What Is Safe?

When our oldest daughter was only a couple of years old, I started a routine of taking her out for “cookies and milk” on weekends. It was intended to carve out special time for her when she had my undivided attention. I was working a lot more then…I do my best to work less these days…but for some reason, we lost the routine. Partly because we discovered that everyone in our family has some variety of a food allergy that makes true “cookies and milk” almost impossible unless it’s made from scratch at home, and partly because, as she got older, life changed a bit. I always said that it might hold as a tradition, or it might not, but the important thing was that we held onto having dedicated daddy-daughter time.

This weekend, I was driving home from that outing. We had spent some time at one of our favorite haunts…a local Barnes & Noble…in which she described all of her favorite characters from a book series she is reading. On the drive home, the driver of a vehicle in the opposite lane appeared to become distracted for a split second. The vehicle began to swerve into our lane. The driver realized instantly and course-corrected…the incident wasn’t even enough to be truly concerning. Even so, I found myself thinking that, although I wasn’t driving fast, had the driver not corrected, there would have been little chance that I could have done anything to prevent a disastrous result.

That’s not just a New England traffic story. There have been countless moments like that in my life, just driving on a daily commute, in which another second could have made the difference in a terrible way. I’m thankful for each one turning out as it did. Like most of the world, I really don’t drive that much these days, but the fact is that, every time I do, risk…sometimes serious risk…is inherent.

Driving…or riding the train, or flying…is a potentially horrible outcome presented to us each time we do it. We’re encapsulating ourselves in a steel vehicle hurtling down a road or a track or through the sky at amazing speeds, and ultimately hoping it turns out for the best. And, to be honest, if you do it enough, eventually it won’t turn out for the best. Most of us have had the accidents to prove that fact.

My point in this is that there are traffic laws and vehicle manufacturing regulations out there designed to keep us “safe,” but we aren’t. We can’t be. And sure, those laws and regulations do good things, and prevent a certain number of tragedies, but they don’t make us safe. We choose to not be safe as soon as we get into the car. It’s a risk we’re willing to take.

The rhetoric of the pandemic has been “stay safe.” We want to know if an event is “safe.” What’s being done to keep us “safe?” I’m going to be honest, I want to scream every time I hear the word safe, because we’re reaching for an impossible state. And while I suppose there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be safer…I’m always reminding our kids of wear their helmets when riding bikes…I think that it’s important for us to recognize that we can’t be truly safe, ever. And giving up our freedoms and allowing blatantly dictatorial actions to happen in the name of keeping us safe never leads to good results.

I’m not a reckless person. I drive so slowly since we had children that it really bothers Karen at times…a drastic change from my single days when I used to just expect speeding tickets. I take reasonable precautions. I think that it’s important, though, to stop whenever we’re about to give up something in the name of safety, and realize that we can’t ever have the ultimate result of that transaction. Safety is simply a state that doesn’t exist.

And constantly striving for it will do more harm than good.

Futurist Retrospective

There are lot of ways that I’m a futurist.

I think that this is much to Karen’s chagrin. I tend to not just adapt to, but seek change in many ways, especially around technology. We were created as creators, after all, and I see the digital sphere as a grand, if occasionally misguided, expression of our creativity. That’s not to say that I grab every new toy that becomes available. Even if our budget were to allow, I believe in a spiritual discipline of avoiding materialism. I also believe that every technology should solve a problem for you, and that, if it doesn’t, it’s likely excessive to have it in your life.

That said, as the technology world goes, I supposed I’m still a bit of curmudgeon. I use some social media, but generally my perspective is that without it, we would have fewer problems. I read my news digitally, but I still prefer to read the paper every morning, even if it is in digital format. I use an RSS reader of sources that I know are reputable rather than allow someone else’s algorithm to feed me information. When I was splitting a lunch bill with some colleagues once, I asked if they had a PayPal account that I could send the money to, and they looked at me blankly as though I were an illiterate luddite.

There are also areas of my life in which I’m anachronistic. I refuse to use modern technology to make my coffee. I grind it in a hand grinder, measure the water carefully, and use a press for my morning caffeination. While my to-do lists are digital because I see a legitimate need to be able to access them from anywhere, any important thoughts or notes that I have about life or inspiration or reflection go into a leather traveler’s notebook that Karen gifted me for Christmas several years ago. There’s something about the discipline of slowing down long enough to write something by hand that is deeply important.

