Category Archives: Articles

Women of Courage: Monica Lewinsky

Monica Lewinsky, anti-bullying activist

Monica Lewinsky: Compassion Crusader

Imagine you’re twenty-two years old and you’ve just made a mistake. You were impulsive, you misjudged someone, you hurt someone, you were selfish. Look, you don’t need to imagine—who hasn’t screwed up?

Now imagine your mistake ignites a national scandal and your name will forever be a dirty joke in low-brow circles. Imagine everything about you is considered public property, and people everywhere feel free to comment on every aspect of your person.


I’ve seen some very dark days in my life. It was empathy and compassion from friends, family, coworkers, even strangers that saved me. Empathy from one person can make a difference. Compassionate comments help abate the negativity.

Even if you’re too young to remember the sex scandal that rocked Bill Clinton’s presidency in 1998, you may have heard her name in rap songs.

Monica Lewinsky was just twenty-two years old when she landed an unpaid White House internship. Not long after, she embarked on a regretful affair with one of the most powerful men in the world. Three years later, every explicit detail of the affair was broadcast around the globe. And, as if twenty-four hour television coverage was not enough, the press had a brand new medium: the internet. In 1998, Monica Lewinsky became the self-described patient zero in the cyber-bullying epidemic.

How She’s Courageous

A less courageous woman might have changed her name and lived a life of quiet anonymity. In Iceland. But courage has nothing to do with living a perfect life. Lives are messy, people stumble, people make mistakes. The majority of us have the luxury of doing it with a modicum of privacy.

In 2010, after more than a decade teetering in and out of the public eye, Monica was deeply affected by the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi. It was then she began to realize how her painful experience could be used to help others. In a landmark essay published in Vanity Fair in 2014, Monica took charge of her narrative and launched a campaign to support victims of internet shaming.

How Her Courage Affects Others

Anyone who is suffering from shame and public humiliation needs to know one thing: You can survive it…you can insist on a different ending to your story. Have compassion for yourself. We all deserve compassion, and to live both online and off in a more compassionate world.

Over half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and about the same number have engaged in cyber bullying. More than 1 in 3 young people have experienced cyber-threats online. Over 25 percent of adolescents and teens have been bullied repeatedly through their cell phones or the Internet. And it’s growing. There was an 87% increase in calls related to cyber-bullying from 2012 to 2013 alone.

As an anti-bullying activist, Monica travels to universities and schools spreading a message of compassion. Her TED talk has been viewed over 12 million times. In October of last year, she launched a PSA which concisely illustrates how people behave differently online versus face-to-face. Last fall she launched a #BeStrong Emoji keyboard app so users can support those experiencing online harassment.

How She’s Affected Me

Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop. We need to return to a long-held value of compassion and empathy.

As a writer obsessed with the impact of technology on society (and the author of a book on cyber-bullying), I find Ms. Lewinsky’s insights into the perils of media spot-on. While these pitfalls are the playground where my books happen, the forward-thinking Monica is working to shape privacy guidelines, as well as standards for responsible media consumption, for the coming years.

I had the pleasure of seeing her speak in person last October. The next day, as I read the online commentary on the news article, I realized the ongoing abuse she must still endure. The comments were filled with vitriol and personal attacks. As a person who often struggles to summon the courage to hit publish on a blog post, I am humbled by breadth of her courage and the depth of her compassion as she steadfastly champions her cause.

Learn More

Also, don’t miss her PSA below:

Women of Courage: Princess Leia

Star Wars 8 Princess Leia

Princess Leia Organa: The Princess Who Rescued Back

“You get to choose what monsters you want to slay. I’m sorry to say this again, but let’s face it – the Force is with you.” Carrie Fisher

There are real-life courageous women and there are fictional heroines, but today it’s my pleasure to discuss a woman who is both. Princess Leia Organa of the Star Wars franchise has been inspiring moviegoers for forty years.

When the series first launched, the young princess was already leading the rebellion against the Empire. Through four decades of films, Princess Leia was a soldier, a diplomat, general, and a war hero. Though the Force was strong in her, she chose serve her people as leader instead of becoming a Jedi. And while others’ loyalties shifted, or players drifted in and out of service to the rebellion, Princess Leia remained steadfast.

