Wasps and Sparrows

Since today is a day off for the cast and crew, we've broken into splinter cells for the day. Andrew went to the airport to pick up his girlfiend, Christina, flying in from New York. The crew is largely hung over and lounging the campus of EKU for the day. The Missouri boys (Chad, Kurt and me) hopped in Emily's big truck and drove down to her family place in Booneville, KY. The road between here and Richmond is where we will film most of the driving shots next Wednesday. It is not Colorado or Utah or Nevada...but it is beautiful country--steep hills, remote hollows, tobacco farms...

Wading in the creek where we'll shoot the waterfall scenes Friday...

Wading in the creek where we'll shoot the waterfall scenes Friday...

Right this minute, I am on the wrap-around porch of Emily's home-place having just finished uploading a dozen or so pix to the other blog then hunting down bugs in my sloppy HTML code so I could make that post work. Emily and Chad and Kurt are in the pool below and I am watching the sparrows hunt wasps in the eaves of the porch and the black tobacco barn through air so thick I want to slice some, wrap it in wax paper to bring home.

Yesterday we scouted the location for the morgue scene. Chad told me that he and Andrew didn't want me to come to the set the morning they filmed it. I said they were being silly--I've talked and written and told and read this story until I have power over it. Pretty much. Still, when we were checking out the location--a basement in one of the medical classroom buildings on EKU--it was a relief to see how different this space was from the one I actually remember. THAT space was all stainless steel and well-sealed concrete floors and ominous steel cabinets. This place was full of medical mannequins tucked each in a bed. While Chad and Andrew and Emerson and Emily framed shots and imagined blocking, I sat on the edge of a bed and looked down the long row of ailing dummies.

Chad rubs the sun out of his eyes.

Chad rubs the sun out of his eyes.

The more things change...

Strange first day. Dozens of new faces and names and job titles and relationships. We shot two scenes in two hotel rooms (same hotel) today. One is the scene based on our actual night in Utah when Brian and Wendy slept in the same bed (but in the same room as Tab and I). The second scene  was based the hotel room where Tab and I stayed south of San Francisco while we waited for Brian and Wendy to come back from the city. I spent a good part of the day trying to be out of the way (though I do get credit for pointing out that the Wendy, Tab and Scott characters all needed wedding rings) and turning the ceiling fan on and off between shots. I am proud to say that at no point did an expensive and dangerous 5000 watt light come crashing to the ground because I had knocked it over trying to squeeze into the tight spaces.

Each scene was comprised of several shots--many of which required that the set be re-lit, the camera repositioned, and sometimes the furniture rearranged.

The  biggest surprise for me: at the end of the first scene that I described, Brian (Thomas) and Wendy (Jenna) are in one bed whispering. The script doesn't specify what they are saying, just that they are whispering. Scott (Nick) and Tab (Jen) are in the next bed. Scott turns and looks over at Brian and Wendy--in anxiety, jealousy, anger, fear, etc--just as Wendy can be seen to stroke Brian's hair. This scene is one that came out of the collaboration with Andrew and Chad and it is really telling. Andrew told Thomas and Jenna that it was not important for the audience to hear WHAT they were whispering, just that they WERE whispering. I should say here that these two have incredible chemistry: Thomas IS Brian--in tone, in sense of humor, even in some of his physical mannerisms. Brian (Thomas) and Wendy (Jenna) between takes in Scene 15.They shot a few takes while I squatted near one of the light stands (everything has a name in this business--I know none of them). In one shot, Jenna's whisper was very clear to the whole room. She said, "This was so unexpected. Thank you." Then she stroked his hair.

For a few seconds, I was in that other bed. All of the anger and jealousy and hurt (and the remorse for all of those things) squeezed me hard. It made me breathe quick. Then it let go.

They can't use that take. The audience can't hear her say that.

On the road, on the way...

I left New Hampshire after lunch today and drove as far south and west as Scranton, PA. Not much to report--except that my little Hyundai Accent got a whopping 45.58 MPG!!!! I'm staying in a hotel where the roaches complain about the fleas. No worries-with all the money I save between the Hyundai and the hotel, I can afford more BBQ.

