Saturday, November 1, 2014

Sunday in the Park (Shanghai)

A front blew through last night, heavy rain and high winds, yielding blue skies, bright sun, cool breezes, and fallen autumn leaves. Zhongshan Park in Shanghai is like any city park in Manhattan or Chicago. At the entrance, vendors spread their wares along the pavement, selling kites, whirligigs, bubble blowers and other good toys for a park outing. Within, meandering paths lead over little bridges, along greenswards, through shady groves of bamboo, oak, and even a small stand of redwoods. Park benches are scattered along circular plazas where couples practices ballroom dancing or small groups move in silent Tai Chi meditation. There is a small lake with boat rentals and a little amusement park with spinning swings and a carousel. Families are out today, loving their children (and their smart phones) and contentedly enjoying the sun and each others' company. These are middle-class, urban families, comfortably arrayed and equipped with strollers and back packs. Their children are gifted with balloons and toys, running about in windbreakers and sport shoes. This is China's baby boom. The grandparents easily remember a the great privation and distress of the Cultural Revolution, barely 40 years ago (1966-76) during which our baby boom was protesting the Vietnam War. This new urban China baby boom, like ours, emerges from hardships to bask in new material comfort. A rising middle class is enjoying luxuries unimaginable a short time ago. If patterns repeat themselves, this baby boom will soon develop the perennial distrust of the Establishment. Already the cities are up against a discovery of pollution similar to that which ignited America's environmental movements. The saturation of materialism may likewise lead to a similar questioning of values and ideology, fueled by increasing higher education and international influences. Maybe. It remains to be seen.

Today, however, I feel the warmth of the sun, the peace of the pastoral setting, the beauty of families, and the sense, however fleeting, that all is well. I am especially missing my son, Jordan, who would fit in with all the other children, and whose company would make this day complete. Monday is his 6th birthday and I cannot wait to hug him up close.

Meanwhile, I am happy to begin another week of work tomorrow, and grateful that I will be spending next Sunday at home.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Great Expectorations

I am in China for my second tour of International Schools with the new company, Pana Wakke. The director, Sonia Zivkovic, does a grand job of organizing and integrating my work with the schools and the experience is very rewarding. Because the International Schools serve a population of foreign nationals living and working in China, my tour is limited to the denser urban areas: Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Shouzou, and so on.

The world of the schools is set apart from the life of the city. By and large, the cities are sleepless and busy: pile drivers and construction cranes assault the rising sky line; dense, erratic traffic scurries in, out, and across all lanes; horns bleat, phones blare, and people shout. Yet amidst all the cacophony of the urgency in urban China, one sound grates across them all: the sound of throats clearing. It is a harsh, raspy sound followed by a brief pause and then the splat of spit upon grass, trash, or pavement. The open-air effusion of phlegm erupts suddenly from the crowd and never fails to startle and sicken me. A less loud, but equally common companion to these throaty expectorations is the hiss and spray of open-air nose blowing. Clearly this is one practice where the lines of culture are sharply drawn. I feel a drip, take a tissue, blow, and throw away the refuse. But the man across from me shows that you can skip the tissue (and save trees?) by merely clearing your nostrils onto the nearest bin, bush, or byway.
The rising pollution index in China is famous, and it may be this that engenders the people's nose and throat distress. Whatever the cause, there is something here that can neither be swallowed nor coughed up. The People, it seems, are choking. Or, perhaps, they getting ready to speak.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Magic Picture Story Boards

Over the years I have created ways for using a simple paper folding toy to explore storytelling, tallying, and storyboards. The "magic picture" toy is created by folding a square of paper in on itself to create multiple folds that can hide and reveal part or all of a square. 

As a picture toy, these are used to change a simple picture such as making a facial expression turn from a frown to a smile. For storytelling they can be used to recount a story. I use them in the classroom, to help students find their way through a story and to divide a story into richer details:

Throughout history storytellers have used pictures to illustrate their stories.

Bankelsanger literally means "bench singer." These German storytellers would use a small bench as a stage from which to direct listeners to their story boards.

Similarly the art of Kamishibai in Japan is based on telling stories to images.

