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Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

Last year I was lucky enough to be interviewed by a young filmmaker named Hannah Jayanti for a documentary about the book The Phantom Tollbooth, in celebration of it being published fifty years ago. After the interview, Hannah asked if I’d write a song for the film and I was even happier to do that. The film’s premier is October 6 at the New Yorker Festival. (Norton Juster, the author, and the illustrator, Jules Feiffer, will be there for the screening.  I’ll be there, too. ) For fans of the book (and even those unfamiliar with it) it’s a delightful and insightful look at the creative process and the story behind Milo and his tollbooth.

Here’s part of my interview:

And here’s a link to the song. My pal, whistler extraordinaire Andy Offut Irwin does the whistling:

Some of you know that The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic piece of children’s literature – and it’s a classic and timeless because of its very singular and quirky nature.  Milo is a boy thoroughly bored with life and not seeing the point in much of anything. Feiffer’s initial illustrations of Milo show someone not dissimilar to the character in Munch’s “The Scream”. Passing through a tollbooth that mysteriously shows up in his apartment one afternoon, Milo embarks on a quest into a different world, and discovers a reason for being, or perhaps finds that just being is reason enough. The story is filled with language play, strange characters, and philosophical observations that most adults can’t imagine children would enjoy.

Most adults.

Most adults think…

You could begin a lot of sentences with that phrase, and hardly any of them would be complimentary to people over twenty-one years of age. Somehow, adults forget how children think. Perhaps because children have no power, they have little responsibility, and adults equate consciousness and perception with responsibility, forgetting the years and years they themselves spent as children, observing and trying to make sense of things. By the time children get to nine or ten years of age, they have become philosophers of a feral sort. Children, at the mercy of their seniors, have a lot of time to muse and consider and try and understand, more than we do as adults.

Which is what The Phantom Toolbooth is about – trying to make sense of a world in which adults don’t seem to be listening or paying attention.

Most adults doubted that children would like the book. But they have. My friend Carmen Deedy says it’s easier to publish a good book than a great one, and time has proved detractors wrong. Rereading it last year, I was struck by the depth of what it had to say, and the playfulness with which it was said.

If you like the book, you can give it some support on the Facebook fan page here.

And if you’re in New York, I’ll see you there.

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From NY Times article I cite - hmm - dubious legality here


There’s a really interesting article in the New York Times today (Tuesday, December 27) about brain chemistry and kids of “middle childhood”. It affirms most things I’ve come to believe about this age and reminds me of what I like most about them. They’re smart and alert and interested and growing in a million ways at a prodigious rate. They’re making connections and gaining a sense of themselves and others that younger children don’t have. This is related to “theory of mind” which is the realization that other people have their own minds and thoughts and experiences that are different from one’s own.
Truth is, this age – 6 to 12 – is mostly where I live in my stories (and many of my songs). Alert and not jaded.Great sense of humor. Great sense of justice.
Picasso said that all artists create from a certain age, and that he was (if I remember correctly) thirteen. Put me a couple of years younger and leave me there.

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Me and Ed Murrow - and a thousand others....


I’ve been a fan of This I Believe since its reincarnation by the incomparable Jay Allison a number of years ago. That said, I never got around to submitting one. But finally I did, on the Rhode Island NPR station, WRNI, which has continued the program under the direction of Rick Reamer. My offering played last week. It’s very close to what I’ve been writing about in this blog for the past couple of years, so I thought it made sense to share it here.

Click HERE to hear the piece:

And here’s an Old Year’s resolution – before the new one starts: More blog posts. Honest. Let’s see how I do.

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Len at work....


I must have been on vacation. I think I’m back. Here goes…

I always feel like I have to have a new story or song. It’s almost an obsession, or some character flaw. It can drive me crazy. And new stuff, when it works, is great. But the truth is, the stories and songs we’ve told and sung a million times have a value and purpose that newer material doesn’t have.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I did a show with my good buddy Len Cabral. When we got to the venue we looked at the room and set up the sound system as best we could. By the time of the show, we saw that it was going to be a small audience. We decided to work without the system and had the audience scoot their chairs (and butts) in as close as they could.

Len and I sat on chairs, which seemed to bring things even closer.

