Time To Find Them

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We have so many problems across the globe that should be addressed now rather than later, but so often efforts to do something are thwarted by political differences. We have a tendency to wait until something so egregious happens that we are forced to take action, often in a highly draconian way. It seems to me that we too often fail to use the highly creative talents of mankind that are no doubt out there stewing in some unexpected corner. There are great ideas in unexpected places and the people who have them would be more than happy to offer them, but they have no resources for making their inventiveness known.

I have a former student who is one of those individuals who thinks outside of the box. Along with some of his very bright friends he has proven his innovative mettle on a number of occasions. Sadly his ideas have languished in his mind simply because to actually execute them would cost money that he does not have. He needs investors but is not privy to the kind of wealthy folk who might be willing to make a slightly risky investment with their finances. So his brain just smolders with creative genius that goes nowhere.

Aside from landing a spot on Shark Tank the average Joe has neither the resources nor the wherewithal to even know how to bring an idea to life. I have little doubt that the history of the world is awash with books, inventions, and even theories that were never known. How many of these brain children may have changed the world if only there were an avenue for making them real?

I got an email from Salman Khan recently that intrigued me. For those unfamiliar with the name, Khan is the creator of Khan Academy, an online fountain of learning. He himself began by making little mathematics videos for the purpose of tutoring a relative. His efforts ultimately led to a worldwide phenomenon, but not before he had exhausted his own savings and found an influential patron who kickstarted his business when it was about to disappear for lack of funds.

No long ago I attended a speaking engagement at Rice University in which Khan outlined his own entrepreneurial history and his plans for the future. I filled out a form asking to be part of Khan’s email exchanges and was happy to see a message from him announcing a contest that he is sponsoring for young people ages thirteen to eighteen. Essentially he is looking for an unusually extraordinary methodology for teaching some concept. The winner of the competition will receive a $250,000 scholarship. The individual’s teacher will get $50,000 and his/her school will be awarded $100,000.

Something tells me that there will be some extraordinary responses to this call for ideas.  There is nothing like the possibility of a cash prize to bring a world of hypotheses forward. So I began to imagine just how many grand discoveries might be unleashed if we were to make such opportunities available to everyday folk on a regular basis. Think of the possibilities that we might explore.

We know that we need to develop alternative energy sources but we speak more of what we plan to take away from mankind than how we intend to replace what we need with viable substitutes. Why can’t we continually have national contests to find great minds and ideas wherever they may be? Who decided that someone has to live in Silicon Valley or work at a university or major corporation to be taken seriously? Think of the power of incentivizing progress by actively attempting to access genius, not based on grades, test scores or degrees but on real insight.

I know of a man who has been attempting for years to develop a windmill that would operate in a normal backyard, virtually taking the average consumer of electricity off of the grid. He has been unable to develop the buzz that he needs to kickstart interest in spite of great sacrifice and effort on his own part. Where are the kind of patrons he needs to keep his idea alive? Why can’t he be awarded funding to continue his work by some person, group, or government agency willing to invest in possibilities?

There was a time when artists, scientists, and philosophers were supported by those with wealth for little more than the germ of inventiveness. Nonetheless such individuals had to be somehow discovered, and then as now it was a matter of knowing the right people. We need to develop a conduit that will work for anyone in the world, a kind of marketplace in which problems are stated and individuals have the opportunity to receive support and funding for possible solutions. Instead of taking money from the wealthy in high tax rates, why not make it possible for them to get even better tax cuts by investing in research and development of new technologies and methods for industry and education in areas that demand attention. We need to make it easier for inventive souls and those with influence to connect, and it will take more than just a Kickstarter or Go Fund Me proposal.

Climate change is real and disasters related to this phenomenon are already bringing pain and suffering to people all over the world. Get the competitions going now for great ideas. Offer scholarships to young people who think out of the box. Fund the man who is so close to making backyard windmills a reality. Find the people with quirky but interesting hypotheses. Make it possible for individuals like my former student to connect with people who will understand the power of his thinking. Incentivize the search for ideas so that anybody anywhere might be the next titan of energy or the savior of the oceans and waterways.

