published Sunday, March 30th, 2014

Cook: A dive with a holy cow

Last week, we boosted the kids from school, checked the tire pressure and headed south to Florida, where the azaleas right now look straight out of Eden. It was 75 degrees by lunch, 80 with my afternoon beer.

It was our family vacation, so I left my laptop at home, turned off my cell and tried to ignore all those busy-thoughts that come rushing like Billy Martin from a dugout. Isn't that the lesson of "The Shining?" All work and no play makes us looney.

Mercifully, it worked. The closer we got to Florida, the more things ... slowed ... down.

"Did you know adult women are the fastest-growing population being diagnosed with ADHD?" my wife said, looking up from her book.

She'd brought along Brigid Schulte's "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time," a powerful examination of the Mad Hatter rush of our everyday American lives.

"Everywhere, even in rural America it seems, people strive to be busy," Schulte writes. "In surveys, people say they're too busy to make friends outside the office, too busy to date, too busy to sleep, and too busy to have sex."

One expert calls it our "everydayathon." Another, a "time sickness." Tina Fey even made up a word for it: blorft.

"Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine ... I have been blorft every day for the past seven years," she writes in "Bossypants."

Our vacation became an act of resistance; we weren't just going to Florida, we were trespassing into some far country of idleness where it's OK not to check email every five minutes.

As we awoke to the third day of our trip, this all became incredibly clear.

"We're swimming with the manatee!" my daughter said.

A manatee is light blue or gray, and looks like a 2,000-pound baked potato with flippers. They are underwater Gandhis: profound, life-altering, but totally harmless. You can swim alongside them, which is why we drove the 500 miles to the warm waters of Crystal River, where manatees spend the winter.

We hired a boat captain. He gave us wet suits, masks and snorkels. Together, we scanned the horizon.

"There," he said.

A snout surfaced. Then another. It was a mother and her calf. We eased off the boat ladder and into the murky waters. I could see my hands before me, but not too well. Then, out of nowhere and suddenly inches away, this massive animal appeared. It was bigger than a Coke machine. I wet my wet suit.

The creature before me was so unfamiliar, so foreign. Should I touch it? Tickle it? Say something? I could only stare, not knowing what to do, just like so many first dates in high school.

The manatee mama and her calf moved slowly, magically, mystically. There in the dark and deep waters, they were so, so ... not overwhelmed.

Before the burning bush, Moses took off his shoes. These manatee made me feel the same way. Love and awe and the sense that all our on-land, helter-skelter schedules are just distractions, just nothings before the largeness of Life.

"I have never been so engaged by the appearance of any animal in my life," writes former Baylor School headmaster Herb Barks in "The Magic Bridge," his spiritual autobiography. "Here was a creature at home in the place I feared most, able to play in a region I considered chaos, terror, bottomless: a place where I could drown, be unable to find my way home, where I could be swept away."

We surfaced, and exclaimed.

"Holy cow," I said.

"Holy sea cow," the captain corrected.

The Beatles sang about the walrus, coo-coo-kachoo. We need some national manatee anthem, some soundtrack to counter all the mad rush around us. Its calmness, its grace, a hymn to soften our jittery, anxious lives.

Later that night, as the kids flopped out on the hotel bed, getting Little Caesar's and sunscreen all over the sheets, we turned on the TV and channel-surfed our way to, of all things, reruns of "The Waltons."

"Leave it here," my wife said.

There was agrarian America. There was Jim Bob, with no cellphone in sight. There was family supper. There was time to sit on the front porch and talk.

As if the manatee message didn't take, Life seemed to be using the Waltons to say to us again: slow ... down.

"Can we watch another episode?" my son asked.

We did.

The next day, we checked out and drove home. Near Atlanta, the anxiety-busy-rush-feelings began to return. And they will continue to. We all get blorfted by modern life.

But somehow, we also need to fall in love with it. To relax into it. To be still, and in awe.

Holy sea cow.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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