Sunday, December 16, 2012

No worst, there is none

Here we are now collectively undone with grief. Thinking of the Sandy Hook news...

'No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.'

By Gerard Manley Hopkins
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked 'No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief."'

    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Oval Office/Oral Office

Poet, Muriel Rukeyser, wrote "the universe is not made of atoms, it is made of stories."

Well so are we. We live stories and organize our lives around stories. In this day and age we are witnessing a collapse of the old stories we were supposed to live by and are looking for the new ones. Now, at last, the storyteller-in-chief realizes it is part of the job to create the national narrative. Check out this piece from Huffington:

Stories and narrative, as the currency of human contact, are how we all communicate with each other. We don't sit down with our friends and loved ones and throw out statistics and PowerPoint slides. We swap stories. In fact, we can't help it. "Stories, it turns out, are not optional," writes Peter Guber. "They are essential. Our need for them reflects the very nature of perceptual experience, and storytelling is embedded in the brain itself."

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Scattered Brain, Appendix

*This is a parsing of an article that originally appeared in Storytelling World magazine in 1997

Excerpt from Notre-Dame of Paris 
by Victor Hugo 
"A book is so soon made, it costs so little, and it can travel so far!  Why wonder that the whole of human thought  should flow down this slope?  This is not to say that  architecture will not now and again have a fine monument, an isolated masterpiece. From time to time, in the reign of printing, we may well still get a column made, I suppose, by a whole army, from the fusing of cannons, as, under the reign of architecture, they had Iliads and Romanceros, Mahabharatas and Nibelungen, made by a whole people from  an accumulation and fusion of rhapsodies.  The great accident of an architect of genius might occur in the twentieth century just like that of Dante in the thirteenth.  But architecture will no longer be the social, the collective, the dominant art. The great poem, the great edifice, the creation of mankind will no longer be built, it will be printed. 
And in future, should architecture accidentally revive, it  will no longer be master.  It will be subject to the law of  literature, which once received the law from it.  The  respective positions of the two arts will be reversed.  It is a fact that during the age of architecture  -  admittedly rare  -  poems resembled the monuments.  In India, Vyasa is intricate, strange and impenetrable, like a pagoda.  In the Egyptian East, poetry, like the buildings, has a grandeur and  tranquillity of line; in ancient Greece, beauty, serenity and  calm; in Christian Europe, the majesty of Catholicism, the  naïvety of the people, the rich and luxuriant vegetation of  an age of renewal. The Bible resembles the Pyramids, the  Iliad the Parthenon,  Homer Phidias.  Dante in the thirteenth century was the last Romanesque church, Shakespeare in the sixteenth the last Gothic cathedral. Thus, to sum up what we have said so far in a necessarily incomplete and truncated form, the human race has two books, two registers, two testaments: masonry and printing, the bible of stone and the bible of paper.  When we study these two bibles, so fully  opened through the centuries, it is permissible surely to  feel nostalgia for the visible majesty of what was written  in granite, those gigantic alphabets formulated as  colonnades,  pylons and obelisks, those mountains, as it  were, which covered the world and the past, from the pyramid to the steeple, from Cheops to Strasbourg.  We must re- read the past from these marble pages.  We must constantly admire and turn the pages of the book written by  architecture; but we must not gainsay the grandeur of the  edifice which printing has erected in its turn.
This edifice is colossal.  Some maker of statistics or other  has calculated that if all the volumes which have issued  from the presses since Gutenberg were placed one on top of  the other they would occupy the distance from the earth to the moon; but that is not the kind of grandeur we mean.  Yet,  when we try to compose in our minds a total picture of the sum of the products of the printing-press up till our own day, does the whole not appear to us as a vast construction, with the entire world as its base, at which mankind has been working without respite and whose monstrous head is lost  in the profound mists of the future?  It is the ant-hill of the intellect.  It is the hive to which all the golden bees of the imagination come with their honey.  It is an edifice of a thousand stories.  Here and there, on staircases, one can see the mouths of the murky tunnels of science, which intersect in its bowels.  On its surface, everywhere, the luxuriance of art, with its arabesques, its rose-windows and its tracery.  Here, each individual work, however isolated or capricious  it may appear, has its own place and protuberance.  Its  harmony comes from whole.  From the cathedral of  Shakespeare to the mosque of Byron, innumerable  bell-turrets jostle indiscriminately on this metropolis of the universal mind.  At its base, a number of the ancient titles of mankind have been rewritten, which architecture had not recorded.  On the left of the entrance has been  affixed the old white marble bas-relief of Homer, on the  right the polyglot bible rears its seven heads.  Further on  stands the bristling hydra of the Romancero, with other  hybrid forms, the Vedas and the Nibelungen.  For the rest, this prodigious edifice remains perpetually unfinished. The printing-press, that giant machine, tirelessly pumping the whole intellectual sap of society, is constantly spewing out fresh materials for its erection.  The entire human race is  on the scaffolding.  Each mind is a mason.  The humblest can  stop up a hole or lay a stone.  Restif de la Bretonne, contributes his hod-load of plaster.  Every day a new course is added.   And aside from the original offerings  of individual writers, there are collective contingents.  The  eighteenth century gives the Encyclopédie, the Revolution  the Moniteur.   This indeed is a construction which grows and mounts in spirals  without end; here is a confusion of tongues, ceaseless activity, indefatigable labour, fierce rivalry between all of mankind, the intellect’s promised refuge against a second  deluge, against submersion by the barbarians.  This is the  human race’s second Tower of Babel."
An Ocean In Mind by Will Kilselka University of Hawaii Press. 1987. 
Introduction to The Complete Grimms Fairy Tales by Padraic Colum. Pantheon Books.  1944/1972. 
The Dynamics of Folklore by Barre Toelken. Houghton Mifflin.  1979. 
The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century byMarshall McLuhan & Bruce R. Powers.  Oxford University Press, 1989. 
Metaphors We Live By  by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.  The University of Chicago Press, 1980. 
Microserfs by Douglas Coupland. HarperCollins.  1996. 
Notre Dame of Paris by Victor Hugo.  English translation by John Sturrock. Penguin Books USA, Inc. NY, NY. 1978. 
One Man's Meat by E. B. White. Harpers Magazine, vol. 177.  October, 1938. 
Spiders and Spinsters by Marta Weigle. University of New Mexico Press.  1982. 
Teleliteracy by David Bianculli. The Continuum Publishing Company.  1992

