Our Stars Are Speaking to Us: We’re Long Overdue in Heeding the Prophetic Voices of These Athletes

Curt Flood in his prime.

EDITOR’S NOTE—This story is developing daily; we are a weekly magazine. Since this article was written, the NBA and the players’ association agreed to resume play, but the players won significant concessions. 1. The NBA and its players will start a social justice effort that will focus on increasing voting access and implementing police reforms. 2. Arenas will be used as voting centers. 3. The NBA and its players will work with advertisers to create more social justice messages. You can read more about this here. For tensions in the WNBA, see this story on the growing power struggle between the owner of the Atlanta Dream and the team’s players.

By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

Click on this letter to enlarge it.

In 1969 the St. Louis Cardinals made the decision to trade its all-star center fielder Curt Flood. At that time, players had no voice. They were bound by the “Reserve Clause” that tied a player for life to the team that owned him.

Flood refused to go. While White players didn’t like the system, Black players like Flood felt the issue at a different level. It was a modern form of slavery, and Flood would not play along. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court upheld the Reserve Clause, and Flood never played professionally again. (The Reserve Clause was finally banished in 1975.)

“None of my guys” would stand with me during the trial, Flood later recalled, afraid to have their careers ended, too. “If even one had come forward,” he believes, things would have been different.

It’s Different Now

On Wednesday, August 26, 2020, players across professional sports backed the play of their teammates.

In a remarkable display of solidarity, just minutes before an NBA Playoff game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic was set to tip off, the Bucks announced that they would refuse to play.

Milwaukee is just north of Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Jacob Blake was shot in the back on August 23rd by two Kenosha police officers.

That set off a domino effect. The remaining NBA games on Wednesday were cancelled. The Milwaukee Brewers major league baseball team then cancelled its game against the Cincinnati Reds. So, too, did the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. All but one Major League Soccer game was cancelled. The Women’s National Basketball Association followed suit, and the Washington Mystics and Atlanta Dream cancelled their game.

As of this writing, we don’t know if, or when, play for any of these leagues will resume.

The stakes could not be higher.

When the NBA restarted in the midst of the pandemic, President Trump went on the attack—as recorded by Forbes:

During an appearance Tuesday on Clay Travis’ radio show, which airs on Fox Sports Radio, Trump lambasted outspoken NBA players in vitriolic terms. Calling them “very, very, very nasty,” and “frankly, very dumb,” Trump said the players’ social activism is destroying the league. “It’s been horrible for basketball. Look at the basketball ratings. People are angry about it,” he said. “They have enough politics with guys like me. They don’t need more. There was a nastiness about the NBA and the way it was done. The NBA is in trouble. Big trouble.”

The most popular player in the NBA was unfazed. Lebron James said: “The game will go on without his eyes on it. I can sit here and speak for all of us who love the game of basketball and we could care less.”

With today’s moves, the players are taking the next step. They are flexing muscles that Curt Flood did not have. They have the power to control not only the leagues who employ them, but to force a national discussion that too many people in the nation—many affiliated with Trump and his grossly racist beliefs and policies—have simply refused to have.

A Deep History

In fact, Black athletes have been trying to force these discussions for decades. Muhammad Ali lost some of the best years of his professional boxing career because he refused to be drafted into a war that he rightly understood was racist at its core. (For more, see this story in USA Today.)

Tommie Smith and John Carlos faced their own backlash in the world of track and field after they stood on the medal stands in Mexico City during the 1968 games with fists raised to show their support for Black Power. (For their story, and the story of the Australian who was also on the podium and had his career destroyed because he supported them, see this story at history.com.)

More recently, Colin Kaepernick had his career in the NFL shut down when he began to take a knee during the National Anthem to show his sympathy for the movement to call out police violence against people of color. (For more on this story, see this 2017 piece in the New York Times.)

Frustration Overflows

The depth of today’s actions were seen off the court, too. Kenny Smith, a legendary player at the University of North Carolina under Coach Dean Smith—a strong advocate for civil rights when he came to UNC in the 1960s—has for ten years been a commentator and host on TNT’s highly rated Basketball show.

On Wednesday night, he walked off the set. (See the moment here.)

