First Lecture, Last Year

Please indulge me for a little while, and just close your eyes, and imagine for about ten minutes the things that I will be telling you.

It is August 29, not 2011, but 1346. You are a student at the University of Bologna, in the north of what will become Italy, and it is the oldest university in the western world. The fact that you are here means that you are a white male, perhaps 16, whose father is either aristocracy, landed gentry, or a reasonably wealthy merchant.

The classroom is a little dark, the walls are made of stone, and there are several smells. Perhaps the most pungent is that of the large candles around the room, giving off their familiar smells of wax and smoke. There is also the smell of body odor from all around, but you are used to it and you barely even notice it. In fact, you can even smell yourself. Your last bath was four days ago, about the normal interim. There is a slight odor of chamber pots from an adjoining room. You can smell a tincture of the dye of the linen of your clothes, which are a shift shirt and pants with buttons. You are probably not wearing any kind of underwear. Your new leather shoes, which were made to fit on either foot, are not long removed from the malodorous smells of the tannery, and, in order to impress, you have shined them with a little pig’s grease.

You are seated with other students on a smooth, well-worn wooden pew with no back rest, as Bologna students have been doing for almost three centuries. The great poet-scholar Petrarch may himself have sat on this very pew a mere twenty-six years ago, as might Dante before him. If you are fortunate, you have a quill pen, and of course a pen-knife for sharpening it, and there is an ink well on the long table in front of you and your fellow scholars for dipping the quill so that you may jot down some of the salient points of the professor. The fellow beside you is squinting at the professor, who appears a little blurry to him. Spectacles have just been invented but have not become widespread, and perhaps his eyes will not get too much worse for the 50 or so years he and you are likely to live. Of course that is only an average; the fact that you have survived the first two years of life, unlike three of your siblings, probably ups your chances to make it into your sixties. That is, of course, unless you succumb to any variety of diseases that the local doctor, known as a leech, cannot save you from by cutting your arm to allow the diseased blood to flow out, or by attaching several leeches to your skin to suck the blood out, or by applying several aromatic poultices to your head or abdomen. The leech also pulls teeth and cuts hair. He acquired his trade by being an apprentice, and like about 98% of Europe, he can neither read nor write, even his name, and he feels none the worse for it.

A little light comes into the room from windows, some of which even have glass. The tapping of mallet hitting chisel against stone and a little cursing from various workers are the main sounds wafting in through the window. Your professor is standing at his podium dressed in his full academic regalia. He is missing a few teeth—of course he has never actually brushed them in his life—and his breath is a little pungent, but his Latin is impeccable. He reads his lecture (naturally, since the word “lecture” is derived from Latin, “legere,” meaning “to read”). Your Latin, which you have acquired in schools called studia, is fairly good, and getting better. Still, in a moment of weakness, you wish he would just speak in some familiar dialect, but then you shake your head and realize that if he did so, the Polish, English, French, and German students scattered throughout the class probably could not understand him at all. Besides, anything of a scholarly nature would be written in Latin.

The professor, like others at the university, teaches the entire curriculum; subject specialists will not come for centuries. He reads from a handwritten manuscript, since the printing press and printed material are still one hundred years in the future. He is discussing one of the great debates of the day, transubstantiation, brilliantly explicating the fine points of whether the wine and bread of the Eucharist have been literally transformed into the body of Christ, or, instead, are symbolic of the body of Christ. You are particularly looking forward to his lectures later in the term concerning the question “if God is omniscient, knowing all the past, present and future, then isn’t man’s life and, most importantly, his salvation or damnation in the next life, pre-determined?” Or, on the other hand, if man’s will is free, how then can God be omniscient? There are other students in the room who have come all the way from England to the University of Bologna (a two month trip over questionable roads) just to hear him on this very question. His reputation is international. Using all three aspects of the trivium—grammar, rhetoric, and logic—which is the first part of your curriculum, he will attempt to resolve that question in a way that amazingly preserves your free choice and simultaneously preserves God’s omniscience. Now that lecture will truly be worth hearing and understanding. Even more importantly, you hope to master the trivium and hone your Latin grammar and vocabulary, your rhetorical and persuasion skill, and your knowledge of logical reasoning that supports your persuasion skill, so that you also may enter these disputes and possibly even become one day a bishop in the church, or perhaps a professor and author yourself, exploring these vital metaphysical questions examining the fate of our souls in the next world. As the professor leaves—the only clock in town is on the church tower, and it’s not accurate, but who would know—his assistant takes questions.

