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This past year, I’ve spent a fair amount of time working with students in classroom settings trying to figure out how quickly I can get them up and telling a story. I’ve talked about some experiments in earlier posts. What strikes me over and over again is the difference between the word on the page and the word as it is spoken. When emerging readers read a story, it is very difficult for them to get those words off the page, into their heads, and then speak the story in their own language. This difficulty is something I’ve observed time and time again, and it seems to me this translation – into an image, and then through some alchemical process, into the speaker’s own language – is at the heart of a complete literacy and fluency with both kinds of language – oral and written. Children live in an oral world, and are making the transition to the world of literacy and it’s not an easy one to make.

I might add that as a storyteller who has passed my literacy tests (well, okay, I haven’t, but think I could if it was mandated, which it’s not) , I still have a very difficult time lifting a story off the page and making it my own. Many times I’ve read a story that I like and want to tell, but my performance of it always falls flat – it’s not alive yet. Then, sometimes, I hear someone tell the story, and I know how to do it. It’s my hearing the story that brings it to life.

I had a recent conversation with storyteller Donald Davis about this, and Donald observed that young readers are reading words, and that’s what they see when they’re trying to tell the story – the words they read, not the pictures in their heads. When they hear a story, they don’t see the words, they see the pictures. That makes sense to me. A lot of times, when I’m first learning a story from a page, I actually can picture where on the page that particular part of the story is – I’m stuck with the words, not the images.

But I continue to be fixated on the notion that if I could just get the kid to tell the story using images, not words, something is accomplished. Developing orality is important at any age, and contributes to literacy. And I’ve noticed that, like me, when kids hear me tell a story, it is exponentially easier for them to tell it themselves. Again, Donald observes this is because they have the images in their heads. More than that, though, I think that there is an affective component – the emotional impact of the story is greater when someone is telling it, and that’s where stories have a particular power – they’re both affective and cognitive. Emotional events have meaning, and meaning lodges in someone’s mind and heart.

So, back to my original question – how do I get a kid up and telling a story as quickly as possible?

In February, I was in Utah being filmed working with kids on storytelling. I came up with a process to try and get them telling as quickly as possible, so we could then work on their delivery and performance They were fifth graders, and responded stunningly well. Since then, I’ve used it effectively all the way down to second grade, with some slight modifications. Here’s the steps I used.

1) The teacher (storyteller) tells a story with a straightforward plot and clear episodes. Note that I say “tells”. This requires that the teacher learn the story and can tell it simply without the aid of a book. It might work as a reading exercise, but it’s the actual oral narrative – with no intermediary of the written word – that will facilitate the learning of the story. Tell the story simply – for the purposes of the exercise, a story five minutes long (or even slightly less) is good.

2) In the group, afterwards, have the group reconstruct the steps of the story. As each incident is recounted, write the events up on a whiteboard or flip chart in short simple sentences. Each event/scene should be captured in one sentence – don’t worry about small details – only the ones that are absolutely crucial to the story. The question, “What happens next?” is the prompt that leads to this simple outline.

3) Briefly go over the outline after it’s finished to help fix it in the student’s minds.

4) Have students pair off and let each person tell the story to their partner. If the teller gets stuck, they may get help from either the chart or a short prompt by their partner. When the first teller finishes, their partner then tells the story. Their telling will likely take longer than the teacher’s recounting.

5) Get back together in the group and debrief. Ask about what was easy and what was hard. Ask whose partner told the story well, and what they did that made it interesting. You will find some children are already experimenting with the story.

6) Give up your seat by the story chart, and ask for a volunteer to start the story, letting them take the “storytelling seat”. I find that sitting, initially, is a little easier and produces a more natural performance. Let that person start the story, and at a natural break (using the outline as a guide) ask for a volunteer to take over. Initially, look for a confident student (they’ll volunteer). If you know the students, you may encourage shyer students to try as the story progresses. You may gently guide the tellers if they need help or forget something.

7) When the joint performance is done, ask for a volunteer who thinks they can tell the story all the way through. Help them through the story. Discuss with the group what they liked about the telling.

This exercise will take 40 to 45 minutes. By the end they will have gone over the story (at least in outline) seven times, and will have it firmly in mind. Different approaches to performance will also begin to emerge.

Through all the years of telling stories, I’ve been only more and more convinced that if a kid can stand up in front of someone and tell a story, they’re going to be okay. I still believe it. This is one way to make it happen.

