Tuesday, August 30, 2005

So what the heck IS storytelling, anyway?

I've said it before on this blog, I'm so lucky to be part of a wonderful--and growing!--storytelling guild, the Bluff Country Talespinners. We've grown, but awareness of just what storytelling looks like continues to be a process. Last week, we had a wonderful opportunity to help "grow" the storytelling audience.

In two weeks, our guild will host the Third Annual LaCrosse Storytelling Festival. The festival was started by a small group who wanted to develop a unique fundraiser for the area Citizen's Advocacy program. Storytelling festivals, unfortunately, are not known for their fundraising ability, largely because of that awareness issue. Still, there is a small but dedicated audience who supports the festival. We've done a number of things to try and build awareness. One has been to provide storytelling at area events. I have written elsewhere about some such events, most noteably "the gig I could have skipped." Though people who stop enjoy hearing the stories, they aren't at these events for the purpose of hearing stories, and often miss out as they wander by. This may not be the best approach to building appreciation for the art.

Last Wednesday, however, it would seem we hit our stride. "Stories under the tent" was a wonderful evening event, made possible largely through the very generous offer of Mariel Carlisle, who owns one of the famous lumber baron "castles" on one of the main streets of LaCrosse. Anyone who lives here is curious about these homes, most of which are still private homes, all three floors, 3000 square feet per floor of them. Mrs. Carlisle made her home available to us for a garden party type event, with the additional treat of home tours.

I was not able to tell at this event. I always seem to miss the meetings where the cool gigs come up, but before I complain too loudly, remind me that I was in Spain at the time of that meeting!
Still, I made hor d'ouerves, I came and helped set up, I helped take down. Most of all, I enjoyed the stories.

I was not the only one who enjoyed the stories. The tent was fairly full, with many people just wandering up upon seeing all the signs on the street. More than once, people commented, "I never knew there was something like this happening here!" I actually had a column in the local paper telling people there was something like this happening here, but there is a vast gulf between reading about it and taking in the images of a story as it's told.

Informal conversations afterwards suggest that many of us feel that events like this are not only a good way to raise funds to maintain fiscal responsibility for the festival, but perhaps the best way to grow our audience as well. Gardens can grow flowers, yes, but they can also grow appreciation for the storytelling revival as practiced in the Coulee Region.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Workshop fun

Workshops are fun. It's always flattering when you're asked to submit a workshop idea, because it means someone thinks you *can* do a workshop, although in my experience, it may not be so much that as they're desperate to fill a program slot and know I usually can be counted on to say "yes."

So I've said yes lately. Twice. Two different workshops, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. I accepted the Sunday one much later, thinking I'd offered the same topic for Saturday and I could just leave everything packed and ready to go the next day.

Nope. Two*different* workshops. If you read the previous post here, the one waxing eloquently about the privilege of age, I forgot to mention another trade off granting those privileges, the one about holding a thought for longer than a nanosecond. It continues to amaze me that I can recall plot, characters and details of a 10-15 minute story, without notes, but can't remember why I walked into the other room.

A digression there. Another privilege of age, perhaps.
Image hosted by Photobucket.comGwyn stringing a story of Dog.

So, at the Third Annual LaCrosse Storytelling Festival, I'll be doing a workshop for families, called "String Me a Story." Here's what I told the publicity folks about it.

"String Me a Story"

Bring the whole family, grandparents too, to play with story while playing with string. You may remember the schoolyard game "Cat's Cradle?" Did you know that game actually was used to tell a story? Have fun while learning and relearning different string figures you can use to tell your own stories in your own family. Strings will be provided!

Yes, I did say strings will be provided. What this means for me is that sometime in the week prior, I will be cutting lengths of nylon braided cord, causing no amount of mischief from our cat trying to snag the ends, holding the two ends together over a candle flame until they melt, then quickly melting them into a single loop. I have done as many as 100 of these the night before an event. I'm pretty good at it now. Usually I only burn my fingertips once or twice.

Fortunately, I do have a handout ready, since I've done this workshop in the past, but it needs updating. Not too bad. All I could really use is some kid who knows string figures to help in the teaching process.

