Wednesday, August 25, 2010

" Passing on your left." Don't hit the old lady on the bike.

"Passing on your left." I say this all the time after ringing a very pleasant little bell. "Ding."  Sounds like a toy Green Line Trolley bell. People jump and others scowl and all I want to do is let them to know where I am. Which is too damn close without giving some warning.

An Urban AdvenTours group makes its way into Kenmore Square. (Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe)
I love to ride my bike to work. I have ridden the streets of Boston for nearly 40 years now. But my ride is feeling more and more dangerous. As a freelance performer in schools,  I travel all over Greater Boston and I am happiest when I can do that on a bike. I pass over the BU Bridge ( currently or should we admit that it is chronically?  under repair - but crossing  the BU Bridge on a bike is whole horror story unto itself ) through Central Square and onto Harvard Square or, Porter or Davis or  Union Square. Sometimes I ride all the way to Hyde Park South Boston, Winthrop, East Boston, Mattapan and Dorchester.These are all bumpy, pockmarked, truck filled, hazardous and typical Greater Boston bike rides. People in cars scream, flip me off and trucks and buses squeeze me out and over. Glass, gravel, sand and yawning potholes as wide as my tires are round, litter the road surface. Not pretty sometimes. Lots of hostility. I could also go on about the beauty, the glory of traveling this way, but that is a different story...

This story is about the thing that scares me witless and nearly kills me daily - my fellow cyclists.

A dozen times in a ride, cyclists on busy streets whizz pass me with no warning. They should signal. It should be a no brainer. No new equipment or batteries necessary. Maybe, it is a no brainer? As in brains not engaged? Except for a Prius, I usually know when a car is near.  I do not listen to head phones and ride. I never talk on my cell and ride. I am listening.  Despite my intense listening,  cyclists slide silently by me all the time, right and left, without so much as a "hey! " And then they zip in front of me and are gone. Fine. I know you need to pass me. I am an old lady and I do not speed along. And I typically have 30 – 40 pounds of equipment on board.

I want to sit these cyclists down for a harangue - a little chat with 'moms', as it were...
Race in Allston,MA 2008

" Dude!" I want to say, because it is typically a gonads on the outside cyclist who rides so silent and so deeply unaware. " Check it out, bro'. The laws of physics always apply! 24/7.  Meaning, two objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time.  No matter how cool your single gear bike, nor how tight your spandex, nor how zippered and sleek your gear. Physics is fashion blind. Listen. We are sharing the same streets and conditions. We are rolling around on a method of non-polluting transport and therefore we are quiet. Very quiet. And we are surrounded by infernal combustion engines and they are noisy. Damn noisy. 
These roads are unpredictably bad. If I swerve to the left to avoid a pot hole or some broken glass and you are behind me, zooming along at top passing speed, slithering up to pass without so much as a hiss- how am I to know you are in my space ? When it isn't stolen,  I use a left side view mirror. BUT,  I intentionally keep my eyes front looking for disaster. I will not hear you. I do not hear you. I will not see you. I cannot see you. And if I swerve to avoid something ahead and we tangle ? We'd both be in a world of pain. Both of us could never ride again."

And bro' here's an achingly simple solution. When you are one to two bike lengths away,  say
" Passing on your left."

" Passing on your left." Or right.  Behind you! See? How hard was that? You will be every bit as banged up as I if we collide. A little common sense mixed with common courtesy is all it takes.  Let's do it. I have to get to work. You do too. I usually have 100s of kids waiting for me. Let's get there and not make our next ride a white bike, okay?"

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Emerson College - nearly 40 years ago...

WERS is the best and oldest college radio station. I have been listening since I  first discovered the left end of the radio dial.
39 years ago I was accepted to Emerson College as a freshman. I had already been accepted and registered at Boston University so I blew it off, albeit a bit wistfully. Back then BU was big, ugly, more expensive and just down the street from the family apartment in Brookline. Actually, BU is still big, ugly, more expensive and just down the street from our new family apartment in Brookline.

