Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Curses and Blessings

This challenge of tracking the story of the Silver Bowl has been both my blessing and my curse. I started about ten years ago and have long since harvested all the low lying fruit. Now I am like a truffle pig snuffling out the last elusive bits, some of which may not exist anymore. It gives this trip a certain kind of edginess.

I start each day with the utter conviction that all my preparation is good for something and that today will be the day that I discover an utter gem, but the sad truth is that many days I end up not much the wiser. That is the curse part. The blessing is that I usually get all fired up simply by the quest itself, the single-mindedness of it all. It is all so different from the scattered way that I live so much of my life – a bit of time here, a bit of time there. Also, then on those days where I do discover an unexpected gem, then I want to run in little circles and fall on my knees like those football players who have made it into the end zone.

One of the challenges for researchers of Irish history is that in 1922, the Four Courts in Dublin, which housed a great store of documents pertaining to Ireland’s history, went up in flames. It happened during the last gasps of the Republic of Ireland’s civil war. The fight at that point was between those who were content with what they had achieved – severing most of their governance ties with Britain – and some others who still hung on to the dream of the six counties of the North joining them in one United Ireland. The ones who dreamed of having the whole enchilada were holed up in the Four Courts in a guerrilla warfare operation. It was Winston Churchill who gave the order to fire. Not his finest hour, but then he had been a bit of a wash up for much of the First World War. It was in WWII, a time when many people thought that he was past his prime, that he prevailed. There is hope for all of us.

An article in last week’s Guardian which I should have saved but didn’t, described two kinds of learning. One is the focused sort, the kind where you cram as many facts in between your ears as you can in the hopes of triumphing over the next exam. Then there is the other kind where you inadvertently stumble over some fact or understanding entirely by accident and it sticks to you like a burr to woolen trousers. Like Watson and Crick and the discovery of DNA. Not that I am in their camp, but it makes sense that the discovery was made in the midst of a tennis match by a thought triggered by watching the arc of a tennis ball. It also makes sense that the mind can only handle a certain amount of focused work before it begins to lose traction.

Each day, I start out with my lists. I have a chart of memorials of deeds that is now over 300 pages long. I have transcribed some in their entirety, done brief notes on others and some won’t turn out to matter at all. Since I can’t transcribe the hundreds of thousands of pages of parchment documents housed in the books they call tombstones, I have a system of indicating which items are probably going to be like the cream rising to the top. I like to start each day with the cream.

This is not a bad system, but along the line of Man plans... God laughs  I find that many of my breakthrough discoveries happen when I am intently flipping through to something like page 373 and deed #248548 when some twenty pages before it, I catch something out of the corner of my eye. Often, I do not even know what has hooked my notice. I am in some sort of table rasa zone. Sometimes, I can’t even recall the page that hooked me – only that something had jumped out  as I flipped past. And then, nine times out of ten, I actually find it and it turns out to be some piece of the puzzle that would not have revealed itself in any other way.

Partly it is true that the more you prepare, the more likely Lady Luck will kiss your cheeks, but there is also another aspect to luck. Some years ago, a researcher studying the topic paid a bunch of students, half of whom had self-identified as being unlucky and half as lucky, to read through a magazine that had been mocked up to look something like a Time magazine but which had been cunningly doctored. They were given the assignment of counting the number of pictures in the magazine. What they didn’t know was that there had been a few extra special ads which said: If you read this ad, go to your instructor and you will be paid $100.

The fascinating thing was that the students who found the ad were disproportionately the ones who had described themselves as lucky. Why did they find the ad? It was probably because at the same time as they were focused on the task at hand, they were also alert to what flew past in their peripheral vision. Woof. Woof. What else is out there?

And the guy I am writing about? He was often called Lucky Jackson because of how well he could call the sweet spot in currency markets. I am counting on it running in the family.

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