Thursday, December 30, 2010


Please say hello to the latest podcast episode. Either go to iTunes to subscribe, or click the audio player above. This episode is a chat with Patrick Reinsborough, the co-founder of the smartMeme strategy and training project, and co-author, with Doyle Canning, of the book "Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World."

So what's a meme and how can it be smart? Skip ahead if you're already in the know. According to smartMeme's website, in daily life we "constantly encounter pieces of culture that carry meaning for us such as customs, ideas, symbols, slogans, or rituals. All of these act as containers for cultural information that spread virally from person to person, moment to moment, generation to generation. These self-replicating units of culture that take on a life of their own are 'memes' (rhymes with 'dreams')." If I'm not mistaken, a few holiday-themed memes would be kissing under mistletoe, or making New Year's resolutions, or singing Auld Lang Syne. These little containers, or vessels, are freighted with cultural meaning. Say, the idea that we can start anew on January 1st, or, in the case of mistletoe, this curious Scandinavian legend. SmartMeme contends that these "units of culture" can be creatively used to advance progressive political change. If we live by stories -- whole belief systems that get encapsulated in "memes" like "family values" or "missile defense" or "the war on terror" -- then we can change by stories. That's the subject of smartMeme's very smart book, "Re:Imagining Change," an great read for grassroots campaign organizers. Aside from the book, the organization has various services, including training, messaging, and more. They contend that movement communications must not focus strictly on the facts -- though they must be truthful -- but on meaning. Good way to do that: stories.

Please, listen to the podcast, and go buy that book if you're so inclined!

Sunday, December 26, 2010


In my last blog post, I wrote about a couple theater traditions that are on UNESCO's list of elements of intangible cultural heritage. Today, I'm spotlighting a couple oral traditions that figure on the organization's list -- the Gesar Epic, and the Meddah tradition of public storytellers.


The video above is about the performance of the epic of King Gesar, by the Tibetan, Mongolian and Tu peoples in northern and western China. Parts of the epic are performed as entertainment, for ceremonial purposes at weddings and other such events, and as a way of communicating with the gods. The epic is just over a thousand years old, with manuscripts traced back as far as the 14th century. The complete epic contains over a million poetic lines, and, while most storytellers and singers are illiterate, they know thousands or even hundreds of thousands of lines. It's an oral tradition that, even in the age of print, has survived largely orally -- by going mouth to mouth.

In Turkey, there's a tradition of "Meddah" public storytellers that goes back 1500 years. These storytellers educate and entertain, and, at one time, would perform at inns along caravan routes. Nowadays, their function and their popularity has changed as the mass media have become more prominent -- and television sets tell stories in cafes and other public spaces where the Meddah used to predominate. While there may be fewer Meddah storytellers, and those who remain are less valued by the culture, I would imagine that the cultural current of storytelling has found other media (or mediums) through which to flow. Perhaps those television sets are transmitting compelling stories. How to safeguard such a tradition, if it merits being preserved? Certainly, an agency like UNESCO can help protect it against external forces such as a bad economy, high rent for Meddah storytellers, and so on. But another way to survive is to adapt. Would the Meddah tradition survive if the storytellers performed on television? Or if they told stories that appealed more to young people? Or if they paired with school teachers to train young storytellers?

Transforming the tradition in this way might dilute it -- or it may just be another way in which, as UNESCO acknowledges, "intangible cultural heritage ... is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history."

Friday, December 24, 2010


I'm totally stoked about UNESCO at the moment! The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has a program to safeguard the "intangible cultural heritage" of humanity -- oral traditions, social practices, craftsmanship, and other elements of culture that are not in bricks and mortar. UNESCO has worked with cultures worldwide to create a list of over 200 (and counting) such elements -- a few requiring urgent safeguarding, others not. Political factors like conquest or globalization may impinge on such culture, and, as UNESCO points out, "this intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history." On the website, you can view text, slides, and videos on all of these elements of culture. I've picked a few that relate to storytelling, and will highlight them in this post and the next one. Today's two practices are remarkable for their continuity over time.

Let's start with the video above, "The Mystery Play of Elche," performed every August at the Basilica of Santa Maria, in the old city of Elche, in the Valencia region of Spain. Like the other practices I'm posting about here, this play is not considered to be in urgent need of safeguarding; it is a centuries-old church tradition that started with the Pope's approval, and takes place in a relatively politically stable region. The play is about the death and Assumption of Mary, and is performed on two stages in the Basilica -- the "earthly" stage on the floor, and the "celestial" stage near the ceiling, on which it looks like child actors hang rather precariously! ("Spiderman" actors who've been injured in performance -- eat your hearts out!)  

Next up, here's a video about Kumiodori, a form of musical theater in Okinawa, Japan. The tradition began when the area was the quasi-independent Ryukyu Kingdom (1429 to 1870s). When the first king was installed, he welcomed a visiting Chinese delegation -- the so-called "herald party" -- with performances of music, dance, and drama. However, it wasn't until the 13th king appointed a minister of hospitality, Chokun Tamagushiku, that the Kumiodori tradition was formally begun. Chokun wrote five plays for the herald party of 1719, and it took off. Other plays were added to the tradition later, and they started to be performed not just for herald parties, but for other, more ordinary community festivities. The Kumiodori tradition lost stature after the fall of the Ryukyu kingdom and later World War II, but has been resurrected by the Japanese government.  

In the next post, I'll feature a couple oral traditions that UNESCO is working to safeguard.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Memorializing past human rights crises serves vital functions: It can validate the victims or survivors of such disasters, generate ongoing dialogue on human rights, and perhaps mobilize people to action to protect human rights in the future. Those most deeply affected, and their allies, may feel compelled to pay witness; they must testify about their experience. And yet, sometimes, I can't help but feel that the books, films, museums and other projects that document human rights travesties don't do much good, that they're just more horror stories for concerned people to tut-tut over after the horror is over. Genocide in Rwanda? The U.S. and other countries didn't do as much as they could have at the time to stop the butchery, but we may be happy to support a documentary film or memorial about it today. It's not just governments, but citizens, all of us, that are implicated.