WW II War veteran and anti-war activist
Howard Zinn in front of BU's CLA circa 1970
Back then, I did not have enough money to go to school and live in a dorm. I never dreamed of loans and it seemed the only option was a state school.  But I had dithered and delayed enough to miss the application deadline for UMass, Amherst.  I was dejected to be at home and the start of my academic career was less than brilliant. My mother also had a major psychotic break just as my first semester started. This complicated life as our father was the navigator on a supply ship in the North Sea. Since my mother had seasonal bipolar disorder we were, in a weird way, accustomed to the every other year, chaos and culminating  hospitalizations. But that is another story. I would have been miserable anyway.  At a university, my BU admission counselor had told me, you can avail yourself of so many interesting electives.  BU was plenty artsy.  I wanted to be a film maker and BU's SPC was considered by many the best film school, after NYU, on the east coast. A family friend, who worked in the film industry convinced me that I should not study film but some other, unrelated discipline because, said he,  " Anyone can learn the technical part, but you need to have ideas and something to say to make a good film."  Besides, I did not have a have a portfolio that would get me into any film or art school.  BU  seemed a good compromise - I could study liberal arts and take courses in film and visual art. They don't tell you how little one could do at BU as a College of Liberal Arts freshman. No transferring between schools at the university, no taking classes with Anne Sexton and other celeb teachers. What a crock! I thought. My friends at U Mass Amherst were taking classes with Chinua Achebe as freshmen while I sat in huge lecture classes with 600 other freshman, waiting until we were seniors to see if we might be one of the lucky 12 to study with whoever might be the visiting author. I was so alienated and lonely. Academically, I was a wreck.  A very poor math student, I was also dismayed to be a philosophy major where the study of philosophy was largely focused on John Silber's homeboy, Immanuel Kant and symbolic logic. Boring, irrelevant and impossible stuff -  not a course of study for me.

When Silber tried to bring ROTC came back on campus during the second semester the students and faculty rose up in opposition. We felt the war was now at "home"  and we wanted to keep BU from any complicity with the military-industrial complex. We petitioned, we marched, we had teach-ins, we took over buildings and many students were arrested.  Once, at an early demo,  I was stranded behind a line of riot police and their dogs. There was no "riot". But there were a few hundred students rallying in front of the President's Office on Bay State Road. The order had been give to disperse and we often tested the strength of our "right to peaceful assembly"  and our convictions by  refusing to move.  I  looked to my left and realized that John Silber, was at my elbow. I still remember admiring the colors of his sienna, rust brown and maroon tweed jacket. Silber, then the new BU president didn't notice me. He had his attention on the approach of a TV news team.  Froth and spit flew from his lips as he directed their attention,  pointing out a young man who was being attacked by an off leash police dog.  "Look at him! Look at him!", said John Silber, gesturing emphatically with his good arm. " Why don't you film him? He is deliberately trying to incite a riot by teasing that dog". The terrified student was stumbling backwards, lifting  his arms upwards as the dog tried to bite him. The police had let the dogs off their leashes, put down their visors and were attacking hapless students with long brown batons.  Any normal person could read the fear in the student's face. Suddenly,  the lines of police and demonstrators surged, merged and separated  and I was on the right side of the police riot.  And running away. This picture of John Silber as a wild man and sociopath is still seared in my memory. Along with my shame at running away from the crack of the batons and the dogs, that memory has fueled my determination to fight John Silber's abusive, deranged authority with everything I had. But, worried about my mother's precarious mental state, I embraced the struggle with gusto and resolved not to get arrested because I might be needed at home. It was a pretty amazing conflict. I flunked quite a few of my courses but I got quite an education on justice, the legal system, and the nature of commitment to a struggle. I saw from front row court room seats that Lenny Bruce was right  “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls”.  These experiences made me wrestle with some essential and, as yet, unanswered, questions

