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I'm a big fan of Garrison Keillor. He once said that if you drive around the country, stop in small towns, and sit down with the locals in their breakfast cafe, you never know when you may hear something interesting, surprising, or even profound. John Steinbeck also believed that. He took his dog and drove across America, talking with ordinary people and collecting stories. They went into a thoughtful and entertaining book titled "Travels With Charley."
Well . . . I came to the desert town of Payson, Arizona. I ordered breakfast in a small diner there beside the road. The adjoining booth was occupied by a local man, sitting by himself, talking on his cellphone, his voice lowered. He had long, unkept hair and a long, unkept beard. His clothes looked as worn and tired as he did, and his speech had the lingering of alcohol about it. I heard him use the word "innebriated," a term less confessional and more respectable than the word "drunk." But meaning the same, of course.
The man was talking with a woman. You could tell she was someone he missed, someone he owed something to, someone he needed to have around and planned to see again.
The man was doing most of the talking, mostly about nothing, until the end of the conversation. The woman on the line had apparently said, "I love you."
Now, a man in those circumstances must say something. As a man myself, I know about this moment, that pause that needs a response, as the woman awaits one. I didn't expect a memorable response from this man, but I heard one.
There was a moment of hesitation, and then: "I love you . . . no matter what I say or do."
I love you no matter what I say or do.It was said wistfully. Like saying you don't want to borrow money again, but you really have to. Wistfully, like thinking of an old friend and remembering your last words were something you wish hadn't been said. Wistfully, like remembering that opportunity of a lifetime you missed out on, because you were so stupid, stupid.
"No matter what I say or do," remember I love you.
The man is admitting his sins of the past, but also anticipating their repetition in the future. He's disclaiming in advance the hurt that he may cause. He's professing both his love, and his liklihood of acting contrary to it. In essence, he wants forgiveness in advance, saved up for a rainy day. What a deal!
I tried to imagine . . . what were those words and deeds that had passed between them, out there in the desert?
Did he verbally abuse this woman? Call her names, or fat, or ugly? Had he insulted her family, her friends? Had he sworn hatefully at her, unprovoked?
Did he maybe wreck her car, steal money from her purse, break up her furniture? Did he hit her? In the face, or somewhere else? With his fist, or with something else? And whatever that history was, it's one thing to own up and ask forgiveness, but how, at the same time, do you say you'll be repeating such things in the future?
Pathetic, I thought, sitting there listening. "Believe that I love you, no matter what I'm about to say or do to hurt you?" Can his woman accept that, and live with it? And if she does, is she to be admired or pitied?
It may well be that she did accept it, did believe it, and was willing to live with it. It may well be that in spite of his drinking and all his flaws, she loves him. Maybe she knows and appreciates qualities of his the rest of the world has missed. There are women like that. There are women devoted to deeply flawed men. There are women who feel they have no choice except to go along and make the best of things. I imagined that maybe the woman on the phone line was that sort of woman. And not knowing her, I felt sad for her.
I felt sad because her fear of loosing him may be greater than any fear of him. She can put up with his drinking and abuse, because her greater fear is being without him and alone.
But then . . . hold on . . . who am I to know or to judge about any of this?
Could there be another side to it, I've asked myself since then? Should his words be viewed in a more positive light? Was this the true confession of a down-and-out man who knows and freely admits his failure and weakness? An honest man. Honest to a fault, and about his faults. When he said "no matter what I say or do," did his woman smile a knowing smile, or even laugh out loud? I imagined that happening. Did this woman love him truly, despite anything he'd said or done, anything he might say or do?
If so, we onlookers would say he's lucky to have her. But she may consider herself lucky to have him, even him. He may be the best she can do in Payson, Arizona.
The man left the restaurant ahead of me, and I observed him as he went. The kind of man people glance at, but then away from. Who appears sad to the world, and is. The kind of man you might want to forget, but can't.
I did take something home from this. When my own woman says, "I love you," and a reply is called for, I've tried out those words of his. I say, "I love you . . . no matter what I say or do."
Sometimes she laughs, but not always.
Listen to a reading of this story:
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Each weekday morning I go to the swimming pool to, well, swim. I usually swim three miles, which takes me about an hour and a half. The lanes at my pool are 25 yards long. It takes 5,250 of these yards to make a three mile swim. That's 105 laps, a lap being down to the end and back. Often I get in the water and swim non-stop. Now many of my fellow swimmers swim faster than me, but not many swim longer or farther. I catch views of others as I swim. Many do a few laps and then hang on the sides of the pool talking. Many of them spend more time talking in the water than swimming in it. When I observe this, I feel proud to be such a dedicated swimmer.