I'll be in Kentucky tomorrow evening. I'm pleased that I'm driving in from the East...I'll get to drive through appalachia.

Email burnout -- or Length Matters in Love Letters -- or sab-BAD-ical attitude #1 -- or confronting the reverse transmission-composition proportionality paradigm

This is how my friend Ruby reacted when I did not reply to her email within 24 hours:


I sometimes get the same vibe from my students, colleagues, and family. Since an email "arrives" nearly instantaneously, I think we have come to expect a response in minutes or hours rather than days. If we don't get an email response from someone in that amount of time we assume that either their computer is broken or they have had a stroke. If another day passes, they clearly hate us / disrespect us / are incompetent.

When I was fourteen, I had my first and only girlfriend-via-correspondence. Her name was Rena and we met at a matinee showing of "Ghostbusters." My family didn't have air conditioning, so I used my allowance and haying money as often as I could to go to the movies in the hottest part of the day. I was a film buff, I guess. Anyway, Rena and I made eye contact during the opening credits while I was slurping my coke and in an uncharacteristic act of bravery I leaned over the two rows of seats 20 minutes into the movie and asked for her phone number. Or I got my brother to do it, I'm not sure. Turns out she lived in Grant City, MO. When you're from Agency, MO, (population 900, but just five miles from St. Joe) there aren't many places you can describe as even more of a hick town than your own. So I guess she was attracted to my urbane sophistication. Since our love was star-crossed by 105 miles of rolling missoura prairie, and since neither of our parents' would allow us unfettered access to the long-distance phone lines, we had no choice but to correspond through the US postal service.

Imagine this: while the windows steam up from the humidity outside, you labor all morning over your 16th letter in five weeks, carefully sculpting an image of yourself, "I've been lifting wates and practicing with my marshal arts a lot. That's not flowers on the back of this paper. I traced my 2 favorite throwing stars. They're called shurikens. I've got 4 of them. I'll probly get some more this summer." Since she doesn't know any of your friends, you pretty much portray yourself as a sort of teen-aged Territorial Governor--a leader in your community, respected for your fairness, wit, and fearsome roundhouse kicks (oh yeah, I was Napoleon Dynamite..and so was EVERY one of my friends). And since your devotion is best calculated in page count, rather than action or clear sentiment, you can ramble on for pages about your parents, your friend's dad's truck that you "rutinely" drive in the pasture, your favorite shows, your hunting conquests, your complete collection of the Conan, Tarzan, and The Horseclans book series'. And since you're also sensitive, you can confide that you still almost cry when they play the Ghostbusters theme song on the radio every 10 minutes. Then you tell her about all of the money you've saved from haying and urge her to arrange a visit to her cousin in St. Joe in a few weeks... all the while DYING to reveal to her that you bought her what just may be a gold bracelet at Montgomery Wards for $20.

At 12:15, you put on a $.19 stamp and stumble out into the heat, put the letter in the mailbox and flip up the red metal flag. At 12:35 the mail-lady pulls up in her station wagon and takes your letter, leaving a wad of mail behind. There's one from her (in response to your 14th letter)! You leave the rest of the mail in the mailbox and tear into her envelope before you even get to the door. She doesn't waste much time: "Scott, I think we have to be just friends, Scott. I've been really confuse because I [heart] you soooooo much but I also love the other Scott too [here, she was referring to her ex-...well, suddenly CURRENT (again) boyfriend with the same name] and he's here and he knows all of my frens. He has a lisense too..."

You see what I'm getting at? If she had waited two days to send that letter--and to make up her mind between that hillbilly Scott and this cultured Scott--she would have seen that I had THROWING STARS and SAVINGS (i.e. I could protect and provide) and BOOKS (i.e. I was going to be an English Professor someday and earn big \(\) and the respect and adulation of my community). I'm not bitter all these years later. I'll bet she is, though.

