Humble Broom Moves Mountains

Details matter – especially to Bob.

Bob is a fictitious name I’ll assign to a man I met who was sweeping an alleyway in Boulder, Colorado this week.

If you’ve walked the streets of Boulder you’ll likely be struck by the cleanliness of the town. While the city and residents play a role, Boulder is also home to Bob, a man who voluntarily sweeps the alleyways of the city. Maybe a portion of his drive to keep Boulder clean comes from his urge to keep his town clean. But considering Bob sleeps in a different place around town each night, his sweeping is more likely his paying it forward to the town for allowing a homeless man keep his place under the stars.

Pulling a dumpsters away from the building, Bob focuses on discarded cigarette butts and small pieces of paper tightly tucked into the tight spaces.

“Details matter,” he said. “This helps reduce the amount of garbage running into the sewers by approximately 60%.”

Reaching down, he places a black dustpan in the pathway of his broom and sweeps the bounty into the business end. With his back to me, he dumps the contents into the four-wheeled commercial dumpster.

“Gotta stay on top of this,” he said.

I remark I’ve never seen anyone sweep behind a dumpster.

“I learned long ago to do it right first,” he said. “I call it ‘dumbtifying’.”

The confused look on my face must’ve led him to explain.

“If you do it right – the best you can – the first time, things tend to work out better, “ he said. “Took me a good while to figure that one out.”

Looking over Bob’s shoulder I see other dumpsters along the wall — the grounds beneath each freshly swept. Bob’s hard work probably goes unnoticed to passersby – looking towards the unpleasant is not something people like to do. But if they’d look, they’d see something remarkable.

Bob’s lesson is an interesting one to me. Here is a man focused on taking care of his world – the one he literally sleeps beneath the stars each night – and using the tools at his disposal, makes it better. While others in the community might be busy paying their taxes, racing back and forth to work, or volunteering with a local organization, Bob is doing what he can do – pushing a broom. And while to many the act of pushing a broom may seem basic and humble, the results of Bob’s work are visible for all to see and enjoy. Bob wants to contribute –to make a difference to the world around him.

Bending over, Bob double-checks his work. Leaning against the dumpster, he shifts his weight and pushes it back against the brick wall.

Bob takes deep, cleansing breath – surveying his work. Standing with his broom in his right hand and dustpan in his left, he pauses. Over time he’s probably moved mountains of trash for Boulder.

But what Bob proves each day in his community,  details matter – even the ones you’ll never see.

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Technology Getting In the Way of Life?

Technology is beginning to take the fun out of life.

Last week I finished up a book from an author I like to follow. In the past year I’ve read four of his novels. Fun to read because they take me to places I’ve never seen with my own eyes to meet people I’ve never met. But this week I felt like a change.

Problem is, pesky algorithms decided I should continue to read his or similar books.

This year I’ve started reading a few books on an Amazon Kindle. Nice tool. Convenient, easy to pack when I travel, and it allows me to read in the middle of night on occasion. Problem is Amazon is the only place I can purchase books – proprietary software and all. And everything they know about me, they use against me. Every book title I’ve read or even looked at is filed away for them to strategically put recommendations in front of me.

While this might sound like great idea sitting around a table with a bunch of technologists, the practice is getting on my nerves.

Walking through an independent bookstore is akin to a romantic experience – one filled with musky odors, textures on your fingertips as you flip pages, and the deafening yet respectful silence surrounding the quest. Beyond being welcomed at the front door, I’m on my own to explore, wander, and let chance lead me to my next book. The entire experience is a search-and-discover adventure.

My Kindle, on the other hand, insists on telling me what book I should read next. Or at least, based on my purchase or browsing history what I might interest me. Problem is, however, books are those rare opportunities to expand your world by consuming and digesting a wide range of subjects and storytelling. To never stray from something you’ve shown interest in is to limit your opportunities to explore the world.

Searching for a new title to read, the intrusive algorithms only increased the frequency of “books you might like” being put in front of me. Watching my choices continually reduced the longer I searched (search results now suggesting books I’d previewed and decided not to read), I turned off the Kindle in frustration.

A day later I found myself in a sea of books – real, honest-to-God, paper filled volumes of more book than I could ever read in my lifetime. Standing in the center of the store, dozens of shelves reached to the ceilings with hundreds of subjects and thousands of titles. One step took me to a new book on the Rolling Stones; another took me to local history. The world was mine – and where I ended up was completely up to me.

I now have my new book – one not even the most sophisticated algorithm could ever have predicted. And I can’t wait to crack it open.

So as much as I respect technology, I’m increasingly finding that in its quest for efficiency, something is getting lost in the translation – life.

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Moms Are Forever With Us

Odds are you never met my mother.