Any other ideas?

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NARAS, the Grammy organization announced a couple of weeks ago that they were getting rid of a number of categories for the Grammy awards. One of them was Spoken Word for Children, which I have won twice and which I was nominated for this year. Spoken word recordings will now be included in the Best Children’s recording category. A lot of people have asked me how I feel about it, and I’ve been giving it some thought.

The short answer is I wasn’t surprised. There are a lot of categories, and there aren’t a lot of submissions for Children’s Spoken Word category. It is one of the reasons I ever had a chance to be nominated, let alone win. So, on one hand, it’s understandable, I kind of saw it coming, and I have been lucky to be there at all.

But it’s a very complicated issue and trying to separate all the elements of it is pretty difficult. It’s almost impossible for me to be objective about it. Let me try to identify a couple of strands of issues

The first thing is that children’s spoken word has been kind of a catch-all, and the people who make the decisions are probably aware of this. Historically, it’s dominantly been people reading books. In the past fifteen years, people like me who have called themselves storytellers, working with oral narrative, not necessarily with a written script, have gotten nominated. This is an apples and oranges thing, and I view my oral narrative as an art form, different from a reading of the written word. But that is a pretty subtle point to make for people who don’t pay attention. Also, there’s no doubt that it is also a category that people have entered because it seemed like a good place to get a Grammy – fewer nominees, and many of them (me, for instance) not household names. It’s an awkward thing, but I usually found myself up against a franchised character, or someone everyone knows who thought it would be great to make a children’s recording. The same thing happens in the Children’s Music category.

Along with this problem of what exactly a spoken word recording is (anything with people talking 51% of the time), there is the nature of the Grammy process. Anyone who’s a member can vote in the categories they want. A big list comes out in November, people vote where they want, and there are finalists. In each category, interested members can vote for one of five finalists. There is no proof that anyone listens to anything. NARAS asks that recordings be listened to and judged solely on their merit. But the truth is, it is often a beauty contest – you vote for who you know, and while lobbying and outright promotion is supposedly forbidden, everyone has their lists of people who vote. Big recording companies have more clout and access to voters than Round River Records in Seekonk, Massachussetts. So if Bruce Springsteen decided to do a storytelling album for children, you can kind of figure that he’s going to have another trophy on his wall. (Actually, I’d like to hear a Springsteen storytelling album for kids….)

And here, of course, I should point out, I have benefited in some weird way from the beauty contest aspect of it. Because I’ve been doing this for close to thirty years, and was first nominated over ten years ago, there are a certain number of people who know me in the “industry”, and indeed, who have been my champions. In a small category, someone like me had a fighting chance. And I like to believe that my recordings were the best, but you could certainly reasonably argue that others were as good, and that the people voted in the category because they knew me. It’s inescapable, and I’d be disingenuous to think anything different.

That part has always troubled me, and continually adds to the imposter syndrome I have, as do most other artists. And I don’t like the competition aspect of it at all – I’ve been up against friends and it’s awkward, and can make one small. Me included.

Other awards, like Parent’s Choice and the Just Plain Folk award depend on a panel of experts who listen to all the stuff – as did the late great National Association of Independent Record Distributors – I’m very proud I won a “best of” award from them. But NARAS doesn’t work that way.

Still, I should say that the beauty contest aspect isn’t the only thing . Often, a recording is recognized by peers as just being superlative, or artists will win because there is a recognition that their body of work and who they are as an artist deserves recognition. A lot of times awards are saying “It’s about time.” This was true for Bonnie Raitt and her “Nick of Time” album and Carolos Santana’s multiple wins, and Herbie Hancock’s surprising award a couple of years ago. Sometimes the good guys win, and for the right reason.

But there were too many categories, it was said. Now, here the question is whether that was an artistic decision or a commercial decision, and I think you can say pretty clearly it was a commercial decision, based on numbers of entrants and economic clout. The recording industry is in deep trouble, and trying to shore itself up. Note I say industry, not recordings themselves. At the awards ceremony I watched the presenter Kathy Griffin (comedian, ha ha ha) openly denigrate the smaller categories as worthless. No one did anything to contradict her. It was a sad display, and a comment on the Academy’s priorities, even if they were her words.

