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Newtown, CTAgain. It’s happened again. And because of my experience at Virginia Tech, once again I have to find a way to manage what I know about this kind of violence, knowledge I never wanted and knowledge I resent having. What I know is this:

Right now, scores of people are wandering in and around Sandy Hook Elementary School. Some have been called there because they have a job to do. Some have been drawn there because they seek solace in others who are grieving. There are tears — many, many tears — and there are people, some of them strangers, who are grasping one another, hugging because they hope that simple act might somehow stave off the crushing reality they are faced with. And sometimes it does. Others are alone, their faces cloaked in blank expressions because they can find no emotion to capture what his happening in their heads and in their hearts. Makeshift memorials — candles, flowers, photographs — are appearing at the school and the fire station and the town offices.

Parents are there, too, and by now, if they haven’t been reunited with their children, they fear the worst. More than the worst. They are being tended to by counselors and others but the wait is still unbearable. And the identities of the victims — their children likely among them — will not be released for some time because there are so many and the coroner’s offices cannot process them quickly for fear of making a terrible, terrible mistake. And so the survivors must wait.

Many men and women are in uniform or in blue windbreakers with bright yellow letters across the back — FBI, ATF, State Police. They are huddling in groups in corners, grim-faced and focused, whispering into radios and phones. Other uniformed men and women have cordoned off the school — now a crime scene — and are fending off the curious and the concerned and the grief-stricken.

All around the school, the streets are clogged with vehicles — hulking black SUVs, police cruisers, unmarked Ford sedans, and an array of oversized vans emblazoned with network and local station logos, each with a satellite antenna craning up into the darkening sky. Throughout the town, reporters are doing stand-ups under bright camera lights, staking out spots with the most dramatically lit views of the school in the background and parading whoever they can find that is willing to talk in front of the camera — survivors, parents, officials, townspeople … anyone.

A black hole is forming over Newtown right now. At its center is a small elementary school, more than two dozen lost souls, and an act of unspeakable horror. In the days and weeks and months ahead, we — all of us — will be drawn to it, mainly because we will want explanations. Some will seek them because they are paid to sort this sort of thing out. Some will seek them because their job is to investigate and share what they discover with us. Some, and I am regrettably among this number, are seeking what we must know we will never find — some answer that goes beyond how far we have fallen.

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Just yesterday, as I was meeting with two of my staffers, the subject of my birthday came up and one of my most trusted colleagues asked me how old I would be.

“55,” I answered.

“Wow, that’s a big number,” she responded and almost instantly began backpedaling. “I mean a significant number. You know, a big milestone. An important date.”

We laughed at her quick thinking and her instinctive ability to quickly recast her words when they have been wrongly interpreted. It’s something my whole staff does well, and in public relations – our line of work – it’s an invaluable skill.

But she’s right on both counts. It is a big number in both of those senses.

I don’t know where I thought I’d be when I reached the point of being entitled to the senior menu at my favorite restaurant or discounted coffee at fast food places. But I never would have imagined it to be here – in central Maine, living on a lake, serving as vice president at an elite liberal arts college, heading up a talented and energized group of professionals like my now red-faced friend. Nor could I have imagined nearly twenty years with my beautiful wife, the paths my kids’ lives are taking, and how much I would have come to love a dog … my dog. So I’m looking back today, awed by the circuitous and sometimes sideways path led me here.

But here’s the weird thing. I’m looking forward, as well. I’m thinking about many many more years with my wife, about watching my kids become adult versions of the magnificent creatures they already are. And I’m thinking about all the work left to be done here at Colby, about how great it feels to stoke the creative fire in a group of talented people and watch what happens.

About beaches I’ve yet to visit, and Irish pubs that are waiting for my arrival, and about the short stories and novels I’ve yet to read. And the ones I’ve yet to write.

So given all this, 55 seems an appropriate number. It’s the same coming and going. It looks back just as well as it looks forward.

Lucky me.

(A note: this morning that same staffer reminded me that she said “That’s a big ONE,” not a big “number.” See? I told you she was good.)

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It’s about 11:30 when I finally make it upstairs  – a little later than my normal bedtime. So maybe I’m not as clearheaded as I might have been in the middle of the day. Maybe I’m hallucinating.

