Saturday, November 26, 2005

Movie stories

Okay, okay, so this is supposed to be a blog celebrating the joy of stories told in the oral tradition, but doggone it, there are some great stories told in film! Besides, Tony of Milkriver, issued a movie meme challenge to a bunch of us on his bloglist. Probably my other blog is the one on his list, but I already did an entry there, and I have this "rule" about posting no more than once per day. So.....

Tony's challenge was to post a favorite movie that is probably pretty obscure. He'll check the various selections and gather them all on his blog, sort of a "best of the unknowns," as it were.

I will offer two choices, and if you actually know of them or see them, please don't judge me completely by these choices. I like humor on a higher plane, too, but both of these are funny and probably can release all kinds of cancer-fighting neurotransmitters as you laugh your fool head off.

#1--Waking Ned Devine I saw this Irish film when I went to Synod School a few years ago. A couple of the people there seemed a bit upset by some of the humor, especially when the trouble-making old biddy gets knocked off the cliff while she's in the phone booth calling the police, but I thought it was hysterical. The premise of the movie is this---excitement comes to a small town when it's learned that one of their own won a huge lottery. Unfortunately, the ticket holder, Ned Devine, died of shock upon realizing his good fortune, but some of his neighbors conspire to pose as the deceased and cash in. British humor, but slightly more understated in an Irish sort of way.

#2--Escanaba in Da Moonlight This one is a family favorite. I will preface my comments by pointing out that I married a genuine Yooper. If you have to ask, you just won't understand.
Jeff Daniels produced and released this movie independently, filming much of it in Marquette Michigan. It tells the story of a family deer camp, in which Rueben Soady, "da buckless Yooper," sets out to finally end his personal curse of being the only Soady never to bag a buck. The humor is completely sophomoric, and you know, sometimes that's exactly what one needs.

I figure I have done my part to offer up some lowbrow movie choices to appeal to your adolescent soul, while still maintaining a level of obscurity that renders the humor to be almost of an avant garde nature.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Cardboard boxes and little kids make for great stories!

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Gwyn surveys her kingdom from her Bedouin tent, circa 1958. Note cardboard box in that cool wagon!

This morning I woke with a nasty headache, the kind that squeezes your sinuses and the optic nerve, unresponsive to Advil. This state led me to a morning of sloth, highlighted by surfing favorite websites over and over. At the Simple Living Network forums, someone linked to this story, sharing that the ultimate favorite toy, the cardboard box, has been inducted into a Toy Hall of Fame. Rightfully so and about time, I thought through my pounding brain.

As so often happens, old memories long forgotten were plucked out of their little synaptic corners, and two separate stories involving kids and cardboard boxes bubbled out of the dendrites and made all the right connections.

Story #1

As kids, my brothers and I enjoyed the freedom of my parents' minimalist approach to Good Housekeeping. I had a longstanding fort behind one of the living room chairs, constructed with blankets draped over the chair, held in place by the books in the shelf behind, and filled with whatever treasures I needed to conduct my affairs. The clothesline would be rendered unusable for its original purpose, a "Bedouin tent" set up for playtime on a warm summer's day by Dad.
Growing up in 50s and 60s suburbia as we did, this kind of thing is all the more remarkable, and I'm sure partly responsible for our neighborhood status as "different." I've learned different is far more interesting, and isn't that just too bad for all my friends who had to walk across the plastic runners through the house to sit on the plastic covered couch?

Anytime a large packing box came into our house, it was cause for celebration. We couldn't wait to get our hands on those things! One such box---was it for a new refrigerator or washing machine?--found its way into family infamy. My youngest brother Fritz and his gang of little hoodlum friends laid claim to that box. This crew of kids had caused mayhem at Silver Lake Elementary in kindergarten. All the moms strongly advised the principal that separating them would be in the school's best interest. He kindly told them that "we know best." Suffice it to say that the Hayes Street Gang never shared teachers for the rest of their elementary school careers!

Toward the end of that era, they established a "club" in that packing carton, right in the middle of our living room. We'd all watch as they hauled blankets, toys and other things in there. We'd listen as their giggles would be stifled, followed by a shifting of the box, moving seemingly of its own accord a few inches.

One afternoon, I noticed Fritz coming toward his box with a smooth flat appearance under his shirt, which he was clutching furtively as he headed into the box. I knew the score and the jig was up.

"Fritz, what's that?"

