Monthly Archives: November 2013

Ham for Chanukah

chanukahThe storytelling stage is increasingly filled with personal memorate, so we tellers can often be found mining our past experiences for material. I thought my childhood was pretty much played out, when, while planning a Chanukah concert, I remembered this:

From ages three to eight, I dreamed of becoming an actress. I was quite a ham, for a little Jewish girl. Randi was the shy one, the serious sister. She was three years ahead of me in school, had taught me to read, and had no great interest in standing out. I once asked Mrs. Stoddard, the school music teacher, to call her from her classroom so she could get on stage with me in the big auditorium and serenade the first grade. We sang the funny songs we used to sing together in the bathroom. I don’t think she’s ever forgiven me for that.

We lived in Long Island, New York. As Jews, we were in the vast minority in our elementary school, even though our synagogue was nearly across the street. We had no Jewish families on my block, and I had no Jewish kids in my class. It’s not that everyone was the same, however. We had a crush on our beautiful grown-up Finnish neighbor who read movie magazines and let us brush her hair, and a Russian family lived down the street. So it didn’t bother me that we were different; I just wanted to be sure to do the right thing.

The winter I was in the second grade, I asked my dad if I had to sing carols in music class. He couldn’t have cared less; he had long since left the ways of his Orthodox parents behind, and good riddance. He said no, I didn’t have to sing if I didn’t want to. So I asked my music teacher, a formidable older woman with bat wing arms and an enormous bosom, if I could just mouth the words instead. I guess I thought that would draw less attention during the month before Christmas.

Now the way I remember this is it was out of the blue and not my idea: Mrs. Stoddard asked me to get on stage and sing Chanukah songs to the school assembly. I was one of the very few altos in the grade and not a good singer; if she could have had her way, Mrs. S. probably would have had me mouth everything we sang throughout the year. But I remember being thrilled. I also remember the cute boy next door (yes, we had our requisite cute boy next door) sprawled out in the first row smiling up at me as I prepared to serenade. And I sang: Ma’oz Tsur. Dreydl, Dreydl. Mi Y’malel. I remember happily singing all the Chanukah songs I’d learned in Hebrew school both in Hebrew and English, without the slightest bit of hesitation, fear or embarrassment. It was the 1960s, and Israel had not yet even won the Six-Day War. I had not yet bought a blue-and-white Kiss Me I’m Jewish button. But I was Jewish and I was proud.

I don’t know what changed in me soon after, or why. Until this day, I have never been as comfortable expressing my Judaism to non-Jews. I get a twinge when the woman behind me sees me buy matzoh meal in the supermarket. Not to mention that it took me 30 years to feel comfortable again performing in public.

When I look back at that day, singing my little Jewish heart out in front of 100 or more kids, I wonder who that little girl was. I’d sure like to know her better.


Tis the Season

photoNo, I don’t mean that season. At least not yet, although they are already constructing the Christmas tree tent outside the local Kmart. I am referring to the South Florida tourist season, which runs roughly from October to May. This is bread-and-butter time for many of us hard-working residents, even those of us who don’t work with the tourist industry. That’s because we rely on the snowbirds, those wonderful people who grace our shores and give us work.

Here’s the thing: These days, I am telling stories and teaching about storytelling and writing about the above all the time these days. I’m talking more or less 24/7. (What I meant by that line was “I mean 24/7,” but frankly, I am talking 24/7.) And during this glorious season of work, I am finding that, indeed, it is work. 

Let me explain. I once worked at a newspaper with a very talented editor who had previously been employed as a copywriter. She told me that copywriters for Bloomingdale’s or Saks get paid a lot less than those at Walmart. This was not because Walmart was a more profitable company, but because everyone wanted to work at the elite stores, so those employers didn’t have to pay as much.

The analogy is that artists do what we need to do, what we love doing, and that is one of the reasons that employers, audiences or patrons don’t value it as much. (Of course there are exceptions: tickets to the Rolling Stones, a work by Damien Hurst, etc.) If you didn’t want to do it, the theory goes, you would be doing something else. This is soul-satisfying work, unlike churning out widgets or punching a timeclock.

And of course to a large extent that’s true. When I am feeling great and the audience is great and the stars are in perfect alignment, storytelling certainly is soul-satisfying. It is truly energizing to have all those good vibes of co-creation (what we say happens during a storytelling event) swirling around. Unfortunately, there are also times when it doesn’t all work perfectly. When the storyteller has to drive an hour to and from a gig in rush-hour traffic. When parents at a family concert interrupt your show to take photos of their darling children from the stage on which you are sitting, or speak to you from the middle of the hall in the middle of a performance. When students text in class or walk out of the room to take a call. These things happen; it’s human nature. And it makes the job harder. Enervating instead of energizing.

It also makes the job harder to have three or four gigs in a day. Am I complaining? Not about the amount of work—I’m thrilled. Like many of us in this part of the country, we rely on the busy months of season to pay for the slow months of summer. It’s just that it can be challenging, enervating work.