Has email made us more patient? Has it made us consider what is worthwhile to communicate? Duh. As frenzied and ridiculous as my correspondence with Rena was, is it really sillier than the many times YOU have sent out a brilliant email then put off all meaningful work to hit the Send/Receive button every 15 seconds for an entire afternoon waiting for replies? What about the times you've labored over an indignant response to a colleague's email--pointing out the unprofessional tone, the errors, the miscalculations--only to hit send and see in the meantime that they had already sent out a heartfelt apology and explained that their wife's heart attack that morning had left them "out of sorts"?

But none of this gets at the real reason I started writing this post. My students understand email better than my colleagues and my family and myself. They realize that there is now (and always has been) a transmission-composition proportionality paradigm. Simply explained, they spend time writing an email or letter in proportion to the time it will take for it to travel from them to its recipient. It took two days for my letters to get to Rena. I spent hours on each letter. They were always several pages. It takes 3.52 seconds for my email to reach someone on the other side of the planet. Therefore, I should spend no more than 2 seconds composing it. Less if I'm replying to something whiny.

Instead, we professionals too often succumb to the reverse transmission-composition proportionality paradigm which posits that all of the time our correspondents save in waiting for the postal service should now be spent composing a three paragraph response to our query about borrowing their scotch tape.

I'm therefore compiling a list of my future email responses (with an ear for tone, as demonstrated by the carefully placed exclamation points) starting with some of the standard responses in a magic 8-ball. Feel free to suggest additions:

  • Ask again later
  • As I see it, yes
  • Better not tell you now
  • Concentrate and ask again
  • Don't count on it
  • It is decidedly so
  • Most likely
  • My sources say no
  • Outlook good
  • Outlook not so good
  • Reply hazy, try again
  • Signs point to yes
  • My bad.
  • I'll get right on that, honey.
  • Ha!
  • Here ya go!
  • thin mints, 4 boxes
  • I'll get right on that, Liz.
  • Sorry about that 🙂
  • No, thank you.
  • Okee-dokee.
  • I'll get right on that, President Steen.
  • Is this student-centered?
  • LOL!!!
  • whatever
  • Why yes, I DO have some expertise with shuriken.

A little plug for my poetry

I'm this week's "featured poet" at the NH Arts Council web site (thanks to Pat Fargnoli, friend and NH Poet Laureate). The poem I chose to submit was one I wrote for Jeff McMillian (at our mutual friend and mentor, John Gilgun's, request) a few years ago. It's not a big deal, but I was pleased nonetheless.


Oh, and I don't know who "Bob" Coykendall is.

Minority Report - OR - I couldn't write my paper last night because I was in jail. Can I turn it in late?

No kidding. I had that excuse once and I think it was true because the kid's face looked like hamburger...I said no. I also don't excuse absences based on the flu or someone's desire to start Spring Break early. Less outrageous excuses: my aunt died, my grandparent died, I broke my shoulder snowboarding. I excuse those absences if they seem sincere. Last semester, one of my students' best friends was killed in a car accident in Wyoming. I not only excused the kid from class, we spent hours in my office over the next month talking the thing out.

I have a policy:

Regular attendance and active participation in class discussions are mandatory. You are permitted to miss two classes, excused or unexcused. For every absence beyond two (2), I will deduct 5 points (5%) from your semester grade. This includes absences excused by the University or your doctor.

Effectively, that means my students can have a week's worth of absences before it hurts their grade. I assume they will only miss class because they are ill or because something important came up. If they want to sleep in on a cold and rainy Tuesday morning when there's nothing due, though, that's their business. I assume these things won't happen often. Almost every job I ever had allowed me at least a week's vacation--they get one too.

And beyond the two I officially allow, let's be real, if the student has been engaged and keeping up with the work, and if they really ARE missing class for something important like a conference or a family emergency, why not cut them some slack? Unfortunately, it seems that tragedy and sudden intense illness most often strikes those who've already had attendance problems--specifically those who've already used up their week's worth of absences. Uncannily, it often strikes on or just before a day when major work was due to be handed in. For those folks, unless they can provide compelling evidence, the policy stands.

