Showing posts with label storytelling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label storytelling. Show all posts

31 March, 2014

Cast Thy Troubles Upon the Dirty, Sacred River: Moth StorySlam Update, Wading Into This Grand Political Season, and A Story Worth Telling

IMoth StorySLAM Update

I told a story at last week's  Moth Story Slam at Headliners Music Hall that I rarely tell and will probably not tell again. The topic was 'Courage*' -- which is a 3rd person designation, and not one I would attribute to any action on my part.

The story I told was about the last physical fight I ever got into. The reason it was the last fight was that not long after incident I decided, to focus my energy on being a pacifist rather than feeding the angry little monster in my gut who had, by that time, taken on the name Terry.**

When I think of courage, I think of a current student who was among the wave of responders at Ground Zero. I think of my daughter, trying to build her life in spite of unreasonable backlash from her mother and her mother's husband. I think of Stanley Taylor, Cletus the Dog Man, Jimmy the Kid, Fisherman Jim, and The Roving Northern Englander. I think of Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons, and Albert Parsons. I think of my dad.

The Moth is a great venue and I will continue to go out, put my name in the hopper, and hope that I get to go on stage. It's entirely possible that The Moth is not the venue for me to stretch my storytelling legs, since I am far more interested in other people's stories and in the stories of people who generally get ignored than I am in trying to make myself out to be the center of anything.*** I am the least interesting part of every story I want to tell, and I am simply one small part of the All I write about when I write a poem.+

Wading Into the Political Season

I'll admit it. I'm a bit of a political junkie. Not enough to keep noxious news channels on 24 hours a day/7 days a week; but enough of one that, in spite of myself I went to both a candidate meet and greet in the neighborhood and a meeting of the Louisville Metro Council in the same week.

Politics -- especially local politics -- is like what a friend of Amanda's calls SPORTSBALL++. To look at politics as anything other than a kind of sport lends it far more gravity than it deserves. American politics are absurd and politicians are among the most absurd critters on the planet next  lawyers and the duck-billed platypus.
Meet your local representative.

I went to a neighbor's house to meet the opposing candidate for the District 21 seat on the Metro Council. His name is Erich V. Shumake. He's running against 20 year encumbent Dan Johnson.+++ They are both Democrats, which apparently is a relief to some of those who still think partisan politics matter and a real problem to the rest of those who think partisan politics matter.

Shumake is a Methodist minister and retired railroad man; but this is not the most interesting thing about him.

What makes him interesting is that he's so much fun to mess with.

Amanda and I arrived at the neighbor's house at the same time as the candidate and his wife. The neighbors, Tammy and her husband Kevin nice folks. She's from Nebraska originally. He likes microbrew beer. They live in a well-maintained older house a few streets away and are active in the neighborhood association. The meet and greet had the usual kinds eats -- cookies and chips and brownies, along with coffee and homemade lemonade and both kinds of wine. We were standing near the food spread talking with the candidate about politics and philosophical fishing when Tammy came up and asked him if he wanted a glass of wine.

No thank you,  he answered. But I will take a cup of coffee.

I wasn't drinking either -- neither wine agrees with me in mixed settings and I still had to work after the meet and greet -- so I didn't actually hold his temperance against him. Tammy seemed a bit shaken -- she later insisted I eat something so that she could too, so I can only conclude that she was following in that grand tradition of the midwestern hostess -- waiting for a guest to pop the cork before she herself took a polite gulp.

While it's entirely possible that Tammy was nervous -- as hosts of such events are sometimes expected to be when they invite all their neighbors, one of whom was erroneously accused of being convicted of check fraud in New Jersey in 1996^ -- I like to think that on some level, her deep, hearty, and stalwart midwestern soul intervened.

Do you take it like a man? she asked.

She laughed immediately and apologized for the verbal slip, but that opened the bag. The candidate, looked at me and asked how I took my coffee. (I was drinking the homemade lemonade.)

