Posts categorized “Storytelling”.

Going On A Bender

My yoga card for the local gym has four punches left on it, and expires in as many days. And thus the stage is set for a showdown between my frugality and inflexibility.

This card, which I bought a little under a year ago, was my second. The first was purchased after a consultation with a weight trainer who, after evaluating my physical capabilities, told me not to darken his dumbells until I returned a little more limber. That came as no surprise, honestly, as inflexibility runs on the maternal side of my family. Even as a beanpole of a child I spent the “touch your toes” portion of gym class getting reacquainted with my kneecaps at best.

So, yoga. My gym has a “Happy Hour” session every weekday at 4:30 (so named because “Agony Hour” went over poorly with the focus group, I presume), each with a different teacher. I tried a few different days before finding an instructor with the perfect mix of patience, mercy, and amazing playlist.

The first thing I learned about yoga is that it has a profoundly screwed up incentive system. When you do something wrong, a lovely and/or handsome instructor comes over and places a hand on you and murmurs words of encouragement. If, on the other hand, you accidentally improve, you are able to more closely approximate the ideal pose, and wake up the following morning feeling like you were on the wrong end of a grapeshot cannon. The ideal strategy, I have found, is to just sort of flounder around aimlessly. In this regard I am a master strategist.

Prior to this I had only done Wii Fit yoga, which is to actual yoga what playing with a Hotwheels car is to piloting the space shuttle. The Wii Fit yoga instructor tells you to hold your pose for a mere 60 seconds, and only comments if you seem “shaky”. This is because the sole input device used by Wii Fit yoga is the balance board. Real life yoga instructors, on the other hand, can evaluate a multitude of other factors, such as whether or not you are audibly sobbing. And they make you do yoga for a full hour instead of for just 10 minutes. And “taking a breather” in the middle to drink beer and play Wii Lego Star Wars is frowned upon. It’s pretty draconian.

On the up side, “gym” yoga is not like “yoga studio” yoga, in that many of the participants are just dabblers. Even so, I have rarely seen another as inflexible as myself. In one class I was behind a woman who seemed to be struggling as much as I during the initial, limbering up exercises, and it was only when we began the routine proper, and she turned to the side, that I discovered that she was in her third or possibly fourth trimester.

Still, for all that, I eventually grew to enjoy my sessions, and got in the habit of attending every Thursday afternoon. I even used up my punchcard and purchased another. But, alas, about halfway through the second, my Thursday afternoon instructor introduced us to the “Knife In the Back” pose, by resigning from the gym and moving to California to open her own studio. BOOO TO YOU PRETTY YOGA TRAITOR LADY!

I tried a few other instructors thereafter. Some were mean (“If you’re going to make faces you may as well smile” one told me), and others employed Bad Music (one just played Sufjan Stevens’s “Illnoise” album during our session, which was fine until the phrase “cancer of the bone” rang out during the downward facing dog). Eventually I fell off the yogatic wagon altogether.

Until earlier this week, that is, when I dug out my card and found it set to expire with five boxes unpunched. And so yesterday, after six months of absenteeism, I returned to Happy Hour Yoga … only to discover that Tuesdays are now the “core workout” session. As I have the core strength of a bundt cake, and will sooner become the Secretary of the Agriculture before planking for longer than a handful of seconds, it Did Not Go Well.

At least the instructor constantly urged us to “tighten your stomach muscles”. This is the functional equivalent of “sucking in your gut”, something I habitually do in yoga class unbidden, so I was pleased to discover that there is one maneuver I can perform flawlessly.

One down, four punches to go. Hopefully they won’t all feel like they were delivered to my midsection.

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Tradition

This morning at Starbucks I ordered a latte grande with a shot of vanilla. I was pleased that I remembered to say “grande”; I usually say “big” and then receive an impromptu lecture on Starbucks sizing nomenclature.

I did not, however, remember to specify the potency, and so hastily added, “a double”. The achingly young barista smiled and chirpily replied, “duh!”

I was little irritated, of course. But I was also filled with pride, that my generation’s method of mocking the elderly is still employed by the youth of today.

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Putting the I in Story

I worked as a customer service rep at Amazon in the late 90s, at the same time as Mike Daisey. I don’t think he and I ever interacted one-on-one, but I knew who he was, saw him around the ol’ cube farm, and received the emails he periodically sent to the department, alerting us to upcoming performances by his improv group.

After he left Amazon, Daisey created a one-man show called “21 Dog Years”, which documented his zany adventures with the company. A book soon followed, and I have harbored a petty grudge against him ever since. He had the initiative to do the thing we’d all fantasized about (i.e., turn our experience with Amazon into a book deal), and that made me resentful. You know how that goes (or don’t, and are a better person than I).

