Sep 182013
 

I once was pastor of a church in Silver Spring, Maryland. My office window looked out over a large parking lot behind the church. Over the years I worked in that office, I saw many things from that window.

Parking Lot & TruckCouples would arrive in separate cars, park one car in a far corner, look around nervously, then depart together in one car–returning after hours or sometimes days.

Teenagers would come at night to drink and party, leaving trash and urine behind. I often called the county police, but usually to no avail. The kids had police scanners and a mass exodus took place as soon as the police were heard to be on the way.

I once heard a ruckus right below my window and found a man forcibly holding a woman down. A pistol was lying near them on the ground. The man said he was a plainclothes policeman and would I please come and help him. I thought that he could just as well been the criminal of the two. With no way to verify and not being inclined to join a fight, I helped by calling the police.

There was an orthodox Jewish synagogue adjoining this parking lot. Now orthodox Jews are supposed to walk to synagogue, and most did. I would see many of them walking in all kinds of weather. But I also observed some less strict ones who drove and parked in our lot, then walked the rest of the way. One Saturday, I observed one of them hiding behind his car as a group of others passed. He watched until the coast was clear and then emerged.

There were many other interesting sights, but the the following has always been my favorite.

One clear, summer day I noticed a pickup truck parked in the back of the lot. That was nothing unusual, except that there was a man standing behind or around it and now and again there was something bright rising up out of the truck. I kept trying to figure out what it was and had no clue. It went on for a long time and I decided to investigate.

The man with the pickup was from Baltimore. The bright objects I had seen from the distance were homing pigeons being released. The man had brought them in a large cage in the back of the truck. He explained that pigeon racing was his hobby and he was training his pigeons for an upcoming event.

As we talked, he took out and released a new pigeon.  The bird climbed upward in ascending circles and was visible for a long time. The man explained that it was hoping for others to be released and waiting for them to fly up and join it.  But finally the bird headed off in the direction of Baltimore.

The man explained that the nature of pigeons is to gather as a flock and fly together. But he said that if they do that, they will fly at the speed of the slowest pigeon. One bird in the flock might be flying at its best speed, but all the others will not. So he forces them to fly alone, despite their wish to do otherwise. Only by training this way will each bird have a chance to achieve its speed potential.

I thought how flocking together and taking it easy is a human trait as well. Unless you want to be exceptional.

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Sep 172013
 

Continuing to pursue my passion for open water swimming, I will be joining a group of eleven swimmers for a week of swimming in Sardinia starting this Saturday September 21st.

Sardinia swim mapThe northern tip of Sardinia on the mainland Italy side has an archipelago called La Maddalena. Its largest island and city share the same name, and this will be our headquarters. Each day we will be going out to swim to and from and around the various islands nearby. We will have local guides and escort boats. We will be swimming about 13 miles total during the week. Needless to say, I am looking forward to this adventure.

The Mediterranean Sea is said to be clear and teeming with sea life around these islands. I have purchased a small waterproof camera to carry on some of the swims and hopefully get some interesting shots from a swimmer perspective, as well as underwater.  Expect a future post describing this swimming trek.

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The Goat

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Jul 082013
 

The goat sat wisely on his tree stump. It was his place to observe the world and to think. There on his stump he felt royal and in possession of his surroundings. Other animals knew this. Other animals knew better than to try to take his place on the stump.

Goat on stumpHe observed a car pass by on the winding road out front. He saw a head jerk around and brake lights come on. “They’ll be back,” he thought. “They’ll turn around and come back for a better look.”

The goat was used to this, and he enjoyed the attention. He gazed back at them as they pointed and clicked their cameras. There atop his stump he was perfectly poised. From the tips of his horns to the whiskers of his chin he expressed the confidence and satisfaction of his years. His steel-grey eyes never blinked. The ears adjusted only slightly.

After the car drove away, the goat turned his head from the road. His hearing was good, and if another car came he would know before it came into sight. He would also know if it was a familiar car, one that was used to seeing the goat on his stump. Those cars might notice, but they had no need to turn around. Others would come along that did.