Perhaps the most striking moment, however, was when the Los Angeles Clippers’ coach, Doc Rivers, addressed the media after the Bucks’ game was cancelled. The quote that will stick from his discussion, “We keep loving the country, and this country doesn’t love us back.” The whole talk, however, is worth listening to. Hear it here.

Rivers is not just another coach. He was an NBA all-star, and he has been fighting racism his entire life. From a story in GQ: “In high school, [Rivers] was a McDonald’s All-American, before becoming a star at Marquette University, just 45 minutes north of Kenosha, where Blake was shot. While there in 1980, he met his future wife, Kris Campion, who is white. Being part of an interracial relationship was eye-opening for Rivers. Kris’s tires were slashed and a racial epithet was marked on the sidewalk outside her parents’ home in suburban Milwaukee.”

And that’s just part of the story. (Read it in its entirety here.)

It’s Time

Where any of this goes remains to be seen.

Even if it is, however, the discussion won’t go away.

Perhaps for the first time since Martin Luther King Jr., the people most directly affected by racism hold real power. And perhaps White America is, finally, going to have to listen.

It’s going to be a bumpy road.

As a white man born in the South and who has lived in the South for 40 of my 58 years, I know just how intransigent White men and women here, and across the country, are about this conversation. Care to read more about how deeply intrenched racism is in our communities, read last week’s ReadTheSpirit Cover Story featuring an interview with Daniel Hill, author of White Lies.

For those who have ears to hear, Dominic Smith of the New York Mets gave us all a deeper insight this week. After a game, Smith broke down before the press. “The hardest part … people just don’t care….. It’s hard to be a Black man in America.” (Hear his talk here.)

 

The Spirituality of Baseball: How a Young Pitcher’s Loss Still Inspires Generations

“PLAY BALL!” Action at Frank E. Sollecito Ballpark in Monterey, California.

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By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

Yes, high school baseball is just a game—but baseball also is life.

Frank “Frankie” Sollecito in his pitching prime.

In our most troubled days, it’s a game that defines who we are and transforms both players and their communities forever. That certainly was true of the relationship between Michael Groves—head baseball coach at Monterey High School and a member of the California Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame—and a once-in-a-lifetime student-athlete, Frankie Sollecito. Here is the story of the tragedy that united them—and how that event continues to shape new generations three decades later.

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On an April afternoon in 1988 during a regular-season game against Bellarmine College Prep, Frank “Frankie” Sollecito Jr. was struggling. Something he didn’t often do.

At 6’5” and 230 pounds, Sollecito was the type of athlete who played a level or two above his peers. That talent had been recognized and rewarded by UCLA and Oklahoma—powerhouse football programs that wanted him to play tight end. He was also a straight-A student, and a “character,” whose humor and wisdom were beyond his years.

Sollecito, however, had other ideas. He had accepted a baseball scholarship and would enroll in the fall at UC Berkeley—two hours up the California coast from his home in Monterey.

None of that was on his mind, however, that day. Coming off the mound in the 5th inning, Frankie knew he was in trouble.

“Coach,” Sollecito said to Michael Groves, “I’m exhausted.”

Groves told him to sit; someone else could close out the game.

“No,” Sollectio said. He was going to finish that tight game that ended in a Monterey one-run loss.  That night Groves called the young man’s parents, only to discover that they, too, had concerns. Frankie had recently had a dental procedure that was not healing properly.

Click to enlarge this photo.

The next day at practice, Groves saw Sollecito just sitting in the outfield. Again, he was complaining of exhaustion.

They sent him straight to the hospital. Later that evening, test results showed that Frankie Sollecito Jr., at 18 years of age, had leukemia.

The next month for Frankie was a gauntlet of hospital stays and chemotherapy.

His teammates at Monterey High School kept playing. And Coach Groves kept doing what he always does—giving of himself. Every afternoon, he showed up at the school’s downtown baseball field. Oftentimes he arrived in a suit, coming from a full day’s work running the successful land-use planning firm he founded in 1978. And in the evenings, he would often visit Frankie in the hospital.

In May, the team was in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) section championship play-offs. Frankie was out of the hospital the week the playoffs began, down nearly 100 pounds from his weight just a month before.

