Wednesday, April 28, 2004

A Priceless Lesson on Teaching Reverence

If you've been reading this space for any time at all, you've perhaps noticed that I think of National Public Radio as a unique national treasure. In an era of increasing media fragmentation, we no longer all settle around the hearth and watch any of those Dad's Old Buick Anchors, Tom, Dan and Peter. Nor do we all read the same papers or get our news from the same websites. On the other hand, just about every intelligent, thinking, feeling American has NPR in common these days. It's slowly become our de facto common media touchstone, the only thing we've all heard, read or listened to along with most everyone else (with CNN maybe a close second, and the NYTimes probably, sadly, a distant third). Which gives it a kind of network effect--the more people who use it, the more useful and important it becomes, the more central an institution it is in our lives.

But that's happened for a good reason: the programming is brilliant! Every day, nearly hourly sometime, there are such marvelous, illuminating, thought-provoking ideas imparted, most with the kind of graceful literary brevity that's the mark of all wonderful communication of any kind. My favorite NPR moment this month occurred on the afternoon program Talk of the Nation on April 6th. Host Neil Conan was interviewing the author of a book on Japanese native and Seattle Mariner superstar baseball player Ichiro Suzuki. Not a topic that would ordinarily leave you expecting to have to pull off the road in order to listen more closely and take notes, but I did.

The author explained how Ichiro's dad, a serious Buddhist, purchased the young Ichiro the best, most-expensive glove he could buy at the time, to his wife's initial horror. How could you spend so much on a toy? she wanted to know. 'It's not a toy, it's a tool of education,' he calmly responded. And he taught his son to treat it as such, respecting it, oiling it regularly and otherwise tending to it as he might a central tool of his trade (which of course it soon would become). After having learned in childhood to treat his glove with so much respect, the author concluded his story, "it makes it hard for (Ichiro) to come into the dugout now, put it on the seat, and watch Brett Boone sit on it."

Faulkner once observed that if he were ever to write the perfect story, he would have nothing left to do but "break my pencil and die." I figure this story about Ichiro is pretty close to the pencil-breaking range. And it comes courtesy of NPR, simply the best and most important media organization in America. So even if you can't afford a Joan Kroc-sized $200 million bequest, please do remember them at pledge time. It'll be the best investment in literacy for the ear that you'll ever make...


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