The goat imagined the pictures they made of him from those cars. He knew that the colors of his fine coat matched those of the wood he sat on, as if intended. His health was apparent in the shine of his eyes, his polished horns, his damp nose.

Somewhere nearby was the mother of his recent offsprings. He thought of how she gazed at him adoringly and craved his attention. A dusty chicken was pecking small gravels around the base of his stump. The best a chicken can hope for, he supposed. The horse nearby swatted flys with its coarse tail.

There are worse things to be than a goat on a stump in Pennsylvania.

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Communication

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Jun 252013
 

The man walking to his airport gate with a cellphone at his ear is giving final instructions to someone with a tone of importance. Sitting in the splashing jacuzzi does not deter the bathing woman from talking on hers. And even the hotel maid waiting at the bus stop for her ride to work is talking, talking, talking.

How can she afford this? Something has convinced even our lowest wage earners and their children that their phones and talking on them is a necessity of life.

Switchboard-OperatorsI can remember when placing a call in our small town meant picking up the receiver and waiting for an operator to say “number please.” The phone numbers were three digits and all calls through this operator were local. A long distance call was needed even for another town just a few miles away. For those you needed to ask for a long distance operator. The reception on longer distance calls was often marginal. And because of the costs, long distance calls were considered a luxury and used sparingly. Often they brought bad news: a relative dead or a soldier killed in action. When the phone system was upgraded to rotary dial models that needed no operator, that was high technology. It was also the end of their jobs for a lot of women.

If this sounds like along time ago, it really wasn’t. It was not so long before those days that nothing like a telephone or telegraph existed. Or railroads or automobiles. Or a postal system or newspaper with wide circulation. It is not that far from when the fastest way to spread the word was someone riding on a fast horse or running on foot if they lacked one.

The trend, the ever-accelerating trend, has been toward universal connectedness. People talking with more and more people including those farther and farther away. News arriving from more and more sources, and faster and faster. Information arrives constantly today, as does misinformation. Important information arrives along with the unimportant. The process overwhelms the content and the purpose. The process becomes an addiction.

Do we really need all the information that comes at us constantly? We thumb through a stack of magazines and find nothing at all of use or interest. We flip through a hundred channels on the TV without finding a single one we want to watch. Broadcasters try to entice us with “breaking news,” but we have grown accustomed to the fact that it is neither breaking nor news. Most times it is just the same things repeated over and over.

As a result of our constant communicating, things that would never have been heard about in previous human generations now seem close at hand. A woman raped in India, a famous person arrested somewhere, a few miners trapped, or a shooting in Texas. A clothing factory burned in Bangladesh. A newspaper cartoon deemed offensive and setting off riots far away. Suddenly the business of everyone else in the world has become our business.

There is the potential for great good in this, or for great harm. All of these means of communication are essentially neutral. Digital signals do not discriminate between the voices planning a happy family reunion or those planning a deadly bomb blast. Good news can be spread by our media, but bad news seems to predominate. Spreading the news can mean help is on the way, or death and destruction.

We are made spectators and almost participants in every conflict going on anywhere in the world. Also every tragedy, injustice, uprising, and downfall. Also every notable achievement, scientific advance, and humanitarian success, although these tend to be ignored or underplayed.

A country makes war on another country, and all the other countries feel compelled to take sides. Sometimes they offer assistance and the fight becomes wider.

Unhappy citizens communicate their anger and organize themselves using mass communications. They rise up against their own governments, who respond with deadly force. Then everyone else in the world seems called on to take a side and join in. Poor Obama, who has tried to keep out of the civil war in Syria, and now is getting swept toward it like a stick in a rushing river.

Like it or not, we are all becoming participants in an emerging global community where someone’s business becomes everyone’s business. Someone’s disease becomes everyone’s disease. Someone’s bad economy becomes everyone’s bad economy.

Like it or not, we are citizens of the world we live in. Any war among us is a civil war.

