September 22, 2023

Seeing Clearly

Late yesterday afternoon, my wife and I took our teenage daughter to practice, nearly an hour's drive from our house.  Shortly after leaving home, we found ourselves behind a school bus that stopped every few blocks to discharge students.  I found myself regretting out loud that we hadn't left even a few minutes early to avoid the delay.  When the bus finally turned and we were able to proceed on our trip, we descended down a long hill and into a narrow canyon through a heavily wooded forest.  The road winds along a river that is lined with tall trees.

No sooner had we reached the river and began the mile-long traverse along its banks, than my daughter squealed with excitement. "Look!" she exclaimed, "An eagle! A bald eagle!" My wife glanced out and said, "Wow! It's so close to us."  

We don't see eagles very often. In fact I've probably only seen a handful in the wild, though not without trying.  With my hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, I said I was sorry I missed it.  "No," my daughter responded, "It's still there!"  

So I glanced quickly to see the huge, graceful bird flying along with us (at 35 MPH) just 20 feet or so above the river.  It looked exactly like this photo (below) someone posted online.  It was beautiful.

My passengers enjoyed the show for another minute before the canyon road ends. At that point, the massive bird soared across our path and disappeared into the treetops. We continued on our trip.  Our in-car conversation about the natural drama we'd seen continued for another few minutes before it dawned on us that, had we not been "stuck behind the school bus," we would have missed that unique interaction with a legendary bird.  It turns out the bus experience we had regretted even as it happened was the prelude to an opportunity we'd otherwise not have had.

I recalled reading the memoir by late Dr. Wayne Dyer titled "I Can See Clearly Now."  The theme of his book is that all the things we experience in life--even (especially?) the negative ones--happen for a reason.  It sounds trite, but he shared examples of his experiences that, in the moment, seemed like setbacks and disappointments.  And yet, looking back, he saw clearly how they contributed to much of the good in his life.  In the book, he says:

"I wasn’t aware of all of the future implications that these early experiences were to offer me. Now, from a position of being able to see much more clearly, I know that every single encounter, every challenge, and every situation are all spectacular threads in the tapestry that represents and defines my life, and I am deeply grateful for all of it."

It's hard to live without regret.  It takes faith to accept things as the come at us daily.  But it's worth it, as you never know if there's a soaring eagle waiting for you around the corner.


August 29, 2023

Today's SMH Moment

Sometimes all you can do is shake your head and feel sorry for someone.

Quite often there are geese lining the grass strip along the banks of Baltimore's down Jones Falls waterway.  Their presence is a welcome bit of nature in what is otherwise a cold, concrete and asphalt environment. This particular section of the river (shown in my photo, left) is just outside our offices in the City's Inner Harbor area.

This morning the geese were there, and in numbers just like this photo from 2017.  At one point I looked out my office window to see a man walking along the sidewalk (shown just off to the right of the photo) toward the bridge in the photo.  As he walked, this grown adult human picked up stones and sticks and heaved them at the geese, yelling and chasing them mercilessly until every one of them had flown away or into the river.  Then, satisfied with his harassment, he continued his walk and disappeared into the neighboring streets.  

I wasn't sure how to process what I was seeing.  The geese were not in his way, nor were they bothering anyone, frankly. But he persisted for the better part of a minute--even crossing back on his path to throw objects at the last remaining birds.  It was disgusting.  From my glass enclosed perch 30 feet in the air, I was helpless to stop him. But unable to look away.  All I could do is wonder what must have happened in that man's life to create that kind of animosity toward completely innocent beings.  It's an attitude that's completely foreign to me.  And I hope I never understand it... just pity it.

I checked the river all day. The geese never returned. I hope they come back. 

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.