The Scattered Brain, part 5

*This is a parsing of an article that originally appeared in Storytelling World magazine in 1997

McLuhan and Powers describe the cycles of technology as moving through four phases: Enhancement, Obsolescence, Retrieval and Reversal.  For example, the automobile en-hances travel, obsolesces the horse and buggy, retrieves walking as recreation, and reverses into the inefficiencies of the traffic jam. 
The modern hearth brought the Elsewhere into the home and rendered the need to be out there obsolete: we could stay home and still be in the Elsewhere.  We could, as The Firesign Theatre told us, be in two places at once and not anywhere at all.  We were brought indoors to look out of doors.  The hearth still functioned as a hearth: it was the organizing principle of the home.  But the rhythm of this hearth belongs to the scattered brain.  The technology that enhanced information and cultural unity is reversing into insanity. 
The insanity of the scattered brain is driven by an insatiable appetite.  If storytellers are not careful, they stand to be consumed by that same appetite. 
In the storytelling revival we are fond of drawing sharp distinctions between "our kind of storytelling" and other story media.  The thing we don't often admit is that we all serve the same appetite. 
Our bodies have certain basic appetites. Today we are able to satisfy those appetites to excess.  We suffer illnesses from our over consumption of fats, sugars, and salts, and have learned the importance of a balanced diet and exercise in order to maintain our health. Similarly, we have an appetite for images. Today we are able to satisfy that appetite to excess. 
Stories are rich in images.  When we tell stories we are feeding that same insatiable appetite that consumes T.V. radio, cinema, billboards, magazines, etc..
Are there consequences to a surfeit of images? Are there illnesses of the mind and the soul that can result from too many images, all cluttered and confused? 
Less is More 
It is easy to say that what the world needs now is more storytelling.  But what if what the world needs now is less storytelling? 
Traditional storytelling was often restricted to certain seasons and certain times in balance with the life of the community.  Taboos against telling stories out of season were (and still are) common. If we are genuinely concerned about the health of our storytelling culture we will have to come to terms with the notion that there is a time to tell and a time to be silent.  In a way, we try to do that with efforts like "turn-off-the-tube-week." 
  The idea of less storytelling is a heresy, perhaps.  My intention is to challenge some of my own assumptions about the relationship between our current storytelling revival and modern technology.  I think there is a need for more of certain kinds of storytelling.  Yet even as we are serving that need we are in danger of losing our direction and succumbing to the rising confusion around us. 
The point is: the appetite for image is insatiable and it is being served at a feverish pace throughout our culture.  Storytellers such as myself, who are on the verge of the entertainment industry, are in danger of being consumed by the scattered brain.  Doing so we may become famous for 15 minutes, but we may also cease to be true storytellers and render ourselves obsolete. 
What is the relationship of the storyteller to the other storytelling media?  Is it simply that of the story-producer?  (I've got a story to tell and a story to sell.)  When you put a storyteller in front of a camera and broadcast that storyteller, you turn that storyteller into another TV program.  The entertainment industry looks at the storyteller and sees one of two things: a writer or an actor.  The media looks at the storyteller as a kind of product. If storytellers wish to get involved in the entertainment industry (and why shouldn't they, considering the celebrity and the remuneration) they will have to come to terms with the voracious appetite for story that drives the industry.  If the storyteller becomes merely a story-product, something essential will be lost.  For the real art of telling stories is concerned not so much with being the producer of the unique story as with understanding when to tell and when to be silent and how to match the right story with the right listener at the right time.  In short: the art of telling stories requires a good sense of rhythm. 
To tell, we know, means to report; but we must remember that it also means to discern
“The Spider Woman taught us all these designs as a way of helping us think.  You learn to think when you make these.” 
-Navajo teenager speaking to folklorist Barre Toelken regarding string figures. 
Consider the metaphors which abound in the new technology: Net  Web  Mosaic  Link  String. These are the first technologies.  They describe pattern and complexity.  These are the constants of the human experience, still alive within the mutable modern media.  We are finding our way in complexity like Theseus in the Labyrinth.   Many of the current video games concern themselves with wayfinding in mazes and worlds where the rules are unknown and waiting to be discovered.  Does the mind get stronger from the exercise?  Or lost, in Spiderwoman's web? 
“Wayfinding is a set of principles.  An art. And at the center of the circle of sea and sky is the wayfinder practicing the art, trusting mind and senses within a cogni- tive structure to read and interpret nature’s signs along the way as the means of maintaining continuous orientation to a remote, intended destination.” 
Will Kilselka, An Ocean In Mind 
The new cultural ground now brings the center back to the user.  The home video recorder breaks the broadcast schedule cartel and allows viewers to determine when they watch.  The personal computer takes the next step: allowing us to watch when we want and to broadcast what we want. Control of the technological hearth is coming back into our hands.  With it comes all the confusion and chaos of "the second Tower of Babel" that Victor Hugo describes.  In response to this chaos we are developing more and more powerful "search engines" to help us navigate the madness. 
 The same need that brought about the search engine has brought about the storyteller.  The art of the storyteller is the art of the wayfinder.  The teller gives us the cognitive strength and the story constellations that we need to find our way.   In keeping the ancient rhythm, the storyteller is here now to help us stand once again at the center and reorient ourselves to ourselves as well as to one another.  The storyteller is minding and reminding the scattered brain. 

