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From Point A …

Home of the IndiansThese are pretty big days in our house, at least for my soon-to-be 16-year-old son. Last week, he started his first job at a local grocery store, and this week he starts driver’s ed. It’s not so hard to see that, in many ways, these are significant milestones in his life, milestones that mark a time when his circle — his entire world, really — begins to expand at a pretty dramatic pace. This is just Point A, and I spend no small amount of time wondering what other waypoints he’ll pass in his lifetime, and what he will make of it all.

Usually, it’s pretty hard for me to remember that far back in my own life, back to a time when so many possibilities stretched out before me, and so few had been ruled out. Maybe that’s why, when a handful of my friends from those days took the time and trouble to put together a reunion for the Portage High School Class of 1975, my initial interest didn’t really go beyond a passing curiosity. Most of my memories just didn’t seem strong enough to warrant the 12 hour drive north from the mountains of Virginia to the shores of Lake Michigan.

But as the days passed and the friend requests kept coming in, I felt something stir, something that went beyond curiosity. Names that held only a glimmer of recognition for me began to coalesce around newly discovered memories — ill-advised road trips to Michigan, long summer days on the Lake Michigan shore, two-a-day football practices in the thick summer air, hanging out in Jungle Hall. My friend Gail played a key role here, bolstering my fading recollections with a reasonable incredulity — “How can you not remember her?” — and remarkable grace, supplying me with bits and pieces that pulled up memories from some pretty obscure corners of my brain.  And with each new recollection came the pleasure of rediscovering something I had long ago treasured, and then somehow misplaced.

That pleasure only magnified when I arrived at the country club for the reunion. There they were — my first serious crush, some teammates from the football team, the girl next door, and the pal that I roamed the streets with summer after summer after summer. Some I recognized instantly, but some I didn’t recognize until a particular mannerism or pattern of speech lifted the veil that three decades had drawn between us, leaving them there before me as clear-eyed and hopeful and young as they had been so many years before. I heard tales of triumph and tragedy, loss and gain, happiness and heartache, sickness and health. Some of these tales left me stunned, characterized as they were by uncommon courage and sacrifice. Some left me doubled over in laughter, as I had been so often growing up. And some of them left me with a profound sense of gratitude that I should know someone so loyal, so true, and so resilient.

More than 35 years have passed since our Point A — the time when we got our first jobs and slipped behind the wheel for the first time — and while we may well have felt our world expanding, I doubt that many of us could have foreseen what that actually would come to mean — how our lives would be shaped moment by moment, decision by decision. Of course it’s easy enough to look back three and a half decades later to see what went right and what went wrong, what we would do again and what we wish we had never done. But after all this time, does it really matter? Are we not, for better or for worse, precisely where we are meant to be?

Thanks in part to having reconnected with so many old friends, I’m more convinced than ever that I am, but maybe that’s just me. I am, as I’ve said before, one lucky man.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “One Lucky Man and a bear.“, posted with vodpod

Hubris, anyone?

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.

Like most parents, we’ve made the rounds of talent shows and recitals and such. So Sunday night, as we made our way to a talent show presented by my son’s church youth group, I felt like I knew pretty much what to expect: note-for-note renditions of some recital pieces on the piano, a few beautiful young voices (practically) perfectly pitched, maybe a couple of feats of strength or dexterity — all punctuated by some skits that only a teenage mind could craft … or appreciate.

And, for the most part, I got exactly what I expected. Someone played the theme from “The Lord of the Rings” on the piano. One girl played and sang “Misty,” a very cool surprise. A brother and sister did an admirable job with a pop song. One young woman was even bold enough to try dancing en pointe on the carpeted stage, an attempt that, while earnest enough, probably would have been better on a more appropriate surface. So when my son, a pretty talented kid, sat down at the piano to play and sing “Walls,” a song by The Rocket Summer, I figured he’d fit right in.

But I was wrong.