Afterward you go to the modest home of a local town resident where you board, and have your usual evening meal of pork, bread, and soup, downed with wine or ale, either of which is more dependable than the water. A brown rat stares at you from a shelf in the kitchen before scurrying away at the approach of the house cat. Just at that moment, you bend over to scratch at the bite a flea just gave you on your ankle, not giving it a second thought. You have heard of plague before, but no one knows much of how it is transmitted, other than God’s will. It would not even occur to you that a flea bite is one means of transmission. But if that flea has bitten that rat, and if that rat was carrying plague transmitted by the flea, you could be one of the 25% of the population of Europe—one out of four—who will die a grim death from bubonic plague between 1346 and about 1360. Are you one of the lucky ones? Will you be dead in a week, or will you continue your studies, learn profound and esoteric things, graduate with your doctorate, and begin your rise in that tiny world of theological scholars and masters of the liberal arts?

Now you may open your eyes.

John Rachal
August 20, 2011

Published in: on August 25, 2011 at 7:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hiking to Snyder Lake

After a good breakfast at Sykes, I left Kalispell for Glacier National Park about 8 a.m. My plan, subject to re-consideration, was to hike the Snyder Lake Trail, a nine mile “moderate” difficulty hike with an elevation gain of 2000 feet (a little under four Washington Monuments). I had previously noted that my Glacier Day Hikes book refused to give a difficulty level of “strenuous” to any pretentious little hike that did not involve at least 3000 feet of elevation gain, no matter the distance. Snyder Lake was a predicted 5-6 hour hike, and plenty enough to test me. I had avoided it two days earlier, largely because the book description specifically mentioned that one should be cautious in view of the fact that bears love parsnips, which abound on parts of the trail, and that the dense foliage at ground level at those parts could hide a bear a mere ten feet off the trail. I’m not partial to bears, and in fact they scare me, especially grizzlies. There are only a few hundred of the latter in the Park, which is big, and several thousands of people, and many of them are hiking. While seeing a black bear is not too unusual (we saw one run across the road last year in east Glacier), grizzly encounters are almost negligible compared to the number of hikers in the Park over a summer. Still, “almost negligible” isn’t zero, and a tenderfoot such as myself tends to think about these things. Also, a mountain lion had been seen during the last few days at two locations, one where Val and I had been a few days before, and another sighting on the Sperry Trail, which one had to hike to get to the Snyder Lake trail. All the trailheads announce that you are entering grizzly country, and helpfully add that you should never hike alone. Then, just for icing on the cake, I heard on the radio as I was driving the 30 miles to the Park that just the day before a couple had been attacked by a sow grizzly with two cubs in Yellowstone, and the man was killed. The woman had rolled in a ball and played dead. The bear picked her up by her backpack, dropped her, and finally moved on. So this was all part of the “subject to re-consideration” aspect of my plan.

Aside from a fanny pack with two bottles of water and an apple, and a small backpack with my brand new Nikon camera with an 18-55 lens and a 55-300 lens, I was armed with a jingle bell attached to my bootstring, a walking stick, a Buck hunting knife, and a new can of bear spray. The knife was a touch ludicrous, whimsical almost, but the image of an annoyed bear on top of you conjures up all sorts of desperate and almost certainly unexecutable defensive fantasies. Still, you dream, and having a knife can’t hurt. Besides, a good blade can always come in handy. What about that guy who got his hand stuck under a boulder in the wilderness and had to decide between life and hand?

My whistle-thermometer-mini-light-compass-magnifying glass informed me that it was 70 degrees. Soon I’m off, with an intention of turning around at any point bear phobia takes over. There is no one else, and that is the most eerie part. I’m talking loudly, telling the bears I don’t need any today, singing “Dixie,” and generally appearing absurd to anyone who might have been around, but wasn’t. The trail is wide, with little underbrush here, and snakes its way upward through large spruce, cedar, and hemlock trees. This goes on for about an hour, and still not a soul. I pass the Mt. Brown Lookout trail entrance, which informs me that the summit is 3.7 miles up, for a total hike of eleven miles, and one that earns the honor of “strenuous.” Not today. Just beyond, at 1.8 miles, the Snyder Lake trail also branches off the Sperry, with the lake 2.6 miles up. Well, no bears or mountain lions so far—only a huge mule deer right on the trail who moves off just enough to pose for me—so I keep walking up. Then, fairly soon, people! It was a work crew of four guys digging drainage ditches off the trail. I chatted for a minute or two, and apparently there was one soloist ahead of me. Then I asked, with studied aplomb, about bears in the area. Apparently, no big deal: “You’re probably more likely to see a mountain lion.” Oh! No problem then. In addition to shovels, they did have bear spray, which apparently is useful for anything that has eyes and breathes through a nose.