We need more, not less of people like Elon Musk or Bill Gates. Such thinkers are all around us often quietly grasping the heart of what we need to do, but without the wherewithal to be heard. It’s time to find them.

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Inspiration

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I just got around to viewing First Man and I was once again reminded of what an incredible feat the journey to the moon actually was. The movie highlighted the primitive nature of the systems that existed back then making the accomplishment even more impressive than any of us imagined at the time. The movie’s focus was on Neal Armstrong so it almost minimized the efforts of thousands of individuals who made the event possible, and it gave only a brief nod to President Kennedy’s role in supporting the program and inspiring to help in the effort. In truth it was his leadership that created a sense of purpose and urgency to the idea of traveling to the moon.

John Kennedy had a way with words, or at least his speechwriters did. His talent was delivering them in such a way that we all wanted to get onboard with his ideas. He united most of us in realizing that we had the brains and the wherewithal to get the job done. He created a lovely picture of what such an accomplishment would be, and he challenged us to support the journey. In that regard he was a true leader, someone who garnered enthusiasm for a cause without denigrating those who were a bit wary. He made it seem patriotic and wonderful, and remarkable individuals like the astronauts reinforced his thoughts. They were men of high character and intelligence who had served their country and were willing to possibly sacrifice their lives for a lofty goal. That was the real beauty of Kennedy’s ability to rally all of us.

When Neal Armstrong stepped on the moon in July of 1969, John Kennedy was long dead but those of us who had heard his clarion call for the space program understood that he was in many ways the founder of the celebration. The whole world watched those grainy images with a sense of awe, and those of us in the United States felt great pride in the remarkable accomplishment. We knew that some of the best minds in the country had worked long and hard to accomplish the unbelievable. We celebrated not just Neal Armstrong and his crew, but also the best of mankind’s determination and abilities. We remembered with reverence John Kennedy’s words that first inspired us to believe that the impossible was truly possible.

I think of challenges that we have today and I realize that what is lacking is a brilliant leader with the ability to bring us together in common cause. Winston Churchill was able to do this for his country in one of the darkest hours of Great Britain. Franklin Roosevelt kept the people of the United States utterly devoted to the cause of bringing freedom and peace to a warring world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the plight of Blacks in our country into crystal clear focus and brokered change without violence or threats. Then there was Abraham Lincoln who desperately worked to keep the country together and to right the wrongs of the past. Each of these individuals had a gift, an ability to describe a brilliant future with stirring words and practical plans. Sadly today’s revolutionary ideas are being voiced in such a way as to alienate half of the population.

Our leaders are not only at odds with each other but at odds with huge swathes of the citizenry. They patronize us by insinuating that we are not capable of taking care of ourselves, so they must do the job for us. In their quests to push their plans forward they demand and foment fear rather than inspire. Whether speaking of the need for a border wall or ways to deal with climate change they use scare tactics and hurl insults at anyone who dares to disagree with them. They seem to be urging us to go their way or take the highway. This is hardly the way to take care of problems if the great leaders of the past are any indication.

I’m a believer that we do indeed need to address climate change but I also feel that we need to do so with a realistic goal in mind. To simply say that we have to completely wean ourselves from fossil fuels without actually having an idea of how to do that other than vague outlines is frightening. People have hundreds of questions that are either being ridiculed or ignored. I find myself feeling like the boy who noticed that the emperor was stark naked while the rest of the crowd acted as though they did not see the problem. We have to consider the consequences both intended and unintended of any actions that we choose to take or not take. That only makes sense. To rally behind either the climate change deniers or those with militant half baked ideas its the wrong course to take. Sadly our leaders are lining up behind one faction or another without steering us in a clear path and making us part of the solution process. We have to understand that rushing headlong into a brave new world is frightening for most people. There is a way to get things done one step at a time without throwing away our way of life. We just have to provide realistic alternatives that may actually work and then get the populace on board by explaining rather than lecturing.

Our young have always been impatient and revolutionary. It was young men who designed our country’s government, but their radical enthusiasm was often tempered by those who understood the need for a bit of caution. Our history is one of moving incrementally toward positive change with a few instances of exponential bursts led by extraordinary people who understood how to help people understand both the problems and solutions without patronizing or ignoring or insulting.