"Nothing, it's just a comic book. Go away!"

"It is NOT a comic book, you were upstairs, weren't you?"

"It's NOTHING, go away!"

I lunged for my still smaller brother, wrestled for the item in question and discovered that, sure enough, it was one of our father's Playboy magazines.

"Don't tell Mom and Dad! Please, don't!"

I didn't say a word, but instead peered inside the box. In one corner were one or two other contraband publications, and scribbled on the inside of the box was a marquee sign, "Hayes Street Playboy Club," with various childish naked ladies drawn throughout.

My only regret is that I never took photos. It was hilarious! Far more entertaining--and enterprising--than the random clicking of internet p*rn sites that occupies inquisitive minds today.

By the way--Mom and Dad thought it was hilarious, too. All the other moms? Well, it was no more than they expected, given the history of these boys!

Story #2

My older son had an intense interest in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when he was around 5. This was the first time the Turtles hit the small screen and a Target store near you. He had a modest collection of action figures which I thought was excessive--two empty ice cream buckets full--until I saw some of the collections of his friends, filling entire closets.

I actually found the Turtles moderately entertaining myself. Moderately. Being a Responsible Parent, I felt it was my duty to help him understand the origin of the characters' names, that Leonardo, Donatello (his favorite), Raphael and Michelangelo were NOT mutated turtles, but Old Masters of the Renaissance. I checked out kids' library books about the artists. I even found a really cool Leonardo pop-up book from the Museum Gift Shop. He got it. More than I realized.

One day our refrigerator died. When the store delivered our new one, they were pleased to roll it right off the truck.

"Where's the box?" I asked.

I'm sure they thought I was crazy, but this was the first time we'd have access to a big box, and I wanted my kids to enjoy that experience.

They brought the box in, and it was placed in our living room, where my son immediately set up housekeeping.

After a few days, I noticed his feet sticking out the end, art supplies scattered about. I asked him what he was doing.

"I'm suffering for my art, Mom. I'm laying on my back to paint the ceiling, like Michelangelo did to the Sistine Chapel."

Ah yes, my lessons had stuck. That little boy has gone on to a high school art career that included a gallery show and a first place at the state Visual Arts Classic last year. He's now embarking on a career in animation himself, enrolling in a bachelors program in Animation Arts.

Yes indeed, the humble cardboard box is truly deserving of this honor. I don't remember any good stories coming from the glitzy, broken toys of childhood.

If you're reading this post, please take a moment to read its comments. There have been some great stories shared about cardboard box memories that are not to be missed! Thanks for visiting.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Political story?

One of the things I've observed throughout my life is that I am usually a surprise to no one, least of all myself. Though I grew up in a home in which my mom was very active in the local Republican Party, even serving as a delegate to the state Republican Convention, it just didn't seem to rub off on me. Perhaps not on Mom, either. Oh, Mom served as president of the League of Women Voters for awhile, but after all, said state is Minnesota, home of the Democratic Farm Labor Party and one that almost always votes blue. How long could she hold out in that setting? In her even further advancing years, she will regularly rail against the current holders of her former party. She says it isn't her Republican Party anymore, anyway.

Politics was a regular topic of family mealtimes in a household like mine. Mom likes to tell a little story of my childhood, one that occured in the days leading up to the election of Pope Paul after the death of the much-loved Pope John whatever-his-number-was. Now, we weren't Catholic, but most of my Nordeast Minneapolis neighbors were, so you couldn't help but remain informed during the ongoing Papal Conclave. The story goes, so Mom likes to say, that the discussion at dinner that particular night revolved around the election of this new Pope. I sat there listening and then finally burst out, "You mean they even have to vote for a Pope?"

In other words, at a young age, I was already questioning the political order. That hasn't changed. Like Mom, instead of mellowing and becoming more conservative as I age, I just get more firmly entrenched into my quiet form of rebellion against the prevailing order. For proof, I can point to the results of my Political Compass test. Good old RedMolly shared her results on her blog, and I had to follow the link and see where I fared. So perhaps I'm slightly more mellow than Molly, but good grief, I've got twenty years on that young thang, I'm entitled!

Still, I'm squarely in the corner with Gandhi, much as I was when I graduated from high school in 1972, protesting the secret war in Cambodia and celebrating the very first Earth Day with my high school's "Environment Club."

