Opinion: Big little things


Published: 06-14-2023 6:00 AM

Parker Potter is a former archaeologist and historian, and a retired lawyer. He is currently a semi-professional dog walker who lives and works in Contoocook.

During the past school year, if you had driven through Fountain Square in downtown Contoocook at about 7:30 on almost any school day morning, you could have seen me sitting on the stoop of one of the shops there.

I would have been waiting for a group of kids to meet me so I could escort them through a busy intersection that stands between their houses and the school they attend.

My stint as a private-duty crossing guard began when the owner of one of the dogs I walk told me that her daughter and some of her friends were eager to walk to school rather than take the bus. The mother liked the idea of a walk to school but was concerned about the heavy rush-hour traffic in Fountain Square, even though there is a crosswalk there.

Because Fountain Square is close to my house, and I am up at 7:30 to take my daily walk around Contoocook, I offered to help the kids cross the street every day. I manned my post for the entire school year.

It was an easy thing for me to do, and it has been an absolute joy. I know that the parents were comforted to know that their children were crossing a busy street under a watchful eye, and I know that the kids, who I dubbed my Crosswalk Posse, seemed to relish the twenty or thirty minutes of grown-up independence they had while walking to school mostly on their own.

Even knowing that, I have been bowled over by the expressions of gratitude that have come my way from my Crosswalk Posse and their families. Around the holidays, they gave me a generous gift card from my family’s favorite restaurant, and one day last May, my posse surprised me by showing up in matching “Crosswalk Posse” t-shirts and presenting me with one of my own. Clearly, my simple little service is a pretty big deal to my Crosswalk Posse and their families.

Helping my posse get to school reminds me of something I did more than twenty years ago. For ten or twelve years, I organized an annual print show at what was then called Franklin Pierce Law Center. I typically hung about a hundred prints by about thirty artists for people at the law school to enjoy and, perhaps, purchase. The opening reception quickly became the social event of the year for New Hampshire printmakers.

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The print show was very easy for me to do. I sent out some letters, made some phone calls, printed some labels, and spent a day hanging beautiful art. It was no sweat, but printmaker after printmaker thanked me generously for doing something that they all said they could not have done on their own. Some of their gratitude hangs on the walls of my house to this day.

Then there is this. For about two years after the COVID pandemic hit, my wife, Nancy Jo, did weekly grocery shopping for four or five friends and neighbors of a certain age at a time when staying at home was the big prescription from the CDC for those of us who were no longer spring chickens. As it happens, Nancy Jo enjoys shopping, and it was no real hardship for her to help out our neighbors, while it was quite a big deal to them.

My crossing-guard duties, the print show, and Nancy Jo’s community shopping all have something in common. Each of those was a relatively small thing for us to do, and each had an effect that was far in excess of the effort they required from us. I really like being able to find small things I can do that are big things to the people I’m doing them for.

Moreover, I think that there may be broader value in seeking out these big little things. In this moment, our world seems to be awash in big problems: climate change, the war in Ukraine, growing tension with China, the culture wars, you name it.

As I was starting to draft this column, the debt ceiling crisis was bubbling away, and as an old man living on a federal pension, Social Security, and an IRA invested in the stock market, I felt a bit like a cat on a hot tin roof (with all due respect to Elizabeth Taylor).

The problems we face today, as individuals and as a society, can sometimes feel huge and overwhelming. But one way of dealing with that potentially paralyzing immensity could be finding small things that have big positive effects. Then, maybe, having experienced the satisfaction of success on that scale, we just might be better prepared to find a role to play in dealing with some of the big problems.

P.S. On the same day that I finalized and submitted this column, I found a tassel from a graduation cap on my morning walk, lost by a student just a day or two before his graduation ceremony. With graduation just a few hours away, I put up a Facebook post that stated where I would be all afternoon. The kid who lost the tassel tracked me down and picked it up. I spent the rest of the day walking on air.