The Man with the Yam

This past Sunday, Preacher Daryl told us that grumbling and complaining is a sin as a friend of mine sunk lower in the pew after posting a Facebook rant about donuts, “Why are there no donuts shops open on Sunday morning?” Which made me think of Garrison Keillor’s story about the man who wrote a check hurriedly as the collection plate was being passed realizing later that he had forgotten to place a decimal in his number and the $100 became $10000. He wondered if he would be struck by lightning if he asked for the check back so he could void it and write another. Which is how most of us feel after grumbling on Facebook. We want our words back, a chance to re-write the check.

How would I ever explain Facebook to my grandparents? Their face book was newspaper clippings on a cork board secured by a push-pin where I once spotted my grandpa holding a gigantic yam. The caption read, “The man with the yam.”

Jesse Suit Tie

The Man with the Yam

I only knew him the last few years of his life, long after his hair had receded like plowed soil blowing hot across the Oklahoma plains. Grandpa Jesse in his youth looked like Henry Fonda in the Grapes of Wrath except with a fishing pole and less angry.  He went to California in the 1950’s to escape the pollen and dust of the Oklahoma Panhandle. He returned from California in the 1960’s when I was a boy.

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Grandpa Jesse with his coffee vending machine

That picture of the man with the yam made me think that he was superhuman, all Popeye and spinach, I yam what I yam. Now my wife grows yams and tomatoes and kale and it is hard work making me realize how difficult it must have been to be a farmer, a dairy man with a herd of milk cows on the plains of Oklahoma when hard times were the worst hard times.

Grandpa Jesse married Mildred the year after the stock market crash of 1929, just as drought and perpetual plowing turned winter wheat into desolation and dreams into dust. The dust bowl still impacts how I eat a chicken leg. Grandma Mildred often chastised me for not eating efficiently, taking from my plate a mostly denuded chicken leg and gnawing it down to the gristle as if it were a sin to leave meat on the bone. I think of her still when I eat chicken…and when I begin to grumble about how difficult life is.

Grandma wrote prose like she ate a chicken leg, gnawing the subject down to the marrow,  sharing only the essentials in a letter she penned about her life as if to say modern folks know nothing about multi-tasking. She reduced the birthdays of six children into a single rich sentence.

“When my babies were born, they were delivered by Dr. Smith, who was also a vet and a dentist.”

My grandparents always had an eye on the heavens while living close to the good earth as they plowed it, gardened it, drilled water wells into it, and in the worst times of drought and wind they inhaled it. They made their living on a harsh landscape with the promise of better days. When Grandpa died, I was nine-years old and I remember Grandma Mildred describing his passing to a lady from our church as I walked up the stairs of our home. I was amazed that adults spoke about death and I dreamed of Grandpa for several months after that and once I saw him in the closet by my bed late one night. I was never afraid, but I did wonder if I was nutty or perhaps heaven had a revolving door with hall passes.

One afternoon not long before he died, Grandpa picked me up at school and asked me to help him. I sat beside him in his Ford truck as we drove to Woodland Park where he was working on a house. He said, “Can you stick your arm into that hole in the wall and pull out that wire?” I told him sure. But after trying for several minutes, I gave up. I had failed. He drove me home and as I was getting out of the truck, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a quarter, handed it to me and said, “Thanks.” I walked to the porch and sat down, watching my Grandpa drive away. He never made me feel that I had failed, and the quarter was his way of saying so, gratitude replacing grumbling even in the midst of a failed venture.

Mildred Fishing 2017

Mildred fishing

I’m not aware of any writing that Grandpa passed along, but Grandma wrote about her life for posterity at the behest of her children. Here is part of what she wrote:

My sister Ida and I walked two miles to…school. Mother, in later years, often told me I started out crying and came home crying. The winters were very cold. We also had to help milk cows before we left for school and again at night. As we girls had no older brothers, we worked alongside our Dad doing chores, field work and gardening. Dad always raised hogs and cattle. He would work in the fields until dark and then chores had to be done. I was eighteen years old and going to high school at a state school in Goodwell, Oklahoma when I met my husband to be. My mother’s mother developed cancer in February 1930 and as Mother was her only daughter, she needed to go care for her…I was brought home from school to take Mother’s place caring for Georgie, Essie and Wesley, besides chores, cooking, etc. Grandmother passed away in May. Because of this time out of school, I did not get to graduate from high school. Doctors in those days were not readily available and their knowledge was limited. I suppose they learned a lot of what they knew from reading medical books…

I never heard them complain much, except when I wore my short shorts. Maybe Grandpa complained about hard times to the dairy cows early in the morning while milking them, but Mom and her siblings told me that they never heard their daddy speak ill of another person nor complain to the cows or anyone else. And if he complained or griped about his lot in life, that too must have blown away with the dust. I thought that was remarkable. Maybe she just wasn’t around him enough. Or perhaps there really are people in the world who are like Grandpa…I hope so.

