The Fart Heard Round the Room

As a Professor of Speech at Virginia Commonwealth University I am sometimes tasked with making the mundane interesting. Students are expected to learn the basics of the speech communication process and the terms that outline the experience. The definitions of words such as Speaker, Listener, Message, Channel, Situation, Feedback, Interference, and Frame of Reference are central to understanding the process. Though they are fundamentally simplistic, they can be misunderstood, at least the last few can, without some explanation. Thankfully, my wife and father-in-law gave me an excellent recent example to relay to my classes that could not illustrate the speech communication process with more ridiculousness. Here is their story and how it all breaks down as a speech experience.

On August 21, 2015 while in Colonial Williamsburg, Nancy and her father, Wron, went into the Peyton Randolph House to hear a lecture about slavery. The lecture was a walking tour of the house led by an African-American woman of some years. As they toured the house another woman about fifty-five years old kept loudly breaking wind right in front of Nancy and her dad, and then would casually look around attempting to shift the blame from herself to someone else. This went on for the entire tour, distracting both my family members. When the tour ended, Nancy and Wron came running out of the house to relay the antics of the “farting woman” inside. They recounted their experience in great detail, but as one might predict, learned less than they could have about the Peyton Randolph House or of the slaves living there.

The Peyton Randolph House in Colonial Williamsburg

The Peyton Randolph House in Colonial Williamsburg

August 21, 2015, in Colonial Williamsburg, inside the Peyton Randolph is the Situation, Wron and Nancy are the Listeners, and the African-American female docent was the Speaker. The Message was the story of the house and of the slaves who worked inside it. Easy enough. A Channel is the medium through which the speech is conveyed. In this case the Speaker was in the same room with them and didn’t use a microphone as she walked them through the house, so the Channel is really just the Speaker’s unamplified voice. Now we get to the fun stuff. The loud farting could be taken one of two ways. If the “farting woman” was deliberately farting because she didn’t like the Speaker or the Message, then she was farting as a means of Feedback, conveying to the Speaker that she didn’t like the experience. If she couldn’t help the fact that she was farting, then it was an example of Interference, unexpected or unintentional distractions that obstruct Listeners from giving their undivided attention to the Speaker and Message. The fact that she looked around after each fart also became Interference to the other Listeners but also could be construed as Feedback if she was trying to be funny and in so doing steal focus from the Speaker. Lastly, with either intent in mind, the farting and looking about became Interference for Nancy and Wron and prevented them from giving their full attention to the Message of the Speaker. The extent of that Interference was filtered through their Frame of Reference. Depending on whether or not Wron and Nancy are predisposed to find farting funny determines whether or not the Interference was received as hilarious or offensive. Considering the way both of them came running out of the house to regale me with the story of their misadventure I think we can all guess the answer to this last mystery. The Speaker’s opportunity to share valuable information about a serious and important subject was sadly, somewhat diminished. However, the Situation also created a silly and teachable moment that I can now share with my classes for years to come.

And thus endeth the lecture. Namaste everybody.

Fall Into Haiku

Every couple of weeks I try to post some of my newest haiku. This has been a busy fall so far and I’m a little behind in all my work as it is already. But there always has to be time for poetry, right? So here goes and enjoy. Namaste.

 Know you are worthy
Of all life has to offer.
Accept its bounty

Where’s your sacred space,
Locale out of time and place,
Landscaped in love’s light?

You can get through this.
God has blessed you with the strength
And the endurance.

Know that all things work,
Not on your set schedule,
But rather on God’s.

Believe the future
Will always be brighter than
Your present moment.

Stunning azure sky,
Memories of Santa Fe,
Loveliest of blues.

Know that it is hard
To accept things as they are,
But sometimes you must.

Your words mean nothing
If not followed by action;
They are ink and air.

Each tiny squirrel
Knows more about who she is
Than any human.

You must side with love.
No matter the argument,
Love must always win.

The Adams Family

Nancy and I stood in the basement of the United First Parish Church of Quincy, in a small white-washed cell, brilliantly lit by unflattering fluorescent light, and gawked at the four unassuming stone tombs laid out side by side without pretense. Here lay John Adams and wife Abigail, John Quincy Adams and wife Louisa Catherine. Their grey granite tombs said nothing but their names – no titles, no relationships, nothing. The church above was crammed with facts about their lives, but down below, nothing. The four-person tomb left barely enough room to walk around each resting place. We were crammed in with a few Japanese tourists and a few others that one could only guess why they were visiting a presidential tomb. We were told by the docent that we were as close as we could get to the tombs of any presidents. That this was only one of two churches in the country where Presidents of the United States were buried, (the other being Woodrow Wilson in the National Cathedral), we were told that annually members of the Adams family came and lay wreaths on each of the tombs. There were a few snapshots of the ceremony on a counter just outside the tomb in the basement hallway. Each of us in turn made our way around each of the four raised tombs. Like good Americans, Nancy and I each took selfies with the deceased to prove our pilgrimage had been successful, and to be approved by our Facebook families at a later time. We stood in self-imposed silence at the head of each stone, trying to feel something significant, trying to cry or not to cry, trying to receive the guidance of the Founders. And then we thanked our host, headed to our car, and met and old and dear friend for tapas and booze.

Standing between the tombs of John and Abigail.

Standing between the tombs of John and Abigail.

Earlier that day we had taken a three hour trolley tour out to the birth homes of John and John Quincy, to John Quincy’s stone library, and to John and Abigail’s place of death at Peacefield. We toured each house in turn, somewhat hurriedly, as the trolley had a schedule to keep and summers and Saturdays are peak season for visiting the homes of dead presidents in Massachusetts. We saw the rooms at Peacefield where both Abigail and John met their end. We marveled at the climate controlled library with skylights and a slightly imperfect tile floor. We took our pictures with statues of John and Abigail longing for one another on either side of the busy highway. We agonized over what souvenirs to get our son, John Adams, since the National Park Service had seen fit to stock stuffed animals of both Franklin and Washington, but no Adams; NO ADAMS! And we finally settled on a picture book of eagles, father and son, time traveling through history to America’s key moments, which could have been written by Stephen Colbert’s less talented progeny.

Sitting in the John Quincy Adams pew at United First Parish Church

Sitting in the John Quincy Adams pew at United First Parish Church

We deemed the visitations, and the entire day a success and, indeed, it was. But cramming so much in out of desire and necessity was a strain and allowed little time for reflection. We had walked the same floorboards as John and Abigail in their own houses. We had each in turn sat in the pew of the church where John Quincy and Louisa Catherine had worshiped. We were just inches away from the resting skeletons of these giants of American Independence, and yet in the heat of a hot touristy moment our thoughts were often on the snapshot, the souvenir, and the schedule of the trolley. Don’t get me wrong our visitations were profound, moving, inspiring, and worth every moment. But layered in around the experience was the press and rush of American life that demands that we do more, see more, and record every moment for the “Me Generation” to give a thumbs up or down to at a later and more convenient time. I loved every minute of our time spent in Massachusetts, but now as I sit home writing about it and considering it more fully, I just wish that I could have been more present for it.

Anyway, I can’t keep sitting here writing.

The day commences…


The John Adams birth home.

The John Adams birth home.

Walden Revisited

There are magical places on the planet. Not everyone perceives the magic of a place at the same time, and some places are not magical for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that that particular place isn’t magical; just that perhaps it’s not magical for you. Places such as the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls are awe inspiring due to their beauty and the romantic stories that have grown up around them over the last century and a half. Macchu Picchu and the Pyramids of Egypt remind us of the ancients, and for some they act as transmitters, allowing visitors to communicate verbally and non-verbally with those that have crossed over. The Camino de Santiago in France and Spain lies along ley lines of energy, and it is said that pilgrims who endure the walk across northern Spain are assured of a spiritual experience. For John Muir, Yosemite was his great awakening place. The list is exhaustive and eclectic, and it’s my hope to visit as many of the commonly held magical places as I can before I choose to cross over. This past weekend I had such an opportunity.

Walden Pond, August 2015

Walden Pond, August 2015

From Thursday, July 30th through Sunday, August 1st my wife and I camped at the Boston Minuteman Campground in Littleton, MA, the closest campground we could find to our real target destinations, the city of Concord, and Walden Pond. Both Concord and Walden are magical places for those who are seeking their kind of magic. Nancy and I, both fans of great thinkers, made our pilgrimage of sorts to visit and revisit sites that we had seen or missed a few years ago on our first venture into the area. Concord was once home to some of the greatest minds that America has ever seen: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, the Alcott family, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller and others. Much of their legacy is still preserved about town and is the principal source of tourism in the area. Nancy and I toured the Concord Museum and saw Thoreau’s writing desk on which he penned his enduring classic, Walden. We saw Emerson’s study preserved as it was when he used it. We toured the Emerson House and the Old Manse, houses that both Emerson and Hawthorne inhabited and wrote Nature and Mosses from an Old Manse respectively in. And we hiked up to Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and visited the graves of Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, sculptor Daniel Chester French, and poet William Ellery Channing. The magic of Concord and the voices still whispering to be heard are deafening and hard to miss if you’re paying attention. I’m not prepared to say at this point what the trip meant to me spiritually, but being immersed in the energy of such great, artistic, and progressive minds is overwhelming and I’m still in the afterglow of being near where they lived and worked.

On Sunday, August 1st, Nancy and I had a much longed-for brunch at the Concord Colonial Inn and then headed off for the day into the magic that is Walden Pond. When last we visited a few years ago, Walden was practically a deserted place. This time, during swimming season, it was teeming with people wading, swimming, hiking, reading, and having all forms of summer fun. In fact, it was so overrun that twice while we were there the park service actually closed the park gates from further visitation. For many of the folks there I would guess Walden was not so much a spiritual place as a recreational one. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s hard to see the magic of a place when you live in its shadow every day. Nancy and I hiked the quarter mile around the lake to the site of Thoreau’s cabin and, while there were still sunbathers, the population was quiet and much less numerous. Many other pilgrims have trucked it out to the site, and piled stone markers—some with inscriptions, some not—were aplenty as reminders of what his writing and his life have meant to the world. In the shadow of the site we sat on the shore, waded our feet, took photos, took a little water, and listened to the sounds of nature. The clouds, according to Nancy, were so perfect they almost looked painted in the sky. Walden Pond, populated or not, could still reveal its magic. All we had to do was stop, look, and listen.

On the way home from Massachusetts, Nancy and I discussed the magnificent weekend we had: sitting by the campfire, visiting the homes and graves of great men and women, eating delicious meals, wading in the shadow of Thoreau’s experiment in self-reliance. (We also toured Boston and Quincy and saw the Adams family properties, but that’s a conversation for another day.) We couldn’t decide fully what our trip had meant. I had pressed for it, but even I wasn’t sure what I hoped to achieve by it. All I had known was that I’d been in a very stressful and uncertain place in my life and my heart told me to go back to Walden, to Concord, to look for answers. A week later I’m still waiting for definite answers to some of my life’s questions, but I do feel strengthened by my memories of visiting two such magical places, and that might be just enough to get me through. But whatever the perceived lasting benefit, no time spent in a magical place of your own choosing is ever wasted. It will change you.

What magical place is calling you?


Wading in the shores of Walden Pond.

Wading in the shores of Walden Pond.