These are my fellow swimmers. But there are a lot of others taking up water space in the pool who are not swimmers. I call them the splashers. They get in the water to wade, chat, clap, bounce, float, splash, act silly, and dance around. Often they do these things in groups and with an overweight leader, and to loud and lively music. I think they pay money to join these groups, and they probably imagine they're getting in shape by doing this. From the looks of most of them, they have a long way to go. The New Yorker captured this phenomenon in a recent cover illustration. Count the number of individuals who are actually swimming, despite the inspirational image on the front wall. (click to enlarge the picture and better appreciate)
The men's locker room at our pool is a communal place. There are no privacy curtains or individual shower stalls. We dress and undress and shower together; we hear and overhear conversations; we may not speak with others, but we do hear and observe things.
On morning I was there getting dressed and I heard loud panting and wheezing. I looked around the corner and there was a large, overweight, out-of-shape man trying to put on his clothes. Even putting on socks was a great effort for him. His breathing was so labored that I wondered how he could swim at all. Lazy bastard! I imagined him lounging on the sofa, watching TV, and eating potato chips and ice cream and drinking beer. I assumed he was one of the splashers. Why did he even bother coming here?
Then some days later I was in the locker room and heard the same panting and wheezing. It was unmistakeable. Him again.
Then the man began talking with another man. His talking was labored, interspersed with the panting and wheezing. But I listened because the conversation was unexpected and startling, and it ended up making me feel ashamed.
The man explained about his brain surgery, and almost dying, and now he has all these health problems, including the loss of his short term memory. He apologized for making so much noise. And I felt like apologizing for my recent thoughts.
The next time I had a chance, I introduced myself to this man. He explained the same things to me about his surgery and his struggles. He once had had a good job, he said. Meaning he once had been normal like the rest of us. The surgery had taken all of his savings, he said. And I said that was too bad and I was sorry. But he smiled and said it was alright, as if to sooth my feelings. He said he was thankful he had the money, and it was worth every penny.
I learned that he is not a splasher after all. He does try to swim, though not very fast or very far. He does what he can.
And I was greatly shamed by this, because my health is mostly good, and my savings are unspent on brain surgery, and I do not struggle to put on socks. I sensed that although I may swim fifteen miles in a week, this man's effort is greater than mine.
I've spoken with him several times since then. And what I've learned is that he is grateful for the life he has, and does not wish to be pitied.
When men leave the locker room at our pool, friends say: "have a good day." And when we say this to the brain surgery man, he always has the same reply. He says, every day is a good day.
So how do you explain the fact that with all his pain and misfortune, this man lives with more gratitude than most of us do?
When I was a boy and aspiring to become a man, I spent most of my summers at Boy Scout camp. For me, this was Camp Pellissippi on Norris Lake in East Tennessee. I began as a regular camper and later became a camp counselor and handicrafts instructor. I was also the camp bugler. I played Reveille to get them up, Assembly to form them into rows before the flag, and Mess Call to bring them to meals. Other calls sounded throughout the day, and Taps was played at the end, when they were obliged to go to sleep.
The highlight of my week at camp was the Saturday morning swim meet down on the waterfront. We swam in the lake, but mostly inside a floating wooden "crib" as it was called. Wooden boards formed the side walls and bottom of the crib, and it was supported in the water by empty oil drums. Water from the lake circulated freely in and out. It was much like a regular swimming pool, having diving boards, walkways, ladders, and life guards. The crib was attached to shore and held in place with cables, and these were adjusted as the lake level rose or fell.
My favorite swim meet event was the underwater swim. The goal was to swim farther underwater than anyone else. Those entered went one at a time and the order was determined by drawing straws or guessing a number or something similar. I became good at swimming distances underwater. I learned how to hyperventilate and store up oxygen in my system, and how to dive in with lungs full and exhale most grudgingly. Another camper was good as well, and one or the other of us always won the event. Often it came down to the order. If he went first, I had the advantage of knowing just how far I needed to go to beat him. If I went first, this advantage was his.
One memorable Saturday, I had to go first. I went through my breathing routine and dove in. I swam down to the end, came back, went down again, came back, turned and went part way and came up. His turn. He went down to the end, came back, went down again, came back, turned and started but didn't come up. Instead a lot of bubbles came up and he stayed down. The life guards dove in and pulled him out, and he coughed up water but soon was okay. We were both pretty serious about winning this event.
