Category Archives: Essays

These longer pieces come from my personal experiences and observations.

Wild Eagle

Wild Eagle

I wake up at 7:30 Friday morning. The alarm is complaining on the bedside table, and I’m in the mood to join it.

Then I remember. Today’s the day. I’m scheduled to be among the first riders on Dollywood’s new “Wild Eagle” roller coaster. When you love roller coasters like I do, that’s enough to change the side of the bed you’re getting up on.

I’m up, suddenly wide awake. A quick peek out the window – and I’m scowling as I pull the curtain back into place. It looks like rain, and a glance at the weather app on my phone confirms it: more than likely it’s going to storm.

It’s not the kind of start I’d hoped for today. But I’m hopeful the rain will hold off at least until about 10:30 – my ride is at 10:00 and the weather can do whatever it wants as soon as I’ve got my feet back on the platform.

As I get ready for the day, I can’t help thinking about what the ride will be like. I’ve purposely kept myself in the dark about the new coaster. I want to experience it without any preconceived notion of what to expect. All I know is this ride is one of the most highly anticipated attractions opening this season.

The drive to Dollywood is fairly easy. Traffic is light this time of day. I keep an eye on the sky; the darker clouds on the horizon don’t bode well.

Once I’m at the park and checked in, it’s a ten minute walk to the ride site. As I come closer to the ride’s entrance, I begin to see the looping track poking between tree limbs. Then the lift hill comes into view. The fact sheet will later tell me that this towering steel length of track rises more than 20 stories – 210 feet – with a drop that hurtles the cars to a top speed of 61 miles per hour.

At the pavilion there’s a stage for Dolly Parton’s presentation that will officially open the ride. Hundreds of media people and invited guests are already gathered. All I can think of is whether the rain will hold off long enough for me to have my ride.

“9 to 5” blares through the sound system and Dolly is on the stage. She greets the crowd and immediately gives voice to my concern. “Let’s just hope and pray the rain holds off for a few minutes anyway,” she says.

Dolly begins her presentation by getting everyone to practice their eagle shriek. Two girls from the Knoxville Children’s Choir show us all how it’s done.

I learn that even though I’ll be among the first to ride the “Wild Eagle,” I won’t be in the first couple of trains to take the plunge. Those inaugural trains will be reserved for the winners of a special auction Dolly and her team have sponsored on eBay.

They’ve raised more than $30,000 — auctioning around 60 seats. Dolly calls Al Cecere, the president of the American Eagle Foundation, to the stage and presents him with a check. An eagle named Mr. Lincoln accompanies Cecere to the stage. As his handler is accepting the donation, and telling the crowd a little bit about the the work his foundation does, Mr. Lincoln occasionally interjects with a shriek of is own.

I guess the girls’ earlier demonstration put him in a talkative mood.

The American Eagle Foundation has been partnered with Dollywood for 22 years. In that time, the group has put on something like 20,000 birds of prey shows. I make a mental note to stop by the aviary before I leave Dollywood today. Visiting the bald eagles has become a tradition of mine; I try to see them at least once a year.

The bird show has also become something I try to see each year. Getting a chance to see and learn about hawks, vultures, the bald eagle and other large birds is one of my favorite parts of any visit to Dollywood.

I’m not the only one who’s enjoyed these shows over the years. The American Eagle Foundation has put on 20,000 shows at Dollywood since starting the partnership in 1991. Millions of people have seen these birds strut their stuff; and, more importantly, they’re getting the message about wildlife conservation.

“You’ve brought the greatest audience to us that we could ever have,” Cecere tells Dolly.

The foundation does more than just raise awareness; the group has hatched several eagles and been able to release over 300 of these birds back into the wild over the years.

Now back to the business at hand: getting me on the roller coaster before the rain rolls in.

“This year — we always say it, every year, you know I do — this is the best thing we’ve ever done. Well the eagle ride is the best thing we’ve ever done here at Dollywood,” Dolly says. The roller coaster is the most anticipated ride in the country, she tells us.

In fact, the only person not anxiously awaiting the ride is Dolly herself. “I’m a wild chicken, not an eagle,” she says. “I don’t think I’m gonna get on that.”

More Wild Eagle for me, I can’t help but think.

“Every year we just try to what we think the families would most like to see, and enjoy …” Dolly is continuing her presentation, and I can feel the excitement building in the crowd around me.

