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  • Scotte Burns

Some Assembly Required

When I was young - shortly after Earth’s surface had cooled and early invertebrates swam the oceans - an occasional item, usually a toy, could be purchased that required a rudimentary final step be completed in order to render the item whole and usable. This was generally done to make the item fit into a box that could be better shipped and stacked. As this concept evolved, however, an increasing number of steps were left to consumers, reducing manufacturing costs and shrinking packaging until nowadays a complete patio dining set including hot tub and wet bar costs a mere C-note at Ikea and is brought home in an egg carton weighing roughly the same as a neutron star. For those lacking an advanced engineering degree, reconstructing such items requires a dozen hex wrenches, a rubber mallet, five screwdrivers of various lengths and tips, an included package of alien hardware and fasteners labeled A-1 to P-67, a 23-step exploded diagram and the ability to both read and curse in Mandarin. Skipping ahead to the wet-bar stage halfway through setup becomes a common shortcut. Once one believes themselves finished and is laying amid the styrofoam and shrinkwrap debris nursing bruised and bleeding fingers, a single, vital piece will be discovered, leaving one to consider the possibility of suicide by socket wrench.

Having spent several sanity-challenged days assembling furniture and exercise equipment for our new home, this is an experience about which I can speak with some authority. Yet somehow, at the end of it all, Toni and I now have an elliptical machine, desks, and weight bench that each function according to specs and a bookcase that may do the same, but admittedly has yet to face its final challenge... books. This engineering adventure offered an unexpected benefit for a writer, as well. Hours of scuttling about the floor after eccentric nuts, repetitive knuckle-bashing, the gnashing of teeth already clenched upon various screws and nails, and listening to ineffectively calming music were filled with opportunities for colorful metaphors and also for considering analogies between this mundane assembly process and the one we undertake when building a life of our choosing.

Most often when raising children, but also when making career decisions, deciding where to live, or working through relationships, we long for a set of detailed instructions, or at least a diagram of how all the pieces are supposed to fit together. And it isn’t to Ikea or Office Depot that we address our pleas, but to the Almighty Himself, who ineffably provides no 800-number for quick answers to our questions and complaints. We are therefore faced with the realization that we must reverse engineer such things. That is to say that no instructions will be forthcoming, since we must first imagine how we want a career or raising a child or a relationship to function, and then manufacture the pieces that make that function possible before testing the design for flaws and unexpected results. We slowly come to discover that the thing often looks very differently from what we’d imagined when we started putting it together. The process may in fact result in several possible designs that spinoff into different pieces entirely. This is very much where Toni and I now find ourselves as we’ve reached a crossroads in our life’s work with Love in America.

When we first moved to Deadwood following my retirement from teaching, we’d thought we’d known what the design of our life ahead would be. Our old 1895 home on Deadwood’s Burnham Hill carried its own kind of romance and no mortgage payment, freeing us to devote our remaining treasure to the last self-funded Love in America journey - the subject of our YouTube web series. That series would then generate the audience needed for our newly discovered distributor and a well-connected media mogul who’d each fallen in love with our work to find us network television backing. With that notoriety lighting the way, we’d seek a publisher for our book, and our photographs and other media could be marketed. The income from all these sources would then circle back to fund the next journey and the continuation of our life’s work.

After thousands of miles, hundreds of interviews, and greater hundreds of hours editing, however, our web series struggled to rise above the media noise just as a worldwide pandemic made selling a travel-reliant show to networks untenable. Without that step in the assembly, we kept our tools at hand with hopes for a new diagram. Then, gravity and 125 years of leaning sideways on a hillside saw our crooked little house’s retaining walls closing in from our sides at the same time wood-boring beetles ate the floor out from under us. The foundations of both our plans and our home were no longer the solid bases from which we’d sought to build the future we’d designed. As we’ve unexpectedly arranged for a new place to live and looked at how to explore an America that can’t currently be traveled, assembly as it was envisioned has ground to a halt and we realize that our design must change; the instructions to build it must be rewritten. Yet, especially in these times, how can we stop exploring every media avenue down which we’ve traveled to reunite Americans through seeing the love in others first so that the differences between us become conversations rather than divisions? But like the inexorable pull of gravity and time on our old crooked house, circumstance has determined that a design change is at hand. We’ve put everything we had materially into Love in America’s travels and making its mission our life’s work. Especially with the unexpected expense of our new digs, (for which we are profoundly grateful) we have no resources left to give. If not for our sixteen devoted Patreon patrons, the lights would have already gone out after the wheels stopped rolling on the latest journey.

But there still remains the treasure of all the stories and media we’ve already generated and our loving determination that this work is too important to abandon; we have all the pieces needed for a design we are reimagining. That revision, literally “seeing again” has reminded us that when we started all this back in those halcyon days of 2014, we knew that some assembly of the life we sought to build around this work would be required. As it happens, becoming successful travel documentarian-podcaster-photographer-public speaker-YouTube producer-philosopher-love storytellers takes a bit longer than we’d imagined, requiring a constantly exploding diagram and more eccentric nuts (both actual assembly process terms, we’ve learned) than were included in the original packaging. And still, among all the change, chaos, and occasional tool-tossing, there's one step in the diagram that remains apparent, a cornerstone of the foundation that has never shifted. At the center of this life’s missing parts and debris, in the midst of its shifting lines and labels, two original pieces remain that have worn and warped together to become one, while the design of the machine around them has constantly changed. And the greatest thing about becoming that single piece is clear.

No assembly required.


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