Strange Connections

Disappointment. It’s a symptom of misunderstanding, I think. It emerges from unmet expectations that take their shapes from molds designed for other purposes. And it lingers, even after it is explained away as an aberration. Disappointment and depression go hand in hand. They might as well be twins, except that their mothers might have been raised in different centuries and in different countries and under the influence of radically different cultures. Disappointment arises from conversations spoken in languages suitable only for competitions and wholly unsuited for communication.


Several years ago, I was a judge for a very large barbeque contest in Kansas City, Kansas. The details of how I got to be a judge have long since degraded into smoky memories, but a few of the high points of the experience remain with me. One such memory involves stopping for gas in little towns off the interstate highway. The big, four-lane highways bypassed a lot of places, throttling back in those places what little traffic there had been. I remember getting off the interstate to investigate a few of those little towns, many of which had tiny cafes that served as the gathering places for farmers who took an early morning break from the previous day’s hard physical labor in preparation for a day designed to surpass expectations, which always were lower than the day before.

The slow demise of those little towns weighs on me in complex ways. Their slow decay sometimes seems to me punishment for the towns’ deeply conservative world views. Their monstrously limited capacity for compassion and their failure to recognize and reward inquisitiveness and genuine exceptionalism triggered their own demolition. Their own deterioration. They sowed their own seeds of extinction, I suspect.

But it’s not them. It’s the rest of us. Those of us in a hurry to exceed our wildest dreams, hopes, and expectations. Small towns apply brakes, rather than stepping on the accelerator. That’s what we tell ourselves, anyway. We say they are slow, dull, and unable to accommodate the fierceness of our cutting-edge thinking. They say, on the other hand, we are quick to make bad decisions. They say we apologize for our failings by casting aspersions on the tortoise and praising the inebriated rabbit, high on broken dreams.

These small-town memories and the judgments they sparked arose from an email I received from a friend I’ve never met. It is one thing to read about the experiences of an author with whom one shares nothing but an assumed interest. It’s another thing entirely to read about the experiences and recollections of a person with whom, despite having never met, one feels inexplicably close.

I learned this morning that Whitewater, Kansas is about one and three-quarters of an hour from Manhattan, Kansas; the latter is one of the principle settings of a story I have written (only partially). Another synchronicity. Of sorts.

All of us live within an invisible sphere in which proximity is contextual; a distance of ten miles presents a challenge to the walker, while a distance of 100 light years may require only a slightly deeper breath to meet the challenge of distance. We can keep proximity secret if it fulfills our dreams; whether ten miles or 100 light years. It is within us, to share or keep close, at our discretion. I am not writing in code. I am writing in a language that, perhaps, I am the only one who can understand, because it is a language of hidden passion and raw curiosity.



About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to Strange Connections

  1. Fascinating and thought-provoking comments, David. The foundations and causes for the establishment and deterioration of small towns are intriguing. Both the intended and unintended consequences of changes wrought by technology…from automobiles to railways to automotive batteries and e-commerce…should teach us every day that it is always easier to predict the past than the future. 😉 I expect small towns will continue to boom in these days of internet connectivity, just as long as human needs and desires are given as much attention as the engines of commerce.

  2. davidlegan says:

    Before contemplating the demise of small towns, one should first understand their birth. Two factors: the distance between “whistle stops” for the early steam locomotives, and the horse drawn wagon distance a farmer could travel in a day’s sunlight. The trains needed a town every 10 miles or so to take on water. And the farmer, hauling his produce to market, could travel seven or eight miles before noon. So, if the towns were 10 to 15 miles apart, he could go either way and be home by dusk. As a child, visiting grandfolks in 1955 central Texas, every town…even tiny ones…had a cotton gin. Then…good roads and trucks! A gin is a very scalable enterprise…bigger ones cost less per bale to build and operate, so they got bigger and thus, farther apart. The industry and thus jobs necessary to support them evaporated in the small towns. The general stores and cafes had fewer customers, and they closed. Like dew burning off of a July lawn, they were eliminated by natural process.

    We now have an opportunity for small town resurgence – telecommuting. Our own Hot Springs Village has a chance to attract younger families…those who can work from their keyboards…while living in a lovely and uncrowded environment. As it has so many times in the past, technology may swoop in to save us…though it never does so in the ways that we imagined. For example, who would have guessed (twenty years ago) that the electric car might very well be the solution to global climate change? Oh, some of us thought about solar and wind electricity generation…but who among us thought of how, other than powering our homes, that electricity might be used? Again we learn that hindsight is 20-20, while foresight is blind.

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