It was industry, not art that was behind the decision. Let me be clear on this – spoken word is an art form, and the recording of spoken word is an art that has been practiced ever since Edison. Caedmon and Weston Woods pioneered spoken word recordings for children, and they cared passionately about what they did. I am, still, deeply influenced by Bill Cosby’s recordings I listened to growing up, and those of Stan Freberg, and Gene Shepherd, and Dylan Thomas, and Carl Sandburg.

I think something is an art if practice and study makes one better at it, and the possibility of improving is open-ended. I am a better storyteller today than I was twenty years ago, and I take great care with my spoken word recordings. I have an approach to recording stories that has evolved over the years. The last recording I made, just under an hour in length, probably took 70 to 80 hours of work on my time – recording and re-recording, editing, listening, adjusting, rethinking, and mixing and mastering. And that was after the years spent developing the stories in the first place. If I were smarter, I could have done it faster, but sometimes it just takes time. Anyone who has ever listened to Jim Dale read the Harry Potter books knows that a master is at work. And it is a significantly different art than music.

Because the recording industry is almost exclusively about music, I sometimes hear musicians dismiss the spoken word as something anyone could do.

And anyone can play a piano.

Also, it’s part and parcel of working with children to have your work discounted. A very typical experience for me is to have someone fawn all over me when they hear I’ve won a Grammy, and then suddenly lose interest when they find it was a storytelling recording for children. Suddenly, I’m just not very interesting. That’s more of a comment on them, but there it is. Is recording for children an art form or afterthought? Hmmm.

So, I’m saying if this was based on artistry, there was no reason for it to happen. But having been to the Grammys numerous times, I also know that it is mostly about the industry. That’s okay. There is still something exciting about it, and art continues to assert itself, even where Mammon rules. Us little guys get to hang on the fringe, and in some cases have some say. Here I should note Cathy Fink’s dogged determination to have the Grammys mean something to us, and for that I am deeply grateful. She is, really, amazing.

So, I’m sad but understanding of it all. I was very lucky to be there. Spoken word recordings will receive even less attention, and NARAS will have less to do with that one aspect of recording. It is an art, and a fine one, but there is not much money in it. And not a lot of people do it. And my guess is that we’ll never see another spoken word album for children win a Grammy.

Unless, of course, the Boss decides to make one.

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My friend Willy Claflin sent me a link to this youtube video of a young girl telling a story. She’s amazingly eloquent (and wow, she speaks French…) and it presents a way to look at what happens when children are involved in story.

One of the most striking elements at first viewing is Capucine’s vocabulary – all the animals, all the naming of things in the world, and their descriptions. Her use of those words insures they’re going to be part of her world.

What’s even more striking to me is her ability to incorporate all these things into a narrative. This connecting of elements is really what the mind does in making a story. Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, a witch, bats, and crocodiles have no relationship with each other outside of the story, but she wraps them together, into a story that also incorporates motifs found in many stories – lost babies, being eaten, going to heaven, “something going amiss”, gaining and losing magic, and death. There’s also a moral element that runs through the story – a concern for the “poor animals”, the conquering of the witch, the lion losing its powers, people being safe at the end. You can almost see her brain making connections, drawing on different stories and images, and even her immediate surroundings (her mother’s ring!). I’m reminded of Vivian Gussin Paley’s book on storytelling with kindergarteners, “The Boy Who Would be a Helicopter”, and Robert Coles’s work with children and story.

In watching this video, I have to put my critical mind on hold a little – the story lacks some narrative logic and if you start thinking about the lack of causality in spots, or the quick jumps, you miss the amazing thing that is happening. It’s a reminder that story is a way people work things out and it’s not always necessary for it to have water-tight plot points like a John Grisham novel.

And then, of course, there’s the mom – an open accepting presence through the whole story – I love her surprised “Oh!” when Capucine introduces a a twist in the plot. It’s this encouragement that lets the girl go on in her process of discovery. I think of all the times I’ve been with a kid who is telling a story, obviously making it up as they go along, and the adults in the room (me included) start rolling their eyes or say “Okay, how does it end?”. That’s fine sometimes, but adults who give themselves completely to a kid’s story-making are doing a great service.

This little girl is going to be very good at something, and a lot of it will be because of the ears of the adults around her.

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This month I’ve been working with the third graders at Paul Cuffee School in Providence on storytelling. Every student has had to find a story to tell, and is now in the process of learning it, with an eye towards telling it to a wider audience. It’s a process I’ve done a number of times, though not nearly as much as some other folks, like Beauty and the Beast (Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss) or Karen Chace.