The Scattered Brain, part 4

*This is a parsing of an article that originally appeared in Storytelling World magazine in 1997

Light & Dark 
There is a house in Mailbu, halfway up a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  I was a guest in this house when I was in Malibu to tell stories. The evening of my performance, my hosts had left early to prepare for the event and I was leaving the house to join them.  Out of habit, I checked to be sure I was turning off the lights as I left the empty house.  I noticed a bright light coming from the bathroom and reached in to flick the light switch off.  The switch was already off and I was momentarily confused as I tried to determine the source of light in the room. Then I realized that the light I was seeing was coming from the late sun shining low over the ocean and through the bathroom window.  I was trying to turn off the sun.  I had somehow forgotten that a room in a house can be lit by sunlight. 
Today our manipulation of light puts the day/night cycle into our hands - or perhaps more correctly - the illusion of the day/night cycle into our hands.   Lights are on at all hours and there are many times when we begin our artificial days long after the sun has set.   The time to turn out the light is the time of cessation: bedtime, sleeptime, endtime, deathtime.  "Turn out the light, then turn out the light" remarks Othello before extinguishing the candles and then extinguishing Desdemona. 
So what does this have to do with a storyteller turning off the sun on his way to tell stories?  In his introduction to the Pantheon collection of Grimms Fairy Tales, Padraic Colum writes: "The prolongation of light meant the cessation of traditional stories in European cottages.  And when the cottages took in American kerosene or paraffin there was prolongation.  Then came lamps with full and steady light, lamps that gave real illumi- nation.  Told under this illumination the traditional stories ceased to be appropriate because the rhythm that gave them meaning was weakened."  The prolongation of light has pushed back the shadows of the hearth where, once upon a time, stories were told.  Further, the prolongation of light has weakened the "rhythm that gave them meaning."  That rhythm, simply stated, is the time for light, the time for dark, the time for work and the time to tell stories. 
We have prolonged the light: we can work whenever we want (and more than we wish) and we have prolonged the seasons: I can buy fresh corn in February.  We have changed the ancient rhythm.  Is there only cacophony?  Or is there a new rhythm? 
"Today, while raking the front lawn, Todd said, "Wouldn't it be scary if our internal clocks weren't set to the rhythms of waves and sunrise - or even the industrial whistle toot - but to product cycles, instead?" 
"We got nostalgic about the old days, back when September meant the unveiling of new car models and TV shows.  Now, carmakers and TV people put them on whenever.  Not the same." 
Douglas Coupland, Microserfs 
The Hearth 
The tradition of the hearth is still among us and played out regularly in many technologies. When we go to the cinema, popcorn in hand, to watch shadows flicker on the wall, we are practicing a human behavior as ancient as the first domestic fire.  (As an aside, it is interesting that popcorn is so intimately linked with the cinema ritual.  Certainly, on the American continent, popcorn has been enjoyed by fireside story listeners for a long time!)  There is something soothing about sitting in a dark theatre.  The cinema is a communal hearth creating adhoc communities that exist for a few hours and then are scattered.  The television set and the computer screen provide the hearth of the modern home.  This hearth is available at all hours.  We can bathe in its stories and images, from waking to sleeping, whether the sun is shining or the moon is full. 
For a long time now, the modern hearth has maintained the broken rhythms of the scattered brain.

