Transcript

243:

Later That Same Day
Transcript

Originally aired 07.25.2003

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

What can 20 years do to you? Well, consider the case of George Ryan, former governor of Illinois, lifelong Republican. Ryan is famous for one of the most dramatic flip-flops any big league politician has made in this country on an issue in the last few decades. In February 2000, Ryan, a death penalty supporter, tough on crime, declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois, the first state to do that in decades. You may have heard about that. And he's spoken about that decision in public a lot.

But we found this recording of a speech that he made at Northwestern University, one of the rare times that he's talked about his decision so personally and emotionally. And among other things, he told the audience how he had actually been one of the lawmakers who put in place the very law that he ended up suspending. This is back when he was a representative to the Illinois General Assembly.

George Ryan

In 1977, I voted to reinstate the death penalty in Illinois. I vividly remember an opponent of capital punishment who challenged those of us who voted to put capital punishment back on the book. I was standing on the floor of the House, and I had punched my green button. And somebody on the other side stood up and said, "How many of you that are voting green would be willing to throw the switch in the electric chair?" It was a sobering question and a sobering thought. I don't want to execute anybody, and I don't want to be the executioner. I didn't want to have anything to do with that.

Ira Glass

But he believed in the system, believed it was fair, and he voted for the death penalty. 20 years passed, more than 20 years. Ryan becomes governor. And around the same time, it was becoming clear that there were problems in the way that Illinois was sending men to death row. One case after another was being overturned. And then, the hypothetical question that that legislator had asked back in the 1970s became a very real question for George Ryan. He was the one who had to decide whether the switch would be thrown in the case of a man named Andrew Korkoraleis.

George Ryan

I began a very extensive review in the case file. I wanted to make sure that there were no mistakes. I called in my trusted friends, both prosecutors and defense lawyers, to have them review the case files. I talked to investigators, and I talked to everybody that I could that had some knowledge about the law. And I agonized, frankly. I'm a pharmacist who had the good fortune to be elected governor of this great state. Now, suddenly, I shouldered the burden of making the decisions about life or death.

Ira Glass

Tuesday, March 17th, the day before the execution, Ryan still did not know what to do. At one point, he had his aides type up a stay of execution. At another, he asked for the prayers of Illinois residents. By 7:00 PM, he declared that he was convinced that Korkoraleis was guilty. Six hours later, Korkoraleis was dead. And what comes through in this particular speech is Ryan's anger at having to be the one to decide after so many people along the way had done such a careless job at figuring out guilt in this and other cases. Within a year, he had declared his moratorium.

George Ryan

Get this one. This ought to open everybody's eyes. Nearly half of the 300 capital cases in Illinois have been reversed for a new trial or a re-sentencing. Can you believe that? Almost half out of 300 cases have been rescheduled for re-sentencing or a new trial. It's like flipping a coin, heads or tails, live or die. That's what it's like. Can you believe that?

I've faced my share of criticism over the past three years, and especially from people in my own party, about the moratorium and the clemency hearings. But until you've sat in judgment and made that life or death decision, you really can't debate with me about what it's like to pull the switch. I know the burden, and I know what it feels like to be responsible for a man to be executed. It's not pleasant.

Ira Glass

Time passes. People change. Sometimes they change a lot. Today on our program, we bring you three stories about what the passage of time can do to somebody. When each story begins, the world is aligned one way. Then, years pass. Sometimes just months pass, and everything is different. It gives you hope in a way.

It's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Act One of our show today, The Hiker And The Cowman Should Be Friends, Scott Carrier tells the story of how the environmentalists, who ranchers hated the most, who they tried to run out of town on a rail, who they actually hung in effigy, came to take the ranchers' side of things. Act Two, Scrapbook, The Verb, a Houston woman is trying to document every day of her four-year-old daughter's life in preparation for a day faraway. Act Three, Slingshot, John Hodgman tells the story of two people, one beach, one space ride, and what a difference one year makes. Stay with us.

Act One. The Hiker And The Cowman Should Be Friends.

Ira Glass

Act One, The Hiker And The Cowman Should Be Friends. Scott Carrier tells this story from southern Utah of a man named Grant Johnson who goes through a huge change over time.

Scott Carrier

The first time I interviewed Grant Johnson he'd just gotten out of jail. He'd been in for eight days, charged with sabotaging four Caterpillar tractors down on the Bird Trail. The Bird Trail was an old dirt road, 60 miles long, connecting Picaboo and Boulder, Utah. It was the middle of nowhere, used mainly by ranchers to graze their cattle on the public lands. The ranchers and the county government wanted to improve the road, turn it into a highway, but a local environmental group was protesting the whole notion. They thought the land should be designated as a wilderness and left alone.

Then, one morning, some of the road workers discovered that someone had poured sand in the gas tanks. And the sheriff arrested Grant Johnson because he was one of the three founding members of the environmental group, which was called SUWA, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. And he lived only a few miles from the scene of the crime. And he'd been such a thorn in their sides, protesting road construction and timber sales, that he'd already been hung in effigy from a lamppost on Main Street in Escalante. When Grant posted bail, the sheriff told him that he couldn't guarantee Grant's safety if he went home.