A lot of my coworkers saw “21 Dog Years”, and most enjoyed it. Some thought it was great. But the consensus was that it was “truthy” at best, a slurry of his actual experiences, exaggeration for comedic effect, some good stories he’d heard from others cast into the first person, and maybe a little bunkum.

In 2001 when he spoke about the show with the Seattle Weekly (which was on a weird anti-Amazon jihad at the time), the interview contained this exchange:

Seattle Weekly: How much did you really deal with Jeff, and have you heard anything from former co-workers about his reaction to the show?

Daisey: I saw Jeff all the time, almost every day.

I worked like 100 meters from Daisey, and saw Bezo maybe three times in as many years. Like I said: truthy.

In the context of an interview, “I saw Jeff all the time” is a lie, plain and simple. But if Daisey said the same thing on stage as part of “21 Dog Years”, I wouldn’t have objected. I guess I agree with Daisey when he says that the tools of theater are different than the tools of journalism.

And although I and others were irritated at some of the “facts” Daisey got wrong in “21 Dog Years”, it seemed okay that the monologue took liberties with the truth, even if he didn’t state as much. After all, no one thought that all of the workplace events recounted by David Sedaris in “Santaland Dairies” were literally true, and that story was everywhere. Heck, it had even appeared on everyone’s favorite radio show, “This American Life”.

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So where did Daisey go wrong with this whole Foxconn debacle?

For me, the key clue comes not from the This American Life Retraction episode (although there are plenty of damning moments in there), but from a February appearance Daisey made on “Real Time with Bill Maher”. It’s at the two minute, 35 seconds mark of this Youtube clip:

Daisey: People work on that line tirelessly, hour after hour until they drop. I met people who were–

Maher: Until they drop?

Daisey They drop. A worker at Foxconn died after working a 34 hour shift …

And here there’s the slightest of pauses, as if Daisey has reached the end of the statement. But then he adds, almost mechanically:

Daisey: .. while I was in China.

A worker did indeed die after a 34 hour shift. But the truth of this fact isn’t enough for Daisey; he has to then attach to it some connection, however tenuous, to himself. A Chinese man didn’t just die; he died while Daisey was in China.

Of course if Daisey wasn’t actually in China at the time of the death, his statement, as a whole, becomes false. And this is what appears to have happened with a lot of the “facts” of the Foxconn story, facts that were true until Daisey digitally inserted himself into the narrative. Foxconn has employed underage workers (true), but Daisey didn’t meet five of them on his first day. Workers were poisoned by n-Hexane (true), but Daisey didn’t meet them either. Someone Daisey spoke with had a “ruined hand” (true, according to the interpreter), but the man never worked at Foxconn (the company Daisey was specifically investigating). Even the lie that the Foxconn guards had guns is only interesting in juxtaposition to the picture of a rogue American in Hawaiian shirt, boldly striding toward the gates of the factory.

It’s tempting to ascribe this to a kind of megalomania on the part of Daisey, to speculate that he lives in a world where everything must ultimately be about him. But speaking as someone who has dabbled in storytelling a bit, I can tell you that there is another explanation.

The easiest way to make a story engaging is to personalize it, to say “this is something that happened to me”. Everyone knows this on some level. Urban legends happen to “a friend of a friend” because, just by adding that phrase, you have made the story twice as interesting as one that happened to someone to whom you have no link at all. And be honest: would you even have read this post if I hadn’t opened with my personal connection with Daisey?

“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey says in the Retraction episode. Well, personalization is the ultimate shortcut from uninteresting fact to gripping yarn. It is like fairy dust for storytellers: you sprinkle it on your anecdotes, and they sparkle.

It’s a kind of magic, to borrow a phrase. And it is very, very seductive.

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One last observation.

The Retraction episode of This America Life is some of the most gripping radio I’ve ever heard. But you know what would have made it even more interesting? If Rob Schmitz, the reporter from Marketplace who ruthlessly grilled Daisey, had done so with Ira Glass as well. “You said that when Daisey didn’t provide contact info for his translator, you should have killed the show. And yet you didn’t. Why?”

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Fight the Power Windows

A cop pulled me over on my way to work this morning.

“You aren’t wearing your seat belt,” he said after approaching my window. “Did you just forget?”

“No officer, I was raging against the machine using the only mechanism available to a 40-year-old middle-manager in an SUV,” I replied but not really.

