The wrong tattoo

For almost 30 years, I had this tattoo on my back. It's on my right shoulder blade. It was a dark ship (faded to blue) under full sail crashing through a blue wave. If I haven't shown you, it's probably because for 25 years I believed it was the wrong tattoo.

In college, my favorite professor's favorite book was Moby Dick. It became my favorite book. A Missouri kid who had never left the Midwest, I was caught up in the adventure of it, the years' long voyage, the isolation of the crew, the madness of their captain. Enough themes are lashed and rigged to its deck to sustain most readers--certainly me--around the world.

But I was also drawn to Melville's love and awe of whales. When John Gilgun taught the book, he wanted us to immerse ourselves in whales and whaling. We listened to recordings of whale song, we looked at photos of scrimshaw, one Spring day, he had the class line up on the quad in a line that stretched the length of an adult sperm whale.

In the first few years after John recruited me to the book, I read that novel every year. Sometimes I came back to read favorite chapters in between full readings. It had something new each time and it was a joy to stumble across favorite lines or favorite scenes. The first time they lower boats to chase whales is as exciting as anything I have ever read.

I graduated from college in the summer that we found out that Tabitha was pregnant and that I had been accepted to grad the summer that we moved to California so we could have health insurance to cover the delivery, then back to Ohio so I could start at Bowling the summer that we asked my brother, Brian, and our friend Wendy to come along on the roadtrip to California.

It was the same summer they drowned together...just a week after they got back from our roadtrip.

I loved my brother deeply. He admired me in the way that only a little brother can--no one will ever feel that way about me again. But, in the days leading up to his death, we were feuding. He and Wendy were having an affair. She was married to another close friend and I was furious with both of them. I had never heard of the Internet. He didn't have a phone. So I poured out my anger and accusations in letters to him.

I remember finding those letters on his coffee table when I flew back to Missouri to claim the body.

We had never fought before. We squabbled and bickered over minor things, but I told him in those letters that I was ashamed of him. Those were the last things I ever said to him.

So my grief, tangled in remorse, sunk to rage. When I turned to Moby Dick that fall, I read it in a very different way. Ahab was a hero. Ahab had the right idea. God was an asshole--unfit to run a Dairy Queen, much less creation. I understood Ahab's wound, his fury, and his craving for vengeance.

Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. Look ye, Starbuck, all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me; he heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. 'Tis the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate; the malignant thing that has plagued mankind since time began; the thing that maws and mutilates our race, not killing us outright but letting us live on, with half a heart and half a lung.

So I decided to get a tattoo of the Pequod--the white ship in which Ahab and his doomed crew chased the white whale. There was vanity mixed into my grief, so I thought about where the tattoo would look most striking and (for some reason that made sense at the time) I decided to get it on my right shoulder blade.

The tattoo artist was young. He might have been high. Or maybe I just didn't stress enough that I wanted a white ship. I didn't get it. When I finally stood up and looked in the mirror, there was a brown three-masted sailing ship. Not the Pequod. Not even a particularly good ship.

That just added to the rage.

As the years passed, I would sometimes mention the tattoo to friends. I even showed it to a few people. But as soon as they asked for the story, I knew that anyone who had read the book would know that this was the wrong tattoo.

After a few years, I just stopped mentioning it at all.

Three years ago, I was teaching a class on oral storytelling in our Ascent program. It's a program designed to give new college students who might otherwise struggle with the transition to college, a head start. One goal is to help them form community. So I came up with a story prompt called "So I have this tattoo" that was supposed to get them to share a meaningful event or experience and to use descriptive language to paint a picture.

The night before I was to introduce the prompt, I started thinking about what I would say about my tattoo. All the familiar recriminations came to mind. I struggled to articulate how badly I had botched this. In part, because I had the memory of the anger, but not the actual taste of anger in my mouth.