What inspires people to fight against injustice, I wondered ? For us,  Howard Zinn's eloquent leadership was one reason. The recent murder of four students at an antiwar demonstration at Kent State still resonated. The escalation of a war that should have been ending?  Enlightened self interest is often posed as another impetus behind the anti -Vietnam war movement. Although, just like former veep Dick Cheney,  Dr. Evil clone, Karl Rove and former New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, all the students had deferred draft status. What inspires movements for justice and peace and, more puzzling, what made people give up, when they hadn't won yet ?  Justice was not served and the Vietnam War  dragged on. Our student movement fizzled and ROTC came to campus even after a long student and faculty strike. Political action was my major course of study but my dedication to it meant summer school to make up for all the credits I lost marching up and down Comm Ave. That summer, my mother was well again and she noticed how miserable I was. She  helped me make a plan to work part-time and create a portfolio so I could apply to art schools. In the fall I was delighted to drop out of BU. I never looked back.
Post demo, circa 1974,  the author holds a banner with some friends

Emerson College did not even have a film major back when I applied and was put on the waiting list. When they accepted me in May of 1971, I was nonplussed - even though I knew that smaller classes and a real community would be ideal. I don't know if they even had dorms back then. No matter. Lots of water + 39 years under that bridge and I have just applied and paid for a CAGS in Digital Media Studies at Emerson.  Very excited about all the possibilities. Emerson, strikes me now, as it did back then, as a human sized institution with a human face and soul. I will soon see.
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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Check out the credits of the new Will Ferrell Movie -

'The Other Guys' is a parody of old-school buddy-cop movies like the 'Lethal Weapon' films, but director/co-writer Adam McKay wanted to give it a realistically grandiose and relevant villain, which is the reason he turned to Wall Street. "All those old movies had drug-smuggling story lines -- if you did that now, it would be quaint," McKay told Entertainment Weekly earlier this summer. "Who gives a s--- about guys selling drugs at this point? Crime has taken on massive proportions: destroying the Gulf of Mexico, stealing $80 billion. Stealing a billion dollars is nothing now -- that's almost adorable....."We knew the issues we wanted to talk about," Lebeda says. "We did a little bit of research. To get specific numbers, we hired a copywriter, Mark Tapio Kines. He found all the numbers through different online sources." The sources were official government documents, adds art director Grant Nellessen. "Sony had to vet everything to confirm we weren't making up facts," he says. "It wasn't just our opinion."
As for the presentation of those dry numbers, Lebeda says, "We wanted to do it in as colorful, fun way as possible, with cool transitions in between." Which was tricky, says Nellessen, because "we had to hope the names [of all the people who worked on the movie] would fit in with all the animation we had put together."

What he said...Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing 101

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve...Image via Wikipedia

Kurt Vonnegut listed these 8 "rules" for what he calls
Creative Writing 101 in his preface to Bagombo Snuff Box: *

Kurt Vonnegut's words are in black.
Commenting in red below, I am using Kurt Vonnegut 's light to see better into the process of  5 minute, personal storytelling

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

American novelist, short story writer, and scr...Image via Wikipedia
1. Amen, brother Kurt! Just because one can run one's mouth, does not mean one should. In a workshop, sure - meander, flounder, hem and haw. You follow in the footsteps of E.M Forster who said," How can I know what I think till I see what I say"? But in performance, think of your audience. You are there for them - not the other way around. So, what have you brought for their enjoyment and nourishment ?

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

2. But, you say, there are no heroes in my life story. Then the hero is you. Someone has to be like able. Tag, you are it. Unless you tell solely for masochists and misanthropes.

3.Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

3. This is something to look into as you explore in the deeps of memory and pick through the background of your story. What characters want can be made clear by the actions you include in your story.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

4.Sure - when you are really skilled at telling stories or forced by time constraints to use words with care, this is what you do.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

5. This is great advice. Especially in the short form of story. The "set up" is a great place to cut and can always be shorter and distilled into a few choice sentences. Just because you lived through all the nonsense, doesn't mean we want to relive it with you. Start close to the end and see what you really need.

