Wednesday, May 01, 2013
I never set out to be a carpenter, which is probably why I’m not one today. And I never wanted to be a plumber. I’d once seen a plumber use a drain snake to unclog a toilet packed with poop, and even at $80/hour with a minimum one hour charge, it didn’t seem like a good fit for me. My father told me that I should be a plumber. “People will always need to flush toilets,” he said. “They can’t get over it.” If I didn’t want to be a plumber, he told me, I could be an electrician. “Cleaner work,” he said. He told me all this when I was working with him as a carpenter.
We performed structural carpentry, back in the heady days of the late 80s, before real estate markets (S&L scandal), or stock markets (Black Monday, 1987) ever crashed, when everything used to trickle down. The last dribbles made it to me in the form $1,000 per week, cash. My father used to pay me in hundred dollar bills. “You can always break a C-note in a bar room,” he told me. Then he added, “Don’t spend too much time in bar rooms.”
All that structural carpentry required a full quiver of building skills: demolition, repair, and rebuilding--the final part entailing the above-mentioned need for plumbing and electrical skills, not to mention painting, landscaping, finish carpentry, and customer service. I never dreamed these skills would become my calling card one day as an innkeeper. I was going to be a writer.
And I am. I think people still have funny notions about what writers do, just like we have funny notions about what everybody else does. I have a friend who is a police officer, and he tells me about the things he does during his shift, things that don’t include sleeping or eating donuts. As for writers, we do a variety of things. Some, like my friend Chris Millis, live a life close to what we think a writer’s life looks like. In other words, he earns all his money from writing. But if you look closer, you’ll see that he spends most of his time in motion. Turns out money doesn’t grow on trees for writers, so he’s busy scouring the landscape for opportunities to mine.
Many of my writer friends teach. Some, like my pal Danita Berg, are at the highest levels of academia. Others, like me, flourish in the local college scene. And there’s everything in between, before and after, that my writers are engaged in: community workshops, adult education, independent blogging, and innkeeping. Actually, I’m the only writer/innkeeper I know. Consider this a shout-out to any others like me reading this.
It’s probably the portion of my resume that deals with the practical arts of carpentry that will end up defining the products I leave behind. Although I’ve published a couple of books, scads of short stories and articles, this blog, and plenty of other assorted writings, the work I’ve done as a carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, and landscaper endures--perhaps less noticed, perhaps, like all the new bathrooms I’ve installed, more appreciated when needed.
All this talk of carpentry is the result of this year’s offseason activities. Mud season usually finds me tackling something around the inn: a new bathroom in a guest room, window replacement, or some kind of project involving traffic control and unionized labor negotiations. This year, the twist is that we’re rehabbing one of the apartments in the two-family we own. It’s a full tear-down. The previous tenants abandoned the place after literally trashing the place: it took days just to empty the garbage out. After the rugs were ripped out, the scrubbing began. Then the painting. Appliances and windows will need to be replaced. Finally, a new floor will be laid down. Then we’ll rent it out.
But why? Why not just devote yourself to your writing, Shawn? Why not hustle for writing gigs? Why not pursue a full-time professor position? Why bang your head against all these dirty manual jobs?
It goes back to products. Making places livable for other people is a passion. Giving life to buildings that others have forgotten or forsaken is a passion. Busting my knuckles until they bleed, solving physical problems, filling the air with profanity is a passion. I love being exhausted. I love trying to scrub paint off my hands and blowing the dust out of my nose. But most of all, I love the end, because when it’s all over, I have something to write about.
Monday, April 22, 2013
The only college I visited before I went away to school was Bentley College. I was a freshman in high school, and a family friend invited me to help him move into his dorm. After hauling up all his gear, we pointed his Bose 901 speakers out the window that overlooked the campus, dropped in a cassette tape of ZZ Top’s album El Loco, and blasted “Pearl Necklace.” Somebody pushed a beer into my hand, and that’s the last thing I remembered about college until I showed up on the campus of the University of Maine three years later.
I wanted a different experience for my sons.
So in Seamus’s junior year we spent our spring vacation visiting schools. We visited Tufts and Northeastern and Berklee in Boston, Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzard’s Bay, and Providence College and the University of Rhode Island. We laced our school visits with plenty of other fun activities, like a Red Sox game at Fenway, shopping along Washington Street in Boston, eating out in the North End, and making the Cliff Walk in Newport on a stunning blue-sunny day.
Along the way, we learned something about our sons, and a lot about colleges and universities and their admissions processes. After touring the URI and listening to an explanation of their pharmacy program, Seamus turned to us and said, “I can’t see myself in this school.” That reaction alone made the trip worth the expense. To be able to understand what you want--and don’t want--from a school is a crucial first step choosing a college.
Last summer, after picking up Brendan from music camp, we decided to take advantage of east-central Maine location and visit my alma mater, the University of Maine at Orono, and Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. Brendan is interested in the maritime academies, and our visit earlier that year to Mass Maritime piqued his interest--especially when the young lady giving us the tour (a graduating senior) told us that she had three job offers between $90,000 and $120,000 a year waiting for her.
Visiting Orono was somewhat of an excuse for me to see the place I’d spent four years of my life. I hadn’t been back 25 years, and while there were some big changes--where was the bus that ferries students around when I was trudging around campus in -20 degree weather?--the sprawling campus looked much the same. The big revelation was visiting Maine Maritime Academy. The school lodged and fed us for free, and Brendan responded to the intimate, personal feeling of the place. More importantly, he identified a unique program the school offers: a five-year marine science/small vessel ops degree. It dovetails nicely with his interest in driving boats and studying the ocean.