Even when documenting a contemporary human rights crisis, a book or film may take so long to produce that the crisis is over by the time the book is ready, thus rendering it a form of memorialization, rather than a tool for action. And even if a book or film is produced in a timely manner, it's hard to create something that will not just move readers/viewers emotionally -- but move them to action.

That's why I'm impressed with the work of Voice of Witness, which the website describes as "a nonprofit book series that empowers those most closely affected by contemporary social injustice. Using oral history as a foundation, the series depicts human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men and women who experience them. Voice of Witness was founded by author Dave Eggers and physician/human rights scholar Lola Vollen, and is the nonprofit division of McSweeney's Books.  

The series effectively confronts the challenges of making worthwhile media by documenting contemporary and ongoing crises in the U.S. and worldwide -- the perennial problem of wrongly convicted prisoners, the enduring legacy of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees, undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and the longstanding human rights disasters in Sudan and, in the most recent book, Zimbabwe. That book is called "Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives." In the video above, the volume's co-editor Annie Holmes introduces then reads from one woman's tale of egregious abuse. 

The publisher goes beyond just documenting current crises, but also smartly puts books in the hands of people most likely to make use of them -- educators in schools and colleges, and national advocacy groups such as the Enough Project, STAND, and the Save Darfur Coalition. By starting with the proposition that the books must serve a public good -- and so choosing the subjects and their project partners carefully -- the publishers and editors have made it that much more likely that hope will not be further deferred, but fulfilled.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


The original BBC report on Lennon's murder.

Video montage over the Lennon-Ono song "Happy Xmas (War is Over)"

A few notes on the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's death. Today lots of people are hearing stories of Lennon, or sharing their own.

John Lennon's Facebook page has tons of posts -- more than one every minute for the last few hours at least. The official John Lennon website has some nice videos, a biography, discography, and more.

A New York Times piece of readers recalling the stories of where they were when they heard that Lennon had been killed. Each person placing themselves in relation to the historical moment.

Another New York Times piece about killer Mark David Chapman's occasional parole hearings, and how he recounts the murder each time he goes before the parole board. I wonder if this sort of "rehearsal" of the event fixes the memory in his mind, or perhaps makes him truly more penitent, or is now just an empty ritual. That article also links to the transcript of Chapman's most recent hearing, this past September 7. The NYT write-up is pretty thorough; the one thing of note that it leaves out is that Chapman says "My life has changed because of Jesus Christ," and, "Without him I am nothing, I would have been an even bigger nobody."

Sunday, December 5, 2010



This time on the podcast, a conversation with John O'Neal, who has spent a lifetime in social justice theater. He was, in 1963, a co-founder of the Free Southern Theater, which was conceived as a cultural arm of the Civil Rights Movement; he is also founder and artistic director of that organization's successor, Junebug Productions, now celebrating its 30th year. Junebug is based in New Orleans, and gets its name from Junebug Jabbo Jones, a character created by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to represent the wisdom of the people.  Junebug is looking for a new artistic director, as John is looking to return more seriously to writing -- the reason he got involved in the theater in the first place. Listen to the podcast on the player above (or click here to listen on iTunes) to learn more about what he's got in the works, and his reflections on theater as he prepares to retire from Junebug.  

Tomorrow (Monday, December 6, 2010) John O'Neal will be part of a panel discussion sponsored by the Open Society Institute, called "Unleashing the Power of Art, Culture and Media to Transform Black Communities." Click here for the live webcast of that event, 5:30-8:00pm Eastern Time.  

Photo by Carlton Mickle of John O'Neal (right) and Teresa Holden (center), longtime collaborators on Junebug's "Color Line Project," which collects stories about the Civil Rights Movement and its continuing influence on the struggle with racism. This work won the duo a 2002 Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World Award

Friday, November 26, 2010


I've just stumbled across the weekly radio drama, "Unshackled!" Each episode dramatizes the true story of someone who converts to Christianity, or converts someone else, or has their faith in Jesus strengthened. It's done in the style of old-time radio theater, with actors playing the roles of the convert, the preacher, the family members, or other characters; an organ playing incidental music, not unlike the flourishes in "The Shadow" or other programs of radio's golden era; and a roster of sound effects to enrich the atmosphere. The show first aired in 1950, making it radio's longest-running drama. It's broadcast on over 1,800 outlets in 148 countries on six continents in eight languages. Sounds promising, right?

So why is it so staggeringly dull? Or, to be fair, why were the half-dozen episodes I listened to (admittedly, out of more than 3,000 in its 60 years on the air) so flat?

It could be the pitiful sound effects. Nor does it help that there seems to be a slight echo in the studio, equalizing all environments -- whether outdoors, or in a church sanctuary, or a small room. Or maybe it's the tone-deaf actors, who sound as if they've been plucked off the street at random, handed a script, and told to read. Worse still is the excessive use of voiceover, in which major plot points are explained by an omniscient narrator, rather than dramatized by actors. One recent episode tells how the protagonist, Norma, has a big argument with her father over religion, but the only dramatization of this argument is a three-sentence exchange between them. Even at the risk of the show turning into soap-operatic melodrama, I'd much rather have heard a real smackdown over her evangelicalism and his resistance to it; that could have made for some terrific drama! And there must be plenty of people who have similar conflicts in their families. Instead, we get the daughter asking her father -- who at length agrees to attend a church service with her -- if wants to go up front and get saved; he tersely says, "No!" End of scene. 