Some of my family finds this amusing. My father-in-law jokingly says that he likes watching me make coffee because I’m a “mad scientist.” I’m fairly certain I’ve gotten some strange looks on flights while journaling my thoughts. It’s just not something that one sees often any longer.

So, while there are ways that I’m a futurist, I suppose that these aren’t among them.

I remember a conversation some years ago with an old friend during our weekly meeting at a local coffee shop. We were discussing how, in Victorian times, everyone kept a journal. Publishing the private journals and papers of influential thinkers, often posthumously, has long been a valued practice in the academic community. I recall making the point in that conversation that blogs were the modern equivalent of this practice, only with the added benefit of inviting conversation from others on the thoughts recorded. Today, I think that I would be more uncertain of whether or not I was onto something there, and, even if I were, the algorithms of social media have all but degraded blogs to the backs of our minds (who has time to ready 200 word posts?) and, even if they haven’t in some circles, the beauty of a blog is the conversation, and almost no one comments on posts these days. So, even if I was correct and we were onto something important there, I think we’ve mostly managed to lose it among the noise.


There’s a theory out there that digital technology never actually makes anything easier for us (I’m specifying digital here, because I don’t think most of would argue against innovations like machines that do our laundry for us). As our work becomes more knowledge-based and less physical, we have developed the capacity to work from anywhere. While that’s a luxury that affords us more time, it also consumes more of our time because we can never switch it off. Sometimes I wonder if the Internet was a better place when it was a place we went to when we intentionally sat down behind a computer and initiated a connection, rather than having it in our pockets all of the time and always on. We’ve rushed to achieve so much, and we have largely succeeded. To paraphrase Captain America, though, they didn’t tell us what we’ve lost. There’s a point of connection that we don’t have if we see each other primarily on a screen.

I guess my point here is that everything becomes progressively more frenetic. And I know that I’ve written about this before, but it’s something that always seems to be on my mind of late, because everything keeps happening faster, and faster, and..it was too fast already when I began thinking about this topic.

I wish sometimes that we could go back. I think I’ve made it apparent here that I’m not against digital progress. It’s that I think that we hit a sweet spot some years ago, and things would have been really great if we had collectively pressed pause and broken free of the illusion that we can never appreciate this great thing that we’ve done, but rather have to immediately rush onto the next thing. And while that sweet spot would be defined slightly differently by different people, I really think that, if we could just rewind a bit…back to before social media spiraled out of control, back to before the web was in our pockets and on our wrists at all times, back to when people read books more than screens…I think that would be collectively better for doing so.

Anyone who has ever tried to downgrade an operating system will tell you, though, that you can’t go back. We can only make the best of what we have and move forward. Perhaps if we just decided to settle in, though, and work on making the best of it before rushing into what’s next….

I guess that wouldn’t be progress, though. And I wouldn’t be much of a futurist if I recommended it.

Or would I?

Cognitive Dissonance

I grew up in a small town. Actually, that’s an understatement. Where I grew up, a small town is where you went for excitement. I lived in this strange rural/suburban mashup that was too far away from anything to be in any way convenient. School, my friends, life….all a minimum of 30 minutes away. Except for our church. That was conveniently “just up the road.”

I exaggerate a bit. Not all of my friends were far away. I had close friends in my church youth group (yes, I’m part of that generation in which the youth group was a staple for any regular church-going family), and I had close friends in school, but the strange part was…they were never the same group, and they never mixed. There were a variety of reasons for that. Several of my friends in the church group attended private schools, and some actually attended my school but were just part of a different crowd. We all remember how agonizingly clique-ish high school was.

As I grew older, I spent more time with my school friends, because all of my extra-curricular activities were with them. I still attended church regularly, but I really never saw my church friends outside of service times or youth group. By the time I left for college, that group of friends had really dwindled into almost no one with whom I maintained contact. Such was life. Such was getting older, growing up, “coming of age,” as they say.