Carrie Fisher (1956-2016), the actress who portrayed Leia, was courageous in her own right. The outspoken Fisher was also a fierce advocate of mental health and openly shared her own struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder. Riotously funny, she fought the stigma of mental health with fierce honesty.

How She’s Courageous

From her first appearance in the iconic buns, to the gently graying general in 2015’s The Force Awakens, Princess Leia was an unflagging champion of the rebellion. She was one of only two characters who stood up to Darth Vader—a man whose own subordinates winced and scurried at his words. Perceptive and insightful, Princess Leia could instantly size up enemy or ally,  and deliver a character indictment in one biting quip.

In the original 1977 Star Wars script, Luke and Han Solo found Princess Leia bruised, beaten, and suspended upside down. It was only when the logistics of carting around a catatonic Leia became problematic that they revised the scene. The princess gig has never been the same.

How She’s Affected Me

Princess Leia changed everything I knew about princesses. As a girl who grew up on a steady diet of Disney Princesses, I understood perfectly that princesses needed rescuing. What I didn’t know was that this one would rescue back.

That she was different was clear in the split-second it took for her to size up Luke Skywalker’s disguise.

“Aren’t you a little short for a storm trooper?” she asked, the corner of her mouth quirked in a wry smile.

Minutes later, as Luke and Han Solo’s half-conceived rescue plan crumbled before them, she snatched a blaster and declared, “Somebody has to save our skins.”

I sat a little straighter in my chair. It was 1977 and my whole perception of princesses–and women–shifted in that moment.

How She’s Affected Others

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.” – Carrie Fisher
Princess Leia was strong at a time when women in film weren’t strong. She was many girls’ first glimpse of a truly heroic woman (myself included). Not only was she brave, she was in control of her own destiny. She was an icon of unwavering leadership.

Carrie Fisher was deeply conscious what Princess Leia meant to women, and this integrity is reflected both in her performance and her contributions to the script and character development.

Learn More

Here’s the part where I normally include links to learn more. But in this case, I’m going to suggest you run out and buy a box set and go on a Star Wars binge. The Last Jedi is in theatres on December 15th, so there’s still time to get yourself primed for the next in the Star Wars series.


Women of Courage: Malala

Malala Yousafzai, Human Rights Warrior

In some respects, 20-year-old Malala Yousafzai is just like any other college student. She blushes at talk of dating, finds the curriculum at Oxford University challenging, and can’t resist teasing her younger brothers at the dinner table. But don’t let this soft-spoken Pakistani girl fool you: she’s a lion-hearted, Nobel-prize-winning champion of girls’ education.


Malala was born in the picturesque Swat Valley of Pakistan in 1997. The child of a school owner and educational activist, her father wanted her to have every opportunity a boy would have. He vowed his daughter would attend school and be treated with equality.

“I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls.”When Mullah Fazhulla’s radio broadcasts first echoed down the concrete and steel canyons of Malala’s hometown of Mingora in 2004, the people  believed the changes were for the good. But, as the Taliban’s influence grew, their order affected every aspect of the citizen’s lives. The Taliban blacked the women’s faces from billboards. They burned televisions, computers, and CDs in the streets. They murdered policeman and bombed police stations. They staged public executions. And, in December 2008, they issued an edict banning girls from going to school.

By Southbank Centre [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

While other students stayed home–fearful of school bombings–11-year old Malala became an undercover BBC blogger. By age 14, the otherwise demure girl was publicly campaigning for girls’ education.

Her courage did not escape the Taliban’s notice. In 2012, they targeted the 15-year-old activist. Masked gunmen boarded her school bus, demanded her by name, and attempted to execute Malala with a gunshot to the forehead.

Her story could have ended there, but it was only the beginning of more influential work. Not only did she recover from traumatic brain injury, she went on to address the United Nations within the year. In 2014, she became the youngest recipient of the Nobel prize.

Humble and hardworking, today she balances college life while still leading the fight for girls’ education via the Malala Fund.