So I drove down there to talk to Grant, 250 miles south from Salt Lake to Boulder, then 7 miles east down the bird trail to Deer Creek where I parked and followed the stream until I saw Grant's 16-foot camper trailer. He was living there with his girlfriend, Sue Fearon. Inside was a bed, a little table that folded down, and a gas stove, but no running water, no bathroom, no electricity, no phone. Outside, it was a wilderness, a place of natural forces: red Navajo Sandstone from the Jurassic, dark blue sky, and just real quiet.

Grant Johnson

Well, my name is Grant Johnson. I live at Deer Creek Ranch. I've been in the area of southern Utah, mainly around the Bird Trail, since '75. I've lived on either end of the Bird Trail or on it. And I first came here when I was 16, and it was just incredibly beautiful. That's the number one thing about this country is it's just so beautiful you drop your jaw, you know? There's nothing like it anywhere. From here, I could get on a horse and ride for 80 miles before I'd hit Lake Powell and not see anyone or any sign of man. There's just one road here to cross, and then there wouldn't be another road. So you feel like you're seeing a lot of it for the first time, the first white man, you know? You have the feeling of the first white man a lot. And it's a real sense of freedom too. There's no people, no law. It just feels real free, wide open.

Scott Carrier

I never asked Grant if he sabotaged the equipment, I think mainly because I didn't want to see him lie. It was like a little war back then, a turf battle between the cowboys and the environmentalists, Heavenly Father versus Mother Earth. Both sides considered the land to be sacred. So maybe it was more like a holy war, a clash of cultures.

This is Boulder cattleman Dell LeFevre, also back in '87, a man who works from sunup to sundown, who wouldn't even stop his chores during the interview.

Dell Lefevre

Yeah, we're the steward of the land. The Lord give us this land to take of it. And I think if we don't take care of this land, we're going to answer in the hereafter. And the do-gooders, as I call them-- some call them the tree-huggers-- the do-gooders come along and, really, what purpose do they have? What stake have they got in this ground? They've got a job in Salt Lake, a job in Denver, a job in Flagstaff.

My thing is I don't think the ranchers has hurt this land in the last 88, 90 years they've been here. I mean, let's say we turn this all over to the environmentalists, you know? Shut her down. They want this road shut down, let's just shut the road down. Let's just let it go back to natural. How many people would see this? How many people'd enjoy it?

They backpack on the trails that we've carved out. They backpack on our cow trails, the hikers, you know? If we didn't have them trails there, they wouldn't even get there. And my question, I guess, to everybody, what would Boulder be without a ranch? Do you think Boulder'd be Boulder without boulders? They're losing who really take care of the land. They don't take care of the land. All they want to do is come out and smoke their pot, do their little hiking around, and go home.

Scott Carrier

The holy war was about a number of things: road construction, timber sales, energy development, mining rights. But part of the holy war was simply about cows, cows grazing on the public land. There's a lot of public land in southern Utah, about 90% of it. And even though it's mostly sand, and sandstone, and sagebrush, there's still enough grass and other plants along the river banks and up in the mountains for cows to feed. And when the Mormon pioneers first settled the land, that's how they survived, by running their cattle over huge areas.

The problem was that the ranchers sometimes put too many cows out there. And then they sometimes left the cows alone for long periods of time, and the cows overgrazed causing some serious erosion and environmental destruction. So the environmentalists wanted the cows out of there. They were destructive, and they were not native to the desert. And they also left cow pies everywhere they went, cow dung, not the tidy, little berries left by deer, but big, sloppy glops of poop on the trails and in the rivers. And a lot of backpackers felt this detracted from their wilderness experience. So for the environmentalists, the cow pies became a symbol of everything wrong with the management of the public land. But for the ranchers, Grant Johnson was the symbol of everything wrong with the environmentalists.

Sue Fearon

I didn't really realize it. Maybe I'm kind of thick-skinned, but I didn't really realize how clear the divisions were in town, environmentalists or hippie. I didn't realize a lot of things. I didn't realize how under people's skin Grant had gotten. There were people that just absolutely hated him. I mean, he was in their midst, and he didn't appear to be leaving.

Scott Carrier

That's Sue Fearon, Grant's girlfriend. They're married now, but back then, she was still pretty much a young woman from the coast of Connecticut. She met Grant after she got out of college when she had a summer job as a ranger in Zion National Park. Grant told Sue about the land he owned on Deer Creek, and that he had some horses, and was going to get some more, and start an outfitting company taking tourists down into the canyon country to these beautiful places he'd discovered. Sue thought Grant was a man with a plan. And she went with him to Deer Creek one night under a full moon and, basically, never left. That was before Grant got arrested. She didn't really realize she was walking into a war zone.

Sue Fearon

Nine felonies and four misdemeanors, and he was thrown in jail. And they set his bail at $250,000, which was-- I mean, there was a guy in there who had shot somebody through the head, and his bail was $50,000. But, at any rate, nonetheless, we raised $260,000 in property.

It was pretty interesting. The county attorney tried to make it a condition of bail that he'd not return to his home until the whole matter was settled, which is absolutely unheard of. He represented the environmental community. And I think there were forces here, elected officials, who thought if he went away, if we could uproot him and get him out of Deer Creek, we would be done with this.