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The Color of Water

“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.

Walter Reece 35th reunion

Ron Williams, Brent Taylor, Scott Stuart, Walter Reece, Kevan Mueller at 35 yr reunion

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.

Le Temps

Certain languages, including French and Bulgarian, have one word for both“time” and “weather.” The French is rendered Le Temps.

One of my treasured moments as a Dad combined weather, time, and beauty. I was sitting on a peak in Arkansas with my son on a Sunday morning singing while watching a thunderstorm roll in not from above but from our flank as it wrapped itself around the mountain and we were, for just a moment, spun into a vortex of time and weather that made my heart skip a beat. The weather became time and time became weather and God seemed very near.

My son taught me to look at the sky. My daughter constantly reminds me of the beauty all around. Brandon is a meteorologist. Lauren, a budding artist and designer. I read some excerpts from this book and thought of them.

Maira Kalman and writer Daniel Handler celebrate in Weather, Weather —  the idea of what I saw on that mountain with my son. I only wish I had taken a picture.

There is a picture in Weather, Weather, taken by Carl T. Gosset Jr./ The New York Times: “This Photo Was Made Just before 4 P.M. at Broadway and 43rd Street, Looking East across Times Square.” July 24, 1959 

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In this picture, time stands still for me even though it was 58 years ago. A man stands with a hand in his pocket looking down at the sidewalk oblivious to the torrent of rain as two women dressed vaguely like my mother dodge puddles and shrink against the elements as they run across a New York street.

I was born the day after this picture was taken. And yet it was only yesterday…

Here are some pictures from Weather, Weather by Maira Kalman and the writer Daniel Handler. Enjoy!

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Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Hatsuo Ikeuchi’s Snowflakes, c. 1950

 

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László Moholy-Nagy: The Diving Board, 1931

 

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Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Man Diving, Esztergom by André Kertész, 1917

 

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I was in my room wondering what it was like somewhere else.

What’s the weather like?

It’s like summer. It’s like doing nothing.

Delicious.

Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Alfred Stieglitz’s Apples and Gable, Lake George, 1922

 

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The newspaper said it would be nice today.

What does the newspaper know.

International News Photo: “The Portent of Coming Disaster: A Tornado, Photographed as It Moved across the Sky toward White, S.D., by a Cameraman Who Was the Only Person Who Did Not Take Shelter in a Cyclone Cellar. None of the Buildings Shown in the Picture Was Damaged, as They Were Not in the Direct Path of the Tornado,” 1938 

 

 

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 Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Barney Ingoglia’s photograph for the New York Times article “Rain Raises Fears of Flooding: Pedestrians in Times Square Wading through a Puddle as Heavy Rains Began Yesterday. The Rain Was Expected to Continue Today, Melting Much of the Snow and Causing Fears of Flooding,” January 25, 1978

 

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Clarence H. White: Drops of Rain, 1903

 

weatherweather_kalmanhandler14Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Children Playing in Snow by John Vachon, 1940

 

weatherweather_kalmanhandler15Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Alberto Giacometti Going Out for Breakfast, Paris, 1963

I can’t even say what it’s like. It’s perfect, the whole thing. Come with me, take me with you. Let’s go out together and have poached eggs.

Delicious.

 

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Valery Shchekoldin: Uliyanovsk, 1978

Toronto journal 4: King Lear and the Subterranean Underground

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…

rascals, eaters of broken meats; base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knaves; lily-livered, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogues.

Bill Shakespeare could really talk some trash.

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!

 

New York & Toronto: journal 3

Saturday August 26 

We took the subway to downtown Toronno (locals say Toronno) and walked along the harbor. The Blue Jays won in a slugfest over the Minnesota Twins so we heard roars rising from the open stadium and bouncing around the city canyons. The ferry carries 453 souls at a time over to Centre Island and it provides an extraordinary view of the city skyline. We walked to the far side to a sandy beach and watched pasty folks who found the beach novel, wading and corralling children in the shallow water as if this were the first time to experience sand and surf. But the salt air is missing along with the majestic powerful roar of surf pounding sand.

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Toronto Harbor with the CN Tower in the background

Lake Ontario is simply nudging up to the beach in gentle ripples. The children are stripping off their jean shorts to reveal camo or superhero underwear, boxers, briefs, it is all here on display.