I thought about the old rage and realized I wasn't on Team Ahab any more. And then I remembered the Rachel. Towards the end of the book (chapter 941, I think). Another ship approaches the Pequod as they are hunting Moby Dick. Ahab shouts to the other captain, asking if they have seen the white whale. "Yes!" says the other captain. "He was headed that way yesterday! But look, my sons were in another whale boat and they fastened to a whale that pulled them in the other direction. We've been searching but haven't seen them. If our two ships can execute a search grid..."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," says Ahab. "About the white whale, which way was it headed?"

And so Ahab told the other captain to go fly a kite and went off after Moby Dick.

And found him.

And was killed by him.

And Ahab's ship and all its crew were also destroyed by him.

Except the narrator, Ishmael, who floated out of the wreck on a coffin, all alone at sea.

On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan."

It had been 25 years since I had gotten that ship tattooed on my back and it was only in the act of explaining it to these kids that I realized it wasn't the wrong ship. It wasn't the Pequod. Whether it was fair or not, she drowned.

My rage has dried up.

My tattoo was of the Rachel. She is crewed by all of the people in all of these years who--desperately looking out across the vast expanse of their own pain--nevertheless noticed me. And saved me.

Thank you, shipmates. Thank you.

And the story has an epilogue. After more than a year (due to the pandemic), today I got the last sting of the new tattoo. It's much larger. It has Ishmael, floating on that coffin, about to be rescued by the Rachel. We wrapped it up the day after I learned that John Gilgun, who ignited my love of Moby Dick has died. He and I were great friends in the years after Brian and Wendy's death. I know he was one of those in the bow, searching.

Ishmael about to be picked up by the Rachel.
I asked the artist to allow the sails of the old tattoo to show through.

Remarks - 2018 Award for Distinguished Service

Several people have asked to read the remarks I wrote in regard to the service award. Here they are (minus some things I nervously ad-libbed as I was getting started and plus things I edited out as I read it at the ceremony).

I want to begin by giving personal thanks to a few people.

First, my closest friends and mentors: Liz and Cathie and Ann, and Robin and Phil and Nick, and Annette and Pat and Gary. They are true stewards of the University, fiercely devoted to this place, to our mission. I’ve leaned on them and learned from them more than any others over the years. And my departments --I’ve been fortunate to belong to the two best departments anyone could hope for-- I’m grateful to be surrounded by friends like Mary Beth, and Paul, and Karolyn, and Evelyn, and Metty, and Eun-Ho, and (count em) TWO Joes and TWO Megs!

And I want to thank my family. My brilliant, beautiful daughters, Brianna and Maya, are out conquering the world and couldn’t be here today, but my Dad is here, and that makes me very proud. I regret that saying YES to this committee or that task force usually meant saying NO to them.

And finally, my wife.    Tabitha directs social work at Glencliff home out in Warren. If you don’t know it, it’s a grand old residential facility on the shoulder of Mt. Moosilauke dedicated to New Hampshire's developmentally disabled and mentally ill. The world often refuses to look at those folks. For some of them, this is the first time in their whole lives that they have lived in a place that is safe, and healthy, and dignified. She also handles admissions, so one night not long ago, Tab was telling me about a person she had visited in some emergency room here in NH earlier that day. This person’s life and health were in ruins. Her behaviors and her addictions had brought so much suffering and pain to her children and her family that everyone around her was angry and hurt and exasperated. And Tabitha was sitting at our table that night crying...because where someone like you or I might see the awful destruction around this person, Tab saw a person surrounded by destruction. And she went in to help. On my best days, I like to pretend I make PSU a slightly better place. On her best days, my wife makes us a better species. Thank you Tab.  

It feels a little embarrassing to be singled out for praise when so many at Plymouth State have given so much this year. Here it is, May 2, and I doubt one of you has left any gas in the tank. There is no harder working faculty or staff in New Hampshire...maybe in higher education. You are remarkable. Too often our sacrifices of time and effort seem invisible -- unappreciated, uncounted, ineffectual, and inconsequential to the corner offices of the world. But that’s why now, more than ever, we need to thank each other. I’m grateful for this award, but we shouldn’t wait for the end of the year to pick out a handful of people for praise. We should celebrate each others’ work loudly and often.