Like a man, Amanda said, laughing. The candidate looked at me and I nodded.

I drink it black. 

I sort of felt sorry for him. Sort of. Faced with burly bearded philosophical fisherman, his nearly hysterically laughing hostess, and Amanda -- all of us potential voters, of course -- he nodded, smiled, and in another grand tradition -- this one being the grand tradition of politicking -- he proclaimed that he would try it like a man. 

Later, before the mini-stump speech in the front room, I was talking to him again, this time trying to get a sense of what he wanted to do on Metro Council. His answers were charged with all the idealism and Democratic buzzwords that I expected, but he was intentionally non-specific. I noticed he was eating a ginger snap with his manly coffee -- which, to be honest, he wasn't drinking that much of.

You know, I said.  You should trying dunking it in the coffee.


Absolutely. It softens the cookie and... you know... adds a little sugar to the coffee. Try it.

He dunked it almost immediately and seemed moderately surprised that both flavor of both the cookie and the coffee were complimented by the addition of the other. You're welcome.

The Metro Council meeting was interesting to watch^^. A lot of pomp and circumstance, and a great deal of disagreement over who sits on The Monuments Commission (The distribution of vetted volunteers tends to lean heavily towards the east end -- where there is a lot more money floating around, even if it's some abstract number on a computer screen and not an actual bank roll.)  and over a motion to separate the City Employee Retirement System from the Kentucky State Retirement System -- which apparently is a really important issue to Jim King (D) the representative from District 10, who presides over Council meetings since the mayor doesn't have to.

Neither of these issues were decided one way or the other.

Of note, though. Dan Johnson was present at the meeting, while his opponent was not. The representative from District 21 didn't say much, and seemed focused on something in front of him rather than the proceedings. But his phone went off three times. The first time, he silenced it. The second time, I barely grabbed it in time. The third time, he silenced it good and proper, but his colleagues on either side of him could not contain their laughter. 

A Story Worth Telling:

I'm almost getting this audio portion of this blog together. Here's a story I haven't told in a while, but one that I really like. I hope you like it too. You can also follow me on, listen from this link, (it's an mp3) for click on play on the Facebook page for Along The Dirty, Sacred River.


*The original topic of the night was supposed to be "Heroes" -- which was stressful enough, since I think I am even less heroic than I am courageous. The topic changed at  the last minute, however, thanks to a special one time sponsorship by AARP.

** Every man is born with a monster in his gut, and every boy learns at an early age how to feed it. I started feeding mine shortly after I lost my first fight, at the age of 10. It's entirely possible, and entirely likely, that women are born with monsters, too. But I've never asked. And to be honest, I'm not entirely sure I want to know what that force of nature monster would look like unleashed.

*** The trend of "storyteller as protagonist" is actually referred to as part of the "American Style" of storytelling by the wider global community of storytellers. 

+ This is as close to an aesthetic statement as I think I've ever made. 

++ A derisive critique of all sports that I understand only because of a lexicographic relative, MUSIKILLS. A Musikill is any theatrical piece (except for Man from La Mancha) in which over-wrought music tells at least half the story. This includes the entire Rogers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber catalogs, and anything where the term "Fossey hands" is applicable. (From The Parsons Dictionary of Oft Used Words and Phrases, high school edition)

+++ The picture of him on the campaign page is old, probably as old as his first run. 


12 March, 2014

Short Form, Long Story

Some stories do not fit in a short format.

With the monthly Moth Story Slam quickly approaching, I've been pondering what story to tell. And with this month's topic being HEROES, I thought I had a shoo-in.

There's rarely a day that goes by that The Old Man doesn't cross my mind at least once. This September 3rd will be 24 years since he died, and while I like to think I've come to understand him as a person and not the larger-than-life myth I created around him as a child, the fact is that even in -- maybe especially in --  his imperfect humanity there's a touch of the mythic about him.