One of the hardest things for any storyteller, regardless of age, is to take a story they’ve found on the printed page and make it their own. The translation from the written word back to oral is much more difficult than one might think. Children (and adults, too) can be pretty daunted, thinking they have to learn a story word for word. You can tell them, as I do, that they need not worry about particular words, but instead think of the scenes, work on the images, and tell their story in their own words. Still, there is that awkward memory of the words on the page, as if that is really the story. This is true for all art – making something your own, and not acting according to the schematic that is first presented – the work has to come from inside. As they say, the map is not the territory. But getting off the map is very difficult.

I developed an exercise last week that begins to address that process. The students had chosen the story, read it over a number of times, and made story maps of it – trying to identify each scene and drawing a picture that represented it. But they needed to tell it in their own words. Here’s what I did:

I had the students set up chairs in two circles, one inside the other – the chairs facing each other, so each kid had a partner. I then told them that the students on the inside had two minutes to tell their stories. More precisely, to just tell what happened. I timed them. When they finished, their partners on the outside told their stories. When the pair had finished, I had the people on the outside move one chair to their left, and we repeated the process. When those pairs had finished, I had the people on the inside move one chair to their left and repeat the process again. But this third time, I told them they were allowed to take three minutes to tell the story.

It worked pretty well. With the directions given, there was an eruption of protest. Kids said they couldn’t remember the whole story, or if they could, they couldn’t tell it in such a short time. “Too bad,” I said. “Just get through it”. They did. The second telling was easier. With the third telling, when I gave them an extra minute, they breathed a sigh of relief, and with my encouragement, slowed down to tell a little more. There was till some struggling, but after telling the story three times in fifteen minutes, the outline of the story was becoming clear in their minds. Because of the time limit, they had to throw away the written text and just get to the point. Now they had it fixed in their mind what happened in the story, and could begin to make it their own.

The exercise got me thinking about the challenge of being real in one’s art. It is hard to move from a concept of what the art is to the art itself, because in the end it has to come from inside of us if it’s going to be real. I was reminded of this when I went to see a play last weekend. It was pretty uninspiring, and my brother-in-law, Philip Stewart, who has done a lot of acting in his time, noted that the lead was not really acting, but indicating – the role wasn’t coming out of him, instead he was doing things that pointed towards what his character should be doing or feeling – like using shorthand. It’s like a kid who draws a picture of a tree where the trunk is brown and spread at the bottom, and the top is a round, scalloped ball of green – the schematic tree in the head, not a tree that actually exists. Or the writer that uses metaphors someone else has used before. Or the storyteller reciting a script they have memorized, rather than using their own language to impart the pictures in their head.

Making the students respond in a short amount of time, pulling the script away from them, leaves them to their own devices. They don’t have time to think, they just have to do – and it’s just doing that leads to authentic performance. When they have to use their own words, they begin to make the story their own. Then the story can grow.

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I’ve taken a break from the blog for the past month or so – hope you all didn’t leave me. We’ve had a great summer – proved by my lack of productivity. It’s good to be back.

I was talking with a good friend and he mentioned that his father was always sending him jokes over the Internet. I nodded – it’s a common practice today. “What’s weird,” he said, “is that it used to be that whenever I talked to my dad, he always had a joke to tell me. Now he never tells me any. He says he can’t remember them.”

I don’t think it’s just old age – I think it’s the nature of digital memory and the way we relate to each other. I remember a discussion I had with a young accountant on airplane. When I told him I was a storyteller he shook his head. “I can’t even remember a joke, ” he said. He, too, noted that he gets hundreds of jokes over the Internet, but can’t remember any of them.

And how many people don’t tell jokes because they say, “I just can’t tell a joke”?

This all got me thinking about the nature and function of jokes. Jokes are the grease in oral conversation, and seem to be a bit of a dying art form. They are, in fact, something you have to practice a little, and they are less common than they were a decade or two ago.

The problem with jokes on the Internet is the assumption that the joke’s main function is to make us laugh wherever we are, even when we’re alone staring at a screen.

That’s wrong, I think.

Jokes are, mainly, about relationships and the social setting. A joke read alone on a computer has little social function. It’s only in the company of people that they serve a purpose.