But if pressed, I'd have to say the clincher is the lack of suspense and the strictures of convention. In the episodes I listened to, it's a foregone conclusion from the start that the protagonist will, no matter what the starting point, end up happy and strong in his/her faith. Again, in the "Norma" episode, Norma calls her foster mom to say that working and going to Bible college at the same time is just too taxing, so she might quit school and just work for a while. Her foster mom's cheery response is, "Well, that may be the Lord's plan, too!" Instead of blithe acceptance, why couldn't we hear whatever struggle Norma may be going through? Sure, it may be God's plan for her to drop out of school, but must (or did) our heroine instantly accede? Why doesn't she argue with God? Why do we hear none of her doubts, none of the prayers she makes in a pained effort to understand God's plan for her?

Maybe it really just didn't happen that way. If so, fair enough. But the other episodes I listened to all lacked the same basic dramatic tension. The protagonists are so resolute in their faith to begin with that there's never any question where things are going. They are walking with the angels, not wrestling with them. And while that may make for a pleasant reminder of faith -- precisely what the handful of listeners' comments on the website suggests they enjoy about the show -- it certainly doesn't make for drama. The major turning points may be acknowledged, but not the other turns that might have been taken, or why a particular choice was made. 

And -- not unlike at twelve-step meetings -- certain conventions are learned over time. I imagine that regular listeners have learned how to craft their story to fit the show's strictures. Even casual listeners, I would think, get to know what a typical "Unshackled!" testimonial includes, and therefore what they should write about. Just as new contestants on a reality-TV show know "how to act" to please that show's producers, or perhaps as Alcoholics Anonymous members have learned how to tell a story in a twelve-step style, so, too, may "Unshackled!" listeners become schooled in the conventions of a testimonial. If only the conventions leaned more towards thorny religious questions, the struggle of faith, rather than the fact of it. Of course, more than a little bit of the uniformity of voice here might be due to the writing staff (or the lead writer), who have their own defined style. 

Still, who cares if the show interests me? I'm not the target audience. The show may win some converts: apparently, in circular fashion, some of the "Unshackled!" episodes actually feature people who have been saved thanks to the radio show itself! Still, if I had to guess, I'd say that the show is primarily for an Evangelical Christian audience. They're preaching to the choir. And that's not a bad thing. Ministers do it every Sunday. 

On the "Unshackled!" website, you can listen to back episodes, read about the program's history (and that of the Pacific Garden Mission that launched the show), learn how to submit your own story, and get information on where you can see the show recorded live in studio. In spite of my misgivings about the show, I totally want to do that next time I'm in Chicago!

Sunday, November 21, 2010


A couple items of interest from the past week. 

In the video above, Murray Nossel speaks to a NYC storytelling about his view on listening. A playwright and psychologist, Nossel is co-founder, with psychiatrist Paul Browde, of Narativ, a New York City-based group that "uses a proprietary methodology to foster self-advocacy, collaboration, and leadership in diverse businesses, community and educational organizations." 

The Storymatic is a sort of parlor game, teaching tool, or writing prompt that consists of 250 gold cards and 250 white cards. As the website says, "Each gold card contains a character trait or occupation. Each white card contains a situation or object. Wild cards contain instructions about where and when your story takes place, and how it must be told." A player draws two gold cards and two white cards, and must tell a story based on the information in those cards -- the only other rules being that you can't kill off your character, and your character must change from the start of the story to the finish.

Each in its own way, the Narativ workshops and the Storymatic point to the skills involved in listening to and telling stories.  Both are disciplined acts of the imagination. If a listener is, as Nossel suggests, like a bowl that receives and therefore shapes the "liquid" of a story, then what questions you ask and what physical signals you send to the speaker are creative choices. Likewise, as a storyteller prompted by the words and phrases on Storymatic cards, you are forced -- or rather, this being a game, encouraged -- to forge a narrative path beyond where the cards leave you off. We may learn the technical skills of listening (nodding, asking questions, restating what someone has said) and telling (clear presentation, character development, rich description), but there is nothing rote in them. Since they necessarily involve other people, they must always be approached anew.   

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Turns out that letting your mind wander may not make you so happy. So say Harvard University researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert in a recent article in Science.  (Membership needed to see the full article, but the results are discussed in this New York Times story.) According to the article abstract, the researchers "developed a smartphone technology to sample people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions and found (i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and (ii) found that doing so typically makes them unhappy." The researchers contacted the more than 2200 participants at random to ask what they were doing and what they were thinking about. Only about 10% of people having sex when contacted said they were thinking about something else; those participating in other activities were thinking about other things as much as 65% of the time. And thinking about things other than what one is doing apparently doesn't correlate with happiness. Of course, if you are busy doing some miserable work or are stuck in traffic, then it's understandable why you would want to think about something else. 

As a fan of flights of the imagination, I'm unhappy with this finding. Just what we think about when we think about something else may vary -- the bills, that vacation we're going to take, the person we want to sleep with -- but my guess is that those thoughts may fall into some kind of narrative structure. To one degree or another, I think lots of people have a grand narrative arc we've imagined for our lives, and we try, sometimes mightily, to arrange all our daily goings-on along that arc. Got chewed out by your boss and then fired from your job? That's just another chapter in a life full of failure; or, in another life "plot," it's the low point before your rise to greatness. Had a first date with someone you like? Maybe you project far into the future, telling your would-be grandchildren about how you met. Spinning out these stories into the past or future -- all the conversations we mentally rehearse with people, or the lives we imagine ourselves leading, or the scenes we replay in our heads -- is a ridiculously common activity, if we're to believe this Science article, or if we're just to believe our own experience. All the mental energy we put into imagining these scenarios is one reason we might have what seems like unnecessarily large brains -- we're actually living parallel lives in the future, or past. (I read that idea a few years ago, but couldn't tell you where!) 

