31 March, 2014

Cast Thy Troubles Upon the Dirty, Sacred River: Moth StorySlam Update, Wading Into This Grand Political Season, and A Story Worth Telling

IMoth StorySLAM Update

I told a story at last week's  Moth Story Slam at Headliners Music Hall that I rarely tell and will probably not tell again. The topic was 'Courage*' -- which is a 3rd person designation, and not one I would attribute to any action on my part.

The story I told was about the last physical fight I ever got into. The reason it was the last fight was that not long after incident I decided, to focus my energy on being a pacifist rather than feeding the angry little monster in my gut who had, by that time, taken on the name Terry.**

When I think of courage, I think of a current student who was among the wave of responders at Ground Zero. I think of my daughter, trying to build her life in spite of unreasonable backlash from her mother and her mother's husband. I think of Stanley Taylor, Cletus the Dog Man, Jimmy the Kid, Fisherman Jim, and The Roving Northern Englander. I think of Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons, and Albert Parsons. I think of my dad.

The Moth is a great venue and I will continue to go out, put my name in the hopper, and hope that I get to go on stage. It's entirely possible that The Moth is not the venue for me to stretch my storytelling legs, since I am far more interested in other people's stories and in the stories of people who generally get ignored than I am in trying to make myself out to be the center of anything.*** I am the least interesting part of every story I want to tell, and I am simply one small part of the All I write about when I write a poem.+

Wading Into the Political Season

I'll admit it. I'm a bit of a political junkie. Not enough to keep noxious news channels on 24 hours a day/7 days a week; but enough of one that, in spite of myself I went to both a candidate meet and greet in the neighborhood and a meeting of the Louisville Metro Council in the same week.

Politics -- especially local politics -- is like what a friend of Amanda's calls SPORTSBALL++. To look at politics as anything other than a kind of sport lends it far more gravity than it deserves. American politics are absurd and politicians are among the most absurd critters on the planet next  lawyers and the duck-billed platypus.
Meet your local representative.

I went to a neighbor's house to meet the opposing candidate for the District 21 seat on the Metro Council. His name is Erich V. Shumake. He's running against 20 year encumbent Dan Johnson.+++ They are both Democrats, which apparently is a relief to some of those who still think partisan politics matter and a real problem to the rest of those who think partisan politics matter.

Shumake is a Methodist minister and retired railroad man; but this is not the most interesting thing about him.

What makes him interesting is that he's so much fun to mess with.

Amanda and I arrived at the neighbor's house at the same time as the candidate and his wife. The neighbors, Tammy and her husband Kevin nice folks. She's from Nebraska originally. He likes microbrew beer. They live in a well-maintained older house a few streets away and are active in the neighborhood association. The meet and greet had the usual kinds eats -- cookies and chips and brownies, along with coffee and homemade lemonade and both kinds of wine. We were standing near the food spread talking with the candidate about politics and philosophical fishing when Tammy came up and asked him if he wanted a glass of wine.

No thank you,  he answered. But I will take a cup of coffee.

I wasn't drinking either -- neither wine agrees with me in mixed settings and I still had to work after the meet and greet -- so I didn't actually hold his temperance against him. Tammy seemed a bit shaken -- she later insisted I eat something so that she could too, so I can only conclude that she was following in that grand tradition of the midwestern hostess -- waiting for a guest to pop the cork before she herself took a polite gulp.

While it's entirely possible that Tammy was nervous -- as hosts of such events are sometimes expected to be when they invite all their neighbors, one of whom was erroneously accused of being convicted of check fraud in New Jersey in 1996^ -- I like to think that on some level, her deep, hearty, and stalwart midwestern soul intervened.

Do you take it like a man? she asked.

She laughed immediately and apologized for the verbal slip, but that opened the bag. The candidate, looked at me and asked how I took my coffee. (I was drinking the homemade lemonade.)

Like a man, Amanda said, laughing. The candidate looked at me and I nodded.

I drink it black. 

I sort of felt sorry for him. Sort of. Faced with burly bearded philosophical fisherman, his nearly hysterically laughing hostess, and Amanda -- all of us potential voters, of course -- he nodded, smiled, and in another grand tradition -- this one being the grand tradition of politicking -- he proclaimed that he would try it like a man. 

