Saturday, June 28, 2008

Bait and Switch

At an event I attended recently a girl introducing her almost-completely bald father to a group of people mentioned (slyly but not cruelly) that her mother's first words to him, when they were young, had been "You have such beautiful hair!"

With the passage of time can't most everyone say, "This isn't the person I married"? I worry for my parents and stepparents sometimes, hoping and praying Mom and Dad won't have to experience divorce a second time, or my stepparents, each of whom was widowed, have to watch a spouse die again. I guess, even putting aside the divorce option, it's almost certain two of these four will lose a spouse to death (the alternative being to die together!) There's nothing we can do to stop that pain from coming, or to predict who, how, and when.

It seems naive and faithless - even if somewhat understandable - to give up on a marriage too easily when one finds the other person has changed. But other relationships may be different. When do you leave a job? a church? a friendship? How many of us get in life what it was we thought we were signing up for?

When things go 'bad,' what do you do with your hopes and expectations?

Inadvertent bait-and-switch situations happen quite often in ministry. It's particularly common for people to join an organization, go out and raise all their support, and finally make it overseas to join the team and ministry they had been dreaming of and telling everyone about, only to discover that even if (big if) their perception of what it was like had been accurate, it no longer is. The job situation changed drastically. The family with the kids the same age as yours? Now in a different city. The open doors for a ministry that suited you perfectly? Slammed shut. The new doors that have opened do not interest you or do not seem a great fit. Do you leave, or stay?

The book club I'm part of met today to discuss The Shack as well as to catch up on each other's lives. One member, I., had just returned to the States for a season after a couple of years overseas. We were so glad to see her again. But her home is in that other country, really, even though her team, country, and the needs of her family and ministry seem to change quite a bit from one term to the next.

There's one point in "The Shack" where the main character, Mack, is dealing with how frustrated he is about suffering and injustice, and discovering how deeply rooted are his ideas about what God should and shouldn't do/allow. It brings him face to face with the question of his rights. Do we have the right, for example, to be protected from evil? On what basis? God does deliver us from evil, but there are few promises on this account. When we suffer, Mack is told, we hide out behind illusory "rights," when God offers us relationship instead. It's "I am with you always, to the end of the age," not "I'm going to keep you safe so nothing bad or disappointing happens to you."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Talking Shop

Travel Plans

Yikes, two people more sensible than I am just realized that if I was telling people I was leaving town July 11, and arriving at my destination July 16, something was probably wrong. That complicated in-country itinerary my friends in SE Asia have been composing does not include a place to stay, etc. for the first three days I'll be there. Back to the drawing board!

Glad we (OK, they!) caught that now and not any later. It's funny, the guys in Asia have commented several times on how glad they are that I'm coming, that I'm so "on top of things," that I'm so organized. Organized? I laughed, and figured they would learn their mistake soon enough - so, my pride is not hurt by this strange mistake. But I do hope it doesn't make trouble for those who will be trying to figure out what to do with me between the 13th and the 17th, when my "assignment" really begins.

Gifts, Skills, Preferences?

This really is a treat for me, to do the coaching and debriefing and even get in on the writing and last bit of field work, without having to go through all the hard stuff that gets a team to that point. I'm so grateful, so glad that I'm most helpful doing the things I really like to do!

During ethnography training we usually go through a "skills spectrum" I invented to help individuals and teams see what their relative strengths and weaknesses might be, related to this particular task. Curious? Here’s my list. (It's not exhaustive, but detailed enough to be helpful.)

1. ADVENTUROUS: You love to explore, tend to be outgoing and social. You don’t mind talking to strangers and are willing to “get out there” and meet people.
2. FRIENDLY: You easily build trust in a friendship. People are comfortable with you and tend to open up to you in conversation.
3. FAITHFUL: You are solid and trustworthy, keeping your friends’ interests at heart, and persist in working through misunderstandings that may arise.
4. PERSISTENT: You are a determined person and will be faithful in keeping at your assigned task, even when success does not come easily.
5. QUESTION-ASKER: You are good at expressing your curiosity, even when this means asking questions that poke and pry a bit; you want to learn more.
6. ANALYTICAL: You can look at information that has been gathered and see patterns from the information; you are good at evaluating and analyzing these patterns.
7. INTUITIVE: You are a creative thinker who has a sense for how others are feeling and what they might really mean; you read between the lines. You form theories and look at the big picture.
8. WRITER/EDITOR: You are skilled and comfortable with words, enjoying documenting your experiences or helping others put theirs into words that communicate well.

