Meditations on Talent and Triteness

Today was stewardship Sunday at church, that wonderfully awkward annual institution when we squeeze people in circuitous, subtle and uncomfortable ways to contribute more money. I'm a member of the Religious Services Planning Committee, so some of this duty fell on my shoulders. In our church (not sure if the terminology's the same in other UU communities or other churches), but we talk about contributions in terms of time, talent and treasure (the last being a very arcane and old-fashioned shorthand for money, the same way politicians talk about the cost of war in "blood and treasure").

I opted to talk about talent, because in a lot of cases, that's all I (we) can afford to give. Sure, I can run a service; sure, I can direct the choir; sure, I can make a necklace or two to contribute to the service auction; sure, I can teach Sunday school or read a story to the kids. It adds up to a lot of "sure"s, sometimes, and like my mom before me, I occasionally find myself overcommitted, in the way that people with a lot of competencies do by becoming the problem-solver of first resort in many people's minds (what I call "the curse of competence." I think I've written about this before, but if I haven't, I will soon).

Because I'm a big history nerd, and the Roman Empire is part of my obsession zone, I knew that "talent" also used to be a unit of money, but I didn't know how to work that into my speech. Enter the online Oxford English Dictionary. I have access, thank all the gods of grammar and etymology, because I'm adjunct faculty at a university. Otherwise, I could never afford the subscription fee to this magnificent resource. I still aspire to own the real deal, in print, stand and magnifying glass and all. But that's a someday thing.

As I accessed the database, I became acutely aware of the fact that I was starting my speech with something which I, as a former Freshman English prof and current writing Nazi, was about to employ the overused, exhausted, trite old chestnut of starting a paper with a dictionary entry. Sure, it's the mother of all dictionaries, not the American Heritage Dictionary or whatever crap they're stocking at the campus bookstore these days, but still. It felt pretty lame.

Until I got to the entry, and immersed myself instantly in the beautifully twisty path of language as a living, changing artifact of history. *Such* a cool story. The essay practically wrote itself. I've attached it below.

But the next time I assign a paper, I'm actually going to *suggest* going to the OED Online for a gander at some of the key terms. Not that they'll probably get half of what they're looking at, but still. I'm getting pretty jaded about what kind of education and world experience these college kids are coming to me with. Hopefully some of them will continue to surprise me from time to time, to keep me from getting snide.

Meditation on "Talent"--Stewardship Sunday--03/07/10

As we divvied up the subjects of time, talent and treasure among us at the last Religious Services Committee meeting, I jumped at the chance to talk about talent. This was a totally self-serving act, of course--I wanted to justify to myself and all of you how financially poor families like ours could contribute something just as worthwhile and valuable as a regularly donated amount of money.

But how, precisely, was I going to do this? It all sounds well and good out loud, but that little voice deep inside still whispers from time to time: "You can't cash a song at a bank. Reading a story to the kids isn't going to build the new church."

So it was with two of the talents that identify and motivate me that I started the search. To twist Descartes' famous statement slightly, "I am historian; therefore, I know weird stuff." What I knew from all those years of bible trivia contests in Methodist Sunday School was that, back in ye olden times, a talent wasn't just a knack for doing something, it was a measure of money. Exactly who measured what money how turns out to have been a matter of some considerable variation: between just two regions of Ancient Greece, it could be as different as 56 lbs. 14 oz. and 88 lbs. 12 oz., which when you're weighing money, is a difference worth quibbling over. Later on, it became a type of currency: the Babylonian silver talent was equal to 3000 shekels; the Greek talent contained 60 minae, or 6000 silver drachmae. Once it was standardized, a Mediterranean-type person could literally "count on" that money--it was "a money of account."

And that's something that folks want to have, the more the better, right? So "talent" came also to refer to a "wish, will, desire, or appetite" for something. In an Anglo-Saxon story from around the year 1300 called the "Travels of the Mind," we hear that, "[Th]an bigan [th]am tak talent / To wend in to [th]air aun land," or "Then started to grow the wish to travel in their own land." In a later play, one character says, "Yis, lord, I am at youre talent." But because money and envy can be the root of all evil, "talent" picks up the meaning of a negative wish; "ill talent" became interchangeable with "ill will," a much older Anglo-Saxon phrase frequently followed by the words "towards the King," for some reason.