How She’s Courageous

“With guns, you can kill terrorists. With education, you can kill terrorism.”As if standing up to the Taliban were not enough, Malala remains an unflinching champion of good.

When sitting down with Barack Obama in 2013, she politely thanked the United States for all they’d done to support education for women and girls. She went on to inform him that his drone attacks were fueling terrorism, and that the US should instead focus efforts on education.

How Her Courage Affects Others

When girls are deprived of an education, the world is deprived of their gifts.Worldwide, more than 130 million girls do not attend school due to war, violence, and poverty.

Educating girls can end the cycle of poverty. Educated girls live longer and their own children live healthier lives. Education boosts overall economic growth and contributes to restoring peace and stability.

The Malala Fund is dedicated to every girl’s right to 12 years of free, safe, quality education. The non-profit foundation and has helped girls from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Syria.

How She’s Affected Me

Malala’s courage makes my own heart swell with possibility. If one brave girl can do this, what can any girl do? What can all girls do?

You can learn more about Malala below:

Women of Courage: Brené Brown

Brené Brown, Ambassador of Vulnerability

Dr. Brené Brown wrote the book on courage. Literally.

Actually, she’s written five of them, including four New York Times #1 bestsellers. Her latest, Braving the Wilderness, was just released this September. In addition to bestselling author, she’s also a public speaker, scholar, leadership guru, and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.


“The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.”Brené Brown’s journey into courage began while working as a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She set out to understand the anatomy of connection. After conducting hundreds of interviews with subjects from all walks of life, she uncovered the concept of wholeheartedness. This wholeheartedness was an essential talent in accepting oneself, and had a positive correlation with life satisfaction and healthy relationships. Her gift for storytelling has brought her groundbreaking work to millions. Key concepts which she explores include empathy, shame, vulnerability, and creativity.

How She’s Courageous

Brené Brown

Ironically, Brené got into research as a means to avoid vulnerability—not that she would have admitted it at the time.

She set out to prove what she knew to be true. Instead, she found that wholeheartedness sprang from vulnerability, a trait she was fully opposed to expressing at the time. So, she did what any researcher does when they discover everything they believe is wrong:

She totally lost her shit.

With the help of a therapist and loving family and friends, she came back, armed with strategies for wholehearted living that the research backs up. To date she’s helped millions to live more fulfilling lives.

“I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few.”

Anyone who has ever tried to create lasting change–whether it’s losing ten pounds or quitting a bad habit–knows it’s never as easy as flipping a switch. Lasting change demands a deep look at who we are and what we truly value.

Wholehearted living is no exception. The practice demands continual self-evaluation, honesty, and a support system of friends and/or family that accept you for who you are.

Brené walks the walk—living as she inspires others to live. Humble and hilarious, she’s the first to admit her teachings can be tough to follow, and freely admits to stumbling. Her efforts are continuous and evolving and she shares these struggles openly in her books and speeches.

How Her Courage Affects Others

Brené Brown has won fans including powerhouse Oprah Winfrey, author Elizabeth Gilbert, and even her own idol, the late Maya Angelou. Her TED Talk on Vulnerability has had over 30 million views.

When Brené Brown started her research on connection, she had no idea that she’d begun a journey that would change everything, including her own way of life. Nor did she have any idea how many lives she would change in the process. Her work on shame and vulnerability has had a positive impact on leaders, creatives, and anyone seeking a more fulfilling life.

How She’s Affected Me

I first came across Brené in the form a video: Brené Brown: Why Your Critics Aren’t The Ones Who Count. If I remember right, it was my partner in Braving who brought her to my attention (thanks Michelle!). As a creative who tends toward pathological shyness, the video reached me on a deep level and I became an instant fan. Since then, her audiobooks have landed a permanent spot on my playlist and I’ve got her TED Talks on speed dial for low days.

You can learn more about Brené Brown below.

This has been the first of my articles on Women of Courage. Check back every Sunday at 3:00 pm CDT for new articles celebrating real and fictional heroines to inspire you.