We can keep our union, fight a war for all humanity, bring justice to forgotten people and send a man to the moon. We are not afraid of a cause, but we need a leader who knows how to help us understand our individual roles in the solutions. It has been done before. Perhaps now more than ever we must search for the person who works for the good of all mankind, not just a select group that already agrees with all that they have to say. So far I don’t see such a person on the horizon, but surely there is someone and hopefully he or she will step forward.

The Least We Can Do

california-mud-slides-2018I watched a great program on black holes not long ago. I did my best to keep up with the theories, but the very ideas behind them are totally mind blowing. The universe is amazing and mysterious and we humans are only slowly learning about it using the mathematics and technology that we presently have. I suspect that we have yet to fully realize the depth of understanding needed to unlock all of the secrets, but there are great minds doing their best to unravel the puzzles. Somehow it is humankind’s nature to ask questions and seek answers. We want to know why things happen the way they do, and our creativity leads us ever forward in our quest. Nonetheless, we often find ourselves in frustratingly unprovable situations where it takes a leap of faith to become a believer.

I think of Galileo and the tragic persecution that he endured simply because a sector of his society was unwilling to accept his assertion that the earth was not at the center of our universe, but merely a kind of satellite coursing around the sun. The full acceptance of his ideas would not come in time to save him from a merciless punishment based on an ignorance that appears so clearly in retrospect, but was a bit more difficult to discern in the moment. We humans not only want to progress, but we want rock solid proof before we are willing to accept theories that are far different from our learned way of thinking. It is in our natures to be wary, just as Thomas the apostle was a doubter.

I find it quite interesting that there is a great divide between those who believe that the earth’s climate is changing and those who deny that this is the case. The premise of climate change is that we humans have a dramatic effect on our environment as we use and sometimes abuse its resources. Our numbers are so great that we literally change the natural world with our habits, and sadly we are accelerating a warming trend that is causing ice to melt in arctic regions and weather to be more erratic. Using data and scientific understanding of air flows and currents, those concerned with climate change urge us all to adopt habits designed to begin to heal our planet before it is too late. They point to droughts across the globe, strong hurricanes, and bone chilling winters as proof of the major changes that are taking place. Most of the scientific community is in agreement with these ideas.

At the other end of the spectrum are climate change deniers who insist that the data used to prove that our world is rapidly deteriorating is flawed. They argue that we have always gone through periods of drought and cold and that killer hurricanes are as old as the sea. They scoff at the idea that humans are somehow responsible for the very natural ways of weather that they believe continues with or without us. They use economic arguments to push for more use of fossil fuels rather than less. They believe that arguments about the climate are mostly political and as such support those who ignore the warnings of scientists. They liken the evidence that is presented in support of a theory of change to magic.

As someone who believes in God, but can’t actually prove that He is a true presence in our lives, I find the deniers to be short sighted. It is purely my faith in the promises of Jesus that guides me to prayer, devotion and a certainty that I will one day be united with my Lord in heaven. I have no rock solid proof that I am correct other than the words in the Bible and the teachings of my church, and yet I find no reason to doubt that I have found the truth. My own religious faith makes me wonder why any of us would be so wary of the much more concrete findings of scientists who have demonstrated with hard data that there are indeed great changes taking place that are associated with our habits of living.

I remember attending the funeral of a man that I knew who was originally from China. He had once been a Buddhist, but eventually accepted the beliefs of Christianity. His wife inserted elements of both Buddhism and his Baptist faith into the ceremony for him, noting with a bit of humor and irony that she didn’t want to take any changes that he might have accidentally made the wrong choice. I’ve often thought of her wisdom in conjunction with climate change, and I find myself wondering why anyone would be willing to risk being wrong by ignoring the warnings that Mother Nature appears to be sending us in greater and greater profusion. It would be far smarter to listen to those who are more educated about such things than to join in the rants of people whose sole purpose is to seek power. Namely, if each and every one of us began to live just a bit differently whether or not we are totally convinced that we in fact have an impact on the world it surely would not hurt us one iota. Like the wife who was unwilling to take a chance that her husband had been wrong, why would we want to hand off a more dangerous future to our children and grandchildren? What would it hurt to at least listen to what the scientists have to say? How could conserving just a bit more of our resources actually hurt us?