The modern use of storyboards in film-making is a direct descendant of these traditions. Storyboarding was first used as a cost effective way to pre-edit animated films by Walt Disney.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Wayfinding on The Mountain

I just received this letter from a woman who attended my programs at The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in Highlands, NC, last week.
It is sometimes difficult to explain what I do to people and why I think storytelling matters. I call my business A Telling Experience, and my catch-phrase is "finding ourselves together telling stories." That has multiple meanings for me, but most important is the wayfinding we do when we converse and share stories. Every now and then someone gets it and articulates the experience in a lovely way.
Janese's letter validates the role storytelling plays in our Mountain programming.
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Janese Nix <>
Date: Tue, Jul 8, 2014 at 4:12 PM
Subject: Thank you

I was fortunate enough to meet you and experience your art last week at the Mountain Center.  I am aware of many of the ways listening and sharing stories can transform and am grateful for the reminder and opportunity to think again about the power of stories.  But I also want to express gratitude to you for sharing your "aliveness."  When you tell stories you are sharing and passing along the stories themselves but you are also inviting attention.  It's like seeing the first rays of the rising sun and noticing that beauty.  In that moment there is no distraction, no mind chatter or worries, simply life.  When you are story telling, you become the wind moving through the trees, and invite your audience to be captivated, to attend fully.  You energize your audience by awakening their attention.  A gift I'm glad to have received. 

Listening to you talk afterward, I felt like you are a wayfinder, someone who inspires cultural change through your authenticity and by being deeply connected with your inner voice.  Another gift, thank you.

Janese Nix  

Friday, June 27, 2014

My Mother The Car

Last night I was invited to join the storytellers at Listen To This! a storytelling series here in Asheville produced and hosted by local actor and improv comedian, Tom Chalmers. The format is popular these days: people are invited to tell true, 10 minute stories related to the evening theme. Last night the theme was :
"You Never Forget Your First Car" - autobiographical anecdotes of inaugural automobiles
At first I thought: what can I say? I've never been a car jock, couldn't tell you the size of the engine or its attributes, and don't generally consider the car an expression of my prowess as a man. In short, I am not a guy. I never was into popular "guy things" like sports, cars, and sports cars. I was not like my brother, who, when he got his first car, promptly replaced the muffler with a glass pack so he could make loud farting noises as he drove around town. My relationship to cars was different. My first car was an extension of my favorite subject in school: the window.
In 1965, United Artists Television produced what was arguably the worst t.v. comedy in history: "My Mother The Car." It starred Jerry Van Dyke (Dick's younger brother) as a man whose deceased mother is reincarnated as a 1928 Porter Touring car. She speaks to him via the car radio (an anachronism justified by poetic license) and was voiced by Ann Southern. I was 10 years old at the time and I loved the show. Because my mother was the car. She drove us everywhere all the time. I spent more time in her company as her passenger than in any other way. My mother was a science teacher at a new experimental school called Nova High School, in the town of Davie, at what was at the time the edge of Broward County, FL . Davie was a frontier town characterized by orange groves, horse ranches, and flood control canals. It was the edge of the Everglades, the last town west on Hwy 84, the 2 lane highway that cut across southern Florida along what was called "alligator alley."
Our home, however, was in Ft. Lauderdale, in the northeast section of Broward County, an hour's drive from school. My mother, being a school teacher, was required to be at school early and stay late. So most days, we spent hours driving there and back again, often falling asleep in the car and returning home after dark.
I think my mother's favorite subject in school was also the window. For she took every opportunity to lead her class out of doors to study and collect samples from the field and retention pond.She told me "if you want to be a scientist, you don't need to know anything." I thought: great, I'll be a scientist. "But," she would say, "you must always wonder about everything. For", she said "the end of science is knowing, but the beginning is wonder."
In 1969, mom got a new Dodge Dart (white with a blue interior, I can tell you that much.) In 1972, that car was mine. It was a wonderful moving window and showed me the world.
I was a theatre student and most of my childhood was spent in rehearsal (there's a metaphor!) Shortly after acquiring my independence with the acquisition of my driver's license and the Dodge Dart, I was busy designing and hanging lights for a production of Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth" at the community college across from our high school. Our director had given me the keys to the lecture hall/theatre so I could spend all the time I needed working on the light plot. It was well past midnight, when I crawled down from the ceiling scaffolds, and locked up the theatre. The night was moist and noisy with the sleigh-bell sound of crickets in the high grass. My Dart sat alone in the center of a vast asphalt lot. I got in and headed for the highway. As I drove along alligator alley, no street lights, no shop signs, only my headlights cutting through the darkness, my body began to relax into its accustomed drowsiness, unaware that it was no longer merely the passenger. The radio played a lulling song, "Nights in white satin..." My mind struggled to call my body to attention, when I was startled by the sudden appearance of starlight scattered across the highway. I slowed, and then stopped, and stared at hundreds of shiny, beady, eyes reflected in the headlights. A herd of land crabs was crossing the highway. They were about the size of dinner plates, and were moving sidelong while facing me, holding up their claws in a ready stance in case we came to blows. Hundreds of these crabs had pushed up from the muck and were making a mating migration, as they had done seasonally for millennia.
I was enchanted. I began to wonder through the window about the mystery of life all around me, about the landscape and the earth, about water and air. As they passed and I began again to accelerate, I wondered how water condenses to the pull of gravity, forming oceans, but expands into the atmosphere above. I marveled that, in a sense, I was driving along an ocean floor, with crabs scuttling across. For the ocean extends from the depths to the troposphere and out into space.
The next thing I knew, I was parked in our home driveway, the radio singing "Morning has broken..." having no memory of how I got there.
I realized, my mother was the car. Or, rather, the car had mothered me home safely. Something in me had taken charge while my childish self was staring out the window. Something that took on the parent's role. For my first car was an extension of the womb; it birthed me into a larger world. As I sat there in the driveway, I crossed a threshold into adulthood, as part of me that was a child slept in the passenger seat, while a new self arose, ready to take the wheel.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Mind the Gap!

