A little over a year ago, my daughter and I were victims of a distracted driver who struck our car while when he checked his cell phone while trying to make a left hand turn. We were in a bright red Toyota Camry with the headlights on, driving at dusk at the end of a line of cars cruising slowly past Beaver Lake on our way back from Hobbs State Park. We saw the massive Dodge Ram truck turning into us without ever slowing.
When I opened my eyes, the sulfurous smell of deployed airbags filled the air and my right leg was burning from where an airbag under the steering column had kept my legs from going into the bottom of the dashboard.
As I tried to get my bearings, the first voice I heard was that of the driver of the other vehicle, hurrying over to me saying, “I just looked down at my cell phone for a minute.”
That’s all it takes. Just a minute to change everything.
We were very fortunate. While we were sore, cut and bruised for several weeks afterwards, we walked away. The windshield had cracked, the car was totaled. But we walked away.
The film, which Fast Company calls ” a brutal piece of documentary storytelling in which both the perpetrators and the victims of texting and driving open up about the ways that the collisions have changed their lives.” - will be distributed to more than 40,000 high schools around the United States. You can also find it on ItCanWait.com, where visitors “can take a pledge not to text and drive, share their own stories and see stats on the problem (including this troubling one: 75% of teens say texting and driving is common among their friends).”
Do me and everyone else on the road and in your life a favor.
Take the pledge.
Put the phone away.
It can Wait.
My GPS has this wonderful “Avoidances” feature that allows me to select any of several driving obstacles I’d like to avoid: U-turns, toll roads, traffic, carpool lanes, ferries (?). When I’m traveling -at least, after I reach my destination – I choose to avoid “Highways.”
Toodling around Baton Rouge for the last few days, “avoiding” highways has taken me to some great places in some interesting ways. I’ve seen sights and neighborhoods that I’d never have enjoyed had a I just hopped up on I-10 or I-12 and puddle jumped between exits.
Taking city streets to the Old Capitol area took me through some gritty areas of Baton Rouge, but also gave me an intimate sense of the history and layout of the city. Driving main roads to Bluebonnet Swamp richly illustrated the wonder of this fantastic urban greenway, bordered on all sides by homes and businesses and busy roads that give no clue to the wild lands they embrace, or the diversity of nature the park protects.
In the same way, entering the LSU Rural Life Museum and Ag Center grounds – an amazing 40 acre oasis of history and botanical beauty – along residential roads that give way to boundless fields and acres of forest made the experience of time travel offered by this unparalleled museum of folk architecture and culture even more powerful.
Baton Rouge, like all communities large and small, is more than the sum of its parts. It is powered by the energy, perseverance and creativity of its people, made manifest through that people’s architecture, industry and artistry. Exit hopping on the highway makes it convenient to forget and easy to miss everything in between those exits that makes it all possible and, more important, that makes it all meaningful.
Tomorrow, I have to disable my highway avoidance and make use of those high speed interstates, at least for some major stretches, if I’m to have any hope of getting back home in a day, which work and life necessitates. But I’ll be keenly aware of the lives and livelihoods, of the history and communities, that I’m passing by. And at the first opportunity, I’ll be taking the first available exit off the highway and getting back to the roads that really take you places.
Last year around this time, my oldest daughter and I headed out for a road trip to Arkansas, where she was competing in the National Taxidermy Association event. We love our time together, out and about and exploring, and the event itself was fun and edifying and my uniquely talented daughter had a good showing. But the trip turned trying, and painful, when we were in a bad car accident the day before we were to return home, struck by a good person but a careless driver.
Things went from bad to worse after that – our dog died before we could get home; our house flooded a couple of weeks later, due to a roofing job gone bad; and a recent lay off just added to the somber (and damp) atmosphere.
But the trip itself, when all was said and done and accounted for, was still good and memorable and meaningful, as road trips often are. We took the “blue highways” home – America’s slower and more scenic back roads. The Natchez Trace proved especially an especially calming and thought provoking drive, ambling along the eastern spine of the country, through deep woods and rolling hills, through centuries of history.
