At work the other day I was telling a story. I really wish I’d had a tape recorder, had been listening to the exchange more closely, but I was in the moment and started laughing and didn’t think about it as a blog episode, so I missed an opportunity. I will try to recreate the idea of it with the scenario below:
MISS O’: [tells story about my father and mother and a humorous episode, for example]
A.K.: [interrupting] But you don’t think that maybe your father was trying to show your mom the opposite?
MISS O’: [beat, looks at him] A.K., this is my story. A story I’m telling.
A.K.: Well, but maybe…
MISS O’: Why are you well-butting my story?
MISS O’: “Well, but …” You weren’t there. I was there. It’s my story. It’s not a political debate, a question of right or wrong, or an issue of policy for discussion. It’s a goddamned story. And it’s mine.
[And just when I’m done having my authorial authority questioned…]
A.K.: I’m just saying that maybe there was another interpretation of what your father did.
[Colleague M.M. turns around, where A.K. cannot see her, and looks at him; she is laughing, looks at me, shaking her head.]
MISS O’: It’s my story.
MISS O’: We’re done here.
A.K.: I still think…
[MISS O’ turns around to her work. And scene.]
I have to tell you, I don’t understand Well-Butters, which is my name for those listeners who demand input into another’s personal narrative arcs. My mom is a well-butter, my dad isn’t. My mom is not a storyteller, and my dad is a great one. Well-butters, in my experience, are not only not so great at being storytellers (that said, the above-mentioned colleague is a comic genius), they are listeners who see their job not as to enjoy a tale so much as to fix it, to edit it, to correct your telling. My mom is famous for this. All I can ever say is, “Mom, you weren’t there. I’m telling you what I experienced.” She always argues. “Mom, seriously, you weren’t there. You really can’t correct this.” She tunes out utterly, so bent is she on showing you how you are misunderstanding something she didn’t even witness, that you give up. So as a result, I really only tell my life stories to my dad, because he understands storytelling: The basic rule is that you accept the premise the teller establishes. Now, storytelling is not debate, not argument, not about right and wrong and remarks supported by fact-checkers. Storytelling is an art form about entertainment, revelations, character development, surprise. It’s FUN, is what I’m saying.
Here’s my take on my mom telling a story. This short film (less than 2 minutes) is by Lisa DiPetto (animation) and Jodi Chamberlain (filming and editing):
This is not to dismiss my mom (or colleague A.K.) up there. What she is good at is detecting. Smart, well-read, and insightful (and deeply ethical), she would be a great detective. If stories were mysteries to be solved, and the teller was rather inept at making connections between incidents, Mom would be able to draw the lines and connect those dots. It’s what made her good at cryptography, her job in the Navy, and what draws her to read detective fiction. Her childhood dream was to be an archaeologist.
As Sherlock Holmes might say, “I do not know; I notice.” But Sherlock, for all his gifts, cannot easily factor in human nature. The difference between a person who only sees and person who also listens—I’m conflating hearing and instinct here, and I’ll get into this more—is the difference between someone who judges and someone who perceives. Both kinds of skills are necessary, but I suspect what has happened in our culture is that too many people, while having developed their visual sense, have neglected their ears (and inner voices). I suspect many of us fear our inner voices, fear quiet. How did this happen? And what are we missing?
Silence Your Phones
Bread Loaf, my graduate school in Vermont, had a moratorium on noise-making appliances. Set as it was in a valley high in the Green Mountains, sound reverberated like mad, so any extra noise could really distract this enclave of deep readers and committed writers. Back in 1990, when I started, this ban was pretty clear: No radios or televisions. Electric typewriters were okay. Cell phones didn’t exist. Computers had black screens with green type, really a giant typewriter. Professors urged you to eschew newspapers: “Be here. Fill the well. All the world’s problems will still be there when you get back.” There were also no locks on the doors. Heaven. (Today with Internet, forget it: You no longer get to escape from the rest of the world for six whole weeks, plus all the doors have to lock because of the laptops, and in my view it’s a goddamned shame.)
Once, about two weeks into my first summer there, my new friend George drove me and our new friend Jeannie way out into the forest, up a long dirt mountain road (most of the roads in Vermont are unpaved, and I can’t tell you how much I love that); it was around eleven at night; we got out of the truck and took a short hike up a trail, and we were high up, at the border on the mountain called tree line, because trees can’t grow past that altitude. He instructed us to lie down, and to keep still. And he raped us.
