August 10, 2021

Without Thinking

We often hear about first responders, military personnel and others who, without regard to their own safety, run headlong into danger to help others.  And yet we don't often get to see it happen.  But to witness it first-hand makes a very strong impression.  Such was the case last week.

My family and I were enjoying sun and surf at a resort on the US Atlantic coast.  Suddenly, the cry every beach-goer loathes to hear rang out across the sand: "Shark!" The news spread up and down the waterline as the lifeguards began calling people from the surf.  Those in the water ran to the beach. And the curious on the sand (me among them) ran to the water.  A large shark had been confirmed nearby and the lifeguards on the beach were tracking its movement along the coast, raising the alarm as needed along the way.  We watched intently, wondering if we'd see it go by.

Then came another distressing call. This time we could see a swimmer nearly 100 yards off shore.  The individual appeared to be wearing a wet suit and carrying a fluorescent buoy--and seemed to be completely unaware of impending danger in the water. By this time a rescue patrol vehicle had arrived and a lifeguard grabbed a large surfboard and jumped into the surf, paddling strongly (but cautiously) across the path of the shark to the swimmer.  He escorted the swimmer back to shore and then stepped casually through the surf to the waiting vehicle.


Such seeming heroics are all in a day's work, apparently, for those dedicated to the safety of others.  But for the rest of us, their actions are worthy of gratitude for being there when we need them. 

November 5, 2020

Structural Integrity

I have worked with a lot of building renovation projects, both as the one drawing the “plans,” and the one overseeing the construction—often on the same projects.  One of the most common problems with renovation is the danger of unforeseen conditions.  We’ve discovered undocumented pipes hidden in walls and in the ground, multiple layers of interior finishes, and even had a contractor bore through an outdoor sidewalk to find out (almost too late) that it was actually a concrete roof over occupied (underground) space below.

But one thing that’s fairly easy to document, and yet something that can be a real concern when you start tearing into a building, is the location and configuration of critical components of the building’s structure.  Clients like to say, “Why can’t we just open this wall and make this room much larger?” Or, “Do we have to keep this post in the center of this room? It just gets in the way.”  When that happens, we’re forced to start using words like “load bearing” to describe the difficulty in simply eliminating certain walls, beams and columns. For the most part, clients understand; but they aren’t always happy with the cost associated with changing them.

Structural systems are what makes a building a building. Sure you don’t often see the columns, beams, trusses, joists, and footers, but they’re there just the same. And without them, there is no building. Structural systems are designed carefully and deliberately with just the right amount of mass, substance and connections to work together as a cohesive unit to hold the building’s shape during times of stress, be it internal shifts in load caused by movement and redistribution of people or furnishings, or external loads like high winds, snow, and even the occasional earthquake.

A well-designed structural system can be downright beautiful in its functional elegance.  Each component piece of the structure works with all the others, in its own place, to protect the safety and well-being of the building’s occupants.  Everything is there for a reason and contributes to the integrity of the whole.  Should a well-meaning designer or contractor come along and oblige a request from a client to remove a wall or pull out a column, the integrity of the structure could be compromised. In that case, the builder and the occupant may find themselves at the center of a pile of rubble. Or worse.



But if the same contractor took the time to assess the desired need and then find a way to work it into the structural system by (for instance) adding a column and footer, or a header beam to span the room, etc., it might be possible to achieve the same goals while preserving the carefully balanced structural integrity of the original facility.  To simply apply changes without considering how they might impact the whole of the structure is irresponsible, at the very least; and could even be dangerous.

This brief entry here isn’t intended as a lesson in structural engineering or effective project management.  As you’ve guessed by now, there’s a reason I bring up this important lesson.  Recently, as my wife and I have been taking an online college course that includes a detailed study of the US Constitution (and related history and context), it has become apparent to me that the Constitution is an incredibly and skillfully written document that provides a (here’s the word) structural framework for our governmental system that both protects its integrity and provides strength and resilience in the face of challenges—both inside and from without.  The more I study the Constitution, I’m in awe at how the Founders arranged and interconnected each component of government to achieve such operational perfection.

