004: James Spradley On Clarity and Friendship

James Spradley: On Clarity and Friendship

James Spradley: On Clarity and Friendship


James Spradley: Clarity and Friendship

Michael J. Genevro
(Early 2003)

As I begin my career in writing, I find my thoughts returning to the life and work of James Spradley.

Late in my career in elementary education, I took a class on the anthropology of education from Professor Spindler at Stanford University. Professor Spindler's thesis focused on the role of education as the mechanism that societies use to pass on their culture over the generations. A large part of the class examined societal situations where there was a convergence of those social goals and values with the goals and values of the students. The class also examined societal situations where there was a conflict between the societal goals and values and those of the students. The former case led to a harmonious educational and developmental process; the latter case led to social breakdown and individual crises as the education system waged a kind of cultural war on its students.

Spindler's ideas influenced and reinforced much of my own thinking.

As a part of the class, we read books by James Spradley on anthropology and on its participant observation research model. As I read the books by Spradley, I was amazed at their clarity and coherence. Ideas flowed easily. The visual structure of the books supported the clear, simple communications.

For years as a student, I had read difficult, poorly organized, poorly articulated books. The authors of those books seemed to believe that it was their role to throw out random, chaotic, and often pompous thoughts. If the students could not comprehend the books, the students were somehow inadequate. "No pain, no gain" - and preferably lots of pain for a little gain.

As I read Spradley's books, I realized that the purpose of writing is to communicate - to communicate even complex models and concepts clearly and simply. The purpose was not to confuse and befuddle; the purpose was to elucidate and enlighten. Spradley's work was so refreshing, and the underlying assumptions of his approach became central to my later work as a technical writer and to my efforts in writing in the late summer and early fall of my life.

Years followed my work in Professor Spindler's class and my exposure to Spradley's writing.

Life experience piled upon life experience.

One of the defining friendships of my life occurred during my 30's. Through my church, I met Mike N., a husband, a father, a professional, a few years older than myself. For a few years, I knew Mike and his family casually. He and his wife attended our wedding. We saw each other on Sundays and sometimes talked.

Then, in his mid-30s, he experienced a recurrence of melanoma.

All of a sudden, our relationship changed. With friends, I organized a healing service for him at our church. He was amazed at how quickly I put together the service. I did not organize the service alone - I never act alone, but Mike was truly touched by the efforts.

In the ensuing months, Mike and I began to run together in the late afternoons. I would ride my bike to his house. We would run through the residential streets and parks of Mountain View and then have apple juice on the porch of his house with his young son.

Our conversations inevitably flowed into Mike's struggle with the deadly disease. He fought. Oh yes, he fought with everything he had in life. However, he did not limit himself to his own struggle. He had worked in an aid organization in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. He continued to collect and distribute clothing for the poor even during his battle with cancer. At the same time, he and a former college roommate set up a support group for melanoma patients. Mike became a mentor figure for some of the younger patients.

In the end, Mike died.

He asked me to organize his wake and his funeral. Once again, I did not act alone. It was so easy. Mike touched so many lives with his courage and dignity. All I needed to do was tell someone that Mike wanted them to help in his service; I never received a negative answer.

In the years that followed, Mike remained - and remains today - a constant presence in my life. I hope that I will face death with the courage that he displayed. I hope that I will live my life with the dignity and care that he embodied. I know that every minute that I have is a minute that Mike was never allowed to see on this earth, and I pray that I will be worthy of that gift.

What does all this have to do with James Spradley?

One night, I noticed a book by Robert L. Veninga at the Menlo Park Library - "A Gift of Hope: How We Survive Our Tragedies." I opened the book and read. Veninga's close friend and colleague was James [Jim] Spradley. They were both in the academic world. Each morning they would get together for breakfast.

Jim Spradley developed cancer about the same time as my friend Mike.

Jim Spradley died from cancer - too young - at almost the same time as my friend Mike.

Jim Spradley remained a living presence in the life of his friend Robert Veninga.

Mike remains a living presence in my own life.

Clarity, simplicity, dignity, courage, and friendship ---

I don't know what lies beyond this life. In my fantasies, I love the ideas of Socrates in "The Apology." In that dialogue, Plato recounts Socrates's vision of the world beyond this - talking with people and searching for the excellent.

I wonder if Jim Spradley has met Mike in the world beyond. I am certain that they would make great friends, sipping coffee in the morning and running among the clouds at dusk.