Next day, Sunday, I'll finally be doing a workshop I've spent a long time developing. I presented a workshop on the topic at Northlands Storytelling Network's spring conference last spring, but for that workshop, I was sharing how other tellers might present it in their own community setting. I called it "Mom Always Liked You Best! Telling Stories on Your Family," and my idea is to get families turning off the tv and sitting together to recount family stories and legends. I get to actually do this with families this time, I hope, when I offer the workshop as part of West Salem's Founder's Day celebration. A culminating project for the family groups will be to begin making a small keepsake scrapbook to save the story they've developed, thereby combining my storytelling passion with scrapbooking. We'll see. What does this mean for me? Redesigning my handouts, because the ones from last spring were designed for storytellers, not family groups. It also means cutting and folding the small keepsake scrapbooks, then visiting my friend at Office Max with her extra long stapler to put them together.

I see a theme here, one that involves having to make thingies, strings or scrapbooks. Whatever happened to the pure simplicity of a story well told, anyway? Apparently it's a marketing thing.
We still have this need to walk away from an experience with a thingie. If the thingie of choice is a magical storytelling string, see me on Saturday. If a small keepsake scrapbook is more to your liking, you need to be there on Sunday. Take your pick.

"String Me a Story" Family workshop, LaCrosse Storytelling Festival, September 17, Pettibone Park
"Mom Always Liked You Best! Telling Stories on Your Family," September 18, West Salem Founders Day

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Stories of experience

I've reached that age in which I reflect a lot on times past. That is the privilege we trade for suppleness and youth as we age. I can say that yes, if I knew then what I know now, I would tell myself I do NOT need to worry about my thighs. My gosh, this came home to me when I went to the funeral of an old friend, and there on the picture board were photos of us in the summertime, a lifetime ago--we were about 25--and I was so SKINNY!

I can say that yes, one really has no way to be prepared for the amount of stuff that is amassed when you live in the same home for 23 years. Do we really need that fruit crate painted hot pink with "Elvis" emblazoned on the side? Guess not. Luckily, someone else apparently did, because it's gone from our "pearl diving" curbside site. There's still an old but serviceable cabinet there for anyone interested.

I can say that yes, I'm just not as flexible as I was once, in spite of yoga and a healthy lifestyle. I never in a million years at age 19 would have thought getting up from the floor could be a challenge. How foolhardy of me that have thought thusly!

I can say that yes, I never would have thought that at this point in my life, I might find myself in front of a bunch of families with toddlers telling stories on the banks of the Mississippi River. It wasn't part of the plan. And along with that, I can also add that yes, I'm so glad I didn't worry about "the plan" and miss that joy.
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Gwyn does indeed tell a story at Sand on the Riverbank.

Most of all today I can say that yes, I never would have imagined the alternating joys and heartbreaks that come with parenthood. We were prepared, ready, almost could have been granted a certificate, given that we both have degrees in fields relating to child development.

Those classes taught us NOTHING! Nineteen years ago on this day, I left the life of a young married for one called "parenthood." The first of my two sons was born nineteen years ago today. Our journey into the uncharted waters on the Good Ship Parenthood started, as all such journeys, with joy, excitement, and not more than a little apprehension. This journey, in fact, took me to my avocation turned part-time profession of storyteller, as we wanted to provide for our kids imagination and creativity, instead of video games and cartoons. Your basic "Waldorf type" childhood, with their little personalities unfolding a la Joseph Chilton Pearce. Our children had such childhoods, with imaginations nurtured, psyches sheltered and selves unfolding.

What has sometimes unfolded was never what we, or Mr. Pearce, would have predicted. These are called "heartbreaks," but without heartbreak, one can't truly appreciate joy and exhiliration that also is part of bringing up fine young men.

I can therefore say that yes, nineteen years ago, we entered the shifting waters of joy and heartbreak that comes with parenting, but I can also say that yes, it has been worth it. My sons are still unfolding. I understand that with guys, the unfolding is likely to continue into their 20s.
There have been a couple little rips and missed valley folds in this origami experience, but I fully believe that though they may have a damaged crease on a wing here or there, they will emerge, like the cranes, strong and ready to fly on their own.

This is the privilege of both the twin wisdoms brought by age and parenting.