But money isn't only problematic; it's also scarce. So "talent" also comes to mean a rare quality. English writer John Heywood wrote in his 1562 Proverbs and Epigrams: "The talent of one cheese in mouthes of ten men, Hath ten different tasts." Because English, and all European, culture revolved around Christianity at this time, and the Bible was newly accessible in English, Jesus' parable of the talents in the book of Matthew was in the minds of many. In this story, the talent in question is an amount of money, but most Christians believed that talents of all kinds--money, desires, and, the newest definition to develop, natural abilities--"were divinely entrusted to a person for use in their lifetime." As another 16th century author said, "They be the talentes that god hath lent to man in this lyfe, of the whiche he wyll aske moost strayte accounte."

It's finally at this point that "talent" comes to be associated with physical or mental abilities, either inborn or acquired through long practice and effort. But it's clear that these abilities still have status as a commodity that can almost be monetized. The author Cowper says in 1781, "Though Nature weigh our talents, and dispense To every man his modicum of sense," leaving the impression that our abilities could almost be placed on a scale opposite gold or silver, and hold their own in value. In fact, this church acted on this notion just last June, when my lifelong experience with choral music was given monetary value (much to my still-ongoing surprise) by the board's choice to make me choir director.

All this comes as a great relief to me, as I'm sure the end of this etymological journey does to you. And I'll be so bold here as to say that this is a congregation of many talents. We have members who can hold forth on topics from anatomy to zoology, and everything in between. We have artists who can work in paint or pixels, wool or words, beads or baking, satire or sympathy, all with the most inspired and inspirational of results. We have instrumentalists, gynecologists, physicists, gameologists and psychologists. We have a million ways to coax out a smile, from Chuck's chainsaw to Steve's fire sticks. And the smiles themselves are worth as much as gold and silver, shared freely and banked for a rainy day: Brenda's or Lina's smiles when they told us they were cancer-free; Helen's smile as Kim pushes her in the door; Geoff's smile at...just about anything.

These are our talents. And I believe they measure up to any treasure.

Choir loft-iness

Here's my second music column. The rented space our church community is currently using has a very open floor plan, with only the altar area raised by two steps, so there's no demarcated choir loft as you might find in a more traditional church building. Hopefully, the rest of this will make more sense for having that bit of info.
The church I grew up in had a choir loft. Come to think of it, most churches have choir lofts. And it does just what the name advertises: it makes the choir look lofty. They were set far above us mere hymn-slogging mortals, surpassed only when the pastor took that extra step above them into the pulpit. Not only was it probably good for their egos, but all the parents in the choir had an eagle-eye vantage point for giving the stink eye to their kids goofing off during the sermon.
When I was 10, my dad, the choir director, moved me up from children’s choir to sing with the grown-ups. Now I was the one looking serene and lofty on high, if somewhat shorter than the rest, when we stood majestically in unison to sing. And from that standpoint, I noticed something else about singing in the choir loft. Holding my folder correctly and watching my dad conduct us, I couldn’t see anyone down below. Quiet as the proverbial church mice, I couldn’t hear a pin drop out there, so we might as well have been singing to an empty room. I felt an unexpected freedom, none of the usual performance anxiety that went with singing to an audience. How they received the music had no impact, almost didn’t matter—we were, literally and figuratively, above them.
It took a while for that to bother me. I mean, come on, I was 10. But slowly, it did begin to bother me. Singing to no one certainly lightened the burden of seeing negative responses, but it took away all the joy of seeing someone else enjoy what we were doing. It severed the electric connection that musicians feed from, that circles back and forth, between artist and audience, until all of the people are swept up in the emotional whirlwind that makes music a potentially ecstatic experience.
It takes a lot more nerve to get up out of your seat, right there among everyone else, stand up in front of them and perform in full view. On their level. Perfectly positioned to receive not only the encouraging smiles, but the yawns and the flicks through the announcements in the Order of Service. The way artists perform in our congregation, we are on your level. Nothing lofty. You decide if it’s special or not. We see how you feel about our efforts.
But at the same time as that takes a lot more guts, and I want to give all credit to every singer or player who stands up in front of our small but mighty congregation, who takes that stand and gives of their gifts, there’s something about that level floor that says something about our values. We share all of our gifts on the level: our voices, our thoughts, our joys and sorrows, our messages, our responses. Our commitment to the belief that no one stands above anyone else, and no one ranks above anyone else. That flat floor, rented though it may be, is a potent symbol of the democracy we hold as part of our identity, and the basic equal humanity we believe in as UUs.
So be sure to look around the room the next time the choir performs, or Lina plays, or we sing a hymn together. See the emotions on everyone’s faces that music has inspired. Don’t let the choir hide behind their music—draw them out with smiles and nods. Let us all be swept up on the tide that rises from that lovely, level ground.