Fortunately, we are absolutely blessed by having two very good friends who are lawyers. We don't have a lot of money. And if he had had to go with the public defender, he would have been traded over breakfast at the Flying J in Panguitch. They would have cut a deal, and that would be that.

Scott Carrier

For two years, everyone held their breath. That's how long it took for Grant to go to trial. And then, it turned into kind of a farce. The county just didn't have any evidence, and they dropped the charges.

Sue Fearon

Somebody, a friend of ours, took us aside and said, "You guys should go away for a while. Things are really hot. They're talking it up in Escalante. They want to come and route you out." And I said, "You know, we'll lock the gate, but we're not going anywhere."

And the first thing we did was we went to Salt Lake City, and we went to my favorite gun store. And I pointed out all the guns that I needed to buy and all the little clips that I needed to go with them. And I came back with, I guess maybe, defensive weapons.

Scott Carrier

What did you buy?

Sue Fearon

A Mini-14 with a 40-round clip. It's a semi-automatic and--

Scott Carrier

Pistol or a rifle?

Sue Fearon

That's a rifle. And then a 38.

Scott Carrier

Grant and Sue pretty much kept to themselves, staying out on Deer Creek, working on their land, raising horses, and getting ready to start their outfitting company. It must have been tough living alone in the middle of nowhere, no power, no phone, on the edge of a community of 100 people, some of whom hated their guts. One day, Sue went to pick up Grant's kids from his first marriage.

Sue Fearon

So anyhow, as I was approaching Escalante, a fellow who worked for the county in a county dump truck was coming towards me, and he ran me off the road while flipping me off. What a talent, huh? One hand running me off the road, and I ended up in the ditch. But at any rate, this is, you know--

So anyhow, I go to Cedar City, or Paragonah, and I pick up the kids, and I come back. And when I got back-- now we've got kids around, so we don't want to leave the gun loaded-- I dropped the bullets out of it. It's a revolver, and I dropped the bullets out on the dash and left the gun there.

Well, the next morning, Grant and I are sitting and we're having coffee. And the gate's locked down at the bottom of the ranch. And we look out the window, and here come two or three guys riding on horseback with long things laid across their legs in front of their saddle. And I thought holy mother of God, we're going to be killed, and we haven't even had coffee. So I go flying out of the house, ripped the door open, and started stuffing bullets. And I get three in there, and think, good enough, and slam it shut, and turn around.

And the guy's right behind me, and he's grinning from ear to ear. And he sees that I have flown out of the house and have grabbed a gun. And I've got a gun right in my hands. It's not pointing at him. It's pointing down on the ground. And he's smiling at me. And I think, well, something's not right. And he goes, "Hi, ma'am. We're with the cougar study. We'd just like permission to come through." And my knees were knocking together under my bathrobe. And Grant comes flying out with his 22. And I say, "Oh honey, they're here for the cougar study."

Scott Carrier

Again, this all happened in the 1980's. When Grant was arrested, Reagan was in the White House. Then Bush came and went. When Clinton was elected, the environmental movement gained a lot of momentum. By 1995, Sue had helped write a proposal to Congress to designate 5.7 million acres of southern Utah as wilderness areas. So I went back to Deer Creek to interview Grant again, but I was stunned at the man who'd been the living embodiment of the environmental movement, a man who'd risked everything for it, was now talking just like the cowboys.

Grant Johnson

Personally, I think the worst threat we have is the threat of a national park happening over here. The national park trend is to develop, build roads, hire as many police as they can, which are rangers, and then bust people for breaking the rules.

Scott Carrier

That was Grant. Sue felt pretty much the same way. She'd had enough of the environmentalists.

Sue Fearon

They're shrill. They're shrill. They're insensitive, and they're shrill. And they have no empathy. And they have, I think, perhaps, a limited understanding of what's going on down here.

Scott Carrier

In the years that had passed, SUWA has evolved from a grassroots organization of three guys around a kitchen table into an established, urban corporation with lawyers and lobbyists in Washington and a long list of donating members from all over the country and even Europe. SUWA had also kicked Grant off its board of directors because they no longer saw eye to eye. Grant had switched sides right in the middle of a heated political battle, something that almost never happens. And he'd done in the rarest of ways, by looking at the evidence and then concluding he'd been dead wrong. It had been a war about cows, and he decided cows weren't that bad.

Scott Carrier

When you first came here, you didn't like cows?

Grant Johnson

No, I hated cows. I still don't like cows. It's just I have honestly seen that cows do not hurt the land here. In 22 years of exploring this country, I've seen where the cows are, where they aren't, where they used to be and aren't anymore, where they didn't used to be and are now. And the places that the cows do get don't look much different than the places that they can't get.

And I'm not saying this is true for Great Basin, or Arizona, or Idaho, or anywhere else. But here, in the Escalante, in these canyons, I think the grazing doesn't hurt anything. A canyon bottom, like the gulch, they trail cows through there. And I've seen people, campers, in there. And they see these cows go through, and pound up the ground, and crap everywhere. And then the campers scream about the cows, say how horrible they are. The campers go back to the city. And a month later, I go back down to the same canyon, and you can't tell there was ever a cow in it. It's grown up with grass and clover.