And like the structure of a building, the Constitution cannot simply be amended or ignored without extreme care taken to think through the impact of desired changes and build back into the processes a new structure that works perfectly within its existing framework and provides the same ability to protect the rights of each citizen as the original.

The US Constitution isn’t simply the latest in a series of ideas floating around the country as to what we should do and how.  It’s not a dynamic or “living” document that can be changed on a whim. Rather, the Constitution is the base structure of our Republic that makes our country the United States of America.  To dismiss it or change it into something else would mean America would cease to be what it is today.  And, like randomly pulling out a column in a building because it’s “in the way,” such an action would leave us all in the midst of a pile of rubble of what once was “a more perfect Union.”


April 23, 2020

A Different Kind of Holiday

My wife shared this phrase with me:

Even the strongest storm eventually runs out of rain.

There's no need to even explain the situation that prompts this post because if you're a citizen of the world in 2020 you're experiencing the same isolation, frustration and perhaps fear as every other person on earth.  I'm a week late mentioning Easter, but I found the following very timely, given our current state of existence.  I share it in the hope you'll take it in the spirit it was intended.  I wish you all health, safety and hope for a new world very soon.

That first Holy Week was likely a very disorienting time for the disciples of Christ. The death of their Lord probably rocked them to the core. And then, with Jesus' resurrection, the entire world was reoriented with a new reality and a sense of hope. Like those original disciples, this year's Holy Week has disrupted life as we know it. Our sense of control has been lost. As we hear daily about sickness and death, we're reminded that life is fragile.

And yet, this Easter, God has given us a chance to reorient our lives around that same sense of hope for the future. Let's not pray that "things get back to normal." Rather, let's reorient our lives around what is real, what is truly important, that life is a gift, and that every day is a treasure to be utilized for great purpose. Let us remember that the earthly relationships God has given us are precious and beautiful and fragile. Let's love the people we've been given to love today, not tomorrow. And let's say the important things in this moment, not assuming that we'll have another.

[Paraphrased from the beautiful Easter message by Pastor Jenny Smith, Mt. Carmel UMC, Frederick, MD, USA, April 12, 2020.]

March 24, 2020

Alone. Together.

There's a new hashtag in social media right now: #alonetogether  It's intended to capture the feelings of most of the world that find themselves in self-imposed (or government-imposed) isolation due to the Coronavirus Pandemic.  People are quickly finding out that we miss the one thing that makes us human: social interaction.

The good news, if there is any, is that we are all in this together. It's one of the few things (if there are any others) that I've ever experienced where nearly everyone in the world is facing the same restrictions and limitations.  For the first time I can recall, we all understand each other. And as bad as a dangerous virus can be, the societal lessons we're learning can only help us all appreciate what we have in each other.

We'll get through this. Hopefully we'll learn important lessons about how to live safely with each other, how to protect the vulnerable while maintaining our societal norms, and how to plan effectively for events like this one in the future.  A popular meme making the rounds lately summarizes it this way:

I, for one, will never take interaction with others for granted again.

February 13, 2020

A Zero Sum Game

Recently, I stepped into an online (Facebook) conversation wherein a group of users on a community page were sharing viewpoints about a fairly controversial topic: socialized medicine in the USA.  Frankly, when I say “sharing viewpoints,” the comments got a little heated, with people “talking” around each other and citing various surveys and studies to support their point of view.  Most of those commenting know each other and we all have to live in the same community. So all were polite, though insistent and a bit acerbic at times.

Some argued that a socialized system would make healthcare more accessible to all.  Others argued that, where such systems have been implemented, quality has been reduced or individuals needing help found themselves waiting for months for treatment—or both.  Then there was the topic of cost.  Nobody thought it would be cheap, but how much (and who pays) seemed a continuous circular argument.  In the end, neither side appeared to persuade the other; but the posts back and forth were quite entertaining, if sadly unproductive. 