The first trains are about to roll.

“… everybody loves roller coasters,” she says. “So we thought this would be a wonderful thing for us to do. I’m sure we’re gonna have all the young folks out there and some of us old ones too. You’re not gonna see me on it though. You don’t wanna see what a bald eagle really looks like.”

The crowd goes erupts into laughter. Dolly just shakes her head.

“I ain’t bald but I am scared,” she says.

It wouldn’t be a Dollywood event without some music, and Dolly has written a special song just for the occasion. Backed by the Knoxville Children’s Choir and the Dollywood singers, she launches into “Wild Eagle.”

“Fly eagle, fly eagle, wild eagle fly,” the chorus saunters and Dolly struts across the stage as she sings. Then, with a burst of confetti, fireworks flash and Challenger the eagle soars majestically overhead.

It’s time.

The auction winners have finished their rides during the extravaganza at the foot of the roller coaster, and now it’s time for us media types to queue up for our own turns.

Some of the staff have already donned rain coats. I glance at the sky. I thought I felt a sprinkle or two during the opening festivities but so far the rain is holding off. One of the media guides points me toward the entrance to the Wild Eagle’s platform facade.

Nothing spectacular here, I think. A couple flights of steps and the standard corrals for those waiting. Themed artwork dons the walls. All in all, it’s a pretty standard Dollywood ride setup. One thing I notice is there’s less theme material here than, say, the Mystery Mine ride. Even in this relatively confined waiting area, there’s a sense of space, openness.

The line is short – a perk of being one of the first riders – and it looks like I’ll be on the next train.

As the cars pull into the platform, I notice the design. I heard the description earlier today: “Soar on the wings of an eagle with nothing above or below you.”

Billing: Lived up to.

The cars are each designed to resemble a bald eagle. The bird’s head points forward, intent on the flight. His wings span the width of the train, poised mid-flap. This ride looks like it’s moving even when it’s sitting still.

The seats are positioned on the tip of each wing. Each chair is independent, with it’s own harness – the entire apparatus folds down over the rider and clicks into place. A safety belt latches the seat to the harness as a second layer of restraint. The seats are kind of like oversized bicycle seats. Riders’ legs dangle freely.

The gates open and it’s my turn. I scramble to my car and into the seat. It’s fairly comfortable, if a bit of a squeeze. I pull the harness over my head and …

This isn’t good. B

The harness clicks, but the seat belt that holds the harness and seat together won’t reach. I wriggle around in my seat, make an attempt to suck in my gut and try to pull the harness tighter. The belt still won’t go.

As the attendant nears my car, I silently curse the 100 or so pounds I need to lose. It’s one thing to carry around an extra half-person’s worth of weight every day, but this is just ridiculous.

When the attendant sees my predicament, he frowns just a little. I can tell by the expression on his face that I’m not riding this roller coaster. But, as he pops the latch on my harness, he delivers the good news. The train has some seats that are designed to accommodate people of outsized girth. Within seconds I’ve gone from consigning myself to missing out on the Wild Eagle to rejoicing that the engineers built this thing with me in mind. Even so, I promise myself not to let this joyous happenstance give me an excuse to have an extra dessert at lunch.

The larger seats are full for this round, so I maneuver myself back into line in a stall that will put me in the range of cars I’ll fit in.

A few minutes later I’m scrunching myself into the harness. It clicks once, but I waller around a bit and get a second click, just for good measure. The attendant comes around to help everyone buckle up. She grabs the safety belt and …

It won’t reach my harness. Less than an inch and it just won’t go. There’s no way I’m getting off this platform without getting a ride so I suck in my tummy give the harness one more tug and …

We’re in. I’ve made it. I’m locked and loaded and ready to fly the Wild Eagle.

What’s amazing is that despite the tugging and sucking in and general struggle with getting in my seat, now that I’m settled, it’s pretty comfortable. The chair makes a kind of bucket, like an old Camaro driver’s seat. The harness is snug and I feel safe, but it’s not too tight. There’s this strange feeling – it’s not weightlessness exactly, but I feel acutely aware of the fact that I’m suspended. Even though my car isn’t at the front of the train, I feel exposed and almost unaware of the apparatus surrounding me. Car, seat and harness all fade to the background. I feel free.