Just heard a great story on NPR's Morning Edition about why certain songs make us want to dance.
The conclusion is that songs with moderate rhythmic complexity and syncopation, inspire us to "fill in" the rhythmic gaps. So we jiggle, tap, clap,!

The same is true in storytelling. A classic "involvement strategy" for storytellers is to develop a rhythmic under current that grows in complexity and leaves gaps for the listener to fill in, resulting in spontaneous participation. The linguistic strategy of ellipsis (...) likewise inspires the listener to fill in the gap.  You can hear this at play in the cumulative pattern story of The Little Ant:

Thursday, May 29, 2014


I recently had a wonderful experience as Emcee and Presenter at The Electric Universe Conference (EU2014) in Albuquerque, NM. This was a gathering of passionate and dedicated physicists, geologists, climatologists, mythologists, and others, all exploring the a big "What IF?"  What IF... electricity plays a major role in the physics of the cosmos? What IF the sun is more like a light bulb than a fire-ball? What IF the mythic cosmologies of our earliest ancestors were reporting actual experiences of extraordinary events? What IF we were to re-examine and re-think our own understanding of ancient history? What IF we are all part of a vast integral electric circuit called 'universe'? What IF?

My mother died just before Easter and I have been pondering her legacy in my life. She had been a high school science teacher. She told me that if I wanted to be a scientist, I did not need to know anything. But, she said, I must wonder about everything. "The end of science is Knowing, the beginning is Wonder."

So at an early point in my life, I set out to be a scientist. I became a storyteller. I discovered that story and science begin in the same place: Wonder.

Here is a storyteller's perspective I contributed to the conversation:

Friday, April 4, 2014

Present Tense

So I saw the new Captain America movie today with my 12 yr old, Nick. It was a fun ride. But I kept thinking about all these mythic tropes that keep presenting themselves in our modern comic book movies...starting with the previews.

Coming Soon! The movie about a terrible menace that is brought up from the deep earth by the machinations of hubristic humans who think they can control nature. There will be wreckage, there will be chaos, and there will be conspiracy: what is the secret the government is keeping from us? Why are they lying to us? What is about to happen? We are about to be destroyed all the way back to the stone age! [We've heard that before, right? Bomb them back to he stone age!]

Who will win?

Next up: the forthcoming Great War of the X-Men Mutants and...? Some mysterious, all-powerful enemy that can out-blast all our heroes. Former enemies must form an alliance to confront the even greater evil. It is so bad, we must go back in time to stop this thing from even starting! [Check that out: go back in time. An idea that comes up again in our feature film.] Who will win? Good? Formerly Bad, but now Good? Weird, unnamed menace that is threatening everything?

Who will win?

Next up: the war among the races from other planets over the hidden queen of the good people. The bad guy on the throne tries cruelly, and impulsively to hold on to power. All of this has something to do with the planet Jupiter! At the center of this story is the heroine - the lost queen of the great empire, but she does not know her true identity. The hero will try to convince her of her true nature, while saving her from the danger that surrounds. The heroine is a house-cleaner, but the hero tells her: it is not what you do, but who you are that matters! Cinderella in space!

Again the lingering question: Who will win?

And now for our Feature! Captain America is honest and pure, but doubts are creeping in: can he trust that he is doing the right thing? What are these missions for, anyway? Something is happening here and what it is is not very clear, there's a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware.... And who is the Big Bad Wolf? The guy we most trust and rely on, and the institution he represents. Turns out it is all a deep undercover operation to rule the world by ridding it of free-thinking trouble-makers and controlling all the rest of us, so we will be happy. The fascists from WWII have been in stealth-mode engineering a world of order over chaos. Their well-meaning desire to combat chaos requires a solution justified by the ends: kill the several million would-be troublesome [read: disobedient, sincere, creative, self-determining, true American types]  Our heroes: the great ragtags, brought together by our indomitable Achilles: the Captain. Yet, even as the Big Bad Guy is a sly, deceiving two-face, his muscle is a brain-washed former good guy, turned into an evil hammer until he confronts the hero and memory stirs. [Reminiscent of the meeting between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.]

