Bigger Things

Water rising in the streets. Highways cut off. Neighborhoods turned into islands as their residents hunker down to shelter from the deluge.

We know this story.

Oh, not on the scale that Houston has seen and endured, to be sure, with its millions of people and trillions of gallons of water. But our own memories of floodwater are still raw and fresh, not quite four years old. We still recall the power of the storm.

We remember river channels moving and attacking from new directions. We remember south Longmont isolated and Lyons evacuated. We remember the rain, steady, unhurried, relentless, never seeming to leave.

And one thing more. That even as floods divided the city, they united its people. For a while, the usual controversies didn’t matter. What mattered was reaching out to the next guy, and the next, and the next.

The scale has changed but the impulse hasn’t. A storm focuses attention to an amazing degree. All at once, people line up to offer shelter, or supplies, or even a hastily assembled fleet of boats like a second Dunkirk. I can’t say all criticism or animosities were forgotten – among 300 million people, that may be an impossibility – but for a while, they were eclipsed by something bigger.

Come to think of it, that’s a timely word. After all, it hasn’t been so long since that was literally true as well.

Just a couple of weeks ago, much of the country took a break from what it was doing to watch a hole in the sky. For some, it was transformative as totality turned the midday sky into a magical darkness. Even those of us just out of the main path of the solar eclipse were transfixed by shadow, reflections, and the hint of sun still visible through darkened glasses.

Again, it didn’t lift us completely above our controversies and arguments. But it did seem to put life on pause for a few minutes, to make the contention smaller as we stood and watched together.

For a moment, the scale changed. And our perspective with it.

For a moment, our focus was captured by something larger than ourselves.

It doesn’t last. Maybe it can’t. The author Terry Pratchett once noted that “Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.” We still are different people with different views, and when that singular focus has passed, we still have to figure out how to build a life together day by day.

But we can keep that common purpose on a deeper level. We can remember why we come together in times of disaster and wonder.

Because your life matters as much as mine. Because we share a world bigger than any of us. Because it’s not just about ourselves, but about the others in this world who are just as worthy of respect and dignity and help – and that each of us is an “other” to someone, who may someday need an outstretched hand and an open heart.

We may each of us see the road differently. But if we’re striving for the same destination, to reach a place that lifts all of us up and holds none of us down, then we can travel together. It won’t always be a peaceful journey – what family road trip ever is? – but if we can agree that helping each other is more important than scoring points or revenging wrongs,  it will at least move us all down the road.

A hurricane makes it obvious. But storms move on.

It’s up to us to make sure something bigger remains behind.

Turning the Page

Gee, I might just live forever.

No, I haven’t been listening to the theme from “Fame” again. (“I’m going to learn how to fly – high!”) But I have been getting some encouragement from Smithsonian lately. According to an article there by Erin Blakemore, reading books lengthens your life – and the more you read, the better it gets.

This is an exceptionally good thing for us for two reasons. Number one, our home is practically overflowing with evidence of immortality … which is a nice way of saying that there are books shelved, stacked and scattered in every single room, including the garage. And number two, both Heather and I possess a mighty tsundoku —  a useful Japanese word referring to the “reading pile” that has yet to be whittled down. At the rate we accumulate volumes, we might just need the extra lifespan to imbibe them all.

The details? The article cites a study from Social Science and Medicine that looked at 3,635 adults who were 50 or older. After controlling for other factors, those who read books lived almost two years longer on average than those who didn’t. Those who read more than 3.5 hours a week saw the best effects. And books produced better results than either newspapers (apologies to my former co-workers) or magazines.

It’s not solid proof. But it’s a good suggestion that, like so many other aspects of life, what we emphasize becomes powerful. Push your body and you strengthen your body, as we’ve seen in so many Olympic athletes this week. So why shouldn’t pushing your brain make it stronger, too?

Of course, there’s a corollary to all that, too. If a person builds what they focus on, then we need to be careful what we focus on.

We haven’t done such a great job of that lately.

We live in a social environment that has become increasingly toxic. One where people listen less and argue more – if “argue” is even the right word, as opposed to “overlapping shouting.” One that encourages people to look at differences instead of commonalities, to close out instead of bring in, to form up factions rather than attempt the hard work of compromise.