What is your take on the last three of Kurt Vonnegut's 8 ? Leave a comment or email me with your thoughts?

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7.Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8.Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
    The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.

    * From the preface to Vonnegut’s short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box
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    Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    "Why are you telling us this old stuff?"

    Check out what Jeff Gere says at 21:00" He recounts in this interview what he said in answer to a high school student who asked, petulantly "Why are you telling us all this old stuff?" Jeff's answer? Is mine too, I say these ancient stories are blue prints for possble actions. Jeff Gere goes one further and says his story is a "life jacket" you do not need it now but when you do it will be there because this story has been around longer than all of us put together.

    Living Delicious with Jeff Gere, Master Story Teller from Helena Summer Medena on Vimeo

    Jeff Gere is my bro-man! And then I read his article on telling with music. Full article is here and excerpt is below...

    Duets: Tunes ‘n Tales

    by Jeff Gere 8/08
    Appears in ‘Storytelling Duets’ Book,  due in January 2010
    By Jonah & Harold Wright

    My name is Jeff Gere. I’m a storyteller in Hawaii who runs it’s biggest storytelling festival (Talk Story Festival) each fall. As Oahu’s Drama Specialist in the Parks Department, I talk to humans of every age and income all year long, usually alone. I look upon these as ‘warm ups’ for the REAL storytelling event: tandem telling with musicians. I've done LOTS of these in lots of configurations for lots of years. My master’s degree is in ‘Inter-Relating the Arts’, an inter-disciplinary performance and discussion curriculum exploring the languages and idioms of the various arts. HearSayThe Two Sisters (Wind ‘n Rain) (shadow puppets, music and telling.) I toured one summer with a symphonic quintet. I told Arabian Night tales for 18 months of Saturdays to sold-out shows in a swank Chinatown bar with a belly dancer and two musicians- THAT was fun!
    was a story/band trio, which morphed into a duet which built an evening show around the ballad,
    OK, but let’s talk about WHY I love telling with tunes.

    As a painting student at the University of California, Davis, I painted all night until, nodding into sleep, I’d suddenly jerk awake with a command ringing in my ear: ‘paint that out’. I’d rise, paint, sit and nod; Jerk and paint again. The mornings revealed paintings I had not intended to paint! Painting was my initial method of having a dialogue with the subconscious. In my storytelling, I seek this same authentic dialogue and resonance. Music can trigger that.

    OK, so that’s the WHY, but HOW do you do that?

    Let’s face it: It’s easy to recite your precious clever story patter while a musician plunks along behind. I’ve done it- nothing sensational emerges. Creative musicians get frustrated and quit. Little is risked, little gained. That’s no 'event', that’s not what grips me. Remember, I want the subconscious dialogue, want a revelation.

    What GRIPS, THRILLS, and MOTIVATES me in recording and performing with improvising musicians, my MAIN EVENT, is this: If I can split myself open, keeping one ear on the music while speaking, taking audio directions while leading, I myself get lead. Music helps me to let go, to step over the cliff, to dare to walk onto the water, to dwell in the creative moment of NOW. I stop knowing what will happen next.
    Huh? Say what?

    If talented, attentive, inventive, bold musician(s) are really INVITED to PARTICIPATE with me in the tell, I start to get distracted by the rhythm, the percussion, and the cadence of notes. Yes, I get deliciously confused within the story I know well, and it becomes new again, fresh as the first time I spoke it. Whole new things come up! The STORY begins speaking ME! REALLY! Speaking while listening to playing to your speaking... it is all happening so fast that I’m tellin’ by instinct! Spiritual (in essence), collaborative (surprising), fun (PLENTY!), infectious. You can FEEL the LIFE of such a tell with your EARS! You can hear it in the recordings, the audience can feel it in the room. The stories come ALIVE!

    What's your PROCESS in this equation?