I should have known better. There were certainly clues. First, while he’s always — and I mean always — singing or playing the piano or the guitar or listening to his iPod, he’s going even further this summer, thanks to his new band, Suite 325. A product of the Music Lab at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke, Suite 325 is a group of six hand-picked young musicians who are getting taught — no kidding — how to be a rock band. It’s a very cool idea, and one that I think is going to have a big influence on those lucky enough to be a part of  it. (Their first show is June 5th at Kirk Avenue Music Hall in Roanoke.)

The other thing I should have considered is that we had spent the evening before in the front row at a Warren Barfield show. You probably don’t know Warren Barfield, though he gets a bit of airplay from time to time. He’s a Christian pop/folk artist, and we’ve been listening to him in our house for a few years now. A lot of his recorded music is quintessential hook-laden pop, pretty easy on the ears, but a far cry from the cookie-cutter praise music you often hear from Christian artists. But Warren Barfield live was something else. Lots of funky rhythm, a heavy backbeat, and a kind of Dave Matthews improv feel to it. Simon and I were both pretty spellbound.

So here he was, less than 24 hours after that experience, sitting down at the piano, adjusting the mike, fiddling around. I knew something was up when he leaned forward, then paused for a moment before beginning, his hands resting on the piano keys. He pulled in a deep breath, then blew it out off-mike. I’ve seen my son perform in all kinds of ways — in martial arts, singing, dancing, even playing the lead in Macbeth — but I’d never seen him do that before, and wasn’t exactly sure what it meant.

But after the first couple of bars, I knew. He wasn’t there just to play the notes. He was there to perform.

I sat very still, stunned by what I was watching. I’m no stranger to his ability. I’ve seen it showcased before. But this wasn’t about ability. This was about passion. This was about watching him find another gear, one that required him to dig a little deeper and become more mindful of the music, and less mindful of the moment.

I’m not sure if he hit all the right notes. Frankly, my tin ear wouldn’t be able to discern if he was “pitchy” or not. And, unlike a Hollywood ending, the room did not erupt into thunderous applause that echoed off the walls for long moments after he stopped playing. (It did seem a bit more enthusiastic than just polite acknowledgment, but that could well be my bias.)

But I am sure that something else happened last night, something that maybe he’s not even aware of. I’m also sure that we’re both pretty excited to see what comes next.

Virginia’s powerhouse NPR affiliate, WVTF, recently aired a version of one of my blog posts that I recorded for them. Have a listen, and let me know what you think.  You can find it here.

Even from the outset, it was no ordinary day. I remember sitting at a stoplight that morning three years ago, on my way to my office on the campus of Virginia Tech, and thinking that I wasn’t sure I had ever seen snow — mid-April snow, no less — being blown horizontally. It didn’t appear to be falling even, just sweeping across the landscape, scouring the newly green earth. Of course, within just a few short hours, other unlikely events would come to pass, events far more significant than a late spring snow. I did not know that then. I wish I did not know that now.

Three years have passed since that time, and today, many are remembering that same morning in their own ways. Some will remember communally, gathering to listen to music, to learn from speakers, to reflect quietly. Thousands will run 3.2 miles in remembrance of the 32 lives lost. There is solace here, to be sure — the solace that comes from sharing grief with others who have felt it. There will be hugs. There will be candles. And there will be tears. As usual, my friends and colleagues from University Relations here at Virginia Tech will be on hand to record those moments and more.

But many of us — and I count myself among that number — will remember that morning privately. Here are some things I remember.

I remember the way that same wind blew for days without ceasing, a bitter wind that made every moment feel urgent and heightened every emotion. A wind so constant that when it finally stopped, it seemed just as loud in its absence.

I remember the swarms of people — the press, the police, university administrators, students, parents, gawkers — descending on the Inn at Virginia Tech like attendees at some grim carnival. Among that number were the parents, colleagues, and friends of those that were lost — dumbstruck with grief, wandering the corridors, marked by blank and impenetrable stares.