And down on the river bottom, there was a place where the gulch hit the river where you couldn't walk through there because the guy hadn't put cows in there in so many years. Well, he finally started putting his cows down there, and now it's much grassier. You can hike through it, and, in my opinion, it's a lot more pleasant. And so I'm not really sure that what's being blamed on cows is really their fault.

Scott Carrier

In Grant's mind, he was still an environmentalist because he continued to be deeply in love with the wilderness around him. In fact, he remained a member of SUWA and sent them checks because he thought they were a necessary force in defending and promoting wilderness areas. But he'd become like a devout Christian who no longer went to church because he just couldn't get along with the other members. When I asked Sue about it, how the change came about, she told me it started when she made friends with an old rancher in Boulder, Kirk Lyman.

Sue Fearon

Kirk was probably almost 40 years my senior, about my dad's age. And one day, I was at the Bird Trail Grill and he said he was getting all these magazines, and did I need something to read. The bookmobile came every once in a while, but, pretty much, we passed magazines around a lot. So he said he had all these magazines. And I thought, huh. I didn't even know he spoke. I'd seen him around town. And I figured that he was opening a door.

Scott Carrier

When Sue told me this, things became instantly more clear. Sue is pretty, and funny, and good with horses. Of course, the cowboys wanted to talk to her.

Sue Fearon

So anyway, I just kind of got in the habit of visiting with him and hanging out with him. And maybe he had a project to do, and I'd help him with it. And then we were raising some horses here, and he'd come down. And I'd make biscuits and coffee for Sunday breakfast. And Kirk was bossy. Kirk once told me how to strike a match. I am not kidding you. I couldn't make that up if I wanted to. He definitely told you how to do it.

Scott Carrier

Kirk took Sue riding with him up on Boulder Mountain packing salt for the Cattlemen's Association. And he told her stories, cowboy stories, like how, when he was a kid, he'd go out to the Circle Cliffs, and rope wild horses, and take them home and break them. One time, he had a wild horse that no one could ride. It wouldn't be broken. And eventually, it ran straight into the corral and broke its neck.

Sue Fearon

And I said, "Well, what'd you do?" And he said, "Well, we went down to the Circle Cliffs and got another one." And that was kind of his attitude. It was a very utilitarian approach, I guess some people would say kind of un-enlightened. You know? What about the rights of that horse? What would PETA say about that? I don't know. They wouldn't like it.

So anyway, I guess I always have had this ability to listen to Kirk, his conversation, and to hear it, to live it, to understand what he was doing, to picture running full-bore on a horse in wild country trying to rope another horse. And then the other part of me is saying, what would PETA think? You know?

Scott Carrier

So Sue became friends with Kirk. And since Kirk had lived in Boulder most of his life and was well respected in the community, she automatically became friends with other locals. Grant was right behind her realizing that the cowboys, or at least some of the cowboys, were pretty good guys after all.

Grant Johnson

Like, here's an example. One time I was riding out for a week by myself, and I had a pack horse. And I got to where one canyon joined another. And I looked upstream, and there were these bright, orange tents sitting in the flood plain right in the middle of the trail, and they looked like UFOs.

I turned right, went a quarter mile, and I ran into a herd of cows. And behind the herd of cows was this old-timer, Ivan Lyman, and his son. And his son had no shirt on, and had about a 10-foot long willow that he was herding the cows with, and a big grin on his face. And Ivan was smiling and sitting on his horse. And I stopped. And he stopped and said, "How's it going?" And he was just part of the land. I could just see it. His face looked like the cliffs looked. And the cows, and his horse, and his saddle were all the color of the dirt. They were just a part of the land.

Scott Carrier

Given the choice of who he identified with, it definitely wasn't the people in the orange tents. The cowboys had done everything they could to threaten and intimidate Grant and Sue, but they'd stayed because their love of the land was stronger than the fear of the locals. And because they'd stayed, they ended up siding with the cowboys. Both Grant, and Sue, and the cowboys came to realize that they shared the common experience of living and surviving in the wilderness, which was both very difficult and very rewarding.

Now, these days, Grant and Sue are busy with their outfitting company, Escalante Canyon Outfitters, taking tourists into remote areas of the desert. Most of their business comes from people returning for a second and third trip. They have seven horses in a big, circular corral. They keep their land irrigated and green with alfalfa.

Grant is carving out a new house from a sandstone mound next to their camper trailer. The mound is 60 feet tall and 150 feet wide, a huge dome. And they have a six-year-old daughter, Claire, who reminds me of a little mountain goat, white, translucent hair. She sits up on the side of the dome looking down at you in silence. Their place looks good, even beautiful. They're living their dream.

The last time I was down there I drove around Boulder looking for Dell LeFevre, the cattleman I'd interviewed back in '87. He's still there, still running cows.

Scott Carrier

Do you remember the first time you met Sue?

Dell Lefevre

First time I ever seen Sue, she just looked like a little hippie chick to me. And see, my war go way back with hippies. So I'm not a hippie lover. And man, I see her around with Grant. And Grant and I've kind of been on opposite sides for years because he was all wilderness and I was multiple use. And Grant's had a struggle around here. You've got to give it to old Grant. Grant, he wasn't very well liked around here because of his beliefs. Hell, I'd have packed up and left a long time ago if people treated me like they was treating old Grant. But Grant stuck it out. Grant stayed right with it.