Friday, August 19, 2005

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Going home

"You can't go home again." We all know that hackneyed saw. If we're past the age of 15, we probably understand the sentiment behind it, with the fast pace of change and the throwaway nature of US society. Well, I once again found this to be true...and not true.

Here's the deal. Growing up as a kid in the 60s, trips to the movies were a huge part of life. For me, that meant going to the Heights Theater. The Heights was within walking distance, a Dairy Queen next door, convenient for Dilly Bar purchases after the show. The high point of our summers were the weekly afternoon matinees, free if our parents remembered to pick up passes at the bank. The program was always the same. A serial Western started the afternoon, followed by one or two cartoons, then the feature film, usually some obscure third run piece we'd already seen on "Mel Jass at the Movies" on Channel 11. It didn't matter. Our friends were all there, throwing popcorn at each other, filling the place with a mass of school kids, free from the textbooks at last!

Just as the popcorn tossing would reach fever pitch, the cranky old man who managed the theater would STOP THE FILM, turn on the lights, and yell at us all, a not-so-curmudgeonly replacement for Mr. Wilson of Dennis the Menace fame.

I probably don't need to tell you, after the description of these elementary school age annual bacchanalias, that the Heights was a dump. A big white cinderblock box with a projector. I'm guessing that maybe the last time I went to the Heights was in the late 60s, having been lured by the flashy two-screen cineplex that had been built nearby.

Well, things change, don't they? I went back to Minneapolis this week to visit my parents, and I've been wanting to see March of the Penguins, which my family had no interest in seeing but I was pretty sure Mom would be game. As I scanned the listings for the movie in the Minneapolis Star, I saw it listed at the Heights.

Well, the Heights is not the Heights of my childhood. More like the Heights of my mother's childhood. It had fallen into even greater disrepair when it was bought and brought back to new life, restored to its original elegance as it was in 1927. The chandeliers alone are worth the price of admission. A beautiful Beaux Arts curtain sways open. Instead of the generic colored screens with text telling us to be quiet, a hilarious short, depicting a Minnesota-type grandma making cookies is telling you to be nice in the movies. Previews are shown, the curtain closes. It reopens for the feature film, truly an incredible piece of film-making, whether you're a bird lover or not.

I'm sure that had the Heights looked like this in my youth, we'd have been less inclined to toss popcorn.

Or not.

One of those great evenings; watching an independent film in the seats of a beautifully restored independent theater.

And I even managed to pass on the Dilly Bar after the show.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The process of choosing

Anytime a teller gets a new booking, the program planning process kicks in almost within moments of hanging up the phone. What stories do I already know to fit the theme? How can I re-imagine some stories to work with this audience of listeners? Is this a group that will need more visual input, will I need to practice with the bodhran, do I need to pull out that old dusty tale...?

The questions clamor for attention in my very small brain, and sometimes so much so, all I can do is walk away from them altogether. Read a book, go birding, ride my bike, work in the garden. Anything but think about the program I just accepted! It's almost easier when I decide I want to develop a new program or workshop, as I have total control over that. The one geared for women's groups, especially Red Hat groups; that's easy. Stories that make the woman look smart, which is not hard, since there are so many like this. Just don't look to the fairy tales. Most of those young women needed princes and dwarves to keep them from certain death! Stories about life experience, or stories with just a touch of naughtiness, my favorite being one from Japan, called "The Telltale." In this one, the man is actually the smart one, having caught his wife inflagrante with the local pawnbroker, but developing a clever scheme to let her off the hook. It's funny, but I like it because unlike so much of popular culture in the United States, it celebrates fidelity and second chances, rather than throwaway relationships.

But back to planning programs for clients. Once I run away from the task and immerse myself in something unrelated, the ideas seem to trickle into my consciouness unbidden. I was asked to do pulpit supply this past Sunday, and I will start a sermon with a story that is chosen to reflect the Scripture in some fashion. I chose "The Pedlar of Balleghadereen," an Irish tale of dreams, also found in other forms from other parts of the world, including a version in the Apocrypha. It's a standard tale for many storytellers, but I hadn't told it before. I tried it out at our Bluff Country Talespinners guild meeting on Thursday, and it went well. Although I was tied to the pulpit due to microphone issues, unable to move about as I would during a performance, it went well during church, too. One gentleman told me afterward, "You even got that accent down really well!" I didn't think I'd done the accent! If I did, I'm thankful it was good, not bad. Chalk it up to the Murphy blood that flows diluted through my veins.

