Nearly every Thanksgiving, I write a column to remind myself of the many blessings I enjoy. While writing the annual Thanksgiving essay on gratitude is useful for me, I recognize that it might get tedious for other readers. This year, I’m taking a different approach and considering things I wish I could add to my list of reasons to be grateful:
- More knowledge, less ignorance
- A more peaceful, less violent world – includes wars, crime, domestic violence, etc.
- More capacity for self-reliance and more appreciation of our interdependence
- Better access to medical care worldwide (particularly for children)
- A cure for cancer – we keep making progress, but we have a long way to go
- Cure for mental illnesses – a much longer way to go
- Greater tolerance of our differences, particularly when those differences do nothing to threaten my family or me
- Better priorities – less greed, more equality
- Greater forgiveness
- More opportunities – jobs, creativity, self-fulfillment, freedom from repressive authority, want, fear
- New police and fire facilities in Albany
Depending on how specific I choose to be, I could probably produce a much longer list. I stopped at 11 because I wanted to leave room to explain that I am grateful for the progress we have made on nearly all these issues during my lifetime. Comparing my life to my father’s, he lost two sisters as young children who died of diphtheria and appendicitis. He also lost a sister as a young adult to a medical condition that is easily treated today. My father’s family endured the Great Depression, where they were fortunate to have potatoes but little else to eat. I have spent some time in war zones, but my father served in two wars where millions of people died and where he was personally at great risk on many occasions. His sacrifices helped make a better life possible for me.
Even though we did not receive approval to build new police and fire stations this year, I’m confident the community will develop a plan to construct them before long. People are understandably concerned about costs and want strong assurances that they are getting good value before making a large investment.
I hope I can make some contribution toward achieving at least a few of the items on my list, and I know I can do more for several of them. My Thanksgiving wish for all who read this column is a peaceful and happy celebration of what’s important to you with a person or people you care about who feel the same about you.
A few weeks ago, I came across a great book in the nonfiction section of the library entitled Blood of Tyrants. I confess I was attracted by the lurid title which seemed to have a tenuous relationship to the biography of George Washington during the Revolutionary War that the book turned out to be. Despite the misleading title, I really enjoyed the book.
I have read a fair amount about George Washington, but this book provided some great reminders of the challenges he faced, his remarkable character and the many parallels between Revolutionary America and our country today. Washington, like many other leaders of the time and today, wrote extensively about the dangers of debt while at the same time incurring very large debts to achieve the revolution’s goals. James Madison famously wrote during the period that, “Public debt is a public curse.” Alexander Hamilton reported that the federal war debt exceeded $54 million in 1780, and Washington narrowly avoided a revolt by his own troops at the end of the war because they were not being paid for their service. Apparently, we have always been good at talking about the perils of debt while being less effective at actually avoiding them.
Pundits today make large sums of money by pointing to the evils of divisive politics, but they would have had much better material during the Revolutionary War. Americans were tarring and feathering, torturing, confiscating property, and periodically killing one another over political disagreements; and Washington was in the middle of many of these issues. He actually made the case for torture and mistreating British prisoners as a means of protecting his own troops who were suffering similar treatment from the enemy. Washington was more protective of property rights, arguing against unlawful confiscation of Loyalists’ holdings, but more than willing to hang anyone with or without due process who he believed was guilty of spying.
The world is obviously a much different place than it was during Revolutionary times, but we continue to wrestle with many of the same problems and moral dilemmas. It is a tribute to Washington and other leaders of the time that we continue to look to their example as a guide to our current conduct. Washington was an extraordinary leader whose greatest accomplishment may have been what he chose not to do. His popularity at the conclusion of the War and through his presidency was so high that he easily could have accumulated more power and stayed in office through the remainder of his life. Washington chose instead to retire to Mt. Vernon and pass governance on through a democratic, peaceful process. We have followed that example for more than 200 years, and I believe it is among the most important, if not the most important, legacy of George Washington and the founders of our nation.
If you haven’t done so lately, I would strongly encourage everyone to visit the library. I think Washington would agree.
I don’t believe anyone enjoys perfect health, and I’m sure that holds true for our mental as well as our physical state. We all have moments of anxiety or depression, but most of us are fortunate enough to get past our worst times and live happy and productive lives. There are many among us, however, who are not so lucky.
