Monthly Archives: October 2011

Darmok at Tanagra, the Emperor’s New Clothes and Other Remnants of Popular Culture

There’s an episode of the old television series Star Trek: Next Generation called “Darmok,” in which the redoubtable Captain Picard is dropped onto a bleak planet landscape to do battle with the captain of another ship, without their knowing why they are fighting. The alien captain does not speak English, at least not exactly. His language is completely comprised of allusions to the various myths of his people. So when he says to the Captain “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” he is referring to what happened to those characters, Darmok and Jalad, at that place, Tanagra, in the mythology of his people. In order for Picard to understand what the man he saying to him, he has to first learn the myth.

From its very beginnings in the 1960s, Star Trek was carefully written with an eye and ear to the U.S. zeitgeist, whether it was with respect to the Vietnam War, religion, or, most often, intolerance. More than many episodes, this one is meaningful to me because it crystallizes the functionality of a shared symbology in human experience. In other words, the importance of popular art.

What do I mean when I say so-and-so is a Picard-like character? You would have no idea if you never saw or heard of the Star Trek franchise. Same with Mr. Spock of Captain Kirk. And yet these characters speak volumes about the human experience. Spock is all intellect. Kirk is mainly passion. And Picard is pretty much the perfect leader, a balance of these two qualities.

When I refer to one of these characters when speaking with a Trekkie, I don’t need to explain myself further. The character/symbol or signifier, to use a fancy term, is like a pomegranate, containing all the diverse and specific characteristics I intend to convey. And that’s not all. The very fact that you know what I mean if I mention Darmok at Tanagra brings us closer, because the very fact that you understand demonstrates that we share a common subculture, with its own language, meaning and values. If you get it, that is to say, you get me.

In these days of diminished religious education and augmented media offerings, we have fewer and fewer sources of common meaning and values. In some ways, that’s a plus. When books or other media contain deleterious content, I’m delighted that we have choices. On the other hand, if I can’t relate to your favorite song—that is, not only don’t I know it, or the artist, but I don’t even know the genre—it’s harder for us to communicate. I am thinking right now of my father’s disdain for the Beatles and Joni Mitchell. Oh, the fights that might have been averted had he sat down to listen! But then that is often the way with parents and children, particularly in the 1960s. At that time, adults still asserted, even celebrated, their differences from subsequent generations.

Which brings me to The Emperor’s New Clothes. Someone recently referred to that Hans Christian Andersen tale in conversation, and of course I knew exactly what he meant. He might have referred to a current event instead, and I might have gotten the same meaning. But what if I didn’t share his interpretation of that event? What if I thought the real-life “emperor” had been framed? Too complicated. No one believes Andersen’s emperor was framed, at least not seriously, not unless you are a fairy-tale revisionist. Because that was the point of the story.

The old, old stories are the same around the world, albeit with different names and settings and props. U.S. television has recently resurrected fairy-tale characters in two series, Grimm and Once Upon a Time, perhaps, as some media watchers have suggested, because we need a return to fantasy in these troubled times. Or perhaps, I argue, because we need a return to a shared understanding. To a shared language.

The alien captain died on that planet, because it took too long for the two men to learn to communicate. Let’s not let it happen to us.

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Living a Storytelling Life

This has been a strange week. Three times either I or someone else missed or misremembered a meeting time, date and/or place. The first time, I had written down 2 p.m. for an appointment with a student, and she showed me where I had agreed, by e-mail, to 3 p.m. (Fortunately I had hung around until 3, so we had our meeting.) The next day, I went to a meeting, and the guest speaker didn’t show up. He thought he was supposed to present a day later. Two hours later, I ran to a meeting, only to find that no one I expected to be present was there. I frantically e-mailed and searched old e-mails on my phone to find out what I had done wrong. It wasn’t until the next day that I was told that there are two rooms in that building with similar names, and I had entered the incorrect one.

