyes, so that I may see the good, the bad, and even the ugly. We live in a wondrous world!

    Saturday, December 18, 2010

    The Hollow Men at Dachau

    T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" (excerpt)

    Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
    In death's dream kingdom
    These do not appear:
    There, the eyes are
    Sunlight on a broken column
    There, is a tree swinging
    And voices are
    In the wind's singing
    More distant and more solemn
    Than a fading star.

    Let me be no nearer
    In death's dream kingdom
    Let me also wear
    Such deliberate disguises
    Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
    In a field 
    Behaving as the wind behaves
    No nearer--

    Not that final meeting
    In the twilight kingdom

    In this last of meeting places
    We grope together
    And avoid speech
    Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
    Sightless, unless
    The eyes reappear
    As the perpetual star
    Multifoliate rose
    Of death's twilight kingdom
    The hope only
    Of empty men.

    Good poetry says more than words can express. 

    Dachau itself exudes sadness, pain, loneliness, fear, conformity, cruelty, hypocrisy, infamy: the worst of humanity. But in the midst of all evil, glimmers of hope and love always exist. The hope that we never allow uniform hatred such power again. The hope that we remember the small (to us in our cushioned world, but huge in their oppressive world) acts of kindness and selflessness. The hope that we not only decry cruelty and discrimination by others, but hold ourselves accountable to never portray the same message, even if on a minuscule level.

    Just as the potential for unimaginable depravity exists in us all, the potential for courage, kindness, generosity, compassion, and empathy also exists in us all. We must choose, whether we want to or not. Daily, hourly. Be inspired to love.

    Wednesday, December 15, 2010

    Thanks, King Ludwig

    Fueling our castle fetish, we had to visit Neuschwanstein (above) and Linderhof. I was prepared to be impressed, but not sufficiently. These palaces are now my favorites, over French chateau, Scottish castles, and even Versailles. Neuschwantstein is far more beautiful than the picture postcards, being designed by a theatre set designer (no wonder Disney was inspired by it). Although nowhere near being finished, the rooms are elaborate, the views are spectacular, and there is even a walk-through grotto with stalactites and stalagmites! 

    Of course, you can read the travel reviews anywhere. So what's my point? Vision + beauty + implementation = awe. Yeah, maybe King L did go a bit bonkers. Maybe he wasn't a "normal" king. Maybe he did ruin Germany's independence when Prussia took over control. Maybe he did commit suicide drowning in the lake (or maybe his psychiatrist killed him). But he most definitely had vision, and that vision was beauty (not only that seen by the eye, as he was also patron to Wagner, who composed gorgeous music for him). And he did all he could to have his visions turned into reality. Probably, he wanted his reality to conform to his vision, but whatever. No matter that he was a solitary soul who didn't want to share his vision with anyone. The irony isn't lost that today Neuschwanstein has over a million visitors a year.

    But I am grateful to those, like King L, who have a dream and actually follow through on it as best they are able. Further benefits include that inspired people often inspire others to go beyond their limits. At Linderhof, King L had central heating (fireplaces below sent heated air through tubes to rooms above) and his entire dining table was a hidden dumbwaiter that  lowered to the floor below so it could be laden and raised back to the king's dining room. All of this in the 1860's.

    Amazing, beautiful, awe-inspiring, humbling. The closest I get to any of that is found in my best gifts to the world: M & A.

    Tuesday, December 14, 2010

    To Harry, or Not To Harry

    While briefly in London, we saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I at the Odeon in Leicester Square, where it premiered. Yes, we love HP. We have read all the books at least once, and seen all the movies asap (we agreed to save this movie until we were together to see it). Back when HP and the Half-Blood Prince came out, we voraciously shared it with friends on a cruise, when they purchased the only copy we could find from a small shop in the Scottish Orkney Islands. Since I taught English, I even used it to show students the differences in "translation" between the Great Britain version and our Americanized version.

    I honestly do not understand the argument against letting "our children" read the HP books. Yes, I've read their views, and heard their side, but really? Is the manic protection of children's minds against wizards and magic seriously an issue? And even if so, why is it so selective?

    How many of these same parents taught their children to believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and read them stories about Cinderella (the tame Disney version of course, since if these same parents had ever read the "real" gory Cinderella where her sisters' toes are cut off and eyes poked out by birds, they would probably banish Cinderella also). Did they ban C.S. Lewis' Narnia series or J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books? These also have rampant magic, wizards, imaginary animals and powers, struggles between right and wrong, and use children as intelligent, moral heroes. Did they ban science fiction, such as Madeline Engel's A Wrinkle in Time, Lois Lowry's The Giver, or even the TV series Bewitched?

