Analyzing Excellence

It’s Super Bowl Monday here in New Zealand. In an hour or so, I plan to watch the big game with a buddy – a fellow American who appreciates football in a way that Kiwis simply don’t understand. While I know a number of friends will be cheering on the upstart Seattle Seahawks, just for today, count me among the legions of football fans who will be rooting for one player in particular: Peyton Manning.

By most accounts, Peyton Manning is having one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. Despite a nearly career-ending neck surgery two seasons ago, Manning set NFL records for both yards and touchdowns thrown in a season. Just last week he was named the MVP of the league. Naturally, these are remarkable accomplishments, feats that will surely catapult Manning into the hall of fame as soon as he becomes eligible for induction.

But what struck me about Manning’s monster season is the way that he achieved it. True, the man has a remarkable physical talent. But according to the Wall Street Journal, what sets Peyton apart from other quarterbacks in the league, and perhaps makes him arguably the greatest of all-time is the preparation with which he hones his craft. Of Manning’s preparatory habits the Journal notes:

Manning’s devotion to film study and game-plan ideas keeps the rest of the team up at night. He records voice memos with stray thoughts and sends them to coaches late into the night so everything can be sorted out early in the morning. “He’s really taking advantage of modern technology,” said quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. “You’ll get a message that says, ‘Let’s do this drill tomorrow; I think my left foot needs to open up more.’ I have my own ideas that he wants to do but he’ll give me that and I’ll say ‘Good idea!”‘  

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The anecdote above is all the more impressive after considering what Manning has already accomplished. His place in the temple of football gods is already secure. His records this season are forever gilded in the annals of NFL history. He has one Super Bowl to his credit. And yet Manning studies, dissects, and analyzes every aspect of his game until he has an abject mastery over the subject. This type of motivation is the epitome of true excellence – a relentless pursuit of perfection for its own sake.

To some extent, we are all limited by our natural condition and physical capacities. But what Peyton Manning demonstrates is that our preparation and work ethic are aspects of life that are nearly limitless. We can prepare. We can study. We can master the task or opportunity in front of us if we are simply willing to put in the effort to be excellent.

The Wall Street Journal article above calls Peyton Manning “annoying” in his preparation and habits. I think this says more about “us” than it does about him. The simple fact is that there are many opportunities in life to hunker down, work hard, and pursue excellence. But excellence is rare because it’s not often that people put in the work to be great. We choose the path of least resistance. We opt for short-term rewards at the expense of more fulfilling long-term gains. We settle. This doesn’t necessarily make us bad. It just makes us not great.

When the Broncos take the field in an hour or so against the Seattle Seahawks, viewers will be watching history in the making one way or another. Should the Broncos win, we will see, arguably, the greatest quarterback of all-time as he pursues the ultimate reward of his sport. If the Broncos lose, we will still be watching the greatest quarterback of all-time as he pursues the ultimate reward of his sport.

That’s the funny thing about excellence. When you’re excellent, it doesn’t really matter whether you win or lose.

Our Christmas as Immigrants

It’s 9:40AM on Christmas Eve here in Hamilton. We are seated in the surprisingly spacious waiting room of the Hillcrest Medical Centre. It’s a relatively small operation boasting some eleven doctors and two grumpy receptionists. The room is far from full so Gwyn is feeding Clark a banana.

Despite the inauspicious locale, all is well for our small brood. But with homeward and Christmas thoughts aplenty, I can’t help but recall the fact that the Savior of the world was born as an undocumented alien far from home. Given the special relationship between Jesus and immigrants, it occurs to me that we are doing something today that only a family of immigrants would do.

We are here today waiting to collect my medical records so that we can process our visa application before the Immigration Office closes at Noon for the New Year.

And we haven’t much time.

9:42AM

Naturally, the receptionist seemed a bit annoyed when I indicated that we would rather wait for our records than “pop in” later to pick them up. The Kiwi way of doing things, and the social good form, is to let things go for another day. “It’ll get done” is the mantra. No rush. But for us niceties aren’t an option. Time is of the essence. A late offer letter from my University, coupled with the need to have my passport renewed, have all conspired against us in retrieving the medical records we initiated for processing with this clinic nearly three months ago.

The receptionist, managing a busy office, wasn’t terribly interested in our story. Her glare was sufficient to communicate her thoughts on our situation. Which is a bit odd in retrospect since we were instructed by her colleague to follow the present course of action (viz., to drop off our records yesterday and collect them today). Good to see communication struggles occur in every relationship – even among colleagues.