Musical Wallpaper or Musical Message?

For those who don't know, I got hired this summer by my church (relax, old friends--I'm a Unitarian Universalist, I didn't get hit in the head or anything) to direct the choir. I verified that they knew I had no formal musical training whatsoever; seems being in good choirs long enough qualifies me more than I thought.

So I'm an opinionated sort, and pretty early into the job, I decided to take a stand on a couple of what I considered to be definitional issues that had to be sorted if I was going to have any chance of growing the group past the current 5-singer (with another 5 or so occasional Sunday morning jump-ins who can't attend regular rehearsals, but sightread pretty well). I figured the best place to make my arguments was in a column in the monthly newsletter, and I'm managing an average of one column every other month. Not great, and nobody's really responded to them (at least with comments to me), but I'm articulating thoughts and standards I've had embedded in me by years of experience, but never really verbalized.

Since my dear friends, especially in FacebookLand, have been really good about posing thoughtful questions and comments, I thought I'd post these columns this way for broader exposure. Use/reuse/quote/scoff/argue to your hearts' content. This was November's column.

I can’t begin to say how exciting this month has been for the life of our church’s music program, though most of you won’t have noticed anything much yet. Our district’s ministers chose to include music leaders in their fall retreat at the Siena Center in Racine, and for two days we worked harmoniously to share strategies to improve the minister/musician relationship. Our goal was not only to open lines of communication wider and in new directions, but to build a foundation upon which both ministers and musicians can work to enrich everyone’s worship experiences.
Rev. Jason Shelton, composer and assistant minister for music from the 1st UU Church of Nashville, led our explorations. His energetic lecture style belied his southern roots, occasionally invoking an “Amen” from the audience, and we rocked the house with some barn-burning gospel hymns (it’s true—UUs can swing!). His unique perspective as both minister and musician helped foster discussions that built confidence in both roles. His central message was simple: Music can contribute a unique, irreplaceable perspective on the subjects we cover in services, and that planning is the key to making the most of this opportunity.
Jason led us through an exercise to demonstrate how the planning process can be turned on its head to great effect. Groups of ministers and a musician were given two choir anthems at random, then asked to design a service or two around the music. Letting the music guide the theme felt a little odd at first, but it didn’t take long for Linda and Rev. Armida Alexander of UU Church of the Lakes and I to start pulling threads together from our widely varied fields of experience. Before long, we’d found a way to connect two apparently unconnected anthems and develop a service that tied together mythology, psychology and social justice, complete with hymns and readings!
I came away from the retreat with new friends and fresh enthusiasm for the task before me, to help a bigger and better music program grow and flourish in our church. Most of all, I came away with a new commitment: to make our musical choices as thoughtfully-made and thought-provoking as every other part of our liturgy. Every act we perform in our meetings makes a statement about what we value. Our minister and the facilitators on our Religious Services Committee work hard to make this a reality every Sunday, but it can be difficult to juggle programming choices and subject matter, especially with guest speakers and special events! It’s going to be hard to keep, let alone grow, a choir if we just want them to “sing something pretty—it doesn’t matter what.” That statement, as well-meaning and appreciative as it is intended, effectively relegates music to the role of auditory wallpaper, adding no more to the service than the beautiful but mute banners we hang every week. Giving all our talented musicians a role in adding something unique to the week’s message tells them that their performance isn’t just a show, it’s an act with meaning.