Telling jokes bear great relationship to the telling of stories. What are jokes for, anyway? Here’s three things:

First, jokes are a mid-point between a greeting and a conversation. Because they are structured, they are little set pieces in which the teller and listener get to play more formal roles – there’s less at stake, since nothing deep is being required. The conversation is going to go deeper, hopefully, but jokes serve as a way to spend time before the conversation goes to another level. They’re like talking about the weather and sports. We can say that they’re meaningless, but those placeholders have a function in conversation.

Second – jokes define the group we belong to (even if it’s as broad as the human race). Knowing the right joke to tell is critical – it shows a sensitivity to the setting and the people. We’ve all been in a place with a group of people where someone told the wrong joke. Oh boy, I’ve done it myself. My wife rolls her eyes. There’s a stony silence. Whoops. The joke teller is making an estimation of what the group is, and then telling a joke that helps to define that group. A joke says “You’re like me – you’ll think this is funny.” So men tell jokes they wouldn’t tell in groups with women, and vice versa. Teachers tell jokes about teaching and students, accountants tell jokes about accounting (if they can remember them). Republicans, Democrats. You get the idea. When you tell a joke to someone and it works, you’ve established a connection that says, “We have this kind of humor, we think this way.” In that way, it’s a deepening of a bond – more so than talking about the rain last night. And if you miscalculate, you drive a division between yourself and the listener. A joke is a little bit of a risk, too.

Third – jokes do make us laugh, but it’s not just laughter for laughter’s sake. Laughter drops our defenses and makes us more open to the people we’re with. Laughter and humor are important steps in a relationship, even if it’s with a person you meet on a plane or train, or standing in line. Jokes are a way of breaking down walls.

So when I hear my friend say that his father, a life-long joke teller just sends jokes and doesn’t tell them, I know something’s being lost.

And as for those who say they can’t tell a joke – well, some people have a better sense of timing and all, but mostly it just comes from doing it. A joke is rarely well told the first time – around the seventh or eighth try, it gets into shape. Saying you can’t tell a joke is a little like saying you can’t sing. If you don’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.

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I gave a keynote this month at Sharing the Fire, the New England conference on storytelling sponsored by LANES about storytelling as a craft. In the talk, I outlined some areas of skill development and questions storytellers should ask themselves about their work. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a number of years. Below is the text of a hand-out that focuses on the questions. It’s an attempt to encourage the recognition of storytelling as a craft that aspires towards art.

Questions for Evaluating Storytelling Performance

Along with many others in the storytelling community, over the past several years I have been giving thought to what are hallmarks of good storytelling. While storytelling is in many ways still a folk art, and because of that, something that many kinds of people do, there’s a tendency to be lax in a discussion of what are measures of excellence. But if we are to encourage excellence in storytelling so that it is recognized as an art, we need to have a discussion about what we find in accomplished storytelling. This is not a question so much of what standards critics should use in evaluating performance (although they may do that), but a challenge to us as artists to search for some language to use in looking at our work.

In an effort to foster this discussion I’ve come up with a list of questions, or queries, a storyteller might ask of him/herself. These are not hard and fast rules, but rather a way of seeing. Not all the questions I offer here are useful in every situation, but I’ve tried to think about what I see in a good storyteller, and what I miss when I see a storyteller not succeeding.

For me, reading the list of questions makes me aware of my shortcomings and failures. But that’s okay. I think the important thing is to become conscious of what we’re doing and look carefully at our work. Nobody does all these things I’ve identified. Good storytellers may be so good in one area that we forgive their transgressions in other areas, or those areas simply become less important. But when something isn’t working, and we know it, we should ask ourselves hard questions about why it’s not working. These questions are a place to start.

Narrative form
Is the structure of the piece strong? does it show an understanding of narrative structure, even if only to make it possible to experiment with that structure? Is the structure flabby – are there parts that do not belong? Is there an awareness of narrative tension? Does the piece show an understanding of character’s place in the narrative? Is there resonance in the piece, with elements introduced early bearing fruit later on? Is there an understanding of an underlying subtext in the story? Is it clear that the storyteller knows what the story is about? Has s/he made choices about what material to present to best serve the heart of the story? Is there a dramatic build that reaches some form of climax when a truth is revealed? Is this revelation presented in a way that delights or enlightens or moves the audience?