I have whomever I'm teaching identify which of these skills they expect to enjoy or be most comfortable with, and which ones they expect to struggle or feel insecure about. I also tell them they are going to have to attempt all eight of these things, which are not just gifts or immutable personality traits; they are also skills a person can acquire, and they will grow in all of them. It helps though to know when a teammate might be scared or reluctant, versus excited and confident, so we can work better together and encourage one another.

Once you have a bit of experience under your belt, even in your weaker areas you may be stronger than someone else in their strengths. So, since I've been involved in projects like this for a good many years, I often end up having to teach and model and manage things I'm still relatively uncomfortable with - simply because under the circumstances, I can do those things as well as or better than anybody else who happens to be around. It's a drag. Often, I'm blessed by the chance to see my "students" quickly surpass me.

So... I wouldn't want to just do the stuff at the bottom of that spectrum and never have adventures, but I'm glad when I can stay out of the way and let other people do the groundbreaking, then show up once it's time to build.

I love to analyze and speculate about things, too - so joining in on strategy once the data is starting to really stack up is a lot of fun.

Interesting Meeting

On that note, here's something interesting that happened this week. Some of my old CP cronies sent one of their new recruits over to talk to me. He's going to be joining one of their agency's regional offices and hopes to do research projects from there. He's studied quite a bit of sociology and has been exploring missiometrics (missions statistics and measurements; although that's not his cup of tea - nor mine).

When I explained how and why we do ethnography the way we do he was totally tracking with me. I said, "What we're doing is exploring sociological questions, for missiological purposes, using anthropological methods." I can't believe I actually used that kind of language, can you? But he GOT it. He knew exactly what I meant. And he loved it, he thought it was great. How fun is that?

Christianity and social science have always gone hand-in-hand for me. It isn't always that way; this guy, for example, had professors who thought it was impossible to be a religious person and a sociologist. You have to keep the two really separate, they think. I can understand why social scientists might oppose missions and missionaries - though you'd hope they would ask a few questions instead of assuming we're all working at cross-purposes (no pun intended). It's also too bad when Christians and missionaries throw out social science without seeing how valuable and helpful it can be. It was great to spend an hour or two with someone who appreciates the connection.

The only part of the conversation that kind of shook me was when he was asking questions about CP, JP, OMF, PI - yeah, how are these names and entities related or not? It's awfully confusing, and I don't really like to talk about it. The website we have up now doesn't help much. Once again, I'm probably the best equipped to fix it. But it's hard to speak clearly when the reality is so far from clear. I thought our self-definition, 'teamiosity,' and sense of direction would have made some progress in the last year, but I don't think they have. Dang. (Again, LOVE my work, not so keen on the work environment.)

When I mentioned that CP was founded in 1980 my new friend smiled and said, "That's the year I was born!"

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

'Fourth of July' Roses

This rose is one of my favorite varieties - there's a gorgeous example at the memorial rose garden near downtown Littleton. If this site is accurate, I shouldn't have much trouble making one of these grow in my yard.

I've been thinking about getting one. Showed the roommate this picture and she was enthusiastic, too. Not sure what she will say if I point out how much space it's likely to take up and suggest we pull out the equally vigorous (but not very pretty) rose bush that currently takes over our front yard each summer. I don't think we have room for both of them.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Progress / Victory in Project Management

'Victory' for me means managing to do and not run away from tasks that others would either take care of for themselves without a thought, or have their spouse or secretary do, but that are huge and scary for me and there's generally nobody else I can ask. When it comes to making logistical arrangements, phone calls, etc., I'm on my own. It makes me feel like an idiot to be tripped up or stressed out by such mundane tasks, but there you have it: I am.

Today, though, was quite the victorious day:

1. I booked plane tickets for my next int'l trip. SE Asia here I come!
2. I got my car repaired (having broken off one of the side mirrors backing out of the garage!)
3. I made an appt. with my dentist to get my teeth cleaned and a crown put in.
4. I had a Skype "interview" with Steve in Europe, whom I mentioned before. He is overseeing a research and writing project which I'm eager to be part of.

Whew! There's nothing like the feeling of checking stuff like that off the list. I need to cultivate an increasing taste for that feeling! Sometimes I feel like such a complicated, hard-to-deal-with person. If I could avoid having to deal with me, I just might do it. However, this is not an option, so I might as well stop feeling sorry for myself, buckle down, and learn how to manage. Really, I like many of my traits. I can be a delight, a doll... but I am not so reliable as I'd like to be. Definitely a work in progress.

