ring the bell

I spoke to Roger on the phone tonight for the first time in several weeks. I haven't mentioned Roger by name in a single posting. Not on this blog. Not on the Rocky Top blog.

Roger was Wendy's husband. He was, and is, one of the closest friends I've ever had. I proposed to Tab on their couch. I called him at 2 am on several occasions to read him bad poems. I held their son, Jhett, when he was the size of a loaf of bread. Even before I lost one brother, I had found another. After the accident, we called each other across the country and around the world to howl our agony.

We talked about this film--really talked about it--for the first time ever. That conversation is between us. However, it made me keenly aware that my family and friends--especially those whose lives were changed by Brian and Wendy's deaths--are watching the whole thing unfold again.

Later, as I watched TV with Chad and Jen, I was asking myself why I'm doing this. Why am I putting Tab and Roger and our kids and siblings and parents and friends through this? What is there to learn? What is there to gain?

I don't know. I can only say that sixteen years ago a hammer struck and I am a bell that's been ringing ever since. I don't know how not to.

Blue cars


Funny the things that catch me. Last night we filmed a scene at a roadside grocery store. In the scene, we have stopped for supplies. Tab is sitting in the open door of the passenger seat, stretching her legs and back. Wendy and I are on the trunk of the car passing a joint and being silly. Brian walks out and tosses us a bag of chips.

It's just a brief scene illustrating the tension between us: my neglectfulness of Tab, Brian's growing feelings for Wendy, Wendy's growing flirtatiousness, Tab's isolation, the beginnings of the jealousy, resentment, and recrimination into which the trip eventually devolved.

I suppose that was why it was hard to watch. This scene begins to establish my culpability. This scene represents one of the last places where I could have changed course.

And then there is the car. It's no 1976 Mercury Marquis, but it is very nearly as big and square as the real one. And it is adorned with the actual artifacts of the trip. Brian's bag and pullover. The bone necklace Hans made me. The tassel from my college graduation (I graduated college the day before we left). It's the movie's perfectly cast fifth character. It's the scene of the crime. It's a broken time machine.

I drove it home from the shoot last night while Chad and Andrew returned the equipment van to the EKU campus. I was glad to have the time alone. It's a smooth ride, but it drifts away if you don't hold the wheel.DSCN2140

The Plank

I had a dream about a year ago in which Brian was alive and we were (in parts of the dream) kids. We were playing in the driveway at one point and I accidentally knocked him over. He stopped speaking and began to lose his shape. I dragged him by the feet into a sort of wooden shed that was suddenly, conveniently, nearby. I took an old plane and began to run it up his torso toward what should have been a face. By the time I got there, he was a wooden plank.

There was one part of the newspaper story yesterday that bothered me more than any other: "I'm a writer, a poet and I wrote it out of myself years ago," he said. "I've written this thing so many times it's almost not my story. It now lives on paper."

I was misquoted, but only slightly. I mostly said what she wrote. I wish I hadn't, though.

I was thinking about that as I was trying to fall asleep last night. We need a journal for the waterfall scene and I had volunteered to use Brian's actual journal from the trip. Chad and Andrew didn't like that idea for obvious reasons so this morning I'll walk over to the college bookstore and find something else.

I lay awake for a long time last night thinking about the ways I am shaving him down.

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.

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."

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.

What I owe Li-Young Lee

I recounted this story to my Advanced Poetry Workshop as a way of introducing a Li-Young Lee poem. They suggested I share it on my blog...

In January 2002, I was at a really weird time in my life. At 32, I was a Lead Writer at the software company I worked at. I made very good money, but I was unhappy because I had inherited two bosses I couldn't stand and I had been promoted into a position I did not enjoy. Instead of being a writer with a few other responsibilities, I had mostly quasi-management responsibilities like project planning and resource scheduling and spent very little time actually writing. But even that was not the whole truth.... The fact is, I felt that Technical Writing--writing about software I could barely use for users whose profession I barely understood, working by-and-large with people who rarely read the sort of books I wanted to read, spending my time with people whose main topic of conversation was their wide-screen TV, their snowmobile, their latest consumer gew-gaw--was not for me. I'll go even further--by giving up poetry for a corporate paycheck, I felt I had sold out. I felt isolated and unhappy, no matter what my bank account said.