Language
Does the storyteller have command of the language used? Does the storyteller have an adequate vocabulary, and use the right word? Is the style of language consistent throughout the piece? Is it authentic – especially if it represents some culture other than the performer’s own? If it is a caricature of a culture, is there an understanding of what that means? In the context of the choice of language used, is the grammar and vocabulary consistent and authentic? Is there a consciousness of it being an oral language, rather than oral presentation of written language? Is there breath in the words, or do they sound as if they are coming from the page?

Voice and physical instrument
Does the storyteller have command of his/her vocal instrument? Is s/he understandable? Does the vocal instrument serve the story, or does it attract attention to itself? Is the voice flexible in its presentation of different aspects of the piece, varying in timbre, pace, and dynamics?
Does the physical movement of the storyteller serve the story? Is the storyteller conscious of how the use of his/her body is serving the story? Is the performer in control of his/her physical instrument, using his/her body to serve the presentation, or does the movement distract from the story?

Performance skills
Are all skills integrated into the story? (e.g. – music, movement, juggling) Are the skills used developed enough so that they are not hindrances? Are skills and technique transparent so that the story is served, rather than the demonstration of technique? Does the storyteller use different modes of presentation in the performance? Is there a spectrum, or vocabulary, of content and presentation? If the storyteller has committed to characterization in a piece, are the characterizations consistent throughout?

Relationship with the audience
What is the storyteller’s relationship with the audience – is s/he telling to the audience present before him/her, or to the one in his/her head? Is the performer open to the audience – is there an awareness of the nature of the fourth, permeable wall between the audience and the performer? Is there a consistent understanding of where the storyteller is at any moment in the delivery of the narrative? Is there some understanding of the isolation of characters from each other and the narrator? Has the storyteller made conscious choices about those relationships?

Show structure
Does the performer have a sense of how an entire performance builds? Over the course of the performance, is there a flow from one piece to another, and some sort of arc? What is the performer’s relationship with the audience between set pieces?

Aesthetic
Does the storyteller have a sense of his/her aesthetic – her reason for performing and how s/he presents her material? Are they consciously making choices about what they are showing and how they are showing it? Does the storyteller have a unique voice? Does s/he have something to say?

©2009 by Bill Harley

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Here’s a story about the holiday season. I wish I could say it was about generosity, but it’s really about greed and gluttony. Best wishes to everyone.

When I was growing up, the holiday season always had a special kind of excitement – there were so many people around, no one could watch everything I was doing.

It’s a weird thing for a kid –the more adults, the less they notice. One adult – police state, ten adults – joyous anarchy.

This meant it was possible to tease my younger brother more, or annoy my older brother more. There I was right in the middle, where I could annoy everyone, and since the grownups were so busy, they didn’t notice me!

And there were parties. Everyone in our neighborhood had parties. We would tromp over to their houses and the grownups would stand in the living room and the kitchen and talk and talk and talk, and as long as no one bled to death, the kids could do anything they wanted.

But we were ignored by and large, and it was very rarely we heard any adult say what they said during the rest of the year –

“What do you think you’re doing?”

There is no good answer to that question.

The only sane response is, “I don’t know.”

The best part of all that confusion and commotion was that there was a lot of food around and no one to tell you not to eat it.

My mom made cookies. There were tins and tins of cookies of all kinds. No one knew who ate them.

I did.

There was all kind of cheese and crackers at our house and other people’s houses.

No one knew who ate them all.

I did.

My grandmother made her famous yeast rolls. They tasted so good with butter on them! She made hundreds of them.

No one knew who ate them all.

I did.

The Christmas I was eight, everyone was coming to our house. All the living grandparents (three). Distant cousins. Strangers off the street. Even my brothers were invited, since they lived in the house. So many people were coming, I would be sleeping in a sleeping bag on my parent’s bedroom floor. My mother spent all week preparing the Christmas Eve dinner, telling us not to eat anything in the house.

Our neighbors, the Sogards, invited us to an afternoon party on Christmas Eve. My mom said we would go around 4 o’clock and visit for a short time, while the ham was in the oven, then come back and have our dinner. We had to put on corduroy pants that made weird noises and dress shoes and tuck in our shirts. (“Tuck in your shirt! Tuck in your shirt!”, they said, like it was the only thing that was keeping civilization from completely falling apart.) All the food was in our kitchen, ready to go. My mom had appetizers covered with plastic wrap. I snuck some crackers and cheese and my mom came in and said, “What do you think you’re doing?”

I was eating, that’s what I was doing. Who knew if I’d ever eat again?