I move on, and probably around 3.5 miles am surprised by a man and a woman and their college-age, cross-country-skiing daughter coming up behind me, and they are bookin’ it. I picked up my pace, which I had not thought doddering, and latched on and we chatted all the way to the lake. I never did actually know what parsnips looked like, but the ecosystem had changed as we had climbed, and the trail was often only fifteen or so inches wide. The ground-level foliage was thick and about waist-high. We crossed a short scree field of large and small rocks, and the trail was often muddy with small, two to six foot crystal streams crossing it. One couple was descending, either campers by the lake or the “soloist” mentioned by the work crew. We reached the lake, and were surrounded by tall, jagged, snow-patched mountains. We were also surrounded by mosquitoes who were thirsty and who had not read the warning labels on their anabolic steroid packages. Or perhaps they were a different species, mosquito montana giganticus. We took some photographs, at least when one of the mosquitoes wasn’t blocking our view, and then bid our goodbyes as they quickly started back down. I stayed and ate my apple and took some more photos, having decided that my fellow travelers might want some family time without a hanger-on, and that I was also more comfortable knowing that there were at least some others on the trail.

Hiking down does not get your heart rate up so much, nor do you need to breathe through your mouth after fifty feet, but it is not without challenge. Naturally you have to watch your step for all the rocks and unevenness in the trail, but depending on the steepness, it can put some stress on your knees, and your toes can jam up in your boots and hurt. One serious hiker I met on the descent told me he lost a toenail every summer. He was 65, looked 50 on a bad day, and did about three 10-12 mile hikes a week in the summer. He had planned to hike the Mt. Brown Lookout hike, but had missed the turn-off for it, and so would do Snyder Lake. He had done Mt. Brown the year before and said it was the hardest hike he had ever done. A youthful mule deer approached us warily on the trail before giving us wide berth, and then we parted. The trip down was pretty uneventful. Bear thoughts had receded. After four hours almost on the nose, I was sweaty and itchy, but pretty well satisfied.

John Rachal
July 12, 2011

Published in: on July 13, 2011 at 12:58 am  Leave a Comment  

Jonathan Edwards, 18th Century Terrorist

     A few weeks ago Baptist minister Rob Bell broke ranks with his flock and presumably the great majority of his denomination by writing a book in which he proclaimed that salvation is not a Christian prerogative only. He endured the appropriate vilification for this broad-minded transgression, including a chastising letter in USA Today in which Kathy McFarland observed that Jonathan Edwards, 18th century minister famous in particular for his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, “had it right.” It just so happened that I had re-read that sermon less than a year ago—but even in high school, God “hold[ing] you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider” over a flame—was memorable.
     Edwards’ sermon might be more properly titled “Sinners in the Hands of a Solipsistic, Bloodthirsty, and Contemptible God.” Why, Reverend Edwards, is God so angry? Apparently, like some mewling child, he can’t tolerate not getting his way; he is outraged by anything less than total adoration and obeisance; he is furious that you might not fully appreciate his throwing you into a world in which the sole responsibility of his prized creations is to thank him for the privilege of adoring him. And if you, his wretched, undeserving creation, who never asked to be created, neglect to adequately perform this lifelong requirement of adulation, you are doomed to the literal flames for all time: you “must suffer it to all eternity.” Edwards’ cruel, vain God consigns you to “no end to this exquisite, horrible misery.” Nor are children exempted from the wrath that the Reverend so admires and justifies: “And you, children, who are unconverted, do not you know that you are going down to hell, to bear the dreadful wrath of that God, who is now angry with you every day and every night?” Yet still you have the chance, Edwards simultaneously coos and threatens, to appease this tyrant and avoid an infinity of flames for your few years of unbelief by divesting yourself of your capacity for rationality, by denying yourself and others freedom of thought, by choosing to live on your knees, and by choosing to worship and adore a monster. That is all that is required—no kindness to others, no virtue, no compassion, no forgiveness is necessary. All the monster requires is adoration, sycophancy, and hourly gratitude; and for their absence you will be tortured everlastingly, and out of all proportion to your crime.
     Nor does Edwards’ God see himself as being under any obligation to keep his side of the bargain. As a Calvinist, Edwards subscribes to the view that the “elect” are saved from infinite torture through predestination, a decision his dice-throwing God made long before these few, fortunate souls were born—a doctrine, he claims elsewhere, which “appears exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet.” So the bargain God offers—I will not torture you endlessly provided that you surrender everything in order to meekly adore me—he can capriciously ignore after your lifetime of abject submission. You are not free to violate your agreement, but he is totally free to violate his and for no reason. He is entitled to be wholly arbitrary, throwing you into “hell’s wide gaping mouth” on a whim, no matter your lifetime of devoted servitude. Conveniently Edwards does not mention this in his sermon, cowing all his congregants into a false and corrupt bargain. As with the kidnaper who kills his victim after receiving the ransom, only one side is required to honor the agreement. Melville must have read this sermon. This was Ahab’s private war.
     What honorable human could say such things to anyone, but especially children? Here lies evil; and if there were a hell, Edwards and all the legions of godly hate-mongers and fear-mongers of all faiths would be the first to feel the flames. No, Ms. McFarland, Edwards most certainly did not have it right.