But I was lucky to live in Henniker, home of a small liberal arts college with a low-residency MFA program in Poetry. Every July and every January the undergrads mostly left town and the poets came in. You could find them in the local pubs, standing on the stone bridge over the black and rushing Contoocook and staring at the beautiful covered bridge upstream (or standing in the covered bridge taking in the equally lovely stone bridge downstream), buying books in the massive used-book store tucked away above the town, reading their poetry in the student union or in the art gallery.

The whole town was alive with poets and they gave readings almost every night of their week-long residency. The student readings were great: energetic, startling, diverse. No two were alike and each was an anthology of their own influences--this poem stressing Mark-Doty-esque language-play, this one chasing the image-sermon of Mary Oliver. But this program was--at the time--also lucky to have some great poets of national reputation: Gerald Stern, Chard deNiord, Li-Young Lee, and others.

Li-Young Lee! Next to Billy Collins, I think he may be one of the biggest rock stars in poetry. His work is not as accessible as Collins' (and is therefore taken more seriously by the back-bay literature crowd) but it IS gorgeous and very sensual. Combine that with his physical beauty (they might have modeled the male lead in Mulan after him) and the guy draws a crowd.

He was my first poetry crush. When I read Rose, his first collection of poetry, I wanted to shred all of my poems and quit. I wanted to work harder, look harder, listen harder, read deeper... I went back to it over and over, the way you do with a CD that gets under your skin. I got sick of the poems. I sneered at them "Oh, you're so wiiise-lah-D-dah!" I came back to them in penitence. I wanted his voice. My own poems sounded like a donkey braying.

I got in a car with some of the poets I was in grad school with and drove over to Wheeling, West Virginia, just to see him read. His poems were, delivered in person, more magical than I had imagined. If he had started a cult we would have sold our possessions and joined. I must have driven home but I don't remember it.

A few years later, as a young technical writer in KC (still writing poetry), I got a chance to see him read again. Same story. I went to work the next day as if I was on a space walk--only the thinnest of tethers connected me to my computer screen.

Now, it was 5 years later and he was going to be reading in my little village in New Hampshire. Even more, he was going to be giving lectures on poetry at the college and generally hanging around town. I had already emailed a professor to ask if I could attend the lectures as well as the public readings and he had granted me permission (the townsfolk attended some of the readings--especially in the summer--but there wasn't exactly a crowd clamoring to attend the lectures). As January rolled in, I was already bragging to all of my old poet friends in Missouri about the density of poets in New Hampshire (I believe I claimed that you couldn't "swing a cat round here" without hitting a poet).

But something else was creeping up on me. As much as I felt like an outsider at work, I had my doubts with this crowd as well. I'm no big fan of low-residency programs--I don't see the same camaraderie in those programs that was so important to me in my MFA days--but to them, I was a "townie." That hurt. Bad. No matter what my background or interests may have been, for them I was outside of the program and therefore of little interest. Not so different from the way I probably would have reacted to an outsider during my own grad school days.

So I went to the reading, carrying Li-Young Lee's latest book to get it signed (I'm lucky to have four signed books from Lee). It was snowing heavily and the streets of Henniker were quiet and already dark as I crossed the stone bridge. There were one or two other "townies" there, but by and large the crowd consisted of students and faculty of the poetry program. It was his best reading. He was charming. He introduced each piece in a way that enlarged your understanding without giving away the surprise and pleasure of the poem. He read each poem as if it were an incantation. After the reading, he took questions then stood at the podium to sign books and do the meet&greet. I waited. The rest of the room divided into groups chatting and making plans and as he looked up from each person, they were released to move to this group or another until it was just he and I.