The origins of a movie mystery

So I'm on the porch watching the boys in the paddling pool. It's another poor summer for us, with both of my summer courses getting cancelled for low enrollment, but even still, I'm from a family that's always thought, "Why buy a specific toy to play with when household objects have their own play value?" Case in point: one of my most memorable summer swimming experiences took place when my grandparents got a new chest freezer, and before the old one was carted away by the garbagemen, my grandpa removed the lid, filled the two compartments inside with water, and my brother, sister, and about a dozen neighborhood kids splashed around in a 6'x3'x3' space quite happily for an entire day.

The boys had two different squirt bottles, but the one that functioned with a hollow drawing tube has lost that tube, and now only squirts if held upside-down. This is too much work, apparently, so they took to just filling the bottles and shaking water at each other. Connor opts for an overhead dump approach, since he's half again as tall as his brother. Griffin shakes three or four lashes at Connor--then throws the bottle at him.

I watch this happen, and it suddenly occurs to me: I'm watching somebody make the same choice that's mystified me in movie context for decades. You know how someone fires a gun until the clip or revolver is empty, then throws the gun at the bad guys? By now, everyone in the theater just groans, if you see it at all anymore; endless ammo or reloads on the fly have been pretty much de rigeur since The Matrix. I've never understood how throwing the gun makes sense, or how anybody could be short-sighted enough to throw away the only weapon they have, in hopes of the possibility of inflicting, at best, a bruise.

Well, apparently, they're thinking like three-year-olds. Mystery solved.

An upside to Asperger's?

I've been trying to marshal my thoughts for this entry since this weekend, and although I'm sick as a dog with a summer cold today, I've decided to just brain-dump rather than wait for the muses (fickle bitches) to crystallize my observations into pure, poetic perfection.

Lake Geneva's an unusual place on a summer weekend. What most people imagine are the white, upper-class families who own summer properties in the area. This image fails to account for the Chicagoland daytrippers and their families, who can't afford to stay up here for an extended vacation, but flock to the beaches and parks with their picnic lunches for a budget mini-vacation, or the growing Latino population of the entire SE WI area (some put it at close to 20 percent in some communities). Many of those daytrippers are South Asian or Eastern European, so when you add in the local diversity, you get a much more cosmopolitan people-scape than one might've expected from Chicago's historic "Millionaires' Playground."

I took the kids to the park on Sunday, partly to let them run off some energy, partly to clear some air for Cam to get a little editing done. It was sunny and hot, and crowded with about a dozen large family groups grilling out at various stations around the place. From the bench where I tried to sit and relax (ha), long chunks of time passed in which I heard absolutely no English spoken at all, just a lively combination of Urdu, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and other linguistic textures. As a student of languages, a world traveller, and a bleeding-heart liberal with aspirations for a global utopia, it made me happy in my heart.

Now, Connor, with his difficulty reading social signals that comes with Asperger's Syndrome, views the playground as a place to play with someone other than his annoying younger brother, whether or not he knows them. Whether or not they invited him to play is similarly irrelevant, and I have to keep a close watch on him in these situations for a number of reasons. One, he can be a real pest--no social signals means no sensitivity to when he's worn out his welcome. Two, his idea of fun can be overly energetic, too rough, and frequently inappropriate in subject matter and personal boundaries. Like a kid with Tourrette's has words they come back to over and over, kids with Asperger's often fixate on certain subjects, both in terms of favorites (for us, it's all about the superheroes. If it's super, in our house, it's super) and preoccupations. Connor's been long a bit obsessive about romantic topics--kissing (and, by proxy, lipstick), marriage, etc. This is not related to his tendency to express his enthusiasm and affection physically with hugs; that's just the way our family is, but his issues lead him to take that to uncomfortable lengths. Most of his friends and family have learned to live with this, but strangers can be (rightly) uneasy on the receiving end of his energetic affections.