Thinking about that trip, as the date for this year’s journey approached, I ran a “Blue Highways” contest on Fine Art America and the submissions provided a thoughtful look at back roads scenery and history around the country. The top three winners are featured here in this post, but the rest are all worth enjoying. Because despite the harrowing start to our trip home, personally detouring ourselves off main highways to take a slower drive home made that journey far more memorable than the accident, providing a soothing balm to its scary precursor.
The back roads of America are the ultimate roads home – through the boroughs and little towns and fields and farms and cottages and cottage industries that lie at the heart of who we are, a diverse and multifaceted people, self-reliant, independent spirited folk.
Sometimes we make mistakes – we check our cell phones when we should be watching the road; we get out of our car when we should stay in it and change the course of our own and others’ lives; we say something when we should remain silent, or conversely, we remain silent when we should speak out. Sometimes we’re foolish and short-sighted, impatient and intolerant.
And other times we are magnificent – our back roads speak to some of that higher purpose, the way they trace ageless tracks through our countryside, past the monuments and signs through which we memorialize our past, and the way the artists among us capture the canvass of our classic landscapes, or turn a vista into a turn of poetic phrase. There are always the “helpers” Fred Rogers spoke of, the people you see in every community who alleviate blight, waste, loss, anger and heartache with the stroke of their brush of compassion and kindness – an art in itself.
And so as we set out on the road again tomorrow, northward bound to Baton Rouge, LA this time, we’ll be angling again for those back roads, taking the opportunity and the time, to travel carefully (defensively!) and thoughtfully.
“Life is a highway”, Tom Cochrane sang.
Sometimes it’s a rough ride. But if you take the back roads – the roads less traveled – and don’t let the set backs sideline you, there’s a good chance you’ll not only go places and see things, but learn a bit on the journey.
Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.” Thomas Merton
I try to live my life in alignment with my core beliefs. My work, my faith, my art all aim to serve that bottom line. I love FIRST because of its focus on transforming culture in a way that elevates and empowers and celebrates youth for doing important, intelligent work. I love LI4E because I’ve been able to exercise nonprofit creativity with it, experimenting with intellectual performance art like TEDxYouth and Mini Maker Faire, and working to bring things I believe are good for communities – accessible learning, makerspace projects, free resources – to more people.
I love my church because it helps keep me centered, informed about and focused on the things that ultimately matter to me, and which all the other things I do ultimately serve. I love writing and photography because they’re vehicles for self-expression, and give me opportunities to turn ideas around and inside out, visually and verbally, and to look at things from different perspectives.
And yet I struggle continuously against myself: against the baser, less noble aspects of my being, against my short sightedness, my impatience, my foolishness, working to keep self-righteousness, expectations and judgment at bay. Sometimes I succeed. Often I don’t. Always I am aware that I could be a much better person than I am, that I could be a better wife, mother, aunt, daughter,co-worker, and friend.
In a wonderful class I took recently – Everyday Practical Buddhism, an introduction to the Rissho Kosei-kai school of Buddhism which is grounded in the real world – practical – aspects of the faith, the idea that we are always working to overcome ourselves and that these struggles are part of the journey, resonated with me. Rather than look at personal backsliding as failure, it becomes simply an opportunity to practice being better. If practice does indeed make perfect, then I’m going to need a lot of practice, so I can expect to have frequent set backs. The idea is to shorten each failure, to experience more time between them, to become more aware of each of our thoughts and actions, more intentional and less reactionary in our responses. There’s no reason to beat ourselves up over our failures, just acknowledge, move on and try to do better next time.
It’s not easy. People like Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and the every day good people we encounter who make serenity and compassion look so elegant, if not easy, are constant reminders to me of what I could be, of what we all could be, if we just put others before ourselves more routinely. If we – if I – had more patience. More compassion. More love. If I could really let go, un-attach, stop the cycle of self-imposed suffering caused by the expectations I have of the way life ought to be as opposed to the way life is.
And then today I encountered Thomas Merton, and pulled up short at the quote that presented itself:
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
It’s not the “worthiness” part that galvanized me so much – I know better than that. When you get right down to it, I could say I’m not worthy of all the love and care I’ve received all my life. I’ve done nothing to do “deserve” it. It’s that third line – “What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy. “ It’s not that all of us deserve love, which makes it a need-based experience, but that all of us are called upon to love, which puts the idea and the practice wholly in our own hands and within our sphere of influence.