Our world is far more fragile than it appears. I have watched it being scarred of late in the most egregious ways. My city filled with water and so many homes were damaged and destroyed. Those of us who live here still shudder when thunderstorms rage overhead. We spent two days last week battling icy roads and temperatures lower than they had been in decades. All the while we watched homes burning in California and mudslides encasing them when it finally rained. We hear of Puerto Ricans still waiting for power to return months after a hurricane devastated the island. The damage to our earth is happening so often that we are almost becoming numb to its forces. We live in grave fear of terrorists and suggest that becoming more isolated from the rest of the world will keep us safer and at the same time ignore the one area where we have the power to make real change. In other words we can and should admit that we can do better in using the treasures of our planet.

Some things just make sense. Taking care of what we’ve got begins with each one of us. It’s far past time to be so silly about something as serious as the healthy functioning of the land on which we live. It can no longer be denied that our earth is sick and we must all work to bring her back to a better state. If is takes sacrifice, so be it. It’s the least that we all can do.

Resilience

21766401_1868966163120008_6720605651907966418_nI’ve written a great deal about the massive floods that inundated the city of Houston a month ago. The national media has featured multiple stories from varying points of view about the tragedy that befell my town. We will be working to rebuild for years and debating how best to prevent such destruction in the future for an even longer time. To say that all of us who live in Houston and surrounding areas have been deeply affected by what happened is an understatement. What has struck me most is the courage and resilience of the people with whom I share my part of the world as well as the outpouring of support and love that has been showered on us. I thought that I had written about most of the main themes regarding this event and its impact on human nature until I saw a photo from one of my Facebook friends that moved me so strongly that I have not been able to erase that image from my mind.

I still think of the woman who posted the picture as the little girl who lived across the street from me many years ago. She spent so many hours inside my house playing with my two daughters. She was always a very sweet child and I never minded having her around. She seemed to be smiling even in her sleep and she possessed a pleasant optimism about life that just felt so good. Her name is Priscilla and I never really forgot how much I liked her as the years marched by and we lost touch.

Eventually through the power of social media we found each other on Facebook and became friends again. I learned that she was happily married and had a handsome son of whom she was understandably proud. She lives in the same part of town that I do, and so one Christmas season I met up with her and my two daughters at a local restaurant. We celebrated our reunion with hours of conversation and recollections of happy memories. Now and again I encounter Priscilla at stores and eateries, but mostly I keep track of her via the Internet, and I enjoy hearing of her adventures with her family.

Not too long ago Priscilla made a move to her dream home in Pearland, a suburb of Houston. She excitedly kept her friends apprised of the decorating and landscaping that she and her husband undertook to make their house special. I was excited for her and enjoyed seeing all of the updates. So it was with a very heavy heart that I learned that Priscilla’s home was among those flooded by hurricane Harvey. In fact, the place took on water on the first day of the massive rains. It broke my heart to think of the sadness and fear that she must have been feeling.

I had forgotten that Priscilla is one of those people who is a survivor by nature. In almost no time she had managed to find a safe hotel in which to ride out the rest of the storm. She did her best to remain upbeat even in the face of so much uncertainty. It was as though she was more concerned about easing the fears of the rest of us than concentrating on her own fate. She kept us posted so that we would know that she and her family were secure and she exuded a confident belief that ultimately all would end well for them.

Almost as soon as the storms had moved from our area she was back at her house doing the work of cleaning out all of the muck that had found its way inside. She continued to send communications showing the progress that she and her family were making, somehow finding ways to joke about the pile of debris that grew and grew on their lawn. She always managed to allay our anxieties with photos of the cleaned out rooms now devoid of half of the sheetrock and all of the flooring. In essence she and her family had taken the place down to the studs, at least on the bottom half of the rooms.

I laughed at images of Priscilla’s garage which now housed a big screen television, a few lawn chairs, a barbecue smoker and a toilet. Priscilla had noted with a hint of sarcasm that the scene was about as redneck as one might ever get. She remained upbeat, at least publicly, and it was among the few times that I smiled rather than cried over what I witnessed after the storm.