And they don't bother anybody. They do their work. They do their thing. And Grant and Sue, they fit in my class now. They're working people. I love working people. Anybody can start a business and make it. That's my kind of people. I can forgive anybody of anything if they're hard workers.

Scott Carrier

So you've changed too, you think?

Dell Lefevre

You have to change. You change. Life can't go on. I mean, look how Boulder's changed. You have to change with the times. You can't put a door up and say hey, if you're not a cowboy, don't come to Boulder.

Scott Carrier

When Grant moved to Boulder in 1975, there were 30 ranchers and 100 people in town. Now there are 5 ranchers and 200 people, only 12 of whom have been there longer than Grant. Over the years, SUWA and other environmental groups succeeded in getting the government agencies to watch and regulate cattle on public land way more aggressively.

The cattlemen, of course, would like to be left alone. But, at the same time, they admit that mistakes were made in the past. It's never been easy to graze cows in a desert. And now they've got these regulations and the competition from more efficient corporate ranches in Florida. And on top of all this, for the past five years, there's been a severe drought in southern Utah. So they're going out of business, and the environmentalists are at least a part of the reason why.

Dell Lefevre

SUWA's a bad bunch, as far as ranchers are concerned. They want cows off. That's their goal. There was "Cows Free '93," "No Moo." I forget all their little slogans. But they've wanted cows off the public land now for ever since they started, 20, 25 years ago. In fact, Grant was probably one of the fathers of that. That was their goal, and they've done a good job. You try to do something, and they appeal it. I try to put a water tank in, and they'll appeal it. It's a tough thing when they get so much clout. Everything you do, they appeal. They can stop anything.

And Boulder has been ruined. These big ranches down in that valley, they're gone. Ranching's done, let's face it. The environmental groups won. Do you want to see this valley in 5-acre lots and little houses? Is that what they wanted? A Sedona? Park City? Well, they got her. You come by here when my bunch is gone, and you'll see nothing but houses here.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Scott Carrier

When I was down there that last time, I went to a party Grant and Sue threw for some friends who were moving to Montana because they have kids and the local school in Boulder is not so good. There were about 100 people, mostly families from Boulder, lots of kids, everybody outside by the dome and trailer under a full moon, a beautiful night. Sue invited a couple of local ranchers, but they didn't show up, maybe because of the beer and alcohol-- they're Mormons-- or maybe because they just wouldn't have felt comfortable around so many newcomers to the area.

It's kind of tragic. The ranchers are nearly gone, and people are moving in from the cities, which is pretty much how it's going all over the West. It's possible that the people moving in will come to see and appreciate the land in the way Grant and Sue have, that they'll eventually share the common experience of living in this beautiful place. But there won't be any cowboys around to help them.

Ira Glass

Scott Carrier. His stories are funded partly by hearingvoices.com and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

[MUSIC - "THE HIKER AND THE COWMAN" BY JON LANGFORD AND JOHN RAUHAUS]

Well, yeehaw, Jon Langford with John Rauhaus with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Coming up, the slingshot killed Goliath but not John Hodgman. Details in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Scrapbook, The Verb.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Scrapbook, The Verb. If you don't know it already, there's a whole scrapbooking thing going on in this country: scrapbook stores, scrapbook seminars, scrapbook conventions, and magazines. They have made scrapbook into a verb, as in, "Not now, I'm scrapbooking."

Kim Meyer and Julie Checkoway spent some time living in that world to put together a documentary. And along the way, they met one woman whose scrapbooking was so intense that it took on a special kind of character. In her suburban Houston home, where other people would have the dining room, she has a room that's filled with hundreds of ink stamps, thousands of stickers, countless sheets of pattern papers, scrapbook supplies, all ready for a launch toward a future years from now. Kim Meyer tells the story.

Kim Meyer

Timi Emmons keeps her scrapbooks by the window so in case of fire, she can break the glass from the outside and rescue them. Timi is in her late 30s, blond hair, the sort of woman who doesn't like to answer the door without her makeup on. Pretty much every single scrapbook she's made is of her daughter, Maddie.

Timi Emmons

7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and then, not in books, this is probably 12, 13. I think I have 3 more, so I probably have 15 or 16. I have 15 or 16 albums, and I've only, probably, touched the last three years. Her first year of life I haven't even touched yet. You know, she's four years old and already has 17 books. I'm going to have to start my own library.

Kim Meyer

Each scrapbook is several inches thick and bound in leather. They're like some mutant cross between a photo album and a journal. On one page, portraits of Maddie in a flowery, Easter dress and sun hat are matted on yellow and green, acid-free, archival quality papers. Then, cascading down into these abundant piles at the bottom of the page, are purple and yellow pansies, hundreds of them that Timi pressed from her own yard.

On another page, eight copies of the same photograph of Maddie at the beach in her little pink swimsuit are cut into triangles. The eight triangles are pasted around a central point, so you get the effect of looking through a kaleidoscope. In another layout, she scrapbooked Maddie on September 11th doing somersaults in front of the TV with pictures of the World Trade Center site flickering in the background.