He was there on the bench in street clothes at Salinas Municipal Stadium for the Toreadores’ first round playoff game against Los Gatos. Monterey won 8-3, earning it the right to play the next playoff round at San Jose Municipal Stadium several days later.

However, that is not what was important in the moment. As the team and coach removed equipment from the dugout after the first round victory, Frankie remained seated in street clothes at the far end of the dugout, alone.

As Groves walked back through the dugout, he found Frankie still there, alone and crying.

Groves sat next to him, then stood and held him as he cried, and listened as Frankie whispered, “I can’t do this, Coach. I can’t come to the game and not play.”

But neither could he not be there for his team.

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The Game

Michael Groves

The second round CIF Championship game against St. Francis High School was tight through the first four innings. Sollecito, still in his street clothes, could do nothing but watch as the Toreadores pitcher walked the first batter of the 5th inning.

“I don’t know what came over me at that moment,” Groves says. “I turned to Frankie and said, ‘let’s get you loosened up so you can play.’ ”

Sollecito looked up and said, “Coach, I don’t have a uniform.”

Groves began unbuttoning his jersey. “You do now.”  Inwardly, he had a feeling that this could be Frankie’s last time playing ball.

As Frankie dressed in the Toreadores’ green and gold colors, then made his way to the bullpen to loosen up, the team’s pitcher continued to struggle. He loaded the bases with no one out. Groves made the call to the bullpen.

Over the loudspeaker the announcer’s call came: Frank Sollecito Jr. would be taking the mound for Monterey.

Groves remembers Frankie taking the hill. Word had gotten out about his condition. The MHS fans stood and cheered, but the crowd behind St. Francis was standing and cheering with equal fervor.

Frankie had been severely weakened by a combination chemotherapy-and-bone-marrow-transplant and other treatments. He’d lost considerable velocity on his pitches. Even tougher, he had not thrown competitively since the game against Bellarmine more than a month earlier when he was reaching 92 mph on his fastball—an exceptional velocity for a high school pitcher.

No matter. Frankie forced two quick outs with a ground ball and an infield pop-up, then struck out the last batter. He got out of the inning without giving up a run. Seasoned baseball fans on both sides, many parents, literally erupted over the performance, tears rolling down cheeks, unconcerned with trivial matters such as final scores.

Lacking the strength to pitch the sixth or seventh inning, Groves put him at first base.

It was the last time Frankie Sollecito Jr. would play a high school baseball game.

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A Passing

Sollecito would bravely battle leukemia for two years. Through it all, he never lost his sense of humor. Still today, those who knew him talk about the funny impersonations that he would do to lift others’ spirits, including the one of Coach Groves, with wild gesticulations loosely mirroring the signs he’d give from his coaching post on the third-base line.

On October 7, 1990—Groves’ birthday—leukemia finally took Frankie’s life. What leukemia didn’t take, however, was Frankie’s spirit.

“I went to his funeral,” Groves recalls. What happened next has never left him. “As I was driving home, he literally appeared in the car with me. It wasn’t a physical presence, but an energy presence.”

Groves swerved off the road, stopped the car, and in those few moments felt Frankie letting him know that “it was going to be ok.”

As a coach, Groves has always stressed the importance of gratitude to his players. He was determined that the joy each moment Frankie had playing would not be lost on future teams.

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The Transformation

Today, Frankie’s presence is everywhere at Monterey High School ballpark. The field is named in his honor, and a bronze statue of Sollecito stands smiling and holding his glove to his heart, greeting fans upon entry.

Every season, wristbands bearing Frankie’s number, 16, are given to the players. One “special” player, who shares Frankie’s character traits, is selected each year to wear the number 16. In addition, a college scholarship bearing Frankie’s name is given each year. Before each game, the team walks past the stands to the statue of Frankie, where they express gratitude, and pray for the FOM (frame of mind) that will pave the way for a successful outing.

The physical reminders, however, don’t always embody an individual’s spirit over time. As students graduated, and younger ones moved in, the spirit of Sollecito began to lose weight with players.

Great stories need to be told and retold over the generations.

For Groves, it all came to a head in 2005. That year, the team had two dominant left-handers and looked to make another run for the CIF sectional championship.