Last week Priscilla posted an image that seemed to capture her spirit and that of my hometown. She and her family had moved back into their house even though there was still much work to be done. With a great deal of imagination she and her husband had created a makeshift kitchen that was a true sight to behold. The bottom cabinets were gone as was the flooring and even the sink. Only the sheetrock had been replaced. Instead of the normal amenities there were long folding tables serving as countertops, clear plastic bins providing cabinet storage, a camping sink acting as a station for washing dishes, and a new stainless steel stove gleaming like a beacon of hope. That photo spoke of Priscilla’s fighting spirit and resilience and at the moment that I saw it, she became for me the symbol of all that is good in our town. Hers was the story that I knew I needed to tell.

There is no doubt that Priscilla and so many others have suffered in ways that should not have happened. We all understand that we must address concerns about climate change, shoring up of levees around neighborhoods, improvements to dams, aggressive building in flood plains, increased attention to drainage systems and so forth. In our quest to reflect on what happened we cannot forget to applaud the human spirit that Priscilla so embodies. Rather than complaining or waiting for someone else to help, she and her family did indeed pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They tackled the hard work and found ways to make do until their world is rebuilt once again. They are models of how to react with positivity and inspiration in hard times.

I wish that Priscilla’s story and photos would be shared until they become viral because hers is a lesson that we all should strive to follow. Life is a series of events both wonderful and sometimes even horrific. We have little ability to control many things, but we always are in charge of how we react. Priscilla has chosen faith and joy and hope. We are all the better for seeing her example, and we somehow know that she will find a way to be just fine. We’d all do well to emulate her spirit. I’m thankful that she has been willing to share her journey. I know that I am humbled by what I have seen and I vow to attempt to be as resilient as she most assuredly is.

Filed Away Into Oblivion

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All across the Gulf Coast of southeast Texas from Corpus Christi to Beaumont/Port Arthur the devastation from hurricane Harvey has left a trail of destruction, tears and questions. Weary citizens have spent days upon days mucking out houses, washing flood soaked laundry, cleaning the everyday items that were once the fixtures of their households. Neighbors have helped neighbors. Family has embraced family. Strangers have opened their hearts and their wallets. The restoration has begun in earnest even as some areas still lie in the clutches of high water with no sign of when their residents may return.

It doesn’t seem to matter which part of Harvey’s path one might choose to explore. Virtually everywhere that the beastly storm chose to go there are entire neighborhoods or unlucky blocks where the evidence of its heartlessness is horrifyingly present in the endless piles of debris that rise several feet from the ground and on the vacant faces of those affected. Seeing the wreckage is mind numbing and heartbreaking. Witnessing the people who are attempting to deal with the unthinkable is unbearable. While there is a determination to rise from the waters, there is also a kind of pall over the landscape and wonder if the things that we took so for granted will ever be quite the same again.

It is estimated that only twenty percent of those whose homes and property was damaged had purchased flood insurance. Many of the affected areas had never before been inundated and there was little reason to compel homeowners to buy the policies. It will be up to the federal government and FEMA to help the families to rebuild, and the cost will no doubt be staggering. More disturbing will be the loss of a sense of security that even those who were spared are now feeling. We fret and worry over what will eventually become of all of us who endured the tornadoes and days of relentless downpours that poured fifty one inches of rain over our rooftops. The memories of one weather warning after another and all night watches over the water creeping toward our doors are still so fresh and terrifying. The sights and smells of the destruction seem to follow us even as we close our eyes and attempt to shower the grime from our bodies. The fear that we all experienced stalks us now that we attempt to go back to work and our usual routines.

As the sun shines once again in our part of the world, a monster hurricane threatens Florida and the east coast. Others have formed in the ocean. Fires burn in Montana, California and Oregon. It seems as if Mother Nature is unleashing her fury, and we begin to ask ourselves questions and consider what we may have done to be accomplices in the creation of such events. Are there proactive steps that we might take to change the course or the magnitude of climatic events in the future? These are the thoughts that fill our brains and none of the answers are easy or certain.