The Scattered Brain, part 3

*This is a parsing of an article that originally appeared in Storytelling World magazine in 1997

Version x.x.x 
Each new software package is incrementally defined as version x.x.x of an incomplete and never-finished idea-set.  Are we cracking the silly idea that a thing is made and maintains its shape immutably?  That meaning is constant? All things change.  All things are in some state of iteration, always shifting.  Set in stone?  It is the property of stone to diminish.  Organic?  Living?  If so, then growing and evolving.  We live between the last version and the next version. Storytellers have always known this. But the market place has a vested interest in keeping things unfinished in order to keep the customer.  "Keep the customers satisfied" becomes "dissatisfy the customers in order to satisfy them."  This is how Scheherazade survived: with perpetually unfinished stories. We are sold software and systems that are not ready and then charged for the more complete (but still unfinished) version, paying for the privilege of beta-testing someone else's product. While we rush ahead to get the latest version, all new and improved, we are littering our lives with all the old, obsolete versions.  Our lives are cluttered with the hard and soft wares we abandon on impulse as our scattered brains chase the latest hot item.  The more we neglect the past, the more we will be burdened by it. How did grandma get to be sick and alone in a wolf-infested woods, anyway?
Story Technology 
Stories, as technology, enhance memory and understanding.  Storytellers are a sensual, human medium.  Modern electronic media pretends to respond to its users, but is hopelessly remote and uninvolved.  The user who stays too long at the hearth of such media may suffer a kind of sensory deprivation.  The storyteller brings touch in the form of aural stroking and warmth in the form of being truly present.  Neuroscience now confirms what ancient voices have always known: storytelling is important emotive and cognitive technology.  Storytelling as true virtual reality, transfers experience while massaging the listener and influencing growth. 
Storytelling is re-minding the user at the center of the scattered brain; directing attention back to the primary and the near.  Storytellers are strengthening our ability to endure long, considered thinking: to listen, to reflect, to discern, and to feel deeply and knowingly. McLuhan and Powers continue: "There is no inevitability where there is a willingness to pay attention." 
Within our scattered brains we seek something, hungrily, in the bright distracting lights around us.  Yet we are perpetually dissatisfied. We are like Nasruddin searching in the sunlight for the gold coin he knows he lost in the dark. 
So busy were we 
moving papers around the room 
we failed to see the East 
and the dawning of the day. 
So worried were we 
at the tallying of doom 
we failed to see the South 
and the brightening of the bay. 
So certain were we 
at the importance of our task 
we forgot to note the West 
and the fading of the light. 
So lost were we 
we forgot to ask 
 the sirens of the North 
the meaning of the night. 

The Scattered Brain, part 2

*This is a parsing of an article that originally appeared in Storytelling World magazine in 1997

A Gentle Reminder 
I have just finished a story program for a family night at a local school.  The occasion is a combination of book fair and turn-off-the- tube week.  During the program I presented some cats cradle figures and used them to tell Jack & The Beanstalk (see Storytelling World vol. 2, no. 1, Winter/Spring 1993.)  Children come up to me, chiming the giant's refrain and asking how they can learn more about string figures.  Adults come up to me with a slightly different response.  For the children, this is new information.  For the adults, this is old information that was lost until they were reminded of it.  I will call these two responses: minding and reminding.
First of all, minding.  The telling experience brings a wealth of stimulation to the young listener in the form of images, rhythms, patterns, sequences, emotions, and ideas.  The aural stroking between real-time-and-place teller and real- time-and-place listener is something that our sciences have begun to verify as essential to brain growth in early childhood.  The recognition of this importance is bringing a new validation to the storytelling art in a culture obsessed with technology. 

4/18/97  AP-Washington - In a day of "talking about baby talk" and how brains grow, President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton offered parents simple child-rearing advice: Songs and storytelling fire up infants' brainpower. 