The call and response of safety checks between the attendants and the operator signals that we’re ready to roll. Like all roller coasters, the Wild Eagle gets off to an uneventful start. We glide gently around the first bend and approach the lift hill. And that’s when it hits me just how tall this thing is.

The glimpses I caught from the ground on the way in haven’t the least bit prepared me for the hill confronting me now. It’s not frightening; just, in the most literal sense, awesome.

The time it takes to climb a 210 foot lift hill isn’t a truly measurable value. Every rider experiences it differently.

There is a second at the apex, just before the car goes over the hill to plunge 135 feet into the first of four loop d’ loops (the industry folk call them ”inversions”), when, for me, time stands still. It’s a moment of pure anticipation. Then, in a heartbeat, it’s over and I’m hurtling downhill with nothing but the wind to slow me down.

The inversions happen fairly early in the ride and they’re perfectly spaced. I feel exhilarated, not dizzy. I lose all sense of my own weight and it truly feels like I’m flying. The back half of the ride accentuates that feeling of flight. Gentle swoops and cresting hills give the sensation of gliding, soaring on the back of a giant eagle.

The ride is so smooth it’s easy to forget I’m on a track. There’s no jerkiness in the curves and every element is gentle. The ride is, in some sense of the word, elegant, both in design and execution.

The track is built through a stand of trees, and it seems like the builders only cut down the ones absolutely necessary to erect the coaster. The remaining trees butt right up to the track. It seems as if I could grab a branch as I pass by.

In less than two and a half minutes we’re back to the station. Even though the train must stop abruptly to enter the station, it feels as if the car has glided to a stop. The sense of elegance and precision is featured in every second of the ride.

After a brief wait, we pull into the station and I’m back on the platform. A few deep breaths to lock this experience in my memory and I’m ready to go. As I exit the platform enclosure, the sky opens up. It’s a fairly gentle rain.

It feels pretty good.

Steven

When I was 21, I was selected to participate in a writing workshop led by a nationally known, Pulitzer-nominated author. It was a great workshop — inspiring and challenging, everything you’d expect from a master class in writing.

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A Good Thing

Whoever gets a wife gets a good thing, and has the approval of the Lord.

Proverbs 18:22

It’s easy to take the person you love for granted. Sometimes all the things they do go unnoticed, or, at least, unacknowledged. Sometimes we get downright hostile to the people who care for us the most. That’s usually because we know we’re not living up to the love they’ve invested in us.

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Thomas the Believer

Jesus was dead. Anyone who said otherwise was either crazy or lying. Thomas had no desire to waste time entertaining the tales of hysterical women or deluded men. Jesus was dead and all the wishful thinking in the world wasn’t changing that. Ridiculous chatter about visions in gardens and visits from the master only made him miss his friend and teacher all the more.

So he’d skipped last week’s gathering. If Jesus’ other followers wanted to pick at grief’s open wound, that was their business. He’d just as soon try to put the whole thing behind him. Better to meditate on the Rabbi’s teaching than try to conjure the man’s ghost.

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Oh, Momma!

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day. I know, I know. Old news. At least I hope it’s old news. You didn’t forget, did you? Anyway. The Mother’s Day holiday put me in mind of some of my favorite literary mothers. And I thought I’d share a few with you.

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Love, Change and Being Made Whole

Meredith Wilson tops my list of great American songwriters. In my mind, there’s a cage match raging between Meredith Wilson and Irving Berlin, but the Gershwin brothers are probably going to jump whoever wins in the parking lot.

Anyway, Meredith Wilson is one of my favorite purveyors of one of my favorite musical styles. Beyond Jazz, Rock, Bluegrass or Gospel (all great art forms which I love), the popular song stands as a definitive American craft. From Tin Pan Alley to Broadway to the Billboard Hot 100, pop music is unique in its ability to create mood, tell a story and lift the spirit.
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Comedy and Prophecy

One of the most vibrant art forms of today is also one of the most overlooked. Comedy, as a performance art, a writing style and a genre, is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Or, perhaps a better way to put it, comedy has returned to its roots.

Renowned young adult novelist Richard Peck once said, “Humor is anger that was sent to finishing school.” Indeed much of the best comedy is rooted in a sort of righteous outrage against the status quo.

Mark Twain, reviled in some circles today for his use of provocative language, was writing “Huckleberry Finn” as an accusation. He used humor as a weapon against the ignorance and hypocrisy he saw in the world around him.

