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Jul 20, 2008

Santa Please Stop Here -- Iowa City Flood


"Santa please stop here" says the little red sign.  I didn't hear much about the Iowa City floods while I was in Honduras last month, but when I swung through town today I thought I'd help out with some of the cleanup. 

In its way, volunteering for cleanup can be fun work.  You meet lots of people.  Feel like you're being useful.  Do something different.  Get lots of thank-yous (and a good workout).  The local TV station grabbed me for a quick interview and they asked me why I volunteered.  I told the TV guy that a big reason I and many people volunteer is because it makes us happy -- not just because we're doing something we're supposed to do or need to do for someone else.  Anyone who says different is lying, or lacks self-awareness, or is some kind of freaky angel person. I also told the TV guy that altruism does exist and is a real motivation, but that I doubt it's ever the only one.  Incidentally, I'm glad I'm doing the helping and not needing the help.  The ability to give help seems an easier virtue than the ability to accept it.

Here's a pic of what people look like after three hours of slinging heavy, wet, abrasive bags of sand and riverwater:


Not evident -- just how much everyone's biceps hurt.  I told the volunteer coordinators that they need to put packets of ibuprofen in every lunchbag.  Forget the bags of Fritos and chips (that everyone seemed to skip in favor of a second sandwich) -- people need their vitamin I!

In any case, this was a long day that started with bedding down at a Flying J truck stop in Davenport (where I was wakened at 3:30 a.m. by the water sprinkler shooting through my window), continued with the flood cleanup followed by a swim in a beautiful Iowa City park pool, followed by a spontaneous invitation to an afternoon wedding (to which I got to wear a sarong and my knock-off Crocs, bought at the Flying J that morning), and eventually -- finally -- hauling my luggage into an over-priced Super 8 motel down the road from Grinnell College.  ("Grinell Iowa -- where the hell is it? who the hell cares!" said my Grinnell friends' t-shirts back in the 80s).  The first four days of this road trip have been really nice.  For this once, it's nice to be crossing America slowly on the ground where I can see every mile of changing landscape, instead of the normal voyage a 30,000 ft.


*Speaking of virtue:  In recent years I've come to the sense that our common concepts of "character" and "virtue" are really (a) more complex than I can get my mind around or (b) not real.  Philosophers have written on these topics at length, but my way of looking at it for now is more simple: there are some acts that make the world better and some things that don't.  Acts that make the world better I call "virtuous". And "character" is what you have if you make a habit of doing "virtuous" things.  Simple enough, right?  But when it comes to judging souls, forget it.  Why do some people do more "virtuous" things than others, and get assigned the label of good "character"?  Beats me.  Are their souls any better or worse than someone else's?  Yeesh -- what a question.  I try not to worry about assigning labels.  I just think that encouraging "make the world better" more often than "make the world worse" is a good idea, whether the person getting encouraged is me or someone else.

12:58 AM in Traveling | Permalink


I'm titling that photo Big Smiles, Big Hearts!

I've always loved the Flying Js and marveled how you could get every need met there. They have a barber shop!

Posted by: Valerie | Jul 21, 2008 2:05:56 PM

"The ability to give help seems an easier virtue than the ability to accept it."

I'm going to be thinking about this all day.

I love Iowa. I'm really glad you're there. Unfortunately though, Dar Williams "Iowa" will be running through my head all day.

Posted by: | Jul 22, 2008 9:39:23 AM

Shoot. I wish, I'd known you were heading through Iowa. That's my neck of the woods. I went to college in Mt. Vernon, which is right in-between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. It would have been fun to have you check out ol' Cornell. The town had a population of 1500 - including the college. They had one grocery store, one restaurant and three bars!

Posted by: kaaren | Jul 28, 2008 1:41:47 AM