When we tell stories to children we are truly minding them. 
Next, reminding.  Adult listeners at storytelling events are often surprised by the recognition that storytelling evokes.  Listeners tell us, "Gee, I haven't thought about that in ages..."  "I'd forgotten what it was like to..."  "I remember when..." and so on.  A wealth of dormant memories and experiences are invited up from the deep past to the surface of our present minds.  Such storytelling reminds us, literally re-minding: giving us back our minds.  It is as though we have lost cognizance of who we are amidst our scatter-brained lives. 
What's going on?  Why are people having little epiphanies in the company of storytellers?  I believe that there is something missing in our modern media saturation that the storytelling revival is providing us.  Something primary to who we are.  Something that our daily distraction has lead us away from. 
In a prophetic essay for Harper's in 1938, E. B. White wrote: 
"Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist of RCA and the angel of God.  Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound "effects" are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself.  Television will enormously enlarge the eye's range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere.  Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies, it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote.  More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images - distant and concocted.  In sufficient accumulation, radio sounds and television sights may become more familiar than their originals." 
These days we are enchanted by the Elsewhere and attend to matters "distant and concocted" at every turning.  Admittedly, storytelling itself advertises the Elsewhere: "Once upon a time, long ago and far away." But there is a difference.  The medium is the message and the very medium of the told story carries a message distinct from other media. There is a different kind of Elsewhere being advertised by storytelling. We are urged to look away from that which distracts us to that which has become the most remote: the primary and the near. 
(continued in part 3)

The Scattered Brain, part 1

*This is a parsing of an article that originally appeared in Storytelling World magazine in 1997

The Scattered Brain 
by David Novak 
"I heard telephones, opera house, favorite melodies 
I saw boys, toys, electric irons and T.V.'s 
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare 
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there" 
David Bowie, Five Years 
I'm dreaming about a legless blind man when the radio alarm wakes me.  In the short time it takes me to crawl to the bureau to turn off the radio (an arrangement designed to get me out of bed) I hear the DeeJay tell me that 5% of men surveyed admitted to wearing women's underwear.  I drift to the kitchen to feed the cat and dog and pour the coffee and juice.  I go to the front door to collect the morning paper which informs me of the multimillion dollar judgement against O.J. and of an area magnet school which teaches children how to play the bagpipes.  By the time I step back inside, my son is awake and Darkwing Duck is "getting dangerous" on the TV.  I've been awake for less than 30 minutes and already I'm drowning in a sea of information, images and stories. 
The day is far from finished.  Everything is far from finished.  I feel like my life is in the hands of an insomniac channel-surfer: unfinished stories in constant collision with one another adding up to one story: life today. It is all so scatterbrained. I worry: what am I adding to the noise as a voice telling stories in the thick of all this? Who am I to enter the fight for everyone's attention?  What is the point of storytelling in the technologically determined culture of today? 
Technology enhances us: clothes enhance skin, glasses enhance eyes, wheels enhance walking.  Such enhancements extend our physical bodies outward.  Our techno-bodies can "see," "hear," and "reach" farther than our bio-bodies.  We technologically express our bodies outward, forming an exoskeleton of clothing, cars, and houses.  Inasmuch as our communica- tion media express images, ideas, and informa- tion, we express our minds outward too, forming an exo-brain.  The exo-brain is the scattered brain. 
In The Global Village (1989) Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers discuss the way technology affects cultural change.  New technology, they suggest, begins as a distinct figure set against the current cultural ground.  Eventually that technology becomes the new cultural ground.   As our new technologies become assimilated they reform the ground which determines our culture.  McLuhan and Powers: 
"Media determinism, the imposition willy-nilly of new cultural grounds by the action of new technologies, is only possible when the users are well-adjusted, i.e. sound asleep." 
To be "well-adjusted" in this sense, is to be accepting yet unthinking; to be an open receiver like a well-adjusted antenna.  For such media determinism to be possible, it helps to have a populace that is illiterate, anti-intellectual, inarticulate, and emotionally reactive.  The well-adjusted user is hungry (literally and figuratively); dissatisfied with what he has  ("been there, done that"); afraid of the unknown ("brand x"); afraid of the outside (the only safe places, we are told, are the places where you find an approved point-of-sale that accepts the right credit card); accepting without thinking (uncritical and thereby open to shallow rhetoric and "sound bites"); has a short attention span (being therefore less likely to scrutinize merchandise or ideas very closely); and is impulsive (reacting to ersatz emergencies from headline news to one-day-only sales.)   In short, the well-adjusted user lets the scattered brain do its thinking.  The scattered brain directs our attention to what it considers important, leaving what does not interest it to be forgotten. 
If this is the culture we live in, it is also the culture that welcomed a revival of story- telling.  Why? 
(continued in part 2)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Daddy's Coming Home

"Finding the Father" is an ancient story motif. Since the beginning of families, a defining feature of fathers is their constant leave-taking and return. As a boy, I marveled at my father's mysterious excursions into the great beyond to engage in manly tasks and challenges. They were likely board meetings, sales presentations, bank negotiations and other similar aspects of the modern business hunt. Nevertheless, his going and returning was a source of wonder and anticipation. Especially because he traditionally returned with surprises.
Now I am the hunting, gathering, father. I endeavor to keep up the tradition of providing for my children. Thinking of all this, I penned a short story poem for Father's Day. Enjoy!