Bad week, you say? Not at all. I spent the hour waiting for the student speaking on the phone to my sister, for whom I never have enough time. When the presenter didn’t show up, the audience members shared their own stories and questions on a related topic. And although I was sitting in the wrong room later in the day, the meeting was fascinating; I couldn’t tear myself away for 45 minutes. When at last I did, I accomplished two important errands that I have been putting off for a long time.

It’s been a funny week for another reason, too. Several times this week someone, either a friend or colleague or client, has offered or paid me money, either to do a service or, in one case, in acceptance of a grant proposal. I can go many months without that happening, and in fact I did this summer. But in just five days, from 2 a.m. Sunday morning to 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon, I was the recipient or promised recipient of largesse from four sources.

Now, to the storytelling life. The narrative act, we are told, affords meaning to seemingly chaotic and senseless human experience. This is one of the reasons it’s so useful in preventing or combatting depression. Loss of a sense of meaning in one’s life, particularly for the elderly, is a primary indicator of depression.

So when I connect my experiences of the week, not only within one set of thematically linked events (the meeting challenges) but also within and between two (the money offers), I am ordering experience, looking for meaning in seemingly random events. For me, these coinciding occurrences indicate that good things will come if I just let go and stop trying to control every aspect of my life. For someone else, these events might mean something completely different, just as dream interpretation is based at least as much on the individual dreamer’s life and attitudes as it is on universal dream symbology.

Just to be clear: I am not suggesting here that there are no coincidences, that there is a master plan for every bit of matter in the universe. My point is simply that we can be the master storyteller of our own lives, ordering and interpreting events as we experience them in order to understand ourselves better.

That’s what storytellers do. Try it, and let me know what you think.

Science v. Myth

It’s a sacred time of year for a tiny segment of the world’s population, as Jews celebrate the birth of the new year, atone for our sins, and celebrate ancient harvest rituals. Maybe that’s why I recently entered into an uncharacteristically controversial debate about the length of human history.

My initial top-of-the-head comment in the discussion, that we know the age of humankind through fossil records, betrayed my lack of experience thinking or talking much about this subject. No, we don’t know about human history through fossils; we know it through carbon dating of skeletons and material culture, the vessels, tools, etc. that early humans left behind. And that record tells scientists that human history began somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-13,000 years ago, after a much, much longer time evolving into what we now consider humankind.

My interlocutor, who is extremely intelligent and well-read, begged to differ. Quoting scripture and questioning—with all the exceptional critical thinking skills I try to inculcate in my students—the hegemony of science, he countered that carbon dating is a theory, as is evolution. And that it makes just as much sense to believe the oral tradition, more recently recorded as the Old Testament, that humankind was created approximately 6,000 years ago.

This placed me in an awkward position, even for a devil’s advocate. I regularly challenge the assumption that since scientific knowledge is our “best guess,” we should place all our apples in that particular conceptual basket. Having experienced and seen astonishing results from alternative medicine, for example, I am considerably more skeptical of the scientific pronouncements of the Westernized allopathic medical community than are most people I know. Yet I still went to get that MRI when my shoulder wouldn’t heal, just to find out what was wrong. The acupuncturist didn’t need to know to treat it, but I have been conditioned to require the imprimatur of the scientific community.

But I digress. Back to the history of humankind. My friend said, “There are flood stories all over the world, throughout human history. Doesn’t that tell you that the Bible is true?”

“Look,” I replied, “what that tells me is that there are flood stories all over the world, throughout human history. Period. Floods represent a cleansing, a transformation, a destruction and rebirth. That doesn’t prove that the situations are true. And even if they are, even if there was a great flood, the point is, why was the story repeated over and over in the sacred texts? Because it meant something larger than itself.”

There are two major understandings of why similar stories, characters and situations (tale types and motifs) exist throughout the world. One, the historical-geographical theory of the Finnish school, suggests that traders, travelers and conquerors spread the stories along with germs, traditions and everything else. The other, the collective unconscious theory of Jung and Campbell, argues that these archetypes, these patterns, are in our DNA, that the ability to respond to and create these forms is an important characteristic of the human brain.