    Don't get me wrong, I believe in censorship of what our children read. But we must be very careful and determine why we are withholding anything from our children. Is it out of fear and over-protection, or is it so we don't have to answer questions and open their minds to bigger ideas? When A was in 5th grade and flying through books so she could earn AR points, some of her friends read William Golding's Lord of the Flies. I told her she couldn't read it. Not forever, just not then. I was teaching it as part of my Pre-AP English I class, and although she could have easily read it and understood it on a child's level, I wanted her to wait to read it until we would discuss it in depth, and she could understand it on a mature level, reaping all the deeper nuances and allusions and truths. 

    When we read, it opens our minds to experiences outside our own experiences (within the safe environment of reality), and that is part of the joy.  Pirates, cowboys and Indians, princesses and frogs, and exotic travels into space or in time machines are not in our everyday lives. The stories allow us to explore, to learn about others and ourselves. Perhaps the problem is that we fear our children cannot distinguish fiction from fact. Some parents prohibit cartoons, based on their violent content. Really? I never once thought I could jump off a cliff and live, like Wile E. Coyote. I never thought I could shoot someone with a shotgun and water would run out the holes like Yosemite Sam. I never thought animals could talk, or witches flew on brooms, or cars could fly. Yes, I wished it were true sometimes, and would daydream about "what if", but that's the point! Even a child knows the difference between reality and fantasy.

    Further, good literature enhances our lives beyond mere enjoyment and entertainment: it challenges us to become better people ourselves. When we read, we put ourselves in the protagonist's position (or sometimes the antagonist's, like John Milton's Paradise Lost, where we identify with Satan), and we wonder what we would do in their shoes. Would we stand against evil, or take the easy way out and join the crowd? Would we be loyal to our friends, or put ourselves first at all cost? Would we face danger with the slight hope that we might prevail, or run away? Would we fight for the greater good, or only for our own self-interests? Would we risk our lives for anything at all? Would we stand against friends and family for what we know is right, even if they don't? Every one of these issues is addressed in HP. Every one of these issues is important in daily life. The more we think about what our actions would be and should be, the more likely we will act that way.

    No, I don't believe in Hogwarts, but we did visit Platform 9 3/4 King's Cross Station years ago. No, I don't believe in wizards or Mudbloods, but hatred and discrimination based on race definitely exists. No, I don't believe in magic wands and spells, but miracles abound. No, I don't believe in dragons, but they are mentioned in the Bible (Revelation 12, 20). 

    I don't want to be HP, but I do want to be loyal, moral, honest, and courageous. And I want my children to want to be that way too.

    Sunday, December 5, 2010

    A Sung Mass isn't all Singing

    I learned a bit more about Catholicism today. We attended a sung mass at Michaelskirche in Munich this morning. I thought that meant no sermon, but it apparently means there is more music than usual, but there's still a sermon. The homily sounded similar to ours (except in German), so I translated the usual encouragement, call for commitment, reverence and gratitude for Gott der vater and Jesus Christus. 

    But my special joy was in the architecture and music. Sitting in below-freezing temperature, watching the incense smoke lifting slowly to the barrel-vaulted ceiling, floating past beautifully gold inlaid sculptures and colorful paintings, hearing the angelic a capella choir behind and above in their loft over 30 feet in the air, near the incredible organ pipes (used to accompany the parishioners' singing), I was transported into almost-heaven. The overwhelming beauty mixed with the unreal devotion of about 1,000 people who weekly uncomplainingly brave the elements uplifted my heart. I felt in deep communion with people centuries before who worshiped here, and also with the older gentleman to my right who greeted me in Christus, and that was enough.

    I pray that my faith be always strengthened by beauty of all kinds, by traditions beyond my experience, and that I remember that God is often found easiest in the most uncomfortable situations.

    Thursday, December 2, 2010

    Airport Letdown

    Peremptory excuse for missing a few daily entries over the next 10 days or so is that I'm heading to London and then Munich and don't know when I'll get Internet access. Pitiful, huh?

    As for today, I'm a bit saddened due to the fact that I wasn't even offered a full-body scan, much less an invasive patdown. Dang it. M said it's probably because we're leaving Texas and we don't care what you take with you when you leave. So, maybe on the return trip....

    Tally ho and auf wiederschen!

    Wednesday, December 1, 2010

    Oilfield Trash

    Big fun yesterday. For the first time in 30 years, I got a detailed tour of a working rig.  This one was gas, whereas the ones I saw years ago were mostly drilling for oil. It's amazing how much technology has improved the safey and accuracy of drilling.  When I was on rigs back in the day (whether in Louisiana, offshore, or Texas), invariably the roughnecks were missing fingers and/or thumbs. Nowadays, everyone had all their digits intact. Hydraulics have replaced manual labor in many details, but thankfully, men are still necessary to run the rig. Real men. Men who have strength and skill and confidence. Watching them on the rig floor from the doghouse, it honestly is like watching great athletes or dancers; there is beauty in form, and music in rhythmic cadence. Everyone knows their roles and work together seamlessly, moving steel pipe of incredible weight easily. Well, they make it look easy, which is the hallmark of true competence. 

    In addition to wanting to be a cop, I'd like to be a roughneck.