My first professional exposure to this problem occurred when I was a young city administrator and I began to hear complaints about an elderly man urinating in public near our elementary school. Our police investigated and found that the man was mentally ill and was living in dangerous squalor. I started calling various agencies to see about getting him help and kept hearing that there was nothing that could be done unless the man would agree to get help or a relative could be found to act on his behalf. I was finally able to convince a county worker to meet with him, and she was able to get his agreement to be placed in an adult foster home. The reward for this work was that when the man came in to pay his final water bill in the company of someone from his new home our billing clerk reported she saw him smile for the first time.
Smaller cities generally offer few services to the mentally ill and disabled except for emergency response and care. Those of us who work at City Hall also have frequent contact with people who have problems or issues and don’t know where else to call. Some of these people are angry and threatening, while most are just grateful to speak to someone who will listen. I have received calls in the middle of the night from disturbed folks, asking me to fix problems ranging from garbage disposal to neighbors who won’t take care of their lawns. A lady in La Grande would call me on occasion and use every obscene word she could remember (there was nothing wrong with her memory) to help convey her message. I would try to make calm suggestions, and our conversations usually ended cordially. She surprised me one day by delivering an afghan she had knitted for me.
Albany has taken steps to try to be more responsive to the needs of the mentally ill by training our police officers to avoid confrontations that could escalate into violence and by participating in various efforts to help provide shelter and treatment for those with mental health problems. I know our police and firefighter/paramedics are often called upon to deal with extremely difficult situations involving the mentally ill.
I also appreciate the good work of both the Linn and Benton County Health Departments in providing care, and I know the schools and hospital are increasingly involved in confronting this issue. Despite the efforts of many concerned people, we too often hear of suicides and other tragedies particularly affecting younger members of the community. I believe we need to confront mental illness rather than fear its stigma and recognize that treatment offers the most hope for those suffering its effects.
My wife and I have disagreed on a number of issues over nearly 41 years of marriage. Usually she’s right, but that doesn’t stop me from pushing for my point of view on occasion. I believe one of the reasons we are still married is that we’ve learned to respect our partner’s opinion, in part because sometimes one of us is right and one of us isn’t. That understanding requires a certain amount of humility and recognition that it is usually much less painful to acknowledge a bad opinion than it is to keep believing it when it’s wrong.
We follow other good practices that include things like refraining from name calling, bad language, or other forms of personal attack. I don’t think we ever formally agreed to these rules; we just follow them because they seem important to maintaining a relationship we both treasure. My parents set a good example for me by observing similar rules, and I think the same was true for my wife’s parents, who have been married for more than 60 years.
Marriage is a special relationship, but it has helped teach me to value constructive disagreement in friendships and work relationships as well. I rely on people to point out problems or mistakes, and I’m puzzled when others fail to do so. Healthy relationships, in my opinion, require the ability to question or disagree, although how it is done can have a powerful influence on results.
Questioning someone’s intelligence, integrity, or parentage is usually not the right approach to constructive disagreement and neither is a pointed accusation based on opinion rather than fact. I certainly understand responding emotionally to threats or perceived slights, but I also give myself some time to think about the situation before making a public reaction. Usually, my negative perception of another’s intentions is either wrong or disproportionate. Taking the time to understand the situation before making accusations usually leads to a better outcome.
The failure to seek a constructive resolution to disagreement often leads to mutually destructive results for all parties to the dispute. The vote over whether to dissolve the City of Damascus and all that has led up to it is a good example of a monumental waste of resources because people were unwilling to pursue a more rational course. Expensive litigation is another example, although some litigants appear to be motivated more by greed or revenge than by any desire to solve a problem.
I hope anyone with sincere concerns about city issues will take the time to check out the facts and then raise questions if they are warranted. I know it is much easier to simply express an opinion without bothering to investigate or to lash out when we feel we’ve been wronged. Taking the path of least resistance, in these cases, usually leads to broken relationships and expensive solutions.
I have been feeling sorry for myself over the past week or so while working through a persistent virus that has kept me from running and getting a good night’s sleep. I’m generally healthy, but I usually get a cold or the flu about once a year that can affect me for up to a couple of weeks. I am happily almost over this year’s version and already starting to appreciate the comfort of just feeling good.
Yesterday I received an e-mail regarding a retired city manager friend who is fighting a recurrence of cancer at the same time that his son-in-law is suffering from terminal brain cancer. My friend and his wife have been helping their daughter care for her young children during this challenging time. I wrote a note expressing my best wishes while sharing some news of mutual friends and the daily challenges of city management.
