Tuesday, November 3, 2009

It's all their fault

Comes a time in a man's life when he must pause and take stock of his accomplishments. If fame and fortune have eluded him, he is apt to cast about for something or someone to blame. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, I can attribute my lackluster achievement in life to my ancestors. It's all their fault.

Gladwell argues that a man's cultural background largely shapes his approach to life and his odds for success. As Cassius should have said: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars nor in ourselves, but in our ancestors, that we are underlings." Gladwell devotes one chapter, called Rice Paddies and Math Tests, to showing that Chinese perseverance and mental agility can be attributed to centuries of rice farming, which requires continual effort and attention to detail. In another chapter, one unlikely to endear him to the Appalachian backcountry, Gladwell explains that many Southerners are noisy and emotional and violent because of their descent from irascible 19th-century herdsmen in the English borderlands.

Gladwell could have used my father's lineage to support his cultural argument. My father's family chronicles extend back to a German ancestor born in 1641. This earliest recorded forefather was a cowherd who settled in the little northwest German town of Stockse as a Brinksitzer, that is, a cottager with a small garden. In modern terms, he was like a laborer living in a modest trailer park. He found himself a trailer park sweetie and married. They struggled along and had a daughter and a son.

The son was unable to improve upon his humble origins by industry or by currying favor with the town burghers. So, with an eye toward escaping the Brinksitzer life via matrimony, he made a match with an old maid (31 years old!) from a higher rung of society. The old maid's family owned a large shop, probably for knife sharpening. (Grosskotners, they were called in the Lutheran church records). This attempt at social climbing apparently failed, because the son remained a Brinksitzer until his death in 1701.

Throughout the 1700s my father's family remained poor but respectable Brinksitzers. Then in the early 1800s, owing to a family scandal, the family dropped to the lowest rung of society and showed up in the church records under the label of Anbauer, which signifies a planter with no property or social standing -- a squatter, in other words. In 1852, my great-great-grandfather, eager to leave all this poverty and stigma behind, emigrated with his wife and young children to America.

America was a wonderful place for the Brinksitzer. In spite of the Brinksitzer's cultural weaknesses in social graces and business savvy, the Brinksitzer strengths of frugality and hard work led to steady advancement.

So, how should I view my life? I am the product of a long line of Brinksitzers and it is appropriate to measure myself against the standards of my Brinksitzer culture. Well, all in all, I feel that I measure up okay. I'm a pretty good Brinksitzer. I am frugal and work hard. While I may lack property and prestige, I am far from being a squatter.

But being a Brinksitzer has its trials. I am continually outmaneuvered by glib and crafty people at work. And I face the usual Brinksitzer obstacles to improving my standing in society. Perhaps I could revive the old family tradition and find an affluent 31-year-old spinster to court. It's got to work eventually.