First World Problems


By Jeff Keeling

Jeff Keeling, Associate Editor

Jeff Keeling, Associate Editor

What do seepage at Boone Dam and two weeks of cold, snowy weather have in common? Both are proximate causes of “First World Problems.”

The lovely and talented Angela and I admonish one another – lovingly, always lovingly – with “First World Problem” when either of us expresses annoyance out of proportion with the difficulty at hand.

The problems about which I’m writing this week aren’t as trivial as those that prompt our spousal reproaches. The likely negative economic impact of lowered Boone Lake levels this summer and difficult calls about weather-related closures or delays are more serious than the Internet going down while we’re streaming a movie.

Nevertheless, I see them as First World Problems, which the Urban Dictionary first defined in 2005 as: “Problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at.” See

The recent snow, ice and cold first got me thinking about First World Problems. Feb. 18 rolled around, and we all knew the next day was going to be really cold. Many roads and streets were clear, though, and East Tennessee State University officials had made the call (appropriate in my book) to operate on a normal schedule Feb. 19. Apparently, this created a social media storm so powerful and accusatory – ETSU was “putting people’s lives at risk” – that the university reversed course.

Walking on icy surfaces that day could be a bit tricky. How do I know this? I worked, that’s how. So did thousands of other locals. I understand at an operation similar to ETSU’s, the phones and email inboxes were lighting up that same day, filled with the overwrought concerns and demands of helicopter parents afraid for the safety of their precious 20-year-olds.

Speaking of winter weather and problems, was it just 64 years ago that the Korean War’s Chosin Reservoir Campaign saw young men of the same age endure frostbite casualties, cold-induced weapon malfunctions and frozen medical supplies? Would today’s 20-year-olds defrost a morphine syrette in their mouths so they could administer it to a wounded comrade? I sincerely hope so.

Since the warm green of summer will be here soon enough, let us move on to Boone Lake. I have seen no shortage of angst and anger expressed since TVA officials announced the inconvenient truth last week: the reservoir will remain at a much lower-than-normal level this summer as TVA works to solve a seepage issue near Boone Dam. (I have seen, and applaud, a few reasonable posts on TVA’s Facebook suggesting the problem offers a good chance to clean the shoreline.)

Boats will sit on dry land. Marinas will struggle to stay in business. Fishing tournaments and boat races will occur somewhere else, preventing visitors’ dollars from circulating around the economy. Then there’s my favorite: lakefront property values will plummet. And that affects people who aren’t trying to sell their homes how, exactly?

Are these things problems? Yes, they are, but everyone who started a business on the lake, docked a boat there, built a house there or otherwise took advantage of the reservoir’s normal water levels did so by choice. I expect the drawdown’s effects to be much more inconvenient than they are severe.

Speaking of water recreation and problems, I read last weekend of Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr. of Biloxi, Miss. It’s been 56 years since Dr. Mason and seven African-American friends went swimming at a Biloxi beach – a “whites only” one. That act, which resulted in a policeman ordering them to leave, was followed by years of perseverance by ordinary Americans who desired equal access to public beaches.

The “Biloxi Wade-Ins” stretched over four years, even though in 1960, a year after the first one, the U.S. Justice Department sued the city for denying African-Americans access to the publicly funded beaches. Mason was arrested multiple times, his office was firebombed, and the final wade-in, in 1963, resulted in the arrests of more than 60 African-American protestors. The problem persisted, as was so common with such issues during this era, and the Justice Department’s case dragged through the courts until 1967, when justice won. The beaches finally opened to all races for the first time in 1968 – problem solved.

For nearly four more decades until his death in 2006, Gilbert Mason was able to enjoy whatever stretch of Biloxi’s 26 miles of beaches that he chose, praise God.

Boone Dam’s mystery is creating some problems. Harsh winter weather created some problems. But they pale in comparison to the rank injustice of segregated beaches, or the terrifying danger of cold fronts howling down from Siberia in the middle of a war. Yet wealth and technology have produced in us an entitled wimpiness such that, when inconvenience, discomfort or misfortune strike, our responses tend to be entirely out of proportion and the blaming commences.

We might do well, next time a First World Problem arises, to remember both Dr. Gilbert Mason and those young men half a world away serving their country. A little perspective can go a long way.



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