It seems that much of program planning is like this. Walk away, forget about it, then listen to the voices of storyteller's wisdom that creep into your consciouness. Then, before the program but after all the research for different versions, tell, tell and tell some more. Listen to the unspoken critique of your audience for refinements in your telling. Then try it again. And again. I'll have the chance to try some more in a few days. Along with two other tellers, I'll be telling stories at the "Sand on the Riverfront" event in LaCrosse, while sand sculptor Mike Martino works his magic on a mountain of sand. I'm still listening for the voices of storyteller's wisdom to guide me.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com A statue of the Pedlar of Swaffham, another variant of the story, can be seen at the church in the town of Swaffham, paying tribute to a simple man who listened to his dreams, finding gold in his garden with which to rebuild the church.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

The never-ending story

At least for me, this seems to be a never-ending story. For the first time in over 15 years, I'm seeing hummingbirds in my yard several times a day. Most of them seem to be the boys, getting fat and sassy before heading down to Mexico to drink tequila-spiked flowers on the beach this winter. Others are reporting an increase in feeder activity this week as well.

Now, if you link over to my still-incomplete list of 43 Things, you'll see that one pines to take a really good photo of a hummingbird. One year, I got a grand total of two photos, period. Last year, as detailed elsewhere on this blog, I managed to snag a pretty nice one, but still not quite what I'd hoped. I figured today is as good a day as any to try and cross that item off my list. I know there are at least four individuals visiting my feeder. Two adult males--I saw them both on the feeder together this morning, unbelievably enough. One female. And at least one immature male.

I started out by sitting on my deck and trying to capture the little beasts. Then I remembered a purchase made last winter--an Outhouse Pack-In Blind, bought by my husband for turkey hunting, with the carrot held out to me that "you could use this for your bird stuff, too."

Not one to sit in a blind, I'd forgotten about it completely, but somewhere in the back of my brain--the part that was procrastinating completing the sermon I have to give tomorrow--the blind reminded me of its existence. Pulling it out, I set it up right in front of the feeders, armed with my enormous lens.

Do you have any idea how many bees can fool you into thinking a hummingbird is moving in? Do you have any idea how hummingbirds, flying into the space in front of your lens and hovering inquisitively, only three feet from your face, can be as frightening as Carrot Top on a bad hair day? One of them did that. Instead of eating, it scoped me out. I thought it was going to fly right into the blind with me. That pointed little beak moving in on a bird flying 60mph can strike fear in me much in the same way as skydiving might. I watched in horror as it came ever closer, camera in hand...and never clicked the shutter!

Once my heart rate had returned to a non-threatening speed, I waited once more. He came. He perched. On the other side of the feeder, peering over the top at me. Ack! Hoping he'd check out all the feeder ports, as they so often do, I waited for him to make that move. Instead, chirping madly, he zipped off into the bushes on the property line, perched, then headed off somewhere to torment someone else for a while.
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That's okay. What I lack in speed, I can make up in procrastination. I'll just sit in this hot thing and wait for one of them to return. They have to return, it's at least a month until they head out for those beaches, and they're only barely pudged out right now. I don't wait too long. He heads in to the side and...

...at least his body can be seen now, if not his whole bill. Wait and try again. And again. In this hot blind. Which blows open the flap anytime I try to create some cross ventilation. The sacrifices we make for art, right?
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I go into the house and finish the sermon, figuring that I'll be rewarded for doing God's work by being provided a perfect view of one of God's jewels. Yeah, right. In my dreams (which happens to be the theme of tomorrow's sermon, as a matter of fact).

Indeed, this time one of the adult males is moving in, perching on the line, then moving in to just the right spot, full frontal view in the sun light and... so close, and he moves behind the hanging post!
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Finally, I decide this is the best I'm getting today. Besides, cloud cover has moved in, resulting in a more comfortable blind, but minimal light reflectivity. That's my excuse, anyway. They'll be back tomorrow...after church, at which time I won't be distracted by the need to ponder the correct order of service and whether I'll mess up completely at some point along the way.