Where confusion and fear cause us to shelter in place, prepare for the worst, protect whatever we can get our arms around--gratitude and recognition inspire us to lean in. So I hope you know your colleagues noticed what you accomplished this year. We saw the diligence put into revising the academic integrity policy. We saw the inspiration and the hard work that produced so many cluster projects. Your colleagues know that you volunteered your time and energy to serve on the INCO Task Force, or as a First Year Seminar Fellow, or on the Provost search committee or on the dozens of departmental search committees and P&T committees that we shoehorned into our schedules. Your colleagues know you poured your attention into MAPS and The Clock and Pride and all of the important student organizations we nurture. Your colleagues know that faculty and staff toiled away together creating cluster designs, had to throw out those designs each time the rules changed, then went right back to toiling away at them. We saw the hours and hours the Curriculum Committee put into reading hundreds of proposals this year. And the Curriculum Committee saw the attention that so many good faculty put into writing hundreds of proposals this year. We’re grateful to the people who spent so much of their time on the TLT. We all know our terrific Faculty Speaker and the Steering Committee lead us through tough times. You don't hear it enough, but your work mattered and we should thank each other for it.

And my thanks to the Negotiating Team for the AAUP--I’ve been part of some heavy lifts at Plymouth State, but I’ve never been part of a team so diligent, so passionate, or so close as you. I’m as proud to be part of what Ann, and Liz, and Alice, and Justin, and Elliott have accomplished, and what they stand for, as I am of anything in my life. To be clear, the administration’s negotiating team is also comprised of good and decent people. When the tension gets high, it helps to know that we are negotiating with folks like Julie Bernier and Gail Mears, people who’ve dedicated their entire careers to this institution. We’re building on that shared foundation. We’ve worked hard to negotiate a contract that insists on improving transparency and fairness, that pushes the administration to plan ahead, and acknowledges that the expertise, experience, and values of the faculty matter to the future of the institution.

I wish I could end on that hopeful note. This has always been such a happy occasion. But the truth is, morale has never been lower. We live in an age which celebrates organizations that disrupt their industries, their economies, their societies. Over and over the brightest of these organizations reject mechanical corporate thinking in favor of a culture that values people -- because that’s the only culture where collaboration and innovation and learning flourish. I think a lot of people at Plymouth State don't feel valued. We’re exhausted. We’ve lost some mission-critical people this year. And we’ve alienated or burned out many others. We have to do better.

Summer is a time when many of us have a chance to recharge but also, to reset. We’re pinning our hopes on that reset. We’re hoping a new administrative structure, a new contract, an emerging cluster structure, and the welcome addition of a provost will make this an easier place to do our work. I trust that next year will be marked by more careful, more sensitive communications that don’t confuse or needlessly frighten people; that administrators will take more interest in our work, our processes, and our policies in order to make informed decisions on matters that have profound consequences for faculty, staff, and students. We have so much more to do if we are going to transform higher education, and we’re the right people to do it. I’m grateful for the faculty and staff’s successes this year, and I’m doubly grateful that I get to face next year’s challenges with you.

Thank you for this recognition, and thank you, colleagues, for everything that you have done this year.

Mysterious Sound in my neighborhood...

At about 1 am, I was working out in the screen porch when I heard a strange noise coming from the woods. At first, thought it was odd, but I assumed it would go away. It didn't. Eventually I grabbed one of the school's H4N digital recorders and when out in the front yard to record it. I took Irie.

I recorded about 12 minutes total. I removed the first few minutes of me fumbling with doors and the drone of the window fan in our bedroom above. I also cut out twenty seconds between the last cry and Irie beginning to woof. Then I cut out another full minute from the last sound Irie makes to me telling her to come in. I ran a noise reducer over the whole things to cut out my breathing and the sound of me peeing my pants.

Baby bear calling it's mother? Heron-monkey-from-Hell? Bigfoot? Forest spirit? Drunken crow?

bear cub?

