Kung Foo

I writing this week’s blog from my air conditioned hotel room in Columbus, Georgia.  I’m down here for two weeks for work.  It is hot and steamy down here right now.   Georgia in August!  W00t!

When I travel for a long-ish period, I think about what sort of personal items to pack.  I stick to one suitcase and one backpack, and beyond work clothes and my ginormous work laptop, space becomes a premium.  One time, I brought my Dr. Rhythm to Japan for five weeks, only to not really use it.  It turns out programming drum tracks alone in your hotel room is not all it’s cracked up to be.

I figured this time, I’d use the opportunity to challenge myself.  I recently purchased a field recorder for my new podcasting hobby, and I remember an episode from This American Life where nine reporters drove to different parts of Georgia looking for a story.  Maybe I could do the same!  So I packed the recorder, a mic, and cable into my backpack and down I went.

I had Wednesday “off,” so I snapped a few Facebook photos along the Columbus riverfront.  Storytelling friend Aaron, who collects oral histories of WWII veterans, commented with the following:

Uh oh. Whatever you do, don’t cross the river and go into Phenix City, Alabama. And if you do cross the bridge, don’t go into an establishment called “Ma Beachy’s.” And if you do go into Ma Beachy’s, don’t get into any fights with paratroopers.

Well.  There’s a story in there somewhere.  Turns out Ma Beachy owned a seedy club called Beachy’s Swing Club, the most notorious gambling and prostitution house serving Fort Benning.  Phenix City was known as “Sin City” back before Las Vegas took that name over.  Aaron told me about an M4 tank driver who got the stuffing kicked out of him at Beachy’s, and threatened to drive over the establishment with his tank.  His commander calmed him down by warning him that the club might have a basement that he’d drive into.

Phenix City was cleaned up sometime in the 1950s, and Beachy’s is long gone.  But do the people who live there now know of that spot’s seedy past?  One way to find out, right?

A little Googling uncovered an old newspaper add with the address.  And so, after a typical Georgia dinner, I headed across the 13th Street Bridge to the Central Time Zone (sort of) and off to 11th Avenue.

Phenix City is… well, it’s like the East Hartford to Georgia’s Hartford.

When I arrived at the address, of course the club wasn’t there.  In it’s place was an auto body shop.  However, stories told that Ma Beachy owned three houses across the street, which she rented out to prostitutes, and it looks like those tiny houses are still standing.  Here are some pictures I snapped…

Notice how they’re taken from the safety of the inside of my rental car.  An intrepid This American Life radio producer would have exited the car and start knocking on doors.  Or, if you’re Stephanie Foo, you spend weeks researching so that people are expecting you when you arrive.

But I’m not one of these producers.  I’m some weird dude in a rental car that parked on some random corner in some poor town at 6PM on a Thursday evening.   I did not knock on doors.  I did not even get out of the damn car.  There’s a BBQ and soul food joint around the corner, and I thought briefly about stopping in, though I already had dinner.  But… never meant to be?

It’s not all bad, though.  I did make recordings of some weird-sounding cicadas in my hotel’s parking lot.  That means something, right???

Sigh.

This being rural-ish Georgia, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to talk to people and get ideas for stories.  People actually talk to other people around here.  Southern Charm, y’all.  But alas, my fears of approaching and interrupting people from their normal lives keeps me from getting the stories.

Maybe I should get all Stephanie Foo on this.  I should treat Connecticut like she treats Houston or Alberta.  Sit down and do my research.  Go back through the local papers twenty years.  Look for comedians who do long form.  Scour Craigslist.  Find the people first, before I have to knock on doors randomly.

Be prepared.  Practice “Kung Foo.”

A Little Unintentional Encouragement from Ira Glass

A few weeks ago, This American Life released yet another podcast repeat, this one from episode 168, “The Fix is In.”  It’s about the whistleblower of the ADM price fixing scandal, and was originally aired in 2000.

As with many a TAL repeat, the staff will freshen things up with a few lines of new narration here and there.  But because this episode is soooooo old, Ira’s original narration of 2000 stands out bright and clear from follow-on narration he did years later.  It’s like night and day.  For reference, check out the tape Ira plays at the 3:00 mark of this video.  That same stuff is in parts of “The Fix is In.”