Published in: on June 19, 2011 at 10:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Yellow Flies of Walton County

My wife and I have just returned from the beach in Walton County, Florida, where we re-made our acquaintance with the yellow flies who prey on the tourists there. They are ferocious little thugs, hanging out with their homies under corner street lamps or lurking in the woods or behind trees in wait for innocent pedestrians such as ourselves. Val was out with the family dogs when she was viciously attacked by a gang of them who blithely ignored the snarls and bared fangs of the dogs. One of the little muggers had blood on his mind and the effrontery to chase Val right into the house before she could lock the door. I found the fellow boldly sitting on the edge of the chair, smirking and daring me to take him on. On the legal premise that one has the right to effect the demise of any intruder once he crosses the threshold, I, undaunted by his menacing look, grabbed the nearest weapon—a used copy of USA Today—and sought to dispatch him. Due to his being less fleet of wing than many of his more law-abiding and socially conscious cousins (isn’t that always the way of it: the meaner the thug, the less he bothers to stay in shape?), I swung and sent the little bastard to his final reward. I say bastard, but acknowledge the possibility that his parents did experience all the necessary connubial solemnities, since I made no trip to the courthouse to ascertain the pertinent facts. Indeed, I did not even know his name, but do know that with my assistance he has transmigrated to the next world. It would be presumptuous of me to conclude which world that would be, but I sure would like to have a say in the matter.

Published in: on June 18, 2011 at 2:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Discovery of the Planet Johnwill

All this recent talk about discovering new planets circling other stars reminds me of when William Blackman and I discovered a new planet when we were twelve years old. William and I had known each other since tricycling days on Phelps Avenue. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but we dredged up softball-sized rocks from the creek and laid them out neatly across Phelps to block traffic, and sure enough some lady came along in her Chevrolet and made us move them. But we soon matured and took an interest in astronomy. Both my Mom and his folks had moved, and it was a habit of mine to get invited out to his house for the weekend several times a year to watch the late Friday night Nightmare Show, to build forts and tree houses in the woods, which I didn’t have, and to sleep sometimes in his German Shepherd Flint’s aromatic doghouse, which I didn’t have either. We had one of those $1.25 science paperback books on astronomy—but you could get them on flowers and trees and rocks and bugs and other subjects appropriate for young scholars—and it gave all kinds of factual information on the planets and comets and stars and such. It predicted a few eclipses, and my first lunar eclipse was observed about two a.m. from his bedroom window, since it was cold outside. I saw my first total solar eclipse in Alaska in 1963, and another one on a camping trip in North Carolina in 1970. The fact that I remember the dates is testimony to my interest in the extraterrestrial, and by the time another one came along in the 80s or 90s, I was such a solar eclipse veteran that I could shrug them off with an air of long experienced indifference and disdain to any enthusiast who brought the upcoming one to my attention. I had a 30x table-mounted telescope, and I remember seeing the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn as a boy, drawing pictures of their nightly movements. Even in my 20s I remember tracking the progress of the fifth or sixth magnitude planet Uranus, a planet whose pronunciation you need to be pretty careful with.