As he entered his senior year, Seamus was armed with the information he needed to choose the schools he’d apply to. He understood the selection process, and he had targeted schools strong not only in the programs he wanted, but he understood the kind of school he wanted to go to. He knew where he fit. The notion of finding a school that fits the student may sound offensive to old-fashioned ears. What’s the difference? All colleges and universities have classes and books and teachers. School is what you make of it, right?
But both Chantal and I had very different experiences. Chantal came to the U.S. to go to college, and she didn’t select her school (Marywood College in Scranton, Pennsylvania); it was selected for her by her family, and she hated it. She ended up with a major she was good at, but disliked (math), and an experience she’d rather forget. For me, the University of Maine at Orono was a compromise choice. I’d been admitted to Fordham University, Ripon College, Boston College, and Orono. My choice came down to money, and I went to Maine, nurturing a growing resentment that would make my four years there choppy and bittersweet.
After our first round of college tours, and after Seamus had applied to his schools (University of Vermont, University of British Columbia, Montana State University, Northeastern University, Temple University, Tufts, and McGill), we decided to plan another round of visits for this spring break. The combination of travel and education satisfied our vacation requirements, and this time Brendan was the focus: We scheduled visits to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, New York, and SUNY Maritime College on Throgg’s Neck, in the Bronx. We also planned a visit to Temple University in Philadelphia for Seamus, where he’d been admitted.
For both boys, all the schools we visited shared lots of characteristics while distinguishing themselves in the details. The surface stuff--the information that can be gleaned from websites--is easy to see. But the small things, the subtle differences in programs and approaches, the feeling of each campus--those are the things that can make or break a successful college experience. From our perspective, we saw a marked contrast in the approach of each kind of school. The maritime academies focus on outcomes. They look beyond the experience to the results. The only conventional school that talked about serious, practical results was Northeastern, famous for its cooperative education program. The theme that ran through all the conventional colleges and universities we visited was lifestyle. There’s a huge emphasis on food and eating and socializing and activities. That emphasis sounds soft, and it is; but it also feeds into how a prospective student sees him or her self living at the place for the next four years.
The big takeaways from all this college research is sort of a mix. Can a student be happy in any institution? Sure, if he or she has the right kind of motivation and personality. But if a student has worked hard in high school to achieve some choice at the university level, and if, like my sons, they’ve been told that they will have to figure out how to pay for their own educations, taking some time to visit a few places not only makes sense, but it seems silly not to do.
If that isn’t convincing, think of it this way: the only other thing most of us will spend $200,000 on in our lives is a home (well, in Stowe that will only get you a fancy garage). You wouldn’t buy a house without looking at it first, would you?
Or maybe you would.
Friday, March 29, 2013
In early March, I took time out from what had become a very busy innkeeping winter to travel to Boston and participate in the 2013 Association of Writing Professionals Writer’s Conference. I was there to help my Goddard College MFA mafia capo Chris Millis present a talk called “Story Autopsy.” The presentation was a hit, but like most things in life, it wasn’t the result that mattered as much as the journey.
After a day in Stowe spent brainstorming the presentation and drinking a bottle of Japanese single malt whiskey with local scribe David Rocchio, Millis and I charged down to Boston, arriving on a Wednesday night. Searching for a little nightlife, we battled high winds and marched through Faneuil Hall, only to find the place--and its surrounding restaurants and pubs--boarded up. Millis, a Saratogan weaned on last calls coinciding with sunrise, was rightfully indignant. After snarfing a couple of burgers at the lone open food joint we found (none of the pubs that were open offered food after 10 p.m., a policy only slightly less daft than allowing 16 year-old boys to drive), we retired to the hotel to sample the impressive bar we’d brought along. There was Buffalo Trace bourbon and Bullit rye; a bottle of Canadian whisky; and--bless Millis’s heart--a jug of mother’s milk: John Jameson’s & Sons.
The conference itself was similar to all conferences: a bunch of like-minded attendees staggering around, visiting booths, listening to talks, and making new contacts. Millis and I pressed the flesh and actively recruited people to come to our talk, scheduled the second day of the conference. We also attended a talk featuring Lowell Williams, a Goddard MFA alum, and Deb Brevoort, a member of Goddard’s MFA faculty. We also connected with our faculty advisor Richard Panek, and we made plans to meet later for drinks.
Outside, it had begun to snow, and Boston descended into white paralysis. By morning, nearly a foot of heavy, wet snow lay on the city streets, crippling all forms of transportation. More importantly, a delivery of DVDs we’d been waiting for failed to arrive. We sloshed over to the convention center, washed Advil down with coffee, and prepared for our talk. After the presentation, we spied an Irish pub across the street advertising pitchers of beer and half-price appetizers. Along with Richard and Lowell, we found a booth and began draining barrels of Sam Adams. Despite the death metal music pumping through the speakers (Megadeth in an Irish pub? Really?), we were able to eat and drink and talk our way through platters of calamari (I think they used the same recipe as me dear auld Irish granny Flanagan used), nachos (served Kerryman style: a single, unified glob), and spicy barbecue chicken wings. By the time we’d gotten to the chickens, we’d also gotten to the seventh pitcher of beer, and our watiress didn’t appreciate us asking what the Irish did with the wingless chickens that were left over.
A lot of our time at the conference was spent on the Goddard College couch. Goddard rep Samantha Kolber had the good sense to request a couch, and it drew lots of sitters, so there was always a big crowd around the Goddard booth. By the time Millis and I left town on Saturday, we’d already brainstormed a couple of ideas for presentations at next year’s conference, in Seattle. Going into this conference, we had some concerns--the whole conference concept of enclosing 11,000 writers together for an extended pow-wow is vaguely offensive to people whose job it is to shun the world then write about it--but the energy we took away was undeniable. Readers of this blog should start to hear about the fruits of that energy over the next few months.