Daddy's coming home today
He took a journey far away.
He set out in the early morn
with a bleating blast of his hunting horn.
Perhaps he's caught the questing beast
and brings us back a royal feast.
Perhaps he met a grizzly bear
and wrestled with it in its lair
to free the captive maiden there.
Perhaps he found a secret cove
and got a pirate's treasure trove.
Perhaps he put some in a chest
and stuffed his pockets with the rest
to bring us baubles, gems and rings
and other fascinating things.
Perhaps he went where penguins go
and rode his sled across the snow.
Perhaps he went to jungles dense
and rode an elephant, immense.

Whatever regions he did roam
today he's coming home.

That is, unless he met with strife
and suffered threats upon his life.
What if a shark bit him in two?
Or an  angry rhino ran him through?
What if he was thrown from a speeding train?
Or struck by lightening in the rain?
Will we ever see our dad again?

But wait, his car is coming up the drive...
He's stepping out... He's home alive!
And look, he's carrying a sack
with all the treasure he's brought back.
Let's see.. there's eggs and milk and apples too
and celery for us to chew.
There's pancake mix, a lettuce head
a bag of chips, a loaf of bread,
some cheese and burgers for the grill
peanut butter, pickles, dill
bananas, carrots, cantaloupe
toilet paper, laundry soap
diapers, wipes and teething rings
Epsom salts and first aid things.
But there, the best, is something sweet
an icy, creamy, chocolate treat!

There's yet more treasure to be told.
It is a wonder to behold.
We marvel, awestruck, and are glad
for such a bold, heroic, dad.

Happy Father's Day everyone!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Gags into Stories

Back in 1995 and 96, I had the privilege of being on the opening team for the Disney Institute. I was the resident storyteller in charge of Story Arts. One of my favorite programs was one I called "As Walt Would Tell It" in which I could lead guests through an exploration of Walt Disney's development as a storyteller. It is well known that Walt stopped drawing pictures early on and focused instead on story, developing the story board process and using storytelling to lead his company.

You can follow his maturation as a storyteller by following his creative work. In the early days, he and his artists were turning out gag-driven comedies. All they needed to do was find a good situation and string a bunch of gags around it. This was during the early "rubber-hose" animations with the Alice and the Oswald comedies. He was still doing heavily gag-driven stories when he began his Mickey Mouse shorts. You can see how a set of gags dominates the film in this Mickey Mouse short, The Fire Fighters, from 1930:

A few years later, in 1936, Disney releases a Silly Symphony called Elmer Elephant. You will find the same kinds of fire-fighter gags, but now they are in service of a story about an underdog becoming a hero:

As an aside, part of the special alchemy of Disney's power is the way in which his technology developed as his story sense developed. I will explore that in more detail elsewhere. Simply put: as the films went from Black & White to Color, the stories likewise became more colorful.

By 1941, Walt and his team are really growing up. they are entering their 40s, becoming family men and women and watching their children grow. (This development will ultimately lead Walt to conceive of Disneyland.) You can see their maturation in the growing maturity of their stories. This is the year of Dumbo. The following year will see Bambi. These are two of the most enduring, sophisticated films of Walt's career. All artists, of any merit, invest their work with their own life experience. In Dumbo, you can sense the gravitas of parenthood. Story artist, Bill Peet, famously watched his wife bathe their newborn as he created the storyboards for the Dumbo bath scene. Also in Dumbo, we can see how the same gags that drove The Fire Fighters and Elmer Elephant, have been completely subsumed by the story. Here is the clown sequence from Dumbo. You will see the same kinds of gags from the earlier years. But, ironically, you will also see that the effect they have is the opposite of a cheap laugh. Instead, they deepen our empathy for the hero.

Walt discovered that gag-driven stories can only take you a short distance. But gags used in service of larger themes and ideas, can take a story far. Bad gags are self-centered distractions. Good gags are a glittering refraction of the larger story.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

May Day / Beltane

Several years ago I wrote a story for my friend and colleague, Milbre Burch, and her husband, Berkely Hudson, on the occasion of the birth of their daughter, Katie Blake. I recently adapted the story for our May Day festival at The Odyssey school here in Asheville where my step-daughter, Kaiya, is in 3rd grade.  We gathered in the green wood making fairy houses, playing games, dancing the maypole and eating strawberries and cream.  Here is my story:

White coral bells upon a slender stalk
Lily--of-the-valley on my garden walk
O how I wish that you could hear them ring
That will only happen when the fairies sing

There was once a Keen-eyed Woman and the Kind-hearted Man, who lived in a rich green valley below a snow-topped mountain. They had a fine garden full of vegetables, fruit and nut trees, and flowers. They were especially fond of the May Lilies they planted along all the garden pathways.

