Friday, July 17, 2015

A Tale of Two Lakes

I didn’t know what he was talking about and I really didn’t care, it being 1974 and me being sixteen and all, but I can still hear my late father saying that he was mad at then-Governor Jimmy Carter for killing an Army Corps of Engineers plan to build a dam on the Flint River that would have turned the Sprewell Bluff area into a big lake. I don’t know how serious Daddy was about his complaints, but I suspect he wasn’t really all that upset, given that he hardly ever went fishing.

I’m a bit of a tree-hugger, so had I been paying attention, I probably would have agreed with Gov. Carter’s decision. Sprewell Bluff is a mighty pretty place and I’d hate to see it covered up with water. Besides, the fishing is good without the river being dammed up; fishermen and fisherwomen can (and do) go after the shoal bass that are unique to the Apalachicola -Chattahoochee-Flint river system. It’s also good to protect the various rare species that live along the Flint, including the Halloween darter that was just discovered in the 1990s.

The headwaters of the Flint are in Hapeville, of all places; the river begins as groundwater seepage that goes into a concrete culvert and then under the runways at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Fifty miles or so later the water from several creeks has joined with that seepage to form the beautiful Flint. It runs for almost 350 miles, eventually joining with the Chattahoochee River to form Lake Seminole in Southwest Georgia. The sole river that exits Lake Seminole and goes to the Gulf of Mexico is the Apalachicola, thus the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.

The Flint is controversial as well as beautiful. It gets caught up in the “water wars” being waged between Georgia, Florida, and Alabama over access to the water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint system. The demands placed on the river by the pumping of water from the Flint watershed to irrigate crops in Southwest Georgia are also a cause of concern and controversy.

The Sprewell Bluff Lake (or whatever it would have been called) was never built. But another lake was built a long way away from here, and that one’s in serious trouble. Lake Mead was formed when the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River was completed in 1936. The dam, which depends on the water from the lake to drive its turbines, provides electricity to a large portion of the Western United States. It also provides water for a lot of people in a lot of places, including 90% of the water supply of Las Vegas. Because of a prolonged drought, Lake Mead is now 60% empty. In order to gain access to the water at the deepest part of the lake, Las Vegas has spent the last six years building a three-mile long tunnel under the lake. According to CBS News, the city will start accessing the reservoir’s water from beneath the lake by the end of the summer.

One wonders how long it will be before the last drop goes down that drain.

A few years ago I was listening to a rather eccentric fellow up in Minnesota who was holding forth on how important the Great Lakes were to the future of the United States. “If you think wars over oil are bad,” he opined, “just wait until we start fighting over water.” I usually dismiss such talk as paranoid ravings, but he had a point. Nothing is more vital to life than water, so if access to it ever becomes severely limited, I suppose it would get rough.

There’s a story in the Bible (Numbers 20) about the Hebrew people running out of water during their wilderness wanderings. When they complained to their leader Moses and his brother Aaron about the situation, the Lord told Moses to command a rock—a big rock, I presume— to produce water for the people. But when the people gathered around the rock, Moses hit the rock twice with his staff. Despite his abuse of the rock, the Lord still caused water to pour out of it.

Believe what you will about the role that human beings play in causing climate change, but any reasonable person can see that we often are not good stewards of this good earth and of the resources with which it provides us. One can’t help but wonder if we’ll eventually abuse the Earth until it has so little left to give that we have no recourse but to wage war over it.

Thus ends the tale of two lakes, one that didn’t get built and one they’re about to pull the stopper out of.

Those who have eyes to see, let them see …

(Most of the information about the Flint River is taken from www.georgiaencyclopedia.org)

[This article first appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Thomaston (GA) Times on July 17, 2015)

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Return Trip Effect

Maybe you’ve had the experience; I know I have, and many times.

You’re travelling to a place to which you’ve never been before. The trip takes whatever time it takes, but it seems like a long time. Then you return home, following the same route that you took to get to wherever you were going. Upon arrival, you say to yourself or to a travelling companion, “It sure didn’t take as long to get back as it did to get there.”