And in all cases where a student will miss a significant amount of class beyond the week allowed (say another week-and-a-half or more), I suggest they withdraw from the course and point out that their absences and missed work will make it impossible to pass. If my courses could be boiled down to readings from the book, what do you need me or the rest of the class for? This is what they call "teacher-centered" thinking...a form of thought-crime akin to "mechanic-centered" automotive repair and "carpenter-centered" house-framing and "doctor-centered" heart surgery.

My quaint policy's probably about to change. This week, one of the committees I sit on passed a policy change that would institute a University-wide attendance policy to forbid faculty from penalizing a student's grade for "excused" absences. Jail is not on the list, but "documented" illnesses, injuries, deaths in the family, sporting events, jury duty, etc., are. Not a word on what constitutes appropriate documentation. The new policy also requires alternative exams or assignments when such absences occur.

The vote was not unanimous and so this is my minority report.

I don't want to be unfair--the backers of the new policy are reacting to some ugly circumstances. In one case, a student's father died of cancer and a professor would not allow the student to make up an exam given on the day of the funeral! That's unconscionable. I think the Dean and the student's academic adviser had every right to hector the instructor for an explanation.

So the backers truly are reacting from the right place. But hard cases make for bad laws. As I see it, the issue in that case was a lack of compassion and clarity on the instructor's behalf that would have led them to consider an exception to a policy that is otherwise reasonable...and founded on experience. I'll grant that the policy will create some clarity, but it won't create a more compassionate professoriate. And that new clarity will make it easier for some students to abuse the system--after all, the policy diminishes the role of the instructor in negotiating what is and is not a legitimate absence. In fact, it creates a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate absences that implies that undocumented absences are bad--what if my best friend's father dies and I want to support him at the funeral? Emotionally, that may be just as powerful as the death of my own relative. What if I've got a bug and I'm too sick to get out of bed? Does that mean my illness was less legitimate than my roommate who saw a doctor for his sore throat? Under my policy, students have the power to decide what is a legitimate way to spend their two absences.

As for the committee, I won't rub my hands together and say I'm proud to work with these LOVELY people and then imply that they're idiots and charlatans. I'm not dismissive of their arguments, suspicious of their motives, or even unsympathetic to their reasoning. In fact, in their content-driven fields (rather than my skills-based field), a liberal attendance policy may even be appropriate. If the policy passes at the Faculty Meeting it will be because good people and worthy colleagues voted their conscience.

But this policy will hurt my students.

When I assign a final grade, I'm making a claim to the student, the university, and the world about how well the student met the objectives in my class. What if one of the course objectives is to enhance their collaborative skills or to develop workshopping skills? How do you assess students who aren't in class (or meeting with partners/groups) when those things are taking place? How do you recreate those experiences in makeup assignments? In writing classes, writing assignments are obviously the best way to assess student progress, but they're imperfect. Attendance alone is an even worse indicator...but taken together with coursework and reading quizzes and class participation, I'm confident that the grades I give are a fair representation of a student's accomplishment. If a student misses three weeks of my class, but has to be scored the same as another student who engaged daily in class, I'm no longer confident that my grade has as much meaning or integrity. In short, the student pays for the grade but they may not take away much else.

Cranes & Flamingos

I've mentioned Christine Messina's fantastic blog, Finding the Qs, on here before. She let me in on the action by sending two of her origami peace cranes with me to Orlando, Florida, for the Redesign Alliance Conference. I loved the cranes--especially this beautiful black one with silver lettering--but I REALLY enjoyed leaving them inserting them in strategic spots for some lucky traveler to find.

Click here to read the details.



Goodbye snow thrower

What you have heard is true. I shot my snow thrower. Dead.

My first snowthrower

Six years ago I bought a cheap snow thrower at Sears. When I lived in Henniker, with a 30' blacktop driveway, it was a great thing. I could hardly wait for the snow to fall and often didn't wait for the storm to pass but instead went out and cleared the driveway two and three times.