The valley was so green because of a winding silver river that ran through it, fed by many mountain streams that sprang from the deep heart of the mountain. Often the Keen-eyed Woman and the Kind-hearted Man would go down to the river bank to dip their baskets brimful in the cool waters. Then they would meet the many other folk that also lived in the valley, exchanging news and greetings.

One day, as the people knelt by the water, a rumbling boom was heard in the skies above and the earth was felt to tremble. As they looked up, they saw great flashes of fire and clouds of smoke rising from the mountain peak. They watched the fire and smoke long into the twilight and then retired to an uneasy sleep.

The next morning a dense fog sat upon the valley, obscuring the mountain and muffling all sound. As they stepped tentatively out, a painful moaning broke the morning quiet. An old woman approached through the fog. She was wrapped in a green shawl and had white hair falling upon her shoulders like snow on the mountain. As she drew nearer, they could see that she was badly burned in face and hands and that her shawl was singed and steaming. She stumbled to the river bank and fell upon the water, soothing her burns and drinking deep. As she knelt there, the river shrank to a thin silver thread. Many fled from her sight, most turned away. But the Keen-eyed Woman and the Kind-hearted Man saw her distress and came to her aide.

They helped her into their home and nursed her with soothing balm from their garden herbs. As she huddled there, she muttered one trembling word, "Dragon!" And they understood. A dragon had come to the mountaintop and was busy now making its nest.

There are many kinds of dragon, but this one was clearly a fire dragon. It sought a high place of stone to nest upon. It would scratch and crumble the living stone to make a rocky eerie, and it would dry up any water there.

The strange old woman regained her strength under the good care of the kind couple. One night she stepped to the door and proclaimed, "A blessing on you for your caring hands and your generous garden. May you always have plenty to serve you in need. May your garden bring hope back to a desolate land." With those words, she vanished into the dark.

Soon the mountain's heart was sealed and the mountain springs ceased to flow. The land began to die as the earth cracked and the air filled with smoke. And the hearts of the people parched as well. Yet the parched earth did not reach the garden of the Kind-hearted Man and the Keen-eyed Woman.

One morning, as she was working among the May Lilies, the Keen-eyed Woman heard a gentle lullaby and a tiny ringing as of little bells. There, nestled in a lily blossom, she saw a tiny baby girl. The child opened its eyes and smiled at her, then rolled out of the flower and onto her hand.

The kind couple tenderly cared for the fairy child. She grew swift and bright and happy, and they called her Little Lily Girl.

Their home was blessed all the while Little Lily Girl was with them. The garden was always moist and green, the butter came quickly in the churn, and the milk never soured. Yet all around, the valley was drying up. Though the dragon was seldom seen, its presence was felt everywhere. The sky was always dim and the air was ever smokey. The land and the hearts of the people were parched. Each kept to each.

When Little Lily Girl was old enough, she asked her kind parents "Why is the land parched, the sky filled with smoke, and the mountaintop burning?"

They told her "A terrible fire dragon has come to nest on the mountaintop. It choked the springs of the mountain, dried the river, and burned the land. It broods ever above us and is drying even the hearts of the people."

Hearing this, Little Lily Girl said "I know now what I must do and why I have come to this place."

She gathered seeds from the garden into the folds of her apron and then stepped to the dry edge of the riverbed. Lifting a delicate dandelion tuft, and said, "Dandelion, you can fly. You have the power to lift me high."

With that the wind lifted the Little Lily Girl as she held fast to the dandelion tuft. Up high along the mountain slopes she flew until she hovered over the great dragon's nest. Below, she could see a black scaly body coiled round upon itself, steaming, smoking, and flaring its fire.

Little Lily Girl reached into her apron and withdrew a honeysuckle seed, saying "Honeysuckle, with your vine, you have the power to entwine." She dropped the seed into the center of the dragon's coil. Instantly the seed shot vines out in every direction, making a green net about the great worm. The dragon struggled and roared and became more and more entangled in the living net.

As the beast raged and rolled, Little Lily Girl dropped down to the edge of its stony nest. She withdrew a sesame seed and said, "Open sesame, with your root in rock, you have the power to unlock." She dropped the sesame among the rocks. Immediately the seed put down roots, cracking through the rocks and stones and reaching deep into the closed heart of the mountain. When the roots tapped through to the deep spring, its water came shooting upwards.

A fierce geyser of ice water burst beneath the struggling dragon, carrying the creature over the mountain ridge and down through the valley. All the while the beast raged and steamed within its net. The water bore the dragon far off in its fury. The people saw a massive black cloud, flashing and thundering, rise up in the distance as strong winds blew it out of sight.