Since her passing when I was a teenager, time has slow-dripped my understanding of how a mother’s influence can last a lifetime – seeping into the most mundane or difficult of decisions, how we view the world and those around us, and playing the role of an endless reservoir of strength when life deals us an unexpected blow.

Even in her passing, I could never have made this journey though life without her.

My mother never laughed at anyone as hard as she laughed at herself – her humility wouldn’t have it any other way. For her, laughter was the soundtrack of life. And to her, when she found herself the center of the humor, all the better.

Humility was her secret. Never was she better than anyone else, never was she mean to another, and never was she unable to laugh at herself.

One of her favorite stories was visiting an elementary school in the town where we’d recently moved. Dressed in her Sunday best, she walked the entire school, met with teachers and administrators, only to later discover she’d also worn a red plastic toy airplane propeller hanging from the seat of her yellow linen dress.

Or the time she attended her first professional football game and, looking up at the scoreboard, turned to my dad and suggested they get some of those ‘balloons for 29 cents’ advertised to take home to my brother and me. Long after my Dad explained what she was reading indicated the football team had the ‘ball on the 29’, she always laughed the hardest when the story was retold, flashing her genuine and disarming smile.

Life was too short not to learn to laugh at yourself, she’d say.

But beyond the sparks emanating from her blue-green eyes, she preached compassion, understanding, and a perspective only a difficult life can teach someone. Raised on another continent in another time, living and raising a family in the safe and comparatively comfortable environment of a modest American suburb never diluted the roots of her childhood. While she was living the American Dream she’d heard whispers of while a small child, she never forgot the lessons learned of being the rich you appreciate when you have nothing at all.

If asked, I’ll confess the good things in my heart are a result of a seed being planted by my mother. The rest, well, those are on me and me alone. I truly believe this.

Like I said, my Mom preached life was too short not to learn to laugh at yourself. Ultimately, she was right about the timeline God had for her – taking her while as my brother and I crossed into double-digits. But the reality is, she never left us – and never will. Because each day we face the world, we see it through a lens she created. And for us, that is the greatest gift anyone could ever give to us.

Happy Mothers Day, Mom.

MY AUNT JANET copy

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Family Pets Teach Life Lessons

“What you’re doing is the ultimate act of love.”

The doctor’s words filled the small room. My wife, daughter, and I, emotions racing, looked downward towards the labored breathing of an important member of our family.

“Dogs only feel the now,” he said. “Once the moment has passed, they no longer recall it. If they are in constant pain, that is all they know.”

Looking back down, the small bundle of fur that gave us a never-ending fountain of unconditional love for over a dozen years, lay motionless.

The doctor placed his hand on the small of the chest, listening to the breathing with his stethoscope. When finished, he gently brushed his palm across the length of our dog’s body as to reassure him he was loved. The breathing, although weak, struggled on.

While I cannot speak to other pets, dogs hold special place in both my life and heart. And this one, I almost feel disrespectful in using such a generic term. Particularly one who bonded and served our children as they grew up. To look back at old photos or recall memories is to see our world intertwined with his. It is simply impossible to separate our lives.

“Would you like me to give you a few more moments alone?”

The words were more of a statement than an actual question. Excusing himself and slipping outside the door, the three of us came together, arms around each other, tears welling up.

I guess that is one of the lessons a family pet takes on – to become inseparable in both the living and memories. The chewed toys, the scratches on the front door, the small jar on the counter filled with treats.

But beyond the thee-dimensional come the invisible emotions buried deep inside our souls. And from those, come the real value, the real lessons, the real love we discover together.

A knock comes from the door.

I think about the day we met, me laying of the floor of a small house watching him and a handful of others in his litter running around the room, jumping on each other, nipping at anything they could get their tiny teeth into. From my vantage point, my head nearly resting on the carpet, he seemed different. While others continued racing around, he cautiously approached. With unsteady steps, he seemed curious about what the world outside awaited.

Pulling open a single drawer, the doctor slowly explained the process to us.

“The sedation has taken over. He does not feel any pain.”

During house training him, a big winter snow came along – forcing us to shovel a pathway outside so he could make it to the grass. But no matter, he wanted to please us and did his duty like a trooper.

Finishing the procedure, the doctor returned his hands to our dog’s chest, listening.

Pets are, in many ways, a child’s first real exposure to life and death. The love the feel is voluntary, but deep, real. The memories are fused with moments of pain, joy, and comfort. Children see them come into the family; they see them leave. The cycle of life, although abbreviated, is as real as any other member of the family

“He’s no longer in pain,” said the doctor, lifting his stereoscope.

A room never felt so quiet.

As the three of us held each other, we shared in one final gift from him – the emotional completion of a beautiful life that never stopped loving us.

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