Women of Courage

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Go to any mainstream movie these days and you’ll likely sit through a half-dozen movie trailers featuring all sorts of male superheroes kicking ass and keeping the world safe for…well for whatever it is we have these days. However, it wasn’t until my daughter and I went to Wonder Woman earlier this year that it hit me how rare it is to see women in these roles. I mean I always knew it was that way. But it wasn’t until I witnessed it with my daughter beside me that I thought about how much that sucked. And how empowering it was to see these portrayals, and to read about real-life heroines.

And so, I’d like to honor all the real and fictional heroines who inspire me by sharing their stories with you. In the coming weeks, look for tributes to Women of Courage, like the groundbreaking Oprah Winfrey, the badass Sarah Connor, and the woman who quite literally wrote the book on courage, Brene Brown. These women inspire me daily. I hope they inspire you too.

Is there some badass, brave, and wonderful woman that you’d like to see recognized? Let me know in the comments.

Nothing never started gets better.

Or, what flash fiction can do for your writing life.

Nothing never started gets better.

Look, you should see some of the crap I’ve written, including the above.

As a writer who has all too often marks progress with decreasing word counts, as one who has a black belt in self-sabotage, and as one who will snag on a single word choice and spin myself silly, I have managed to learn something, in spite of myself.

Nothing never started gets better.

(You would think by now I would have found a better way to say that.)

What I’m trying to say is here’s what writing’s like:

Most of the time, finished work is a hard-won collage of brief inspirations, grueling transitions, struggling metaphors and delicate passages that shine upon the polishing. At least once every eon, I’ll write something that I love. I grab a pen, scribble something down, then sit back and read it and think: Yeah. Then, I’ll read it again and probably twelve-dozen times, and then aloud at whisper-level, and then to a chair, and then to the cat, and then to my spouse, and still manage to think: Yeah. And if I’m really, really lucky, I can even read it myself again a couple years later and think: You know, that was all right.

This almost never happens.

Okay, it maybe happened once.

Most of the time, finished work is a hard-won collage of brief inspirations, grueling transitions, struggling metaphors and delicate passages that shine upon the polishing. And the things is, if you are writing novel-length works, this takes a vast amount of time (or, if it doesn’t, I hate you). This is time spent alone, in a far land, with no destination in sight. Which is why I’ve learned to love flash fiction.

Flash fiction is creative crack

Flash fiction is creative crack, a palette cleanser, a weekend getaway crammed in a morning. Instant gratification. A quickie in the shower. And in spite of all the fun of that, it’s also a refresher course on writing you can fit into any given morning.

I write scads of them. In spite of the radio silence on the blog these days, I’ve been filling up my personal cloud with the stuff. Generally I’ll write at least one a day. Just because. Because I am a slow and recalcitrant learner in need of constant reminder how this works—how to feed and nurture this writing beast.

Here’s a secret: Ninety percent of the time when I look at the photo prompts on Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers or Al Forbes Sunday Photo Fiction, I blank. I can’t think of anything.

The sacred act of taking an intangible thought from the space between your ears and committing it to a page does something. It’s a promise, it’s a vow, and once it’s out there, stuff happens.But still, I push myself and think no one’s watchingjust do a sentence, and so I do. And it’s almost never any good and doesn’t wind up in the final piece. But still, that act is magic. The sacred act of taking an intangible thought from the space between your ears and committing it to a page does something. It’s a promise, it’s a vow, and once it’s out there, stuff happens.

Because once it’s out there, it makes me think of something else, and maybe it’s completely unrelated but it’s enough to make me scrawl down a few more sentences.

This is the point where I usually decide it’s hopeless. I go take a shower or walk the dog. And that’s when it gets amazing. Because while I’m doing the other shit, the real story happens. All of a sudden the whole thing pops into my head: how to fix what I’ve already written or an even better concept that never even thought of. And while I’m standing there dripping, I scribble down notes on that notebook that I keep just outside the shower for such emergencies. And by the time I’ve done four or five rounds of revisions I actually like it: find some merit or something to be proud of and presto—another edition of Friday Fictioneers.

Most of the stuff I write is pure crap. Clumsy, trite, awkward, stupid, half-formed, grammatically incorrect and painful to read. You probably noticed. But the thing is, I have managed to learn something, even in spite of my attempts to do otherwise:

Nothing Anything you never started gets any better.