Chances are pretty good, though, that both the trip there and the trip back consumed about the same amount of time. The return trip just seemed shorter. Apparently we perceive the trip back differently than the trip there. And it doesn’t matter what your mode of transportation is; I’ve experienced the sensation travelling by land and by air.

It’s called the “return trip effect,” and Niels van de Ven, a psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, conducted a test to try to determine what causes it.

He had a group of bicyclists travel the same route to a fair. He then split the group in half; he had one half of the group return by the same route they had taken to get to the fair and he had the other group return by a different route of the exact same length. All of the riders, regardless of which return route they followed, reported that the trip back seemed shorter than the trip there.

That result seemed to eliminate one popular theory of what causes the return trip effect, which is that familiarity with landmarks along the route makes the return trip seem briefer. The bicyclists who followed the alternative route did not encounter the landmarks that they had seen on the way.

On the basis of his experiment, van de Ven attributes the phenomenon to our expectations. "Often we see that people are too optimistic when they start to travel," he says. They’re looking forward to getting there and they hope the trip won’t take long. But once they arrive they feel that the trip took longer than expected. As a result, they feel more pessimistic about the return trip; they expect it to take a long time.

"So you start the return journey, and you think, 'Wow, this is going to take a long time,'" van de Ven says. But the return trip seems shorter than you expected it to be.

The National Public Radio report where I read about this study concludes with the observation that the return trip effect, no matter what causes it, is in fact an illusion, so maybe if we understand it better it will stop happening. But do we want it to? As van de Ven says, "In the end, this return trip effect gives you a positive feeling once you get home, so I'm not sure whether you want it to go away."

Lately I’ve been experiencing the return trip effect on a grand scale.

Forty years ago I was preparing to leave my home in Barnesville to embark on my life journey. Being seventeen years old, it was impossible for me to anticipate how long such a trip would take, especially since I didn’t even know what my destination was. I do know that I was in a hurry to get to wherever I was going. I also know that at times it seemed that I was riding in a horse-drawn carriage while at other times it felt like I was in a rocket.

Now that I’ve arrived back home (technically at my father’s home of Yatesville, but that’s close enough) and I’m looking back, it seems like the entire journey was taken in Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon with its hyperdrive perpetually engaged. And I must say I’m feeling pretty positive about the experience.

There’s a sense in which all of life is a return trip. So far as I can tell, two things are simultaneously true: (1) God sent us here and (2) Before we got here we were nowhere. Oh, the genes and the stardust and all the other stuff that went into making us who we are was already here, but the consciousness—the spirit, if you will—that makes me me and that makes you you was not. Still, in a very deep place within that consciousness, we know that home is somewhere else and we long to get back there. And by God’s grace, we will.

The farther along I get, the shorter my life seems to have been.

Now I know why—it’s all about the return trip effect. I’m on my way home . . .

(This article first appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on July 7, 2015)

Friday, July 3, 2015

An Open Letter to the Atlanta Braves Radio Announcers

Dear Jim and Don,

I like you guys, which is a good thing, since I have been spending a lot of time with you lately.

That’s because in recent weeks, while our new house is being built on the Ruffin Family Farm a mile outside of Yatesville, Georgia, I’ve been living with my Uncle Johnny, and he doesn’t have cable or satellite television. So I’ve been listening to the Braves games on the radio.

I appreciate the work you and the crew do in bringing the games to us.

Still, I’d like to be so bold as to make a few suggestions.

1. Describe the game.

Tell us what is happening on the field. Give us details—tell us what the pitcher’s windup is like; describe the batter’s stance. But remember that your listeners are not watching the game so we do not see what you see. Tell us all about it.

2. Paint a picture.

I was eight years old and living in Barnesville, Georgia when the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. We went to a couple of games every year but I watched most of them by listening to Milo Hamilton and Ernie Johnson on WKEU FM out of Griffin. I put it that way because they painted such a vivid picture that I could see the game in my mind. Your words could paint beautiful portraits, but instead you give us line drawings. Your descriptions should enable us to see the players in 3D, but instead we see stick figures. Communicate the atmosphere to us. Help us taste the beer and smell the hot dogs.