William had a 40x telescope with extension legs, and one warm night we pointed it in the direction of the Big Dipper’s handle, naturally assuming that few people had explored the nuances of that area of the constellation. Sure enough, we found exactly what we were hoping to find, a dim light object very close to the star in the bend of the handle, a new planet that we modestly named Johnwill. Like most planet-discoverers, we were pretty excited, and so telephoned William’s amateur-astronomer uncle with the thrilling news, and would he drop by to confirm our discovery and have the pleasure of being the third person to see the new planet. This needed to be done fairly quickly, as we were a little concerned about patents, and who knows how many other astronomers were taking advantage of this clear night with plans of claiming our discovery for themselves.

Uncle Bob pulled in the driveway, peered through our scope, and said, “Boys, that’s the star Alcor.” It took us a minute to realize that he was serious. This was a heavy blow. Surely he was wrong. But he didn’t back up, and our dreams of astronomical fame began to drift away. Then one of us began to have the suspicion that his smile was not from sympathy but from dissembling. He was trying to trick us, and then go to the Patent Office to claim Johnwill for his own, and to re-name it after himself. We confronted him with this accusation, and darkly hinted that the police might have an interest in the matter. He protested his innocence in the strongest terms, and agreed not to challenge our patent, whenever we got it. Unfortunately, his honesty on that point was never tested, since the Patent Office informed us that they did not patent new planets, or any celestial bodies for that matter. Our subsequent letter to President Kennedy sadly went unanswered, even though I told him that I had gone to his inauguration.

John Rachal
April 11, 2011

Published in: on April 12, 2011 at 7:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cold Ride

     About 10 a.m. I leave the Grove Park Inn by car for west Asheville, planning to park at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway for a bike trip up to Craggy Gardens. The Asheville temperature is about 42 to 44 degrees at 2200 feet elevation, with a predicted high of 54. Concerning weather, I characteristically underestimated my needs, and thus had left Hattiesburg thinking that surely I would not even ride if I was going to need my neoprene biking booties or full gloves. But, as an afterthought, I thought I ought to bring my full length biking pants since, after all, this would be Asheville and it’s barely April. So at the last minute in Hattiesburg I said sure, why not, and threw them in the bag, along with helmet, shades, biking shorts, socks, regular fingerless gloves, a summer short sleeve biking shirt, a heavier long sleeve biking shirt, a sleeveless nylon windbreaker, and a sleeved nylon windbreaker. Four layers—definitely enough. But then the day before the ride doubts had crept in—after we were already here, of course—and Val and I trekked over to REI about eleven miles out of Asheville, where she clothes-shopped and I bought nylon toe covers, some full-fingered biking gloves, and some little battery-operated blinking lights, forward and back, which I discovered were required for tunnels. I even tried to bungy cord my Polartech jacket to the bike frame, but it was too bulky for leg movement. Afterwards it occurred to me that I should have worn it over the long sleeve shirt, with the other three thin layers stuffed in the shirt’s back pockets until the descent.

      Around 10:30 I’m at the Folk Art Center, and notice that a quarter of a mile up the Parkway there is a roadblock all the way across, which had not been there the day before on the scouting mission. This was not good; this little jaunt had been on my mind since I did it last summer, and I even had fleeting dreams of going past my 15 mile turnaround mark and maybe even all the way up to the peak of Mt. Mitchell, which, at 6684 elevation, is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. Until yesterday I did not realize that the turnaround at the summit was not 20-25 miles, but a full 35 miles. About 30 or so miles up the Parkway road, another road breaks off the Parkway and goes five very steep miles to the summit. I have hiked the last three or so miles on an often rough trail to the summit, and with the hike back, it was a good several hours work.

      So, confronted with the roadblock, I go inside the Folk Art Center, ignoring the handmade blankets, on a firm quest to ascertain the reason for this roadblock and whether I should ignore it and duck under and be on my way. Well, it had snowed in the night at higher elevations, and there were concerns about ice on the road. Another lady joins in, saying that she lives in Black Mountain and snow had covered the area at upper elevations. The official Parkway lady suggests some other biking possibilities, but adds that I could go under the roadblock, though for the record she didn’t tell me that.