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And Then There Were Nine

The little finger on my right hand still hurts, more than a week after I bent it backward in a sledding accident. I am beginning to think I should see a doctor. But, when they ask “reason for visit”, I don’t know if I can bring myself to say “pinky”.

Also, if it atrophies and falls off, I am totally going to tell people I was in the Yakuza. This possibility is factoring into my decision more than it probably should.

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Early Daze

I was sitting at the table and surfing the web when I remembered that I had been making coffee. Trying to determine the cause of the delay I glanced across the room and saw that I had neglected to turn on the burner. As I rose and walked over to the stove I noticed that I had also forgotten to put the kettle on the burner. As I lifted the kettle to do so I discovered I hadn’t put water in it yet. As I was filling up the kettle from the tap I became aware of the french press sitting on the counter nearby, half-full and warm. It was then that remembered that I had, some ten minutes prior, made coffee, let it steep, poured myself a cup, added milk and sugar, and placed it on the table next to the laptop, where it currently resided.

So, yeah. That kind of morning.

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How Disease Works

I am an occasional storyteller at Seattle’s A Guide to Visitors and, late last year, participated in one of their “Best Of” shows. Shortly thereafter I was contacted by B. Frayn Masters, who asked if I would come to Portland and for a similar event that she hosts, a series I knew nothing about called Back Fence PDX. Because Frayn and I have been friends for twenty years, and because I am magnanimous to a fault, I agreed to lend my star-power to her adorable little show, with its audience of presumably no more than a dozen people, composed entirely of family members and devoted friends of the storytellers.

The theme of the evening was “Our Bodies, Ourselves”. Frayn and I spoke several times by phone regarding my story and, in perhaps our third conversation, she mentioned the venue, the Portland Center Stage. “We don’t usually have it there,” she told me, “but we had to get a larger theater for this audience, considering its size.”

“Oh really?” I said, mentally revising my attendance projections to a score or more. “How many people do you expect?”

“Well, the first 800 tickets were gone in a few hours,” she replied, “although we’ve got some more in reserve.”

Oh. Oh my. I have never done anything in front on a crowd even a quarter of that size, outside of anxiety dreams.

Fortunately I arrived onstage very well prepared. By which I mean that the storytellers received complementary beer, and I helped myself to several before it was my turn in front of the horde.

Another storyteller was a gentleman by the name of Arthur Bradford. Ten years ago Mr. Bradford made a small independent film called “How’s Your News”, which I loved and raved about on defective yeti. And Authur remembered this because, at the time, my review was one of the few accounts of his movie available on the web. It was a total moment, he and I realizing all this as we chatted before the show.

I had to go on stage immediately after that performance. Sucks to be me!

The last story of the evening was told by Lauren Weedman, who’s like a bigshot fancypants real life actress, with an IMDB page and eveything. If you watch only one of these videos it should be this one, unless you suffer from Sudden Onset Laughter Induced Death Syndrome, in which case avoid.

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Shoe Fits

I went to a concert. One of the roadies was nicknamed “Whitey”. I know this because, while he was working on the stage between sets, someone in the back of the venue shouted “Hey Whitey!” and every single person at the Built to Spill show turned around.

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My Diet and Exercise Plan

  1. Walk briskly to cafeteria at lunchtime.
  2. Purchase large salad and roll.
  3. Eat roll while walking back to office.
  4. Throw salad away untouched at the end of the work day.
  5. Find self inexplicably hungry in evening and order pizza.

It really works–in January alone I got rid of nearly 8 pounds! Of salad!!

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Icebreakers

I went to my 7 o’clock dental appointment this morning, only to discover that the hygienist assigned to me was AWOL. The rest of the staff was fluttering around in a panic without her. Finally the actual DDS came in to take care of me, but he lacked many of her core competencies, foremost among them the ability to make distracting small talk while scraping tarter. His opening gambit was, “So uhhhh … So uh how is, how is summer treating you so far?”

Speaking of terrible openers, “if I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?”–a classic pickup line that has been successfully deployed exactly zero times in the history of mankind–has been slightly reworded (presumably to avoid charges of plagiarism from Larry Dallas) and pressed into service as the chorus of this new and dreadful pop song:

I look forward to the other singles from this album, including “Should I Call You in The Morning or Nudge You?” and “Do You Want to Go Back to My Dorm Room and See My Record Collection But You Know if You Don’t Want to That’s Totally Cool (ft. Timbaland)”.

(And no, this is not kneejerk hatin’ on Britney Spears–the track is well and truly awful. Even this song is better, by an order of magnitude. And anyway, I didn’t even know Spears was the artist until I went looking for the video on Youtube. My default assumption was Weird Al.)

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