News Articles

FIRST-PERSON: Better living through linear thinking

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–While Margaret and I were in Alabama for a short visit, I was interested to see that New Orleans’ plight is still being kept before the readers of the Birmingham News and USA Today. The only time I read the latter paper is when I’m out of town, it seems. Among other things, the Birmingham paper had articles on restaurants that have reopened and those that haven’t, while USA Today was running an editorial page invitation for residents in our part of the world to write a letter with their Katrina story. I’m considering sending mine.

Back at home, I sat at the table with a bowl of my favorite food and read the Times-Picayunes I had missed Monday and Tuesday. Whereas the papers I had read in Alabama had a little Katrina-type New Orleans coverage, the local paper was saturated with post-hurricane rebuilding stories. Welcome home. It’s the major fact of our existence down here.

One feature was calling on residents to be prepared for the next hurricane. They used to tell us that hurricane preparedness meant stocking up on canned foods such as Vienna sausage and potted meat, jugs of water and such. Occasionally, someone would add, “My daddy always told us to keep a hatchet in the attic,” in case they were stranded inside and had to hack their way out to the roof. Like there’s a likelihood of that happening, most of us know-it-alls thought, back then in the antediluvian days.

These days, hurricane preparedness is not about staying, but leaving.

Know in advance where you plan to evacuate to; have the phone numbers handy; call for a reservation as soon as the hurricane is in the Gulf; you can always cancel. Fill the car up with gasoline; stock it with snacks, water and whatever you require for emergency personal needs; plan your exit route.

In Monday’s paper, one resident advised, “Take all your blank checks with you.” She had not done that last August when fleeing Katrina. “It wasn’t so much that I needed all those checks,” she said, “but looters broke into my house and stole the checks. I had to cancel that bank account and start another one. That is so hard when you are hundreds of miles away from home and banks are shut down and phones aren’t working.”

The newspapers haven’t said this, but my opinion is that it might be helpful if you work crossword puzzles.

Back in the early days of World War II, the British were looking for thousands of citizens whom they could assign to cryptanalysis at Bletchley Park, the super-secret spying-and-decoding headquarters near Oxford. The question arose as to how to identify people with the patience and mental acuity to sit at a desk before a piece of paper on which are written jumbles of letters, spending hours and days trying to find the key to unraveling their message. Someone thought of crossword puzzle addicts.

They began running contests in various English towns to draw out and identify those who found this kind of mental exercise an enjoyable challenge. Soon after the contests ended, winners were visited by secretive government agents asking them to go to work for their country.

It’s all about linear thinking. “If I do this, that will change this, then I will have to do that.” Chess and checker players think that way. Pool players exercise that faculty to some extent, hitting the cue ball not only to sink the targeted ball, but so they will be positioned for the next shot.

I went to see “Word Play” the other day, the new documentary movie about crossword puzzles, those who compose them, those who work them and those who compete to work them fastest. Only the tiny theater at One Canal Place was running this film; I doubt if anyone is expecting it to compete with “Superman Returns” or the pirate movie. It was most definitely my cup of tea and I recommend it for puzzle addicts.

Jesus was calling for linear thinking when He asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul? And what shall he give in exchange for his soul?” If you choose this road, it will go here; choose that one and it ends up there; which is better? If you make the wrong choice, get on the wrong road, how do you get back?

My favorite food — I thought you’d never ask — is a bowl of cheerios with strawberries and blueberries and sliced fresh Chilton County peaches. Obviously, it takes a big bowl.

Almost every morning of my life, I eat cereal with strawberries and blueberries. More and more, we hear of the powerful health benefits of those wonderful foods. Now, I would eat them if they had no more food benefit than potato chips, but it feels good to know I’m doing the right thing for my body and investing in my health.

That kind of linear thinking is what gets me out of the bed early every morning. If I read my Bible and pray, it will make a difference in my mindset the rest of the day. If my mind and heart are right throughout the day, God can use me. If He uses me, He will be glorified, someone will be helped, and I will be stronger.

After my Bible reading, I walk a brisk three miles on the levee beside the river. This morning, as I write this, the 6 a.m. temperature is 76 degrees and the humidity is 80 percent. No one does this because they have nothing better to do. This is about investing in the future.

If I eat right and exercise my body, I will be stronger and last longer. I will go into my senior years — hey, I’m only 66; that’s still some time off — alive and alert, active and capable. As Psalm 92 puts it, “Full of sap and very green, fruitful in my old age.”

All around us are examples of linear thinking and illustrations of the lack of it. My father-in-law, J.W. Henderson, now in heaven, was a Greyhound bus driver all his working life. While we were in seminary in the mid-’60s, we would often meet his bus at the New Orleans depot and go to supper with him before he headed to his hotel and the return trip to Birmingham the next day. While sitting in the station waiting for him one evening, I picked up a booklet published by the Greyhound Corporation for their drivers that dealt with defensive driving. Essentially, that means thinking ahead. Where are the other drivers around me? What if that car pulls into my lane? Can that truck driver see me in his mirror? What’s over this next hill? Is that car behind me driving too close?

The driver who zigzags in and out of slow traffic at twice the speed of anyone else is giving no thought to what the other drivers might do. He is living in the moment, and if he keeps it up, he will soon run out of moments.

Linear thinking: a great way to live.

Some member of the McKeever family once paid a hundred bucks to get a copy of what was purported to be our clan’s coat of arms. A wild boar’s head sat atop the shield. We laughed at that, thinking of all the hogs we had raised on that Alabama farm and how many tons of bacon and ham we’ve probably consumed. At the bottom of the crest our family motto was inscribed. That brought a laugh too, considering the spotted record of so many of our family members. “Never unprepared.”

These are the days when living up to one’s family motto would probably be a good idea.
Joe McKeever is director of missions of the Greater New Orleans Baptist Association and a cartoonist whose work is featured at BP Lighter Side.

    About the Author

  • Joe McKeever