In-fighting had become a problem during this particular year. Finally, with about 8 games to go in the regular season and the Toreadores mired in 4th place, Groves had seen enough. Following a bitter home loss, he ordered the boys to meet him at the ballpark the next day in their tennis shoes. “Don’t bother bringing your baseball cleats.”

Traditionally, the players are running through their warmup routines as Groves arrives and changes into his uniform. When he showed up the following day, no one had tennis shoes on.

Groves is a genial man who rarely lets people see him in a moment of anger. This day, however, he could not hide his frustration. He ordered the boys to take off their cleats, put on their tennis shoes, and together they went on a run.

“We ran around the ballpark and the surrounding El Estero Lake,” Groves says. “Then I ran them into the cemetery across the street from the ballpark and straight to Frankie’s gravesite. I had forgotten that they’re young kids and don’t know the story.

“I told them, ‘Frankie believed it was a privilege to put on an MHS uniform. As long you’re focused on arguing with each other and not playing for each other, you will not be successful.’ After this, I asked the team to make a commitment to each other, and to have gratitude to be able to play this great game in every moment that you are alive, like Frankie did.”

The team went on to win 8 straight league games and a league title, moved on to the CIF sectional play-offs winning four straight championship games, and ultimately the section title. (There is no State championship in California, only sectional championships, owing to the size of the state.) This dynamic team won 12 consecutive games after that run to visit Frankie’s gravesite.

“Each player who wears the MHS green and gold,” says Groves, “learns what Frankie taught his teammates. Wearing that uniform is a privilege and not to be taken lightly. That 2005 season was all inspired by how Frank Sollecito both lived and died.”

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A Final Thought

The bond between Groves and Frankie Sollecito has shaped the Monterey baseball community for 30 years now. There is much more to the story, however.

As I was finishing this column, I had a phone conversation with Frankie’s parents. They wanted to be sure that people know that Groves’ compassion and support was about so much more than Frankie.

For the two years that Frankie was in treatment at Stanford University Hospital and others, his younger brother, Gabe, had to face life with his mother gone much of the time.

Two years younger than Frankie, Gabe was a remarkable athlete in his own right. He had a hard time getting out from under his brother’s shadow, however.

His mother remembers Gabe pitching a no-hitter while Frankie was in the hospital, and the local paper noting the achievement, then talking mostly about his brother, Frankie. It tore at his mother’s heart. Michael was there to help him through those difficult years.

Gabe would go on to play at UCLA, and then spend ten years in the minor leagues, rising to AAA—the level just below the majors. He never got the call to play in “The Show,” as the major leagues is referred to by those who play the game.

Now back in Monterey, Gabe is again with Michael Groves—this time as an assistant coach on the baseball team.

This all reflects the way Groves coaches baseball, and teaches his players and everyone he meets, about life.

At the end of the day, we are here for each other.

Every day we have, matters.

“The bottom line,” Groves says, “is this: If you knew it was your last day to play ball, how would you show up?”

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Care to read more?

Three of our writers, each year, tell fresh stories about the spiritual side of baseball: Martin Davis, Benjamin Pratt and Rodney Curtis.

MARTIN DAVIS—

Davis has written a number of very popular columns over the years about the inspiration that millions of men and women have found through sports. In fact, right now, Martin is working on an entire book of stories specifically focused on high school coaches nationwide—men and women, black and white, famous and unsung heroes alike. This story from Monterey, California, is one of those moving stories he has discovered in his year of virtually crisscrossing America, looking for such transcendent true stories. Want to learn more? Please read this column about Davis’s efforts to launch his new book.

BENJAMIN PRATT—

Author and columnist Benjamin Pratt has written many stories about baseball. Among his most popular:

He also has published several books. Take a look at his Amazon author page.

RODNEY CURTIS—

Author, columnist and photographer Rodney Curtis shares his images and stories in a special section of our ReadTheSpirit magazine.

He also is the author of the baseball-themed Hope’s Diamond: Everything Changes When Hope Comes to Town.

Martin Davis: When I hear, ‘Play ball!’ it’s like a prelude welcoming me back to the great cathedrals

Photo of a Dodgers opening day, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and photographer ABrownCoat.