Len and I did a couple of things together, and then I did a new piece I’ve been working on. It went fine, but, as new pieces usually do, it had some rough edges. I got through it. The audience went with me, but the performance was mostly about my relationship with the story – trying to get it right and hoping the audience would come along.

Len told the Gunniwolf. If you tell stories to kids, there’s a good chance you know the story. It is a perfect story in many ways – repetition and rhyme, imminent danger and escape. I love telling it. But I really loved watching Len tell it – something happened in the middle of it that seemed transcendent to me. The story was a good one, but it was the relationship he had with the audience that made the performance wonderful.

There are three things in a performance – the performer, the audience, and the material. Depending on the kind of venue, the kind of performer, the kind of audience, and the kind of material, different things happen. In Len’s performance of the story, he was completely present with the audience, and the story was the medium he was using to develop the relationship. The kids and parents were waiting to find out what happened next, but mostly, they were being present in the room with Len. I have heard Len tell the story a number of times, and know where it’s going, but how it got there was truly delightful.

Because Len knew the story so well, he was completely relaxed in it and completely attentive to the audience. He asked questions of the audience, and demanded responses from them. When a kid gave an answer he praised them with words and a smile. I watched kids smile back, feeling honored. Len barely had to ask for participation – because he was fully committed, they were committed, too. It was as if Len was giving them permission to participate, rather than begging them to do so.

Len told me afterwards that when he can, he loves sitting in a chair, with people sitting as close as possible. His sitting in a chair is no sedentary experience – it’s an active intimacy.

One of the goals of my performance is to build a community, in that space, at that moment. The material – the song or story – is the vehicle used to accomplish that goal. The content of a piece can be important, of course, but the very act of being present with each other has its own purpose and value.

Too often, we demand something new and different. I want new material because it keeps me alive and active. But if the performer can keep an old story or song fresh and vibrant, things happen that won’t happen with new material.

There is a constant tug in performance, as in life, between being and becoming. New material honors becoming. An old tale, well told, is about being.

And it’s a good place to be.

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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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Thanksgiving prayer

Now in thanks we bow our heads
With grateful words before we’re fed
Turkey for all, except Aunt Marian
Since she’s become a vegetarian.

My brother drools here right beside me
My stomach rumbling deep inside me
Aunts and uncles , gramps and grans
With settled hearts and folded hands

My dog is here and he prays too
“Drop that turkey, oh please do”
And I say thanks, no ifs or buts
For all those here who drive me nuts.

– Bill Harley

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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Last week, the Rhode Island Committee on the Humanities gave me their Lifetime Achievement Award. I was deeply honored to receive it, and it also really gave me pause – it wasn’t something I expected, and like many people, I have a healthily developed impostor syndrome which immediately made itself known to me. Receiving the award made me think about what I was doing and what the humanities are. Below is the short acceptance speech I gave.

There is an active discussion now about the place of the humanities in society. Stanley Fish wrote a blog piece for the NY Times just about that this past week – it touches on many parts of what I said.

Here’s my talk:

Thanks very much. Thanks to all of you for coming. I give my thanks to the Committee on the Humanities for this honor – to Mary Kim Arnold, to Shea’la, to SueEllen, to Mary Lee Partington and the members of the board.
And of course, my thanks, most of all to my wife and work partner, Debbie Block –my anchor and compass. What I present as an artist is really a shared vision of the way we would like the world to be – those of you who know me, know that it is just not me up here. Who knows what I would be doing without her – certainly not this.

I am still a little concerned about what to do after I get a lifetime achievement award. Now what? I didn’t know that I was finished, nor that I was even eligible. What I am left with is to continue my work and try and show I deserved it. When I look out on this room, I see many out there who are at least as or even more deserving of this recognition – many others have had a deep and lasting effect on the culture of Rhode Island.

Getting this award – totally unexpected, and really a joy – has led me to think about boundaries and borders. People who study systems know that it is at the edges – the borders and boundaries – that the most interesting things occur. A border or boundary is where there is the greatest expression of life. Who would know more about borders and boundaries than Rhode Islanders? The whole state is a border. In giving me this award, the Committee has shown a willingness to extend borders and boundaries in at least three ways.