I’m not sure how I missed Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) in the scope of my searching and learning. Perhaps I just wasn’t ready for him before. The son of artists, whose own journey of self-discovery in his short life took him from Catholicism to communism to monasticism, Merton’s body of work includes some of the earliest interfaith dialogues and studies in the U.S., encompassing some of the first Western conversations with the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, among other Eastern religious figures.
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going, “ Merton believed. “ What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
Well that’s a good thing! Especially since just when I think I’ve got it figured out, it becomes quite evident that I don’t.
“What we have to be,” he said, “is what we are.”
My life is a work in progress, but I’m increasingly aware that I tend to over complicate things, to over think the moment in which I would do better to simply be. I want to fix and help and improve, when all I really need is to be open, caring and accepting, of the moment, of those in my life at any given moment, of whatever experience envelops me at that moment.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times,” Merton observed.
Conversely, he said, “It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from the effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting any immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.” (No Man is an Island)
Can I do that? I don’t know.
As my work with both FIRST and LI4E take me into new circles of relationships and influence, it can be easy to lose sight of the whole point of doing it all, to get caught up in the excitement of success and forget the bottom philanthropic line, the mission and goals at the heart of it all. As my adult children take their own paths through life, it’s natural to want to point out perceived hazards or errors of choice, to try to keep them safe and help them be successful, when all they need is the freedom to make their own mistakes and enjoy their own successes, my unconditional love and an open door. When I have to share my life with someone I find unpleasant, it’s easy to fall into resentment, when I could simply let go of expectations and judgment and exist side by side, making better use of my existence, and more joy in theirs.
I’m a work in progress. No promises. But if all I’m really called upon to do is love, I can certainly try.
My day job involves working for an organization whose mission is: “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”
Those are the words and vision of inventor Dean Kamen, founder of the U.S. Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, better known as FIRST. FIRST engages kids in elementary through high school grades in competitive robotics competitions that provide youth with opportunities to work with professional mentors and learn science, math and engineering skills in fun, enduring and rewarding ways, with over $16 million in scholarships for participating high schoolers.
“The assumption that drove the creation of FIRST, “ Kamen said in an interview with PTC last year, “ was you get what you celebrate in a free culture, and the reason America was slipping compared to a lot of its peers around the world—particularly in kids getting involved with and mastering science and technology—was not bad teachers or bad schools, it wasn’t what we don’t have. It was the fact that as a rich country we have so many distractions that have created for kids role models that prevent them from working hard at things that matter.”
In the last few weeks, I was so immersed in working with students , their mentors and the local business community supporting kids in “working hard at the things that matter,” that I almost missed an equally important debate on things that matter to us here in Tampa Bay involving a big box retailer and the substantive public tax payer incentive that county officials want to give the store to open shop in our community.
The Tampa Bay Times reports that the Hillsborough County Commission is considering contributing $6.25 million (down from $15 million, initially) toward road improvements around “The Estuary”, an enormous, ironically named shopping plaza planned between Falkenburg Road and Interstate 75 – currently the site of Florida pine scrub, and a good 15 miles inland from any chance of an “estuary”, which is by definition a partially enclosed body of coastal water where freshwater from rivers and streams meets and mixes with salt water from the ocean and actually does something physically, biologically, environmentally and even economically useful, by virtue of the recreational opportunities our coastline offers.
Besides the sad fact that “The Estuary” shopping center is going to completely destroy anything remotely natural – estuarian or otherwise – in the area of planned development, developers predictions of “ annual sales of $61.8 million, generating state and local sales taxes” and “property assessment climbing to $16.4 million, boosting taxes on land now used for agriculture” ring hollow in light of the facts, and misleading in light of “things that matter.”
Bass Pro’s track record and the history of big tax incentives for major retailers suggest assurances that “ Hillsborough could break even on its $15 million investment by 2018” are probably more than a little inflated. More important, though: Do we truly believe that subsidized shopping offers a real return on our investment towards our collective future?
Bass Pro projects it would create 369 permanent, full-time jobs in addition to 1,517 temporary construction jobs over five years, and the entire shopping plaza development is project to create 1,327 retail jobs.