    I tell by watching the story unfold in my mind. There’s no script, there’s just the movie in my mind’s eye. When one tells in this way, and we drop in the musical score, I can only talk it out as it unfolds. However, I’ve seen this ‘tune-telling’ work well with ‘reciters’ too, especially when the teller's cadence leaves spaces between sentence clusters (thoughts) for the musician to respond. I remind myself to use this technique because my tendency is to plunge forward and talk right on top of the music, in overlays, which is exciting but not always appropriate. It also means the musicians have to be more aggressive with me. Diversity and variety enrich artistic creations.

    Friday, August 6, 2010

    "But I am back again said Norah..."

    A coincidental meeting at a Somerville performance in May, my monkey curiosity and a desire to see some of the kids I had been teaching and had to leave so precipitously drew me to do a free gig for my old school yesterday.  Yep, I am that sentimental and I  love storytelling that much. Yesterday I was the guest speaker/teacher at a Theater and Literacy Class for middle school kids. The students had been writing memoirs all summer so we worked on telling personal stories.  The kids who remembered me gave me a big shout out and then all did a great job of mining their experience for details and finding words that made the moments of their experience come alive for the listeners. Very fun to work with them and great to catch up a bit with Branigan and meet her co-teacher, Laura.  We had just over an hour and in that short time, at the end of the workshop, 4 kids took the mic and told 1- 2 minute stories filled with detail. Wished I could have stayed to hear them all and do so more coaching. The students were really good about giving each other specific positive comments and listening to each other. My visit had a wistful feel, I am sure only for me, and I kept thinking of the last line in one of our family's fave read aloud books  Noisy Nora. "But I am back again said Nora, with a monumental crash!"

    Tuesday, August 3, 2010

    Tipingee and Boys Wear Pink

    The legend of the King  of Denmark and the Yellow Star has long been a favorite of mine. And I was delighted to find an authentic, but soon to be legendary example of that kind of creative response to bullying in Boys Wear Pink  written about here at Parent Dish by Peter Sinasohn: Students wear pink to fight bullies:
    Seniors David Shepherd and Travis Price decided it had to stop. Using the internet, they encouraged fellow students to wear pink the next day and even bought 75 pink tank tops for boys to wear. They also brought a pink basketball and pink material to make headbands and arm bands. They estimate that half of the school's 830 students wore pink.

    It seemed to get the message across. "The bullies got angry," said Travis. "One guy was throwing chairs (in the cafeteria). We're glad we got the response we wanted." The bullies, he says, "keep giving us dirty looks, but we know we have the support of the whole student body. Kids don't need this in their lives, worrying about what to wear to school. That should be the last thing on their minds."

    David explained their motivation: "Our intention was to stand up for this kid so he doesn't get picked on." When one of the bullies asked him if he knew that wearing pink indicated homosexuality, he told him that he didn't care and that neither should anyone else. "Something like the colour of your shirt or pants, that's ridiculous," he said.

    When the student that had been bullied put on one of the pink shirts and saw all the other pink, "he was all smiles," David said. "It was like a big weight had been lifted off his shoulders."
    After hearing the tragic stories coming from Western Mass about students being bullied to death, I wanted to do something - but what?  It is not enough but "something" clicked when I heard storyteller Tony Toledo and Sharon Kennedy tell the story of Tipingee and her friends  - a story from Haiti.  So this summer I have been combining the story of Tipingee with the real life story of Travis and David from Nova Scotia  and it has been wonderful to see the wheels turning in the heads of 5,6,7, 8, 9 and 10 year olds and their young adult counselors.

    A typical response from an 8 year old boy in a camp for kids with "issues"  He said, in answer to my question "What did you notice about the two stories?"  "Well that just shows that violence doesn't work." Another girl said, "They used their brains to help their friends."  Have to love the power of story to get a point across and even teach some strategy too.

    Here is Diane Wolkstein's version from youtube

    followed by my interpretation  a clip from a digital story video