I kid! (WTF kind of blog is this?)
What we did was, we all three lay down under these very few pines and kept still. Okay: You know how you think it’s completely silent where you are, and then you gradually start to become aware of sound? If you are inside it may be the hum of a fridge or the ticking of a clock. Outside, you might hear an airplane, crickets, wind through leaves. As we lay there, minutes passed—many of them—and that gradual noise awareness? It never happened. I started to giggle. And then tear up: It was breezeless that night; too high up for insects to live, so there was no sound for them to make. No birds. No planes, no cars, no voices. We all even held our own breaths to keep them silent. Lying on the ground of a Vermont mountain in total darkness and perfect stillness next to two people who would come to be among my dearest friends, during a summer that was about to change my life and I knew it—it remains the most perfect half hour of my life. The quiet had everything to do with it.
Quiet Endangered: Take Out the Noise
People study sound, and more of us need to be paying attention to sound. The issue of HUMAN noise is the big one. We create so much noise in our environment that it is drowning out what is natural. Here is one man’s take, which I read a couple of years ago in a print-only magazine, The Sun, out of Chapel Hill, N.C.:
“Gordon Hempton believes there may be fewer than a dozen places left in the United States—and none at all in Europe—where you can sit for twenty minutes during the day without hearing a plane fly over or some other noise from human activity. An acoustic ecologist, Hempton has traveled the globe for more than twenty-five years recording the vanishing sounds of nature—from the songbird chorus that greets the dawn to the crash of waves on a rocky shore; from the bugle call of elk in a mountain meadow to the drip of rain on a forest floor. He reports that the average daytime noise-free interval in our wilderness areas and national parks has shrunk to less than five minutes.”
—from “Quiet Please: Gordon Hempton On The Search For Silence In A Noisy World” by Leslie Goodman, The Sun, Issue 417, September 2010, p. 5.
My friend Howard at work asked once, pointing to an air conditioner vent that was whirring and driving us mad above our pod on the 21st Floor here in NYC, “Why do machines have to make noise? Seriously, I don’t understand it. Why can’t someone design a refrigerator or a car or a lawn mower that makes no noise? You can’t tell me that it can’t be done.” I was at first tempted to laugh, but then I heard what he meant. Why DO human things have to make so much noise?
The other day a friend of mine posted this excerpt of a TED Talk on Facebook. Julian Treasure’s expertise is hearing, and this 10-minute excerpt discusses the need for audio architects, people who realize that restaurants should not only look nice, but also be conducive to quiet talk. His point is that all the noise is making us crazy.
The senses of sight and hearing are really important, and being without one or the other, or both, makes life extremely hard (she said obviously), but not impossible. Living things adapt to almost anything (except, and rightly, to replacement referees in the NFL), and so we often take our senses for granted. The price of never being or having quiet may be higher than we can imagine. Personally, as I type this blog on a morning in Queens, I am hearing—all in a distance—a saw going in a shop or garage; a leaf blower; banging as from a hammer; traffic, like ocean waves, on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway about half a mile east; a bus engine; a dweet-dweet of a siren; male voices, several; passing cars, relentlessly passing. A squeak of breaks.
Oh, and our apartment doors are getting a much-needed renovation—a guy who restores church doors is doing it, that’s how old and unusual these things are. Here’s the door stripped, inside and out:
Door in Queens, Refinishing Project, Two Views (Sans Noise)
Right now a guy is finishing the sanding and making room for a bigger mail slot (don't say it), replacing rotten molding, and prepping for the staining. So that’s some noise, too, from my hallway.
This noise of New York does not pause even for a moment, in that it will never be quiet for a second of the entire day (excepting a brief two minutes at around 4:20 A.M., when the bars have been shut down for twenty minutes, and sometimes not even then). Because of heavy cloud cover today, the noise is even more present, held in as by a tent roof. I have to make a decision NOT to hear it, which is hard right now because in describing it for you I had to listen to it. (Damn you, Reader!) But—there's an airplane—it’s the price of living in New York City. One of many prices, mostly worth it.