But, as I mentioned, our situation today reminds me somewhat of Christ’s birth because the same predicaments that led Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem have led me and Gwyn and Clark to the clinic – inane policies of government they were obliged to follow – no matter how very pregnant Mary was.

In the end, they were as much victims of circumstances as we are today. I suspect they were met with similarly unsympathetic stares when making their pleas for lodging.

“Sorry, not much else I can do,” the receptionist says. And so we wait.

10:00AM

I’ve seen my doctor just now. As luck would have it, inexplicably, he never bothered to complete the forms of my medical exam. Different system here I guess. “Thought you didn’t need it completed.” And then the dreaded words, “Can’t possibly get it done before Noon.”

To be fair, his workload is swamped today, but after a bit of cajoling, I manage to secure a commitment to do what he can in light of our timeframe. “No Doctor, we don’t mind the wait.” The Doc means well, but it’s clear he’d rather not process many more of these immigration exams, doubtless preferring his usual lot of patients.

“Can’t promise anything. But I’ll try to get it done before lunch.” He adds.

It’s strange to be in such a position of utter dependence upon the competence (and at this point sheer will) of others. I’m quite nearly inclined to say that we are dependent upon the kindness of others, but I’m not sure that competence qualifies as a kindness for medical professionals. Back home, we might call this simply a duty of care.

The relation of this to Christmas is that Mary and Joseph were in a similar fix – not that we are in any other way comparable to the parents of the Christ. Even so, I can understand, now, the pressure they must have felt. The urgent need to find someone, anyone, willing to accommodate them. And the crushing feeling of being turned away.

10:30AM

Clark has grown fussy so Gwyn is taking him for a walk. The receptionist is taking morning tea back to the doctors. Patients and records be damned. In New Zealand, nothing thwarts morning tea.We have only an hour and a half now to make the trek downtown to the Immigration Office. Unlike “The Hunger Games,” the odds do not seem to be in our favor.

I suppose things could be worse. We could be awaiting news of a serious illness or saying good-bye to a loved one. Fortunately, we’re all healthy if not a bit sleep deprived. Still, it’s time to begin preparing for a less than ideal outcome.

I like to think of how Mary reached a point of meditation and zen about her own situation which was certainly more dire than ours.

Mary came from limited means. Surely rearing a son would be a challenge under any circumstance for her. This was doubtless made even more complicated given her engagement to Joseph, what with carrying a child that was not his and all. I suppose this might be a bit chauvinistic, but no matter how tremendous the blessing, a man still likes to know that it’s his child in his wife’s belly.

This makes her response to the Angel’s news of her pregnancy all the more striking. Then again, as we are learning today, what can you do when events are out of your control but ponder them? (Luke 2.19).

10:45AM

Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Only moments ago the Doctor came out, tight-lipped, wordlessly handing me a large envelope with the completed paperwork for my visa application. I no more had time to thank him than he turned away, back to the grind. His bedside manner leaves something to be desired. But it’s hard to quibble with a guy who delivers.

I don’t know that there’s a Christmas correlation for this outcome. Seems a bit different than having to birth a child in a manger. Given the two, we’re faring much better today. For my part, I’m just relieved things seem to have turned out alright. Perhaps that’s how Mary and Joseph felt, just thankful for a bit of shelter and some privacy.

10:55AM

I called a cab for Gwyn to drive her to the Immigration Office. By God, this just might work. As if on cue, the cab arrived in a matter of minutes. I’m inordinately thankful as I watch her pull away from the curb. Clark’s tiny hand does a small wave. We’ve been teaching him that, which makes me proud. Normally we’d all take the bus. But as the muse says, “ain’t nobody got time for that.”

11:10AM

Gwyn called just now. Our paperwork was delivered with 50 minutes to spare.

It’s a small one. But I’ll count it a Christmas miracle all the same.

11:45AM

To celebrate our good fortune, we had a Christmas Eve lunch at the lone Mexican taqueria in Hamilton, New Zealand. It’s conveniently located in the food court at the Centre Place Mall.

I had a burrito and a Diet Coke. The salsa was mild. The meat was shredded, and rather good.

Thoughts from the Waitangi Tribunal

 The Aramiro marae located between Hamilton and Raglan, New Zealand is a peaceful place. Surrounded by verdant hills, and craggy terrain, the marae structure itself is unprepossessing. In many ways, the humble building mirrors the selfless values of an ancient people that have long struggled to survive. Accordingly, the world seems very far removed here. The drums of war in Syria and frightful memories of terrorists attacks in a bustling city are all distant points on the horizon in so quiet a vale.