The stories about him are legion. He dropped out of high school at 17 and joined the Navy in time for the Korean War. (I suspect that the military was seen as a last ditch effort to keep him out of jail. He, like his father before him and his sons after him, was born with a chip the size of the Continental Divide on both shoulders.) Joining the Navy taught him three things: 1) that some men are bigger men than others (learned after standing naked in a room with several hundred other young men for induction); 2) that he hated boats (no one mentioned the stress point built into the middle of battle ships that keeps them from sinking during rough waves); and 3) that he hated the bananas.

After his 3 year naval hitch, he remained a civilian for about a year and then joined the Air Force, which he stayed in for 20 years and attained the rank of Master Sgt. Among the things he learned in the Air Force 1) All officers are assholes; 2) there's an art and craft to telling someone to go to hell; and 3) that it was still possible in the 20th century to be banned from a state upon penalty of incarceration. (He was -- let's call it asked -- by then Governor Ann Richards to not return to the state of Texas after a furlough weekend with two childhood friends, each in a different branch of the military. I have only heard of the existence of this letter and have never seen it.)

There are more stories, many that I know, and too many I will probably never know. Except for my immediate family and one cousin in New Jersey, I can't seem to maintain any contact with The Old Man's family. He has two brothers still living -- one who is an extreme misanthrope and another who lives in Colorado who I have only met once. (I was going to go back out and talk to him some more. But thanks to a Facebook Troll during the '12 Presidential Election season and that familial double sawboard should chip the size of the Continental Divide, that second meeting never occurred.)

On the topic of Heroes, The Old Man has always been mine, but I cannot seem to reduce his legend to a good 5 minutes. It seems unfair to his memory, and unfair to the audience. And so I find myself wondering what it is I have to say about heroes.

Don't worry. I'll come up with something. It may even be safe for an NPR crowd.

03 March, 2014

The Problem of Shrub: The Story of a Failed Tale

I've never been good at expectations. Expectations are those binds other people place on you. They are the price you pay in exchange for them deigning to allow you in their world. Expectations are rules of behavior.

Keep off the Grass. 
No shirt, no shoes, no service. 
No cussing, spitting, or gum chewing. 
No alcohol allowed beyond this point.
Do your homework.

People who know me, or who have known me for a long time, know that if there is an expectation levied on me that chances are good I'll find a way to not live up to it. If there's a silent understanding among members of any community, I will, in some way or another contradict it. I unintentionally and permanently offended little old Lutheran Church Matrons* by going a little too blue at an open mic series in Mount Carroll, Illinois.

But I am finding that there's a difference between the art and craft of storytelling and the art and craft of poetry.

As some of you may know, I've been polishing my storytelling at the monthly Moth StorySlam held at Headliner's Music Hall in Louisville. The format is ideal for culling the non-essential from a story and for working on other tidbits like stage presence and tone. The judging is, shall we say, not precise.  The rules are simple: 
  1. The story must be true.** 
  2. The story must have the teller as a central character. 
  3. The story should not be longer than 5 minutes. (Or 6, if you're feeling really froggy.)
Then there's the topic, which is different every month. January's topic was VICES. Now, this is something I have a little experience with. Vice can mean a lot, though. And so I've made it my habit to go into the monthly slam with two stories in the bag. I find it's a good way to ensure that I don't end up telling a similar story to the entrant before me. And I also try to have two stories that are different tones and timbers. Last month for example, when the topic was LOVE HURTS, I had a story prepared about my first grade unrequited crush, Tonya Tolin -- and I had a story I call The Midas Girl, about a first (and last) date gone horribly awry.

Amanda and I talk through our stories with one another before The Moth. It's nice to be able to get honest feedback from someone who is both competitive enough to push me but supportive enough to give honest and useful tips. When it comes to VICES we both have plenty of source material to draw from, and it becomes not so much a matter of figuring out a story to tell, but figuring out a story that both meets all the requirements and manages not to simultaneously  and unfairly incriminate us for the mistakes of our youth. (In my case, this may extend to middle age.) 