In spite of my fears, the delay in doing these four things did not carry the big cost they might have. Isn't the Lord merciful and compassionate?

1. The plane fare came in at about $1600 (not bad, considering it's a round-trip to Asia exactly three weeks from today) and the itinerary is much less brutal than it might have been!

2. The mechanic was able to turn around the car repair in just a couple of hours, and it cost less than $200. So, that went pretty smoothly...

3. The dentist says I need two appointments, but found time slots for me next Friday and July 9, so I can head overseas safely 'crowned.'

4. And the research project? I wondered if I was too late to get in on it or if it had morphed in one of the potential directions that would have counted me out (as the last project I pursued with their organization did). But no worries there. They DO need people like me, and the project still sounds like something that would capitalize on my strengths while also providing opportunities to learn and grow.

Moreover, this may be the perfect time to jump on board. J.E., a woman I greatly respect but have never worked with directly, just yesterday signed on as senior/managing editor for the project. She's working on writer's guidelines right now. Steve, the guy I was talking to, is leaving the country for a couple of weeks but he gave me J.E.'s contact info. I think she'll recognize my name and that I won't have to prove or explain my odd background to her - she's done a lot of the same kind of stuff, and we have dozens of mutual friends. I'm hoping to be in touch with her next week.

So, with all these things and others in good shape, I can go into the weekend ready to rest. I am teaching Sunday school this weekend, so there's some prep. with that but not a lot of stress. I just went over to the church to try out my technology and set up my classroom, so that's done.

I do need some down time. Have had precious little of it in June. Most months I'm pretty good at keeping my work week at about 45 hours. But in June, not a single day has passed in which I did not work, and often 10-12 hour days. So, one of my goals for the summer is to get a sabbath every week, regardless of where I am or when it falls.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

PowerPoint on Listening

Here's my first attempt to post a PowerPoint presentation on this blog. It's not a stunning PowerPoint by any means, but it illustrates something I'm passionate about and have written on... Anyone who wants to study or teach on this topic is welcome to snag any or all of this content. (Or maybe the takeaway for you is, hey, cool, there's a way to post and share PP slides!) Shane introduced me to it.

SlideShare Link

"Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch!"

"There's a saying," he said.

"Culture eats strategy for lunch."

Never heard that one before. Hmm. The man who said it was an entrepreneurial type and had been involved in starting a for-profit business development strategy in a very poor country in Asia - Bangladesh, I think?

Sitting down with the executives of the denominational mission agency with which he was associated, he asked how they wanted to relate to the new endeavor. "Oh, we're going to spin you off," the leaders said. Why would they deliberate distance themselves from this cool new thing? For its own protection... Because culture eats strategy for lunch.

What these ministry leaders had discovered - no doubt the hard way - was that mission agencies tend to operate according to a culture - and set of assumptions, practices, and expectations - which rarely meet the needs of a new business start-up, and may handicap it instead.

I've been wondering how far this principle extends. Seems like the greatest strategy can easily be destroyed by the culture in which it operates, if it does not accommodate and adjust to that culture - or find a way to get out of it. You have to pick your battles, after all.

How easy it is to get wrapped up in a plan, approach, project, or strategy without recognizing the external factors that will threaten or squash it - or shape and inform it. Just because you have a great idea doesn't mean it's going to work in its real-life context. What is it going to cost? How much time will it take? What is it competing with? Who will oppose it? Whose support is necessary for it to succeed? We could save ourselves a lot of heartache and disappointment if we honestly explored those kind of questions and responded wisely to obstacles and setbacks.
"Leaders don’t hide from the truth. The pain of discovery is the first step on the path to change. If you are going to fear anything, fear not knowing the truth about what’s happening around you." (Andy Stanley, The Next Generation Leader)

Monday, June 16, 2008


After saying goodbye to the folks I was working with during the training in Wheaton, I flew to Dallas for the Perspectives National Conference, something that happens every couple of years. At one point I found myself musing on the lanyards they gave us to hold our name tags. Huh. "Welcome to Irving, Texas" was printed on the material, over and over. That's weird, I thought. The guys down in Texas donated these for the conference then. It was at that point that I realized, hey wait, we ARE in Texas. Between the trips from and back to DFW airport, I only left the hotel once, briefly, to have lunch at Denny's with a friend. We could have been in any city in America (or somewhat beyond).