I remember the constant hum of the war room, our makeshift communications center in the midst of the crisis. The televisions blaring with constant coverage. The knots of state police, FBI, and university officials, huddled in corners. The phones clattering endlessly as journalists, alumni, ordinary people from around the world called in seeking answers. Those of us whose job was to provide those answers pounded on our laptops, crafting responses, sharing them with those who were cradling phones between chin and shoulder, trying their best to respond to all the questions that came their way, and I remember the frustration that we all felt as we faced the fact that there was so much — so very very much — that we did not know and could not explain.

I remember slipping into a conference room at the inn, seeking out a senior administrator to prepare her for an interview with Oprah. At the moment I stepped in, the president of the university, the superintendent of the state police, representatives of the FBI, and the county coroner were trying to explain to a room full of devastated loved ones why they could not yet claim — could not yet see — the bodies of those they lost, and I remember how I knew that moment would be burned indelibly into my consciousness, that I would never escape its import.

And I remember joining a crowd of Hokies on the Drillfield a week later, as representatives from the Student Government Association  released a single balloon — one at a time — for each life lost.  32 balloons, each climbing skyward so slowly it seemed reluctant to leave the earth.  Thousands of us watched, struck silent by profound grief.

Close your eyes now. Count to 32. Go slowly. Pause after each number, and imagine a life lost for each number you count. Imagine the vacuum that each of those lives left behind.

There. That’s the size of our loss. That’s the scope of our grief.

I carry these and many more memories with me today and every day. I do not want them. I long for the day when I need no longer carry them so close at hand. But today is not that day. Not for me, and not for many of you who are reading this post. We remember. Not because we want to, but because we must.

Life underground.

Sitting here in my office in my starched shirt and shiny shoes, my head filled with decisions to make and copy to write and staff to manage, it’s pretty easy to forget that I am the grandson of a coal miner. Easy, that is, until I read that rescuers in Montcoal, West Virginia have once again been forced to return to the surface, leaving their colleagues somewhere far, far below.

More than five decades ago, back when he was a young man, my father joined a pilgrimage of his peers who left coal country and traveled up Route 23 as it snaked its way north out of the mountains through Pound, Jenkins, Pikeville and on. Many of them ended up in Gary, Indiana, where they traded in a miner’s life for a steel worker’s life. But they never stayed far from home. Not in their hearts anyway. As a kid, I remember making the trip back to Virginia at least three or four times a year, back to where the roads wound through narrow gaps and coal trains and trucks rumbled constantly.

I’ve never been to Montcoal, West Virginia, but that doesn’t mean I’d be a stranger. I’d recognize the tumbledown houses wedged together wherever there is enough room between the creek and the hillside. I’d recognize the coal tipples and rail yards that crowd the narrow two-lane highways. And I think I’d recognize the people — hardscrabble men in work clothes or camouflage, faces and hands creased and darkened by life underground; women on front porches or hanging clothes on a line, many of them heavier than they should be, the older ones in muted floral housedresses; kids everywhere, looking as though they could use a bath or a decent haircut or an outlet for their dreams.

I’m not trying to judge here, for I know firsthand that their lives are far more nuanced than we might imagine. I also know that their lives are inextricably bound to those coal seams miles underground or exposed at the top of decimated ridges above them. The danger, the dirt, the pollution — it is a part of their daily existence in the same way my starched shirts and shiny shoes are a part of mine. But they are not to be pitied. They are to be admired — for their grit, their determination, their bravery.

Of course, one can easily argue that their existence is not a noble one, that the industry that they serve and that supports them is as dark and foreboding as the tunnels they traverse. But it is their life. It is their way. And it is done not just for their own self-interest. It is done so that those of us with a seemingly insatiable appetite for all that coal produces can continue to live our lives as we choose.

So today, as anxious loved ones wait for confirmation of what they no doubt know to be the eventual outcome, I’m thinking of my grandfather, and my uncles, and of all the folks I’ve never met in Montcoal, West Virginia, and I’m offering up a prayer for solace.

I hope you’ll do the same.