Then we moved to Wentworth. My driveway is gravel and I no longer have a garage to keep it in. Those two factors began to take a toll...over the past three years I spent approximately $710,000 in repairs (I'm just guessing...the figure may be much higher). The thing NEVER ran when I needed it. And this winter, with almost ten feet of snow, I needed it a lot. Worse--far worse--than not owning a snow thrower in New Hampshire is owning one that never works no matter how much you spend on it.

I don't have that problem anymore.

When I finally snapped--breathless and sore in the back from pulling the starter cord 922 times--I started by kicking the machine. Then I tried to swing it into the yard like an Olympic hammer thrower. When I got up off of the ground, I tried to imagine loading the thing into the trunk of my car and taking it to the same small-engine repair joint in Plymouth that has managed to put in a hot-tub and a chandelier since my snow thrower and I moved to town.

But instead I pulled and yanked and wrestled the piece of junk around the house to the back yard and positioned it on the edge of a drop-off above the brook. I stomped back into the house where Tab asked how it was going out there. Her father was sitting at the table so I tried to control my language. "It's going great." I said between gritted teeth. "I'm going to shotgun the snow thrower now." Tab just watched me stalk off down the hall.

When I emerged with the shotgun and a box of slugs, she seemed genuinely surprised. Maybe she didn't hear me the first time. But neither her nor her father said anything as I stomped out the door with gun in one hand and the shells in the other.

By the time I loaded the gun and then repositioned the snow thrower to reduce the chances of an errant slug hitting my neighbors' house, a few minutes had passed. I imagined stalking the snow thrower in it's natural habitat (probably the snow-less deserts of New Mexico for this particular species--crapicus norunicus). Here and there in the sandy soil, a tell-tale wheel track would give away it's direction. By pinching a sage leaf, I could smell the 40:1 gas mixture and determine how many hours before the snow thrower had passed through. Here and there, receipts and check stubs indicated where it had fed. Finally, as the sun came over the mountains, I spotted it on the rim of the canyon. What's this? It's about to charge that campsite full of sleeping children below?

Not on my watch.




Was it good? Damn right. So good that I reloaded and pumped three more shots into it. Oh sure, I would have loved it if, as in the movies, the force of the blast had blown it over the lip of the drop-off. But it was flippin' sweet.

The following picture shows the damage, CSI New Hampshire style:

Six shots

But the story get's better. Flashback: last summer, while Tab and I were away on an errand, our daughters were playing outside with the dog when a strange car pulled into the driveway. One of the two women in the car asked my oldest if her parents were home. When she said we would be right back, the woman asked, "When your parents die, do you think they'll go to heaven? Do you think they're saved?" My daughter didn't know how to answer that so she gathered her sister and said they needed to go inside.

I was furious when I got home.

Fast forward six months. The church ladies are out saving souls and they see by the number of cars in our driveway that there may be sinners inside. They walk carefully up the unshoveled driveway and knock on the door. Tab answers. "Is the man of the house home?" they ask. Oh yeah, the man of the house. Before Tab can formulate a response appropriate to 1958 all three jerk their heads toward the back of the house -- BLAM!... BLAM!... BLAM!

Tab turns back to them. "That's him," she says. "He's shooting the snow blower. He should be in in a minute."

They didn't stick around.

Got a machine that won't cooperate? A chainsaw that won't start? A mower who's wheel keeps coming off? I can take care of that for you. I can make it look like an accident or I can send a message to all of the other machines in the shed: "Briggs and Stratton sleeps with the fishes."

Confessional: the teachable C-word

While waiting for Journalism class to start today, I was handing back papers, fussing with the computer, talking with our fantastic guest speaker (Mark Bevis, News Director for NHPR), and generally preparing for class. Not many people had arrived in class, maybe a half-dozen, when I paused to compliment a student on a story he had done the previous week. In the course of the conversation, he very casually used the "C" word.

Yep, that one.

I'm not going to give more context because while the person he was referring to was not a student in the class, only a few hints would be enough for some to figure out the identities of all the characters. I don't want to stir up anything between them and, besides, what difference does it make who it was? Anyway, before the kid (for he was clearly demonstrating his lack of maturity) could finish his sentence, I shouted "Whoa! You don't say that in a classroom!"

Bevis added "Or anywhere."