But the fact is, says a report by the Public Accountability Initiative that examined such claims (Fishing for Taxpayer Cash), “Bass Pro often fails to deliver on its promises as an economic development anchor and major tourist destination – promises which were used to reel in government subsidies. Its stores successfully attract shoppers, but often do not produce sought-after economic benefits associated with major tourist destinations,” and taxpayers in places like Cincinnati, Harrisburg PA, and Bakersfield, CA “ have been left with high levels of debt and fiscal stress as a result of Bass Pro Projects.”
“Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend on hip waders because a new Bass Pro or Cabela’s comes to town,” Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., told The Atlantic Cities in an article last summer . ”All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars, they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be.”
Larry Whitely, a spokesman for Bass Pro Shops, argued in the article that their stores “should be viewed as an amenity being added to a community — much like one might view a park or a library. …”These aren’t just stores – they are natural history museums. Every store is designed to reflect the unique natural environment of the area in which it is located.” “
Aside, again, from the basic fact that the store, by virtue of its construction, would be destroying a unique natural environment in the area in which it is to be located, $6.5 million would buy a lovely real natural history museum , park or library with a far greater return on the investment, socially, aesthetically, academically, environmentally and economically. $6.5 million dollars could also address food insecurity, make a serious impact on homelessness, pay for new teachers, finance school improvements, or make a nice deposit on a light rail system.
From a purely personal perspective, $6.5 million could fund a couple or three FIRST robotics STEM education robotics teams in every one of Hillsborough County’s nearly 160 K-12 schools for years, helping create the type of scientifically literate people Florida needs for a truly economically successful future. Because the real path to future prosperity in Florida and nationally, economic development experts are saying, is growing a knowledge based economy,not a consumer based one.
A knowledge based economy is one that is “driven by research, ideas, innovations, and technical skills to generate high-impact economic benefits and high-wage jobs. Strong sustainable knowledge economies
- Are able to sell goods and services at a higher profit margin than others;
- Earn average wages up to $25,000 more than non-knowledge-based communities, and;
- Are able to perform and execute business through more cost-effective and efficient relationships.
In the “New Economy Index” report of states by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which evaluates states on a similar “knowledge based” formula, Florida ranked 21st – and dropping.
“Some have argued that, given the economic downturn, now is not the time to focus on innovation,” observed the report’s authors. “rather, our chief concern should be job creation. Yet, fostering innovation and creating jobs are by no means mutually exclusive. To the contrary, most studies of the issue have found that innovation is positively correlated to job growth in the mid- to long-term.”
By a correlation factor of 0.87, notes one author – ” in fact exponentially proportional to KEI (Knowledge Economic Indicator) , ie higher the KEI, higher is the per capita income of that country and vice versa. Highest KEI is of Denmark at 9.58 on a scale of 1 to 10, and the lowest KEI is of Myanmar at 0.96 at rank 145.” (Express Tribune-)
Among the key findings in Change the Equation’s Florida Vital Signs report, “Florida needs a world class education system and seamless talent supply chain to meet workforce demands at all skill levels. STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is of the utmost priority if Florida is to achieve its long term goal.”
Nowhere in that report is there a call for more consumer opportunities or retail jobs.
“Before handing taxpayer money to Bass Pro projects, ” concludes the Public Accountability Initiative report, ” public officials should consider what some other cities are going through as a result of Bass Pro-anchored projects that have fallen short: high levels of debt and fiscal duress, lackluster development, vacancy and blight, and lower-than-expected tax revenues. Considering the potential consequences, it is imperative for public officials and taxpayers to take the proper steps to ensure that they are not subsidizing an underperforming development: ask straightforward questions of Bass Pro and project developers, demand transparency and data, secure contractual guarantees that limit cannibalization, and, above all, consider alternatives. There is no good reason to subsidize development that sells cities short and leaves taxpayers on the hook.”
Public officials – and the public – should also consider what really matters to Florida’s future and help us build a Knowledge economy that will serve us and future generations far better, and make us far more productive and competitive than any retail chain store ever will. If, as Dean Kamen says, and as I fully agree, we get what we celebrate, and the best we can do is Bass Pro Shops , then that’s all we’ll get.
If, however, we choose to celebrate creative productivity and scientific and technical literacy and achievement, we’ll get so much more than we could ever have imagined!