I'm reminded of those days when I go to my pool in Germantown, Maryland, and observe the dire warning about swimming underwater. I can only guess that no underwater swimming events are held at Boy Scout camps these days. In fact, I heard the other day that the Scouts have banned water guns at scouting activities. Apparently as a concession, they still allow the throwing of water balloons, but only those filled to the size of a tennis ball.
Nearby in Silver Spring, the police have picked up children for walking to school or to the neighborhood park without adult supervision, and their parents have been investigated by child protective services for suspected abuse or neglect.
In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is a beautiful swimming hole at "The Y" on the road into the park from Townsend, Tennessee. For generations, young boys have climbed up the rocks and practiced diving into those mountain waters. Young girls and older people used to gather along the bank on the other side and watch. The braver boys climbed up higher and made a bigger splash. Recently the Park Service has banned this activity and put up a sign warning of consequences if you do it and get caught.
I know that there is more risk of my getting hurt from riding my bicycle than from sitting on the sofa watching daytime television, but I would like the choice to be mine, not someone else's. I know that going out in my kayak is more dangerous than shopping at the Safeway, but don't tell me I can't go out. Indeed there are activities whose risks I would not assume: skydiving, BASE jumping, ice climbing, scuba dive cave exploring, and others often termed "extreme." But I would hate to see us tell those people, no, they must not do those things. Or children walking to and from school. Or swimmers swimming underwater.
I would rather live in a land of the free.
Years ago I knew an elderly couple living on a large farm near Winchester, Kentucky. The house was old and run down, the dairy was unkept, the car was old and smoked, and their clothes were plain and worn. To see them, you would never have guessed it about this couple, but they were worth a fortune. The owned a large tract of prime land that was smack in the middle of plans for a new interstate highway. They were cash poor but land rich. Very rich.
The couple had a number of children, all grown up, around six as I recall. The couple was strong minded. They argued among themselves and with neighbors, and they argued with their children. The children fell into two categories: those in favor and those not. Those in favor would come around and visit now and then. The others never came around.
The mother died first, and the father soon afterward.
When the will was read, it left $25 each to the out-of-favor children, and the fortune to be divided among the in-favor children.
The out-of-favor children took their money and went out to dinner together. There is no record of their discussion that evening, but one can imagine. Word of all this was out and about in the town and discussions took place in barber shops, beauty parlors, Sunday School classes, and whenever people met up on the streets. Some people laughed about it, others shook their heads. All wondered what would happen next.
None of the in-favor children had been very prosperous . . . until now. The cars they drove, the clothes they wore, and the houses they lived in were similar to those of their parents. But things began to change, and fast. Shiny new luxury cars replaced their old ones, new homes were built on estate size lawns, trips were made to Louisville to buy stylish cothes. A lot of showing off took place. It was the talk of the town, how the old couple had lived like poor folks all their lives, and now that they were gone their children were living like kings and queens.
Some of them, that is.
I was approaching the handicapped entrance to the pool, and I saw her rushing to open the door for me. Rushing like it was urgent. She saw I was a man with a bandaged foot riding a scooter thing. She saw a tube connecting the foot to a shoulder bag. She took all this in and spoke five words:
"I hope you get well."
As soon as she spoke, the slur of her voice told me she suffers from a neurological condition of some sort. Her voice felt of some pain, but for me and not her. It said the woman identified with me as a fellow sufferer.
I was drawn in by her words, as in the four months since my first surgery-gone-wrong, I have sometimes wondered if I will ever get well. Again and again I have hoped to get well. In four more days I will have yet another surgery trying to bring that about.
She asked was I going to swim in the pool, somewhat disbelieving, I thought. She was wondering how someone in my condition could get in the water. I explained about the device that waterproofs my wound in a vacuum sealed covering and allows me to swim.
Her words—"I hope you get well"—stayed with me throughout that day, and are with me still.
A few words from the right person can mean a lot.
Would an Amish man kick his horse right out in public? I would never have believed that until I saw it happen. It was on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The horse was hitched to his Amish carriage in the parking lot of an Amish farm market. I believe the man may have wanted the horse to back the carriage up, and maybe the house had been slow or even reluctant about doing that. So the suspendered, straw-hatted man hauled off and kicked his horse. And I mean a hard, nasty kick. A God-fearing Amish man. Really??
Would the man driving his hot car with the power of 200 or more horses gun his engine like a race driver in order to surge pass me and my bicycle, which do not have the power of even one horse? Really??
Would someone explain why college football coaches are paid way more than the college president, any of the teachers, and very often the governor of the State? Really??
Would conservative people who deny a woman's right to the abortion of an unwanted pregnancy also try to deny her the right to contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place? Really?
