I tagged along with Karen to a yoga studio in Denver on our vacation. On the mat next to Karen is a woman who lives in Connecticut, although she grew up in Red Bank, NJ.
Karen grew up in New Jersey and we lived in Tabernacle, NJ during our early years of marriage. We are stretching and sharing stories about the Jersey Shore. I have never heard of Red Bank, NJ.
Later, we walked along Broadway avenue to Illegal Pete’s for some mexican food. We strolled by a creaky weathered bookstore with a rack of $3 books and I picked up a thick regal-looking volume of “Edmund Wilson: a Life in Literature.
I read the synopsis inside the cover and put the book back on the sidewalk rack and went into Pete’s. After savoring a carnitas bowl and soft tortilla, we walked back down the sidewalk and I passed by the book rack, until my daughter Lauren said, “Aren’t you going to buy the book?”
I took the book inside, handed the clerk a twenty and she fumbled around trying to find seventeen bucks change. Apparently this isn’t a cash infused enterprise.
I opened the book and read the first two sentences.
“Born May 8, 1895, Edmund Wilson, Jr., was a shy boy, the only child of Edmund and Helen Mather Kimball Wilson. He grew up in Red Bank, New Jersey, thirty-some miles south of New York, near the ocean.”
I wondered if the Connecticut lady on the mat who grew up in Red Bank, knew any relatives of Edmund Wilson.
What made me pick up one book…only one book off that rack?
We pulled our car into the driveway, narrowly missing a huge sycamore tree while striking the curb with the front wheel, and I told Karen that one can guess the age of a particular house by the width of the driveway. This house was from the Leave it to Beaver era.
Dinner at Picasso’s in OKC with Lauren, Beck, and Karen
Nowadays, these mid-century Edmond, Oklahoma houses are being transformed into California Craftsman Bungalows by youthful attention to the style du jour. Although, Kathryn’s home is pretty much as it was in the 1950’s, except for the sunroom added to the back of the house, where she spends her time watching the OKC Thunder on television and planning her 98th birthday party.
Kathryn loves sports and she tells me the Oklahoma City Thunder need to devote more effort to offensive rebounding. I watched the game later that night and thought, she’s absolutely right. She is an athlete after all. Although now her knees hurt and she has a soft brace around one knee as she recounts her exploits playing tennis as a young woman. She once came to Wann, Oklahoma, not far from where I live, to stay for a few weeks in the summer because her cousin lived there and they had a tennis court.
We went to Edmond to see babies. We also went to visit with Nanny, the grandmother of our son-in-law, Beck. The babies are the daughters of good friends. Beck’s grandmother, Kathryn Lyon Martin, once an Oklahoma A&M Redskin Beauty, has grown stately and majestic for 98 years, along with the sycamores of her middle America neighborhood.
Kathryn spent three years in the 50’s living and working at Tinker Air Force base while her husband Marshall served in Korea. But most of her adult life has been spent in this home in Edmond.
The babies we visited were incredibly cute. I made faces at Eloise and Ramsie the whole time and tried to make them like me, but that’s a tall order. I didn’t make any faces at Kathryn, but I did say yes when she asked me if I wanted a cookie. I always say yes to 98-year-old grandmothers who ask me if I want a cookie, knowing it won’t be as good as Karen’s cookies. I just do it to help them recover some of that old memory.
And the memory of this home and a life that once revolved around food and kitchen and children in the backyard and neighbor kids coming inside to ask for a cookie. I don’t want to be a smart alek (even though I am) like Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver:
June Cleaver: Eddie, would you care to stay for dinner? We’re having roast beef.
Eddie Haskell: No thank you, Mrs. Cleaver. I really must be getting home. We’re having pigeon pie this evening.
So I always say yes to cookies from grandmothers.
Kathryn still lives in the same home where neighbor kids came to play in the backyard unencumbered by fences that now restrict passage from yard to yard. There is a heavy round pipe swing in the southeast corner of the backyard and I imagine many swing set rules being violated, children falling in the grass laughing, crying, bruised, yet happy.
Life was different then. Not necessarily better, just less regulated.
She grew up in Geary, OK where there wasn’t much to do in a small town. So she would go to Catholic Mass with the neighbors even though she wasn’t Catholic. And when they left town, it was an event with life changing possibilities. Kathryn told us about a 1926 road trip to North Dakota when she was 6 years old. Her Mom and Aunt were driving a Ford, and I’m picturing the old coupe with the rumble seat. They went around a curve somewhere south of the Dakotas and lost Kathryn as she slid off the back trunk and fell head over toes into a borrow ditch. After a quick visit to the hospital, she was proclaimed fit, and they continued down the road.