But what I see is this – the lake, silvery in the strong moonlight, pulses, subtly heaving up and down, as though it’s breathing. I move closer, standing close enough now for my breath to fog the floor-to-ceiling windows a bit, and I can see that maybe it’s not pulsing after all, but it’s in some sort of steady motion all the same.

After a moment, it’s clear that from somewhere to the west, down the length of the open water, an almost imperceptible force – not quite wind – is nudging the water eastward, bouncing it off the rocky shore in front of our house at an odd angle, and that combination of waves and wind and shore and moonlight is creating something I’ve never seen before.

Living here on the shore of Messalonskee Lake in Central Maine, it’s not unusual for me to see the water in a way I’ve never seen it before. In fact, it’s become commonplace, a source of almost daily fascination. Some days it might be a strange band of dark still water bisecting the otherwise variegated surface. Some days it might be a concentration of irregularly shaped rings scattered randomly across the surface in the lee of Blake’s Island. And some days, especially in the thick morning fog, the water is indistinguishable from the land or the sky on the horizon.

But here’s the deal: it’s always the same lake. The shore never shifts. Blake’s Island never moves. The treeline opposite me varies in color only. So given those parameters only, one might reasonably expect constancy. Not so.

Standing there before the window and the silvery breathing surface of the lake, it occurs to me that maybe life is like this, too. Most of the parameters of my days seem fixed — same routines, same job, same relationships. There’s not a lot of variance in them, and usually, I regard that constancy as a blessing.

But suppose my days demanded my attention the way the lake seems to do? Suppose I was powerfully drawn to stop and look – I mean really look – at any given moment? Would I see something I’ve never seen before?

Then I’d really be one lucky man.

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Because I am a creature of habit, I see them around 5:30 nearly every morning as I make my way to the gym. They are both smallish, probably in their mid-60s. And even though it’s still pretty dark that early, I can see that they resemble one another in the way that long-married couples often do — both seem to have pretty much the same haircut, the same glasses, and even the same slightly stooped posture and cramped gait. Thankfully, they are wearing matching reflective vests — the kind normally sported by highway workers — so the handful of us who are out this early have no trouble spotting them from a pretty good ways away. It’s clear they are walking for exercise, though not just exercise, for as they make their way along the street, they stoop to pick up empty water bottles or hot dog boxes or stray plastic bags, anything that’s accumulated along the curb since the previous morning. And this morning when I see them, I think of Bill Gates.

It’s a stretch, I know. Though he may do so, I find it hard to imagine that Bill Gates spends much time in a reflective vest picking up trash. In fact years ago, I read an funny piece in Harper’s by Brad Templeton that calculated that it wouldn’t be worth the software titan’s time to even stop to pick up a $1000 bill (that number has long since increased, I’m sure). But Bill Gates, along with Warren Buffet and a few dozen other billionaires, have just pledged to do something very interesting — give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes through an initiative called The Giving Pledge.

It’s an admirable gesture, I think, one that has the power to make a significant impact in the philanthropic landscape. But there’s a risk here, too. By hearkening back to the days of the billionaire philanthropists of old — the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts — we may find it easier to imagine that giving back is the obligation of only that rarefied class. The gesture they are making is so far beyond the capacity, even the imagination, of most of us that it can, if viewed from a certain perspective, seem utterly foreign.

I have the good fortune to work in a trade in which I continually see evidence of giving in action. I routinely meet and write about those who have given thousands, tens of thousands, even millions to a cause they deem worthy, and I get to see firsthand how transformational their generosity can be. Students who might not otherwise have had a chance to earn a degree graduate and join the workforce. Research discoveries that may have remained hidden are brought forth, carrying with them the potential to change our world. Scholars who have much to offer and little time to articulate it find the intellectual breathing room to help us understand more about who we are.

Yet when I think of this couple scuttling along in the predawn light reflecting back my headlights, I’m thinking that they, too, are giving back. They are making a small, silent, almost unseen gesture that edifies their community and, by extension, them. They are acting on an impulse that exists in all of us, no matter how hard we may seek ways to stifle it, and that is the impulse to give something back. Time. Talent. Treasure. It doesn’t matter.