Sunday August 27

We drove around the western edge of Lake Ontario through Hamilton and just shy of Niagara to fruit tree land. This area is afforded protection being hard against the western edge of Lake Ontario giving it just enough protection from north winds which are warmed by the lake in winter giving grapevines just enough comfort to keep  from freezing and lake generated snow keeps plenty moisture in the ground. There are vineyards and peach, nectarine, cherry, and apple orchards. We went into the orchards on a trailer pulled by a small tractor and used wide-spreading ladders older than me to pick peaches, nectarines, and a few plums which were not quite fully ripe yet, but should ripen off the vine in time.

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Karen climbs the peach tree.

This farm was established in 1799. There is a beautiful old tree with a huge trunk and low spreading limbs that I couldn’t identify as to species, so I asked a worker. She said the tree is a Purple Beech and came over with the family from Estonia on the ship, a small sapling traveling in a boot, and planted at the new homestead which became their front yard. Now it’s over 200 years old.

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This Purple Beech tree traveled in a boot as a sapling from Estonia over 200 years ago next to my son Brandon sporting Canadian socks, lime shorts, and a man bun all younger than most of the smallest limbs.

 

Afterwards we enjoyed fresh cold apple cider and shared a peach muffin from a roadside farmer’s market.

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Walking to the orchard to pick peaches, plums, and nectarines.

Then we had Cuban sandwiches and pulled pork shoulder with rice and beans and mango spicy salsa. Next door is a place called Bang Bang where they pair gourmet cookies with exotic ice cream. The line is always 30 plus deep. Here are some flavors: bellwoods stout beer n’ brown bread, black tea banana puddin’, Italian eggnog, salted caramel vanilla mojito… can’t even remember what I got but pretty sure I blacked out into a sugar induced coma afterwards.

 

New York & Toronto: journal 2

August 24-25, 2017

We drove to the Adirondack Mountains with Toby & Debbie Taylor with plans to kayak the Moose River near the village of Old Forge. We wandered through Old Forge Hardware established in 1900. It’s squeaking groaning oak floors tells stories of those from another time walking these same boards with hunting boots, saddle shoes, and blue leather Mary Janes.

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Dr. Toby Taylor who is 1/256 Cherokee Indian standing next to the drug store indian at Old Forge Hardware store.

On main street there are slabs of oak and red elm and butternut standing at attention like surf boards at the beach awaiting a buyer to transform them into breakfast bar tops. There is a candy shop with mini donuts and chunks of fudge and brown bottles of Saranac Root Beer. We came to kayak, but we never made it, losing ourselves in a 1970’s time warp of batting cages, go carts (yes, Karen cut someone off), an arcade with redemption games like pinball and skee ball, Pac Man, and Galaga, and right next door there is a dairy shack with a roof top ice cream cone where you can get a frozen custard cone rolled in crushed heath bar. I ignored my age all afternoon and acted 14 most of the day.

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according to, Kathleen McMichael Mulligan, this is my mom’s wedding picture with Karen’s Aunt Rose n my Dad Roy Fairbanks n her GMA’s other two sisters Aunt Mary n Aunt Bertha…

We drove west to Syracuse on Friday, then north on Interstate 84 to the Canadian Border crossing at Thousand Islands (salad dressing originated here) and then connecting with Canada’s 401 West.

As we drove north along interstate 84 in upstate New York, I listened to my wife go through a box of old pictures given to her by her sister Debbie after her mom had cleaned them out of the house before moving to Arizona from New Jersey. It felt like listening to Jack Buck call a Cardinals baseball game, very entertaining, but visually I have to create some of the images from verbal reactions and comments from Karen as I drive in a strange land on strange roads. Karen reacts to a picture of herself in a bikini on the roof of Cathcart dorm as a 9th grader visiting Harding University in the late 1970’s and I steal a glance since I would have been a freshman there at the time.

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Thom Mason in his James Dean rebel years. This picture was taken not long after a car wreck. He and some buddies were raiding a farmers watermelon crop and were chased away. In the scramble to escape, he did not sit in his usual seat in the car. Thom’s friend sat in that seat instead. His buddy died in the accident.

While we are still on I-84 in New York, Karen reads a letter written from her mother Anne who was pregnant with Debbie in August 1957. It is addressed to her husband Thom who was serving as an Army Reserve cook at Fort Drum in upstate New York. Karen always wondered about her Dad serving as a cook in the Army, where the love of cooking and making eggs and bacon for his children first began. Karen has always wondered where Fort Drum is. She looks up from her letter and spies a green interstate highway sign not far from the Canadian border just east of Lake Ontario. It’s an exit sign for Fort Drum.

New York & Toronto: journal 1

Tuesday August 22

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.”

Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink - 1972-1973

“…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.