Timi says she was struck by her daughter's innocence on this day when she, herself, thought the world was coming to an end. She matted the photos on red, white, and blue papers. The headline streaming above all this was taken from an Alan Jackson song, "Where were you on that September morn?"

On nearly every page, Timi also has brief journal entries mounted on contrasting patterned papers and printed out in fonts appropriate to the subject matter, curlicues for birthdays, calligraphy for more serious events. Timi has got a journal entry for every day since she first found out she was pregnant with Maddie. The day we visited, she had 1,765 in the hole. Here's one of them.

Timi Emmons

"January 26, 2001, you and I ran errands and shopped a big part of the day. You drew all over a card for your Papa Chase's birthday. I learned, today, that you now know how to open certain types of doors that have pull handles."

Kim Meyer

Reading these, one after another, page after page, is a little overwhelming, the sheer accumulation and tenacity. It's too complete, too much like real-life, all those mundane details.

Timi Emmons

"You went to gymnastics and took your kitty with you today."

Kim Meyer

Timi tells us that, when it comes to Maddie, nothing is mundane, that every little bit is important. She wants to capture it all.

Timi Emmons

When my little girl kept going to all her doctor appointments every two months and getting all of her shots, as terrible as this sounds, I took my camera with me to the doctor's office and took pictures. I walk around all the time seeing scrapbook layouts everywhere I go. There are times I've seen Maddie just sitting on the doorstep, and one time in particular, and I saw her just staring intently. And I'm like, "What are you doing?" She goes, "I'm watching the butterfly." And so I went and grabbed my camera, and I wanted to take a picture of her just staring at the butterfly. At every moment, every corner I turn, there's a possible scrapbook layout.

Kim Meyer

After Maddie was born, Timi found it more and more difficult to work full-time, be an attentive wife, raise her daughter, and scrapbook so seriously. So when Maddie was about two, Timi decided to quit her job as a paralegal. It may sound extreme to leave work in order to make expensive and elaborate scrapbooks that only your family will ever see. And the scrapbooking supplies are slowly taking over their house, but Gary, Timi's husband, just kind of shrugs at all that.

Gary Emmons

It's her house. I'm just living in it. I've got my remote control, my TV, and my chair. I have my own little closet, which I didn't have for a while. I only had half of that. I have the closet and one little spot on the dresser. That's me. The rest of the house is hers.

Kim Meyer

Not that the scrapbooking doesn't worry him sometimes.

Gary Emmons

I mean, I don't know if that's good or bad.

Kim Meyer

What do you think? What would be good and what would be bad about it?

Gary Emmons

I think if you're always in the mode of trying to create a moment, sometimes, I think, you let moments pass by without really enjoying them. So her way to hold onto that is to create something that she can physically look at to remember that particular moment, maybe to recapture that feeling again. I always try to tell her, "Would you just relax, and sit down, and try to enjoy it?" You know? I mean, there's got to be some part that you take in, in your soul. In that respect, I feel bad for her because she's so worried about holding onto it that I don't know if she really ever captures it.

Kim Meyer

Timi is so intent sometimes on capturing the moment that even if that moment somehow passes her by, she'll re-stage it in order to get the layout she wants. One Christmas, when her photos came back from the lab too dark, she actually fabricated the whole holiday season again. She dragged out all of her decorations, re-dressed Maddie in her various Christmas outfits, and took a bunch of photos over. Fortunately, the tree was still up.

Gary Emmons

I remember that whole deal just because the fact that I couldn't believe that she was re-dressing Mattie back up in Christmas stuff for pictures because she thought that they didn't come out quite right. And if you would see the number of boxes we have for Christmas decorations, it is two closets full. And everything has to go back into its little box, wrapped up in bubble wrap, and put into the box, and it's like, oh, my God.

Timi Emmons

My husband thinks I'm out of control. I don't think I am out of control. But I think it's all in one's perspective. Most people look at me and go oh, my gosh, you're a bit excessive here. But we're all enjoying it. We're having fun. We're making scrapbooks for our children or our grandchildren. We're doing something creative. It's not like we're out Imelda Marcos and blowing all our money on shoes or something. So long as we get the laundry done, and the house clean, and the cooking done, who cares what we do with our spare time?

Kim Meyer

Do you think is there any negative repercussions on Maddie with the obsessive kind of nature of it?

Timi Emmons

There are times when I'm working on a project, I've got a deadline, and I'm stressed about it. And I'm sitting there grinding at the table trying to get this project done. And Maddie's saying, "But mommy, I want you to read me a book." And I'm saying, "I'll read you a book in a little while when I'm finished. I've got to get this done." And, when I think about it, I'm like, OK, now what's most important here, really? And, honestly, my daughter is most important. But there are times that I put her off when she really needs me or wants me because I'm working on scrapbooking. Now, that is the time that I think that's a negative.

Kim Meyer

We asked Timi what she thinks it's about, her need to document her life so compulsively, and she's not sure at first. She gives different reasons at different times. She talks about how when she was nine, her grandmother died. She'd spent nearly every day of her life with her grandmother. A year later, her family pulled up stakes in West Virginia and moved to Houston where they knew no one.