The Art of Listening
I moved to New York to write and perform, so I put up with a lot, obviously, to do it. One of the things that makes me a writer and a performer is my ability to listen. (Miss O’ imagines the reader saying, “Yeah, I guess she listens, right after the moment—whenever that moment is—when she shuts the fuck UP.” Thanks. You are not wrong.) I have a lot of inspirations for my desire to perform and to develop my ability to tell stories, and I know you are itching to know what more of those might be, because GOD knows Miss O’ hasn’t told you ENOUGH about her life. My dad is probably the biggest influence, as he loves music, stories, and comedy, does all these things well, and we always watched TV shows featuring these things, as well as old movies. My mom, too, loves great performances and has a terrific sense of humor. (Note: A "sense of humor" is only truly present if you can laugh at yourself, and not only laugh, but lead the laughter. If I couldn't do that, I'd have died of shame years ago.) One of our family favorites was Dean Martin, and my dad does one of the best impressions of Martin I’ve heard. For no reason except that the energy in the house may need a boost, my dad will break into a boozy, “Everybody loves somebody sometime…” and we all crack up. (And if we don’t, he beats us.) He and I will imitate ol' Dean or Frank Sinatra when we sing songs around the house when I visit, just as we did when I was a kid, including songs as they might have done them: “I was born this way....” Yes, this is normal. Jesus.
Everybody Loves Dean Martin Sometime
Because of the miracle of technology, I can still love watching Dean Martin. For you kids out there, Dean Martin started out as a singer in the 1950s who teamed up with “comedian” Jerry Lewis, and if you don’t know this, Martin and Lewis were bigger than The Beatles in the 1950s, mostly because The Beatles didn’t exist. But what I mean is, that’s the closest analogy. Martin was the handsome straight man, Lewis the antic goofball, and they made a bunch of movies together, all of which I personally find irritating to watch. Finally, Dino (his nickname) had had enough, left the act, and found his true happy calling doing singing and comedy as part of a Vegas act with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. (Known to us as The Rat Pack, they actually called themselves The Clan (according to Shirley MacLaine, who was a member), the Rat Pack being (no kidding) what a group of Hollywood actors, led by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, called themselves. But The Rat Pack just sounded cooler to the press.) This group made entertainment history, which people know about only if they got to see them perform live in Las Vegas, which means most of us will only hear the stories. However, thanks to the miracle that is YouTube, we are in luck!
I see a hand back there.
“First, what the fuck does this have to do with listening, Miss O’? And for two, do any of these guys show their tits?”
Reader, all will be revealed! Except for their tits.
What Dean Martin did that I love so much was listen. (See? The link!) For all his gifts, the talent that served him best, I think, was the talent to listen, which gave him comic abilities far beyond most performers. The secrets to comedy are 1) timing and 2) delivery. And 3) timing. Watch any clip of him from television programs of the 1960s and 1970s—from a Celebrity Roast or a sketch on a variety show or a stint chatting it up with Johnny Carson—and you see a terrific actor whose schtick was to chain smoke and be a drunk screw-up (you only have to watch how easily he shifts from song to pratfall to joke, to returning so fully committed to the song that you forget he just fell down “drunk,” to realize he’s acting), and to play trickster while his friends performed. During a Sinatra song Dean might interrupt from a backstage mike, singing another of Sinatra’s hits, causing Frank to break up, but still keep going; or bringing on a drink cart after Sammy or Frank finishes a set. He was so good at being playful without ruining anything because he listened so well. He could feel how to time his antics. Here’s that marvelous special on YouTube from 1965, featuring Johnny Carson as host of a benefit for a half-way house in St. Louis, featuring The Rat Pack.
It’s that interplay, the real connection you see—beautifully rehearsed but loose enough so as not to seem rehearsed—that I grow nostalgic for. At one point in the Sinatra set, after some funny Dean interruptions, Frank launches into “You Make Me Feel So Young,” which is not the greatest song ever, but Sinatra catches something in the song, and it’s sublime—it brought tears to my eyes, so ON was he on that song at this event; he knows it, and Dean knows it. No one gets in the way. After the performance finishes, and the audience goes nuts, Dean says over the mike, “Do it until you get it right!” (That moment is a perfect way to explain why live performance, done repeatedly, is fun, because you never know when you will really DO it right.) Dean Martin knew how to keep the balls floating in the air. The whole special is great.
Here’s another example of Dean Martin on his show, with young Bob Newhart doing a famous routine that was really a solo from his act, made into a two-hander. Martin gets so caught up in listening to Newhart, he can’t stop laughing. Again, this is why live work is so much fun. Perfection is overrated. Being present is really more fun.
I’d wanted to avoid politics today, but there is an important political element to all this. Curiously, it’s linked to reading. (I can't help being my teacher self.)