So when I see him inserting himself into a playgroup or family at the playground, I make a point of introducing him and me to them early on, letting them know that if he starts being more trouble than fun, they should let both of us know right away; it's not their job to put up with my kid's behavior. And that's what I did when I saw him playing with a Pakistani family and their frisbee at the park Sunday.

I'm not just jumping to conclusions here; I'm a pretty well educated observer of humanity. They were clearly South Asian, with the adult women in salwar kameezes (plural?) and relaxed hijab. I could see at least three mom/dad pairs in play, as well as a 20-something guy, an older teen girl, and a grandparent or two in the shade. And when one of the toddlers got stuck on the playground equipment, a plaintive "Mamaji!!!" rang out.

Anyway, Connor invited himself into the frisbee game which had started up among one of the dads, the 20-something guy, and a boy about Connor's age; a little girl no more than a year old or so was the field hazard, wandering in and out of people's legs without a care in the world. They later brought out a kite, letting him have a pass at running with the string, and generally playing really wonderfully with him. Griff was playing with his match in age, a little boy whose sharing skills were not quite as advanced as Griff's are, but they invented a cute little rescue game, where one would be "stranded" on the slide, and the other, at the top, would help "pull them up to safety."

I made myself known early on, and only intervened a couple of times: to make sure he wasn't hogging the kite, to advise him on frisbee technique which would keep the toy from winging anyone in the head, and to remind him to keep his cool when "monkey in the middle" got a little intense for him (he tends to take prolonged stays in the middle somewhat personally...okay, a LOT personally). Every time I asked the dad if they needed a break from him, he smiled and shook his head, insisting he was behaving well and they were enjoying him. At the end of our time there (close to when I could see they were ready to sit and eat), I reminded him to thank them for letting him play with them and their stuff for so long; he did, and they were as gracious as ever.

Now, what I'm describing is pretty typical of the way I was raised; when we'd travel for weeks at a stretch, first in my grandparents' station wagon, later in my family's motor home, my brother, sister and I got tired of each other's company pretty darn quickly. So whomever we found to play with at whatever campground we landed in that night was more interesting from the word "Hi." We grew up first in Milwaukee, a town that prides itself on ethnic (if not always racial) diversity, then in Whitewater, a little college town with a number of programs that attracted foreign students, especially from Africa and Asia. My high school was only 500 students, and of the students of color (probably about 50, at a guess), only 2 were actually African-American; the other black students were actually children of African faculty members. I learned about the special needs of black people's hair and skin when a South African Episcopal bishop and his family moved in across the street from us and had to take showers at our house, because we had softened water and the parsonage didn't. I had a year-long interracial relationship, and didn't realize it was one until four years later.

None of this is meant to be self-congratulatory. I'm just making the point that I'm the kind of parent who's pleased that 2/3 of Connor's best friends from school are racially different than him and none of them seem to notice much or care. And here's where the Asperger's thing comes in.

Asperger's Syndrome is partially defined by an inability to pick up on social signals, both emotional and even just attention-getters (like following other people's gazes to find out what's so interesting). So, while we deal with the hurdles of teaching why empathy is a good thing, and why some jokes are or aren't funny, and how to know when you're getting on someone's nerves or making them uncomfortable, we apparently DON'T have to do much to teach Connor to treat everyone equally or that appearances can't tell us much about the worth of another person or even that just because all the other folks around seem a bit standoffish toward someone doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them.

And, whether they know it (or like it) or not, everyone gets hugs. Probably more than they wanted.

I told Connor later that I was proud of him for playing so nicely with that family, and treating them with the same affection and respect (or lack thereof) he gives everyone. I tried to explain that, because of their skin color or the way their moms were dressed, some people might have assumed that they were people to stay away from. I got blank stares for my trouble, and he suffered the extra-long hug I forced on him. He didn't get why I was making a big deal out of it, I could tell.

And that's how I learned my first upside to Asperger's Syndrome.