3. Give the score often.

Some people get to listen to the entire broadcast but many of us don’t. We turn it on in the middle of the game because we had things to do or because we just got in the car. I have gotten in my car and driven for ten minutes before ever hearing the score. Brothers, this ought not to be. Remember (again) that your listeners are not watching the game on television and so the score is not always in front of us. Giving the score at the end of each half-inning is not enough. I recommend that you make it a practice to give us the score at least once every 60-90 seconds. It should definitely be given after each at-bat. You guys are talented; you can figure out a way to make it blend in.

4. Stop telling long stories.

They distract from the game and we listen to hear the game. Now, they’re fine during a rain delay or during a pregame segment. All too often, Don will be telling a story and Jim has to interrupt him to say what is happening on the field. The game is the thing. Just describe the game.

5. Goof around less.

You guys are clever, intelligent, articulate, and funny. I’m sure I would greatly enjoy having dinner with you. But between the first pitch of the game and the last pitch of the game, none of that matters unless you put your cleverness, intelligence, articulation, and funniness to use describing the game and painting the picture. You are impressive but we do not want to be impressed by anything but your descriptions and accounts of the game.

6. Leave non-baseball stuff out of it.

If you want to talk about the best restaurants in Doraville, maybe the Food Network will give you a show. But such talk adds nothing to our understanding and enjoyment of the baseball game.

7. Describe the game.

8. DESCRIBE THE GAME.

Pardon me for shouting. But that’s the point I really want to drive home. Tell us what’s happening. Tell us what it looks like. Help us smell the smells, taste the tastes, feel the elation, and experience the frustration. Help us feel like we are there.

Thank you for listening to me. I’ll keep on listening to you whether or not you take my suggestions—my pleas, really—to heart.

You work in the Pete van Wieren Radio Booth. Make him proud . . .

And Go Braves!

Your Faithful Listener,

Mike Ruffin
Yatesville, Georgia

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Going to Church with Dusty Rhodes

I would have liked to have gone to church with Dusty Rhodes.

I never have, though, and now I never will. Dusty died on June 11 at age 69.

I stopped watching professional wrestling a good many years ago when I realized there was better fiction available elsewhere. But during my growing up years I stayed up late on Saturday nights to watch Georgia Championship Wrestling on Atlanta’s Channel 11. And if at all possible I was also in front of our 19 inch black and white television on Saturday afternoons to watch the card that was beamed to us from Columbus; I can still hear promoter Fred Ward telling shut-ins that he hoped they would be “up and at ‘em real, real soon.” My favorite wrestlers during those years were Joe Scarpa, who later became known as Chief Jay Strongbow (and who also died recently) and El Mongol, who was billed as being from Mongolia but was actually Mexican. I guess El Mexol wouldn’t have sounded right.

But the Golden Age of professional wrestling, as far as I’m concerned, was the 1980s, when Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair were in their prime and were fierce rivals in the NWA/WCW whose flagship program was on WTBS in Atlanta. The two showmen couldn’t have been more different; Flair, the “Nature Boy,” was the self-described “stylin', profilin', limousine riding, jet flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin' n' dealin' son of a gun,” while Rhodes, “the plumber’s son,” was a common man in his blue jeans, cowboy boots, and trucker’s cap.

Rhodes seemed more like one of us than a lot of the other characters who populated the pro wrestling roster. While he had tremendous athletic skills, he didn’t have the chiseled physique that many wrestlers possessed. Rhodes looked like a guy who had eaten a lot of barbecue and had drunk a lot of beer. His self-descriptions to the contrary, he wasn’t pretty; in fact, his forehead was a mass of scar tissue resulting from the many times he had been cut in the ring. His willingness to bleed for the sake of the show was another reason that we related to him; in the real world, we also bled, if metaphorically, in order to do our jobs and to earn our place in the world.