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Jun 102013
 

The 2013 Great Chesapeake Bay Swim was held for the 22nd consecutive time yesterday, despite threatening weather and weather-related complications. Because of recent storms and flood runoff, the county health department had issued a water quality advisory which apparently caused registered 34 swimmers to stay home.  616 of us were not deterred, and 572 completed the swim. Due mainly to the strong  currents, 44 of the starting swimmers were not able to finish the 4.4 miles. These get picked up by the attending power boats and transported to the finish. Despite the qualifications needed to get into the event, there are always a few swimmers who start out and then pull out, but 44 was an unusually large number. My finishing time of 3 hours and 4 minutes was disappointing, although it was enough to win my age group.  It was 24 minutes slower than my time last year, which I would not have guessed because the swim felt strong and fast to me.

I’ve thought a lot about the 44 swimmers who did not complete the swim. There are no casual entries in the bay swim. Each of these people made a decision to enter back in December. They were picked from a lottery with 1200 entries. In January they were notified that they were eligible for the swim and they paid a $250 entry fee which was non-refundable after April 15. We can assume that for the prior months they had trained hard to be ready for this event, putting in countless miles and pushing to increase their speed and endurance. And we can assume that no swimmer stands on the Sandy Point beach waiting for the starting gun but planning to just swim out for part of the distance and then signal to be picked up and have a boat ride to the far shore. No, every swimmer fiercely intends to complete the 4.4 miles, and on this day a large number were unable to make it.

bay bridge swim logoThe main challenge I personally encountered was the wind blowing from the south. I am one of those freestyle swimmers who breathe on the right side after every stroke. In the past I have tried to learn bilateral breathing, but have never succeeded. In yesterday’s swim there were waves coming toward my face every time I tried to get a breath. Often I got a mouthful of water instead of a breath. I began needing to roll further toward my left side and point my face more upward in order to breath reliably.  This took extra effort and modifying my stroke. I assume this and the currents accounted for my slower overall time.

In Tennessee where I was raised, we had an expression for something that produced a mixture of pleasure and pain. We said that it “hurt good.” Even after sleeping nearly 12 hours last night, every bone and muscle seemed to complain loudly this morning. I groaned every time I moved. And yet it was satisfying because it represented a good effort. It hurt good.

Chesapeake Bay BridgeThis was my 4th Chesapeake Bay Swim. Although familiar, it is still an extraordinary event. I would even say inspiring. Some 700 volunteers run the event to perfection. On the water there are 25 Coast Guard vessels, another 55 private power boats, and some 50 kayaks all keeping watch and standing by to help if needed. We swimmers get an awesome view of the majestic bay bridge overhead. The welcoming crowd on the far shore lifts you up. Everyone is so friendly and supportive.

After I was called up for my age group award, a young man congratulated me and told me he was much more impressed with the accomplishment of the older swimmers than with those his own age.

I am definitely an older swimmer, aged 76 the day of the swim.

Why would someone my age want to swim across the Chesapeake Bay?  Hey, some people my age are settled retirement centers, sitting around and taking life easy, watching daytime TV and playing cards. 

I had a dear professor friend named Clyde Francisco. Clyde loved to play golf. One day we were playing with friends on a course that was part of a gated retirement community. We were walking down the fairway when chimes started playing, of all things, “Nearer my God to Thee.” Clyde looked at me and I looked at him. There was a sarcastic twinkle in his eye and a little smile playing around his lips. And he said to me, seriously, “You know, Ed, this life may be good for some people, but not for me. I want to be out doing things in the real world and not cooped up with a bunch of old people just passing the time.”

There’s another Tennessee saying for this. “I’d rather burn out than rust out.”

My sentiments exactly. 

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Gregory’s Cave

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Jun 082013
 

When I was a high school student in Maryville, Tennessee, I knew three things about the name "Gregory." I knew that my girlfriend/later wife's relatives were named Gregory and were buried in Cades Cove in the Primitive Baptist Church cemetery. I knew that Gregory's Bald was named for them. I had climbed it and camped there numerous times. And I knew that somewhere in Cades Cove there was a cave by the name of Gregory. So one weekend Charlie and David and I set out to find this cave.

I don't recall just how we learned about the area we searched, but I well recall our discovery of the cave entrance. It was inconspicuous and grown up, down underneath a ridge near a barn and an abandoned house. This was in the 1950's in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The cave was unmarked and unsecured. We found there was hay in the nearby barn, and that seemed an ideal place to unroll our sleeping bags and spend the night.