My first story idea -- the one I told -- is a riff about getting drunk in Aberdeen, Ohio, in the trailer park home of a guy named Treetop and Treetop's Old Lady Katie. (She would only respond to the entire moniker, 'Treetop's Old Lady Katie.' Anyone making the mistake of NOT referring to her, either conversationally or behind her back, by her full title, was subject to a wrath that ensured any man's ego the same fate as Humpty Dumpty. (Women were afforded slightly more mercy and were merely deeply and psychologically wounded with a public airing of all their deficiencies intellectual, physical, and sexual.)

A crucial player in this particular tale is Treetop's Old Lady Katie's son from a previous tangle. I call him Shrub. This was in part because I couldn't remember his name, but also because it seemed to fit in the telling.

I'm not going to pound out the story here, though I am going to be posting audio clips soon*** and Shrub's Story may well be one of them. But since telling that story on stage, it's become sort of a mental puzzle for me to ponder, and transform into what I call The Problem of Shrub. The story ends with me puking my guts out off the front steps after rejecting hangover cure-all advice from Shrub. The Problem begins shortly thereafter, because in the telling I did at the January Moth, I did nothing to ennoble myself or tack on a lesson. 

I've struggled with that aspect of storytelling -- what a much more experienced teller than me, Buck Creasy, calls the "Amen" moment. As a poet, short story scribbler, and novelist (There is one out there, floating in the deep muck of amazon ebooks.) I have furiously avoided tacking on a lesson. I have also avoided making myself -- or the "fiction" voices that I have hidden behind in the past -- anything resembling noble. I have long been the butt of my own literary joke. This has been especially true in short and long fiction. My last ex-wife would beg me to stop. This is not who you are, she'd say. No one cares who I am, I told her. All they care about is the story.

As a storyteller, I've found out though, that people really DO care who I am. Moreover, I've discovered that I care who I am -- a distinction that matters as much or more. Where my first telling of Shrub's Story failed was not so much in making Shrub the sympathetic center. That was my intention from the beginning.  In spite of the Moth "rule" about the teller being a primary character in the story (no Once Upon a Times or This is one I heard from... for the umbilicus pondering NPR crowd that frequents The Moth) I have been trying to focus on something other than myself -- in poetry, and in storytelling. Generally, I'm more interested in other people's stories and in the stories that never seem to get told -- those histories and myths that have been partially or entirely homogenized out of the cultural conscious. 

I made no attempt to paint my 20-something year old self as someone who felt guilty, or who saw the tragedy of a 6 year old who knew more about hangovers than I did because I did not see myself as the point of the story.

But I did forget something fundamental. And while it may not be fundamental to poetry, or short stories, or novels, it is fundamental to the craft of storytelling -- and it goes far beyond the admittedly egocentric nature of personal stories. That is certainly a part of storytelling, and there are plenty of stories worth remembering and sharing if, for no other reason, than that they are personal stories. Sharing personal stories and doing it well means coming to grips with who you are. It also means caring about the person you are and the person you aspire to be. 

Beyond even that, though -- and that's a lot -- there's the larger craft of storytelling at stake in all this. Stories are entertaining, yes. But they are also part of our cultural heritage, part of our human experience. A storytelling is cultural journalism of the highest calibre. Storytellers hear, learn, and tell stories because the stories embody some part of all of us. 

And in the telling, the storyteller becomes part of the story, whether he or she is a participant in it or not. The storyteller provides the context within which the story can unfold and make sense. This can mean brandishing our faults under stage lights. But it also means that sometimes we have to embrace redemption. Not just because people like neat and tidy endings -- but because sometimes people need context that only storytellers can provide so that they then take that story and put it in a context of their own.