So, here is Ira Glass, one of the masters of the New Radio, showing how in 2000, when his show was the super-bright star of the NPR universe, he was narrating with a technique that he’d blow off today.  Even when he was at his best, he was still interested in improving.

When You Don’t Clear Your Netflix Cache

One of my stable of on-stage stories concerns a struggle dealing with Macy’s customer service on the telephone. I spent weeks of numerous calls trying to get them to deliver a chair that I bought. In frustration, I had my coworker Randy, a project engineer skilled in getting people to do stuff they don’t necessarily want to do, impersonate me on the next phone call to the evil customer support reps.

He was able to get the chair on delivery in 90 seconds.

NINETY SECONDS.

I was sitting right next to Randy while he did his magic. And by “magic,” I mean I didn’t have the foggiest clue what he did to get Macy’s customer service to crumble so quickly. I was friggin’ dumbfounded. How is it that when I called them up, I got the runaround, yet when Randy called, he got exactly what he needed immediately? What does he have that I don’t???

It was around this time that I attended a lecture at Nerd Nite Northampton (https://www.facebook.com/NerdNiteNoHo/) which was about studies with babies and toddlers to determine at what age do kids understand when someone is intentionally lying to them. I’m always adding two and two, so I figured, maybe I’m communicating with my voice that I’m a pushover.

What if the way I talked is signaling to people that I can’t be taken seriously on stage?

A few weeks ago, I came across a mention to David Thorpe’s Documentary “Do I Sound Gay?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R21Fd8-Apf0) and thought about this question again – do I need to change how I speak? Now, I’m not in the same boat as David Thorpe, and I’m straight, but I’m interested in how someone else is dealing with anxiety about the image they present to the world (though, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that being 42 and never married, not being into sports, and once being told that I’d be popular at Provincetown’s “Bear Week” did not contribute to some level of anxiety about being perceived as being gay. By the way, yes, we should live in a world where this all shouldn’t matter. I’ll let you try to tell that to my anxiety-ridden brain – I’ve just about given up). Predictably, the documentary ends with an affirmation that the real goal is to be accepting of who you are (again, I’ll leave you to convince my brain of that).

Allow me one side note here. When watching a movie with the title “Do I Sound Gay?” on Netflix, try to remember to clear it from your queue when you bring a new girlfriend over to watch a few Netflix movies on the couch. Yikes.

During the past week, I had two separate conversations on this issue I’m having. One was about connecting with the audience. For those 5-8 minutes on stage, I’m performing the story, and not connecting with the audience whatsoever. And in the second conversation, it was pointed out that storytellers on the Moth podcast pour out their souls with their stories, which I do not.

So, here I am. Anxious about how I appear, and therefore putting up a wall between the audience and me.

I suppose one way around that is to keep writing and telling stories, knowing about this problem and trying to work through it. I’m a little over Ira Glass’ seven years before becoming good, so I still have time to do it.

Scientific Storytelling?

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I recently came across an article last week discussing the recent paper The Emotional Arcs of Stories are Dominated by Six Basic Shapes.  Using over 1700 books downloaded from Project Gutenberg, a group of data scientists determined that the narrative arcs of novels can be grouped into a few basic forms.  For example…

  • “Rags to Riches” — go from unhappy to hapy
  • “Tragedy” — go from happy to unhappy
  • “Man in the Hole” — go from happy to unhappy and back to happy again
  • “Icarus” — go from unhappy to happy and back to unhappy
  • “Cinderella” — unhappy to happy to unhappy to happy
  • “Oedipus” — happy to unhappy to happy to unhappy

“Happy” vs “Unhappy” was determined by cutting out a fragment of the book (a window containing some number of words) and running it through the hilariously-named “Hedometer” to analyze those words for, I suppose, how happy they are.  The team ended up finding decent correlation between the above-mentioned arcs and the books they downloaded (which included classics such as Romeo and Juliet and  Alice’s Adventures Underground.  They then compared these narrative arcs against number of downloads, suggesting that the “Cinderella,” “Oedipus,” “Man in the Hole,” and “Icarus” arcs were most popular.