Having worked through two weekends in a row I'm planning on taking today off from unnecessary work-related tasks and let soul catch up with body. My first whole day off so far this month. How'd that happen?

The Perspectives conference was a bit overpopulated with people who like to talk, as my co-worker pointed out. Every plenary session went into overtime, every workshop included more audience participation that the facilitator might have been seeking, and there was a pretty constant buzz in the air. At times, I thought: we (including me) need to learn when to hush up and listen. Every thought need not be an expressed thought. But I did hear some interesting stories, and came away with things I can use as well as stuff to just ponder.

Among the reasons I wanted to attend this event were to get some tools and ideas for sharpening my teaching skills, and to meet or reconnect people who might be likely to invite me to their classes or events. I'm pleased with the results on both.

Ironically, one work-ish thing I may need to work on today is to start making travel plans for my next trip out of town. Yup, I'm going to Southeast Asia in July (Inshallah.) There I'll come alongside our two research teams to help them finish well. Since once team gets done several weeks before the other, I'll start with the first one, attend a conference for our company, then meet up with the second team. Looks like I'll be gone about a month. (It's nice to be single, healthy, flexible, and pretty much fully funded.)

Travel is not really my cup of tea, however, and making travel arrangements is particularly stressful and scary for me; I need to be careful not to put this off so long that tickets double in price. Oh, and brave enough to make the arrangements a bit more complicated so I can tuck in a visit to my pals in KL, if they are around. (Hear that, H's?) Hmm, need to get a visa or two, too; yikes! (I wish I ranked an admin assistant! It would be heavenly. But there's nobody to take care of me but me.)

For now, though, I'm turning off the laptop and putting it away. Go make coffee, and a nice breakfast. Read the paper, and spend some time in the Old Testament. Maybe I'll go for a walk in a bit, and think about laundry and lawn-mowing. Oh yeah, and today is trash day. Nice to be home.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Billy Graham, Training, etc.

Did you know Billy Graham came here to Wheaton to study anthropology? True. Seems he didn't finish though - a pastorate came up and he left school to take it, though he moved on to an evangelistic ministry before long. Friday I went and toured the museum at the Billy Graham Center. It was pretty good. Not all about BG; there was a good display on the history of evangelism in America, and quite a bit of religious art as well. But a lot of it unfolded the life and work of Billy Graham. Included a lot of video footage, pictures. I had to kind of laugh at the sort-of "So send I you!" charge at the end. Must have an altar call!

Made the mistake of slipping over the campus bookstore for a bit, on Monday. Too tempting! They have a great collection of works by some of my favorite authors, and the school also provides a home for some of their archives.

S., my colleague, friend, and this week, roommate - who is flying off to Asia for the summer on Friday - was sick all day yesterday with something like the flu; several others had it as well. And now I've got it. But I'm thinking my case is milder. I'm skipping morning sessions but don't anticipate having problems tomorrow when I have to teach all day.

Yesterday I showed the team members the 30-minute video we have explaining how team-based cross-cultural research works. They were psyched. Whew!

Thus far I've been providing training more 'informally.' Lots of emails the two weeks before we got here along the lines of 'what to expect.' Here, Q&A over meals, etc. They won't actually get most of the nuts and bolts until they are on the field but I'm going to do all the foundational stuff tomorrow. E. will pick it up from there when they arrive in SE Asia. He only has 48 hours with them. We've got a good plan, though. Helps that E. is brilliant, as well as patient and able to teach.

Almost certain I will fly out and join them on the field to help them finish well. Since one team finishes a few weeks before the other one, it may mean almost a month in SE Asia.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Questions of Passion, Purpose, and Personality

Meet My Friend…

Every time I’ve interacted with people from our organization’s headquarters I’ve been blessed to spend time with D. I really like D. and enjoy spending time with her, but I also tend to come away from our conversations with something good to chew on. One story she told a couple of us yesterday is a good case in point.

D. worked for seven years in a literacy program in Southeast Asia, but she discovered early on that she didn’t really care for that kind of work and wasn’t very good at it. She just didn’t have a passion for it. Yet she had a strong conviction that she was supposed to be there and was committed to stay until she felt a sense that she was released and called into the next thing. Seven years is a long time, but she managed to sincerely bless and serve her team and their ministry. Nobody even knew she didn’t like the work itself. She didn’t think there was any point in mentioning it, didn’t think they needed to know that. Strange, huh? Well, the last four of it she was in a role that was much more along the lines of what she had realized she DID have a passion for, so that must have helped.