Back east, she'd been surrounded by a large, extended family of great-grandparents, and grandparents, and aunts, and uncles, and cousins, who lived in little towns like Hurricane, and Dunbar, and Tater Creek. But a 1,000 miles from where she began, she was suddenly isolated from everything that had seemed vital and real. Her past seemed erased. Her parents began to fight, and they later divorced. Everything sort of fell apart. She hasn't seen her father in years. And all sorts of people close to her started dying off. And it's all this loss that Timi seems to be trying to fend off through her scrapbooks. It's almost like, if she can arrange life in these beautiful layouts, she can control it. And in visiting her, over the course of a few weeks, my co-producer, Julie, and I suggest that to her.

Timi Emmons

I've thought about that a great deal in the last week, about here I'm this person that has this death issue. I've known that for the longest time, but it never occurred to me that that could be what was the underlying, driving force making me almost feel possessed sometime about I've got to get this done. And I've got to hurry, you know? I want to get this all on paper. I've got it all written down. I've got to make sure I don't miss anything. And it never occurred to me that there was that deep of a link motivating me. So that's been very profound for me.

Kim Meyer

About 10 years ago, Timi's mother presented her with a plaster cast of Timi's hands back when Timi was six, a project she'd made when she was in the first grade. Her mother had saved it all these years.

Timi Emmons

I cried, and cried, and cried because it meant something to me that it was important enough to her to hold onto it, and keep it all those years, and give it back to me, and say, this is a part of your childhood. This was part of your life. I want you to hold on to this. It gives you roots. It gives you history. So I wanted to capture for Maddie who she was, where she came from, and what her life was like. And I assumed that she would be the same way, that it would be just as important for her.

But I can't quit. I don't know why. I don't know. It's partially out of guilt. I know this sounds silly, but it's not. It's almost as if I stop, then it says, I don't care enough to write, or I'm too busy in my day that I can't fill up a 1 and 1/2 inch square about your life. And I just feel too guilty to stop. It's like once I got started, I can't quit.

Kim Meyer

So the big news is that Timi is pregnant again. She has a baby boy on the way in just a few months, and this has put her in an untenable position. She's not sure there are enough hours in the day to scrapbook for two children. If you've decided that scrapbooks are how you show your love for your child, what does it say about your love if you stop scrapbooking? Timi has sort of scrapbooked herself into a corner.

Timi Emmons

I have not journaled even a fraction to this baby what I did for Maddie, and that's really been bothering me. And even in my journal, I have written to the baby trying to explain why I have not journaled as much, and please don't take this personally when you get older and read your journal and wonder why your mommy didn't write very much to you.

Kim Meyer

Timi is trying to finish up this scrapbook of Maddie's first year before the new baby is born in October. She says that this scrapbook will be about 100 pages long. So far, she's done 12 pages. Every two-page layout takes her 10 to 12 hours to do. That's nearly 1,000 hours of work, 40 straight days, all scrapbooking, no sleep. The new baby is due in 10 weeks. She's not sure she's going to make it.

Ira Glass

Kim Meyer and her co-producer, Julie Checkoway, live in Houston. Their website, storyrodeo.org.

Act Three. Slingshot.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Slingshot. John Hodgman has this letter, which he wrote years ago and which he agreed to read on our program, about the changes that can happen from one summer to the next.

John Hodgman

Dear Mary, here is all that need be said about my experience gambling in Atlantic City. At the Trump Taj Mahal I played $1 to $3 seven-card stud for four hours, sipping free whisky and making jokes with strangers, and I lost all of $7. Then I played slots and lost seven times that in a quick, mean, and lonely 40 minutes. As they say, easy come, easy go.

It's tempting to use gambling as a metaphor when writing about the Jersey Shore. But I would rather discuss the metaphoric power of the Slingshot, which stands at 8th and Boardwalk, a handful of miles south of the Taj, in Ocean City, New Jersey. Like all good metaphors, the Slingshot is versatile and may be seen from many different angles. It is seen first, and from afar, as two enormous towers lit with neon, 100 feet high above the boardwalk and the ocean beyond. As you get closer, you see that between them is suspended a spherical cage that rotates freely around its horizontal axis, where cables stretch from either side to the tips of the two towers. There are two seats inside the sphere that, after a hydraulic mechanism tightens the cables, carry two occupants 200 feet into the air at 100 miles per hour, while spinning.

It is the sort of thing that its creators bill as a ride. It is the sort of thing that, when seen from the ground at the very base of the towers, inspires one 14-year-old girl with very large teeth to somberly explain to her girlfriend, "I'm not saying that you're going to die. I'm just saying that, if you do die, it was meant to be."

The summer before this one, we were fearless. In 1999, Katherine and I came to Ocean City for an engagement party that my mother and her five sisters threw for us on the deck of my Aunt Susan's summer home. We opened presents until dusk fell. Then Katherine and I hiked down to the main drag of the boardwalk and took on everything the amusement parks had to offer: the Giant Ferris Wheel, The Inverter, The City Jet, The Spanish Galleon, Katherine's favorite. We were thrown, and twisted, and twirled, and Katherine almost got sick but didn't. My grandmother was alive then, and so was my mother.