What brought me to this sleepy corner of New Zealand was a hearing of the Waitangi Tribunal. The Tribunal is a novel institution among Nations with significant populations of Indigenous peoples. For New Zealand, the Tribunal is the judicial body tasked with hearing Māori claims alleging governmental violations of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty of Waitangi is the agreement signed between Māori and the British ceding   The following is a brief description from the Waitangi Tribunal website:

The Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975 by the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975. The Tribunal is a permanent commission of inquiry charged with making recommendations on claims brought by Māori  relating to actions or omissions of the Crown that breach the promises made in the Treaty of Waitangi.

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For the Māori hapū or subtribes that participate in the process, the route to redress and the resolution of their claims is lengthy. It can take years to get a hearing before the Tribunal and years after the hearing to get an adjudication of a final outcome. The process may seem impractical given that there are quicker routes to recovery, including direct negotiations with the Crown. But the speedy benefits of one do not produce the same meticulous documentary process of the Tribunal proceedings. Whereas Crown negotiations get the money to the iwi faster, it does not necessarily record the painful history behind the dollars or provide closure. The Waitangi Tribunal attempts to do both.

One thing about the Tribunal proceedings that struck me as a Western, legal academic is how relaxed the rule of evidence are. The morning of the hearing, organized chaos ensued behind and scenes. My friends and hosts, the Greensil family, were feverishly putting the final touches on evidentiary briefs and guitar selections alike. The guitar numbers which had lyrics in English and Te Reo (Māori) were brief summaries of their family lore, offering their perspective of the Māori land confiscations that permeated New Zealand from the 1860s through the formation of the Waitangi Tribunal itself in 1975. Decades, even centuries of displacement was finally coming to a head and, to them, a musical expression of the moment seemed a fine way to present testimony of their family’s history.

What was remarkable in witnessing the scene, was the faith the participants had in the process. In America, I’m often cynical and skeptical about the ability of our courts to be impartial and to administer justice in a fair manner. But in the Waitangi Tribunal proceedings, claimants presented their interpretation of events before the Court without a hint of cynicism, as if expecting a fair hearing and an impartial outcome from the Judges rather than merely hoping for one. For my friends, the testimony marked the culmination of a life’s work for their family matron – an attorney trained right here at Waikato University Law School. This embrace of the process and the knowledge of how long it took the parties to reach this point made the event exceedingly beautiful in its own way.

My friends hail from Whaingaroa, an area of New Zealand containing the town of Raglan, a surfing haven famous for its black sands and iconic surf breaks. The town was featured in the seminal surfing movie The Endless Summer in which famous surfers follow the summer season around the world as the seasons change. Their iwi has long maintained a political separateness from the Tainui Iwi Confederation, a mega-iwi that seems to dominate much of Māori political affairs here on New Zealand’s North Island. Their district is said to always have been a separate political entity, giving the hapū in the area a unique, spiritual obligation to tend to the lands in perpetuity. Having been to Raglan a few times now, it is difficult to imagine a more sublime place over which to exercise such stewardship.

After the first few testimonies, the hearing gets a bit tedious, soldiering on through the morning, afternoon and into the early evening. Witness after witness presents the essence of their briefs, which have all been submitted to the Tribunal in advance. The presentations are supposed to be kept within certain time constraints but these are loosely enforced. The Tribunal seems to prefer allowing claimants to tell their story, rather than rigidly enforcing a schedule.

The pitfalls of such loose evidentiary rules and relaxed time constraints are obvious. The quality of testimony presented to the Tribunal varies widely. Some evidence, such as that presented by my friends, is well documented, packaged in quite professional briefs that have all been vetted by a small phalanx of attorneys. By contrast, testimony from others explored the finer points of possum eradication and proper techniques for re-seeding cockles. Where some claimants focus on the big picture of land confiscations, brutalities and oppression, others play small ball.

In all, attending the hearing was a much welcomed opportunity. As a would-be scholar, I try to maintain objectivity to the extent possible. But witnessing a hearing like this reminds me that what I view in abstraction has real world consequences for the people involved. For my friends, this hearing was about their lands, their home place, and their family. It’s just as important to them as our acreage in Oklahoma, our farmhouse, and my family is to me.

No matter where you are, history is a painful thing.