In a world that reasons by volume, the biggest bullies and shouters look like leaders. Not because they’re right, but because they refuse to let anyone else occupy the stage. And the more that people buy into it, focus on it, imitate it, the stronger they become.

And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Change the focus and you can change the reality.

Kindness and empathy haven’t died. Hope and consideration aren’t extinct. Courage hasn’t gone the way of the VCR and the floppy disc. They may not get the 6 o’clock news, but they’re still there. And if those “muscles” get exercised — if we refuse to be bound by fear, if we push back against hate, if we actively reach out to each other at every opportunity – then they, too, become strong.

Curiously enough, reading can be powerful there, too. After all, books are captured memory. They remind us that this is not the first time hate and fear have run rampant. And they remind us that those forces have been overcome before, and can be again. That the fight may be never-ending, but it’s far from hopeless.

And if we’ve been willing to touch a multitude of minds on the page, live a hundred lives that were never ours – then just maybe, it might train us to be aware of the minds and lives of others in the “real world,” too.

It’s all in where you put your time and attention.

The choice may well speak volumes.

A Moment’s Attention

I came down the basement steps into a sea of garbage.

“Oh, Blake …”

When a 70-pound dog shreds two bags of trash, the results can be pretty spectacular. Especially when you’ve just cleaned the kitchen the day before. I sighed and set myself to picking up torn cardboard and old yogurt cups, faded rose heads and used Clorox wipes, aged contai…

Wait a minute. Clorox wipes?

Uh-oh.

“Honey, he eats wipes!” my wife Heather said when I relayed the damage. True; it had been just a couple of years before when he’d gotten into my sister-in-law’s baby wipes, briefly turning himself into the world’s most disgusting Kleenex box when her husband had to eventually pull them from the other end.

Off to the vet.

“Oh, Blake …”

That was the main theme. But the counterpoint in my head was just as energetic.

“Scott, you idiot …”

See, I was the reason those trash bags were down there. Two checks of Heather’s had gone missing during the cleanup; I’d brought the bags down so I could see if they’d been thrown away by mistake. Thankfully, I hadn’t been that clueless … not then, anyway. But I’d forgotten to tell Heather the bags were still there when I scrambled off to another round of flood coverage at the newspaper.

Which meant she had no reason not to put Blake in the basement as usual while taking Missy bowling.

Oh, Scott.

He’s OK, as it turns out. But a moment’s inattention almost proved very costly indeed.

We all know stories like that one. The lumberjack whose dropped cigarette sparked the great Yellowstone fire of the 1980s. The girl paying more attention to her text messages than her walking, who stepped into an open New York manhole. From the famous to the mundane, there’s plenty of examples where distraction had quick consequences.

Thankfully, the opposite is true, too. Attention can pay off big.

A lot of us found that out over the last several days.

Three years ago, the city of Longmont changed its flood map. The methods had gotten better; so had the tools. And on the new map, it was quickly obvious how much more of the city would be inundated in a so-called “100-year flood.”

Hint: a lot. But you knew that already.

It would have been easy to ignore, to say that the disaster was too unlikely, the measures too costly. By definition, that sort of disaster has only a 1 percent chance of happening in any year; other needs could have easily been seen as more pressing.

But someone – probably several someones – saw the consequence of a miscalculation. And began setting up new flood control measures.

It wasn’t perfect. Had “The Flood” come two or three years later, it would have found the city even more ready, with two major bridges over the St. Vrain replaced and maybe another stretch of Left Hand Creek done.

But I visited a lot of flood-stricken neighborhoods after the water hit. And I heard a lot of people sound the same chorus: the work that had already been done  kept a bad disaster from being worse.

“Whoever decided to OK that plan is well deserving of some major congratulations.,” one neighbor told me.

Focus pays off.

We’ve seen that since the flood hit, too. Most days, this city can be … shall we say, argumentative? While not necessarily a bad thing – it does mean people are getting a chance to say their say – it can also put a lot of grit in the gears when it comes time to take action. Any action.

But for at least five days, this area was almost supernaturally focused. A threat had come that didn’t care about sides or factions, and it found all of us ready to step up and meet it. And boy, did we.

Now that’s attention.

Distractions will happen. Mistakes will happen. We’re human. But if we can remember what attention saved and what focus allowed us to battle – well, maybe we haven’t stopped doing the amazing yet.

Sometimes the cheapest thing to pay is attention.

And I have the vet bills to prove it.