Over the weekend we explored every foot of Gregory's Cave. The cave was largely one long channel with a series of connected rooms and a few short offshoots. Despite our looking we found no weapons, skeletons, gold coins, or other items of interest.  The cave was mostly empty except for some wood lying around. 

On one of our trips into the cave, we decided to gather up wood and make a fire. The wood was dry, of course, and the fire was started easily. We settled down around the fire and were taking it easy. But after awhile, we began to notice something peculiar. The ceiling of the cave had disappeared. The ceiling was now like the sky on a cloudy day. Then we noticed that the ceiling was getting lower and lower. Our smoke had been rising up and the ceiling was lowering down. 

There was no water to put out the fire. We soon became alarmed and decided we must beat it. By the time we reached the entrance to the cave we were almost crawling to keep our heads beneath the smoke. But we did escape.

According to an article in smokies.com the cave was actually a commercial operation of the Gregory family in the 1920's with a charge of 50 cents for tours. And during the cold war it was stocked with food and equipped as a fallout shelter. Also, it is said that the Missionary Baptist Church once held services in the main room of the cave. 

The national park has never chosen to make an attraction of the cave, or to advertise its location. I believe it is now boarded up and inaccessible. 

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Jun 032013
 

The Bay Swim is just a week away now. I am in the tapering stage of preparation.  Last week I swam 6 miles instead of the usual 8.  This week I will do several short swims just to stay in rhythm and keep the feel of the water and my wetsuit. The Bay Swim starts two hours earlier this year. We get away at 8am instead of 10. I like the earlier start, as the winds tend to be calmer then. My main hope for the day is calm winds and waves. If there has to be wind, let it be from the west and not in our faces from the east.

I have tried a different training routine this year.  I started intensive training just 4 months ago instead of 6, and I have been putting in 8 mile weeks instead of 10. But I have also been doing more hard sprints and longer distance swims.  Most weeks I only swam 3 times, but I did many 3-mile swims and lots of intervals.  A month ago I began doing 4-mile swims, usually 2 per week.  I have been working harder on speed and having some success. Hopefully I am ready.

Mental preparation is also important, I think. Since we mainly swim between the spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, I have continued to study the bridge and memorize it. I screen captured it from overhead using Google Earth, and marked the 4.4 miles in sections relative to the bridge. I think it helps to divide the swim into sections and to be able to follow my progress and anticipate the distances remaining. (click on the image to enlarge)

The first mile goes from the beach out and under the north span and down to the big curve where the bridges are straight for the rest of the way. The second mile goes across the main shipping channel to the second huge pillar that holds up the highest point of the roadways above. The third mile takes us to the second and lower shipping channel. There begins the fourth mile where we swim along the seemingly endless smaller pillars and watch the cars getting lower and lower overhead. Near the eastern shore we exit on the south side and swim the last tenths of a mile to the finish.

This is the swimmer's view from about mile 3 and looking back to where we came from. You can see the big curve where mile 2 begins in the far distance, and closer on the two huge masonry pillars on the right side. I doubt that I will stop and turn around to take this view, but the views you get all along the way are pretty awesome, as I hope the picture shows.

Reading on the subject of "tapering" in preparation for endurance events is interesting. There is general agreement that tapering is beneficial, but the specific formulas vary greatly. I am being more aggressive about tapering this year. Aggressive meaning I am taking fewer days off during the final week and pushing harder when I do swim.  I am swimming quarter miles (only, despite the temptation to do more) but pushing for speed.  Also I am swimming in my wetsuit in an outdoor 50 meter pool. I expect to do these swims Monday through Friday. After this I will focus on resting and hydrating and trust the process.

Expect a full report on the 2013 swim in about a week.

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May 262013
 

I've been watching cormorants lately. They are fascinating birds. They gather in great numbers below the Conowingo Hydroelectric Dam on the Susquehana River in Maryland near the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay.

