Monthly Archives: September 2011

Putting Ourselves First?

So there I was, standing on the express line at the supermarket, scanning the magazine racks. Who can resist scanning the checkout line magazine racks? The headlines are either laughable, cringe-worthy, or both.

The one that caught my eye today made me cringe. No, I didn’t read the article inside, but far fewer of us shoppers buy the magazine than read the headlines. This one, alongside a gorgeous shot of gorgeous Michelle Obama in a gorgeous gown, said something like, “Michelle Obama: Why you should put yourself first.”

Some psychologist should do a study on which headlines grab us, and why. This one got to me because it struck me as exactly NOT the sort of thing we want to hear the First Lady say at a time of economic upheaval, joblessness, social divisions….  The list of this nation’s maladies is endless. Wouldn’t it be nice to read an inspirational line like, “Michelle Obama: Together we can get through this” or even catchier, “Michelle Obama: United we stand.”

It’s true that this is the First Lady of a country that prints “Out of many, one” on its currency, underscoring the fact that we’ve always played favorites rather than pull together with the rest of the world. But can’t Americans, at least, at last, come to understand that it’s not about dying with the most toys anymore, that the game has changed forever? Globalization, climate change and the Internet are just a few of the myriad phenomena that have us interconnected on a local, national and international level that was unimaginable 50 years ago. The most recent downturn taught us just exactly how connected Wall Street is to Main Street, if we ever doubted it. In fact, wasn’t it those “me first” types that got us into this pickle in the first place?  

Okay, so Michelle was probably referring more to the old airbag metaphor, that is, you can’t help someone else get through the loss of oxygen on a plane if you can’t breathe yourself. Similarly, we can’t take care of our jobs, our loved ones and the dry cleaning if we’re not in the best of shape. I get it. But it still doesn’t sit well. We are already such an individualistic society that this magazine headline seems like a missed opportunity for Mrs. Obama to advocate for communitarianism. Not communism, mind you. Just not always, always, forever looking out for number one first.

I vote for a different story, one I heard Bill Clinton advocate years ago. Forget, he said, if not in so many words, the E Pluribus Unum mentality. We can no longer afford to pit nation against nation in a zero sum game. We are all interconnected, Belarus with Bahrain, Zaghreb with Zaire, and if we don’t accept that fact and act on it, we are lost.

About 30 years ago, former treasury secretary Robert Reich published a book called Tales of a New America, in which he wrote about the four foundational stories of American society. He labeled them (1) The Rot at the Top, (2) The Enemy at the Gates, (3) The Triumphant Individual, and (4) The Benevolent Community.

I propose a fifth: We Are the World. In the meantime, I’ll go read that article. I hope I am wrong, but something tells me I’m not.

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I’m Vegan; Now Go Away

So here I am at a more-than-memorable, five-star spa in Styria, southwest of Vienna, Austria.  Trust me; I have nothing whatsoever to complain about. From the food to the room to the pools, to the spa treatments to the gift shop to the lobby, to the grounds to the moonlight walks, this is one of those places that separates the rich from the rest of us. And yet, here of all places, maybe because I am here of all places, I have a gripe.

Sometimes, storyteller that I am and, according to those who know me well, I have always been, I simply do not want to tell my story. Sometimes, I want to simply do the Garbo thing and be left alone. I don’t mean literally alone, at least not here. I am on holiday for a couple of days with a dear friend who means the world to me, who is always, as much as any human being can be, fun and interesting and caring.

What I mean is, I am vegan. When I eat on my own, or with my husband, I virtually never, that is, 99.9 percent of the time, I do not have a problem finding something wonderful to eat among non-animal products. But when I am with others, who go out of their way to accommodate my particular strangeness, it’s always a hassle. This time, a hassle in two languages.

Either people are interested to know why I am vegan, how long I have been vegan, what does veganism mean, how do I survive if I get no protein (!), etc. Now, I know the answers to these intelligent and not-so-intelligent questions, and they’re not difficult to explain. And I know, I know, people are interested and/or just want to make conversation. The thing is, I am not out to convert anyone to veganism. I am not especially radical or political about it. I do what I believe, period. I… just…want…to…eat…my… meal. Don’t make me anything special, please; I love salad. No, I DO NOT WANT ANYTHING SPECIAL, PLEASE! I am an adult. I will tell you if I want special food. But I do not. PLEASE!

Call me a curmudgeon in my middle age. Except isn’t it almost worse when people are annoyingly trying to be  nice rather than trying to be annoying? I mean what a waste of good intentions!

But back to storytelling. We in the oral narrative line talk quite a bit about how important it is for everyone to have the opportunity to share his or her story. How empowering it is. How freeing. How much it bonds strangers and heals wounds. And it does. Except when it doesn’t. This little fact is something I am constantly forgetting, except sometimes, when someone tries, kindly, to get me to share my veganism story. Sometimes we simply need to keep our stories to ourselves, either for the course of a meal, or forever.

I promise, always, to remember that sometimes, it’s more empowering to keep one’s story to oneself.

Storytelling in Ze Olde Country

Well, the plan/hope/dream/fantasy came true, and here I am in the cultural paradise of Vienna, city of Strauss, Freud, Mahler and Klimt, teaching storytelling studies at an American university. It began badly, I think, with my behaving like an aggressive Rodney Dangerfield to an administrator, so prepared for storytelling to “get no respect” that I was lecturing about its merits in a variety of venues the moment I entered the office.

As the jet lag quickly cleared however (thanks to amazing Sunrider products), I realized that I was to be a guest lecturer not only in composition courses, which is what most academics assume storytelling is for (and who, really, can blame them?) but also in business communication, critical thinking, psychology and ethnic diversity classes. In other words, it was understood that I could do more than improve student writing, as worthy a goal as that may be. Throughout my first two weeks I have seen, in the course of talking about master narratives and counterstories, schema theory, linguists Labov and Waletsky’s structure of narrative, and the difference between abstract and concrete language, that people are starting to disassociate, just a little, storytelling studies from milk and cookies, and I am gratified.

Someone once said to me that when I write about storytelling, I am always explaining or defending it, never just letting it be. I’m sure it was this way in the 1960s with the burgeoning field of Communication, as well. Anything too familiar breeds contempt in the Academy, and thus the study of the familiar, be it soap operas, interpersonal communication or fairy tales, is assumed by those who have not looked closely into it to be a less-than-serious object of study.

Yet what need, I wonder, could be more pressing than to understand why we do what we do? The existence of free will was a subject of primary importance to no less than Martin Luther, no slouch as an intellectual. Do we have free will, when governmental and corporate storytellers are steering us, sometimes with carrots, sometimes with cattle prods, toward the acquisition and/or consumption of certain ideological and material products? What’s worse, we generally don’t even know it’s happening.

That, on a macro level, is what storytelling studies is about. How do we know what we know, when did we know it, and how do we transmit it to others? It’s an age-old question, fitting, I think, for this age-old, ageless city that I have come to love so much.