I was in sheer terror and awe of him, but I managed to stammer out a few sentences. He seemed genuinely interested (and touched that I felt so strongly about his work). We chatted for what seemed a few seconds--about his work, about mine, about an ad I was thinking of responding to for a teacher up at Plymouth State College--and then I looked up and the place was almost empty. It had been 30 minutes. A few people from the program were waiting for him to finish so they could move on to the college pub, located down the hall in the same student union where the reading had been.

He invited me to join them. Let me repeat that: he invited me to join them. On the one hand, I was almost light-headed with pleasure--my poetic hero wanted me to join him and his friends. But another part of me was filled with dread. I was a townie. I was a technical writer. I was a sell out. I was older than the students, less accomplished than the faculty. I was an outsider.

Like a coward, I made up some lame excuse and walked back across the bridge in the snow.

If I've ever felt more wretched about myself, I can't think of a time. Worse than the fear and the self-loathing, I felt more isolated and lonely than I can ever remember. I recognized that I was lost--and had been for more than a year--and the sadness and terror was sliding around inside my guts like an oil slick. Even worse, I felt that I was walking away from my last chance--not just with this group, but the faint glimmer of hope I had felt about the teaching position at PSC.

At home, I walked into the kitchen where my wife was making a cup of tea. How did it go? When I told her--breathless and ashamed with snow melt from my boots puddling on the floor--she pushed me out the door. "What are you crazy? You'll want to kill yourself tomorrow if this is how you leave it!" Ten seconds later I was heading for the bridge again, pumping myself up a little. "I won the goddamned AWP Intro Award as a grad student!" I had published in some of the best quarterlies! They had no right to make me feel like a townie!

So I stomped back across the bridge and up to the Simon Center and down the hall to the pub which--with all of the undergrads gone would be populated exclusively with poets...like me. But at the last instant, as cliched as it may be, I froze with my hand on the door handle. The terror and the self-loathing and the isolation were so powerful that I could not imagine opening the door. What would I say to them? How would I justify my intrusion? Why SHOULD they invite me in?

Just then, someone opened the bathroom door across the hall and made their way toward the pub. In a panic, I could either flee back into the storm, or I could open the door and go in. I'm sure it didn't happen this way exactly, but here's what I remember: all of the poets were seated at one long table running the length of the room. Twenty-five faces turned to me. Some narrowed their eyes, trying to figure out who I was, why I was there. Some wondered if I was lost. Some wondered if I was wounded--my face was surely white and drawn in fear. Then, in the middle of the table like Jesus at the last supper, Li-Young Lee rose and extended his right hand toward me. "Excuse me, everyone," he said to the quiet room. "This is Scott. He's a poet. Make a space for him."

In American movies, they would have accepted me as one of their own. Maybe even carried me around the room on their shoulders. It wasn't like that. I pulled up a chair. Had a forced conversation with several of the poets around me. And was slowly excluded to the point where, like a impurity that works it way out of the body through a red angry sore that you have to ignore away, I was pushed back out of the room.

But it didn't matter. Lee's gesture, which cost him absolutely nothing, meant all the world to me. We all need a tribe. We all need something to call ourselves because our name (who we are) is pointless without our essence (what we are). It didn't matter that they could not see me as one of their own--they were still discovering what they were. Li-Young Lee had recognized me. His gesture helped me recognize myself even in the disguise I had worn for so long. I knew that I would apply for the teaching job at Plymouth. And if that one didn't work out, I would apply for another. I might even chase a PhD. I wasn't lost, and though I was a long way from the path, I thought I had it in me to find it again.

The lectures were great. Every evening that week, I talked poetry. And all day I drifted in it, even as I tried to concentrate on project planning. On Friday, I sent my CV and letter to PSC. Two weeks later, Liz Ahl called. Two weeks after that I interviewed in the lounge of Ellen Reed House. Here I am.

I owe Li-Young Lee.

His poetry is beautiful--ripe, silken, smart. You don't need my story to see that the man is a mineral spring--restorative, mesmerizing. Check out this Youtube video of an entire Li-Young Lee reading.