Although she is currently in a role in which she is quite satisfied and effective, I didn’t hear any regret in her story about the years when that was not so much the case. Hmmm.

There are some things I’m not crazy about in my work environment. It is not what I want it to be, nor, I think, what it should be. But the actual work? LOVE IT. So how am I going to deal with that, to keep the tough stuff from draining the life out of me? I feel like I’m doing pretty well right now, but I’m not sure I’ve found the perspective or coping strategies that will keep me content even if the things that bug me do not change. I want to continue to explore that. That makes more sense to me, at this point, to stay, rather than sacrificing the work I love and am good at for something I care about less in a better work environment.

Staying Positive

But, I take that restless spirit with me wherever I go and it’s probably not generally a blessing for those who are around me! One thing I’ve been concerned about in spending this week assisting with our agency’s summer mission program (the Edge) is that I wouldn’t be able to keep a good attitude about things.

I’d probably better explain that a bit. While the Edge program works quite well to accomplish its goals using appropriate strategies [to give participants a taste of what it would be like to join the agency and/or do the same kind of stuff, by giving them a chance to hang out with, come alongside of, and serve the field workers].

But those priorities and that program design are a bit alien to me, and may not be sufficient for meeting the needs of the two particular teams we’re working together to field this summer.

Basically, since most of the teams are going into quite different situations, these guys weren’t recruited, screened, assigned, and prepared according with the grid that experience has shown is most effective for teams doing the kind of work they are going to do [sociological field work, through cultural immersion, participant observation, and ethnographic interviewing].

That doesn’t mean they won’t be able to do it. It just makes me nervous. I feel pressure to know how to equip them in the limited time we have. There are so many things stacked against them. There are also many factors working in their favor. So, I need to focus on the positive stuff.

I know my tendency to evaluate and think critically about things – often on the basis of insight and experience, but just as often based on ignorance or false conclusions – might get in the way. It might trip up or offend others around me. So, I want to make sure that especially for this week, I stay willing to put aside negative thinking and judgment. I want to dwell on or speak only what is helpful for building others up. It’s easy to say, a bit harder to do.

The line between critical thinking (a gift and skill) and sowing discouragement (um, a sin) can be hard to see. No doubt I cross it more often than I know. But I guess what I should aim for, as a critical thinker, is to be a constructive problem-solver. A troubleshooter who doesn’t just say, “Look everybody, don’t you see we’re in trouble?!” but who can work calmly to minimize the effects of that trouble.

I think of Caleb, in the biblical story we’ve often used to frame this kind of work. He knew the effect of his words and attitudes, the importance of following God wholeheartedly and not focusing on the ‘giants in the land,’ etc. He gave a ‘good report.’ Forty years after his team came back from exploring Canaan he reminded the leaders, “I brought back a report according to my convictions, but my brothers who went up with me made the hearts of the people sink. I, however, followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly.” (Joshua 14:7-8)

Passion and Purpose

I realized, in listening to D., that there is another reason why I might struggle with this. I just don’t have passion either for working with college students, or for short-term missions as a whole – even though some of the things I do really care about involve college students (and others) and short-term projects (as well as other kinds). And Edge is a program to send college students on short-term mission trips. So, perhaps it’s natural that I’m less excited about some of what is going on this week than others might be.

Perhaps, like D., I can find a healthy way to keep that mostly to myself. At least I can contain my low level of excitement about (some of!) what this program is about and not let it turn into apathy, disengagement, resentment, or hostility. And I need to make sure I notice and affirm the stuff they're doing well, which is a lot.

The other strategy that seems helpful is to focus on the aspects and angles that do stir and inspire me about what it is that we’re doing. What am I excited about? Among the answers are that I’m excited about seeing people everywhere – of whatever age and position – tapping into the gifts they already have, and developing new skills, as cultural learners. I’m excited to see people open their eyes and become curious about the world and the people in it. I want everyone to be able to look at the world through someone else’s eyes. I’m excited about teaching and facilitating people in that process. And I’m excited about the places and people we’re going to this year – not just the two teams I’m here to love and serve but many of the other as well. In many cases, these guys will have the opportunity to build relationships with people who feel marginalized and unheard. That is the kind of thing that can change the world, on so many levels.

A Matter of Personality / Temperament?