Like thinking you’ll win the lottery without ever buying a ticketI used to think ‘I’ll write’ when it’s all fully formed in my head and good enough to commit to the page. Because god forbid I write crap, that it’s wrong, that I have to change it, because well, I thought that’s how it worked. Like thinking I’d win the lottery without ever buying a ticket.

So my writing friends, lost in the wilds of your novels (and you know who you are), if you’re not on flash fiction yet, give it a try.

Whatever it is you need to learn, it’s in there. Flash fiction is the crash course on the thing that’s missing in your work, that thing you need to learn. And if it’s not, it’s at least entertaining. Sprint-training for the creative heart. So come on, you—yes you. Give me twenty words, or a hundred or two or three and see where you wind up.

You can’t improve what you don’t write.

Happy writing.

Epitaph for a Neighborhood

Lion Bridge, looking at the west bank of the Cedar

Lion Bridge, looking at the west bank of the Cedar

There is a ghost, beside the river, behind Czech Village.

If you go there now, you’ll find tree stumps marooned in pools of yellow sawdust. You’ll find haphazard stacks of logs, and a litter of branches too small to collect. You’ll smell pine resin and see broken streetlights and find curb-cuts to phantom garages down roads that end mid-block. You’ll see abandoned houses with windows full open to the winter air.

And if you come this spring, you might find crocuses to split the snow on scrubby vacant lots, or daffodils sprouting from now-defunct gardens. You might spy Hungarian tulips volunteering from the sides of vanished sidewalks, or remnants of flower beds in these lost lawns.

Czech Village is—Czech Village was—a small neighborhood. It was roughly fourteen city blocks nestled next to the Cedar River levee. The neighborhood was populated by last-century single-family homes and one single strip of commerce along the northwest border. The commerce is still there.
But the one thing you can’t do in Czech Village—at least not any more—is live.
It looks like Main Street USA—as long as you squint and aren’t too particular about the peeling paint and mismatched park benches. It could be small-town anywhere, but for the Slavic lettering and Czech flags. You can still go there and find a dark bar stool at a neighborhood tap and hide out for an afternoon. Or, you can sample the local hipster brew while your bike is at the bicycle recyclist. There’s a bandstand, an Artists’ Sanctuary and enough junk shops to satisfy just about anyone’s flea market itch. And before you head out, you can to pick up a dozen kolaches and a loaf of marble rye from a bakery that’s been under the same name for nearly a hundred years. But the one thing you can’t do in Czech Village—at least not any more—is live.

It’s not our fault.

2008 was a year of walking away, a year for final visits and unsaid goodbyes. In Cedar Rapids, 2008 was designated the Year of the River, and our river—well, she rose to the occasion. 31.12 feet to be exact, which was nineteen feet above flood stage and eleven feet higher than anyone had ever seen.

It stunned.

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Maybe you saw us on the news—our downtown a full story deep in swift current. Our river swelled to more than 20 city blocks wide for miles on end. It was a few years back and it’s hard to keep track—what with the natural disaster of the week competing for your attention—so we’ll understand if you’ve forgotten. We haven’t.

It was 2008 and all of us as a nation were in the depths of the sub-prime mortgage crisis. And then—here in Iowa—it started raining.

People who meant to carry out a few things more things from their Czech Town homes had to be rescued by boat.A wet spring ramped to a drenching finale in early June, when the storms began dumping inches at a time across the Cedar River basin. The active weather pattern flung hail, tornadoes and thunderstorms at us daily. On June 9, 2008 seven inches of rain fell in the northern Cedar River basin. The record crests made their way downstream: Cedar Falls, Waterloo, Charles City. Vinton. Urbana. Palo.

Tuesday, June 10th, people in Cedar Rapids were optimistic: we’d been through floods before. The USGS called for a crest of 21 feet on Thursday. Floodwater spilled onto Edgewood Road.

Wednesday, June 11th, Cedar Rapids ticked past the 1993 record of 19.27. Folks snapped photos from the bridges downtown until the city came out and closed them. The Weather Service upped their prediction to a Friday crest of 22 feet and the Czech Village was evacuated as water creeped up out of the storm sewers and made its way up lawns.