Did I say "in great numbers?" Just survey a portion of the gathering (click to enlarge). The cormorants are the black birds and the most numerous. Harder to see are the ones fishing in the rushing water. Unlike ducks, the feathers or cormorants are not buoyant, so they sink down in the water instead of riding up on top of it. The reason their feathers don't float is so they can dive down for food, which most ducks can't do. Cormorants can dive down very deep after food, although fishing is so good below Conowingo that they likely get plenty to eat not far beneath the surface.

Since the feathers of cormorants get wet and heavy, the birds have a struggle to get airborne during a water takeoff. Their wings have to work really hard and also their webbed feet need to help out as well. It takes a good distance and creates a lot of fuss. A feeding cormorant may have to perform these takeoffs numerous times before catching a fish. They fly up close to the dam and land, then float downsteam watching for their next meal. If they don't find it by a certain point downstream, they takeoff and land upstream again. 

There are 40 some varieties of cormorants. These are the most common in our area — the double-crested cormorant, so named because the male sports a second crest during the mating season. As shown here, the birds have a fearsome weapon for snagging fish. Not only are their beaks long and needle sharp, the top part has a wicked hook in the shape of, well, a fish hook. Imagine being a fish and having that thing come toward you at lightening speed. And this only moments after you got churned through the massive turbines of Conowingo dam.

When a cormorant dives down and gets a small fish, it will swallow it under water. But when it catches a large fish, it must bring it to the surface and perform an amazing maneuver. It has to release the fish from its beak, flip it so the head is pointing down and the tail pointing up, and catch it just right for swallowing. As my picture shows, they can swallow very large fish, and all without the aid of any hands, fingers, claws, or feet. Because this flipping and swallowing operation has to be so precise, it is also an opportunity for a fish not inclined to be swallowed to wiggle and get away.

A further aspect of cormorant activity at Conowingo is the turbulence and speed of the river. The best fishing is when the turbines are running and the river swolen and rushing. In the short video that follows, you will see them seeking and catching their food in water no human swimmer would attempt. You will see many of them sunning and watching from dry rocks while others churn past them. We assume that most of the watchers have already had success and are settled to dry off and digest their meals. This video represents a 55-second slice to time on the river. I have counted in it 17 bald eagles, 7 great blue herons, and at least 4 of the comorants visibly catching fish.

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May 182013
 

It is not entirely clear that human beings were intended to swim in water. Compared to fish and birds and other swimming animals, we are slow and very limited. Still we, and I, keep trying. Doctors tell us it's great exercise. As a former runner, I know it beats pounding the pavement with my feet, ankles, knees, and hips. 

The earth is covered with a lot of unfrozen water where swimming can take place. There are oceans, bays, rivers, and lakes abundant. But for most of us, swimming takes place in artificial man-made pools filled with clean, filtered water and with life guards watching. There are well marked swim lanes of measured distances and timing clocks to consult. There is a uniformity, a sameness, about swimming in these places, whether indoors or outdoors. I know that in a pool with 25 meter lanes, I need to do 64 lengths, 32 laps, to make a mile. There is no risk of getting lost or off course. Just follow the black line on the bottom of the pool. 

But swimming in the lakes and rivers and oceans is a different matter. And swimming in a tidal river like the Nanticoke on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is especially so. If this account of the 2013 swim is of interest, do read my account of the same Nanticoke swim event from 2012.

As before, the Nanticoke swim begins at a small beach near the marina and starts out along a sea wall to the river. The course is triangular and you swim counter clockwise, staying to the outside of each marker buoy at the corners. We came expecting a three mile swim, which requires swimming around the triangle twice. But when the Coast Guard arrived, they announced that small craft warnings had been posted because of rough conditions which would make swimming difficult if not dangerous. A settlement was negotiated with race officials to allow the swim to go on, but shortened to two miles. Two miles meant swimming out and around the triangle once, and then back to the finish. It also defined a course with five legs which I have numbered on the graphic. 

Nanticoke River Swim 2013 diagramThe first leg was in water mostly protected from the winds and river current. The challenges included starting out with the mass of swimmers in a small space and trying to get use to the unusually cold water, about 61 degrees. The cold water made it hard to breath, and I kept running into other swimmers or having them run into me. I arrived at the first buoy to begin the second leg still struggling.