The article I read and the research paper mentioned a YouTube video of Kurt Vonnegut where he discussed qualitatively and humorously the same thing.  Amazingly, in 1995, based on his own reading and study, Vonnegut also determined that the “Cinderella” story arc was the most popular.

I’ve even seen this in real life.  Some of the biggest reactions I’ve seen at the handful of Moth storyslams I’ve gone to come from Cinderella arcs, if I remember correctly.

I think this is really cool, and not just for the esoteric understanding of narrative arcs.  As readers of this blog may note, I’ve been down-in-the-dumps with my storytelling abilities.  I wonder, then, what narrative arc shapes do my stories take?  Do my stories fall in line with the Cinderella or Oedipus arc shapes?  Or do my stories take some different form, one that’s not popular.  Or even worse, are they formless; do they dwell at one emotional level for the entire six or eight minutes?

I have a few recordings on my new website of stories I’ve told for Speak UpThe MoUth, and Vally Voices.  It’s be cool to try to run these stories through the Hedometer and see what kind of narrative arc(s) they have.

Now, part of me wants to run the analysis myself, but I wonder if I could get the paper authors to do it for me???  Stay tuned…

Keep Listening

Earlier this evening, I checked out Julia Pistell’s “Syllable: The Reading Series” for the first time.  It’s a monthly get-together for writers to read their work.  My thing is not on the written page, but I really enjoyed going.

For one thing, the chairs are far more comfortable than at storytelling shows, and there was some sort of free drink involved (which will not be mentioned further, but appreciated nonetheless).  And it was great to listen to other people share their work.  I’m finding myself listening more and more again, which makes me happy.  I read somewhere recently that when storytellers hit their wall, they stop listening to other people’s stories (no, not that Other People’s Stories in particular!).  Frequent readers of this infrequent blog will note that my crabby self was hitting my own wall earlier this year, and I can relate.  Who wants to be reminded of how much better than you everyone else is, amiright?  Well, I’m coming out of that funk, and enjoying listening to other people that I can aspire to be as good as.

Speaking of which, I’ve recently expanded my podcast listening.  Have you heard of Radio Diaries or RISK?  Well, now you have.  Go check them out!

 

 

The Lesson I Keep On Learning

IMG_2024Shown on the left is my third place trophy from tonight’s Toastmasters District 53, Division E humorous speech contest.

Third. Place.

I so wanted to win this one.  I daydreamed about it.  I Googled the names of my competitors (one of them is a motivational speaker).  I went out and bought clothes for it.  I psyched myself up for it.

What I didn’t do was actually practice for it.

I got so nervous the day off that I rushed through my story, shaving a full minute off my time.  I didn’t give the audience the time to react.  I wasn’t polished like the guy who got first place.  I spent more time figuring out my outfit than figuring out my story.

I learned this lesson many times already.  I learned it at The Moth three times in the last year.  I learned it at Valley Voices.  Matt Dicks writes every morning.  Elna Baker writes every day.  If you want to be good, you’ve got to put in the hours.  All the good storytellers do.  And I want to be good.

So, I’m challenging myself here and now, if front of the two or three people who read these posts.  I’m going to write every day.  It’s going to be hard to do this, but I’m going to do this.  It’ll be a better use of my time than watching episodes of Victory at Sea.  Stay tuned, dear reader(s).  Stay tuned.

Victory at Sea is the bomb, though…

Bring it On with an Ah Counter

I’m taking a vacation day today, trying to burn down the nine days I have left.  Ugh, this is the crime of the modern American workplace.  Three weeks becomes too much to take in a year.

At least I’m trying to spend it writing — actually trying to prepare for this evening’s speech contest with my Toastmasters club.  I figure I’m at an advantage with my storytelling experience, but looking at my list of stories, I only have one story with two funny checkmarks on my patent-pending “Funny Scale.”

Photo on 10-1-15 at 11.43 AM

Shown:  Not much funny

I’ll go with “The Letter” story, which I think is the strongest one anyway.  I just have to actually sit down now and add 20% more funny.  Stay tuned…