Posts Tagged ‘observations’

Thomas Jefferson is a fascinating character to me. I used to swallow everything he did wholesale: his beliefs about freedom, life and liberty, his inventive mind and his bent toward states’ rights. He was quite a Renaissance Man. When Becky and I went to the diplomatic reception rooms in the State Department last week, I didn’t expect to find my mind drawn to Thomas Jefferson in particular.

Thomas Jefferson painting at the State DepartmentThis image is interesting to me because, in an era of puffy-cheeked portraits, Jefferson looks a little gaunt. While George Washington took his dentures out for photos, requiring that the artist fill the cheeks back out again with cotton balls, Jefferson seems to have his own teeth. The artist also seems to have wanted to draw a connection between Jefferson and the ancient Greeks, perhaps suggesting esteem for a man he clearly put in the same category as Plato and Aristotle.

There’s also a Da Vinci feel to it, a connection I agree with. Jefferson was absolutely brilliant. And tall. At 6′ 1″, he was a head above his colleagues. As a result, he suffered from a bad back. So he drew up plans for an adjustable-height desk. The double hinge on his creation is remarkable. I could use one of these myself.

Jefferson's adjustable-height deskSo here’s a man whose day job is President, yet he can’t contain the ideas popping into his head regarding botany, architecture (the Jefferson memorial, for instance) and furniture design. As a leader whose primary strength is ideation, I can definitely admire a man like that! On my last flight, I sketched out designs for an expandable round conference room table. Perhaps I can find time to put my weekend warrior skills to work and build a prototype.

Yet Jefferson had clear blind spots. Let me give you a few. In writing the Declaration of Independence, he borrowed heavily from the big three rights hailed by the French: life, liberty and land. He and his subcommittee wanted a clean break from the land-owning aristocracies of Europe, but I’m not sure “pursuit of happiness” resulted in any improvements in the resulting culture.

I also fault his viewpoint on God and the world he observed. He couldn’t get past his logical mind to conclude that there might be such thing as mystery. A few years ago I read an account of Lewis and Clark’s exploration and lost a lot of respect for Jefferson, because of his flat viewpoint of the fantastic discoveries they made. Everything had to be explained. The fact that he made his own edited version of the Bible to explain away or remove the miracles sums it up for me. Sure, he was a product of his times, but he epitomizes the dangers of belief in the supremacy of mankind — our creations and our brilliance.

Jefferson was a complicated man. In laying out the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right, he showed a clear naive optimism in the goodness of man. And yet, in laying out a form of government, he and his colleagues demonstrated a clear understanding that greed and the raw pursuit of power would corrupt any government. Eschewing pure democracy as a form of evil, they instead set up a republic, built on the idea of checks and balances. I may not like some of the opinions expressed by our senators and representatives, and I might despise the extreme polarizing ugliness we’re seeing during the debt standoff, but as I sat in the gallery of the Senate chamber last week, I could see the brilliance built into our system that keeps egos and fringe elements in check. We can thank Jefferson for a lot of the thought that went into the U.S. government.


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Traffic is an adventure in a city of 10 million where there are few traffic lights. Many intersections have traffic lights, but most are turned off. Lane markers are suggestions. As I experienced in Dublin years ago, at different times of the day a street might have anywhere from two to five lanes of traffic as needed.

But there are rules. There is some unwritten rule about when to obey the traffic lights and stop signs that I never figured out. But a longtime resident of Lima shared with me one of the secrets of driving in Peru: the rule of first fender. If you can edge your fender in first, the other driver, no matter how big, will yield. And likewise, you yield to the person in front of you, even if they lead you by inches. Somehow they avoid hitting each other, for the most part. One time I watched a huge truck pull onto the curb and deftly squeeze between a light pole and another truck that had started to crowd him as it edged over. The first fender rule works pretty well in traffic jams, and it works in intersections when traffic is coming from two directions. My conclusion is that driving is hair-raising and entertaining until you realize you’re not just a neutral observer. It’s fun unless you take seriously the fact that your life is in peril.

In reality, it’s just your fenders in peril. I would never buy a new car in Lima. Our translator told us she plans to reward herself if she can ever go a year without getting a scrape or dent.

So we established that there are rules. As long as everyone obeys them and drives with aggression, the system works. But you cannot blink. If you lose your nerve, bad things happen. I would love to know how the following scene originated.

Standoff between bus and truck

A bus, caught in the wrong lane, faces down a truck

Our bus got stuck in a traffic jam on the way out of town, caused by a stalled van in one lane of the road. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a smaller bus backing down the left-hand side of the road. This bus had somehow lost his place on our side of the road — perhaps trying to pass the stall to the left instead of the right. Whatever happened, the driver apparently flinched and found himself forced out.

The only way to rectify his position would be to get some space in front of him to get his fender in on the bumper-to-bumper traffic on his right, where we were watching. So he kept backing up in quick intervals… only to have this giant Volvo truck charge the gap and slam on its brakes, its huge grill menacing the driver inches from his window. While the truck driver raged, the defeated van driver tried to calm him down and plead for space and grace. What a pickle!

So my takeaway was to work within the rules and never lose your confidence! I guess that’s a good rule of thumb for any cross-cultural experience. It’s certainly easier to observe as a dispassionate passenger sitting comfortably in a bus rather than from the driver’s seat.

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I’m going to post a series of stories from my experiences in Lima and Chaclacayo over the next week. I’m finally getting around to processing what I saw and heard.

For starters, a picture that sums up a lot of the differences between Peru and the United States.

Extension ladder, Peru style

Extension ladder, Peru style

First, some context. July 28 is National Day in Peru, a commemoration of the day Peru declared independence from Spain in 1821. There’s a law that every home has to fly a Peruvian flag. National spirit is enforced, apparently. As preparation for the holiday, many Peruvians paint their houses. During my week there, I saw painters at work in dozens of businesses and homes. Of course, some take a lot more work than others.

This was the scene at our resort, looking out the windows of our meeting room. The three ladders were connected to each other by a couple of pieces of wire around the rungs. Still makes me a bit nervous. We checked the window often, recalling how the apostle Paul one time had to interrupt his sermon to restore a man to life after he nodded off and fell three floors during a sermon. Christians always need to be ready to meet a need!

Anyway, for someone from a place with as many regulations and lawsuits as the United States, this scene looks incredibly risky. But it’s not like they’re not safety-conscious. There is a dedicated staff person holding the ladder, after all. Another time I observed from the roof of the hotel the trash pick-up routine. As the garbage truck made its way along the street, one person ran ahead to grab the trash bags and throw them onto the huge pile in the back while another stood on the heap while the truck moved, sorting and organizing to make room for more trash. While their systems are riskier, in many ways they’re more efficient than ours.

Imagine for a minute how this scene would be different in the United States.

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