Later, before the mini-stump speech in the front room, I was talking to him again, this time trying to get a sense of what he wanted to do on Metro Council. His answers were charged with all the idealism and Democratic buzzwords that I expected, but he was intentionally non-specific. I noticed he was eating a ginger snap with his manly coffee -- which, to be honest, he wasn't drinking that much of.

You know, I said.  You should trying dunking it in the coffee.


Absolutely. It softens the cookie and... you know... adds a little sugar to the coffee. Try it.

He dunked it almost immediately and seemed moderately surprised that both flavor of both the cookie and the coffee were complimented by the addition of the other. You're welcome.

The Metro Council meeting was interesting to watch^^. A lot of pomp and circumstance, and a great deal of disagreement over who sits on The Monuments Commission (The distribution of vetted volunteers tends to lean heavily towards the east end -- where there is a lot more money floating around, even if it's some abstract number on a computer screen and not an actual bank roll.)  and over a motion to separate the City Employee Retirement System from the Kentucky State Retirement System -- which apparently is a really important issue to Jim King (D) the representative from District 10, who presides over Council meetings since the mayor doesn't have to.

Neither of these issues were decided one way or the other.

Of note, though. Dan Johnson was present at the meeting, while his opponent was not. The representative from District 21 didn't say much, and seemed focused on something in front of him rather than the proceedings. But his phone went off three times. The first time, he silenced it. The second time, I barely grabbed it in time. The third time, he silenced it good and proper, but his colleagues on either side of him could not contain their laughter. 

A Story Worth Telling:

I'm almost getting this audio portion of this blog together. Here's a story I haven't told in a while, but one that I really like. I hope you like it too. You can also follow me on reverbnation.com, listen from this link, (it's an mp3) for click on play on the Facebook page for Along The Dirty, Sacred River.


*The original topic of the night was supposed to be "Heroes" -- which was stressful enough, since I think I am even less heroic than I am courageous. The topic changed at  the last minute, however, thanks to a special one time sponsorship by AARP.

** Every man is born with a monster in his gut, and every boy learns at an early age how to feed it. I started feeding mine shortly after I lost my first fight, at the age of 10. It's entirely possible, and entirely likely, that women are born with monsters, too. But I've never asked. And to be honest, I'm not entirely sure I want to know what that force of nature monster would look like unleashed.

*** The trend of "storyteller as protagonist" is actually referred to as part of the "American Style" of storytelling by the wider global community of storytellers. 

+ This is as close to an aesthetic statement as I think I've ever made. 

++ A derisive critique of all sports that I understand only because of a lexicographic relative, MUSIKILLS. A Musikill is any theatrical piece (except for Man from La Mancha) in which over-wrought music tells at least half the story. This includes the entire Rogers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber catalogs, and anything where the term "Fossey hands" is applicable. (From The Parsons Dictionary of Oft Used Words and Phrases, high school edition)

+++ The picture of him on the campaign page is old, probably as old as his first run. 


24 March, 2014

Return Of The Big Blue Burrito

The Big Blue Burrito
Truthfully, I'd rather travel when someone else is driving. While being behind the wheel does provide some opportunities to get off the regular roads -- which we did as we took our time down rolling down U.S. Route 17 from Culpeper to Norfolk and learning along the way that sometimes gas station oysters really DO make sense -- I like to avoid the added worry of mechanical issues. Then there's the fact that ability to navigate only seems to work when I'm ON FOOT. (Seriously. Put me in a strange place on foot and I will find my way around in no time. Put me behind the wheel armed with a map ... or even a nominally functional gps... and I will still find a way to get lost. Count on it.)

 But: while this 1,345 mile round trip from River City to Norfolk (pronounced nor'fuk. And yes, I still count it as the most unfriendly town in the country.) was not my first trek out Interstate 64 and up and down Sandstone Mountain, West Virginia, it was the first major flight of The Big Blue Burrito. For an old truck, she did amazingly well, even on the westbound return over Sandstone Mountain. The westbound incline up the mountain is so steep I can only conclude that the Army Corp of Engineers intended to make driving through By Gawd West Virginia as unpleasant and automobile murdering as possible.