I sometimes think of comedians kind of like Old Testament prophets.

Comedians like Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor and Sam Kinisin channeled anger into their work. Sometimes the anger was personal and visceral, like Kinisin’s trademark scream. Often the anger came from observing a world where common people find themselves nameless and faceless before powerful and unfeeling corporations and governments.

More recently, television programs like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have engaged current events —  especially politics and it’s attendant television news coverage — with as much pointedness and scathing wit as you might find in Twain’s work.

I sometimes think of comedians kind of like Old Testament prophets. Seems like prophets show up when a society needs a kick in the pants. In the Old Testament stories, the prophets would call for a return to truth and justice. The word of the Lord would, more often than not, be a reminder that society has a responsibility to the “least of these.”

More intimately, there’s been a spate of movies in the last few years from the stable of director/producer Judd Apatow that deal with family and relationship issues. The films are gentle, but provocative. They are often vulgar and at times profane (they certainly aren’t made for children), but they get to the heart of human relationships.

A film like “40 Year Old Virgin” may seem like a screwball, vulgar comedy on its surface. But as you watch the story unfold, and you meet the central characters, you begin to understand that, fundamentally, this is a movie about family. It’s a movie that offers a hope that even unconventional people and broken families can find peace and acceptance in the arms of love.

Even more to that point, “Knocked Up” tells two stories. One is the story of a new relationship, born (if you’ll pardon the pun) of an unplanned pregnancy; the other is a decade-long marriage, sliding into decay.

The movie traces the problems both couples face, and deftly intertwines the stories until we see that the fix for both relationships is one and the same. All these people need love and forgiveness.

These comedies, above all else, tell the truth. And that’s what comedy is best at. In medieval times, the court jester could say things about the king that would win anyone else a one-way ticket to the chopping block. Modern day comedy does the same thing for us. Comedy can tell us things about ourselves that we’d never hear if we weren’t tricked into listening through our laughter.

Art is a looking glass that shows us our world both as it is and as it ought to be.

Comedy is art because, like all great art, it teaches us how to be human.

I believe that John Keats was right when he wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Comedy tells the truth, and that’s why it’s so beautiful.

A version of this essay originally appeared in The Daily Times Weekend, Maryville, Tennessee.

Between Two Worlds

I preached once again this past Sunday. The text was Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow. That parable got me thinking, “What is prayer?” You can read the verses I allude to here.

What is prayer?

Is it a wish list? A sort of Amazon.com for God? Is it a meditation exercise? Good for lowering stress and rejuvenating the mental state? Is prayer poetry — pretty words and pleasing rhythm?

Does prayer, to put it another way, mean anything?

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Surrender

I recently gave my first sermon in the United Methodist Church. This is the full text of my message.

It was about ten minutes to midnight, and I was more alone than I’d ever been in my life. Oh, to be sure, I was surrounded by people — hundreds of people, in fact. But I was utterly alone, and so scared I was crying like a child.

You see, I was lost. More lost than I’d ever thought possible. I was lost and I had no idea how to change my situation. I was standing in the middle of Milan station, in the heart of downtown Milan, Italy. And I’d missed the last train home.

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Absolved, not pardoned

It seems silly to say out loud, but I have a fear of the present.

Everything in my life is centered on what’s going to happen. I’m putting everything off. What am I waiting on? I don’t know. Every idea I have, every hope and dream is simply something else that’s waiting.

For.

What?

There’s no guarantee any of the things I’m planning will ever come to pass. And, for the most part, I have no control over whether or not they do.

What I can control is me. Myself. My reaction to this very moment. And what am I doing? Predominantly nothing.
Because nothing is happening yet. So I’m absolved from acting. But this absolution doesn’t pardon me.

I should suffer no self-delusion, nor abide any excuse for the utter waste of time my life is becoming. Free-will, squandered in the meaningless pursuit of entertainment, is a far worse fate than predestination. To squander opportunity is to murder your dreams.

Even in the moments between the moments that change our lives, there’s a germ of opportunity waiting to be exploited; time remains at its post, waiting to see if I’ll use every second I’m granted to inch that much closer to a destiny, a calling, a dream.

So what am I doing right now? Am I waiting for life to happen, or am I actively becoming the person I was meant to be?