Speed is not of the essence

A controversial philosopher of yore described his lovely abbey as having only one rule: "Do as you please." It's amusing that I can sit here in my present retreat and dwell on such ponderables until I am beset with prodigious perplexities. The philosopher explained that in a society of good people - educated, caring, attentive, righteous, and so forth - it would be impossible for an individual to err, and he wouldn't, couldn't, do anything to offend.

The flaw in this bliss is the wall around the Abbey of Thelema. It is not, he says, to keep folks in, for those inside are happy and will stay. It is, instead, to keep out people who would prove indecent, uncaring, unready. So we're back where we started, and ain't it the truth? Funny that this made me ponder some more about the people who run television.

Well, there was a commercial among the tedious innings of the Red Sox game, advertising a bicycle. Instead of a considered, reasonable, tidy approach to a simple transaction, the man who makes bicycles staged his appeal with a mad clip across country in precarious and unrealistic fashion, as if in a Roman chariot race and all participants were doomed anyway.

I am a bicycle alumnus of good standing, and I well remember the day my hockey stick got mixed up with my front spokes and I, with bicycle, slid halfway to Porter's Landing. Any bicyclemaker who advocates breaking the sound barrier is an enemy of reason, but any television station that airs his pitch is an enemy of everything.

There was a program on TV lately that would give the winner a handsome speedboat of great price, and we saw this wonderful vessel going down a lake at M times the speed of light squared. Then we hear that television is being used in schools to make kids smart. What happened to the peace and quiet of Thoreau's Walden Pond?

Now, let's be sane about this. Any kind of boat that will travel faster than 100 yards an hour is a menace. To begin, the wake of a speedboat causes washouts to brinkside loon nests, and the loon is endangered. So far, no loon has come up with a way to retaliate. Instead, humans wrings their hands and Yamaha offers an outboard that will "do" 85 m.p.h.

I made me a small skiff back along, designed to suit our needs and situation. She was 14 feet, one rowing station, and pierced for an outboard.

I went to see my friend, a young, up-to-date businessman who keeps a sporty marina, and I asked him to look around and find me an antique Johnson motor rated at 3 miles an hour. I wasn't sure if such could be found outside a museum, but it was just what I wanted to send my new skiff along at trolling speed when Bill and I wanted a salmon for breakfast. Bill called it "stately dignity."

My skiff was a rather nice little craft. She wasn't so heavy but Bill and I could lift her in and out of the pickup, and with a roller I could get her on and off alone. I named her Lalage, which I'll not explain now, but on the sternsheets I'd carved Dulce ridentem Lalagen amabo, dulce loquentem ("I will love the sweetly laughing, sweetly chattering Lalage" - Horace).

My friend at the marina pooh-poohed me in hilarity and said, "Aw, c'mon, you don't want anything like that. Look at this beauty here, she'll do 75 easy and has a 10-year warranty." I thought of my sweetly prattling Lalage whooping down Cauc Lake in agonized celerity, and walked away. I did find a 3-horse outboard, and 20 years later it still runs faithfully whenever a grandson chooses to take Lalage after a trout.

Oh yes! Jim Hartley had a high-speed pleasure craft, fiberglass, on Sebago Lake, and one summer he put it on his trailer and brought it to salt water, planning to have a clambake with us, catch a haddock, and beachcomb the islands of Muscongus Bay.

On his trial run, he tooled down Friendship Harbor the way he frequently tooled at Sebago's Jordan Bay, and was promptly intercepted by the Coast Guard. Jim's defense (that he did this all the time at the lake) availed naught, as Friendship's is a working harbor and Jordan Bay is not. The Coast Guard boys gave Jim a hard time, and he tried to tell them that his playtime beauty wouldn't go slowly enough to meet their restrictions.

Every effort to sell automobiles shows them being operated in a dangerous manner. Every foolish auto race on the TV droolingly replays the smashups. Every motorcycle ad shows the things in midair. People on the beach are always running.

I had an uncle who, as a young man, applied to be chauffeur to a Vanderbilt or a Rockefeller, or some such, and each applicant was asked how close he could drive along the top of a precipice. One candidate said a foot; another said six inches. One thought he could come within three inches. My uncle said he wouldn't go within a mile of the place. My uncle chauffeured for the millionaire for 65 years.

What happened?

As to Walden Ponds and their meditative peace and quiet broken only by the forlorn, anguished cry of the pensive loon and the jolly melody of the bug-eyed bullfrog, alas! If you sleep by a Walden Pond, all night long you get the churn of passing outboards, an affront the happy folks at Thelema Abbey would never perpetrate. I'll think on this some more.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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