I've been criss-crossing West Virginia via Sandstone Mountain and I-64 off and on for as long as The Kid has lived in Norfolk -- since about 2001. She was in 1st grade when her mother dragged her there after an unsuccessful attempt to make it as a Navy wife in the backwater of LaCombe, Louisiana when Sgt. Tailhook was stationed out of the Naval Station at Norfolk. In the previous year, the Kid attended Kindergarten in 4 different schools that I can remember -- one, being in Jefferson Parish (LaCombe) where she had lice more than she had recess and where they taught an entire section on shoe tying. (I taught her in a short afternoon. The Kid has always been ahead of the curve.)

The reason I have, over the years, traveled the I-64 east-west corridor is that when her mother decided to haul her up to the North Atlantic coast, I decided not to follow. I moved from Lexington, Kentucky to New Orleans in order to stay close to The Kid. I did not and do not regret that decision. I have, over the years, deliberated and rejected the notion of moving there myself. Some ignorant folk might interpret this as a lack of interest in my daughter. And while there are moments of her life I have missed -- which is one of a short list of regrets -- I have always fought to stay in her life in spite of the geography. In spite of being derided, derailed, talked down, and insulted. In spite of my own feelings of inadequacy as a parent. In spite of one attempt on the part of her mother to try and talk me into signing my parental rights away to Sgt. Tailhook. (I told her mother in no uncertain terms that The Kid's last name is Parsons and would be until she changed it herself... and even then, I assured her mother,  I would always be The Kid's Dad.)

And here I am, back on the edge of the dirty, sacred river, getting ready to teach, getting back to all the little projects and obligations I have here. The Big Blue Burrito made it back over the mountains, with a stop off at Willow Creek to visit old friends and another in Losantiville to visit my Dear Sweet Ma and to pick up a new to us bed and frame. Here I am, looking home improvements, looking at starting up the garden, and yes, looking at a jaunt west into some square states in The Big Empty.

Life is good here and I am living it.

17 March, 2014

Culpeper Tells, Winter Talks Back

The Traveller's Angel and I jaunted east of the dirty, sacred river, barrelling up I-64, through the deep Appalachian darkeness of  the West Virginia Turnpike at night. We left River City Friday afternoon on a warm and sunny afternoon in order to make for the second day of Culpeper Tells!, a brand new storytelling festival in Culppeper, Virginia.

Culpeper is a pretty litttle town that has, over the past gfew years, built itself back up from devestation. The town has survived four earthquakes in the last year. The Big One, though, happened in August 2011. The town of Culpeper  built itself back from a 5.8 magnitiude earthquake. 

We had the opportunity to see some tellsers we've seen before, and to hear a few we haven't. Naturally we signed up for the story slam. But time ran out before the Kentucky contingnent could storm the stage.

We left Culpeper Sunday morning and rolled down VA 17 towards Norfolk to visit The Kid. And, as is almost always the case when I travel, winrter was at my back. The storm warnings blew up behind us, ad we hit the coast a good couple of hours before yet one more last hurrah of winter rolled through dropping ice, snow, and sleet in a wide swath from Loiusville to the coast. 

The North Atlantic coast may not seem the most romantic of destinations in March. Even without the interminably long winter  weather, it's still chilly, windy, and rainy.  But it's been a while since I've seen The Kid's smiley, shiny face. It's also been a while since I've seen Will, the boyfriend -- who is a nice guy, in spite of the fact that no one will ever be good enough to date my daughter.

We're staying at a Super 8 -- the same one I managed to stay in when I was here in January 2012. That trip was a very different one. I was here then to deliver bad news, among other things. I was convvinced that I was on my way to disappearing, convinced that, with the dissolution of my marriage that I most certainly would disappear, because I had convinced myself that no one weould see me the way my ex had seen me. 

I didn't know that I was on the road to put myself back together. I didn't even know I was broken. 

Amanda travels well. She's smart, pays attention to her surroundings, and drinks up new experiences. She wants to see everything she can,learn everything she can, experience all that she can. Although we've known one another for nearly 20 years, I like to think it has taken that long for me to get back to her. That it's too me 20 yeasrs to see myself in a proper enough light that I could allow her to see me. Some processes take longer than others.

And now I am here, with her, visiting The Kid -- who isn't really a kid, I guess -- and even though the North Atlantic winter is lingering outside, I am basking in the wearmth of a deeper, lovelier and more permanent light. The light where all the stories and poems and songs come from, where road unrolls under our feet and there is blue sky ahead.

12 March, 2014

Short Form, Long Story

Some stories do not fit in a short format.

