Friday, July 19, 2024

Make every birthday phenomenal

| May 5, 2024 12:00 AM

You have to celebrate the wins.

I learned that in business school, but it’s hard to put into practice. After completing a project or reaching a milestone, I just want to relish relief, and take a nap or vacation. Now I make time to celebrate. Otherwise I just lurch from challenge to challenge and exhaust myself (and others) along the way.

Success needs savoring. Milestones mean taking stock. We recently partied to mark the 130-year anniversary of Central School and the 25-year anniversary of its tenant, the Northwest Montana History Museum.

As I tell the hundreds of third-graders who jostle at the foot of the stairs of Kalispell’s oldest public building every spring and fall before taking part in the McClaren 1895 Classroom experience, Kalispell was two years old when the city voted to build its first major structure. That it would be a school says something. This was a place to learn for the kids, their kids, and their kids. 

It still is.

The railroad line that prompted Kalispell’s creation would move out of town within a dozen years, but the Richardsonian Romanesque building that housed Central School — built of local materials, for $20,000 — showed this town was here to stay. 

Generations of students would be served, including some of the first classes of Flathead Valley Community College. 

Even with this pedigree, the building avoided demolition by just one vote among City Council in 1997. Jim Atkinson, a 29-year councilor in office at the time and who volunteers in the museum’s acquisitions department, rivetingly tells the story about Kalispell’s save of the century. 

I once attended a lecture by preservationist Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute. He said, “No place stays special by accident.” The fledgling group of Flathead preservationists who had envisioned a place for local history starting in the 1960s planted a seed that eventually took root at the old Central School. In 2023, nearly 10,000 people came through the doors.

I applauded another milestone birthday recently: what would have been philosopher Immanuel Kant’s 300th on April 22. He’s my favorite philosopher. (If you don’t have a favorite philosopher, what are you thinking?)

Son of a harness maker, young Kant drew the attention of a pastor who recommended further education. Luckily, he got it. Although not a stunning writer, Kant presented ideas, particularly about phenomenon versus noumenon, that blew me away as an earnest undergrad and shape my worldview decades on.

Phenomenon are what we know through our senses: a desk, this keyboard, the birds singing. Noumenon are that which we cannot perceive with our senses.

Here comes a crude distillation of what I found to be the bombshell in Kant’s thinking. The phenomenon can be known. The noumenal world is so unknowable our human-made language can’t reach it. 

Think of all the religious wars that could and can be avoided. The feelings that could go unhurt, the moot proselytizing. Arguing about the ineffable makes no sense because words fail it, and us.

Birthdays celebrate the people and institutions (and even a building) that contribute their skills, ideas and gifts. We’re the lucky ones — we’re here. Light up that cake.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at