Isn't he a cutie?
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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Storytelling Birkenstocks, my new shoes

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The story of my life

It's Wednesday afternoon. I have a storytelling guild meeting tomorrow night, Irishfest Friday night, and if things go well, maybe I can go to the Wisconsin Storytellers Get-Together on Saturday. Which would be nice, since I'm a co-chair for the program committee. The jury is out on that one for the time being. Why?

Because I said "yes" again. Back in June, one of the elders from my church called to see if I could preach while the pastor takes a vacation. I have not done a service, I checked, since June 18, 2000. I used to do this a couple times a year, but maybe they didn't like my last sermon. Whatever, I was asked and I said "yes."

Now, my approach to all of this is story-based, anyway. Think about it. When you hear a sermon, you probably don't remember the point, but you will remember stories the pastor used to make that point. As my mentor in all of this once told me, "Preaching is just storytelling with a point."

Do I have this sermon written? Nope. I did get the order of service turned in to the church secretary, one day before she needs it, so that's good. I like to start my sermons with a story, and it is truly amazing how easy it is to make a story of any type fit whatever passages are suggested by the Common Lectionary. I picked the passage from Genesis 45 as my choice. The Old Testament passages are always overlooked, and heck, God is supposed to be God, Old or New Testament. Joseph has revealed himself to his brothers, and shared the purpose of his exile. So, to introduce the whole idea of dreams and prayers, I'm telling "The Peddler of Ballaghadereen." Maybe it's the influence of the impending Irishfest, but I couldn't resist this Irish tale that features St. Patrick himself. So, I've been practicing that story. I'll tell it at the guild meeting tomorrow for feedback. It will become a staple in my repertoire, I'm sure.

But not a word is put to paper for the sermon part of this. Instead, I'm stalling here. I must share my latest lucky find. Shoes.

Yes, shoes. Not just any shoes. Shoes that were on deep discount. Purchased from a socially conscious small business in Lawrence, Kansas, Footprints. Shoes that Birkenstock billed as "Storytelling Shoes." Could I have possibly said no to those?

Of course not. The man in brown brought them the other day. I'm thrilled!

I'm thrilled, but my sermon isn't started. Other than my story. Hopefully, the telling will be so rich and delightful, the preaching part will simply augment the tale.

If anyone comes. You know how it goes when the pastor's on vacation.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The gift of a goat?

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Sometimes, you just can't take photos.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Creating Stories for Strangers

Have you ever played this game? It's basically an add-on to another favorite game of mine, maybe yours too, called People Watching. People Watching is eponymous; it's just what it says it is. You watch people. Creating Stories for Strangers takes this game to a more advanced level. You don't even need a controller or cheats to move to this next level, as in the "Area 51" game my teenage son can't stop playing. Your imagination is all that's required.

I had occasion to play this game yesterday. My husband and I spent two days canoeing stretches of the Kickapoo River, an enjoyable activity on its own. You can't really beat the solitude of a stream running low, working those paddling arms, and playing tag as you do so with a pair of Great Blue Herons. The scenery is majestic as the river winds with hairpin turns through a variety of unglaciated rock formations, rising above on one bank of the river. Solitude, of course, is not the place to be people watching. The drive to the river is, however.

In order for the two of us to do this, we have to expend more fossil fuels than we might wish, in order to return upstream, retrieve a vehicle, and then retrieve our canoe. We're at a point where ownership of our own canoe doesn't seem so economical, since shuttle service is provided to those who choose to rent from one of the many outfitters. Travelling the 45-50 miles to and from the river requires us to travel through Amish country.

We have done business with some of the families in this Amish neighborhood in years past. Baby quilts and rocking chairs have been bought. We bought a total of four Amish rockers from Harvey Borntreger on this very route. I remember with a chuckle getting stuck in Mr. Borntreger's driveway with my 4WD. He and his father stood there chuckling, and I stuck my head out the window and said, "Another good reason to travel by horse, right?" Harvey laughed and said, "They get stubborn, too," to which I replied, "Usually you just have to crack the whip a little harder and they'll go, right?" At just that moment, amid laughter all around, the 4WD pulled out of the mud.