To put it simply, Dusty Rhodes was real. His character seemed to draw on who he really was. He was flawed and imperfect but he persevered until he made it to the top, ultimately becoming a three-time world champion. And he seemed to understand what it was to be a real, struggling, working American. That empathy came through in the legendary 1985 “Hard Times” promotion for the upcoming event Starrcade ’85, an interview in which Dusty talked about Flair, who had inflicted an injury on him that had put him out of commission for a while.

He put hard times on Dusty Rhodes and his family. You don’t know what hard times are, daddy. Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are out of work, they got 4 or 5 kids and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food. Hard times are when the auto workers are out of work and they tell ‘em to go home. And hard times are when a man has worked at a job for thirty years, thirty years, and they give him a watch, kick him in the butt and say “hey a computer took your place, daddy,” that’s hard times!

Dusty Rhodes was the American Dream because he personified that dream. He made us believe that those who worked in textile mills or in other blue collar places of employment—or who were the children of blue collar workers (I was one of those)—could make it, too. And he made us believe it by being himself.

One of my classmates at Gordon Grammar School in the late ‘60s was a pretty blonde named Tammy Murphy—whatever happened to her?—and Tammy could sing. Sometimes Mrs. Tenney and Mrs. Fambro would make her—I put it that way because it looked to me like she wasn’t crazy about doing it—stand in the doorway that connected their fourth grade classrooms and sing for us. When we’d go on field trips, they’d compel her to lead us in singing a call and response song where we’d repeat what she sang.

Oh, you can’t get to heaven (oh, you can’t get to heaven)
On powder and paint (on powder and paint)
‘Cause the Lord don’t want (‘cause the Lord don’t want)
You like you ain’t (you like you ain’t).


Lord knows, though, that a lot of us spend a lot of time trying to be who we ain’t.

Dusty didn’t try to be who he wasn’t. He was just who he was.

And that’s why I wish I could have gone to church with him.

A friend of mine who has been facing some problems told me the other day that he needed a church where people would just be who they really are, with all of their hurts, faults, and struggles. He said that he had an issue with the way that church folks try to mask their true selves and pretend that they’re better than they are. He needed them to be genuine, he said, “because I need to be able to be myself at church.”

Maybe having Dusty sitting in the pew would have helped us to remember that.

After all—and Dusty didn’t say this, although it sounds like something he might have said—church is not about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; it’s about helping us be the best sow’s ears we can be.

(This article first appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on June 23, 2015)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Habituation

On the one hand, I live in Yatesville, Georgia, and so I live in the country. On the other hand, I live on Highway 74, which is a pretty busy road. Big trucks are especially fond of travelling on it; I’m told that most of them are on their way to or from the ports on the Georgia coast.

Cars and trucks zoom by frequently and some of them are pretty loud. But after a month and a half of living there, I hardly hear them anymore.
There’s a psychological term for that phenomenon—it’s called “habituation.” Habituation occurs when you develop a decreased response to a regularly occurring stimulus. In other words, you get used to it. I don’t hear the trucks because my brain has adjusted to the regularity of their roars. The sound is still there; it’s just that for me, it’s become background noise. It’s a helpful adaptation that allows you to concentrate on what’s important without being distracted.


But habituation can be a hurtful development in some areas of our life, particularly if we are unaware that we have become habituated. And sometimes we become habituated to things to which we really ought not become habituated.

So, for example, habituation can harm our relationships. It’s especially true of the ones we have with our family members and it’s extra especially true of the ones we have with those family members with whom we share a home. We see them every day and so we grow accustomed to their presence. If we’re not careful, they’ll become like the furniture—they’re there and they play a useful purpose, but that’s about it. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it sure can produce apathy. Sadly, many of us have become so habituated to our family members that we take them for granted.

We need to work at keeping our family members in the foreground of our consciousness. We should engage them in regular conversation; we should find out what they think and feel and then take their thoughts and feelings seriously. It is a rare privilege to get to know someone personally and intimately; we need to take full advantage of the opportunity.

Habituation can also lessen our compassion. Our world is filled with people who have tremendous needs. Some of those people are on the other side of the world, some on the other side of the country, some on the other side of town, and some on the other side of the room. But we’ve heard so much about all the problems in the world that it’s easy for us to regard such reports as background noise; it’s always there and so we learn to tune it out so we can concentrate on whatever we regard as more pressing. Besides, we all have our own problems, too, and sometimes we don’t pay attention to other people’s pain because it’s all we can do, we tell ourselves, to bear our own.