Here's my beef: What if letting the mind wander is not just some distraction that is apart from the real activity of life, but instead is the central activity of the mind? What if all our daily goings-on -- shopping for groceries or commuting to work or checking email -- what if those are the distraction? Turn things around and perhaps it is the body that is wandering, and not the mind, which insists on doing its vital work of constructing a life story.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Please pardon this terribly cliched observation about reading: it's pretty amazing. Our ability to interpret the meaning of marks on a page or a wall or a screen... Out of sight, no? It's perhaps only when you encounter a child just learning to read, or a person of any age who struggles with reading in one or another language, or perhaps in any language at all, that the importance of this everyday activity is thrown into relief.

The Harvard University Library Open Collections Program has an interesting online collection called "Reading: Harvard Views of Reading, Readership, and Reading History." It's got some unusual historical books (available in their entirety online) about the science of reading, reading instruction, book clubs, as well as so-called "commonplace books," the marginalia (or writing in the margins) of famous authors, and more. Peruse 15 highlights of the collection, such as an 1878 phonetic reader, a letter from missionaries trying to teach Native Americans to read English, and Herman Melville's marginalia on a book about sperm whales. Or browse the menu to read any of the books in full. One volume that caught my eye was James Anson Farrer's "Books Condemned to Be Burnt" (1892). It's not as juicy as I'd first hoped, but the very title made me realize I'd never been to a book burning, and prompted me to think, however fleetingly, that I should organize one as a little provocation.

Among the website's remarkable features is that it allows visitors to look at digital images of the actual pages of the published volumes, or click the "View Text" button to see everything in computer text. Aside from whatever interest the content of these books may hold for visitors, the site's very design suggests a direction for the public presentation of old and rare books. It's no longer just the fact of reading that stands out as, yes, pretty amazing, but also the way we read, and the easy access we now have to books (or at least their images) that, only a few years ago, would have required time and travel to glimpse.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


In honor of Veterans Day, let me present a video and other resources. The above video is produced by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It's a nice reminder of veterans' sacrifices. But to get a more wide-ranging and gritty sense of veterans' diverse experiences, here are links to two projects that have online video and audio interviews with Americans who've fought in everything from World War I right up to Iran and Afghanistan. First, check out the featured interviews of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress (which also has written testimonials, correspondence, and other items). Click on a person's name or photo and you'll see that their interviews are conveniently broken down into discrete video or audio stories of a few minutes each, with a short description of the story. The same goes for the excellent interviews at Witness to War, which are indexed according to branch of service, theater of war, and/or experience (such as D-Day, Air Combat, Prisoners of War, or Close Encounters). These two sites are so well organized that you can browse according to your interests. No matter what one may think of the politics of a given war, or of war itself, to fight in a war is one of humanity's most profound experiences; accordingly, it compels many veterans to testify to their experiences, and many other people to hear those testimonies.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I'm trying to think of a Shakespearean way to say it, but let me just resort to the modern vernacular: I am super-psyched about "Shakespeare Is," a series of radio, TV, and on-demand programs about the Bard, set to premiere in late 2011. The producers have talked with scholars, educators, theater companies, and others about how they read, play, teach and interpret Shakespeare in their own lives. The video above is of Sharize Terrell, a member of a play reading group in a New York State prison, talking about his take on Macbeth. Elsewhere on the site are other audio and video clips, available here. This grade school rehearsal of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet is endearing. A few more audio clips of scholars are here, talking about such topics as the lack of the fourth wall in Elizabethan theater, the elasticity of interpretation of Shakespeare's plays, and more. Poke around on the site; more material is added as the production advances towards release next year.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


A couple months ago in the blog, I wrote this post about former FBI art-crime investigator Bob Wittman's page-turner of a memoir, "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures." It's a fun and fascinating read. Bob is now in private practice doing art security, and spoke with me by phone to go more in-depth on a couple matters. Here's what he had to say.

In the book, you write about your parents, the death of your FBI partner, and your trial. I can imagine a book completely excised of those parts, and instead one that’s just about the cases. Was it always part of the plan to have your personal back story?

The book is a memoir. We looked at it from the standpoint of honesty and truthfulness. We wanted to put everything in there. We wanted what was real.

When you’re going undercover, you have to have a back story to present to the people you’re trying to get the art back from. How detailed do you have to be in your back story?

You have to get detailed to the point where you’re real, or where it's realistic. You have your business, your family, your interests, your hobbies, your education. All these things are levels of what makes a person a person. You have to have all of that to properly convey that you’re a real person.

Can you give me an example of when you have to make more stuff up than other times?

[In some cases], people don’t want to know anything about you, you don’t want to know anything about them. Many times, someone would say, “Who are you?” And I’d say, “Who are you? You don’t want to know who I am, because I don’t know who you are.” The idea being, if you get caught, you can’t tell on me. That would be a standard over-the-counter buy of stolen property. [But] those are different situations than infiltrating a criminal group, where you’ll be working with people over time.

When you’re actually infiltrating a group, you have to give your history, your back story. Because if someone is going to trust you and do criminal activity with you, they’re going to want to know who you are. In any of the cases that went more than a few months—the Santa Fe case, the American Indian artifacts, or the case involving the Rembrandt, where I had to deal with the informant for a long time—all those cases took a pretty deep back-story that had to be used to convince the criminals that I was who I said I was.

Did you get better at lying, or at storytelling, in creating these back stories?

It’s not getting better or worse. Either you can do it or you can’t. I don’t think it’s a learned craft, to be able to work undercover. It’s something that you have naturally. I wouldn’t call it a talent, I would call it a trait. As I said in the book, you try not to lie. You lie as little as possible. Lying is against the grain. And many times, telling the truth is just as good.

You make a good case in the book for why these artworks and antiquities are important. But the images of some artworks—say, a stolen Rodin or Rembrandt—are so ubiquitous, you can get them on the internet in seconds. Does it matter if a Rodin or a Rembrandt gets stolen, if we have the image of it?

In both those cases, you’re talking about armed robbery. The guy who robbed the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, he had a .25 automatic pistol, and shot a round into the wall. So it’s not just about the art that he stole, but a guy who’s willing to go into a public institution with a gun and shoot a round into the wall. Same with the Rembrandt operation. Three individuals went into the Swedish National Museum with machine guns. These are the crimes that have to be investigated and prosecuted.