My friend responded with some good advice about keeping a positive attitude and concluded by observing, “If none of those thoughts are helpful, then you should laugh that a guy fighting cancer thinks he needs to give you advice….” I am most grateful for the advice and the spirit in which it was given. It was a great reminder that the worst thing that can happen to a person is the loss of belief in the importance and goodness of life. If someone who is literally fighting for his life while helping his daughter and grandchildren deal with the imminent loss of their husband and father can keep a positive attitude and keep on giving of himself, then I think I can, too.
Perhaps the little challenges we face every day are preparation for the greater ones we are all going to confront at some point in our lives. It is too easy to focus on and be distracted by the relatively small problems, leaving us unprepared to make much of a contribution when our best efforts are really needed.
My most recent life lesson on this subject happened this morning when my one-year-old grandson woke me up at 4:30 a.m. We were looking after two of our grandsons last night, and both my wife and I were a little tired by the time we got to bed. I’m usually an early riser, so I got up to tend to the baby in hopes that my wife would get some needed sleep. I changed the diaper and took the baby downstairs with the idea of keeping him relatively quiet for an hour or two. I was rewarded with nearly two hours of time with my grandson.
My choice was whether to be angry over losing some sleep or to be grateful for the chance to get to know my little grandson better. By choosing the latter, my day has been much more positive, and I’m sure my grandson feels the same way.
I just returned from a week-long vacation with my wife, three of my children, their spouses, and 11 grandchildren. My daughter lives in Southern California, so we all descended on her house and used it as a base to visit some of the attractions in the area. My daughter has a large home, and every inch of it was filled with children and harried adults. The only casualties of the week were my four-year-old grandson’s collarbone that was broken on the trampoline and a couple of cases of the flu that my wife and I brought home.
This was not a comfortable vacation where the participants could relax and meditate or soak up the sun. Much of our time was spent on the freeways traveling to and from places like Disneyland and Sea World, where we stood in lines, wrestled strollers and their contents, went on rides, and watched shows. I felt about the same at the end of one of these days as I did after hiking 22 miles in one day on the Pacific Crest Trail a few weeks ago.
Sometime during the course of the vacation, possibly when I was wondering why I was doing this to myself, it occurred to me that my role for the remainder of the visit was to be the best husband, father, and grandfather I could be under the circumstances. I am sometimes frustrated by my inability to change things for the better, but I realized during the vacation that this was a perfect opportunity to be somebody’s angel. In my case, the somebodies were my grandchildren, who are still young enough to be excited by the prospect of a grandfather who will go with them into the Tower of Terror or sit in the Splash Zone during the whale show. I also had the privilege of baptizing one of my granddaughters (not in the Splash Zone) and receiving a giant hug for my efforts that more than compensated for missing the second half of the inconveniently scheduled Duck game.
I did nothing to resolve the federal financial showdown during my vacation, and I limited myself to a few phone calls and e-mails related to city business. I did help make some children happy, and I found that by doing so, I improved my attitude and outlook. I also learned how tough my little four-year-old grandson is by watching him take part in all the outings without complaint despite his broken collarbone.
I think we all have the chance to do something positive for someone else every day, and I believe most of us take advantage of that chance most of the time. My vacation was a good reminder of how important and therapeutic it can be to let go of personal interests for the sake of someone else.
Employees who have had to listen to my orientation talk over the past eight years are familiar with some of the stories I’ve used to illustrate the City’s mission statement. I know everyone has memorized the mission statement, so I won’t bother to repeat it here. The reason I know everyone is familiar with our mission is that I see so many examples of employees routinely practicing it.
Most of the stories I hear or things I see relate to small acts of service like providing some needed information or helping people find something. Frequently, however, an employee does something that reminds me how lucky I am to work here. The most recent example was a praise coupon I received from a grandparent regarding his/her grandson’s bicycle. I should admit my bias about grandchildren at the beginning because I learned a few weeks ago that we are expecting our 14th in May. I know how I feel about my grandchildren, and the story I heard really touched me.
According to the praise coupon, one of our police officers recently assisted in the recovery of a stolen bike that was disassembled and damaged by the thief who took it. Rather than just returning broken pieces of a bike to the victim, our officer took the bike home and repaired and reassembled it before returning it to its owner. The story didn’t make the newspaper; and, to the best of my knowledge, our officer didn’t tell anyone what he had done. I’m not including his name here because I haven’t had the chance to talk with him about it, but I hope he will allow me to publicly thank him before long.
