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.