With the monthly Moth Story Slam quickly approaching, I've been pondering what story to tell. And with this month's topic being HEROES, I thought I had a shoo-in.

There's rarely a day that goes by that The Old Man doesn't cross my mind at least once. This September 3rd will be 24 years since he died, and while I like to think I've come to understand him as a person and not the larger-than-life myth I created around him as a child, the fact is that even in -- maybe especially in --  his imperfect humanity there's a touch of the mythic about him.

The stories about him are legion. He dropped out of high school at 17 and joined the Navy in time for the Korean War. (I suspect that the military was seen as a last ditch effort to keep him out of jail. He, like his father before him and his sons after him, was born with a chip the size of the Continental Divide on both shoulders.) Joining the Navy taught him three things: 1) that some men are bigger men than others (learned after standing naked in a room with several hundred other young men for induction); 2) that he hated boats (no one mentioned the stress point built into the middle of battle ships that keeps them from sinking during rough waves); and 3) that he hated the bananas.

After his 3 year naval hitch, he remained a civilian for about a year and then joined the Air Force, which he stayed in for 20 years and attained the rank of Master Sgt. Among the things he learned in the Air Force 1) All officers are assholes; 2) there's an art and craft to telling someone to go to hell; and 3) that it was still possible in the 20th century to be banned from a state upon penalty of incarceration. (He was -- let's call it asked -- by then Governor Ann Richards to not return to the state of Texas after a furlough weekend with two childhood friends, each in a different branch of the military. I have only heard of the existence of this letter and have never seen it.)

There are more stories, many that I know, and too many I will probably never know. Except for my immediate family and one cousin in New Jersey, I can't seem to maintain any contact with The Old Man's family. He has two brothers still living -- one who is an extreme misanthrope and another who lives in Colorado who I have only met once. (I was going to go back out and talk to him some more. But thanks to a Facebook Troll during the '12 Presidential Election season and that familial double sawboard should chip the size of the Continental Divide, that second meeting never occurred.)

On the topic of Heroes, The Old Man has always been mine, but I cannot seem to reduce his legend to a good 5 minutes. It seems unfair to his memory, and unfair to the audience. And so I find myself wondering what it is I have to say about heroes.

Don't worry. I'll come up with something. It may even be safe for an NPR crowd.

03 March, 2014

The Problem of Shrub: The Story of a Failed Tale

I've never been good at expectations. Expectations are those binds other people place on you. They are the price you pay in exchange for them deigning to allow you in their world. Expectations are rules of behavior.

Keep off the Grass. 
No shirt, no shoes, no service. 
No cussing, spitting, or gum chewing. 
No alcohol allowed beyond this point.
Do your homework.

People who know me, or who have known me for a long time, know that if there is an expectation levied on me that chances are good I'll find a way to not live up to it. If there's a silent understanding among members of any community, I will, in some way or another contradict it. I unintentionally and permanently offended little old Lutheran Church Matrons* by going a little too blue at an open mic series in Mount Carroll, Illinois.

But I am finding that there's a difference between the art and craft of storytelling and the art and craft of poetry.

As some of you may know, I've been polishing my storytelling at the monthly Moth StorySlam held at Headliner's Music Hall in Louisville. The format is ideal for culling the non-essential from a story and for working on other tidbits like stage presence and tone. The judging is, shall we say, not precise.  The rules are simple: 
  1. The story must be true.** 
  2. The story must have the teller as a central character. 
  3. The story should not be longer than 5 minutes. (Or 6, if you're feeling really froggy.)
Then there's the topic, which is different every month. January's topic was VICES. Now, this is something I have a little experience with. Vice can mean a lot, though. And so I've made it my habit to go into the monthly slam with two stories in the bag. I find it's a good way to ensure that I don't end up telling a similar story to the entrant before me. And I also try to have two stories that are different tones and timbers. Last month for example, when the topic was LOVE HURTS, I had a story prepared about my first grade unrequited crush, Tonya Tolin -- and I had a story I call The Midas Girl, about a first (and last) date gone horribly awry.

Amanda and I talk through our stories with one another before The Moth. It's nice to be able to get honest feedback from someone who is both competitive enough to push me but supportive enough to give honest and useful tips. When it comes to VICES we both have plenty of source material to draw from, and it becomes not so much a matter of figuring out a story to tell, but figuring out a story that both meets all the requirements and manages not to simultaneously  and unfairly incriminate us for the mistakes of our youth. (In my case, this may extend to middle age.) 