Sensing an opportunity to gather perspective from someone who has seen a lot of history, I asked Kathryn about what events really shaped her, what was memorable to her. I was thinking three-character moments like 9-11 or JFK or FDR, but instead she shared a story about skinning cats.
Which meant something entirely different years ago, and as Kathryn told the story, I watched my daughter, a cat lover, turn a shade of gray.
But skinning cats doesn’t mean that…it means just hanging upside down from a tree limb and flipping yourself through your own arms, or other crazy such flipping and jumping about. Which is what Kathryn was doing one day with her little brother and he was underneath a slab of wood when Kathryn flipped over onto the wood and it fell down onto her brother breaking his leg.
I was looking for deep meaning and got skinning a cat with a brother’s broken leg…which seems more real and American anyway.
Beck and Lauren have a long-haired gray cat named Smokey. Kathryn’s husband Marshall was nicknamed Smokey, and Kathryn told us a story about a gray cat getting caught in the wall and birthing a litter. One of the cats was called Gray ball. Kathryn said, “Smoke tied some rags together and fished them down the wall but he couldn’t get the cat out…” So a fireman cut a hole in the wall. And so Smokey who tried to get a gray cat out of a hollow in the wall is now the great-grandfather of a gray-haired cat living in Denver with his grandson.
The world has changed a lot in 98 years. Kathryn spread her limbs like the sycamore as she listened to FDR on the radio and saw the headlines of VE day. She wondered about her husband in Korea for three years and watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. She experienced the birth of radio, television, air travel, interstate highways, several gray cats, and four children. She grew with that sycamore, in her neighborhood filled with children swinging and playing in that great backyard without a fence.
We live in a digital world that’s full of firewalls and privacy fences. We hear a lot of talk about privacy these days. But we sometimes trade our unfenced backyards for the security of lives never shared. Life sometimes seems virtual, a digital world of ones and zeros. There is something rich and authentic about living in the moment, skinning cats and flying into ditches, and knowing at the age of 98 just what the Thunder need to win.
Kathryn’s life along with that sycamore tree seem very real. I enjoyed listening to her stories and viewing her pictures and paintings. Her reality is analog, a continuous stream of stories and experience, backyard swings and old sycamore trees and children playing and cats trapped in walls and broken legs and flying from a car into a ditch somewhere south of the Dakotas.
Talking to Kathryn made me think of Virginia Woolf who wrote this about memory:
Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world…may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the under linen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.
Memory exposes our family linen to the gale winds of life and we find out how much our linen looks like everyone else’s. That gives us comfort. For at some time in each of our lives, we’ve felt beautiful and broken, guilty and redeemed, welcome in our neighborhoods and tossed into a ditch. This is life.
Happy Birthday Kathryn! Thanks for telling your stories and painting your pictures and raising your family and serving your country.
You’ve helped bring us all a little closer to home.
“Nothing has done more to bring people of different races and different backgrounds together than athletics, certainly more than politicians have done. It’s why the Greeks invented the Olympics” Mike Leach, Washington State Football Coach
Coach Leach is probably wrong about the 2nd part, but the 1st part rings true, at least in my experience. Of course, in defense of politicians you have Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and the Civil Rights Act and…well, anyway, makes one think.
Although for me, an English French Dutch Cherokee Indian American (don’t call me white) my first friendships with African-Americans began on a basketball court. A flat hard space that asked not your color, although I remember feeling inferior, that those friends were better than me and I had to prove myself to them.
I came from an all-white grade school into a junior high that exploded my world of sameness, suddenly understanding how different I was, that I wasn’t normal, that I was indeed the odd one, because of how little I knew about the beliefs and traditions, the myths and stories of people who didn’t look like me, who didn’t sound like me, amazingly, my new friends didn’t even play basketball like me.
My understanding of African-Americans had thus far been limited to my television set, seminal moments, mostly athletic, involving African-Americans, including the Black Power salute by Tommy Smith raising a black gloved right fist and John Carlos raising his left gloved fist while standing on the award pedestal after finishing 1st and 3rd respectively in the two hundred meter dash at the Olympic Games in October of 1968. I once sensed defiance in pictures of Tommy Smith and John Carlos. Now I understand defiant posture as a plea for justice, the animation of prayer in the oppressed, two men standing together with a white sprinter from Australia name Peter, asking God to set right the world, a world inhabited by red, yellow, black and white, a world that presented a gold medal to Tommy Smith but told him he was excluded from certain hotels and restaurants, country clubs and conversations.