Update: Things Are Looking Up

Sorry I haven't updated in more than a week. It's been so overwhelming that every time I sat down to sum up, I felt like I had more questions than answers. Things are looking up, for the most part, so here's the news:

The House

The house is pretty much gutted now. On the second floor, they removed the wood floor in the hallway; the sheetrock in the hallway, the girls' bathroom, and the exercise room; they are pulling up the carpet in the girls' rooms, the exercise room, and Tab's office; they are taking out the tile floor in the girls' bathroom. Essentially, every room up there except the master suite has been reduced to bare studs and subfloor. On the first floor, they pulled up all of the oak floors in the dining room, living room, and hallway; they're pulling up the floor tile in the kitchen and guest bath; they removed the sheetrock and ceilings in the dining room, living room, guest bath and part of the kitchen, they pulled up the carpet in my office. They will be replacing the treads on the staircase. Additionally, all of the built in bookshelves, the murphy bed, etc. from all rooms except the master suite and the family room have been removed to be refinished--that goes for many of the kitchen cabinets, too. They're also replacing the kitchen countertop and the vanity in the girls' bathroom.Eventually, they will have to refinish the oak floors in the family room, too. All of our belongings (except clothing and a few odds and ends we stored in the master closet) are packed away in storage or being refinished at the furniture medic or tested at the electronics restoration place.

When all is said and done, in three months, we'll have new carpets and oak floors in most of the house. They will paint every wall in the house. Plus, we'll have new tile floors in two bathrooms and in the kitchen and a new countertop in the kitchen.

We'll also have a new furnace--though that cost is on us since it was just a coincidence that the disaster happened to reveal that our furnace was on it's last legs.

Much of the wiring that was not damaged by the water will have to be replaced since the demolition revealed that it had been chewed in several places by mice. That cost is on us, too.

We chose to go with State Farm's preferred contractor for the rebuild. They're not local 🙁 but they have an excellent reputation and they guarantee their work (and that of all their subcontractors) for FIVE years! We should be ironing out details very soon on particulars like pain colors, tile choices, etc. The reconstruction is supposed to take two to three months. We fully expect it to take a little longer.

Our Living Situation

State Farm has been taking good care of us. We've been living at the Common Man Inn for a week now and will remain here until Friday. It's a pretty posh hotel for these parts and we have been pretty spoiled for the last week. At the same time, even with one room for us and one for the kids, it gets pretty old living in a hotel. Tonight we met with a local guy who owns a FABULOUS house up on Texas Hill Road. He agreed to rent the house to us for three months (and more if we need it). It's a gorgeous place--a giant log home with views of Plymouth Mountain on one side and a view clear up to the notch on another. We move in Friday. What's more, the place is fully furnished (even pots and pans and dishes), so we don't have to go down to Manchester to dig our stuff out of storage. We can't wait to get there and cook for ourselves for a change.

We're all doing fine. Maya has had some rough days (she feels very much adrift), and Tab and I worry about how much this will cost in the end, but by and large we're all just rolling with it. It could have been worse: we could have been uninsured, or insured by a lousy company. As it happens, we're feeling very well cared-for.

Many thanks to all who have written or commented or called...I'm sorry I haven't gotten back to most of you. The day to day details have been pretty daunting up this point. Our friends have really gone out of their way to support us--inviting us over for home-cooked meals, to offering rides for the kids, temporarily adopting the cat, and my friend Phil, in particular has spent hours serving as technical advisor, ambassador from the world of contractors, and part-time project manager. I owe that guy a beer... I owe a LOT of you a beer.

This summer, we'll have a big BBQ at our new house and we'll try to dish out some payback. You'll have to take your shoes off, floors don't you know.

And your banjo too

And my banjo, autographed by Del McCoury, did not escape either. This photo doesn't show it too well, but the steam warped the head of the banjo pot (the "skin") right away. In a few days, the neck and head will probably warp too.