Listening to Lexiles
Reading education is going through a time of what I’d call quantification over engagement. Politicians aren’t so much interested in what a reading selection has to offer a child in terms of ideas, language, inspiration, or information, so much as how highly each selection scores in terms of readability. A book’s “readability” can be quantified, which is to say, given a “grade level” of “difficulty” based on factors a computer program can determine. These factors, in my educational publishing experience, boil down to one thing: Sentence length (including punctuation). Vocabulary is sort of a factor, but my experience is that making words easier or harder (a judgment based on scores from professional word study sources such as Harris-Jacobsen) doesn’t significantly alter a Lexile score. (Quick Tip: Want to start a business? Make up a quantifier racket.)
According to the new Common Core Standards, a 5th grader should be reading texts that fall within a Lexile range of roughly 750 to 950. The biggest difficulty when building a new reading program (which I just helped to do over the past two years—it’s out now) was finding really good literature and expository texts that had high enough scores, but were still kid-friendly, or low enough scores but were still challenging and interesting. What does this mean? For reference, here are the Lexile scores for some of America’s most treasured classic literature:
Teachers are being expected to use these scores, and only these scores (in some cases) to choose literature. And this is stupid. So why score a text? The idea—and it’s not without merit—is that the score means a kid at the determined grade level should be able to comprehend 75% of the text with ease. The trouble comes when other factors, including subject matter, themes, and explicit language, are in the mix but not included in the scoring. Here are some text scores to consider:
- The Scarlet Letter is as hard as you remember, and not taught until late in high school for a reason: 1420
- The Grapes of Wrath (at 680) is too low for fifth grade—do you hear me? Too LOW— but my god, really, with fourth graders I am going to read this?
- The Catcher in the Rye would be too low even for middle schoolers (980), but the coming-of-age shocks of the text make it an older teenager’s novel. Still, it’s not a hard book to read, and yet it scores higher than Steinbeck and Hemingway. (See below.)
- Of Mice and Men, at 630, too, is too low for grade 5. In fact, it’s a grade 3 Lexile score, so technically you can’t teach it to high schoolers if you are doing the Common Core, except that it’s recommended. Someone didn’t read the Lexile, or else a SMART person realized that the number is, really, a number.)
- Even A Farewell to Arms is almost too low for Grade 5, at 730. It’s all those easy Hemingway sentence-lengths, but seriously, what nine-year-old is going to get the World War I issues or the themes?
So we don’t teach those things to elementary school kids. Now let’s look at some age-appropriate literature for kids, and see how they score:
The first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, comes in at 880, the hardest one is 940, just at Grade 5 Lexile, even though the books are really intended for 12- to 17-year-olds. (Most of my friends’ kids had breezed through all the Potters by the time they were ten, though.) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle is 740, and is recommended for third graders (though the protagonist is in middle school). I bring up these two books because Harry Potter came out when I was 33, and I didn’t read the L’Engle books until I was in my late 20s (I just hadn't known about it), but I loved them all. I also love Jane Eyre. And anything by Dr. Seuss, who wrote texts for very young readers. What I mean is, great reading material should not be determined solely by a number—what does the author have to say, is the point—isn’t it?
Good teachers arrange by theme, and great teachers figure out the themes, or at least the approach to those themes, by listening to the room. This is not unlike what great performers have to do, if they want to enhance a live program with spontaneity and electric energy. The whole Lexile thing is, partly, political, to satisfy the quantity-obssessed.
(Speaking of politics, and everything is political, baby, yes, even the Rat Pack (especially the Rat Pack): In the video up there, about 25 minutes in, watch how black entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.—this being 1965 and among an all-white audience in an only recently integrated theater world (he alludes to the black theater that had been recently torn down, a city milestone)—has to ingratiate, thank, and bow, all the while feeling out the room to see how far he can go, where he can take the humor and complications of his real life as a black performer in America of 1965. It’s startling where he goes, especially for that time, and funny, in the best sense, in that it's really human. Imagine rating performers based on a kind of Lexile score, a score that supposedly tells you whether or not you'll "get it." It's just wrong, isn't it?)
So I was thinking today about how so many people do not listen, do not know how to listen, to read the facts, hear the voices, and decide for themselves. There’s a lot of noise, for one thing. And everyone is plugged into one device or another, of course. So how do we stop with all the pyrotechnics? (In the Rat Pack video, it’s just a simply lit stage, four guys performing, and two orchestras (the black Basie Band and the white orchestra—very curious), and crude cameras. That’s it, and it’s all you need. Is a singer better for having an expensively produced extravaganza? Personally, I’d rather experience Adele than Madonna. But that's me.)