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He looks up at me, and I look down at him. ‘This must be heaven,’ he says. ‘No. It’s Iowa…”
From Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella

By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

I’ve recommended Shoeless Joe—the story of a man, a farm with a baseball field, and J.D. Salinger—to many a person who wants to know more about the hold baseball has on the imaginations of so many people. You may know the book better by the film it spawned, Field of Dreams.

None too few of these folks come back and tell me they hated the book—and the movie. The words they use to describe their feelings about both are easily summarized: “sentimental rubbish.”

I can understand. Hard-nosed fans like myself are prone to deluding ourselves into believing that baseball is more than a game; we can even be fooled into believing it’s an existential window into the human soul.

We’re used to hearing: “Rubbish. It’s a game. No more, no less.”

And yet—as I look for ways to make sense of life that no longer includes an institutional church, baseball helps.

‘A LITURGICAL RHYTHM’

Babe Ruth and Joe Jackson in 1920.

There is a liturgical rhythm to the game. For me, there are no more poetic words in the English language than “Pitchers and catchers report.” The buzz begins in late January, as Spring Training camps prepare to welcome major league teams to their homes away from home in Florida and Arizona. By March, “Play ball!” is shouted in stadiums, and fans like me are tuning in as our favorite announcers dust off their home-run calls and bluster about the promising season ahead.

The thrill of spring baseball quickly gives way to the day-to-day grind of a 162-game season. Fans embrace this in many ways. Some make it their life, immersing themselves in statistics, box scores and chat rooms that can border on obsessive. But for most, as Washington Post sports writer Tom Boswell notes, baseball isn’t so all consuming. “I’ve always felt there was something in the day during the baseball season there wasn’t the rest of the year,” he said on Ken Burns’ epic PBS series Baseball.  “It’s not that you have to listen to the game, it’s that you could listen to it if you needed it.”

By fall, the baseball-loving world is united around the game’s jewels—the play-offs and World Series. As winter settles in, fans have both the highs and lows of the past season to sustain them, as they place it in context with the game’s 150-plus-year history.

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Jackie Robinson and Peewee Reese. No photograph has been found of the actual gesture by Reese, which occurred in front of the crowd that day in 1947. But the two later posed for photos that circled the world.

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‘The Community of Baseball’

The community of baseball is itself a wonder. The sport can temper even hardened souls. Side by side on summer afternoons and evenings sit Republicans and Democrats; scientists and mystics; religious fundamentalists, atheists, and people of faith—united by an interest the game.

Trivial though it sounds, the bleachers at local little league fields and the reserved seats at major league ballparks create a sacred space in which peaceful, honest dialogue can occur. Most of the time, the changes this brings are relatively minor—the economist can honestly hear the plight of the worker, the Christian Fundamentalist can get to know the Muslim imam.

Sometimes, these baseball cathedrals are themselves the catalysts for cultural change. When Pee Wee Reese put his arm on Jackie Robinson’s shoulder in 1947, it cleared the ground for a more honest discussion about race relations.

And when Al Campanis stumbled on Nightline 40 years later, suggesting African-Americans weren’t managers because they weren’t smart enough, baseball again was the catalyst for a national discussion about the glass ceilings African-Americans face.

The game even has its sacred stories—grounded in both truth and myth. Babe Ruth’s called shot in the 1932 Series that may or may not have occurred. The incredible talent of Satchel Paige, whose precise numbers are lost to history. And the whispered prowess of Steve Dalkowski.

No—baseball is not a religion.

But there’s certainly a case to be made that the game has created a heaven right here on Earth. And for lots of people, that’s more than enough most of the time.

Satchel Paige’s 1948 baseball card, when he became the oldest “rookie” in the game by agreeing to play for Cleveland.

 

 

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Celebrating Innovation: Wow. That book idea still turns heads.

Gutenberg looks over a proof

Gutenberg’s “book” continues to innovate. (Click the photo to read an earlier column that includes Gutenberg.)

Note from ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm—In 1455, Johannes Gutenberg set the stage for a global revolution by mass producing Bibles with moveable type. After his innovation spread across Europe, Martin Luther was poised to touch off the Reformation in 1517—a revolution fueled by books and pamphlets. Now, half a millennium later, Gutenberg’s little idea still is an amazing innovation!

