The Pitcher Principle *)
On February 27, 2019 | 0 Comments

Gotong-royong, the Indonesian term for working on a mutually beneficial endeavor, is one that is often bandied about by Indonesian politicians but, too rarely seen in actual practice today. Nonetheless, it reminds me of the “Pitcher Principle.”

The oak shelf above the tableware cabinet in the dining room of my childhood home is where my mother displayed the best of the family’s modest collection of decorative plates and assorted memorabilia. The L-shaped corner shelf was high enough on the wall to stave the threat from children’s grasping fingers and the beveled grooves in the shelf’s two planes of wood permitted the plates to stand upright and prevent them from easily slipping.

The most precious item on that shelf was a large blue-and-white transferware pitcher which was brought to the United States in 1843 by my great-great parents, Thomas and Bridget McGlynn, when they removed themselves from the scourge of British-colonized Ireland. The pitcher was precious not only because it was one of the few personal possessions they had been able to carry with them (and which somehow managed to survive unbroken through the many decades that followed) but because it had been used to baptize their son, John, who was born in steerage on that weeks-long ocean voyage. Baby John lived only a few hours but in his memory, in each of the McGlynn generations that followed, a boy was given the name “John” and the pitcher passed down to him. As my father was the “John” of his generation, it was he who inherited the pitcher.

That pitcher became symbolic beyond family lore, however: it became the children’s communal piggy bank where we stashed whatever money we managed to earn together, mostly from selling chicken eggs and cucumbers, but also from 4-H prizes at the Richland County Fair. Over the course of the year, the two-quart pitcher would fill with coins and bills and every year, at the end of the first week of December, my father would carefully remove the pitcher from its place on the shelf and empty its contents onto the dining table for his children to sort and count, which he would then take to the bank to exchange for all paper notes.

The total amount in the pitcher varied from year to year but, when divvied among the kids each received somewhere around 14 dollars. (Note: While there are 10 children in my family, there were never 10 recipients because by the time the youngest child was born the oldest had graduated from high school and the next three children would follow in the successive years to come.)

For Catholics, December 8 is the day of commemoration for the Immaculate Conception of Mary, mother of Jesus. As a day of “holy obligation,” it is equal to Sunday and the faithful are obliged to attend Mass and refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God. Thus, as we were students at a Catholic school, the day was a holiday as well, and being close to Christmas as it was, it was always on that day my father would bundle us in the car and drive to Reedsburg—population 3,600!—for us to embark on our favorite adventure of the year: Christmas shopping for everyone in the family.

That beautiful porcelain pitcher with lilies painted blue…. I think of it now and what it came to represent:

  • Cooperation: We children had to pool our resources. Our parents might have allowed each of us to keep our own funds but had they done that the younger children would have been at a clear disadvantage. This created a commitment to each other and a fierce objective to earn the most that we could during the year for the benefit of all.
  • Service: When shopping for Christmas gifts, we’d go off in pairs, the oldest with the youngest, the second oldest with the second youngest, and so on—each pair trying to find the perfect gift for every other family member: siblings, parents, and grandparents. Our mission was to help each other and to be of service to one another.
  • Love: Because 14 dollars was a paltry sum if being used to buy 16 meaningful gifts, the situation demanded creativity and negotiation skills. Suddenly, we’d found an official softball that we knew Mark would like but it cost $2.25, or a record by Dion and the Belmonts that Kathleen would die for but it was $1.99… There was no way to buy these expensive gifts, even as a pair, without the help of other siblings—for which we had to cajole, barter, and bargain but the result of which was some of the best gifts ever given, all in the spirit of love.

And that is what I call the “Pitcher Principle”—a code of conduct that embodies those same elements. I think I found that principle in clear operation when I came to Indonesia more than 40 years ago. Yeah, they called it gotong-royong, but it was the “Pitcher Principle” for me.

As my father died some time ago and as I am the “John” of my generation, it might arguably be in my right to bring that Irish porcelain pitcher from the family farm to Jakarta as my personal and lasting keepsake but I realize now that the pitcher is merely a symbol and the principle is manifested in colleagues and friends who work tirelessly, but with joy and love, to build a better nation and a better world.

John McGlynn

PS:           For this rumination, I owe special thanks to my sister, Mary, who first came up with the term “the pitcher principle” and the key points it stands for.