Think, though, of how much healthier and stronger the world could be if we all cared about each other’s struggles and suffering. Think about how much lighter everyone’s burden would be if we joined together in carrying them rather than letting everybody sink or swim on their own. The first step, though, is to let the needs of the world move to the front of our consciousness. Once we look and listen, then we can do what we can to help. We become less than human when we stop paying attention to each other’s needs.

Habituation can also stunt our spirituality. Many of us have heard about God for our whole lives; some of us have gone to church from the time we were infants. But have talk about God and the worship of God become background noise to us? Worse—and it is much worse if it is the case—have we become habituated to the whispering of God’s Spirit in our spirits and to the prodding of God’s love in our hearts? Have we come to take God for granted?

If we are going to have a growing relationship with God, we must keep our lives open to the presence of God. How do we do that? Well, the first thing we need to do is to take God seriously. And we take God seriously by keeping God first and foremost in our consciousness; we take God seriously by actively and purposefully thinking about God. But we need to go deeper than thinking; we need to engage in communion and communication with God. We do that by praying, by pouring our hearts out to God and by opening our hearts up to whatever God wants to say to us.

Let’s not let habituation stop us from relating fully and freely to our loved ones, to our fellow people, and to our God. They deserve our full attention.

(First appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Thomaston (GA) Times on June 19, 2015)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Last Time I Saw Dallas

I’ll be going to Dallas, Texas next week to represent Smyth & Helwys Publishing at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). I’m looking forward to it. They’re my people.

The upcoming trip has put me in mind of the last time I saw Dallas.

It was June, 1984. I was attending my first Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting. Had I had any sense, it would have been my last. I didn’t, though, and so it wasn’t. I toughed it out until 1991 (which was longer than most of my like-minded sisters and brothers) at which time I said, “If I want to feel like that I can call up Don Rickles and ask him to tell me what he thinks of me.” At least that would have been funny as well as painful.

The 1984 convention was the one at which I was joined by 45,000 of my closest friends, or, more accurately, about 22,000 of my closest friends and 23,000 of my bitterest enemies. (I didn’t want them to be my enemies, but they wanted me and those who thought kinda sorta like me to be theirs, so there you go.)

It was also the meeting at which one of the oddest (not to mention most desperate and cynical) parliamentary decisions I ever saw made was made. We had voted to do something late on Wednesday afternoon; “our side” had actually prevailed in the vote. When we came back after supper, the President (who was on “their side”) ruled that we couldn’t do what we had done and since we couldn’t do what we had done, we hadn’t done it. Folks were hollering “Point of Order” so loud that people in Arlington must have heard them, but it didn’t matter. The President had spoken.

I got to Dallas on a bus that was provided by the good folks at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where I was two years into my work on a Ph.D. in Old Testament. Now, don’t hear that wrong; we had to pay to ride but the seminary made the arrangements. I made my reservation in the office of a young assistant to the President of the Seminary. That assistant, rather ironically, later became and remains a shining light on “their side.” Go figure.

For the price of admission, I got to ride on a crowded charter bus and to sleep in a small motel room with four other seminary students that I barely knew, and to ride the bus between the motel and the convention center.

A fun time was had by all.

But that’s not what I want to tell you about. I want to tell you about the Yellow Roses of Kentucky.

I was in Dallas on June 10, and June 10, 1984 was the sixth anniversary of my marriage to Debra Kay Johnson. Our son Joshua, our first child, had been born on February 21 of that year. So there I was, miserable, irritated, frustrated, and just generally fed up, and also 800+ miles away from my wife on our wedding anniversary.

Then I had an idea. How cool would it be to send Debra a dozen yellow roses (her favorite) from Dallas, Texas? They’d be Yellow Roses of Texas! I mean, how much more romantic could one nerdy graduate student get?