At the Sogards, it was almost all grownups, except for their worthless grandchilren – all younger than five years old. You couldn’t even use them as toys – what was their purpose?

Mrs. Sogard started bringing out the food. There were crackers; there was some sausage that was hard to cut; there was a huge block of cheddar cheese – when I cut a piece that must have weighed half a pound, my dad saw me and said “What do you think you’re doing?”

More and more people came. The whole neighborhood arrived, it seemed, and Mrs. Sogard kept putting out food. Soon there was an impossible amount of food – too much to be monitored.

And way too many people for parents to pay attention to me.

And then Mrs. Sogard brought out a very interesting appetizer. They looked promising – tiny little hot dogs, wrapped up in little bits of freshly baked bread that looked like my grandmothers fresh rolls.

“What are those?” I asked.

“They’re pigs in a blanket,” she said. “Would you like to try one?”

“Sure,” I said.

What an exotic food! And they were the perfect size! Why wasn’t all food this size, so you could hold five of them in your hand?

She took a little paper plate and put one on it and gave it to me with a napkin.

“Try one and see if you like it,” she said.

Like it?

I loved it.

It was the perfect food – freshly baked bread and hot dogs. It had all the important food groups in it.

I circled around and had another one.

My older brother discovered them.

“Pigs in a blanket!” he said. “I love pigs in a blanket.”

Not as much as I did. And I believed whoever loved them more should get more.

My brother took one.

I took two.

“Hey,” he said. “Stop eating all of them. Don’t be a pig.”

I kept circling the table, like a Piper Cub practicing take offs and landings. I watched the grownups. Every time they took a pig in a blanket I worried there would not be enough for me. Desire is nine-tenths of ownership, and they all belonged to me. Every time I thought no one was looking I took a couple more. Once I took four in each hand. No one noticed.

Finally, there was just one on the plate. I was standing close to it, wondering what I should do, when Mrs. Sogard came up. “Oh my,” she said, “those are very popular. Would you like the last one?”

Well, since she asked, I took it – only being polite.

“I’ll have to go get some more,” she said.

More? More?

I loved Christmas.

She took the plate and disappeared into the kitchen and came back with another plate, filled with dozens of pigs in a blanket.

Who knows how many pigs in a blanket I ate? Too many to count.

On my last attack of the plate, I took five in one hand. My brother saw me. “Stop eating all of those pigs in a blanket! You’ll spoil your dinner.”

He didn’t care about me spoiling my dinner – it was just something adults said, so he was saying it to me. He cared about the pigs in a blanket.

My mother heard us arguing. She came up and I tried to hide them.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said

“Well, you can’t put them back. Just don’t take any more.”

There were no more to take. It was the first time in my whole life I was allowed to eat everything I wanted to eat. I was thankful there were no more, in fact.

Then we went home for our big dinner.

They put food on my plate. I stared at it. Who cared about food? It seemed the most uninteresting thing in the world. I was totally dazed.

“Don’t you like my rolls?” my grandmother asked.

I nibbled on one. Something about them didn’t taste good anymore. Same with the ham and the mashed potatoes and the chocolate cake and all the cookies my mom had been protecting for weeks. All ruined, somehow.

We hung up our stockings. I rolled out the sleeping bag in my parent’s room and climbed in. My brain was excited, but my stomach was not. It woke me up in the middle of the night.

“Get up,” it said. “I want to give some of these back.”

“You can’t,” I said, “they’re yours now. I gave them to you and you have to keep them.”

“I don’t want them.”

“You have to keep them,” I said.

“No, I don’t,” my stomach insisted.

I didn’t even make it to my parent’s bathroom.

My stomach gave back dozens of them – many of them it had barely even looked at. The crime was obvious and impressive. There they were-dozens of pigs in a blanket on my parent’s bedroom carpet.

My mom was up with me all night, while I was dragging myself on my knees back and forth from my sleeping bag to the bathroom.

“What did you think you were doing?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said between explosions. My stomach gave back things I had given it months before.

It was a Christmas I have never forgotten. My mother remembered it, too.

Leave it to my brother to make the final comment on Christmas morning.

I could barely open my presents. I sat on the couch with my sleeping bag wrapped around me, my stomach still turning somersaults. I wouldn’t eat for a week.

“What’ wrong with Bill?” one of my grandmothers asked.

“Look,” he said. “It’s a pig in a blanket.”

It wasn’t funny then.

But it’s funny now.

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