Would people readily believe things published in gossip tabloids, but flat deny things published in scientific journals that deal with climate and environmental issues? Really?
Would politicians with premium health care coverage provided at taxpayer expense be opposed to providing affordable health care for Americans who have none at all? Really??
Would someone explain why rich and for-profit religious broadcasting companies are allowed to be classified as churches, thus paying no taxes and obliged to no auditing or accountability? Really??
Would a woman deliberately buy a tiny bikini bathing suit that does not cover much of her butt, then spend half her time at the pool or beach tugging and trying to get it to cover? Really??
Would a country whose military budget is six times that of China, eleven times that of Russia, and 27 times that of Iran have leaders who argue that we still are insecure and need to spend more? Really??
When the Amish man kicked his own horse, I was amazed and didn't know what to say. It was hard to believe.
Those other things you get used to.
Our men’s locker room at the county swim and fitness center is the old-fashioned kind. It’s an open, communal space. Unlike the trendy commercial fitness centers there are no private dressing rooms or privacy screens. We see each other and hear each other. And the locker room sometimes takes on a social media aspect. The extraverts talk out loud, even to total strangers, as the introverts listen and analyze. It was that way this morning.
There was a man slumped down and panting on the bench in front of his locker. He was a large and overweight man with an alcoholic appearance. Even though he’d been sitting for some while, he was still breathing heavily. The locker room was quiet except for this loud breathing.
A nearby man spoke up then. “You must have had a tough workout, huh?” he said to the slumped man. “Not really,” the man said, “I feel so bad I don’t do that much. I have a lot of pain.”
“Well, every little bit helps. The main thing is that you’re staying active,” the other man said cheerfully. He was obviously trying to be positive about the situation. But his effort was in vain. Everyone in the locker room heard the next thing the slumping man said.
“I’m ready to just go to sleep and not wake up.”
The words hung heavy in the air and seemed to last on like an echo. There was a silence in the room that also seemed to go on for longer than it actually did. What are fellow humans supposed to feel or say when one of us speaks of wishing to die? What would it take for others of us to want to die in our sleep? Did the slumping man really mean this, or what? Should someone be notified?
Another man spoke up then. “Things can’t be that bad,” he said, “what kind of pain do you have?” The man on the bench said he had back pain and his knees hurt. It was easy to look at him and imagine that being the case. “Well, lots of people have those things,” he said. “Just think about those people on dialysis or who lie in a bed and get fed through a tube.”
And the first man put in that dying in your sleep is certainly a good way to go, but he wasn’t ready to schedule it any time soon. Then he laughed and said, “I think you’re just talking trash with us anyway.”
I wasn’t so sure.
When my mother died in 1970, my father purchased burial spaces in the Grandview Cemetery of Maryville, Tennessee. Maryville was our home town, and the location of Maryville College, where my father and mother had met as students, and where Dad returned to spend most of his life teaching.
Grandview Cemetery is well named. The “grand view” is its view of the Appalachian mountain range, locally bounded by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Out town has changed a lot over the years, but the grand view of the Smokies does not change. If you want your body buried in a cemetery, this is a good place.
Besides Mother and Dad, our family included myself and two brothers. My oldest brother is buried in France in a U.S. Military Cemetery. My other brother is buried in Grandview, as is Mother. My father’s ashes were interred in Mother’s grave when he died.
The last time I was in Maryville, I visited Grandview and tried to find these graves. I thought I could do this, but much has been added to the cemetery in recent years, and I never wrote down any locations. I tried to find someone in the cemetery office who could help me, but found no one.
What I did find the other day, while looking for something else, was the original purchase document for these cemetery lots. Included was a map and location information. Dad had paid $1,142 for 6 spaces in Grandview. He had made a down payment of $342 and agreed to make two payments of $400 each over the next six months.
As I glanced over the remainder of this old document, one of the “purchaser agrees to the following” statements stood out. I was stunned. The following was a legal and binding condition of the cemetery lot purchase:
“He, She or They are of the White and/or Caucasian Race and will make no attempt to obtain internment and/or internment rights for any other than of that Race in or on said plot and/or in or on the cemetery.”
I know, of course, that I could break this agreement now and no harm would come to me. I know that likely by this time there have been non-white burials in Grandview Cemetery. I assume that new purchasers of grave sites in this cemetery no longer sign such a statement. So is this just a relic of the past? We are now a multicultural society, and prejudice and discrimination are behind us, right?
Not so fast.