In six years at Plymouth, I can honestly say this was the first time anyone had used that word in my presence. I was stunned. I was offended. I was embarrassed. I was hurt. I was knocked off-balance.

Other than that initial response, I said nothing.

It gets worse. Here's the furious email I sent as soon as I got home (in fact, this is what I was writing when the Li-Young Lee story I mention in my earlier post came on TV):

I wanted to follow up on our conversation before class today. In six years at Plymouth, you are the first person to use the word "c***" in my hearing. I'm not very uptight about formality in my classes. However, as far I'm concerned, there is never a time to use that word. Certainly, I won't tolerate it in class. It's not only incredibly unprofessional, it demonstrates the worst kind of ignorance and sexism and easily violates my stated participation policy or any standard of professional conduct. As a writer, I would have imagined you would acknowledge that words have real power...and real consequences. Because I thought highly of your work last issue, and because there was a guest in our class (who was obviously as offended as I was) I was surprised and put-off and did not respond as forcefully as I should have. Had I not been taken off guard, I would have A) challenged your offensive language, and the underlying attitudes/bias, in an even more public manner in class, or B) asked you to leave class altogether. Consider yourself warned.

And option "B" is why I'm writing this...I don't support speech codes. That was my anger getting the better of me. The First Amendment protects stupid and hurtful speech precisely because such speech is presumably unpopular, a characteristic it unfortunately shares with most speech that would move us forward.

How should I have handled it? I spoke to my friend/colleague/mentor/confessor, Robin DeRosa tonight and she says that, had it happened outside of class-time, she might have reacted similarly (minus the speech code bit). Maybe she's just saying that to make me feel better. But had the event happened in class, she would have spoken about the freight that word carries--not just what it denotes, but what it communicates about the person who uses it. Namely that they are (to paraphrase my email) ignorant and sexist and unprofessional. In short, rather than forbidding the use of the word, she would have expressed her anger and disappointment, but she would have also turned it into a "teachable moment" where the student, and the class, could confront the consequences of their language. Her "safe" classroom would thus remain an open classroom.

When my students misspeak in regards to a question of theory or application in Journalism or Tech Comm or Poetry, I press the teachable moment. "Funny you should mention that... Why do you feel that way..." And we very purposefully talk about sexism, racism, etc. in class. In fact, we even begin the semester talking about the five "fault lines" along which most journalists form biases (race, gender, class, geography, & generation). I should have pressed the moment. But, in essence, I failed to react. Then, presumably when I had had time to cool down, I reacted in a manner that was less than thoughtful.

So here's the point. Because I believe words have consequences--and for some reason that printed (or online) words may have even more consequence--I'm making a public pledge (for me and the three people who read this blog every time I drop the hint that I've made a bi-annual post) to do better.

  1. I will not create a speech code...but I will confront students on their language choices: its intentionality, its implications.
  2. I will react to that language...but I will also articulate how the speaker must often own the reaction.

But there seems to be a third promise that I can't quite articulate. I'm ashamed that this happened in my classroom. As if something I've said or done must have invited this. Somehow, language that would be unthinkable in other classes/settings (not because of speech codes, but because of respect and professionalism) was deemed OK in mine. I want to have an open classroom. I don't want students to be guarded in their language or ideas. Does an open classroom simply (ha!) force me to struggle with the same paradox that forces the ACLU to defend the Ku Klux Klan even while they despise their views? Or am I right to fear that whatever low-frequency signal in my classroom that allowed one student to feel comfortable expressing that sort of misogyny is being received by everyone?

We now end our broadcasting schedule... [Queue the anthem]

PBS must be reading my blog!!!

We get two channels on our TV. An ABC station out of Portland, ME, and NHPTV out of Durham, NH. They are fuzzy and the static can make me crazy. That's why I watch TV with the sound off while I listen to public radio, surf the web and/or read. I looked up tonight and there was Li-Young Lee. The segment was called "Descended from Dreamers" and he was reading new poems and talking about his family's flight to the US, his marriage, etc. It was a good interview and the poems were gorgeous. Check out their story.