My first story idea -- the one I told -- is a riff about getting drunk in Aberdeen, Ohio, in the trailer park home of a guy named Treetop and Treetop's Old Lady Katie. (She would only respond to the entire moniker, 'Treetop's Old Lady Katie.' Anyone making the mistake of NOT referring to her, either conversationally or behind her back, by her full title, was subject to a wrath that ensured any man's ego the same fate as Humpty Dumpty. (Women were afforded slightly more mercy and were merely deeply and psychologically wounded with a public airing of all their deficiencies intellectual, physical, and sexual.)

A crucial player in this particular tale is Treetop's Old Lady Katie's son from a previous tangle. I call him Shrub. This was in part because I couldn't remember his name, but also because it seemed to fit in the telling.

I'm not going to pound out the story here, though I am going to be posting audio clips soon*** and Shrub's Story may well be one of them. But since telling that story on stage, it's become sort of a mental puzzle for me to ponder, and transform into what I call The Problem of Shrub. The story ends with me puking my guts out off the front steps after rejecting hangover cure-all advice from Shrub. The Problem begins shortly thereafter, because in the telling I did at the January Moth, I did nothing to ennoble myself or tack on a lesson. 

I've struggled with that aspect of storytelling -- what a much more experienced teller than me, Buck Creasy, calls the "Amen" moment. As a poet, short story scribbler, and novelist (There is one out there, floating in the deep muck of amazon ebooks.) I have furiously avoided tacking on a lesson. I have also avoided making myself -- or the "fiction" voices that I have hidden behind in the past -- anything resembling noble. I have long been the butt of my own literary joke. This has been especially true in short and long fiction. My last ex-wife would beg me to stop. This is not who you are, she'd say. No one cares who I am, I told her. All they care about is the story.

As a storyteller, I've found out though, that people really DO care who I am. Moreover, I've discovered that I care who I am -- a distinction that matters as much or more. Where my first telling of Shrub's Story failed was not so much in making Shrub the sympathetic center. That was my intention from the beginning.  In spite of the Moth "rule" about the teller being a primary character in the story (no Once Upon a Times or This is one I heard from... for the umbilicus pondering NPR crowd that frequents The Moth) I have been trying to focus on something other than myself -- in poetry, and in storytelling. Generally, I'm more interested in other people's stories and in the stories that never seem to get told -- those histories and myths that have been partially or entirely homogenized out of the cultural conscious. 

I made no attempt to paint my 20-something year old self as someone who felt guilty, or who saw the tragedy of a 6 year old who knew more about hangovers than I did because I did not see myself as the point of the story.

But I did forget something fundamental. And while it may not be fundamental to poetry, or short stories, or novels, it is fundamental to the craft of storytelling -- and it goes far beyond the admittedly egocentric nature of personal stories. That is certainly a part of storytelling, and there are plenty of stories worth remembering and sharing if, for no other reason, than that they are personal stories. Sharing personal stories and doing it well means coming to grips with who you are. It also means caring about the person you are and the person you aspire to be. 

Beyond even that, though -- and that's a lot -- there's the larger craft of storytelling at stake in all this. Stories are entertaining, yes. But they are also part of our cultural heritage, part of our human experience. A storytelling is cultural journalism of the highest calibre. Storytellers hear, learn, and tell stories because the stories embody some part of all of us. 

And in the telling, the storyteller becomes part of the story, whether he or she is a participant in it or not. The storyteller provides the context within which the story can unfold and make sense. This can mean brandishing our faults under stage lights. But it also means that sometimes we have to embrace redemption. Not just because people like neat and tidy endings -- but because sometimes people need context that only storytellers can provide so that they then take that story and put it in a context of their own.

* Little Old Lutheran Church Matrons are a force to be reckoned with in any northern small town. They hold the keys to potluck / casserole heaven and are the unofficial moral arbiters of all questions ranging from sex outside the confines of marriage (READ: sex with the lights on), to whether a certain pair of shoes are worship service appropriate, to whether or not Good Christian (Lutheran) Men drive Fords or Chevys (Rarely Toyotas and NEVER, EVER a Subaru.)
**The truth in a story is not in the facts. Veracity lies in the telling.
*** I've had some technical difficulties, one of which is that I don't have a working microphone to make a decent recording. that will soon be fixed.