What of Arizona and the other states that today are passing laws allowing businesses to refuse their services to same-sex couples. Is discrimination based on sexual preference any better or worse than basing it on race? How much better is a law allowing a cemetery business to refuse burial sites to same-sex couples than one that does so based on skin color? And this is in 2014, not 1970.
Of course, the discrimination needs to be on “religious grounds” under terms of these laws. The business refusing the service must profess that gayness offends its religious beliefs. (This raises the question of how a business has a religious belief, and whose religious belief it needs to be, but no matter.) In passing these laws, the states say they are upholding the principle of religious liberty, which, they say, is under attack today. Thus do the victimizers portray themselves as the victims.
I can tell you from my personal experience growing up in Maryville that religion was the rationale behind segregated cemetery lots. It was the rational behind separate toilets and signs reading “Colored to the rear” on the White Star Line busses. Preachers preached about the Old Testament “curse of Ham” and used it to justify all types of discrimination against persons of color. They preached that god made black birds and blue birds and red birds, and that these do not inter-breed. They observed that god placed people of different races on different continents and obviously meant for them not to mix.
The days of that preaching is largely gone. But the idea that a business serving the public can discriminate against people based on religion is obviously not.
It happened again this morning. After swimming my laps, I proceeded to the large jacuzzi beside the slow lanes. There was a woman already in the jacuzzi and she had the Monster Jet. The MJ is my name for what is the strongest hot water blowing jet in any pool in Montgomery County, Maryland. I know this from trying them all, trust me. Put any sore bone or muscle in front of this jet and appreciate the results. All the regular swimmers at this pool know the MJ, as did the woman sitting there. As did I, and also the two men who entered soon after. You watch for your chance to take over the MJ as soon as someone leaves it.
The woman finally did leave it and immediately, simultaneously, I and another man made moves toward it. Our eyes met and each of us hesitated. He was a polite Asian man and middle-aged. He gestured toward the MJ as if to say “you were here first, go ahead and take it.” Instinctively I gestured back, “no, you can have it. I’m leaving soon anyway.”
I could have insisted and taken the MJ, but then I would have felt guilty. I kindly let the other man have it, and then I felt cheated. Guilty or cheated, those were the choices.
But why are these the choices, you ask? I call it the Southern Curse. I was raised in Tennessee by a mother who taught and practiced the traits of kindness, generosity, politeness, patience, humility, and loving consideration for other people. She often quoted the words of Jesus about treating others the way we would want them to treat us. This was known as the Golden Rule. And as if our mothers were not enough, we heard of it often in sermons and Sunday School lessons and even from school teachers who were religious. I think it was recognized that we would never succeed in attaining this ideal completely, but the responsibility of trying to was ingrained.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was the motivating force behind John Brown’s stand against slavery and his eventual martyrdom by hanging in Charles Town, Virginia, in 1859. He reasoned that no person would want to be enslaved and therefore, as followers of Christ, we must not only refuse to enslave others, but must not tolerate a society in which human slavery is condoned and practiced.
We do not have slave ships and slave auctions and plantation-type slavery today, but we do have other forms of it. We have millions of hard working people whose wages leave them in perpetual poverty and economic misery. Their children grow up sick and hungry and with scant hope of escape from this life. And rich business owners love the system because it provides cheap labor in abundance. They even try their best to ban contraceptives and abortions so this population is kept in good supply. This, too, is a slavery system.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I heard about an interesting conversation once, perhaps in or after a Sunday School class. Someone asked if Jesus Christ had been an NFL quarterback, how great would he have been? And there were various suggestions, all in the superlative mode. Until someone expressed the view that if Jesus were a quarterback he would probably figure out a way to let the other team win. And that ended the discussion.
So which is better, to help yourself or to help someone else?
In corporate America, it is all about helping yourself at the expense of others. The incentive is to self-promote and to get ahead of others by any means available, open-handed or under-handed. The rewards are to those who do unto others precisely what they hope will never be done to them, to do it to others before it gets done to them. The system is rigged to reward the ruthless.
If you have five hungry lions together in a cage and someone throws in two large steaks, what will happen? Will two lions will have steak dinner and the rest go hungry? Or will one strong and ill-tempered lion roar and bare its teeth and grab everything for itself? Whatever the outcome, the last thing to expect, the near impossible, is for the lions to share this food equally among them.
Human beings are not bound to behave like wild beasts, although we often do. Human beings are capable of kindness, generosity, politeness, patience, humility, and loving consideration of other people. Of treating others the way we would want to be treated.
This isn’t just a Southern thing, and I should not have called it a curse. Sorry, Mother.