Thursday, November 12, 2009

Double Dipping (Loudon & Sweetwater, TN)

Vonnie, me & Ken on Thursday morning

There is an iconic episode of Seinfeld where George attends a funeral for a relative of a woman he is dating. At the wake he is killing time while waiting to talk to the priest about getting a copy of the death certificate so that he can show it to the airline and get a bereavement fare. Then, out of nowhere, a dispute breaks out around a bowl of dip.

I had to pull a Costanza this week. I dipped into Ken & Vonnie Harvey's hospitality on Wednesday night after arriving in Loudon, TN. Then a place to stay in Sweetwater fell through because of a mix up with dates and I stuck my chip back in .... and I dipped again. Ken & Vonnie were only too happy to have me double dip, even though it meant that Ken had to drive 30 minutes on Thursday afternoon to pick me up in Sweetwater and then another half hour Friday morning to drop me back off.

Ken & Vonnie couldn't have been more gracious or enthusiastic in their welcome. Ken is the older brother of Ginger Will who I stayed with in Schaghticoke during the first week of my trip. Ginger's family was the first I stayed with who were complete strangers to me beofre I arrived at their door. Ken & Vonnie were now the 36th, testament to the fact that I have relied on the kindness of people who didn't know me for fully half of the nights I have been on the road. That is a very humbling fact and one that fills me anew with a sense of gratitude.

The Harveys live in Telico Village, a sprawling development situated in different neighborhoods surrounding a large lake created by damming the Little Tennessee River just south of Lenoir City. It is a world all its own, with golf courses, a yacht club, its own volunteer EMTs, hundreds of hobby clubs and its own electoral system for Village government.

Despite its self sufficiency Telico Village is not immune from the one force of nature in these parts that has the power to preempt all other discussions: Tennessee football. You might have thought that leaving Knoxville meant leaving behind the daily dramas of Volunteer Football. You would have thought wrong.

Late Wednesday night three Freshman football players from UT had attempted to rob someone in Knoxville. When word of this arrest broke out on Thursday all the resources of the greater Knoxville media were dedicated to dissecting the implications. As Ken drove me back to Telico Village from Sweetwater we caught some of the discussion on local talk radio. The host, who had an uncanny vocal resemblance to Rush Limbaugh, was taking calls and speculating on what the fallout would be. Later, on the local evening news, the network affiliate we were watching on the kitchen TV devoted the first 10 minutes of the newscast to a three man discussion of the case.

The whole incident was an interesting learning experience for me. For most of the past 11 weeks I've had very little interaction with the news. I haven't missed it one bit. When I do catch snippets of news coverage now I am struck by how often its stories have a negative focus. It has left me asking, "How much do I want to be plugged into the news media when I return home?" In following my bliss these past eleven week I have concentrated wholly on interacting with the people who comprise my daily life - my hosts, those I meet on the road, those I am contacting for possible stays in coming weeks. These interactions have been overwhelmingly positive and consequently, so is my resulting outlook on life.

So it begs the question - how much do I want to involve myself with news that is almost exclusively negative and serves to sow fears about issues I have no control over? A quick confession here. I used to live for debating the news. I loved it. My college friends and I have maintained a long standing email discussion group that has devoted a good chunk of our working lives to debating the issues of the day, albeit leavened with a great deal of humor. I am pretty sure if I went back and complied all the emails my friend Ray and I exchanged over the Iraq War between 2002-2004 I would have a tome to rival Gibbons' Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Ray still tries to bait me into debates from time to time. He knows my old flash points and likes to try and get me worked about Obama. But now I am like Phil Ivey at a poker table. I'm a rock. I think I simply reached the point where I realized I was arguing to augment my own ego. I wanted to feel like I was right. I wanted to convince others that I was right. On a subconscious level my self worth was tied up in those mental constructs. It had a lot of power over me. I could become angry over debates on issues as abstract and antiquated as the Vietnam War. I remember one specific email I wrote in anger, drawing deep into my quiver of patronization and intellectual egotism to tell Ray that I would no longer debate the Vietnam War with someone whose sole knowledge of the subject consisted of a scan of the Wikipedia page and a familiarity with Swift Boat ads. I mean, you can't get more pompous than that.

This doesn't mean I can't have opinions on issues or discussions with friends about what is going on in the world. It just means that I no longer want to identify with my beliefs. That will allow me to be a better listener to those who hold different beliefs and not feel threatened by an opinion diametrically opposed to mine. There is freedom in that.

This journey has brought a lot of things into focus for me about what might allow me to live a more fulfilling, compassionate life. Maybe the biggest one is a shift of focus from ideas (beliefs) to actions (compassion). I love the story about the great Jewish Rabbi Hillel who lived around the time of Jesus. As the story goes he was asked by a non-Jew to recite the whole Torah while standing on one leg. Doing so Hillel said simply this, "Do not do unto your neighbor what you would not have him do unto you." Balancing back on two feet he said, "That is the whole law. The rest is just commentary."

I prefer the syntax of Jesus' teaching that says, "Do onto others as you would want them to do unto you." They are the same teaching, stated slightly differently. Act compassionately. Everything else is just commentary.

I suspect that if I tune out of some of the endless commentary, I'll have more time to act and more time to return the love that has been so generously shown to me. Thanks Ken & Vonnie for your compassion. Scratch that. For your double dip of compassion.