I’m glad to see the list of billionaires who have taken the pledge to give back, just as I’m glad to see the quiet gestures of the remarkably ordinary folks who take the time to enrich something besides themselves. For both remind me of the richness of our lives, and our deep-seated and abiding obligation to share some of that richness.

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I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to imagine the scale of the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. My friend sent me this link, which is certainly helpful in visualizing the size of the spill. (Not for the faint of heart.) But even that graphic representation doesn’t do justice to what’s actually going on. After all, tens of thousands of gallons of oil are continuing to pour forth, befouling the water, the shore, the wildlife, and the image of the mere mortals who are futilely trying to staunch the flow.

Forgive me, but at times those efforts — at least as they have been characterized by the media — have seemed like profoundly simplistic tactics, especially when compared to the sophistication of the techniques used to extract the oil.

They’ve tried lowering a big — and then a small – dome over it. The top hat? Please. Then filling it with drilling mud and — though they didn’t get that far — old golf balls and tires. Finally,  they thought maybe they could just run a hose down there and suck that nasty oil right up to a waiting ship. When the word got out a few days ago that the feds and BP were including Hollywood director James Cameron in a group brainstorming possible solutions, it was almost enough to make me laugh out loud. Almost. (Cameron has since criticized the “morons” who wouldn’t hear him out.)

Whether or not James Cameron is smarter than everyone else, what’s obvious by now, and what is not the least bit laughable, is that there is not a single soul who understands what the best next step should be. There is not a single soul who envisioned this calamitous failure of man’s ingenuity.

And why should they have imagined it? After all, consider for a moment what a feat this kind of thing is. Most of us know that the wellhead is a mile beneath the surface of the ocean, but the oil bed itself is far, far deeper. BP was authorized to drill 18,000 feet below the seabed, but some reports suggests that they, in fact, drilled much deeper. Some say 22,000 feet. Think on that. That’s more than four miles beneath the surface of the earth. One commentator on NPR described it — in terms of the sheer bravado of its engineering — as no less remarkable than landing a man on the moon.

That we can locate oil at that depth is amazing enough. That we can drill down into it from a semi-submersible oil rig some 50 miles offshore and bring it forth to be commodified is, certainly by human measures, nothing short of a miracle. It’s certainly clear that BP felt that was the case. We know now that just before the rig exploded, a group of executives from the beleaguered firm were on board to celebrate the Deepwater Horizon’s safety record and its pending conversion from an exploration rig to a oil-producing rig. We all know what happened next.

Back in high school, my English teacher taught me about hubris with illustrations from classical literature. Achilles. Icarus. Macbeth. And for many years, I carried those examples around with me, imagining them to be pertinent only in the rarefied context of literary analysis. What I know now, of course, is that history is littered with examples of man’s folly, of his overbearing pride, and of his contempt for what the consequences of that pride may be.

According to this MSNBC story, BP’s chief executive office Tony Hayward told The Financial Times of London that it was “an entirely fair criticism” to say the company had not been fully prepared for a deepwater oil leak, going on to call the disaster a “low-probability, high-impact” accident.

Low probability. Right.

Thanks, Icarus. I feel so much better now.

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It was just a sandwich. Nothing special, really. Roast beef, havarti, chive mayonnaise, and a few limp leaves of romaine on a white roll. So, in terms of helping the homeless, I suppose it wasn’t much. But it was something my daughter felt strongly about doing, so we did it. We tried anyway.

I should say up front that my town doesn’t have much of a homeless problem. Or if it does, it’s pretty invisible. There used to be a couple of men that you’d see pretty regularly — at the library, shuffling past downtown storefronts, sitting on benches at odd hours. When one of them died not long ago, it was a news item. Turns out he had a wife, a daughter, and even a home. The narrative couldn’t account for why he turned away from all those comforts to live on the streets. Now that he’s passed, there’s only one man that we see with any regularity, and it was the sight of him sitting alone inside a local mall last evening, wrapped in tattered blankets and surrounded by a couple of bulging canvas bags, that triggered my daughter’s desire to help.