There is a grand tradition of fists raised in the name of justice, some might even name it wrestling with God, times where prayer is more of a dialogue rather than monologue, spirited debating with God Almighty. Abraham questioned God’s promise and his own virility, Moses argued incompetence and asked God to send a more eloquent man to Pharaoh, Job ranted, David’s mouth grew parched calling for help, and Jacob transformed wrestling with someone you love into an art form by calling on God to bless him before he was beaten to a pulp. In the United States of America, African-Americans have prayed for many years with emotion, prayed with faith, prayed with belief that someday life will be better and not just better, just.
My upper left front tooth was chipped when I was fourteen years old by a raised fist, a shadow boxing match gone awry between Walter and me. Walter was different from me. He was from across the tracks, African-American, and the best athlete that I ever competed with. We were in the locker room feigning machismo, seeking affirmation, someone to tell us we were men.
We weren’t really fighting, just horsing around, he could have slammed dunked me and mopped the tile floors with my raggedy head. No, it was more like a big brother patronizing a younger, letting him get in a blow, shadow boxing playfully, just throwing punches with the intent of saying I could take you if I wanted, but not really wanting to hurt you. Except he miscalculated and busted my tooth.
During the winter of our ninth grade year, I watched from the bench as Walter and Mike and Myron and Ricky, all African-American kids along with a white Catholic kid named Chet, led a team of otherwise short white guys to a rousing basketball win over our cross-town rival across the river, the all-white team that hadn’t been beaten in their entire three-year junior high career.
That was a surreal moment for all of us. I thought we had no chance to win. I never really thought about those four African-American starters, about how it made them feel, how it may have empowered them, helped them become stronger in a world still dominated by white teachers and coaches and principals and mayors and governors and presidents. Perhaps this tension was unspoken but visceral, resulting in many wildly thrown punches at something unseen, undefined, not yet born in our social consciousness.
I hadn’t heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech. I didn’t know much of letting freedom ring. I was just trying to get along as best I could. But I did know that the world in which I had been introduced left me uncertain, timid, unsure. The basketball court, however, was the place of refuge for me and for kids of all color, the place we lost our fear and found our competitive pride and spirit. For many of us who defined each other by sport, a basketball court was where we found freedoms ring.
I don’t really think of those days as the “good old days”. They were difficult, awkward, we didn’t even know we were punching and ducking, bobbing and weaving. We were, in fact, living out the words of the old Negro spiritual reconstituted by U2, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, believing in a Kingdom where all the colors bleed into one.
James McBride was the son of a black father and white Jewish mother and when he was young, he asked his mother about her being different. She would simply say ‘I’m light skinned.’ Then he began to think himself different and asked his mother if he was black or white. ‘You’re a human being,’ she replied. Then James asked her, “What color is God?” For years he asked this question and his mother declined to answer. Finally, one day he asked and she told him, “God is the color of water.”
These days I’m reminded of the surreal nature of this earth and that I’m a stranger in a strange land. But I’m grateful for those awkward days of youth and thankful for a slightly broken smile that reminds me of the way it used to be when we shadow boxed one another in the halls of our school bobbing and weaving and swinging, challenged to understand what it meant to live in a kaleidoscope world, in a Kingdom where all the colors are bleeding into one, in a Universe created by a God who is for all I know, the color of water.
“We are going to Hyde Park to see King Lear,” Brandon said. Turns out he said High Park. Which is where we sat, perched high on a hill overlooking the outdoor stage at High Park in north Toronto. My expectations were low but I did carry high expectations in a picnic bag, a sub sandwich giving a measure of hope for enjoyment during the evening performance.
Shakespeare is sometimes difficult to follow. Lots of humor missed but I noticed veterans of Shakespeare in the audience chuckling so it must be funny and I’m just slow to the meaning translating Queen’s English into a slow Okie drawl. The production was performed with members of York University’s Drama and Arts School. York is the University where my son is working on his Masters Thesis on Radar Differential Measurement or something meteorologically spatial.
Anyway, it’s the shape of stuff in the atmosphere before it hits us on the head. He has developed a certain expertise in radar and was recruited to York University by the noted Atmospheric Scientist, Dr. Peter Taylor.
We also met Brandon’s buddies in the program, ZQ, Tim, Kai, and Isaac. My evaluation of Brandon’s friends: they are easy-going and smarter than I am. We are eating at a sports bar and there are several televisions tuned to street motorcycle racing, the kind where the rider turns corners with the bike leaning over sideways and Isaac (17 years old) is asking how the bike makes the turn at such high-speed. Tim, the one the guys jokingly call the savant, is studying atmospheric pollutants and has just returned from the northern Canadian woods where he is downloading data from the atmosphere. Tim pulls out a plain paper notebook and begins to sketch a model of movement at speed describing centrifugal force with mathematics, a simple graph and pencil and paper.