I have a particular fascination with the 1990 heist at the Gardner Museum in Boston. You worked on that case a few years ago, and almost got the art back from some Corsicans who supposedly had it. If it did indeed end up with some Corsican mobsters, what route do you think the art took from the day it was stolen until the time you were on the case?

I don’t know. I know what I did in 2006 to 2008 when I investigated that case, working out of Miami and Marseille and Madrid. All I know is where the paintings were then in 2006. I wasn’t interested in who stole the stuff 15 or 20 years before. I was more interested in getting the material back. In 100 years it’s not going to matter whether somebody did 5 years in jail, or 10 years in jail. What matters is that the art is back where it’s supposed to be.

You have lots of exciting cases in the book. Is there anything that didn’t make it into the book?

I was looking at my cases when I retired, and I pulled everything together, I had about 47 different cases I could choose from. And I could only put these twelve in the book. So maybe book two will have another twelve!

Friday, November 5, 2010


Posted online last year by the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, the film clip above includes 5 seconds of Anne leaning out a window to watch a passing wedding party. It's the only (known) moving image of the famous diarist, who with her family and several others was in hiding from the Nazis 1942-1944 in an Amsterdam attic. 

But she was much more than a teenage scribbler, contends Francine Prose, the author of last year's "Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife," a fascinating look at the girl, her craft, and the legacy of her writings. Instead, says Prose, she was a young writer of great talent who had an eye on the future and a wider audience. Anne gave background information that would be useful only to an outside reader, and made up an imaginary confidante named Kitty, to whom she addressed many of her entries. That's demonstrated in an entry that Francine Prose highlights, and which reads: "I don't want to set down a series of bald facts in a diary like most people do ... but no one will grasp what I'm talking about if I begin my letters to Kitty just out of the blue, so I'll start by sketching in brief the story of my life."

That entry was dated June 20, 1942, but was in fact written about two years later, when Anne was feverishly and effectively revising much of her book, in the months before her August 1944 arrest. In another entry in first draft, Anne talked about the conditions of the Nazi occupation (which she heard about from the family's protectors) as being "indescribable," and how doctors were under "incredible pressure" -- phrases that Prose says "writers are sensibly advised to avoid." However, in the revised version from 1944, such generalities were replaced with sharper and more affecting statements. "Epidemics now rage," and "doctors are unable to visit the sick, because if they turn their back on their cars for a moment they are stolen." Another scene, centering on a discussion about modesty among the people in the attic, is transformed from a sketched-out conversation to a fully-realized drama in miniature. In other words, Anne is now describing things she had previously called "indescribable." She is maturing not only as a person and in her moral outlook, but also as a writer.

Anne's use of her imaginary confidante, Kitty, was an important device, says Prose. "What matters is that the device--the diary letters to Kitty--gave Anne a way of addressing her readers intimately and directly, in the second person: you you you. ... Reading Anne's diary, we become the friend, the most intelligent, comprehending companion that anyone could hope to find. Chatty, humorous, familiar, Anne is writing to us, speaking from the heart to the ideal confidante, and we rise to the challenge and become that confidante. She turns us into the consummate listener, picking up the signals she hopes she is transmitting into the fresh air beyond the prison of the attic. If her diary is a message in a bottle, we are the ones who find it, glittering on the beach."

At some point in reading the book, the idea of Anne Frank as a diligent writer and re-writer struck me as a touch cynical. As if what is famously thought of as the spontaneous outpourings of a young girl in a desperate situation were in fact a kind of manipulation -- not that they were any less true, but that they were crafted. But at last I thought better of that, and admired Anne's powerful need to communicate her experience, and her skill in doing just that. 

Later in Prose's book, there is a chapter devoted to the saccharine-sounding Broadway play that was made out of Anne's diary, and another chapter about the only slightly less treacly film version. Reportedly, in these productions (neither of which I've seen), largely gone are Anne's intelligence, her courage, and even her Jewishness, in favor of a more palatable story about an giggling young girl who believes in people's basic goodness. This, in spite of the fact that the real Anne was aware of the fate that would face the whole attic if they were discovered, and in spite of the fact that she met just such a fate in Bergen-Belsen. The only one of the eight people in hiding in that attic to survive was Anne's father, Otto, who was chiefly responsible for bringing Anne's book to the world. 

P.S. Many other interesting videos on the Anne Frank Museum's YouTube Channel.

Sunday, October 31, 2010



Happy Halloween! 

Going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show is a morally repugnant experience. Not because of the content of the film, which features cannibalism and transvestism. Nor because of the sometimes revealing attire of the actors in the "shadow cast" who dress up as the film's characters and pantomime the action in front of the screen. Rather, it can only signal the progress of totalitarianism in our country that audiences have pretty much been banned from throwing hot dogs during the performance.

For all that, however, it is encouraging to see that a new generation of queer kids, theater geeks and other mostly 20-something misfits are still -- 35 years after the musical film was released -- doing shadow casts in cities around the world. (For this year's big anniversary, "Glee" did an episode jammed with Rocky Horror tunes, and a new Blu-ray disc of the film with special features was issued.)

In New York City, where I shot this video, the shadow cast puts on a terrific show. For Halloween weekend, they made special monster-themed costumes, and the host for Friday night, Felipe, got the sold-out crowd psyched up. During the pre-show, "virgins" -- audience members who were seeing the movie for the first time on the big screen -- were invited up front to simulate an orgasm.