You may be thinking: Aren’t e-books making print books obsolete? Nope! The June 2015 issue of the magazine from the Indepedent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) analyzes sales trends and says there are clear signs “that the explosive annual growth of e-book sales has stalled.” E-books now account for about 30 percent of books sold in the U.S., IBPA concludes. (NOTE: That’s one reason ReadTheSpirit Books publishes both in print and digital formats, ensuring that entire communities or small groups can enjoy each book.)

So, why is Gutenberg’s product still turning heads? It’s the genius of his innovation:

  • Drop your e-reader in a pool or lake, this summer—and it’s toast! Your paperback? After an accidental dip, lay it out to dry and you’ll be fine!
  • Are you interested in fast access for quick reading when you’ve got a spare moment? You can open your paper book quicker than you can fire up a Kindle.
  • Want to share your reading experience? Just hand a book to a friend. But your e-book? Well …
  • PLUS, writes veteran journalist and media consultant Martin Davis: Real ink-on-paper books may be even more powerful social networking tools than any e-edition. Enjoy Martin’s story …

A Real Book: Why it’s great for Social Reading

By MARTIN DAVIS

Man carrying Bob Alper's book

“Hey, what’s THAT GUY reading this summer!?! What’s that book under his arm?” (Click the photo to find out.)

I lost my iPad last month.

The memory still haunts me. One minute it’s there—with my banking app, my games (yes, I enjoy Candy Crush), and, most important, my magazines, newspapers and books.

I was lost.

Reading on my iPad wasn’t solitary. It was social. I shared titles, passages, anecdotes and gallows humor with friends. We talked about books. We were a community of friends bound by a love of reading.

And now? Well, for a while I knew how the unfortunate Athenian felt back in the day when he was ostracized from the city by the drawing of lots. Like the Athenian cast from his friends, I could die or adjust.

Dying seemed a bit much, though my teenage son didn’t think so: “How do you get by,” he asked, “without a smart phone or tablet?”

I adjusted. I couldn’t afford to replace the iPad, so I went to Barnes and Noble and purchased an honest-to-god, paperback copy of the next book I had planned to read by Patrick Taylor—author of the Irish Country Doctor series—and threw it in my backpack.

The next morning, while standing in the slug line—the Washington, DC, area’s solution to commuting woes—I whipped out my new book and started reading. My fellow commuters were intrigued.

“What are you reading?” one lady asked.

An Irish Doctor in War and at Peace,” I responded.

“I’ve been to Ireland,” she said. And we were off to the proverbial races.

We got in the same car for our hour-long ride north, and talked all the way up.

She had wanted to be a doctor, but couldn’t handle the math. Now she works at a nonprofit in DC in the healthcare industry. We talked about our families, our travels, our work. And we talked about Ireland.

The ride home in the evening was much the same. Different person—same result.

Maybe it was that particular book. Popular writer. Beautiful cover.

So I switched to an edition of The Homeric Hymns, a collection and commentary on obscure Greek poetry about the gods and mortals, written by my former college Greek professor. Surely this wouldn’t be a conversation starter.

But it was. A former Marine who’d spent time in Greece wanted to know more about the gods.

“I lived there for two years,” he said, “but never had time to delve into the rich history. What can you recommend?”

I don’t miss my iPad so much these days.

Sure, I’m not eternally “connected.” But I’ve become more connected over the past month with the people in my immediate community—those I live near and work with—than I have in several years.

I don’t have 500 people watching my every post on a daily basis, these days. But I seem to meet someone new most days because of the simple book that I hold in my hands. A little conversation starter. Something that says to folks, “talk with me.”

All around me, I see images of what I once was. One more of the nameless masses gliding fingers across glass screens to
access virtual worlds that, in day-to-day life, shut-out the people who are most physically immediate.

Sure, one day I’ll replace my iPad (I still love Candy Crush). But when out in public, I’ll reach for my conversation starter first.

Martin Davis is a journalist in Washington, DC. He also is a long-time media consultant , and a freelance writer who lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia.