Field Notes: ‘We’re all much more aware of time, because we’re just sitting still in it.’

Making music and entertaining have long been part of who Stephen Easterling is. Here, the Columbia, Missouri singer-songwriter shares his recollections on what inspires his passion to play live music and how the local shelter-in-place order has him examining his purpose in the universe.

This Field Note is taken from a conversation of May 14, 2020.

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‘I said I would go anywhere and do anything.’

Brooklyn native Allegra Alcoff recently ended her service as a Peace Corps volunteer. When she was told she needed to gather her things from her Zambian site for a coronavirus-inspired return to the United States, Alcoff paused to think about if that was what she really wanted to do.

This is an edited conversation that happened on May 1, 2020.

Theme music: Dummy by David Fesliyan.

‘Why would I be looking for you?’

This Field Notes post looks at the personal impacts of the coronavirus. This week we hear from Dr. Carmaleta Williams, the director of the Black Archives of Mid-America. She talks about holding picture parties, interviewing the elders and being the art teacher for a pair of her instantly home-schooled grandsons.

This audio is taken from a phone conversation of April 21, 2020.

Credit: Carmaletta Williams | Williams Publishing

‘Life is an epidemic, precious in its moment’


As the coronavirus changes the way we live, my father reflects on a similar era. Click here to hear Charles Harris’ recent recollections about how polio impacted his small Missouri town in the early 1950’s.
Charles Harris and his wife, Nora. Credit: Nora Harris | Facebook

“I’ve kind of become a doctor.”

Chronic disease doesn’t take a day off. I learned that lately when I talked to Wendy McDonough. She spends time each day managing her heart condition, PTSD and multiple immune deficiencies. More of that work has fallen on her own shoulders during the coronavirus. Here is her story.

Click that arrow above to hear some of Wendy McDonough’s story.
During the coronavirus pandemic Wendy McDonough manages her chronic illness with telemedicine, healthy diet and vegetable gardening.

There are stories all around worthy of being preserved. In your own life there are certainly tales of family, career and community. The stories that make up a life can be recorded, edited and shared with friends now and future generations, well, in the future.

Contact me to discuss what stories you would like to capture for yourself or to share.

Trevor Harris

RecollectionAgency@yahoo.com / (816) 514-5146

https://www.facebook.com/RecollectionAgency/

‘A Sense of Normalcy’

One must have privilege to shelter-in-place. Those with service sector, utility and health care jobs are required to be at work even if this work requires contact with the public. This is a story of one woman who is working during the virus. She is not afraid rather feels lucky.

Excerpt from a recent interview with Donica Butters. She works at a coffeeshop located inside America’s largest furniture store. That store is presently doing only online business, which dramatically impacts Donica’s sales.
Donica Butters
Photo: Nora Harris

Thanks to Donica Butters.

Music: ‘Dummy’ by David Fesliyan.

The Process of Recollecting

Anyone can gather stories from the loved ones, elders and influencers in their lives. With some curiousity and a mobile phone most folks can preserve the stories that matter.

Click that arrow above to hear what all these words sound like. Go ahead. You know you want to.

The phone part is easy: Mobile phones are owned by 96% of Americans. Smart phone ownership hovers somewhere north of 80%. Recording on a cell phone alone may not net you the best audio possible, but it can be quite good if you sequester you and your subject in a quiet space.

When I gather someone’s recollections of a life or a time I do some basic planning. After a client agrees to proceed, I schedule a pre-recording planning meeting. This get-together allows me to meet with my client. Together, we identify and clarify our interview topics, and craft those questions that will elicit the stories we want to capture.

Gathering peoples’ recollections has, of necessity, changed in the coronavirus era.

Before we all sheltered in place, my recording process generally involved some travel. Most recordings I’ve done with my business are in private homes. Once arrived, I’d set-up my kit. The kit includes a portable recorder with a pair of microphones cabled to it; One mic for the clients, the other for me.

My earmuff-style headphones let me hear just the audio being captured by the microphones. We silence all phones, turn off the noise-makers in the house – fridge, furnace, ice-maker – and set to work. One by one I ask the questions that the client and I wrote together during our pre-recording meeting. I ask in advance if it is okay to go off script and probe if a certain area seems like fertile ground for good stories. Folks generally agree to that request.

BOOM! Add the coronavirus to the mix and you have a new challenge to be addressed: how to gather recollections in a socially distant manner?

Face-to-face, in-person interviews are temporarily verboten. As a work-around, I have recently done socially distant recordings using Skype and Recordator. Both provide more than adequate audio. I hear Zoom meetings are also recordable, but have not recorded via that platform. Yet.

I write about all this now because I feel some urgency to gather stories that matter. I feel urgency because people around me are dying. The world is going to come out of the other end of the coronavirus with less people. Many less people. All those people are full of stories worth being told and preserved. When we die our stories die with us and in 2020 living at the peak of civilization as we do, well, this just does not have to be so.

Maybe you have someone who has been significant in your life. (I would hope so.) Have you spoken with them lately? Have you ever thought of asking them to let you record their life story? What about a memory of a significant time? These memoirs don’t have to be lengthy discussions or require an elaborate recording set-up. The stories you want to gather can be collected in multiple sessions.

If someone you know has a story that matters to you, I encourage you to sit down and gather these recollections now while you still can. I share all this because I truly want to democratize folks collecting stories from those they love.

Earlier I noted some services that can help you record your stories that matter. There are many existing online resources that can help you collect recollections of your parents and grandparents, your siblings and cousins, your neighbors and business partners, among others. Great guidance on interview tips and sound quality come from StoryCorps. The Oral History Association has a free guide for introducing oral histories into classroom settings. Getting explicit permission to record someone is always a good practice. Here’s a sample consent from the oral history program of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

If you need some questions to use as a conversation stimulator, check out this list of 50 questions from the Dallas Jewish Historical Society.

Now, go get those stories. This day, this week, this month are great times to do so. You probably have some additional free time right now.

If I can ever help advise on a recording session, I am glad to help. Contact me at RecollectionAgency@yahoo.com or call me on my landline at (816) 514-5146 and leave a message.

Bloom Where You Are Planted: A Garden Memoir

Late last year, my wife and I packed up everything, said good-bye to our friends and family and moved just two hours away. Even though Kansas City is close to our beloved Columbia, it may as well be on Mars right now. Our new-found activities are on-hold due to the coronavirus. Until further notice there is no more volunteering at the bicycle collective for me, no more sewing classes down the street for Lisa nor any more eating out allowed at one of this cities’ many low- and middle-brow restaurants to which we are drawn. I feel cut-off from the world around me. You too, right?

And here’s how it all sounds.

One thing the virus can’t stop is my gardening. Spring’s here. Lisa asked recently: ‘What it is like to have the urge to garden every spring?”

“Doesn’t everyone feel that way?” I asked. “They do not,” she replied.

Comparing the dates of when I started my vegetable seeds this year and when I did that last year it was within 2 days. It’s a primal push I feel to get some plants growing about now. But where did that come from?

From a young age, I gardened. As a kid, my single mom would shuttle my brother and I to our grandparents’ house when she went to work. While mom brought home the bacon Heath and I played, roamed and helped Grandpa garden. Lambert Burkemper had a garden in his yard that was I’d guess 40 feet wide by 80 feet long. Each spring, he staked off rows and tilled dirt piles high again for the planting of tomatoes, potatoes and beans. He had limited variety in what he grew. Growing up in a family of 12 kids he aimed for maximum annual harvest. I helped him plant seeds, hoe weeds and gather the harvest.

My grandparents died too young and their garden along with their house was eventually sold to a U-Haul rental office that also has storage lockers. Alas, my grandfathers garden site now grows storage spaces as small at 5x5x8 feet that rent for $64.95 monthly.

As a young man, my interests turned to cars, girls and college. Gardening fell off my radar. I didn’t garden for years after leaving home. After college I bought a house with some friends. It wasn’t a question of to-garden-or-not-to-garden rather what space to allocate to what plantings. Our raised beds of corn and garlic and squash upended my notion of long rows featuring one plant, a model I learned as a kid watching Grandpa religiously tend his plants.

Years later my wife and I lived adjacent to her parents’ property. They have several acres in the middle of town and the back corner of their lot is wooded. An old garden space required clearing invasive bush honeysuckle and fence re-construction. Though the years, I grew annuals there and eventually fruits.

The fruit focus came from my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer. From 2008 to 2010, Lisa and I served alongside folks in the southern African nation of Zambia. As an agriculture volunteer I saw what farmers grew and how the smart ones also grew woody plants near their homes. Fruits and medicinal trees are no strangers to Zambian hut-holds. These plants found a home in my garden landscape after we moved home post-service.

Over time my garden interests grew. My gardens included the basics (tomatoes and beans), the climate change winners (tomatillos and okra) and perennials (blackberries, elderberries and asparagus). The urge to grow plants sprouts forth in me each spring like a seed bursting forth into a plant. Home gardening requires some degree of faith in the future.

A few years ago, I found myself struggling to keep up with my large garden. My desire to garden had eclipsed my ability to weed, water and monitor each plants’ unique pests. How had my garden grown so far beyond my ability to maintain it? Perhaps it was the grand scale of Grandpa Burkemper’s garden. But where he had simplicity – one variety of tomatoes, one of potatoes and so on – I had complexity. Multiple varieties of numerous species were the norm for me in my large garden site. Empowered with this realization I shrunk the garden fence by 20 feet last year reducing myself to just 12 raised beds. These beds are a hybrid of my lifelong experiences with gardening.

What stories, people, plants and events make up your gardening history?

My neighbor back in Columbia is now care-taking my former (and hopefully future) garden site. For this year I will garden in the yard of the 1905 house Lisa and I share in KC. The house has hosted many lives including the owner of a long-gone taxi service. To host his cab fleet the owner paved most of the backyard and built a garage now gone. Over time, a slow creep of grass has covered some of the asphalt. This aggregate-filled Earth seems no place to raise my prized cucumbers, lettuce and dill, so this year, I will garden in a pair of raised beds and assorted large pots. I built raised bed frames from cedar planks that should be slow to rot and support the soil resting above the asphalt coating our piece of Kansas City, Missouri 64108. Soon, I will bring in garden soil.

Growing amidst asphalt: my 2020 garden challenge

Between now and mid-fall will continue my long-time love affair with gardening. My wife is not jealous since my affair will produces the large tomatoes and basil she craves. My annual garden goal: grow vegetables as consistently formed and as large as Grandpa Burkemper did and on a manageable scale.

The story you just heard is a memoir. That is a story about one part of a life. In this case, you heard the tale of my gardening history. The past few minutes didn’t cover my entire life rather focused tightly on one topic. Other possible memoir topics for this blog could include a history of my relationship with my wife, or my mixed history with being an alter-boy in Catholic school, or my history with bike-riding. There are many choices of what we can focus on when writing or telling a memoir.

What are your memoir topics? What stories would you tell to create a full memoir of that topic?

I’d love to plan a recording with you (or a loved one) where you (or they) talk about the history of your family, marriage, business, activism or the art collection that you will someday pass on to your kids and grand-kids. Reach out to me and we can explore the scope of the recording, when and where to record and how your memoir or life story would best be shared.

New to my garden story: cedar raised-bed frames.
Meanwhile, Roz the dog sleepily anticipates a squirrel.

Thanks for listening today. I’m Trevor Harris. Learn more about my work preserving life stories and audio memoirs by visiting me RecollectionAgency.com, check out RecollectionAgency on Facebook or e-mail me at RecollectionAgency@yahoo.com.

My broken nose

As a kid, I loved a rush as much as the next guy. I recall joining my cousins on the top of the six-foot high wooden swing-set their dad had recently built for them as they took turns jumping off the top and daring me to join them. Rope swings into the creek were always my jam. I loved climbing trees as a kid and still do when the mood strikes me and the right tree presents itself. This is my story of how saying yes to thrill-taking led to a life-long dent in my nose, an impact that stares back at me every day in the mirror. It is an event that literally made me who I am today.

In the summer of 1980, I was busy being nine years old. I hated my little brother for no transgressions on his part except he existed. Heath and I enjoyed our weekend visits with our Dad, Charles. Heath and I didn’t see Dad and his new wife, Tanya, every other weekend (as my parents’ divorce ruling allowed), but we did see them regularly. When he still lived in Missouri, our visits happened at his house in Columbia. Sometimes we went to the home of his new bride’s parents near Kansas City. On those visits, he would shower us with toys and exciting experiences. Children’s Palace! World of Fun! Clints Comics!

We’d return home to our Mom who always seemed glum about the result of what I saw as an otherwise stellar weekend. We didn’t understand then that she lacked the resources to regularly take us out for pizza or to amusement parks. It was against that backdrop that Dad took us go-carting.

Today, I am not conscious of the mechanics of how I drive or bicycle or walk for that matter. I have done those things for so long that when it comes time to do them, well, I just do them. Riding a bicycle is unconscious for me. Sure, I need to know where I am going and intentionally choose a safe route there, but how I ride is baked into my brain. There was a time when each of us did not yet know how to walk, bike or drive. This story is set in the era when I did not yet know how to drive.

One sunny, summer afternoon, on one of those Dad-sponsored trips, my father drove us through the Lake of the Ozarks. We may have been on our way home from one of our visits to Table Rock Lake. The green Datsun truck snugly held me, my Dad, his new wife Tanya and my brother Heath. We pulled into the parking lot of a go-cart track. I can’t remember if it was planned or the result of my pleading, but there we were.

Rows of pint-sized open-topped go-carts awaited me. I was naturally eager to learn how to drive and at 10 couldn’t seriously engage any mentally competent, sober adult to let me practice with their car. My Grandpa’s lawnmower was the closest thing I knew to driving thanks to the loud motor that drove the blade that cut the lawn where the green grass grew all around all around and the green grass grew all around. I digress.

Kind of how it looked. Credit: FunLake.com

Cash exchanged hands and I was soon behind the wheel of My Very Own Go-Cart. The track worker told me that one pedal was for gas and one was the brake. I did not take note. As soon as the man said, go I stomped on it. The steering wheel quickly made sense. Turn left to move left and right to head to the right. My Dad, Tanya and Heath (at five he was too small for the track’s carts) watched me from the snack bar. I covered the small go-cart track quickly in my ride, so I went around again. And again.

At one point, the track worker stepped onto the edge of the track. My time was up. I was thrilled. “Step on the brake!” he yelled. I just gassed it more. I legitimately didn’t understand brake vs. gas pedals. I went faster. The next time I came around to the start/finish line the track worker trotted out and ran alongside me. “Use the brake pedal!”

I went faster instead of slower. My speed soon eclipsed my ability to control the cart.

How I remember the scene at the go-cart track that day. It probably wasn’t nearly this dramatic, but close. Credit: BlueRidgeNow.com

If it were a comic book (and it should be) there would be a sound effects balloon where my cart came in contact with the tires lining the track. The contact drove the back side of the cart up into the air and violently down again. There were no helmets as I recall. I was lucky I didn’t flip my go-cart. My face took the force of the impact and specifically my nose. When my Dad dropped me off at home on Sunday evening he sheepishly had to explain to my Mom why my nose was blue. She was, again, unimpressed with the outcome of our visit with our Dad.

Now almost 40 years after that fateful day, I still don’t ride go-carts. That probably is due to the fact that I aged out of the demographic and presently live in a go-cart desert. I also still sport a flat spot on the bridge of my nose. It is a constant reminder of my imperfection. It is familiar. My wife told me the other day she had never noticed how asymmetrical my face is. She may not have noticed had we not been in the early stages of a self-quarantining experience brought on by the threat of catching COVID-19 virus.

My brave face: Where the go-cart met my nose.

Stories are important. They define who we are. I sometimes think about that day at the lake of the Ozarks go-cart track when I think about how it was to grow up in a broken home in the late 1970s and 80s in the American state of Missouri. I started my business as a way to capture peoples’ stories whether life-changing or the mundane patterns that shape us. The business serves as an extension of why we make movies with our phones or take pictures at weddings. We want to remember the times we have lived.

-Trevor/March 16, 2020