As anyone who has been deflowered will attest, audience members are more than welcome to shout out responses to the lines spoken on screen. I remembered the basics -- like shouting "asshole" when the character of Brad appeared on screen, or taunting the criminologist character as having "no neck!" -- but I'd forgotten just how many responses there were. Here's an impressively thorough script of the film with audience responses interpolated. Of course, responses differ over time and from place to place, but after 35 years, many of them have entered the Rocky Horror canon. It's not just words that get tossed about, but actual physical objects -- handfuls of rice during the wedding scene, pieces of toast when someone proposes a toast, and rolls of Scott brand toilet paper for the character of Dr. Scott. Before many theaters started prohibiting it, you'd also spray water during the rainstorm scene. And then there were the days of yore when you could throw the aforementioned hot dogs.

Even without the hot dogs and artificial rainstorms, Rocky Horror is much enhanced by other forms of audience participation, and by the shadow cast. 

Actors have fun at it, too. Those I spoke with mentioned how playing in the shadow cast lets you be yourself, even if it's by being somebody else for a couple hours. The actors often rotate among roles. JD, a 10-year Rocky veteran you'll see in the video above, has played every role, male and female, at some point. The actors seem to be developing their own characters by adopting (and adapting) these film characters. But a cult phenomenon of this sort would not just grow up around any film. The story has to support it.

Not familiar with the plot? Basically, an innocent and newly engaged couple (Brad and Janet) get a flat tire during a rainstorm in the middle of nowhere. In search of a phone, they happen upon the kooky castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a self-described "sweet transvestite" who is just unveiling, to the assembled Transylvania conventioneers, his new Frankenstein-like creation -- a muscle-bound sex toy named Rocky, who wears only glittery gold tights. In time, Brad and Janet are exposed to Frank's sexual talents, and just about everybody ends up in fetish-wear before too long. The film also involves space travel, and a dance called the Time Warp. Want more? More, more, more! Go visit the film's fan site, the Wikipedia page, the IMDB page with the trailer, or here again is the New York City show page. Also, check out this video, in which New York City cast member JD does a fab half-and-half drag performance of the duet by the characters of Columbia and Eddie. Definitely worth a look!  

Saturday, October 30, 2010



Please check out my new podcast episode. To listen on the player above, click on the screen, and a play button and progress bar should appear at the bottom. Or if you haven't already done so, please subscribe to the free podcast on iTunes, by clicking the link on the right. I'm new to this particular media player, but I'll figure this out and future podcasts will be easier to play from the site. 

This episode is a bit of a departure from my usual interviews with storytellers and story-listeners of all sorts. It's a li'l story I wrote called "The Long-Suffering Tree," taking off from Shel Silverstein's children's book. I'll return to the regular podcast interviews next time, in a chat with John O'Neal, a founder of the Free Southern Theater, and the artistic director of Junebug Productions. But for now, I hope you'll enjoy "The Long-Suffering Tree." Thanks for listening!

Monday, October 25, 2010


Today, a little virtual visit to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Above is a short interview with PR officer Kacey Hill, who talks about some of what the Museum is trying to achieve. Originally called the D-Day Museum, it opened in 2000 to present the history of the amphibious assaults by Allied Forces during World War II. D-Day, as I learned, referred not just to the famous campaign in Normandy, France, but also to other assaults, including those on Rome and Saipan, also in June of 1944. The Museum has since become the official National World War II Museum; with the new name comes an expanded mission and scope of exhibitions. When I was there, a new exhibition about the role of Jewish people in (fighting) World War II, on loan from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, was being installed. 

The Museum deftly mixes broad historical treatments (big maps and other displays about battles, troop strength) with personal perspectives (personal artifacts, booths with short clips of oral history interviews). As many history museums do, of course, this one takes the visitor along a specific route in the museum, so that it can tell you a story of World War II in sequential order. Don't follow the order, and the story gets confused, right? This was pointed up for me by the presence, across the street, of the Civil War Museum (previously the Confederate Museum), which presents artifacts in a manner that is attractive but that has little narrative order; the layout of the museum, mostly in one large hall with cases in the center and along the perimeter, allows you to wander through in whatever way you please. It doesn't chronicle the major battles of the war, or tell you the story of particular soldiers throughout the war. That's a fine arrangement for visitors who are already knowledgeable about Civil War history, and are more concerned with weapons technology, or specific aspects of the war, or even the aesthetics of the period. This is all in striking contrast to the clear path -- physical, as well as narrative -- that you are taken on in the National World War II Museum. 

The World War II Museum felt to me as if it were informed by film, and not just because it uses some film clips; rather, in walking through this story, it's as if you are walking through a 3D film! The wall-size reproduction of a newspaper announcing the Pearl Harbor bombing seemed not unlike the giant newspaper headlines that spin out at you in some older movies; the wall text is a bit like the dialogue in a film, or the intertitles in a silent film; and the oral history interviews give us some of our main characters. Perhaps this was no more like a movie than some other history museums; I may have been influenced in this thinking by the actual "4-D" movie shown exclusively at the Museum's theater -- "Beyond All Boundaries." 

The film is narrated by Tom Hanks, for whom I gained a new respect; he did a great job. (He's also the film's executive producer, and a big booster of the Museum overall.) "Boundaries" tells the story (or a story) of WWII in just over 45 minutes, using 3-D props that pop up on stage or in front of the screen, such as an old-fashioned radio, or a guard tower, or the nose of a B-17 bomber, as well as surround-sound, elaborate lighting, seats that shake during battle scenes, and, if I'm not mistaken, flakes of (fake) snow that fall from the ceiling during a winter scene. It's all in the name of immersing the visitor in WWII, at least as much as can be done in a museum. I found the film informative, occasionally moving, and even, with its representation of the Hiroshima bombing, unnerving. At the same time, all the special effects diminished some of the gravity of the topic. I think that a well-told story can be every bit as immersive as a "4-D" movie. Still, I'm a specific viewer; younger visitors may need something that's informative and also attention-grabbing. The film succeeds in that, and in so doing communicates something about the enormous stakes and massive scale of the war. Below is the trailer.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Here's a neat website for creative writers of fiction and nonfiction alike: Creative Writing Now. The site offers creative writing ideas, fiction prompts to get you started (here and here), free online courses for new authors, and more. Much of what I saw is most suited for beginning writers, but it also has resources for intermediate writers, or others who are other who have writer's block or just need some exercises and fun stuff to play around with. Take a gander!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Like you, perhaps, I've seen a good many films, exhibits, books, and other media about World War II and the Holocaust. The question on my mind upon encountering another one is, what does it have to say that's new? In a culture that's so saturated with stories, any story -- on this or any other topic -- has to justify itself, has to command the viewer's or listener's attention. 