I did share the story with our police chief, whose reaction seemed to be the same as mine. There are many reasons why this act was so admirable, not the least of which is the example set by our officer. The young bike owner learned, if he didn’t know already, that police are almost always friends who sincerely want to help others. The grandparent learned that he or she can trust the Albany Police Department to go beyond what is required. I learned again that we have some really caring people who work for this City.
The most difficult aspect of my job is dealing with the worst of human nature. I see too many self-centered, negative, unkind people; and, on my worst days, I sometimes remind myself that I could retire and be more selective about my interactions with others. It is the selfless acts of service that I see nearly every day that reminds me of what is best in people and why our work is important.
The current deadlock in Congress that has shut down some government agencies and services was brought into perspective for me while returning from a conference earlier this week. My wife and I were on a shuttle bus from the airport to our car where another couple on the bus was talking to someone about their vacation in New England to see the fall foliage. They described the many nice things they had seen and how fortunate they had been to visit a national park before the shutdown. This observation changed the tone of the conversation from an upbeat, happy description to a negative, pessimistic outlook.
The male speaker gave his opinion that the times are now the worst since the Civil War, although I’m guessing he based that view on something other than personal experience. More negative opinions about government followed; and when my wife and I got off the bus, we both agreed we were glad to get away from the conversation.
I find it interesting that we live in a country where most people enjoy great abundance, yet so many seem to have little appreciation for what allows them to do things like travel across the country to look at leaves. We also have convenient memories that allow us to forget that this is not the first time that a battle between Congress and the President resulted in a brief shutdown. Disagreement and controversy are fundamental to democratic government, and we might want to celebrate the fact that we are usually able to resolve our differences without violence or dramatic harm to our way of life.
I think two facts help me remain optimistic about the future my grandchildren will inherit. The first is that, from what I can tell, the world has never been better than it is right now. Fewer children as a percentage of the total population are dying, more people are living longer, fewer people are hungry, and more people are receiving access to education than at any time in human history. Not coincidentally, more people live in democracies where they have some influence over their governance. The second somewhat comforting fact I rely on to keep a positive attitude is the sure knowledge that challenges make life worth living. I enjoy relaxing as much as anyone, but I also know that without the feeling of accomplishment that comes from helping others or overcoming adversity, our lives would be much poorer.
I hope the government shutdown ends soon because it’s hurting innocent people, costing all of us money, and is simply unnecessary. I am confident our elected leaders will soon get it right, and we will be able to visit national parks and focus on more important challenges.
Local government officials, whether elected or appointed, have very little individual authority, despite having responsibility for large amounts of money and many important community services. Citizens give authority to a city council to make decisions that would be difficult for a group of hundreds or thousands of people to decide. The form of this delegation of authority is a city charter that spells out the rules for officials in a document that can only be changed by a majority of voters in an election.
Local officials are also constrained by federal and state laws that either direct them to do certain things or limit what they can do. The idea is that the higher levels of government see the bigger picture while local people know the most about individual communities. Dumping untreated waste in a river, for example, might not have an immediate effect on the place doing the dumping, but the impact downstream will be very different.
Most local governments fully understand that their authority comes from the people they serve and that it has many limitations. Very few Oregon cities have full-time paid elected officials, so there is really no incentive for councils like Albany’s to test the limits of what they can do or keep things from citizens. This system of local government has evolved over the past 50 years or so and has served Oregonians well. Citizens have many tools, including regular elections, initiatives, and referenda, to insure that local governments are responsive to their needs.
While there are many restrictions on the powers of local government, there is a need for someone or some group to be responsible for the property, equipment, operations, and services of a city. Most of that burden is assigned to full-time employees whose primary job is to carry out policies and projects in accordance with the decisions of elected officials. Most mayors and councilors don’t respond to robberies, drive fire trucks, or otherwise directly involve themselves in city operations. Similarly, there are restrictions on the use of city property and equipment to make sure they are used appropriately. No single person in the city, whether elected, appointed, or private citizens, has the authority to determine who can use every piece of equipment or facility. Usually these determinations are made by the council or through policies governed by federal or state law.
I think too many people believe that “The City” is an independent business or organization that acts in its own interest, rather than the people who are elected and hired by the public to do things collectively that cannot or should not be done by individuals. The easy way to find out would be to attend one or more of the 275+ public meetings conducted by the City every year or talk with some very accessible city council members or drop by City Hall to visit with the Mayor or City Manager.