Several weeks after we left, there was an accident on a new roller coaster at Wonderland Pier, The Wild Wonder. One car slammed into another at high speed. And two occupants, a young woman from New York and her very young child, were thrown from their restraints. They flew out of the car through the air and into a steel support beam. They died instantly.

As well, as you may recall from my last letter, my grandmother died the following Christmas. And my mother died the following June, six days after my birthday, both quickly, both with little warning. And then, in August, we returned to Ocean City. People asked, will it be hard going back without your mother? And I had no answer. The same non-answer I had and have to any question about how hard it is or it will be now that all these things have happened. Jesus, I don't know. Let's go to the boardwalk.

When we got to Wonderland Pier, no one seemed to feel the chill haunt of the roller coaster deaths but us. I watched the children in the little cars fly into the air and I cringed. I watched the teenagers necking on the Giant Ferris Wheel with its rust spots and strange creakings. Just looking at the Double Dip at Playland made my neck hurt. But it was the Slingshot that sent us packing.

The Slingshot is not affiliated with either Wonderland or Playland. The Slingshot stands alone. Couple after couple are sent screaming into the black, summer night, becoming a tiny, star-like spark against the sky, cables heaving, towers wobbling, sphere becoming invisible. It was the Slingshot that made us feel too old, too scared, and suddenly vulnerable. Katherine has said that, when she was a child, she loved all amusement park rides because she knew that they were made by grownups, which to her meant endless safety and boundless security. Naturally, we have outgrown that delusion.

As we trudged back from the boardwalk in defeat, we saw the moon over the beach. Or, at least, we thought it was the moon. It hovered just above the inky horizon, blood red, engorged, larger than the sun at dawn, too bloated to hoist itself any further in the sky and more likely about to fall. A small crowd had actually gathered by the boardwalk's rail to gawk at it as though it were a fleet of invading space ships. And Katherine and I joined them. "Either that's the moon," someone behind us said, "or something has gone horribly, horribly wrong."

So now it's the next night, the night after the moon, and Katherine and I have returned to the Slingshot. The large-toothed girl behind us in line says her piece about death and destiny, and we clutch our non-refundable tickets with panic and regret. We watch that spherical cage ascend and descend for nearly 45 minutes. We watch children no older than 10 be happily loaded into what we come to call the ascending sphere of death. And then we're next.

It is difficult to explain what has drawn us here after our cowardly retreat last night. We have every excuse not to be here, from the metaphysical to the financial. It costs $20 a head to fly. This alone should chase off a cheapskate like me. But we are here at Katherine's impulsive suggestion and my impulsive agreement, and neither one of us wants to back down. We want to be able to say we will not be cowed by death.

But we also see very clearly the weak links in the Slingshot chain, the points where the cable may break or the tower may buckle. The whole rig is set back from the boardwalk in the semi-dark of 8th Street. Though enormous, it has the look of something that really shouldn't be there, of something that can be broken down and carted away very quickly should the sheriff show up wanting to know, "What's all this about a Slingshot then?"

There is a palpable air of unease around us, as though all of us in line can, perhaps too easily, envision something snapping this time, the ball flying up and disappearing into the night, crashing miles away in the ocean, perhaps, or a parking lot. And if not this time, the next time. I did not tell Katherine this and really haven't considered it until now. But we are there too, I think, not just to defy death, but to welcome it.

It has been a hard year. It has been an unfair year in which we have been taught to think of the unthinkable, taught that we are not exempt from tragedy, but, in fact, can be its strange attractors. It's not quite a suicide pact, but I think that we share an agreement, unspoken even to ourselves, that if this thing kills us, we could live with that, so to speak.

When our turn comes, there's a strange ritual to it. We empty our pockets into a plastic bin: wallets, change, keys, salt water taffy, Katherine's flip-flops. I take my glasses off and give them to the man who will prepare us for the ride. I swear he has a handlebar mustache. He tells us we can take nothing with us. We sit in the cage. The mustachioed man arranges the nylon straps and restraining bars that hold us in place. One of them goes directly across my crotch, but I am not embarrassed to have him help me there. I am beyond such modesties. "Tighter," I say. He closes the cage and gives it a friendly tap. "It'll be over before you know it," he says.

The cage tilts back and is locked into a release switch below. We are facing directly upwards now. There are no stars. They are blotted out by the lights of the boardwalk. The towers hum as the cables tighten. I take Katherine's hand. "Pretend we're going into space," I say. "That is not a comfort," she says. The hum grows very loud. The cables grow very tight. Katherine takes her hand back. She wants to hold the restraint. A switch somewhere is thrown, and we go up.

As metaphors for life and death on the boardwalk go, gambling in Atlantic City is pretty promising. But the Slingshot is better for two reasons. One, though it is unlikely, it may actually kill you. And two, it reminds you that when you are close to death and intimate with it, when you are spinning fast and high in the dark night with nothing around you, it is difficult to tell what is happening. It is difficult to be afraid, far more difficult than it is on the ground.

Ira Glass

John Hodgman runs The Little Gray Books Lecture Series in New York. His letter once appeared at openletters.net.

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Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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