Humanity People Stories

The Southern Curse

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.

frferfergverThe 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. …

Commentary

Don’t Let Me Hurt Myself

Our state has finally passed a law making it a primary offense to not wear a seatbelt when driving your car. That means they can stop you and give you a fine without any other reason. Not wanting to be stopped and given a fine I have been trying to train myself to always buckle up. I put a yellow velcro strap around my steering wheel when I park the car. This reminds me to put on the seat belt when I get back in the car to start driving.

Buckle_Up_Its_The_Law_GWT26When I tell you that I have not done this very gladly, you will wonder what is wrong with me. Shouldn’t I be happy that people are looking out for my welfare and making laws that force me to do things for my own good? They say that seat belts save lives and that they want to save mine. They want to keep me from hurting myself.

Currently they are also working to pass laws about using cellphones in the car. This will also keep people from hurting themselves and others. Perhaps someday it will also be illegal to drive while eating a sandwich or drinking coffee. Or fiddling with the GPS. Or listening to the radio. Perhaps someday we will be required to wear crash helmets while driving, like the NASCAR drivers all do. That would save lives too. So would wearing those fire-resistant coveralls.

If it seems that I am being ridiculous here, I submit that the same rationale for requiring a seat belt also applies to requiring a crash helmet. A large percentage of automobile crash injuries involve head injuries. These would be greatly reduced by a mandatory crash helmet law. No one can reasonably deny that. So if we want a society that passes every law that can possibly keep people from hurting themselves, this should be on the list.

When I visited Cape Town, South Africa, I rode the cable car up Table Mountain and hiked around with all the other tourists. Besides the breathtaking views, the thing that struck me was that the mountain top had been left in its natural state. There were no fences or ropes or barriers to keep you from the cliff top edges. I don’t even remember a lot of warning signs.  This was in contrast to a park my family used to visit which we named “The Do-Not Park.” Everywhere you went in the park there were signs warning you what not to do there.

There are two main entrances to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee side. Gatlinburg is the main one, but my favorite is the less traveled one at Townsend. Just inside the park at the Townsend entrance is a beautiful swimming hole we always called “The Y” because there the park road forks in two directions. When I was a young boy there were two things we loved to do at this swimming hole. We would try to swim upstream against the rushing current and see how far we could get. And we would climb up the steep cliff on the far side, as high as we dared, and dive down into the clear deep water. In the summer there was often an audience gathered on the bank to watch this diving. Young boys impressed a lot of young girls here. …

Commentary Guns Stories

Mouse Trap

Being the last of November, the weather is thinking ahead to winter here in the DC area. That sometimes means an appearance of mice into our homes. So the other evening, while peacefully watching a movie in the family room, I saw one run around the corner of a sofa. It was startling and somewhat embarrassing. Something had to be done. mouse trap

When I think of catching mice, I think of the wooden Victor brand mouse trap that you bait with cheese. You bait it carefully, especially after you’ve attached the cheese to the small bait holder and you bend the wire frame back over and secure it with the flopping metal pin. If you’ve done this before and had a trap spring on you and scare you half to death, you be sure you hold the trap from the harmless end and not the end that catches the mouse. To have a finger caught in a snapping mouse trap would not be fatal, but would hurt like hell. Which is considerably more than you would want something to hurt.

Our local supermarket did not have any wooden Victor brand mouse traps. They had a strange round plastic thing I bought two of because there was nothing else. The plastic things have caught no mice. It is unclear to me how they would ever do so. If someone thought this was a better mouse trap, then this is a case where better isn’t better and is actually silly.

The local hardware chain store did not have wooden Victor brand mouse traps either.  Instead they had “catch and release” mouse traps. You are supposed to trap your mice, transport them somewhere, and release them unharmed. The instructions do not suggest where this might be: a neighbor’s yard, the school playground, hardware store where you bought these traps, the desk drawer of a co-worker–use your imagination. …

Travel

Harbin

I remember forming my first impression of Harbin, China. We were watching an engaging documentary about this part of Northern China. It is up near the border with Russia and actually north of Vladivostok where the Trans Siberian railway ends. Harbin is known for its cold temperatures and its wintertime ice sculptures. The ice sculptures draw tourists from all over the world. They are all over the city and lit up at night.

209575-china-gears-up-for-harbin-ice-and-snow-world-festivalWe formed an image of a beautiful, remote, and pristine environment. We spoke of trying to visit there sometime. I remember looking up the airfares.

Then I met my young Chinese co-worker. “Where are you from?” I asked, expecting Beijing or Hong Kong. But instead, she was from Harbin. Harbin. I remembered the documentary. “That’s in the north of China and it’s cold there, right?” “Yes, very cold,” she said. “And that’s where they have the wonderful ice sculptures in the wintertime?” “Yes, we have them every winter and lots of people come to see them.”

I still thought of Harbin in a pristine kind of way. It was much later that I was talking with my friend and mentioned the recent news about air pollution in Beijing. And to my surprise, she told me that the air is also bad in Harbin. There is a lot of coal-burning heavy industry, she said. She said that now when she goes home to visit, she is usually sick for several days because of the bad air.

So I began to notice any news about Harbin. And then, the other day, I saw this: …

Nature Religion Stories

The Parking Lot View

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. …

Open Water Swim Events Sports Swimming

Open Water Swimming Again

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.

Nature Stories

The Goat

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.

Commentary Humanity

Communication

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. …

Open Water Swim Events Swimming

The GCBS and Two Southern Sayings

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. …

History Places Stories

Gregory’s Cave

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. …

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