institute for documentary studies

{Week 3: Radio}

Week 3: Radio


The day began with lobster pie and ended with walking through a cemetery knee-deep in snow.

Let me explain.

The first week, our instructor Michael gave us an assignment to create a profile about another student. Much like the audio postcard, the student profile was designed to get us comfortable with field recording and to stretch our ProTools wings (that’s the editing software we use at Salt). But unlike the audio postcard, in which we sought subjects in exotic Portland destinations, we were each other’s interview subjects. At the time, this seemed harmless. I trusted my classmates, their judgment and sensitivity, and was curious to learn more about them. Over Chinese food one evening, a small group of us traded stories about our ancestry. It was fascinating and surprisingly easy. I told them the basics: my father was Chinese; my mother was a Western European hybrid (English/Irish/Welsh/Hungarian/Polish). Her father (the English/Irish/Welsh part) was born in Maine, forty minutes outside of Portland. We’ve been coming to Maine since I was a child.


Catherine, my partner in the project, is an especially easy and fascinating person to talk too. She works for a Canadian trade union and has spent her life advocating for the rights of working people. She came to Salt out of a desire to introduce her communications department to better storytelling practices and secured a ten-month sabbatical to move to the United States. Among this semester’s radio students, her journey is especially unique. I was excited to get to know her better and to share my own to story, to speak on the other side of the microphone for a change. Through this exercise, we would learn what it felt like to be an “interview subject.” It was the radio equivalent of those empathy suits that pregnant women make their husbands wear, but with hopefully less bladder pressure and irritability.


After chatting for an hour about interests both shared (social justice, art) and unique (open source technology for her, lobster for me), we decided to build profiles around each other’s family relationships: her relationship with her daughter in Norway and my relationship with my grandfather. We conspired to take a road trip and on Valentine’s Day, piled our audio kits into her compact car and fled down the spine of coastal Maine. Not long after that, the stories about my mother’s father tumbled out. My grandfather’s name was Robert Stanley King. He was born on December 17th, 1929 in Sanford. Our best moments together were invariably tethered to Maine, not only because it was his place of birth or because it was where we vacationed every summer, but also because Maine was the place where he seemed the happiest. Memories of those July weekends in York and Ogunquit perch like Polaroid pictures. Grandpa sitting on the beach beneath an umbrella, baseball cap, and several layers of sunscreen, gazing sleepily at the waves rolling in. Grandpa plowing through a carton of steamed clams, drenching them in clarified butter. Yanking the tendon of a disembodied lobster claw to show me how it opened and closed. He was a manufacturing engineer and forever imparting his fascination with how things worked. My grandfather built airplanes for the Korean War and worked on engine parts in Connecticut, simultaneously maintaining an antique clock repair business in the family’s basement. He would tinker in that workshop until his vision failed him and by the end, had to be pushed in his wheelchair up the hill of the Nubble Lighthouse parking lot to pose once more with his family: his wife, five children, three daughters-in-law, one son-in-law, and three grandchildren. If you put the Nubble Light pictures in order, it makes for an amusing time-lapse flip book. My orthodonture changes radically and so does the fullness in my grandfather’s face. We both get older. But he looks perpetually happy.


It had been a few years since I had been to this part of Maine and since the beach was closed, I opted to take Catherine to a family staple: the Maine Diner in Wells. The last time I had been there was 2010, the year after my grandfather died. Our family rushed through the meal. We rushed through the weekend. Everybody wanted to keep the tradition alive, but nobody wanted to stick around long enough to feel the brunt of his loss. This time around, taking an inventory of the low-lying countertops, I was nonplussed. It was just a diner.


Now, if you’ve ever revisited a childhood haunt with a new friend, you can probably guess what happened next. In all that is shared and withheld, said and not said, you become the reluctant character in your own Lifetime movie. All the pauses seem dramatic and not just because you’re chewing lobster pie. In the company of a person such as Catherine, who is both on a mission to get you talking and possessed with a natural aptitude for conversation, your resistance towards the past softens. You stop sounding so matter of fact and start sounding more speculative, more interpretive, trying to make connections between what’s happening right now – lunch at a diner – and general truths about your life. I told her about how much I loved Maine. I wondered aloud if my hidden agenda for coming to Salt was to have an excuse to live in Maine for more than a weekend. I wanted her to understand something I didn’t fully understand myself. I told her more, but can’t remember most of it now. Mostly I remember this light pressure behind my temples, the sensation of entrusting someone with something buried away. I tried to peel back, to redirect the conversation toward more neutral territory, but Catherine kept listening. I found myself reaching for my phone to call my Mom and to ask her where Sanford was. We got back in the car.


My grandfather was the only child of John William King and Ethel Frances Bland. John and Ethel are buried in the Oakdale Cemetery, along with their son Chester who died when he was two days old, on a hill next to the entrance, beneath modest headstones so lowly the grass blades shade them from the sun. That Thursday afternoon, it was overcast. They were buried beneath an additional two feet of snow. I tore fruitlessly through the snow looking for the plot, determined to show Catherine where my grandfather’s family was buried and furious with myself for not being able to remember. Granted, Sanford wasn’t a usual stop in our family’s annual Maine pilgrimage, but I wanted desperately to provide her that scene. Why? I didn’t know. It was a crucial element for her radio story. Surely it was. But there was no logical reason to drag Catherine through a cemetery to find it.


In the dimming February light, the ground was turning pink. It was time to go. It planted myself on a nondescript plot, next to the headstones of some other girl’s great-grandparents entombed in snow, cresting like the backs of dolphins, and turned to face Catherine. “How do you feel standing here Emily?” I could barely furnish an answer. Embarrassed. Like I was taking this project too seriously. Like I take everything too seriously. I tried to fictionalize my way through the confusion, saying something about the past being buried and how Maine could mean something different to me in adulthood, testing different hypotheses in a stand-up narration of events simultaneously occurring. It was too overwhelming. I had meant to show Catherine something old and reconciled, a tombstone, and in staging this moment, unwittingly walked into the moment itself – standing somewhere in the vicinity of great-grandparents final resting place, in the town where my grandfather was born, in the state where I’ve come to live. I underestimated how all those pieces would reverberate upon collision and how their composite would register as ambiguously as a Rorschach inkblot. Was it melancholy? Was it sentiment? I couldn’t tell. It was the type of moment I would have preferred to experience alone, but don’t think I could have were it not for the Catherine’s gentle encouragement. She asked me twice more, when we got back to her apartment, how I felt standing in that cemetery. It was an important question and I talked around it for a long time. The answer arrived with all the earmarks of clarity – all at once and incontestable. “I miss my grandfather,” I told her. “I wish I could share all of this with him.”


Is this what it feels like to be interviewed? Prone? Like anything could happen and some puzzle piece could click innocently into place, radically changing the whole picture? Not all the time, we’d ring our subjects dry if we did, but it’s difficult to say whether I would have realized something profound about myself were it not for that afternoon and Catherine’s inquiry.  It makes me wonder how my classmates and I will affect the people we meet in the coming months as we pursue our radio features. Maybe we’ve already knocked a peg loose in someone (maybe in each other) without even realizing it, kicked the marble at the top of a Rube Goldberg machine awaiting the perfectly aimed question. “How do you feel?”