Thursday June 12th, heavy thunderstorms dumped three inches of rain on a weary and water-logged town. Revised predictions called for a crest of 24.7. Then, a railroad bridge weighted down with gravel-filled cars snapped. Water that had been creeping up inches an hour raced up by feet. People who meant to carry out a few things more things from their Czech Town homes had to be rescued by boat. Someone called the National Guard and by Thursday night, sandbagging efforts at one local hospital (nearly a mile from the river) ceased, and the hospital was evacuated.

The river crested Friday the 13th at 10:15 am. Czech Village would never be the same.

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In the late nineteenth century, an iron bowstring bridge was constructed at Fourteenth Avenue, and the homes and commerce of the east bank spilled onto the western shore of the Cedar. Immigrant families, letters in hand, came to join their kin in a chance at a better life. Old women in babushkas, babies with moon faces, women with their work-chapped hands; barrel-chested men with ruddy faces, swinging lunch pails stuffed with goulash as they crossed the bridge to their factory jobs. They were working folk, with names like Sokol and Jiruska: hardy people with strong frames, proud cheeks and easy laughter.

The neighborhood became the sort of place where an industrious type could grab a rung in the American dream and start their climb.The years went by. Some stayed for generations, raising their families in the black-earth flats of the west bank. Others moved on, and the neighborhood became the sort of place where an industrious type could grab a rung in the American dream and start their climb. Kids grew up in the ever-growing shade of the city landfill, climbing the levee barefoot to skip stones on the river. Young mothers hung laundry with babes on hip. War widows put kids through college on the wages from factory jobs. Nickel by nickel, folks bought back the title from the bank and meant to live their lives out there. Old folks tended gardens in their mortgage-free homes. They were small houses sure, and the windows leaked winter and the list of to-dos was never done. But they were theirs.

And then the flood—and who knows where all those people went? Perhaps some were lucky enough to snag one of the affordable-housing remixes that sprouted up in Oakhill-Jackson. Folks moved out, moved on. Even those that meant to stay, one by one gave in to city pressure, or to the desolate feel of living in a ghost town.


The Assessor’s website tells the story in three acts. Pull up any property from Seventeenth to Twenty-first, from A Street through the low-side of C. First photo is a fresh house, the bushes lush and the white paint glinting in the sun. Next, the same house with horizontal stripes, like a convict on death row: the porch askew, the windows boarded. And then, nothing but a skinned lot, the grass worn away where they filled in the basement and tossed on a handful of grass seed.

In January, the City came out and sentenced every living tree with an orange X. In the span of a week, they flattened them—left the trees lying on their sides, their sections strewn across the vacant lots. A truck picked up the haphazard cords of the more valuable cuts. And then they were gone: A diesel belching black smoke rolled in, and in the space of a day, a wood chipper and erased those century-old trees, log by log. Every last one: Sugar maples and walnuts,  pin oaks and blue spruce, and one graceful white locust as elegant as the May queen. Crows held protest on the ground where the trees were supposed to be, blasting black complaint at the passing cars.

2016-02-15 07.51.22

It’s going to be a levee. And trees have no place in levee plans, or so I’ve heard. But not until 2018 or 2019. I guess how it all plays out remains to be seen. It’s brought to you by the same planners who masterminded the one-way dead end streets in the downtown and the whole back-in-angle parking debacle.

Until then, there’s still time to see the ghosts. Look for tulips to volunteer this spring and resurrection lilies in high summer. The city will mow, but determined hands planted those flowers. They’ll come back—at least for as long as they can. As long as they can find the light.

To my youngest, the flood is prehistoric. But I’ve been around long enough to know: sooner or later, everything is lost.“I used to live right there,” I tell my kids whenever we drive down old Lincoln Highway. They nod, bored, because I say it every time. It’s a medical building now—what used to be a 1900 Craftsman-style home with a giant field-stone porch. Stuff like that, it happens more and more, the older that I get. Homes and buildings and even neighborhoods now exist in only memory. To my youngest, the flood is prehistoric. But I’ve been around long enough to know: sooner or later, everything is lost.