Bye bye banjo

Bye bye banjo

The House on Soggy Lane

Just as finals were winding down (and grading was reaching the fever pitch) the heating pipes on part of the second floor froze up. It took a team of plumbers four days to get the heat back on (and they informed us along the way that our wonderful TARM dual-fuel furnace--it's got a HEMI--was a piece of junk on it's last legs). The final bill came to several thousand, but no worries--we were fully insured (minus a $1000 deductible) and anyway it could have been worse. At least the pipes hadn't burst and flooded the house, collapsing ceilings, ruining walls and our hardwood floors, and generally damaging or destroying our furniture and belongings. At least that hadn't happened.

And then it did.

We got back from our Christmas trip to Illinois on the 31st of December. On New Year's Day, we opened our gifts to each other at home, then packed the car to drive north to visit Tab's folks in Littleton. Since the weather was turning nasty, we planned to spend the night rather than drive back down through Franconia Notch (a treacherous pass in the winter time).

When we got home at noon on the 2nd, I opened the door to a wall of hot steam and the sound of cascading water. I cursed, Tab began to cry, and Maya went into a full-fledged panic attack. Steam had condensed on every surface, every possession on the first floor. Our kitchen floor was a puddle of hot water. The dining room was destroyed. And so on.

The dining room/sauna

The dining room/sauna

The kitchen ceilings in the steam

The kitchen ceilings in the steam

Within 15 seconds, I had the camera and was taking pictures while Tab contacted our team of plumbers and our insurance agent, however the steam was so bad that the camera fogged up. This was typical of the first pictures I took.

When the steam had cleared (some 30 or so minutes later), this is what it looked like (see below).

flood 016

flood 014

flood 050

The family room with all of the furniture we could salvage crammed into it and one of Service Master's industrial dehumidifiers in the background

The family room with all of the furniture we could salvage crammed into it and one of Service Master's industrial dehumidifiers in the background

We have wonderful friends, though. Within 20 minutes, Cathie, Liz, Jeanette, and Phil were there to help us move furniture and china and other belongings from the wettest parts of the house to the driest parts. Later that night, Robin, Phil, Ruby, and Cathie came back with pizzas and made us eat and offered to take Maya home for a sleepover (she happily accepted--Brianna had long since fled to her best friend Devon's house). Also, I should say that our plumbing team was there within minutes of our call and they did a great job of stopping the leak, fixing the broken pipes, and even tearing up some of the saturated carpets and throwing them out of the second story windows.

Our insurance company had us call ServPro to handle the cleanup and recovery. They were rude. They didn't return phone calls. We called State Farm again and asked for someone else. They suggested Service Master. They are saints. They dispatched a team IMMEDIATELY. Paul and Junior showed up and went to work right away--the first thing they did was make sure that we knew we were in good hands--that they were going to clean, remove, strip, assess, pack...everything but cook for us. They were remarkable. They were able to get the two inches of water off of the basement floor and remove the saturated insulation from the basement and dining room ceilings even before they left that night. They were back "with reinforcements" this morning to continue the drying out and to begin the thorough assessment.

And us? We're in a hotel -- one room for Tab and I (and Irie), one for the girls. We've got what clothes we could gather, and books, and DVD players and etc. We're OK.

We're covered. We'll be out of the house for a few months while the place is first stripped to the studs, then rewalled, refloored, re-etc. But for now we're dry and safe.

that's why all the folks on rocky top get their corn fom a jar


It was another bittersweet day. More than anything, I regret the things I said and did when Brian and I argued at the end of our trip. With Andrew and Chad's help, I had trimmed the argument scene from the play down to a much faster, much angrier, and much more accurate portrayal of that fight. That Nick and Thomas (and Jen and Jenna) played their roles so splendidly made it that much harder to watch and listen to...take after take.

Then again, they turned in great performances today and we wrapped the shoot on time and on budget (I think).

After we left the set, in ones and twos a few of the crew gathered at Chad and Jen's place. We drank the better part of a quart of moonshine and encouraged Emily to tell us more stories from Breathitt County. I was writing them down when Andrew, feeling the corn liquor, narrowed his eyes a little and drawled across the table, "Boy, when we're talkin' around the shine WE don't take notes."

