Time is relative and, like all human constructs, an imperfect way to define our lives. I have to remind myself that most of human history is not recorded and; therefore, it’s probable that much of it did not include a formal concept of time. Things just happened. You wake up one morning and you have a full head of hair; you wake up another morning and most of it’s gone. Right now I’m working on a computer as the City Manager of Albany; and with barely a pause, I’m a consultant visiting local government officials in Dar es Salaam. Beyond that, who knows?
Given that time is an artificial construct that helps us organize our lives, I am not of the opinion that you can waste it. I prefer purpose and direction, but much of what I regard as the greatest blessings in my life was spontaneous. I certainly did not plan to get married at some designated time in my life, nor did I set targets for accomplishing goals before reaching a predetermined age. All of this may explain why I didn’t finish college until my mid-thirties. I had no idea when I would retire until about a year and half ago. I reached that decision when I realized I was approaching the end of my lifetime quota of evening meetings.
Time also play tricks on us. Last night, my 14-year-old granddaughter called me to settle a dispute between her and my mother-in-law (her great-grandmother). Taylor, my granddaughter, had a memory of going to the Portland Airport where my name was called over the loudspeaker to help remove my mother-in-law from an airliner. According to Taylor, Great-grandma was misbehaving on the plane, and I had to be called to help get her off the jet. Neither my mother-in-law nor I had any memory of this alleged event; and if you knew my mother-in-law, you could imagine her attitude toward this story. Even after a lengthy conversation, I’m still not sure my granddaughter believed her memory just wasn’t true. Any older person looking for amusement should sit down with their adult children and ask them about childhood memories. Warning! Do not dredge up old memories with a spouse unless your relationship is very secure.
Time, of course, has been on my mind recently because I’m starting a new phase in my life and will soon be seeing less of some important people and places. I have very vivid memories of starting work in Albany a dozen years ago, when I had only three grandchildren, a mustache, and a Buick LeSabre. Now I have 17 (soon 18) grandchildren, no facial hair, and a Ford. Somehow those changes occurred, without contradiction, overnight and over the course of many years. My memories of working here for the past 12 years may be a little warped by time; but I know with certainty that while I might have changed a few things, I will always treasure the whole experience.
I have been writing columns about local government in one form or another for nearly 30 years, and I just realized that after this one I only have two more to publish as Albany’s city manager. Earlier this week, I was talking with Marilyn Smith about an issue that has caused me some irritation over the past few years; and I started a column on the subject before realizing that as I near retirement, I prefer to focus on positive things.
My Mothers’ Day gift to my wife was a short stay at Crater Lake Lodge — a place we have seen many times, but where we never stayed before. The Lodge offers decent accommodations, but the real reason to stay there is the natural beauty that surrounds you. I have visited the lake countless times over the past 60 years without losing the sense of wonder I felt as a child seeing it for the first time. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, and it can take many forms; but to me, it is a tangible thing that influences my life for good. I think that’s why I choose to live in Oregon, where we have made choices over the years to trade short-term gains for the long-term survival of a place that nourishes not only our bodies, but our souls.
We are fortunate in Albany to have easy access to natural beauty, both within the city limits and in nearby forests, mountains, lakes, rivers, and the Pacific Ocean. As I’m writing this column, someone outside my office is watering the flower pot that hangs on a sidewalk lamppost. Yesterday, I listened to reports from university students about their appreciation of Albany’s many assets and their views about how to make the community even better. Many people here believe, as I do, that no community will remain healthy or thrive without an appreciation of the need for beauty in our lives. Perhaps that’s why a local citizen called me last week to complain about the trees being removed in the downtown. She was much happier when I explained that the ugly asphalt patches will soon be replaced with new trees.
Albany’s future depends on remaining an attractive place to live, not only in terms of jobs, infrastructure, and affordability, but also by paying attention to our surroundings. Great progress has been made over the past 20 years or so, and more remains to be done. I once heard a long-term mayor of one of the U.S.’ most successful cities claim that in the long-term, “Ugly is more expensive than beautiful.” My experience supports that conclusion.
Yesterday, one of my many Facebook friends posted a story alleging that the actor Leonardo DiCaprio was traveling on Interstate 5 near Albany when his rental car broke down. DiCaprio, according to the story, was really impressed when local residents, who did not recognize him, came to his aid and even bought him a meal at a local restaurant. He was quoted as planning to retire in Albany because the people here were so generous.
The story was a hoax, but the idea that people here would help someone in need was completely believable. I suspected the story wasn’t true when I read it; so I took a moment to verify my suspicions by checking other sources. The irony of this immature joke is that by attempting to fool people, the perpetrator reminded me that literally billions of acts of kindness go unreported every day. We occasionally read about them in the news when they involve a celebrity or extraordinary heroism, like the Portland men who recently came to the rescue of two young Muslim women. The reality, however, is there is not enough time or space in the world’s media to report all the good things or selfless acts that happen every day. I think we have the responsibility to remind ourselves that the death and destruction we read about or see in the media every day are the exception to normal human behavior and far from the rule.
Trust makes communities work; a fact that becomes really obvious when trust is absent. This morning I listened to an account on the radio of how the once thriving city of Aleppo, Syria, has been transformed into a ghost town by unremitting conflict over the past five years. The story reminded me of my own experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, where human relations were equally troubled. Even in the worst of circumstances, in spots like Aleppo, Karbala or Kabul, human kindness is still evident. People risk their lives to save others, give money to those in need, or otherwise sacrifice to help people they may not even know. These acts are the seeds of trust that will eventually make these devastated communities more like the great majority of cities around the world.
I doubt Leonardo DiCaprio has ever heard of Albany, Oregon, and I’m reasonably sure he will not retire here. Nonetheless, he did us a small service without his knowledge by having his name linked to a fable that reminds us of the importance of being kind. I don’t know what the authors of the fable had in mind, but I appreciate the irony that a dishonest and cynical effort inspired me to think about what’s best in human nature.