Listen (Shh!) To What the Flower People Say
People who, when they question you, change the question or change the subject after you explain your position using facts, are prime exemplars of people who don’t listen. Many folks like this claim to want to quantify everything, to want to know, above all other things, exactly where all the money is going and precisely how it’s being spent. These same people (who often also profess to believe in God) often say they prefer a world where all things are quantified, judged by test scores and Lexile scores, not understanding that dollar amounts, test scores, and Lexile scores are only as good as their uses.
People like me who love science, evidence, and facts, are yet comfortable leaving space for improvisation, being in the moment, running on gut instinct. So what about instinct? Why does Miss O’ seem to be accepting of some people’s instincts (Dean Martin’s timing, a teacher’s choice of reading material based on theme over Lexile score, for example), and criticize the instincts of other people (God-fearing deniers of climate science, lovers of certain white male executive branch candidates)?
It’s about meaning. It’s about stakes. It’s about outcomes.
Major climate scientists say the earth is heating up. (http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/warming-links.html) The outcome of the earth overheating is that as ice melts sea levels will rise, and heavily populated coastal areas will be under threat; a lot is at stake, and what is at stake is tangible. It seems to me we’d better pay attention to that science, and yet too many Americans deny this science. By contrast, these same Americans rally around “test scores” (and God), and often (in my experience, when pressed by me) know nothing of how such tests are generated, given, or scored, but still want them, even as they they attend church to get into a heaven they can only trust is waiting for them. Why this dichotomy? I chalk it up to fear of the stakes.
What’s at stake in test scores, real world-wise? Well, nothing. Test scores in the abstract don’t determine education, don’t shatter temperature records, or cause crop damage, or threaten the fresh water supply. The same people who demand these tests, however, will emphatically, fanatically deny climate science, which is supported with scads of evidence for all to read and see (every day on Earth in lived life, and in publications such as Discover magazine). And these folks fight it wildly. In fact, when you Google “climate science,” it’s denial articles that come up first: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2012/07/23/deniers-disgust-and-defamation/) And yet tangible and huge consequences come out of the very real science. I have to tell you, I don't understand all the paradoxes that believers live with, and I also know believers who feel the same about my hard science/gut instinct paradox. And in the end, we all trust in things we cannot see, don't we?
Now, For the Love of Fuck, What?
Let’s review: A performer sets up the playlist, but if he hears the crowd is restless with ballads, he has to know he may have to do some schtick, take a drink, drag off the ciggie, joke with the band. Would he be more of a professional by sticking to the playlist, staying exactly with the plan? No, he wouldn’t be professional at all, but rather only a robot. By contrast, is a politician patriotic or professional or even creating truth by telling the same lies over and over and over again, more loudly and insistently and on television commercials? Of course not. Such a politician is relying on voters who do not listen, never have listened, and will be goddamned if they are going to start listening now!
I really think that our survival-and-thrival (my own word!) comes down to our ability to listen. And to research. And to consider. (Here's a question: When people present you with information, how many of you check multiple sources to verify it? It's so easy with Google, but research is a habit of mind that must be cultivated and practiced. While my mom isn't a great audience for stories all the time, she is astonishing at research. "Look it up!" is her battle cry, and always investigate the source.) Numbers only tell one story. Climate scientists and the government have to read the data, talk about solutions and implications, and be able to respond to the problems while also taking the emotional pulse of the populace. Test scores do not measure a whole kid or her abilities, imagination, talents, and insights. Teachers have to be allowed the flexibility to use multiple measures of student success, to listen and respond to each kid where he is.
Just so, only when performers have a (well-rehearsed and present) good time can the audience have a (spontaneous) good time. Only when believers hold their faiths without fear of the tangible world is compassion possible. To keep our collective energy up, we have to listen and respond, stay present. Quit well-butting. Accept the premise. Sometimes.
This evening, I’m going to set some laundry to spin in a washer, and then in a dryer, and in between I’ll wheel a cart up to the grocery store, and try to forget I have Internet. Watch swiftly-moving clouds in the sky. Clear the old bean.
We have to listen, is what I’m saying. And first we have to shut out the noise.
Lake George by Quinn, September 2012.
Quiet. Till the next speed boat comes by.
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