The Clouds Smell of Gasoline

In Wrong About the Guy, a character launches into one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite plays–Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. (I lifted this version off the internet, so it may not be punctuated correctly.)

Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You’ve got to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man behind a counter who says, “All right, you can have a telephone; but you’ll have to give up privacy, the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote; but at a price; you lose the right to retreat behind a powderpuff or a petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline!”

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately.

Maybe it’s because I see so many people sitting at tables together, staring at their phones, not talking.

Just to be clear, I’m a fan of science and technology. I think we should always move forward. I don’t harbor any nostalgia for the old days, when plumbing sucked, people got polio, and it took you all day to go fifty miles. I just think we have to be aware of what losses might come with each gain and fight to hold onto the things that make our lives good.

The obvious example: I love my cell phone with a passion. I love being able to text my kids wherever they are and hear back immediately from them, unless they’re in class. (Oh, who am I kidding? They text me back even when they are in class.) I love being able to look up anything I want whenever I want and know what the weather will be anywhere and check my email when I’m in line at the supermarket. Smartphones are amazing. They’ve enriched out lives. They keep us informed and in touch.

But . . .

People don’t look around anymore when they have a free minute: they just stare down at their little screens. My kids used to devour books on trips and vacations: now they just watch videos or text friends. Free time for all of us has stopped being a chance to see something new or to think random and possibly creative thoughts. It’s  just another opportunity to check our email or post a photo. So much progress at such a huge cost.

But that’s not actually why I brought up that quote. This is why:

My oldest son just graduated from college.

From college.

From college.

Sorry. I don’t mean to repeat myself. It’s just . . . holy crap, you know? How did he get so old? How did I?

The night after my husband and I attended his graduation ceremony, I had a brief dream that was so vivid I couldn’t shake it the next morning. It was very simple: I was reaching up as Rob handed me our toddler son, and I felt that good, warm, solid, satisfying weight of a small child transfer over from him to me. He put his head on my shoulder and I held him close, feeling happy and whole.

I woke up and lay there, remembering how good it felt to hold all my kids when they were little, how it gratified some kind of skin and emotional hunger in me to have a little person I loved settle in against me. My kids are all taller than I am now. Carrying them is a long distant memory but in my dream it felt real, like I’d never stopped, like I would never have to stop.

the little guy he once was

the little guy he once was

My son has graduated from college and it’s been a long, crazy, inspiring, frustrating, challenging, unpredictable journey for him and for us. I’m so proud of him.

But, oh, how I loved the feel of that toddler in my arms. I miss it with an almost physical pain.

For every gain, a loss. Progress is never a bargain.


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One response to “The Clouds Smell of Gasoline

  1. Last night my oldest son, who is 13 and almost as tall as me, came in to give me a good night hug which he does every night. So I grabbed him and started kissing him all over and calling him my little guy. He was like, “ew, I wanted a hug, not to snuggle.”

    He was never tiny. He weighed over 9lbs at birth and has always been big for his age, but I looked at him and just couldn’t believe how big he had gotten in just 13 years. He’s over 100lbs now. I haven’t been able to really lift him in years. It’s kind of bittersweet.

    Luckily, I also have a 4yo who is tiny for his age (almost 4 1/2 and the size of a 3yo). He cracks me up every day, and I can still snuggle with him. But he starts school next year. In a few years my oldest daughter will graduate high school. Sometimes I sit back and wonder when did I end up with teenagers.

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