In other words, the stories don’t have to have documentable, verifiable proof to be meaningful and important. These universal truths connect people both vertically (through time) and horizontally (across space). But do the numbers matter? Does it matter exactly how old Sarah or Abraham were when they had Isaac, or is it more important that they waited for him a long, long time and thus his birth was that much sweeter, and his impending sacrifice that much more bitter?

This discussion puts me in mind of a psychic I once visited who told me the date when my novel would be published. The 21st or 22nd of that month, we decided, I would get the happy call from my agent. On the 21st, I am embarrassed to say, I wore my favorite outfit to work and jumped every time the phone rang. I jumped a little less on the 22nd. For several months I still noticed when it was the 21st or the 22nd. Then, gradually, I realized that the novel was most likely not going to sell.

The thing is, it didn’t, but my career took off regardless. The truth of her “story”—that I would be successful at my chosen profession—was, after all, what mattered. Not when or exactly how. And that, I suggest, is the truth of our most sacred stories. Not the dates, but the values and the deep understandings of the human capacity for good, evil, stupidity, intelligence, greed, generosity and faith.

Even Joseph Campbell, the great American scholar of myth, said that the fact that all religions had similar myths didn’t challenge his devout Catholicism. It meant, he said, that they were all true in a much more important sense that if they had really happened.

Bragging Rights

I am going to warn you up front: This is a pat-myself-on-the-back sort of post. I do little enough of this in my life, so I don’t feel ashamed. Just uncomfortable enough to issue a caveat emptor up front.

I was listening today, as I do whenever I think of it, to The Public Storyteller, the segment I co-host with Michael Stock on Miami, Florida, public radio station WLRN (91.3 FM). The idea of the 10-15 minute weekly segment, which airs on Michael’s 25-year-old mainstay program Folk & Acoustic Music, is to showcase the true, Florida-based stories, and the personalities, of South Florida residents or tourists. During season, when I hire storytellers from throughout the U.S. and abroad, we also include true or fictional stories from professional national storytellers who are performing in the area.

Today’s story came from an elderly stroke victim in one of the ubiquitous assisted living facilities in South Florida. She was telling the story, with a heavy French accent and a marked speech impediment, of her initiative to make dolls (70,000 so far, with the help of her fellow residents) for poor kids throughout the world. The performance was as far from slick as is imaginable. It was not easy to listen to. The storyteller would never make it to the hip New York City or L.A. Moth story slams, or its local counterparts. Yet her story literally needed to be heard. And we who benefit from the industrial entertainment complex, who spend billions of dollars to be moved, needed, I believe, to experience this story. What is more, as the late anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff wrote so eloquently more than a quarter of a century ago in her masterpiece Number Our Days about the denizens of a senior center in Venice Beach, California, even if there were no one to hear it, the elderly storyteller needed to tell her story.

“There is no greater agony,” wrote Maya Angelou, “than bearing an untold story inside you.” The Public Storyteller radio segment gives people the opportunity to share their stories, on radio and then on the web site thepublicstoryteller.org. For that, I am proud.

Similarly, the storytelling slam VOX, which I founded six years ago in Boca Raton, Florida, allows “ordinary residents,” as if there were such an animal, to tell their own stories. Again, slick, coached, well-oiled stories are not the point here. If people aged 19-90 can get up on a makeshift stage in a local cafe at 8 p.m. on a weekend night and share a scene from their lives, they can tell their story where it counts even more: in a court of law, in a town hall meeting, to a police officer. Storytelling is empowering.

It can also be good entertainment, and many of our stories are. I think of the one where a man’s efforts to get a Cuban street vendor in Miami, circa 1970s, to make iced coffee morphed into a flashback of the toast scene in “Five Easy Pieces.” Or the woman whose college age son inadvertently kidnapped two non-English speakers for Thanksgiving dinner. Then there is the exploding coconut at the outdoor sleepover.

As I tell the storytellers, this is not the stuff of major motion pictures. At least not likely. It is the stuff of life. And you don’t have to have a trained voice, or brain, to share it with the community. It’s simply how we connect, person to person, person to place.

For that, I’m proud.