      It’s fairly chilly, so I put on everything I have except the sleeveless nylon windbreaker, which I stuff in the shirt pocket for use coming back down, when the will chill could be brisk, maybe even unpleasant. I scoot under the roadblock, wondering if I’ll be paying for this ride with a heavy fine, and started the ascent. The REI guy had told me that the first three miles are pretty steep and are often used as training rides, up three, down three, repeated until done. They are steep—one of my memories from the first ride last summer was that as a flatlander and hill-hater, I was breathing heavily in the first 200 yards and wondering what in the world was I thinking and should I turn back right now and call it just a big misunderstanding. So this time I was prepared for that, and slowly inch upward in my lowest two gears at between 6 and 8 mph, when even a quarter of mile seems like real progress. The road is dry and I am warm. Clouds move in and out, and the sun feels and looks re-assuring. And of course the traffic is not bad—in fact, non-existent, thanks to the roadblock—and for about four miles I see only one runner and one biker coming down. The biker and I briefly chat, noting our confederation of illegality. He had started well before my starting point on the Parkway and had only turned around about two miles higher than where we are now. He mentions one little rockslide but no snow or ice.

      So I keep climbing. There are several fairly flat spots and even some downhills, but ironically the occasional downhills are actually disconcerting, since they feel like ground lost that you have to make back up. I’m not noticing any change in temperature, but there is some wind, sometimes rather loud. But the general quiet and the very real sense of aloneness are a little eerie, and the spots of sun make for a good companion. To my left is either steep forest or a rock face, and to the right many scenic views interspersed through the steeply descending trees. At about ten and a half miles, and over an hour in, I see the first tiny flecks of blowing snow along with icicles on the rock face, with sparse and thin patches of snow by the roadside. But the road is still clear, though a little damp, and my goal is Craggy Gardens at 18 miles. I’m working fairly hard, occasionally out of the saddle for variety, and so it doesn’t seem particularly cooler. At about fourteen and a half miles, a human being speaks from behind and startles me. We ride along for under a mile, and he says he thought he was the only one doing this today. He is a serious triathlete, training for one of his three full Ironmen per year, doing about 400 miles per week (not counting, presumably, his running and swimming), and unintentionally putting fitness in a whole new context for me. He has come from eastern N.C. to do some climbing work, and just yesterday he started at the Folk Art Center and went to the peak of Mitchell, thirty-five miles up, and of course the same back down, and he was intending to do it again today.

      As we rode for that short period together, the whole ecosystem changes, with snow clinging to every single one of the billions of small twigs of all the trees on both sides of the road. It’s like something out of Dr. Zhivago, all whiteness, except for the road and rare patches of blue sky. But it’s mostly cloudy—more whiteness—very little sun. There are some marginally easier places where 10 or 12 mph is fine, but I tell him that this is my comfortable pace, and I know he has 20 more climbing miles to go, so he moves on.

     I pass the point where I turned around last summer, Craggy Gardens picnic area, which is about 15 miles. My destination is 18 miles, the Craggy Gardens Visitors Center. It’s windy and a little chilly, but nothing serious, probably mid-thirties at this elevation. The snow is barely a dusting, but on the ground it’s pretty much everywhere except for the road. The previous night’s icicles are everywhere on the rock, some a foot long, some breaking off. Then, at about 18 miles, there is the Visitors Center, closed of course since the road is, but there is my buddy, straddling his bike and having a bite to eat. I stop also, and now it really is cold. The elevation is around 4900 feet. The wind now seems really harsh, and there is no sun. I had eaten a Hammer Gel at the second tunnel, and now clumsily take out a Powerbar, but it is so hard I’m afraid I am going to break a tooth and so put it back. The triathlete had turned around a couple of hundred yards farther up, saying there was ice on the road. I am jealous of his heavy gloves and booties, and I’m shaking. Now the descent, which had earlier seemed like a fun, exhilarating payoff for the labor of climbing, has become a fearfully cold prospect. We start together, but even going down he is soon out of sight, given my old man caution and all the mountain curves. My hands and feet, which had not been cold at all until I stopped at the Center, are stinging with real pain, especially my hands. I am shaking so much that the bike is shaking, giving a scary feeling of instability, and I am braking much of the way to try to stay under 25. I would love to put one hand somewhere warmer, but there is absolutely no way to even think of riding one-handed. It is a little frightening, knowing that even going downhill it will be 45 minutes of pain and uncontrollable shaking. A couple of miles down, the triathlete had the same thought as I, namely pulling over at an overlook to try to warm up the hands. I pull up too, and though doing so stops 25 mph of wind chill, my hands are deep orange, and the body-shaking will not stop. He says he’ll never complain about 95 degrees again, and it is the coldest he has ever been, a sentiment I echo. A few spots of sunshine from gaps in the clouds help marginally.