Economic Left/Right -5.63
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian -6.92

As I said, I really can't seem to surprise myself with anything. Maybe I should go do something really wild and unexpected in the voting booth next time. Nah, don't think so. There's just too much important stuff at stake to do that. Instead, perhaps I'll bird an unexpected locale today. Where's the nearest sewage pond, anyway?

Just to prove I'm not completely a "pinko" and do possess a heart, I'll also reference this entry from last November, in honor of today's U.S. holiday.

Saturday, November 05, 2005


The one joy that has kept me going through life has been the fact that stories unite us. To see you as you listen to me now, as you have always listened to me, is to know this; what I can believe, you can believe. And the way we all see our story...that's what we own, no matter who we are and where we come from.

These words, coming from the final page of a wonderful novel, Ireland, by Frank Delaney, summarize perfectly what any of us who dare to call ourselves anything so prosaic as "storyteller" believe--that in the end, the stories matter most. Stories are what connect us, what truly make us human. A train of thought, gleaned from my studies years ago when I had dreams of becoming a primatologist, suggests that our early ancestors developed the capacity for language from the specialization resulting from tool use. Perhaps. Certainly, we've leapt forward in that tool-making ability, creating tools unimagined by those early humans wandering the plains, wielding spears for protection and food gathering. What of those times has survived, but amazing paintings placed inside the walls of ancient cave shelters? Paintings that have fueled our imaginations ever since; did those early hunters gather round fires, recounting their stories they shared, the ones that told who they were and from whence they came?

Over the past 15 years or thereabouts, life has directed me to tell stories, and encourage others to do the same. Those of us who "have it bad" likely started out charmed by the connection of hearing a story well told by another. It's a visceral sort of thing, a hunger deep in the soul that we have, that we've probably always had. Experiencing this, we seek to do the same thing ourselves, so we learn some stories, tell them, join storytelling guilds, and then tell some more stories.

Something happens along the way. I can't define it, I can't point to an exact moment of epiphany, but at some point, I realized there is far more to this whole "storytelling business." Maybe it was when I did a little "graduation ritual" for my 8th grade storytellers, who would be moving on to high school. I thought it was maybe a bit corny, these little tokens and the little laminated storyteller's licenses I gave them. Not so. The room full of kids was silent, and more appreciative in their response than I'd ever have expected. I know now, six years down the road, that many of those kids went on to share stories in some way, fueled by the fire of stories well told.

In an age of technology and hyper-speed, one where so many of our connections are electronically mediated--as this one is--we seek true connection, a slowing of the pace, a moment to reflect, a moment to feel true emotion. Storytellers and stories give us this place.
I know that now, and for that reason, I've strengthened my resolve to find ways to bring that back to my corner of the world, at least. Some of my efforts, though strong, have failed. Two years of research, trying to find statistical proof of the value of storytelling in raising standardized test scores, still failed to convince our superintendent of the value in creating a position of "district-wide storyteller." He thought it was a great idea. Unfortunately, the forces that be in the world of education dictate slashing positions rather than creating new ones.

Some have had success. My storytelling troupes have had a small impact, certainly on the kids who were members, but also beyond those kids. They shared their enthusiasm in various adult venues---librarian's conventions, storyteller's conferences--and from those connections, inspired others to take up their banner. My little second grade friends, who clamor for Mrs. Calvetti to come visit, proved just yesterday that a story they heard a year ago, they can remember. They can't remember how to add basic math facts yet, but the stories they can retell.

This much I do the Storyteller in Mr. Delaney's wonderful tale, the stories are all we truly own. It is my hope that we keep the ownership of our own stories, rather than give them up to the mediated stories of our day. If you're reading this, take a moment when you connect next with another living, breathing soul to share a story. It could be a grand adventure of your youth or the sad tale of loss. Either way, if you can believe it--kernel of truth or nothing but--so too can your listener.

Mr Delaney's recent novel is not alone in celebrating this ancient hunger for story. Some of the following are for young readers, others for adults, but all celebrate as a central character, the Storyteller.

For younger readers--

The Storyteller's Beads, Jane Kurtz 1998
Shadow Spinner, Susan Fletcher 1998
The Ear, The Eye and The Arm, Nancy Farmer 1995, Newbery Honor Book

And the grown-ups--

Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie 1990
The Storyteller, Mario Vargas Llosa 1989

I'd love to learn of books you've read that celebrate the storyteller; please share them as a comment here.