Here lies the witch next door

From an ACLU newsletter:

"Veterans Win Right to Post Religious Symbol on Headstones

In response to separate lawsuits filed by the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed to allow family members to include a Wiccan symbol on the headstones of deceased veterans.

The ACLU has long argued that veterans and their families should be free to choose religious symbols on military headstones -- whether Crosses, Stars of David, Pentacles, or other symbols -- and that the government should not be permitted to restrict such religious expression in federal cemeteries.

The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of two churches and three individuals, including the mother of a soldier who was killed in action in Iraq in 2004. The National Cemetery Administration had previously approved 38 emblems of belief for veterans, encompassing a wide variety of religions, as well as symbols for atheists and secular humanists. Yet the agency had refused since the mid-1990s to act on requests by Wiccan families and clergy to approve use of the Pentacle.

Under the terms of the settlement, the Department of Veterans Affairs will add the Pentacle to its list of approved emblems of belief, and will provide Pentacle-engraved headstones and markers to the individual families who brought the ACLU and Americans United lawsuits."

The dead walk the earth...

By that I mean me, not some Shaun of the Dead/Halloweeny ref. And, in case you haven't been officially informed yet, I'm walking for two now (if you can do such a thing).

I'm also eating for two again, for about a week or two now, which is a vast improvement over the stretch of 12-14 days (it's a little murky how long it actually went on) in mid-ish September. Different pattern of sickness than with the Mouse -- instead of four months of 18-20 hrs/day, it was about two weeks non-stop, no break, nothing stayed put. Went to the ER three times in one week because of dehydration and because I was blowing through all the medicine they could give me. The stuff at the hospital was like liquid gold -- it costs so much it's tracked like a controlled substance. A script would cost $18.00 a tablet WITH our co-pay, $200 for 12, and insurance only covers 15 in a 30-day period, so it's actually more cost-effective to go to the ER. How retarded is that? By the third visit, the Sunday after the first Sunday trip, I was in serious ketosis; babies absorb calories from sugar, and ketones are bad, no matter what Dr. Atkins has convinced people.

And then, the following Wednesday, the storm cleared. I mean, I'm still sick every once in a while, and I'm still uncomfortably nauseated unless I take something every 6-8 hours, but as of now, I'm going whole days (I think probably 2 or 3 in a row now) without throwing up. It's beyond bizarre, and the hormonal peak is past. So...weird.

I'll see the midwife on the 10th, and I've got to get pain under control better; the muscle spasms and weakness caused a flare-up, and the usual regime isn't covering it. But otherwise, things seem good for now. Due date's mid-April.

I don't think I get it...

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This is all because of my name, right?

Based on the lj interests lists of those who share my more unusual interests, the interests suggestion meme thinks I might be interested in
1. eric carle score: 4
2. neil finn score: 3
3. raymond chandler score: 3
4. miss spider score: 3
5. story time score: 3
6. beatrix potter score: 3
7. gin and tonic score: 3
8. historical novels score: 3
9. angelina ballerina score: 3
10. split enz score: 3
11. leo lionni score: 3
12. sdmb score: 3
13. philip k dick score: 3
14. clifford score: 3
15. yummies score: 2
16. jane yolen score: 2
17. mummies score: 2
18. clifford's puppy days score: 2
19. david sylvian score: 2
20. western score: 2

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Sheesh, you put one sometimes-children's author in your list of interests, suddenly you're the freaking storytime lady at Mayberry Public Library.

Safety alert for parents

If you're a parent of a girl who's about to enter school, or is already attending school, especially if she rides the bus, PLEASE take the time to read this article. It recounts the rising trend of sexual assaults on school bus rides to and from school. It's in the Washington Post, which gives it a certain level of credibility, if not objectivity. The real concern which is left unstated by the writer is the simple fact that, if it's happening on school buses, where else is it happening that we're not hearing about? And the article specifically says that, because of "No Child Left Behind," schools are afraid of being designated as "unsafe," so they are deliberately not reporting incidents of sexual assault so they don't lose their funding.

Frankly, as a survivor, I wish I could tell them precisely how much more important these girls' futures are than their funding.