Yes, theoretically I could get into another line of work that is never soul-satisfying but pays the bills. But just as there are folks out there who consider themselves incapable of becoming professional performers or writers, I can’t fathom how I would do a job like theirs unless my life depended on it. Which, given the way things are going, it always could.

I’m not complaining, honestly. I’m just trying to explain.

The Magic Coat

I know it’s happened to storytellers since time immemorial, but it’s never happened to me.

I was minding my own business, sort of, performing last night at a lovely senior living facility in Boca Raton, Florida, as I do once or twice a month, to 25 people, many of whom have attended my regular performances there over the past year. The theme this time was personal storytelling. I was highlighting my public radio segment The Public Storyteller, which is celebrating its fourth anniversary this month. Over the past four years, we’ve collected about 200 personal stories, or, in folkloric terms, memorates, from South Floridians about their experiences here in the area.

I was making the point that personal storytelling connects us, how we can see the world through someone else’s eyes when we listen to their stories. How, as is said often by storytellers, “You can’t hate someone once you’ve heard her story.” So I summarized some of the most memorable stories from the Public Storyteller, and then I shared a few performance pieces from my own life. Finally I asked an audience member to tell a brief story.

One of the stories I told from my life had to do with a “magic” coat that I had had as a child. I was at that liminal state between still believing in magic, or the tooth fairy, and not. Having a fertile imagination, at age eight or so, I wasn’t quite there yet. I was also an innately religious child, which added to the reality/fantasy confusion.

Anyway, my mother was going to school at the time, so I did a fair number of chores and errands for her. I learned to make soup. (Recipe: One can of Campbell’s, one pot. Heat. Stir.) I walked down our long hill through the shortcut to the supermarket once or twice a week to pick up a few items. I cleaned the house to supplement my allowance. ($2.50 for seven rooms. What did I know? I wasn’t in a union.)

Anyway, that winter, I noticed that about once a week, when I reached into my ski jacket pocket, I found money. Sometimes it was a few coins; other times it was a couple of bills. I was shocked. My parents were frugal, and I knew they weren’t the type to give me money for no reason, particularly without telling me. But I couldn’t figure out any other explanation—unless … I was being compensated from Above for helping out my parents? What can I say, I was that kind of kid.

Anyway, without going through the entire story, I will tell you that I eventually figured out that I hadn’t been giving my mother change from the grocery shopping. When I realized that, I started handing her the money. And on that day, something inside of me, a little bit of childhood, died.

That was it: a short, simple story about the end of innocence. After the performance, however, a lovely woman who attends all my shows fairly ran up to the stage and told me that when I started telling the story, she was shocked, because … it was her story! As a child growing up poor in Michigan, SHE had a magic coat! SHE couldn’t figure out why she was getting cash in her pockets, either! In her case, however, it was her dad who was putting in a dime or a quarter.

Interestingly, she found my story very sad—which I never had. I just took it as a fact of life. On the other hand, I found her story a lovely comment on her relationship with her father. But more interestingly still, here were two women, separated by hundreds of miles (New York and Michigan) and maybe a generation or two, with such similar stories. It made us both think of Roberta Flack’s lovely old song “Killing Me Softly.” (“I felt he’d found my letters and read each one out loud.”)

But why should I be surprised? This is the human condition. And this—you guessed it—is storytelling.

Guest Blogger: Nicholas “The Storyteller” Cole

nicholasThe wise and talented long-time Florida teller Nicholas “The Storyteller” Cole recently sent me his new book called Aphorisms. (Love the cover art!) With his monk’s robes and flowing white beard, Nicholas has been a favorite at Florida Storytelling Association and other events, and in 2012 he emceed the storytelling slam and wowed the crowd with ghost stories at the Deerfield Beach Storytelling Festival.

Nicholas has been quite busy lately; his novel Ruin is now available on Amazon Kindle. I am dedicating this week’s post to those of Nicholas’ aphorisms that are most closely related to storytelling:

Language is for communication, not for seeking truth.

The blessing and the curse of a recorded story is that it stays the same.

Is my memory perfect if I cannot recall one thing that I’ve forgotten?

Art does not give me something to believe. It simply gives me things to observe that are believable.

The human brain is a story machine. It will repeat almost anything.

Just wondering: Is it love we celebrate or the stories we tell ourselves about it?

Life is simple. It is our stories about it that are complicated.

Storytelling is saying things about reality it cannot say by itself.

In stories there should be deniability; especially when they are meant to be true.

Experienced liars and storytellers have learned that they must give enough facts to capture credibility.

No one has written a really original Greek myth in ages.

It takes thought and creativity to make a story, but only one mistake to change history.

Sound bites are tricksters of language.

Do our memories belong to us, or do we belong to them?

To contact Nicholas for a gig, a book talk or just to chat, call him at 786-853-4475.