      Then we are off again, and soon he is out of sight again. He said that he had hit 44 descending the day before until total fear kicked in. In warm weather I had hoped for 40, but not this day, not this cold, not this unstable. Despite braking, I am descending three to four times as fast as coming up, and soon there is more sun and the snow is gone.  I can even feel marginal improvement in my hands, but the shaking will not quit. The brief uphills are actually welcome—10 to 15 mph, and working, the warmth improving as the elevation lowers. I hit 32 at one point, but it feels too dangerous with the shaking and the sometime wet road. Finally, the roadblock is in view. Soon I’m putting the bike on the rack, getting in the car, and turning on the heat. Hannah calls, and my voice is unstable from the shivering and shaking, and I drop the phone at one point.

     Back at the hotel around 2:30, I look up the temperature at Mt. Mitchell. All I can find is the temp for the state park, not the summit, though I was about 1800 feet below the summit at my turnaround point. shows 42, “feels like” 34, with 18 mph winds. The wind chill of descending had to have put the temp in the teens at our higher elevations to have hurt our hands so much, and the triathlete had even changed to thick biking mittens. Holding the mouse to do the temperature check, my hand still shivers. The last 45 minutes of that approximately three hours were not pleasant. If I do this again, it will be in August.

 John Rachal

April 1, 2011

Published in: on April 3, 2011 at 12:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Miss Favor Diop, Seeking Friendship

One of the pleasantries of the internet and email is the opportunity for expanding one’s friendships. For example, I recently received the following:

I ‘m a young lady called Favor Diop. I found interesting in your profile in that inspired me I discovered that my true partner for life and wants a serious relationship of love with you. If you are interested and have the intention that we should move forward, contact me via email:- I will send my pictures to you. It will be nice to receive your response.
Have a beautiful day.
Miss Favor

I was touched; I was moved; I was gratified. After all, she found me inspiring, and thus showed good taste. I prepared the following reply, but ultimately courtesy dictated that I not send it for fear of hurting those gently expressed, tender feelings.

Hello Miss Favor,
I was favored with your recent inquiry with the subject line “Hello am seeking for friendship.” I too have been seeking for friendship for quite some time. My wife and I just the other day were lamenting the sad state of our friendships, and so your recent missive gave us considerable pleasure not only in the reading of it (you have a delightful and inimitable prose style, including those clever syntactical whimsicalities), but also in the prospect of our gaining a new friend. I note that you observed that you “found interesting in [my] profile” and that it inspired you. This is flattering indeed, but in all candor I must assure you that I am, being of superannuated years, as homely in profile as in full face. Thus for you to infer from that profile, especially given my receding chin and generous nose, that you have discovered your true partner for life seems to me to exceed the facts. Of course these defects are no bar to true friendship of a platonic sort. I could envision the three of us, along with some other friends of our acquaintance, discussing just the sort of issues that true friendship inevitably entails, such as theology, philosophy, art, and science. No doubt it is just such issues as these which prompted your thoughtful and charming letter in the first place, a letter from which I can see that you are a lady of depth and substance. But alas, I fear that the grim and soul-less nature of our society, with its intrusive strictures and incapacity for seeing the ethereal beauty of such friendship, might weigh heavily upon me. I can see that others might unjustly infer that you are seeking something other than your stated goal; they might find your protestations of true friendship insincere; they might even think that your words are fraudulent. While I know these calumnies not to be true, I confess that I am a slave to convention and decorum, and fearful of public disdain, and must therefore most regretfully decline the courteous hand of friendship which you have so graciously extended.
Have a beautiful day.
Mr. John

Published in: on February 21, 2011 at 8:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ivanhoe Revisited

From the archives:

I have been reading, and thoroughly enjoying, the adventurous, charming, romantic, and utterly preposterous Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. It is most charming in its antique language, and nowhere more preposterous than in its putting such charming language in the mouths of untutored, illiterate rustics of the twelfth century. Still, it is delightful, and so I proffer a questionable attempt at imitation:

Being homeward bound, two leagues out, I was assailed by a six-legged varlet who, in the manner of a cowardly ambuscade, thrust afore I could parry; and his rapier, though diminutive, did pierce my light armor in that self-same spot as our Lord and Savior received His holy wound upon the Cross. Failing to give a mortal blow, however, the dastard chose not to prolong his visit to the neighborhood, and afore I could send his infidel soul to the nether world, he escaped, true to the cunning and false valor of his race, leaving me to apply to my wound an ancestral poultice of palliative herbs, and thus to re-mount my middling born, yet noble steed, who bravely made his way homeward.


Six miles from home, a yellow jacket or wasp stung me. I put some chewing tobacco (which I carried just for that purpose) on the sting, got back on my bike, and rode home.

