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October 2008

by Michael O’Brien

Fog filled the lowlands this morning.
The rising sun was split horizontally by a cloud
The fog bowl was filled with pink sunlight
I walked through the memorial gates
wishing for silence
The stone arch-tops peered above the fog as if to say
they fell here
and here
Remember them

It was the fog and colored sun that drew me to the Bonfire memorial today; I had never seen it before, and to be in it while fog filled the bowl it’s in up to my shoulders was a compelling experience. 11 students died in the collapse of a tradition that day in ‘99. All young, all passionate about their school, all committed to the traditions of this place.

It made me wonder about how death is chosen for some and not others. Is it a call? Is there a huge room lined with hourglasses inscribed with names, and when yours runs out, its over? I like the thought that it’s more like a powerball lotto board; when your number is up, it’s up. At least then you get the super sized check before you have to shuffle off to whatever lies beyond the moment of death.

Its not Halloween that makes me think of this; it was the light, the fog, and the coincidence of the memorial being right there. We could think about the opposite as well. How does life happen? When my grandma passed away, I was sure some of her spirit took up residence with my youngest daughter. The strong constitution, seemingly endless patience, and a sparkle I see in her eye reminds me of grandma….anyway.

We’re at days end now. I’m thinking of sleep, thinking of a challenge that’s been laid in front of all the faculty at A&M. Propose some ideas for study that will shake the world.

It’s a big challenge when you think of it. Bill and Melinda Gates had an interesting idea for their first project to change the world…cure malaria. It turns out malaria kills 881,000 people around the world and sickens over 247 million. That’s a lot of people. Cure malaria and you save millions from suffering and keep almost another million alive. Seems like a good thing, and make no mistake, it is a good thing. You can almost never go wrong saving a life. One never knows what will become of that life…perhaps it will be another Jonas Salk, or Louis Pasteur, people who’s work saves hundreds of thousands of lives perhaps. Do you see where this is going?

By ending disease we reduce deaths inadvertently increasing the global population. More people need more food and more water and more stuff. One wonders what the earth can carry and still be able to recover to provide for the next generation. The momentum to use less oil, use less wood, produce less carbon dioxide, is building.

So back to the big ideas. Using less, living better, living healthier, making an environment that restores instead of consumes…and we could do that today…but not for everyone.  And that’s what I wondered: is it a big idea to be able to know what it would take to make a great country, or a great world?

During this election year, we hear about taxes a lot. But not about what they support or what they enable:
our roads, our water, our children’s and grandchildren’s schools, the police and other uniformed services who risk their lives for us at the push of three buttons, the military services, FEMA,  our trains, our airports, our healthcare, and NASA.

It’s true, each has been pared down, cut back a little with each election. In general, many are cynical about the future of our country because of the waste caused by predators who take advantage of the complexity of the tax and procurement processes. But I’d like to know. What would it cost me as a taxpayer to have everything work?

To have opportunity for children born in poverty. To have living wages for all who work in good faith, to have clean water everywhere, to have a courts system where justice, not efficiency was the top priority. To have free universities for every student qualified to enter, to care for and value our elders, to breathe clean air…what would it cost? How many lives would it save?

There is a shortage of vision in the land today, but no shortage of critics and armchair quarterbacks who are everywhere, but there’s less than 200 people who can make a read and execute a play in the 3 seconds before the defensive line falls on their heads. As tax payers, we are the offensive line it seems, protecting the visionaries while they make the read, call the play, and carry it out. These visionaries are all around, running for office, building habitat houses, recycling plastic bags, and yes, they are found in think tanks, universities, and churches. Places where people dare to dream of equality, justice, and opportunity.

Ok, I’ll mix my sports metaphors now…but even though these places are where we’d expect to find people of vision, it’s clearly not enough. You can’t win the baseball game with just a DH; you need the actions and visions of the many to make tiny gains on a problem. We can’t afford to be armchair quarterbacks anymore. We all need to get in the game.

So my big idea is a way to solicit, collect, and consider the visions of a more perfect world…a more perfect union. We’d have to sort through the “me ideas” to distill out the “we ideas” and the thoughts on how we might achieve this. If this sounds like the Wikipedia approach to a national plan, a global plan, well, it is. If we all contribute, we all own a piece of the dream.

All this is a way to say, VOTE!

Take care, be good to each other and the world.