So I went to a pay phone, called up a local florist, and placed my order. “That’ll be $45.00,” the nice lady said.

I swallowed hard. We weren’t exactly rolling in money in those days. But I gave her my credit card number and hung up the phone, wondering whether Debra’s response would be weighted more on the “You’re so sweet!” or the “I can’t believe you spent that much money!” side.

Later—I don’t know how much later—it dawned on me that the Dallas florist called a Louisville florist and had them deliver the flowers.

So for our sixth wedding anniversary, my Good Wife received a dozen Yellow Roses of Kentucky.

I guess it’s the thought that counts.

Besides, I got a lot more for that $45.00 than I did out of whatever I paid to ride that bus . . .

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

For the Team

It was the summer of 1971 and the Thomaston Little League All-Stars were playing the Barnesville Little League All-Stars in the first round of the regional tournament in Griffin. It had been a good year for me—the only good year I ever had in my very limited athletic career. I had played on a good team with good friends and I had won the Barnesville league’s batting championship. I still have that trophy even though the inscription says that I had the Best Batting Avenue—they used “Ave.” rather than “Avg.” as the abbreviation for “Average.”

So there I was, starting in right field for the Barnesville All-Stars and feeling mighty nervous about it. One reason I was nervous was that I wasn’t a very good outfielder. I had been the first baseman for the Mets during the regular season but our All-Star team manager, who was the manager of our rivals the Cardinals, decided early on during our practices to play their first baseman there. On the day that I realized that the decision had been made, I complained to my father about it, expecting him to support me, maybe even to the point of speaking to our manager about it. But instead he just looked at me kind of sideways and said, “It looks to me like you ought to be grateful to be playing right field.”

I was also nervous because I assumed that the Thomaston team was of a higher quality than our team. I was right about that. Going into the sixth and final inning they had the game well in hand, leading us 9-0.

So I found myself in a pretty hopeless situation as I stepped into the batter’s box in the last inning with nobody on and nobody out. I was 0 for 1 at that point with a weak line out to the pitcher and a walk to show for my offensive efforts. The pitcher threw a fastball that came in just below my knees; I found it hard to lay off such pitches and I had no luck doing so that time. I went down and got it, immediately realizing that I had gotten under it and had hit it high in the air. I figured it was a popup to the second baseman but I wasn’t sure so I put my head down and started running like I was supposed to do.

Then I heard cheers. I looked up just in time to see the ball land several feet beyond the centerfield fence. I—scrawny, bespectacled, and nerdy Mike Ruffin—had hit a home run for the Barnesville Little League against the Thomaston All-Stars in the regional tournament! I trotted around the bases feeling pretty good about myself.

Later, my mother would tell me that someone sitting behind her said, “Look at him grinning!” What can I say? I was happy. After all, I had imagined myself hitting a home run in such a setting for a long time. But when I imagined it, my team was trailing by three runs and I hit a walk-off grand slam to give us a miraculous win.

We didn’t come all the way back against Thomaston, though. Our next batter also hit a home run but that was all we got; we lost the game 9-2.

I don’t regret the grin I wore as I circled the bases. After all, it’s not like I pumped my fist or showed off in some other inappropriate way; besides, I was twelve years old. But we all know that it’s nice to do well as an individual. It’s perfectly fine to feel good about yourself when you accomplish something worthwhile in an honorable way and it’s perfectly fine to celebrate such an accomplishment. I believe that God celebrates with us when we make good use of the abilities that God has given us.

Still, I would have enjoyed it so much more had my home run contributed to a win by our team. It’s great to do well as an individual, but it’s even better to do well as a team. I believe that God is especially pleased when we use our gifts and abilities for the sake of and for the good of the team and when we all work together toward a common goal for the common good.

Think of how much better off our various communities—our family communities, our faith communities, our neighborhood communities, and our work communities—would be if we would all put more emphasis on the team and less on ourselves.

To be fair, though, I think that my Barnesville Little League team did its best on that day in 1971.

The boys from Thomaston were just better.

[This post first appeared as a column in the Thomaston Times, which is publishing my bi-monthly religion column "Ruffin's Renderings."]