* Little Old Lutheran Church Matrons are a force to be reckoned with in any northern small town. They hold the keys to potluck / casserole heaven and are the unofficial moral arbiters of all questions ranging from sex outside the confines of marriage (READ: sex with the lights on), to whether a certain pair of shoes are worship service appropriate, to whether or not Good Christian (Lutheran) Men drive Fords or Chevys (Rarely Toyotas and NEVER, EVER a Subaru.)
**The truth in a story is not in the facts. Veracity lies in the telling.
*** I've had some technical difficulties, one of which is that I don't have a working microphone to make a decent recording. that will soon be fixed.

28 June, 2013

Losantiville Lines: Moth StorySlam, Williston, and Current Events

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. -- Hannah Arendt

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson 

(Image by Amanda L. Hay)
1. Grand Slam

Getting up on stage reminded me of how much I have missed it.

The Moth StorySlam is where The Moth Podcast gets it's audio from; the podcasts tend to focus on the coasts, particularly New York, and they tend to air stories from well-known folks. In order to be considered for the grab bag, however, I had to sign a release giving them permission to record audio and video -- in the event the producers end up using my 5 minutes on the regular podcast.

StorySlams happen all over the country. In Louisville, it happens on the last Tuesday of the month at Headliner's Music Hall. I'd listened to the podcasts, but had never been to a live event. When I signed up to perform, I had no idea if I would be able to: not because of nerves so much as the nature of the event. I can stand up and read poems and tell stories for a long time. My problem with stories is generally that they tend on the long side. (I'm working on the craft a bit to get better. It's surprisingly difficult for someone who's longwinded.)

After putting my name in, I sat down with Amanda, had a cocktail, and waited. There are only 10 slots for storytellers, and you don't know if you're getting on stage until they pull another name out of the bag.

I tried not to get nervous. I'd thought about the story I was going to tell, and had practiced a bit. The topic for the night was "Fathers." I had decided, rather than talk about my own father -- the personage of whom, like my paternal grandfather, has fallen somewhat into the category of myth -- that I would talk about my own experience as a father. I chose a story that I thought reflected some of my own foibles and frustrations and experience as a father. But even after practicing, I was well above the prescribed 5 minute limit.

I drank a few bourbon and cokes, stayed calm, and half listened 11 stories. I enjoyed them for various reasons. Some did better than others about staying in the time limit; but I noticed that some of the slower moving ones made similar mistakes to the ones I usually make. By the end of the night, I didn't expect to step on stage.

And then they called my name.

The good news about a venue like that is that the stage lights are so bright, it's impossible to tell if people are making faces, not listening, or becoming horrified by your performance. Except for the times they laughed -- at points where I was hoping I'd be funny -- I really had no sense there was anything there. I'm generally used to more intimate performance spaces; I can usually see the people in the audience. But even that can be stressful, particularly with my still burgeoning musical exploits. And in this case, not being able to see the audience was more of a help than a hinderance... it helped moderate my nerves.

I didn't win the slam -- that went to Jim Call, who told a tear jerker about camping with his dad. But that's hardly the point. I was able to put a story together, make people laugh, talk about my daughter (which I love to do) and manage all of that within 5 minutes.

Not too shabby, Dear Readers. Not too shabby at all.

In the event that my story actually makes onto the podcast, you better believe I will mention it to you. Check out the podcast anyway. It's worth it.

image from
2. The Re:Visionary Story Gathering Project 1: Williston 

Even though the Kickstarter funding didn't come through, the project goes on. I have my upgraded pack and a multi-city train ticket that will take me from Chicago (that leg will be completed on   a good ol' Greyhound Bus... in spite of their shabby treatment, I still return to them in desperate times.) to Rugby, North Dakota for a brief (one night) stop. Then I'll hop back on the train and go to Williston, where I hope to find some interesting stories about what it's like to live in a boomtown.

Why Rugby, you ask? Rugby happens to be the geographic center of North America -- or so ascribed.

After 9 days in Williston, I'm headed further west to East Glacier Park, Montana, where I plan on camping out for a few days, somewhere in the Glacier National Park. Then I'm back on the train, headed east, via Minneapolis.

From there, I'll wander back to Kentucky one way or another.

