I am not one for small talk. Weather is only moderately interesting, local politics
will always be the same, I do not watch TV, nobody will ever be happy with local
snow removal, gas prices suck, and while I care a little about the local sports team as
a fun diversion, I have no firmly held opinions about their future success. Most of
what we call civilized talk is a shadow puppet display that simply says, “I will
pretend nominal interest in you” while we try to move on to the next, or worse still,
the only things we have to say to each other are patently pathetic as we do not have
much else of merit or interest to say. Sometimes the shit-eating grin and manly
handshake is sincere, and that is even more frightening.
Put two people in close proximity in airplane seats and small talk seems to be
implied. If one of these happens to be a wannabe alpha male seated in business or
first class, a world that has been thrust on me simply because 1) I am huge and no
longer fit in regular airline seats and 2) my career has calmed down to a point I do
not fly much, so when I do, I can afford, some of the time, a fancy seat, well, then I
am stuck making small talk.
So imagine the corporate VP, the real estate investor, the shower curtain ring
salesman with an absurd amount of skymiles, the stereotype of the alpha who thinks
he belongs there, thinks he is something special (yes, always a male) and thinks that
he has something to prove. Imagine he sits next to me, and the opening salvo is “So
what do you do?”
I’m a flute professor.
I know better now than to say that. I usually put forth a fart cloud of obfuscation. If
my “don’t talk to me, I’m tired” vibe is not clear, I try to bob and weave and say
things about “non profit consulting” or another false path. It usually works.
But then the question about “where are you from” floats to the surface. Suddenly it’s
not an uncomfortable couple hours on a plane, it’s like every small talk effort at
every party, ever- from the getting to know you awkward college world to the even
more ridiculous world of adult cocktail parties decades later. It is a question I
Where am I from?
The simple answer is Yellow Springs, Ohio. I have lived here since 2006. Before
that, I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. I never imagined this would happen, but I have lived
most of my adult life in Ohio, and have lived here more than anywhere else.
But the question usually probes into your childhood. But -where are you FROM.
Where did you grow up? What is the formative world that launched you into the
In the present, most people assume I am from Michigan somehow. I live there in the
summer, my father lives there, and I suppose I pass as someone who could be from
Michigan, and my four years of boarding school in northern Michigan sort of seal the
deal. I don’t have any discernable accent, but I do slip into an “eh” at the end of a
sentence once in awhile, and the word “car” does come out of my nose on occasion,
so I could be from Michigan.
I usually allow for the water to be muddied like this. And when I was younger, I
made it even worse. People would ask, and I would intentionally mislead. I would
try to avoid the obvious. I was from New York, Michigan, or any number of places.
Just not the truth. Honesdale, Pennsylvania. The place I moved to when I was in
kindergarten. A place that I tried, for various reasons, to leave as soon as possible.
A place I did leave for high school and beyond. The home that I had as a kid, a place
that remains in my memory as home, yet a place that makes me mad, sort of happy,
sort of sad, and everything else all at once.
A place that I can still remember. A place where adults praised and tormented me in
equal amounts. A place where I was a preachers kid. A talented kid. Maybe a
troubled kid. A pressure cooker, in other words. A place where kids on the bus spit
on me. A place where I wanted to play baseball, but was so inept I was first cut from
a team and then sat on the bench, and where practices were an ongoing torment of
other kids teasing, bullying, and otherwise being terrible. The son of a local lawyer,
not incidentally, a member of my father’s church, who teased me every time I was
up for batting practice, saying I looked “constipated” in my stance.
The place I am from is real. Wonderful, and terrible all at once. There are
wonderful memories. But they are eclipsed by the rest.
I went back in 2005 when my father retired. That is an essay in itself. Then I went
back with my family in 2017. There is no revelation, no truth, no epiphany in these
visits. A look down a big black hole, and a bit of anger certainly.
What you see in the picture is the church. For 150 or so years, a mainline
Presbyterian church. Flawed, certainly, but familiar. Trained theologians at the
helm. In the last decade, it has been radicalized and turned into an evangelical
stronghold. Nary a seminarian, at least in the traditional sense, in sight. The past is
obliterated to make room for the radical, and yes, the stupid and mindless.
There is a beautiful contradiction in life. Here is one- Classical music is dead,
long live Classical music. Another- burn it all down, let it live again.
I have a lot more to say about where I am from. About clergy abuse. About bullying.
About the joy and agony of small towns.
I am a preachers kid from Honesdale, PA. That is where I am from. That is who I
There is more to come here.