I did a ''Scotton'' the other day. It's not a dance, but a kind of behavior. In good eponymous tradition, I named it after my friend, Jim Scotton, who invented it, years ago. Now, half a continent away, with occasional letters and long-distance phone calls our only contact, he's still unaware of the extent of his influence. The ''Scotton'' is one of civilization's most significant acquisitions.
The Scotton is a technique that replaces anger with sweetness and light, through recollection. It turns on slyness and craft, but it is not without moral requirement. A Scotton is never used to nefarious advantage.
The Scotton takes its origin from a sense of righteousness, but its essence is awareness of the value of suppressing moral outrage and substituting, instead , subtle response. The Scotton suggests calculated calm when the blood says otherwise. The Scotton's message is: ''Listen, you feel like raging now, not exercising cunning and delicacy - but trust me.'' Doing a Scotton means using guile in place of fury, opting for effective action over emotional release.
It all began when Jim and I shared an office that had been mine alone. But because our writing program was expanding at the time, and Jim and I had similar interests, I found myself suddenly faced with a new colleague - a fast-talking journalism pro from Boston, a humorous, somewhat cynical Irish elf who had obviously been around and seen some Donnybrooks. I liked him immediately.
He was extremely perceptive. He concluded almost at once (and accurately) that I had never gone away to college. His deduction, he told me with glee and tolerant amusement, was based on observing that there was little space left on the office door or walls. I had put posters and signs everywhere, and, with his practiced reporter's eye, he read in these something of my character. One, in particular, caught his fancy: a beautiful ink drawing of a spider spinning a web. I had had no special reason for liking the picture, other than its stunning artwork. I thought it belonged on the door, prominent upon entry. So did Jim, but for other reasons which were soon to emerge.
It was a few weeks into the term. Students were arriving for conferences and Jim would greet them with his usual mock despair of where to fit them in. His chair was a direct plumb line from a Swedish ivy hanging precariously overhead. His desk abutted the window - a significant measure of status, he conceded, though not without suspect charm, given the fact that the windowsill was lined with begonias and African violets. (But that was OK, he said, because his previous position had been in Kenya, and besides, he also spotted a Boston fern.) The place appealed to him. In a more serious vein, he would volunteer the thought that such a pleasant room would make students feel comfortable. We, of course, would have to do the rest.
We tried at least to schedule conferences at different times as much as we could, but even when there were four of us, talking constantly, with animation, not much escaped Jim's ear. It took me a while to realize that he was studying me, in quite a friendly way, but carefully noting my various reactions. Some of them, sad to say, were not always what, from an ideal pedagogical point of view, would be called admirable. I got angry at some students, hurt, really, that my special care and patience had not paid off in their becoming more attentive and better writers; annoyed at times by their apparent lack of consideration in coming late, missing meetings without canceling or apologizing, coming unprepared. Then there might be the occasional phone call that would set me off with its presumptive tones, or a letter full of thoughtlessness or arrogance. I would seethe. I would fume. Sometimes I would pound my fist on the table; the begonias would tremble, the fern would shake; the hanging ivy would seem to come a little closer to the desk's plane.
But through it all, Jim Scotton would remain quietly bemused or mildly contemplative. Not just through my own ordeals, but, more significantly, through his own. I was dumbfounded. And then, one day, he pointed to the spider poster on the door: ''What is the matter with you?'' he finally burst out, laughing. ''Look at what you have on the door! Don't you take your own symbolism seriously? Why burn when you can spin? Look at this parlor here. What a set up! What do you want most,'' he finally challenged, ''to vent steam or to exercise power constructively? To advertise your 'superiority' or to change things? Look to the spider.''
It was, he recalls fondly, one of the few times I shut up.
The spider spins carefully, without betraying its needs or design. Where others might strike out, the spider puts its energies into craft. Of course the spider is out to kill, but Scotton was suggesting something similar on a moral plane: a kind of killing with kindness in the sense of winning over the enemy.
I have since looked to the spider many times. In my mind's eye, I see Scotton , subtly spinning a net of influence, catching me in my own futile expense of spirit, fastening my scattered energies for critical review. Poised, caught in one supreme act of deliberate, careful, sure design, the spider weaves his trap almost invisibly, never moving beyond the bounds of practical behavior. What Scotton was suggesting was that I spin a similar web, within bounds of moral behavior. The application of his words become ''the Scotton.''
In retrospect, Scotton's lesson seems obvious, but it often takes someone else at the right time to bring an important, though seemingly manifest, point home. Scotton did that for me a long time ago. I have never had cause to regret his instruction and, in the long years that have followed, as I have learned about his own trials and pain, I have had reason to believe that he's had many occasions to do Scottons on his own - successfully.