Published in: on February 19, 2011 at 5:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hypocrisy as Fine Art

      Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa strains to find his artistic métier, and has succeeded wondrously in the art of hypocrisy. In his Valentine’s Day editorial in USA Today, he rails against the health care law and in particular the individual mandate requiring all Americans to have health care insurance through their jobs or by purchasing it if necessary. What he conveniently omits is his support of the mandate in the 90s, when it was a Republican idea. But now that it is a Democratic idea, somehow it is a threat to the very foundation of American ideals, which back then he somehow did not notice. Then, when it earned his support, it was a way to prevent all taxpayers from having to bear the burden of the uninsured running to emergency rooms. Now, having earned his contempt, it is the first installment of the Stalinist State. He doesn’t really believe that, of course; it’s just one more Republican example of the Great Lie aimed at garnering public support for the insurance industry in the guise of Constitutional principles. If we can frighten enough Americans and take down the mandate, the whole of healthcare reform will fall, like a house of cards. Had he simply acknowledged that he previously had supported the mandate when it was a Republican idea, one might write him off as just your average beltway hypocrite, or possibly even a fellow who just changed his mind when the political breeze shifted. But no, that would have almost approached having real principles—and would have required actually attempting to explain why what was good as a Republican idea is now bad as a Democratic one. But where Grassley rises above the common masses of political hypocrisy—rises to Olympian heights of hypocrisy deserving of admiration and almost defying ridicule—is in his gnashing of teeth that “the new law rewards insurance companies with a massive new captive market.” His concern over rewarding insurance companies is marvelous. It is transcendent. It is Rembrandt-esque in its artistry.

John R. Rachal

February 17, 2011

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 2:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

House Republicans, deterred briefly by the Tucson massacre, can now check off pandering to our base as their second action as the majority party in the new congress. Obamacare is now safely repealed—only it isn’t, if repeal means the actual law has changed. It will go nowhere in the Senate, where Democrats are still barely in charge. Even if Senate Democrats were all sick on voting day and it did pass, the President would simply pull out his veto pen, and there are certainly not 67 Senate votes to override him. But House Republicans can now say, as Speaker John Boehner did, “we listened to the people,” though he should have added, sotto voce, “but really to the insurance companies.” Thus the new majority played a little fiddle tune as Rome warms up, the fire on the horizon being the national debt and an unsustainable budget, with no current officeholder of any stripe having a serious plan to rein it in.

So what is it exactly about healthcare reform that the Republicans so want to repeal? The prohibition against insurance companies cherry-picking their customers? The prohibition against insurance companies dropping customers if they inconveniently get a little too sick? The prohibition against companies’ refusal to cover people with pre-existing conditions? The right of children up to age 26 to stay on their parents’ insurance? The closing of the doughnut hole for seniors? The expansion of health coverage to 30 million more Americans? The greater scrutiny of fraudulent Medicare claims? No, they claim to want to keep these things; it’s just that freedom-killing requirement that everyone have insurance, by buying it if necessary, that’s standing in their way. This, they say, is an infringement of a citizen’s rights, ignoring altogether the fact that governments require people to pay taxes to support things they may not advocate, and they require drivers to buy insurance. But that’s different—you don’t have to drive. For most people between 20 and 80, driving is not a choice. Well it’s just wrong, so Boehner et al. say, unconstitutional even, to require folks to buy health insurance, even though they inevitably are in the healthcare system from the day they are inoculated until their last visit to the emergency room. To make the case against the mandate, they drop their usual concern about the uninsured having their health problems paid for or subsidized by other taxpayers through Medicaid and visits to emergency rooms—it’s just that darned socialistic mandate.

It is hard to put much credence in their protestations that all those good things about healthcare reform are things they want too—their backers in the insurance industry certainly don’t. If it just were not for that pesky mandate that everyone must buy insurance, they would be healthcare reform’s biggest champions. All those mysterious lost jobs is a problem too, but never mind the Congressional Budget Office’s estimated $230 billion addition to the debt that repeal would cost over the next several years. Not coincidentally, the mandate is the linchpin of the whole plan, the mechanism by which it is funded, and if they could kill that, healthcare reform would just go away. And if they can say “job killing” enough times, that might, they hope, just put them and their insurance company pals over the top, before Americans discover that they actually like Obamacare, and that the Republicans tried yet again to sell them a bill of goods.

Published in: on January 25, 2011 at 2:03 am  Leave a Comment