We don't have that 4WD anymore. My son, a baby when we last visited Harvey's family, had it for his first vehicle after getting his license, and then it was "retired" through a donation to the KidneyCar program last summer. It looked like Harvey doesn't live at that house anymore, either. The "Amish Rockers" sign has been replaced with one reading "Saddle and Tack Repair," and a different name graced the mailbox.

I don't know where Harvey and his family have relocated, but I enjoyed creating stories for some of the other folks I passed as they traveled the highway in their buggies and carts.

One buggy was moving at a really good clip, almost too fast for its red triangle sign on the back. A middle aged fellow and his wife were in this one. On their way to the neighbors to help with a barn raising that I'd seen. It was his younger cousin, moved out upon marriage--signified by a thin new growth of beard--and the family was anxious to be there to help and enjoy the festivities. That's their story I created, anyway. I did indeed see a young man working on a barn, so it could be true.

Another buggy was the Drivers Ed class. You see, a boy in a pale green shirt, probably aged 12-13, was managing the reins, while his father sat next to him. It was the boy's first time driving the buggy on the highway, controlling the horse as it faced the fast-moving cars driven by the "English." You could tell it was his first time by the broad smile that filled his face. Amish or "English," those smiles are universal.

The last one is my favorite story. A young married man--he had the beard, but his face was clearly a young husband's face--was driving an open buggy by himself. He'd been down the road at his brother's farm, enjoying the morning chores at their furniture shop. He was going to surprise his wife when he came home, because he'd stopped along the way to visit a neighbor whose goat had twins this spring. How did I know? He had a white goat sitting in his lap on the driver's seat, one arm around its neck to reassure it as the cars whizzed by.

Creating Stories for Strangers may be easier to play when you travel through a place like Amish country, by virtue of the fact that in reality, their lives are in stark contrast to ours and invite curiosity. If you aren't lucky enough to find your travels taking you through Amish country, don't despair. It's a game that can be played at restaurants, malls and especially places like airports. Share your creations here. I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Time to get serious!

Last week's "interesting" experience was one of those limninal moments; the moments that make one stop, take stock and decide one's course. Buoyed up and encouraged by tellers of far greater ability, it made me consider once again this concept--If we are to be valued in what we do, it must have appparent value to others. I'm pretty sure that had that gig not been a "gratis" gig, the ice cream would have waited. This isn't to say I won't ever do a volunteer gig again. Some of them are the most gratifying ones I do. If I do, I need to go with a better presence to let the organizer realize that what I'm sharing is one heck of a deal. How to do that?

1) Make sure the program you share is the best it can be. I already do this. I don't like to be out there, even for a "freebie," looking like this is the first time I've worked an audience. Still, I need to move beyond the sense that I only develop new programs or stories for paid events. I need to work on my work. Although I'm not in a position to do so just yet, I will go to one of the WOW Weekends in southern Indiana, highly endorsed by many tellers I respect. Sometimes to work on new stuff, an incentive like that helps.

2) Much as most of us are loathe to do so, I need to spend more time putting myself out there, so that folks know I have an enjoyable and meaningful offering for them to consider. I've made half-hearted attempts; a couple small ads in an area lifestyle monthly, home printed brochures placed in various locales. I even got up the guts once to contact the editor of a monthly magazine devoted to women's interests in the area. She replied, and maybe I need to follow-up on this again. Sigh. I hate doing that stuff.

3) If I'm to be better about putting myself out there, the stuff I put out needs to look better, too. I do have a website, but not a stand-alone site. My brochures look okay for home made, but I'm almost out. Hopefully my friend Karen Wollscheid, graphic designer to the storytelling world, can help me put together one that looks as cool as the one she did for another storytelling friend, Jenifer Strauss.

So, I thank those who took the time to pat me on the back and say sorry that happened to you. I also thank those who said, sorry that happened to you, now, what are you going to do about it?
Hopefully in the next few months, you can see a professional website, based on a professional brochure--with a schedule of at least twice monthly upcoming events. Stay tuned!