You see, I always wanted the excitement of the city. I couldn’t leave where I grew up fast enough, much to my family’s chagrin, and I’ve sought out urban areas in which to live as an adult. I remember returning home for a visit at one point, and needing to fill up the car. I drove for 20 minutes to a service station, at which I could just fill up without paying at the pump first…the honor system that I would go in and pay after. How quickly I had forgotten this life.


When we visited my parents two summers ago, my Mom needed help running some errands in an even more rural area than they live. I drove her out the winding country roads, over hills with sharp switchbacks and narrow passages in which you just sort of hope that you don’t meet oncoming traffic (although the term “traffic” doesn’t really apply there), until we reached our destination…a church on a hilltop.

It was a sunny, August day with a blue sky devoid of clouds. At the top of the hill, just a few hundred yards before the church, sat a man in a utility truck. I imagine he was on a lunch break. He was the only other person in sight within the expansive view in front of us. It was peaceful…birds chirping the only sound one could hear. I remember stopping to take in the scene, to memorize it. It was so very different than my daily life now. My father worked in those sorts of areas until he retired. He would tell stories of some adventures that he experienced, but he loved the remote-ness, the peace and quiet, I think because he was drafted into service during Vietnam and saw the world in a way he never wanted.


When I was in high school, the closer I came to my senior year, I remember feeling more and more out of place at church. This wasn’t because I was losing my faith or anything of that nature, just that the culture of those people was waning on me, was one in which (I say to my discredit) I just wasn’t interested. There was a conversation from a couple of years prior that had been lost to the fog of memory for me until recently when it floated to the surface for some reason. One of my youth group friends pondered what would happen if there was a huge fight between the “city kids” and her friends. What would happen? Who would win? That conversation sat with me for a while. It felt symbolic, representative of a feeling that I had difficulty articulating, the embodiment of why I could never reconcile the two circles in which I traveled.

Is this where our differences come from? The cognitive dissonance between experiences causes a gap that we can’t bridge. I never connected these groups of friends not because of faith, but because of culture, not being mature enough at the time to see that faith can be a bridge between cultures. I walked in both worlds with much effort, not because of rare opportunity but because of determination. Now, when I return to visit, I understand the people there. I get how they think, because I was one of them, the same as I understand how people think where I live now because I’ve become one of them. The more we experience, the more we understand, the more we can hear. These experiences, these chances to see new things, have grown all too rare for most in a pandemic world, which only serves to exacerbate our divisions, because the inverse is also true. The less we experience, the fewer new things and other people that we encounter, the less we understand, the more isolationist we become. The deeper our divisions grow. The more we dwell on the differences of the unknown “other.”

As normalcy returns to us, I think the cure is fairly simple.

Anxiety and hatred aren’t formed in a vacuum, but…they will die in the sunlight.

Stories of Toys

A photo of my daughters' Toy Story collection.

Last weekend, we celebrated our youngest daughter’s birthday. I’m still slightly amazed at how old she is, but I think that’s a fairly universal experience among parents. When we asked what kind of party she wanted, she immediately decided that she wanted a Toy Story party. This wasn’t really a surprise given that it’s become her recent Disney + binge (don’t judge us…pandemic…). So, we ordered the supplies and scheduled a (very small and family-only, given the circumstances) birthday party. The party was delayed, though, because of New England weather that tends to mock such plans, and so we actually celebrated twice: the original date was just us, some cake and gifts from grandparents who were diligently on FaceTime to observe, and then the girls, of course, wanted to watch Toy Story. Because Forky was the subject of the day, they wanted to watch Toy Story 4, in which this character is introduced. So, we had some cake, and sat down to watch.

Permit me to pause here and describe what I know about Toy Story. I knew that it’s been around for a while, because I remember seeing the first move in theatres not long after I had finished undergrad. I didn’t appreciate how long ago until I looked this up and did the math. The original Toy Story was released nearly 25 years ago. So, first off, it’s enduring, and secondly….I’m old.

When my daughters began collecting toys from the movie, I knew there had been more than one, but figured it was one of those things in which Disney was just making more to continue to cash in on the first movie’s success. When Karen and the girls were visiting family out of state a couple of summers ago and she called to say they were headed out to see Toy Story 4, I remember replying something to the effect of, “Sheesh, there are 4 of those? What else can they do with that plot?” And that was the extent of my knowledge of the franchise.