I am amazed how few of the folks leading the 20 or so teams we’ll be training this week know anything about the places and people they will be going to. (And that's just the leaders; team members arrive today). This seems like a huge red flag, but maybe it isn't. Well, for the two teams doing anthropology, this is definitely an issue. If they aren’t curious and interested in learning about the cultures now, if they don’t have that drive to explore and find out, they need to get more that way by the time they arrive in their host cities. Cultural learning is not just a good way to be nice to people and an antidote to culture shock, it’s the reason we’re sending them out.

For the other teams it might be a bit different. Most are going into situations where they will be working alongside long-term workers; it's more important for them to be biddable than curious. They all say they are excited! They are all thrilled to see what God does this summer! They have all rearranged their lives and raised thousands of dollars to serve! Why have none of them cracked open a book about or even Googled the cities they are going to, or learned to say hello in the appropriate language? It's astounding to me.

Well, how much of this is a matter of personality? We spent a good chunk of the afternoon yesterday going through a Myers-Briggs assessment. The group we’ve got is a fair mix of introverts and extroverts, with a lot of S's and some N's, but lean heavily toward F/J – which perhaps indicates friendly people who will do what they are told, not necessarily motivated to go beyond that in terms of learning or analyzing things. (Not a single one of the 100 team members who completed the survey was my personality type, ENTP.) It’s up to me to choose how I’m going to respond to people who are different than I am. May I have the wisdom to see their strengths and gifts and not berate or dismiss them for their inabilities, inexperience, or blind spots.

So far, I'll tell you, I really like these people - both the staff and the "students." And I’m in “committed to like and serve you, no matter what” mode, too. So, I’m not going to write anyone off. There’s still a danger that I’ll discourage or offend them though. So, you know how to pray. Yeah, for one thing, pray for your silly friend Marti to see and put aside her arrogance (and insecurities?) when they come creeping in!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Writing from Wheaton

Greetings from the hallowed halls of Wheaton College. I'm here to help train a bunch of short-term mission teams going out to about 20 places all around the world. My specific job is to serve and equip two team going to Southeast Asia for some cultural research projects.

Team leaders arrive today and their orientation starts tonight. Sunday, the team members fly in. We'll be together until leaving for the airport about 3:00 am next Friday.

More later...

Hmmm, just realize that with training going straight through the week and me flying out to a weekend conference when this is over, I won't get my first day off in June until - well, unless I adjust my work schedule when I get home - June 21. Not good planning, eh? Will have to look for some ways to 'sabbath' in smaller chunks throughout.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Annie Dillard, on Grace & Beauty

"... I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.

"The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there."

Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Word Games

Deb and I watched the national spelling bee on TV Friday night, live from Washington DC. I don't think I'd ever seen it before. Brought back memories, and not just of the spelling bees (in which I did well, but did not excel).

Happy memories... learning new words and coming up with sentences for weekly spelling tests in grade school. Parallelogram! Argyle!

Shameful memories... the way I lost my temper doing the same exercises for a high school class called Precollege Writing, which I felt was below me (teacher made me stay after class to talk about my attitude!)

Anxious memories... the pop quiz in seventh grade where we had to say which words were spelled with an IE, which with an EI? (Several clever kids figured out that the teacher had set them up so they alternated - but not me).

I'd still say these things are worth studying. But even by the time I had to take a spelling test to get into journalism school, such skills were becoming less important. Spell checking had come into its own.

So many languages are more predictable than English. Can you imagine a spelling bee in Spanish? Or Indonesian? Or Dutch? You could learn to pronounce and write any of those languages quite easily because they consistently follow their own rules. Not English. We have words like lagniappe and triptych, words derived from related languages that nevertheless have radically different spelling patterns. The only thing to do - if you aspire to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, that is - is get yourself a coach, and read a couple dozen pages of the dictionary every day.

The other day Deb came home from the store with a CD of computer word games. "Here," she said, "load this on your computer." I've spent a shameful amount of time trying to master the anagram game. It has strange ideas of what constitutes English and what doesn't. I had to turn off the sound effects... the animated jungle monkeys kept telling me, scornfully, "that's not a word!"

"Is too!" I'd whine back.

For example, from the letters NYCROA

I came up with:


But the program rejected CRAY, ROC, COY, YON, RACY and NARY ...

And, lest I think more highly of myself than I ought to, let me confess I didn't see (not in the 90 seconds alloted) RAYON, NAY, ANY, CORN, CORNY, ACORN, and YARN!

Picture: Champion speller Sameer Mishra with his trophy (which is a good example of a guerdon. That was the word on which he won the tournament, beating Sidharth Chand, who misspelled prosopopoeia).