This week I was fortunate enough to see an extraordinary short documentary that, to me at least, more than justifies its 40 minutes. "Ingelore" is about the equally extraordinary life of a deaf Jewish woman of that name, born in Germany in 1924. Released in 2009 and made by Ingelore's son, Frank Stiefel, the film tells a moving story, and is itself a potent reminder of why such stories must still be told. 

Lacking a common language (signed or spoken) with her parents, Ingelore is desperately lonely for the first years of her life. It is only when she goes to a school for the deaf that she learns some speech and lip reading, and meets other hearing-impaired children. As the Nazis take power, she is the target of taunts by her schoolmates, and later is raped by Nazi soldiers. Her parents manage to secure U.S. visas for themselves, and Ingelore would have been denied a visa, were it not for a stroke of luck. A U.S. official in Germany makes Ingelore's visa contingent on an informal hearing test. He turns his back to her and says a word, which she must then repeat back to him. Naturally, she cannot hear him, but she reads his lips, reflected in the glass of the framed picture hanging over his desk. With great relief, the family makes it to America -- Ingelore's account of the arrival into New York harbor is a tear-jerker, a reminder of what a potent symbol the Statue of Liberty was for people fleeing persecution and being processed at Ellis Island. When she learns she is pregnant by one of the soldiers who raped her, she gets an abortion. In time, she gets married, has a family, and is truly happy. 

Spoiler alert! In the final scene, surrounded by her family at the Passover seder, the prayer is read, which says (depending on the English translation), whoever recounts the exodus of the Jews from Egypt deserves praise. Ingelore's remarkable trials, and her own personal exodus to the United States, is not just a heartening tale of triumph, but attached to a vital Jewish ritual.  

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Facing History and Ourselves is an organization that works with students and teachers to "link history to moral choices today." The website says their mission is "to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. By studying the historical development of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide, students make the essential connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives." Other  

I have a couple personal connections here. Facing History was founded in 1976 in my hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts, and in grade school I was taught using some of their materials. The video above is about Arn Chorn Pond, a college classmate of mine who lost much of his family in the Cambodian genocide, but managed to survive himself through a combination of smarts, luck, and the help of an American refugee aid worker who adopted him and brought him to the U.S. It was only when students at his new home in the U.S. learned Arn's rather background that they understood his feelings and position at school. Arn's story is rather extraordinary, but as he says in the video, everybody's got one. And that story, or history, makes one's actions more understandable. Facing History and Ourselves seems to suggest something similar: that a study of history -- not just personal, but social history -- cannot only help explain but also morally inform how we act, especially as citizens.  

As Facing History and Ourselves makes clear, it's not just the big choices we face that matter; not just heroic actions such as being a resistance fighter or protecting Jews during the Holocaust. It's also the many little decisions we make -- or don't make -- during any given day, that accumulate into assuming (or neglecting) our responsibilities as citizens, and the consequences thereof. That's what's so troubling, and energizing at the same time -- we're always facing questions about how to be a good citizen, if we allow ourselves to face them. That's illustrated in this video (for schoolkids) by writer Jesús Colón, about an incident on the subway in the 1950s.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


A few items that caught my eye this week. 

STORIES IN FAITH COMMUNITIES: An essay (with lots of video examples) on "The Power of Story to Trouble the Waters and Heal the World," by filmmaker and media strategist Macky Alston, the director of Auburn Media, an organization that provides media expertise to religious leaders, and religious expertise to the media. Macky gives examples of digital (online video) storytelling that have been used in social action campaigns, and says that religious leaders can harness this force to great effect in their own work. "When you preach a story from your pulpit, how many people are tuning in? When you teach in your Torah study or Sunday school, how many people are listening? The smallest number of viewers of the videos you just watched exceeds the population of Baltimore." One of the most significant attributes of online stories, says Macky, is that they can be easily aggregated and shared. You can gather stories on a particular theme from hundreds or thousands of people -- and cites examples such as online databases of stories about South Asian immigrants to the U.S., Holocaust survivors, or patients with life-changing conditions -- I was particularly interested in that last one, which seems to have rich applications for patients and medical researchers alike. He concludes by saying that "Faith groups ... are groups of social actors organized around a sacred story that commits us at least in word to making the world just. Given that faith communities have succeeded throughout history to galvanize humans though story, we now must harness its power in new ways to organize this generation for justice."

THE DRAMA OF READING: A New York Times review of "Gatz," a 7-hour performance, by the Elevator Repair Service, of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Reviewer Charles McGrath says, "And what goes on in your head, in a way, is the real subject of 'Gatz,' which is not, strictly speaking, a staged reading of 'The Great Gatsby,' even though every one of the book's 47,000 words is pronounced onstage. Neither is it a dramatic adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel. It's more a dramatization of the act of reading itself -- of what happens when you immerse yourself in a book." The first character on stage, a man in an office reading aloud from "Gatsby," is later joined by other people coming through the office -- a janitor, a co-worker reading a magazine, the office tech guy -- who start to take on the book's characters and act out scenes. McGrath continues, "This, or something like it, is what happens when you get caught up in a book. You hear it in your head, and it takes over your waking existence a little, so you can't wait to be done with whatever you're doing an immerse yourself in the pages again." I love that notion -- a dramatization of reading. It almost makes me want to go see the show. But I may just content myself with the review, and think more about the drama of reading when I get back to the book now on my bedside table.