Soon after, the river ran free again, the valley grew green again and the people came together again. They gathered seeds from the garden of the Keen-eyed Woman and the Kind-hearted Man. With these, they replanted the valley and regained their community.

Ever after that, they would sometimes here a distant roaring thunder and look up to see a black cloud flashing in the sky. Yet soon after, the waters would fall to quench the dragon's fire.

The Little Lily Girl was never seen again in that valley. Yet a short time after the next new moon, the belly of the keen-eyed woman began to grow wide and round. And when it was full and silver like the moon, she bore for them a child. A keen-eyed, kind-hearted daughter.

Tellin' About Jack

Saturday, I was honored to join Ted and Rosa Hicks along with Connie Regan-Blake, Gwenda LedBetter, Joseph Sobol, and Vixi Jill Glen, to raise support for the family in memory of Ray Hicks, the great mountain Jack Tale Teller. We had a great day tellin' about Jack!
Read all about it here.

And enjoy the stories:

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sense and Simulacra

I lived briefly in Berkeley, CA, many years ago. Along The highway to the Bay Bridge, just below Emeryville, wide flats of mud stretch along the edge of the tidal basin. The mud flats are a sludgy, dull, repository for trash. One can see half-submerged tires, cans, bottles, planks of various lengths, and large appliances, scattered across the mud like a bizarre elephants' graveyard. I would often stare across that wasteland with a sad confusion over our modern habit of disposal. But every now and then I would spy mysterious creatures rising from the junk, assemblages of trash forming great dragons and upright giants, transforming the sad bones of urban disjecta membra into fanciful images of whimsy. Artists made their way into the junk field of the flats and pulled together crazy, ephemeral creations, turning ugliness into beauty, chaos into art.
I think the modern mind is sometimes like those mud flats. Our thoughts are filled with a confusion of images, random bits of distraction clutter our minds. But when we organize our thoughts around a coherent story, we build from our mental and emotional flotsam and jetsam, images and experiences alive with meaning. Stories help us turn our inner lives from chaos into art. 
That is why, I am fond of saying that storytelling is aerobics for the mind.
Now science backs me up. There is an interesting article, Your Brain On Fiction, by Annie Murphy that appeared in the NY Times last March. She writes:
"Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life." Read the entire article
Just as this was being printed in the Times, I was working with a class of third graders at Jones Elementary School in Asheville. My residency was based on the book, Something Beautiful, by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. We were working on the discovery of beauty and the ability to effectively tell about beautiful places and people so that we could give the beauty to others. 
I realize we had to be like those artists in the mud flats. We had to wander across the wasteland of daily life - that is, the wasteland of impoverished language about daily life - find and conjure forth the inherent beauty that is there. We did it by rehearsal.
"Rehearse" is a word derived from farming. It literally means "harrow" and refers to the act of raking back and forth across the land, breaking it up into smoother and finer furrows, to be more fecund. To rehearse is to open up the earth for more life. A clear example of that occurred when one of my third grade students spoke about the scene outside her back door. At first, she dismissed the backyard as "ugly" saying that there was merely an "ugly pile of mulch." But as she went back and forth over the scene, her language opened up, revealing "A large, brown pile of mulch, rough and mouldy, that smells damp, with green sprouts growing out." 
That is an image to stimulate the mind, and create a virtual experience of beauty.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Never Turn Your Back On A Story

So back in 1987 I was working as a teaching artist for San Diego Institute for Arts Education. SDIAE was a program based on the Aesthetic Literacy model developed by philosopher, Maxine Greene, and implemented by the Lincoln Center Institute. While working with a class of kindergarten children on story structure, I developed an heroic treatment of Itsy Bitsy Spider (it became something of a signature piece in later years) that was a blend of Mother Goose and Homer. My inspiration came right out of Joseph Campbell's "Hero With A Thousand Faces" where he wrote:
"The characteristic efficacy to touch and inspire deep creative centers dwells in the simplest nursery fairy tale, even as the flavor of the ocean is in a single drop of water, or the mystery of life is in the egg of a flea."
So an epic retelling of this familiar finger play grew out of this work. At the time, it was a fun, tongue-in-cheek, comic romp.
But that same year, a classmate of mine from graduate school suffered what we used to call "a nervous collapse." Today, he would call it a "bi-polar episode." The point is, my close friend was suddenly in an intensive care ward at the area mental health hospital. I visited. He was in bed, heavily sedated, clammy to the touch, with glassy eyes masking a torn and broken soul. I anguished at his side over what I might do to help or comfort him. He said, "Tell me that story about the spider."
There, at his bedside, up close and personal, I told the the epic tale and found myself drawn into the vortex of myth, doing its ancient bidding.
Never turn your back on a story.