First – most obviously, to me at least – in giving the award to someone from Massachusetts, they have reached beyond the border of the state. Thirty years ago, Debbie and I moved to the Providence area, and didn’t pay attention to political districts. We still don’t – my car can drive itself to Providence and does so almost every day. And as many of you know, the history of Seekonk, where I live, is a little murky – were we part of Rhode Island once? Was East Providence part of Seekonk? We ourselves are not quite sure where we live. I offer my appreciation for your seeing beyond that political border.

Second – you have crossed the border and reached into the arts. I call myself an artist, although that is a name someone else gives – Martha Graham noted that it’s not our job to worry about whether we’re creating art, it’s our job to do our craft as well as we can and let someone else decide. I have never been able to distinguish my art from my vision of the way I think the world might be if we were to listen and act with greater intention and care. Much of my work is about the great question of how do free individuals live in community with each other. What underlies all of my work is the search for what we hold in common. As an artist, and a student of the humanities, it’s my job to try and make my audience look at the world in a different way. I am quite glad to use whatever tools I have to do that; story works for me, and so does song , but I see no real, solid boundary between the arts and the humanities. Apparently, the Committee is willing to cross that border, too.

Third- the Committee has willingly crossed the border from the adult world to reach into the world of childhood, where I have most firmly placed my work. I was early on influenced by Gandhi and King, and have had it in mind to give my voice to the voiceless. Children and their caretakers are my constituents. Many of you here know that people who choose to work with children often have their work devalued by those who think adult work is more important and of more substance. I, too am often challenged by the choice I have made, and can, in weaker moments, devalue it myself. By giving me this award, all of you here recognize that what happens to a child determines what happens to the world. I thank you for that.

Being given this award has caused me to think a lot about the humanities. It brings me to near speechlessness – (near!)– that the humanities today seem endangered – even elements in higher education perceive the humanities as having a dwindling importance .
It’s not surprising this has happened, I guess – especially as I look at the debate in education. In the movement to measure learning through more and more testing I see a parallel discussion – the tendency to value technical knowledge and “hard” facts over a kind of knowledge more difficult, in fact, sometimes impossible, to quantify.

But for all their “squishiness”, their inability to provide hard data, the humanities – arts and letters, the history of our time here on earth, the strivings and failings of humans – is the proper locus for the study of questions that are increasingly crucial to our life on this planet. They are questions that are hard, perhaps impossible, to answer definitively. As a storyteller, I understand that we are, in the end, contextual beings, creatures of time – our acts, our thoughts, our dreams, bear no meaning without what came before, and what they imply for the world that will follow – this is what we, as humans, as storytellers, do – we live in a context, and make sense of the world through our narrative, the telling of our stories. It is the job of the humanities to listen to these stories and to ask the questions that, as Rilke said, “have no answers”.
Questions like:
“What is the value of a human life?”
“What does it mean to live in community?”
“What is beautiful and elegant and why?”
“What is required of us?”
“What is, what should be, what might be, our relationship with the rest of life on this planet?
And of course, in the end, there is the question of how we should live our lives, and what does it mean to live a good life.
These are questions that must be asked every day. This is our calling – this is our charge – this is what those of us who live in the world of the humanities, should strive to do.
We are better when we ask these questions, and when we reach beyond the boundaries of what we know and who we are to make the circle bigger.
Years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours with Phillip and Phyllis Morrison in their house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Phillip Morrison was a Nobel Prize Physicist, at the center of the development of the atomic bomb. He gave the countdown at Los Alamos – an act, he told me, he had spent the rest of his life trying to make up for. He was completely delightful, quite clearly upon my first meeting with him a genius – a man of unending curiosity, who took delight in the workings of the world. At one point in the time we spent with each other, I proposed that the very nature of our understanding of time was changing and we were changing with it, as we divided it further and further, as things seemingly went faster and faster. I thought, in fact a scientist would understand and agree with me. He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Our measure of time will always have to do with seconds. A second is how we measure our lives, because a second is one beat of the human heart. That’s the prism through which we look at the world. Always.”
Time in the end, will always be human for us. And the study of it will be our work – the study of the beating of the human heart.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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