I don’t understand the sketch and I want to snap a picture but don’t want to appear to be a hayseed and make a big deal out of what they take as a mundane mathematical explanation for a visual and visceral sport like motorcycle racing. I wonder if this happens everyday in their world.
We’ve enjoyed the food in Toronto. One can eat at any country in the world when in Toronto. Bahn Mi from Vietnam, Pork Shoulder sandwiches from Cuba, and of course the traditional Canadian meal of Poutine, fries, gravy, cheese curds, yummy.
We’ve had a wonderful trip! We drove through Michigan after crossing the Canadian border at Sarnia, about 30 miles north of Detroit. We listened to the Audiobook version of Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann while driving home. It literally wore me out, but it was fascinating. A lot of King Lear in Osage County back in the 1920’s, when the Osage Indians were the richest people per capita in the world and J.Paul Getty and Sinclair and Frank Phillips gathered under the Million Dollar Elm to bid on the Osage Indians’ subterranean kingdom.
The Osage built mansions and drove Cadillacs and succumbed to the foolishness of riches just like most of us do, and then one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The story is an indictment of the prejudice toward American Indians that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity. Utterly compelling, but also emotionally draining. The bad guys could just have easily been actors in a Shakespearean tragedy like King Lear…
A few evenings back, we sat with Brandon and Liz watching some old home movies that I had sent off to Legacy Box. They converted our home movies in 8mm and VHS format films into digital which we accessed through wi-fi. We stumbled upon this: Brandon struggling to breathe his first breath. One of the nurses was a good friend, Maresha Scarsdale, and I handed her the video camera. He is purple. Brandon thinks he looks like a purple lizard. Oxygen hasn’t coursed through his body and made him pink yet. I’ve never watched this. I was there, yes, and I held him and marveled then. I’m tearing up again watching and remembering…Brandon is struggling to breath, gurgling cries, his airways still not clear…Ello Stephney, another nurse friend of ours is working on him, clearing out his mouth and nose, and he magically begins to glow pink…he isn’t a lizard, he is human.
“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” ― William Shakespeare, King Lear
We all cry before the blood fills our veins and oxygen brightens our countenance and we nestle in the warmth of human contact, and we determine that the fools and knaves and killers of the flower moon may share the stage, but they won’t rule the story.
Thanks for showing us around Toronto Brandon and Liz. You really put on a great show!
When my brother the doctor is not on call, he decompresses by setting his smart phone to airplane mode. I am on airplane mode at this moment, serene at 39,000 feet viewing the fruited plain from a 737, untethered from the constancy of digital connection and liberated from the tyranny of the lightning rod phone collecting emails, instagrams, texts, and breaking blurbs from the The Huffington Post about what Donald just tweeted to a bifurcated nation. I am on my way to Philly via Southwest Airlines where Karen will pick me up and we’ll get a hoagie bigger than a football and eat it while driving north to Utica, NY. The view from the upper atmosphere is soft and slow, more ancient and eternal. Kentucky is a checkerboard of bluegrass and tobacco farms. I have a distinct sense that I’m calmer when disconnected from the technology that has reduced my social construct from handshakes and hugs, to something less, finger swipes and clicks.
Between the rolling hills of Kentucky and the farms of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania I read an article titled, “Has the smartphone destroyed a generation?” Jean M. Twenge, Atlantic September 2017
Here are a few compelling quotes from her article:
“In the early 1970’s, the photographer Bill Yates shot a series of portraits at the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in Tampa, Florida. In one, a shirtless teen stands with a large bottle of peppermint schnapps stuck in the waistband of his jeans. In another, a boy who looks no older than 12 poses with a cigarette in his mouth.
The rink was a place where kids could get away from their parents and inhabit a world of their own, a world where they could drink, smoke, and make out in the backs of their cars. In stark black-and-white, the adolescent Boomers gaze at Yate’s camera with the self-confidence born of making their own choices–even if, perhaps especially if, your parents wouldn’t think they were the right ones.”
“…the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives–and making them seriously unhappy.”
I listen to the blissful snoring of a rotund man in seat 6A, while musing about an unfettered childhood riding a bike without a helmet as the risk of cracking my skull seemed directly proportional to my joy and speed. I remember many of those kids in the roller rink with the liquor and cigarettes. I wonder where they are now.