What must they do against the vast, impenetrable fortress of power? Against all odds? Destroy the destruction capability. Train the weapons on the weapons. Unmake the ring of power. Plenty of fun destroying in the name of ending destruction!

Here is a basket full of modern mythic tropes: the real enemy is in our most trusted institutions and our most trusted leaders. The real heroes are rogue outsiders. The real solution is to expose and destroy corruption. [There is a great Wiki Leaks style moment when all the secrets are sent out to the internet and there are no longer any rocks for the vermin to hide beneath!]

And in the heroic journey, our main man must come face to face with his past! He must revisit his old training grounds, his old friendships, his old nemesis. Only by confronting the past can he overcome the present.

Okay, so these are narrative turns we see in many of the heroic stories around us: the enemy is the institution; the hero is the free-wheeler; the solution to the corrupting influence of power is to destroy power; the jaded cynic becomes the believing companion, the lost soul finds his heart, the lies are exposed, and a new age of true liberty and freedom from fear, oppression, and injustice begins.

This is what many of us are dreaming of . This is what gives me the sense that our unease with the Present Tense is pushing through in our stories.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Lost pt 4 aka "Found"

Animism comes naturally to storytellers. The storyteller is a kind of ventriloquist, throwing imagined spirit into any and every thing. Birds talk, trees talk, doors, plates, shoes ...anything talks and thinks and feels.

As a storyteller father, I find it very easy to animate the objects around me, especially when such animation serves to amuse, instruct, or motivate my children.

So, naturally, that day I was trying to get Jordan (then 4) into the car so we could go somewhere, I resorted to animism.

Jordan was lingering on the sidewalk, investigating the starry leaves of a Japanese Maple. I stood by  the car door, explaining why he needed to get in his seat. (Why did he need to get in his seat? Why did I get so worked up? An agenda, a destination, an agreed-upon system for time-keeping, and I can't see the starry wonder of a leaf!)

Clinging to my sense of urgency, I decided to animate the buckles of his child safety seat. I spoke to them resignedly, "Well guys, I guess we're not going out after all..."
The buckles replied, "Aww too bad, we were lookin' forward to the trip. We been sittin' here going' nowhere all day."
"Yes, I commiserated, "but that's the way it is. Jordan isn't coming, so..."

I was angling for Jordan, using Polonius' strategy: "by indirection, I will find direction out."
For some reason, the belt buckles had a kind of urban street dialect; a touch of Brooklyn, I think. I instantly realized that they are basically naive; ignorant but not stupid. They just don't get out much. So they rely on Jordan's reports to understand his world.

The trick worked. Jordan came over to talk to the seat buckles and they were delighted to see him.
"Hey! Look who's here! Good to see ya kiddo. Come on up here and let us give you a big hug. Where we going' today?" On and on they cajoled him, while I dutifully snapped the buckles and took my place behind the wheel, leaving the stage to the newly animated seat.

Jordan carried on the conversation and had a nice chat with the buckles. I drove on, throwing my voice into the seat buckles, while the rest of me watched the road.

I paid the price of the Creator. Having brought the buckles to life, they were now a part of our routine. Getting into the car, Jordan would call out "Hey guys!"

They would chat while I took on the chauffeur's duties.

So, it happened that I was driving with Jordan to a pizza party at his school during the time that I was also disintegrating into the microbiome and losing my self. ("Lost" parts 1,2,3 on this blog.)
As we got into the car and I buckled Jordan in, he began to converse.

"Hey guys!"
"Hiya kiddo! Where we goin' today?"
"We're going to a pizza party!"
"Oh that's great! What's a pizza, some kinda shoe?"
"No, a pizza is a thing that you eat."
"Oh yeah? What kinda thing?"
"It's round and it tastes good."
"Yeah? What's it made of?"
There is a brief silence. I am driving. He answers.
"It's made of God."
There is another silence. I don't know what the buckles have to say to that.
In the pause, Jordan addresses me.
"Isn't that right, Dad?"
"Isn't what right?" I say, feigning ignorance of this conversation.
"Isn't pizza made of God?"
"Well," I consider, "yes, I guess it is. If God is in everything, then God is in pizza."
Jordan and the buckles are satisfied with this answer.
Suddenly the world has become luminous. I am driving in harmony with all creation.
All is one and God is All."

Walt Whitman's words come to mind:

"... all the things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any.
I will not make poems with reference to parts;
But I will make leaves, poems, poemets, songs, says, thoughts, with reference to ensemble;
And I will not sing with reference to a day, but with reference to all days;
And I will not make a poem, nor the least part of a poem, but has reference to the soul;
Because, having looked at the objects of the universe, I hold there is no one, nor any particle of one, but has reference to the soul."

I have lost myself and found, instead, a greater Self.