To refer back to the title of this blog, I was frustrated that there seemed to be no “common ground” between the two sides.  The Facebook experience, however, got me thinking that, while this particular conversation was focused on healthcare, the topic could have been about any general good or service in our societal system.  And I recalled an economic adage we’d used as university facility planners, related to another controversial topic: parking on campus. 

We commonly explain the perennial complaint about campus parking as a triad of three choices within a zero-sum system.  Specifically, parking can be (1) plentiful, (2) convenient, or (3) cheap.  In the end, you can have two of the three, but not all three.  Think about it.  You can park outside your building, and there may be plenty of spaces available, but it won’t come cheap. Or you can have plentiful parking at a great price, but you’ll walk across campus to your office.  The alternatives are endless, with the goal being to strike a balance to satisfy as many as possible (or, as the pessimist in me likes to say, keeps everyone equally dissatisfied).

So, in an attempt to help find some common ground, I jumped-in and posted my own comment.  I said that, in my opinion, the economic triad of (1) convenience, (2) quality, and (3) low cost applies here. All three cannot coexist in reality; and the goal in the US is to strike a balance among the three.

The access problem in America, I added, isn’t one of convenience. Quality healthcare is relatively convenient in most of the country. The problem is that convenience and quality come at a cost—one that is unaffordable for some. I don’t disagree with that. But in a socialized system, inexpensive healthcare becomes less convenient or of less quality. My preference would be incremental improvements to reduce cost without reducing quality or convenience.

Perhaps the hour was late and people had tired of the online conversation, but that was the last comment made on the thread. Other than a “like” on my comment posted by one participant, no additional comments graced the page.   

I’d like to think that, perhaps, it's because we all began to realize that problems like access to quality healthcare aren’t easily solved through online arguments.  But the endless opinion streams on Facebook and Twitter remind me that many of us haven’t yet learned the lesson that, in order to reach common ground, you usually have to be willing to open your mind and walk purposefully toward the space between.

January 2, 2020

Community as a Human Necessity

"The opposite of addiction isn't sobriety – it's connection."

This is the premise behind a fascinating viewpoint on human relations and the importance of community proposed by Swiss writer Johann Hari, author of "Chasing the Scream" and "Lost Connections." In the former, he expands on this view as follows:

If you want to understand why so many people are taking painkillers, you have to understand why so many people are in so much pain--and psychological pain is as real as physical pain.
It is not a coincidence that opiate addition is dramatically higher in West Virginia--where people have lost their communities, their economic security, and their sense of status--than among (say) the student body at Harvard, despite the fact that on average Harvard students have much better health insurance and so would find it easier to get hold of prescription opiates.

The places with the biggest opioid crises are also the paces with the highest suicide rates and the highest antidepressant prescriptions--which help us to see that what is really going on is an epidemic of deep disconnection...

You need to feel you belong. You need to feel you have a future that makes sense. Our culture is good at lots of things, but we have been getting less and less good at meeting those deep underlying psychological needs--and this is the key driver of the crisis.

Hari has been interviewed on numerous occasion for TV and print/online media.  That's where I heard him speak.  He even did a highly regarded TED talk.  Upon hearing his hypothesized relationship between a loss of connection and an increase in rates of addictive activity in society, I found myself understanding more clearly how important it is for us as civilized humans to build on those things that bring us together, rather than the issues and views that seem to pull us apart.

As Hari says, disconnection at the human level pulls the individual toward the use of addictive substances.  At the community level, it also erodes the sense of belonging and foments pessimism about the future.  In a positive sense, however, finding ways to connect with others by seeking common life goals and priorities can only help build more healthy communities.

Families, schools, civic organizations, churches, social media, jobs and even the streets where we live provide opportunities to connect with others.  The simple act of getting to know your neighbors, for instance, and caring about their welfare is a good start. The activity of building those connections and extending beyond ourselves, in turn, helps us as individuals to find meaning in our lives.

And all of this is a prerequisite for... reaching common ground.