We’d passed him on the way out of the gym, but she didn’t say anything until a few minutes later while we were at the grocery store stocking up of a holiday party we’re planning.

“I feel really sorry for him,” she says as we browse the cheese case.

“Who?” I ask.

“That man at the mall. The homeless one.”

“Yeah, it’s sad.”

“Would it be okay if we bought some dinner for him? A sandwich or something?”

A simple question, really. And an honorable impulse. But still …

“I don’t know, honey…” My voice trails off here, and I busy myself looking over the party platters of perfectly cubed cheese and artfully rolled salami.

The shameful truth is that this simple suggestion, this single desire to help in some small way, brings me face to face with my own carefully cultivated attitude, an attitude that allows me to see this same man nearly every day and do nothing. It’s not indifference, and it’s not a lack of compassion. It’s that peculiar capacity we all have developed to see need and turn away, to prevent that need from registering in a way that would spur us to immediate action.

Of course none of this occurs to me at the grocery store. What I do there is wrap my arm around my daughter’s shoulder and walk with over to the deli where we pick out the roast beef sub. We pay for it along with the rest of the groceries and walk the half-block through the bitter cold back down to the mall.

She wants me to give it to him, so I take the sack from her hands. He sees me coming and begins waving me off and muttering. I approach, but a bit more slowly.

“It’s just a sandwich,” I say, extending the sack forward, like a peace offering.

With one hand, he clutches his blanket closer around his neck, and with the other, pulls one of his canvas sacks closer. His voice is deep and gruff, and loud enough for my daughter, standing back a few feet, to hear.

“Go away.”

Maybe I should have left it there. Maybe I should have insisted that he take it. Maybe I should have asked him if he needing anything else. I don’t do any of these things. Instead, I wish him a merry Christmas and turn away.

I saw him again this morning at 5:00 as I got to the gym, hurrying through the parking lot with his odd rolling gait, heading for the warmth of the mall. I didn’t say anything to him, and I still don’t know what to say to my daughter.

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I can't wait to not read this.

I can't wait to not read this.

Dan Brown’s latest novel, The Lost Symbol, hit the newsstands last week. Okay, maybe “hit” is not the right word. The new release actually rolled over the newsstands. Sources say the thriller sold well over a million copies in the United States, Canada, and Britain on the first day it was released. It dominated sales at Amazon — both in the hardcover version and the digital version for the Kindle. The Lost Symbol, of course, follows Brown’s other opus, The Da Vinci Code, which according to the author’s web site, has sold more than 40 million copies.

Think about that for a minute. 40 million copies. That’s a heap of books, and this is one successful author.

So what’s the mystery?

Dan Brown is a terrible writer. And I don’t mean “Gee, I just don’t care much for that style” kind of terrible. I mean the guy is really, really bad.

My wife and I read The Da Vinci Code , mainly just to see what all the fuss was about. The book stunned us into silence. For a couple of days, we couldn’t bring ourselves to talk about it. You know that feeling you get when you’re in a gallery somewhere and you’re standing in front of a piece of art — usually modern or postmodern — that you just don’t understand? Most of us tend to stifle that small questioning voice because, hey — it’s in an art gallery. It must be good, even if I don’t get it.

Reading The Da Vinci Code was like that for me — except the gallery had 40 million people in it and the painting had been done with a bucket of tempera and one of those chunky brushes your preschooler uses. Even setting aside the glaring historical hogwash or the clumsy attempts to use dialogue to fill in the backstory, the language itself is clunky and often mangled in a way that defies description.

I mean, get a load of this, taken from Chapter Four of The Da Vinci Code:

He could taste the familiar tang of museum air – an arid, deionized essence that carried a faint hint of carbon – the product of industrial, coal-filter dehumidifiers that ran around the clock to counteract the corrosive carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors.

Huh?

Still, though, my wife and I did the socially acceptable thing and held our tongues when people asked us if we had read it, or recommended it to us as a “really good book.”

So imagine how relieved I was to discover we are not alone. This article in the Telegraph pulls back the curtain to reveal just what a bad writer Dan Brown is, and offers 20 good examples.

More to come …

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