On a recent vacation, I was driving in Denver and saw out of the corner of my eye the passenger window coming down at a busy intersection. My friend Bob rolls down the window and has a bill crumpled in his hand. He yells out at a gritty, ragged homeless man who is seated but now trying to get on his feet, “How ya doin’? Don’t get up…here, I’ll throw it too you.” And he tosses a crumpled bill at the man’s feet. Bob rolls up the window and I said, “What did you throw?” Bob replies, “A $100 bill.” I told Bob, “You went to heaven and hell in one sentence.”
Bob meets homeless folks on vacation while I take a more vocational tack. My laptop is nearby, the cell phone rings continuously, and texts chime like streaming points in a Bally pinball game. Even within the slower cadence of vacation, the fourth commandment of the Decalogue is being trampled beneath the virtuous feet of vocation.
According to David Brooks writing for the New York Times in an article titled, The Great Affluence Fallacy, “Antisthenes, a Greek cynic philosopher, is cited as one of the first to equate effort with goodness and virtue. He coined the original workaholic paradigm. Antisthenes,
Had no feeling for celebration.
Felt no responsiveness to Eros (he said he “would like to kill Aphrodite”)
Mr. Brooks goes on to say, “Leisure does not mean what it once meant. The word leisure came from a Greek word translated into Latin as the word we now use for school. We have lost the meaning of leisure in our rush to perfect our work.”
What’s replaced our traditional idea of leisure is vocation. Our vacations are mild repetitions of our vocations.
Flying back from Denver to Tulsa I glanced over and noticed that Karen was reading a historical book of Summit county Colorado which includes Breckenridge, Silverthorne, and Frisco. Karen is practicing the way of classical leisure, slowing down long enough to learn about the places that we visit.
My daughter and her husband live in the Lohi section of Denver. They are house sitting for a young lady who is spending several months in India training in yoga. They maintain the row style shotgun duplex with a backyard a bit larger than a ping-pong table, in return for lodging and they are also surrogate parents to a couple of rescue dogs, Sunny, a small wispy female, and Trout, a spunky young male. Twice a day, the dogs are walked, and when the leash is in hand and the door knob turns, they growl and turn on each other in a flurry of fur as they engage in a little WWF dog fighting.
Lohi (lower highlands) is an eclectic neighborhood with top shelf restaurants like Root Down, Spuntino, Linger, and the Gallop Cafe. Around the corner is the American Cultures Kombucha Taproom where we enjoyed a sampler of teas with names like Happy Leaf and Rowdy Mermaid. There is a sense here of what John Denver sang about nearly 50 years ago, the Rocky Mountain high of friends sitting around a campfire looking at the Perseid meteor showers on a moonless, cloudless night.
There are churches next to funky bistros and many used bookstores in this lovely old neighborhood with a history going back to the Arapahoe, Shoshones, and Utes, living along the banks of the Platte River hundreds of years ago. Living in the Highlands today is like living atop an archaeological tel, the geography is littered with events and names and people and places.
After the Arapahoe and Shoshone and Utes, the Italians and German and Latinos came. The old churches, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Patrick’s, are beautiful and have absolutely no parking. You park on the street, as best you can. I became adept at parallel parking a Chevy Suburban in this neighborhood which should qualify me for a CDL. There are layers upon layers of history here, new layers added each generation. Now, this neighborhood is experiencing gentrification and is a mixture of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with a splash of Sixties tie dye and Nineties grunge.
David Brooks writes about the challenges facing young adults like my daughter and son-in-law. He says, “A few years ago, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis came out with a song called “Can’t Hold Us,” which contained the couplet: “We came here to live life like nobody was watching/I got my city right behind me, if I fall, they got me.” In the first line they want complete autonomy; in the second, complete community. But, of course, you can’t really have both in pure form. This is transformational, but not new. I am unique and yet like everyone else. I am free and yet I still belong. Young folks today are heading, it seems, in the direction of community and neighborhood hospitality, rather than national identity or the borderless digital world.”
Mr. Brooks quotes Sebastian Junger’s book, “Tribe”, which raises the possibility that our culture is built on a fundamental error about what makes people happy and fulfilled. Junger writes about the American Indian and about how they were more communal. “They would have practiced extremely close and involved child care. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone.”Mr. Brooks goes on to say, “Our institutions can offer only service — not care — for care is the freely given commitment from the heart of one to another…Maybe we’re on the cusp of some great cracking. Instead of just paying lip service to community while living for autonomy, perhaps people are actually about to change and immerse themselves in local communities.”