Watching the fourth film, and then later that afternoon others in the series, with the kids, made me realize why. Sort of like Star Wars if you’ve ever tried to catch up on that universe, there’s a lot to Toy Story. And it’s actually really interesting. They’ve developed these characters over the course of the films, but there’s more there than just that.

I recently watched some of the documentary series The Toys That Made Us, which was like re-living childhood to me. Those toys…Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, Star Wars…so much of that defined my childhood in so many ways. At first blush, it was that I was a collector, just as my daughters are becoming collectors now, but it’s more than that. When I think of those toys, and playing with them and opening some as Christmas and birthday gifts, I don’t so much think of the toys themselves. I think of my childhood, of the blessed journey that I had through my early years, the way that I was loved by my family and learned what family is about. I think of my parents, and what they did for me through those years. I’m motivated to give that love and support to my children, to provide for them as my parents did for me, to give them the most amazing childhood that’s within my power to give.

I ended the day of that small birthday party wistful. A lot of those toys that I grew up with as a child are still with me, either in storage or on display in my office. Many of them are invaluable to me, but not necessarily as objects…as symbols. When I think about those toys, or go through my old collection of them, I feel love. And I want to give love to my children. Love, not just stuff. These toys are serving as a symbol, in that they point to something larger than themselves, participating in that larger reality.

Part of what makes me enjoy Toy Story so much now is that it’s really a sort of love letter to those toys from my childhood, and all that they represent to me in adulthood. They manage to capture this experience that I’m having as an adult looking back, while looking at the present of my children. There’s a genius in the writing. I can’t help but think that these toys will be with my girls when they’re my age, perhaps sitting on a shelf on display, and that they will remember the loving home in which they spent their childhood.

That is my prayer.

To infinity, and beyond.

Getting to Know You

Photo of green Monopoly houses. Used under Creative Commons.

The last time that we travelled feels like forever ago, even though it was only March. During our two-week visit to help my parents though a medical procedure, I got into the habit of going for walks in the morning before starting my day. I was working remotely from there, and helping with chores, and the fresh air in between the time when one ended and the other began helped to frame the daily rhythm. I think that it was driven by memory at the time…I enjoyed surveying the back yard of my childhood and thinking through how it has changed through the decades, experiencing that odd virtual reality of the mind when reflections of the way it looked then overlay the way it looks now. The habit of going for a walk I found to be unexpectedly healthy. It was a time for reflection, for prayer, a time to focus before the day’s responsibilities truly took hold.

As we arrived home from that trip, just as the pandemic was gripping the Northeast in earnest and just before life ground to a forced halt, I kept this routine. Unable to go the gym, this also became my exercise and workout. I found that, if I woke just 30 minutes earlier than usual, I could work a healthy walk or run around the neighborhood into my morning, before it would have been time for me to leave for my normal commute (even though my commute was already a thing of memory). So, the habit stays. Karen has began referring to this as my morning and evening “constitutional.”

A funny thing happens when several other people are doing this very thing. You start to pass neighbors on the street regularly. You begin speaking to them. You pause for conversation.

This process is painful, though. I didn’t want it. The change was an interruption to our life, to my plans for the spring and summer. I was frustrated and angry, and resented getting to see these people so regularly. Frequently, though, personal and spiritual growth requires this sort of discomfort.

A few weeks ago, five of us gathered in a driveway while our children rode bikes up and down the street. We talked, learned of each others’ lives, what we do for a living…learned each others’ names. And, while this may sound trivial, it is not, because it is not commonplace in our individualistic society. We pass each other, not knowing or wanting to know each other, until we are all forced to slow down. When we do let each other into our lives, though, even at a surface level, the act quickly reveals itself to be a beautiful thing. We feel safer with our children playing outside. We’re more quickly aware of someone’s needs. We’re disabused of the illusion that any of us are islands, and we realize that we share a distinct place and time, that our lives are connected, a part of each other. A shared humanity is realized.

The pandemic that is injecting chaos into our lives is a horrific thing. There is good, however, if we look deeply. Knowing your neighborhood and those living next to you is a good thing, and a very rare thing. We just had to be made to slow down to realize it.

Image attribution: woodleywonderworks under Creative Commons.