The second leg was by far the hardest. There was some tidal current in our favor but a terrific wind and breaking waves in our face. Normally in open water you want to swim with your head down as you would in the pool, raising up to check your position about every 6-8 strokes. When I tried to swim like this there were two problems: I was still not getting enough breath, and often times when I tried to breath I got hit in the face by a wave and swallowed salt water instead of breathing air. This put me even further in breathing deficit.  I ended up swimming most of the second leg doing a survival breast stroke and holding my head up to try and anticipate the large waves coming toward me. I knew I was moving slowly but it was the best I could do. I looked forward to the turn into leg three where we would at least be swimming cross-wind and somewhat down wind as well.

I have experienced the effects of wind as both a runner, a swimmer, and a bicyclist. The effects are significant in each of these sports.  One might assume that the wind is more of a factor in biking or running, since you are upright and more exposed to it. One might assume that a swimmer, whose body is mainly beneath the water, would be largely unaffected. This is not the case, and the game changer is the force of moving water. In open water swimming, the wind moves the water and you must deal with that force. If the waves are coming directly toward you and breaking in white caps, water hits you head on and tries to drive you backward. On the other hand, if you are lucky enough to have the wind at your back, and you time your strokes just right, you can actually get a "ride" off of the breaking waves, somewhat like body surfing. If waves are coming from the right and you breath on that side as most of us do, you are facing the waves as you search for a quick breath.  There is much to consider and adjust to in terms of the wind.

I finally made the turn and sighted toward the next buoy far out in the river. Indeed, I was now able to swim normally. But the river had another surprise in store. When I got my next sighting of the buoy it was far to my right.  I was heading straight down the river, parallel to the shore. I corrected and swam more. The next time I sighted the same thing had happened.  I corrected even more and swam harder. What I and other swimmers did not know was that the tidal current was flowing downstream and not upstream in this area. Some later called it a whirlpool. I know I was carried far off a straight course on this leg, but finally I rounded the marker, wondering what lay in store as we headed cross-river toward the finish.

It was not as bad as I feared. I feared that this unpredictable tide would be pushing me off course. But I was able to take a bearing that helped greatly. I sighted a line from an anchored sailboat to some distant houses beyond it.  The sailboat was very close to where I needed to go.  I knew if I stayed on the course of this alignment, I would be heading straight.  This worked out well, and I was able to finish the course rather strongly, probably at about a 30 minute per mile pace. However, my total time for the two miles was an hour and 21 minutes.

I would have hoped to complete this course in an hour or less. Even under these conditions, some younger and stronger swimmers completed in 45 minutes. I was grudgingly happy to have completed it at all. The next day I found myself replaying the course and the conditions and wishing I could do it over and do it better.

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May 122013
 

What do you do when it's Mother's Day and your mother is only a memory? I guess you take some time to remember.

My mother was a kind and loving person with a simple Christian faith and a multitude of friends. She had three sons, but lost the oldest of them in World War II. As a Christian and loyal American she accepted that loss, but she felt the pain of it all the rest of her life. I was her youngest son. Although mother has been gone for many years now, I still feel her love and influence. 

Like everyone else, mother thought about the meaning of life and what it meant to live it well. I was given the strong impression that my life was important and that I had a responsibilty to make the most of it. I was given the strong impression that the success of my life depended not only on what I did for myself but what I would do for others. In other words, I had a moral and social responsibility. And this coincided with my responsibility to God, my maker. In mother's view, we all had responsibilities to be taken seriously. Many of these were reflected in her repeated sayings.

Study hard.

Always do your best.

Do unto others and you would have them do unto you.

Be polite.

Turn the other cheek.

Mind your own business.

Take our time.

Wait your turn.

Make yourself useful.

As I remember those sayings and get reminded of them in daily living, I realize there was other advice my mother never gave. She never advised about getting even if others did you wrong. She wanted me to succeed but not at the expense of others. The idea of advancing yourself by putting others down would never have occurred to her. Nor did the excuse that the end justifies the means, and you should do whatever you need to do to get ahead. Mother believed in right and wrong, and that no personal gain was worth the cost of doing wrong to get it.

I have not always followed these teachings, but I have never forgotten them, or failed to remember them when I contemplate moral choices.

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