STUFF STORIES: A website called "Tales of Things" that allows users to tell upload photographs and stories of whatever object they desire. Here's how the site describes itself. "Wouldn't it be great to link any object directly to a 'video memory' or an article of text describing its history or background? Tales of Things allows just that with a quick and easy way to link any media to any object via small printable tags known as QR codes. How about tagging a building, your old antique clock or perhaps that object you're about to put on eBay?" Many of the objects on the site are fairly new, some are older, like this 1963 portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. Most of the "stories" I read are just a couple sentences, more like descriptions than anything else, and for that reason I was less interested in the content of the stories as I was in the memories and stories they evoked in me.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM ON TRANSLATION AND AUDIENCE: Michael Cunningham, author of "The Hours," has a fantastic essay called in the New York Times called "Found in Translation." He says that any novel is a translation first from ideas and images in the author's mind into written words on the page. The published book is usually a disappointment as compared to the "cathedral of fire" that the author had in his/her imagination, writes Cunningham. When a book such as his Pulitzer-winning "The Hours" is translated into another language, that is only a next step in the translation process -- a translation of a translation. Later he talks about his imagined audience. "I should admit that when I was as young as my students are now, I too thought of myself as writing either for myself, for some ghostly ideal reader, or, at my most grandiose moments, for future generations. My work suffered as a result." Things started to turn around only when he started thinking of a more specific audience. And that audience's name was Helen, a voracious reader and a hostess at a restaurant he frequented.  "I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing. I’d seen, rather suddenly, that writing is not only an exercise in self-expression, it is also, more important, a gift we as writers are trying to give to readers. Writing a book for Helen, or for someone like Helen, is a manageable goal. It also helped me to realize that the reader represents the final step in a book’s life of translation. One of the more remarkable aspects of writing and publishing is that no two readers ever read the same book. ... Writing ... does not exist without an active, consenting reader."

Saturday, September 25, 2010


We've just passed the weekiversary of the finale of the CBS soap opera, "As the World Turns," canceled after 54 years. I never watched ATWT, but have a love of things soapy, so while I don't share the disappointment that many fans feel, I can certainly appreciate it. Looks like I've missed out on a lot of high drama. This article on TV Squad lists its "Top 20 Moments" from the decades of ATWT, variously involving a murder, a phantom fetus, a gay kiss, a ruptured spleen, returns from the dead, and, as is practically required in any soap opera, a pitchfork-wielding defender of truth. The pitchfork scene is in the video above.

ATWT fans sounded off in the comment sections of many articles, not least of all in response to this CBS news piece about the end of the show. In the dozens of comments in the days after the September 17 series finale, there were two major themes that I could see. One was sadness at losing characters that, for longtime viewers, had become like family or friends.

Shari7806 writes: "I am so sad. I watched the very first show as an 8 year old girl. This show linked me to three generations of my own family -- my great grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother -- all now deceased. In some way this show kept them near me as I remember conversations we all had about the show -- mostly what Lisa was up to!!!"

Texascpa adds: "Many times family discussions might start out with, 'Did you see what Lisa did today?'" 

Something tells me I would have liked to watch this Lisa character! 

Sharon61 says: "I, too, have watched ATWT most of my life. I started back in the 60s with my mother and older sisters. It became as much a part of my life as my family. I enjoyed the occasional socially relevant stories and the feeling of having another family when both of my parents passed away. ...  I sobbed after the show went black after Friday's episode."

An immigrant named zh4ba recalls: "I came to this Country in 1979 and 'As the World Turn' was my very first TV show that I started watching together with my mom. I learned my English by listening to that. I grew up with the charectors. ... When actress who was playing Barbara Ryan announced her battle with the head and neck cancer - I was just finishing my own treatement for the same type of cancer. I will miss them terribly!"

A woman named salleymueller touts the soap's economic benefits: "This show has provided more wisdom and insight than years of expensive counseling." 

Touchingly, sddrepublican says: "Thank you for 54 wonderful years! I used to watch ATWT with my mom in the afternoons during summer vacation from school. It was our time to do dishes, have lunch, etc. My mom has Alzheimer's now and she does not remember me some days or that we watched the show together. However, the memories for me will remain of that special time."

The other big sentiment expressed was anger at CBS for canceling the show, only to replace it with a talk show. 

Shari7806 assures the network: "And know I will NOT watch the new talk show -- BORING!"
A more reasoning tone is struck by emoose: "WHY....If you are going to take a soap off, take off The Bold and The Beautiful."

LMLPetunia says: " I am DONE with are greedy and pathetic. Good luck as you lose it all to NBC and deserve it. "

The economic theme is repeated by salleymueller: "What a shame I feel that us older generation(over 50) don't enter into the financial world. The BOTTOM LINE they talk about seems to be the younger generation who have no jobs or money but rely on their parents for support. Since when did the BOTTOM LINE ever define America or Freedom    What has happened to American Values and Justice?"

A more strident tone arises in usuk12's comments: "I am so disgusted with this, first you cancel Guiding Light and replace it with that moronic let's make a deal and now you cancel ATW and replace it with a talk show? Are you kidding me? First let me tell you that I do not and will not watch let's make a deal, I would have to throw bleach in my eyes! I will not watch your stupid talk show, and I plan to identify the sponsors of both GL and ATW and boycott them all! This sux!!!!!!!!!!!!"

One person, ouchitatom, adds a perspective quite apart from the other commenters: "I can appreciate anyones like for many things but I never liked soaps and they were not allowed to be on tv in my home as a child. I was raised by a a airforce major and he was only really strict about three things God your shirt tail tucked and no soaps. He became a elvis fan which really surprised all of us children. He always said if we had time for a hour of soap opera then we had time for a hour of cutting grass or chopping wood. We heated and cooked with wood but was fortunate enough to have a colored tv. Life will go on as we turn another page in history and the internet takes another victim."