This is a trip of a different sort from last year, and with a different purpose. One of the things I found when I was out last year was that there are still plenty of stories to tell, and more that are never heard, simply because no one is listening. I'm a sucker for a good story, and a hound when it comes to digging them up. Williston is fascinating -- not only because of the tar sands boom, but because of the narrative that's built up around our need for natural resources. "Drill, baby, Drill!" (which is either a demand for more oil wells or Sarah Palin's mating call) versus "Recycle, Reuse, Renew!" is all anyone ever really hears. Poor, poor oil companies that'll fall off the Forbes Most Wanted List without reaching into the very core of the earth. Fracking -- the the primary operation in Williston -- is by many accounts an environmental disaster. But it also means jobs. High paying ones. And one of the voices that has always been suspiciously absent in the narrative between those who would squeeze the planet dry and those who would squeeze the oil companies dry are the people who need the work, and those who have more of a first hand perspective, like the residents of Williston. Those are the stories I'm interested in.

If you'd like to hear these stories too, please consider a donation to the Travel Fund. I'm still short of funds for shelter, and Williston, because of the boom, has extremely limited areas where tent camping is allowed... and virtually no resources for the weary wanderer. Thanks, and Gawd Bless.

image from
3. Current Events

It would be remiss of me to not mention the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the assault on Miranda Rights that came down from the High Court in it's most recent session. It would also be completely thick-headed of me to not discuss the impact of the court's ruling on DOMA. So here's the short of it --

Gutting the Voting Rights Act was nothing more than the next step towards what is a dangerous trend in Nationalism. Don't think Hitler. Think Franco. This isn't about world conquest because the world is already conquered by those corporate interests that own most of what we hear, and all of our politicians... not to mention the food we eat and soon, the water we drink. The world has been cut up by them into a map that most of us have never seen. Governments are conduits for making sure money moves around to all the Right People. And in case you're wondering, it's probably not You. And it's not all those Nasty Poor People who are blamed for everything. And it's not anyone you probably know or see on the street. These people don't shop at the same places we do. They don't eat at the same restaurants we do. And while we think we know their names, we only know a few. And as long as their coffers are full, what happens to the rest of us is statistically irrelevant to them.

Ruling that suspects DO NOT have the right to remain silent means that if you are arrested, you are required to assist in your own prosecution. That's the long and short of it. And if you think it won't apply to you, you're probably one of those who isn't bothered by PRISM. Then again, you probably weren't bothered by the Patriot Act, the NDAA, or the fact that Google and Facebook have been gathering information on their users for YEARS. It's called MARKETING people. Except now instead of selling us Russian Brides and fashion underwear, they're selling us on the sure safety of a Police State.

DOMA: All the ruling says is that states can no longer hide behind Federal Law in condoning bigotry. Now they can hide behind self-loathing, hatred, and people's quaint notions of who (or what) they think god is. This good for State's Rights people (read: Confederate Sympathizers) and a potential good thing for LGBTs who want to get married. Yes, married partners, regardless of gender will have access to the Federal Benefits of marriage. And not to minimize the potential impact, but the fact is there still a bunch of stuffy guys in power out there with fears of forced sodomy... and enough ego to believe that gay men actually want to fuck them.

On Whistleblowers: I'm still not sure whether I think Snowden is a hero, or whether I think I'm being distracted (like the IRS and Bhengazi "scandals.") from some other story of greater importance. It does seem oddly timed, given the narrative of NSA wiretapping, and news that China has been cyber-warring against us. But whether the narrative is meant to silence would be whistle-blowers or to distract the info-meme ingesting public from more pertinent goings on, it's still interesting to note that a few other whistleblowers and truth tellers have mysteriously died over the past year. In this climate, I give Snowden 6 months before he winds up dead from a mysterious strain of typhoid or in a convenient plane crash, or as collateral damage in a South American Civil War (funded by the CIA, naturally, who helped bring South America so many little coups and ruthless dictators.)