As eager as I am to see Tab and the girls tonight, it was hard to leave this morning. Jen has been so gracious and generous while I've been squatting in Dylan's room for the past two weeks. And Andrew has become like a brother to me--not just because he FELT this story so strongly, but because I could sit and talk with him for hours.

And especially because Chad and I, who have always shared a loss, have spent the last two weeks handling it again. And because all of us, working together, brought something of them back.

Night for Day


Chad and Andrew and Tommy loaded a camera worth more than all of my possessions into a flat-bottomed boat today so they could shoot and shoot and shoot from the water. John and Angela and Ian stood in the water to hold the boats steady and in position.

It was, finally, sunny. Brilliant. Perfect for shooting "day-for-night" with filters and low angles.

At lunch, Emily told the story of one of her mother's elderly patients who, on her very first visit to a hospital, complained to Emily's mother about the food in her hospital room. "There's something wrong with that Kentucky jelly. I tried some on a biscuit and it just tasted terrible."

The news crew canceled out of consideration for the scenes we were shooting today.

One of the interns, a great guy named Kenny, took my camera out in the canoe so I could have a shot of the four cast members out on the dock (in the "wish" scene). I was asked to back his car out of the way of the shot. I told him that if he didn't get my camera in the lake I wouldn't put his car in the lake.

All four of the actors nailed that scene.

Nick (as "Scott") howled as he threw the typewriter out into the lake. Angela and John retrieved it from the water. He threw it again and again.

Jen ("Tab") told me that she once owned a dog that would never come when it was called. Her mother named it "Godot."

Nick had to change clothes for the scene in which he is finally revealed to also be the "narrator". We stood on the dock and talked about his lines. He was covered in mud and I poured lake water on his head and down his back. When we were alone, he asked me what the lines meant, what I really wanted out of my brother. I told him.

Andrew called action and I poured another bowl of lake water on his head and leapt out of the shot. Nick shouted "Swim, Goddammit! Swim!." He screamed it out over the lake. He wept and howled and screamed it again and again and again.

When that was over, Chad and Andrew took a break as DP and Director and came over to sit in the beached canoe with me. You would have thought none of us already knew how this ends.

Also, Jen and I watched a finch landing on a cat tail at the lake's edge. It plucked a wisp from the ragged end and flew off to pad its nest. It kept coming back for more.

Day for Night

After a beautiful day shooting the hiking scenes at the pinnacles yesterday, today they shoot the lake scenes. The accident (they won't actually show it) is the first series of shots of the day. They are shooting "day for night" which means they darken it in post-production. Catchy phrase.

I'm uploading photos while they shoot those first several shots, then I'll head back to watch the dock scenes (in which "Scott" throws the typewriter off the dock, and the fantasy scene in which the four are reunited on the dock). At some point this morning, a TV news crew is coming. That will be weird. After the newspaper story last week, I'm a bit nervous about talking to a television reporter. I don't want to misspeak again.

Echo chamber

Yesterday, I spent most of the day in the recording room with Nick and Andrew, and the "location sound" guy, Brendan. Nick was recording the voice-over parts (mostly the narrator's lines) and I was along to assist as best I could.

First, let me just say how strange and gratifying it is to listen to someone read the words you wrote. Since some of the stuff Nick laid down was poetry, that was especially thrilling.

Second, let me say how hard it is to read poetry out loud. I've been doing it for as long as I can remember--and I think I'm pretty good at it. I can even read other people's poems out loud pretty effectively (I love reading Liz's poem "Inshallah"). But even actors struggle to read it with emphasis, shifts in tempo, caesura... Nick did a great job, but it must have been frustrating to him to have Andrew and me stopping him all the time.

And that brings me to my third point. I can't say enough about Andrew's direction on this film. He knows every word of this script. If you poured all of them onto the floor, he could put it back together again. He's also climbed in and explored the cavities and spaces between the words. He understands not just what each line means. But what it also means. And also means. And also means....

What a privilege it is, as a writer, to have someone who fully inhabits your work.