My husband likes to call himself a belt and suspenders kind of guy. In other words he is a very cautious sort. As such we expend large amounts of our income on various kinds of insurance policies and fraud protection systems. When the federal government first began selling flood insurance he signed up immediately even though we had never experienced water seeping inside any of our homes. We have continued to renew the policy year after year in spite the increasing cost and lack of use. Our thought as native Houstonians has been that we never quite know what strange occurrences my happen, and we want to be ready for the unexpected. I suspect that after Harvey the premium for our policy will go through the roof, but we will continue to purchase the safety net just in case, and I would recommend that everyone else do so as well. So many of those affected by the damage would be sleeping so much better with that little piece of added security in their pockets

The bigger questions involve infrastructure and building practices that may or may not have helped to prevent much of the damage. It has come to light for example that engineers from the Harris County Flood Control District outlined a plan to improve the drainage system of the Addicks and Barker dams all the way back in 1996. They presented their concerns and suggestions to the Army Corps of Engineers and nothing happened. The report was filed away. Today the tragedy that the study predicted in very clear terms has come to pass. The belief is that it might have been prevented at a cost of under ten million dollars rather than the billions it will take to rebuild the neighborhoods that sit under water today.

When we are cautious in the way we do things we sometimes never know if our efforts actually have some sort of effect or not. If wisdom had ruled the day and the money had been found and spent to improve the dams’ drainage capabilities there would be no flooding in the affected areas and we would wonder if we had really needed to expend all of the effort. That is the way of proactive measures. Often the occasion to use them never arises, but when it does we pat ourselves on the back for being so prescient.

We might argue forever about topics like climate change, building practices, drainage systems, and insurance, but our question becomes why we would ever want to take unnecessary chances. It is a fact that hurricane Harvey created an unprecedented event with its fifty one inches of rain. It is true that homes that have been high and dry for decades only flooded because the storm dumped an amount of water that no form of planning might have overcome, but I find myself wondering why we would want to just walk away from this experience without considering important changes that might actually help if and, God forbid, when we have to experience such an event again.

Our ancestors were more often than not a bit more inclined toward precautions than we were. The Addicks and Barker dams were built in the 1940s because of major flooding incidents in the city of Houston in 1929 and 1935. My mother and mother-in-law often spoke of those events and how they impacted the people who had endured them. The dams themselves were eventually located on land far from the center of the city and most of the population. Adjacent tracts were purchased to insure that there would be no habitation in the path of water. Sadly, as the city grew and sprawled across the landscape developers purchased plots next to the city owned land and built suburban neighborhoods without thought of what might happen if those dams were ever overrun with water in the kind of scenarios that experts had foreseen.

Back in the old days people avoided building too near the bayous and creeks. They elevated their homes on pillars. They terraced the lawns and built houses considerably higher than the level of the streets. Most of the neighborhoods and homes built by our parents and grandparents weathered the deluge just as they have done for decades. They were constructed in ways mindful of the presence of the network of bayous and creeks and rivers that crisscross the geography. Perhaps it would behoove us to consider such things just as they once did. There really should be an appropriate way of building for specific parts of the country that takes the possibilities of nature’s whimsy into consideration.

Of course there is the lurking question of the part that climate change plays in wreaking havoc across the globe. I suggest that instead of wasting our time arguing over whether or not it is true, we simply begin to change our ways just in case. What would it hurt to become more considerate of the world in which we live? Why can’t we all become more conscious of the ways that we use and waste the earth’s resources? Simple gestures multiplied millions of times will indeed make at least a small impact, and every little bit will help. We can be more like our parents who only allowed the television to run for so many hours a day. They scurried about the house turning off lights and appliances. They created compost heaps and recycled bottles. They were mostly being frugal, but their habits certainly helped to reduce waste and emissions of carbon dioxide.

I would never want to be accused of being one of those people who smugly suggest that somehow all of us who live in Harvey’s path are somehow responsible for what happened. Ours is a tragedy wrought by a storm that would have inundated any city or town regardless of what protective measure had been taken. Still, I believe in reflecting on tragedies and asking ourselves hard questions about what measures we may take in the future to alleviate at least some of the suffering. It is something that we must do. We have to insist that reports that predict disaster will never again be simply filed away into oblivion.