Archive for September, 2009


When you’re sitting in class, There’s a tickle in your nose
Then you let out a sneeze and it finally explodes
You look down at your hand, It’s all covered with that goo,
Don’t wipe it anywhere, You know what to do!

You gotta wash your hands (lávate las manos)
Wash your hands (lávate las manos)
Wash your hands (lávate las manos)
Wash your hands (lávate las manos).

I wrote this song several years ago for the Paul Cuffee School, and have just recorded it for the upcoming flu season. NPR’s All Things Considered played it on Monday with an accompanying story on the swine flu.

You can have it for free! Go here to listen and download.

We decided to not worry about money ( What, me worry?) and do what we could do to get the song out there before the H1N1 virus comes back with a vengeance. The Massachusetts Department of Health is distributing it to schools, and we’re happy to give permission to other schools, organizations and agencies if they wish to do so. Contact our office (michele@billharley.com) or call 508-336-9703.

And please spread the word to friends and families that we’re making this offer. If you need a physical CD for your local radio station let us know – our WONDERFUL CD duplicators, Oasis, have generously donated the manufacture of a number of CD’s for us to distribute.

It seems ridiculous to repeat this, but one of the greatest deterrents to the spread of communicable diseases is handwashing.
In order of importance (I know this now, since I seem to be involved with various Departments of Health!)
1) Get vaccinated
2) Cover your cough
3) Wash your hands
4) Stay home when you’re sick

If you need me to write you an excuse from work, let me know.


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Honoring Failure

A couple of years ago I was doing a show for a primary grade audience at an elementary school. After an introductory song, I took a good look at the audience, decided on a particular story and launched into the telling.

A minute and a half into the story, I realized I had miscalculated – it was the wrong story, it was not going to work, and it was long – another fifteen to eighteen minutes. It was going to be a tough slog. I pushed on for another minute – I could feel attention wavering.

Then I stopped.

The students were suddenly alert. This was not expected. The guy up there was just supposed to keep blabbing about something they didn’t care about. What was he doing?

I paused. Something was now clearly wrong. This was even more interesting.

I looked at the teachers, sitting in chairs on the side of the audience – even they were now paying attention – even the ones grading papers! I addressed the teachers.

“Have you ever spent a lot of time on a lesson plan, and realized as soon as you started it, it wasn’t going to work?”

A couple of teachers nodded. The kids were looking at their teachers. I went on.

“So, then you have two choices – you can just push right ahead and teach that lesson no matter what, or give up and try something else.”

I paused again. A few nods. Kids looking at me.

“I’m giving up,” I said. Then I said to the kids, “I don’t like that story. I’m telling another.”

The teachers laughed and applauded. They knew exactly how I felt, and were relieved to see me readjust. I started another story, a better one for that moment. The kids listened and liked it.

Messing up, admitting it, and adjusting is one of the great challenges of being human, and I wish it were easier to do. (Okay, the messing up part is surprisingly easy – it’s the whole process that presents difficulty). But when someone can admit failure and move on, it’s a blessing for everyone around them.

I was reminded of all of this when my friend and fellow storyteller, Syd Lieberman, told me about a recent school visit. The head of the school had challenged all the teachers to bring a story about a mistake they had made in the classroom to the next staff meeting. They sat around and told their stories, and there was a prize for the best story. The head of the school told a story, too. Syd said the feeling of community and support in the school was exceptional – unlike any he had ever seen.

What a great exercise.

I should note here that a story of failure is different from a war story, or what musicians call “gigs from hell”, in which everything happens to you. Those are fun to tell, and comforting, to a point. But this story, where people admit failings, is a different bird.

Two things happen when a trusted friend or respected colleague admits mistakes. First, there is a lesson more easily learned. When an accomplished teacher or craftsman of any kind shows where he went wrong, others learn quickly from that mistake. It’s always hard to learn from someone else’s errors, but you’re more likely to when someone you respect shows where they went wrong. That kind of mistake sticks in your mind.

Second, and most important, it has a leveling effect and helps others relax. “She’s just like me,” is a wonderful insight. When you realize that mistakes are part of the process, you’re much more likely to stretch for new approaches and make yourself vulnerable to the moment. People in positions of authority who can admit mistakes don’t have to hold up the façade of a role that doesn’t quite fit them. Real loss of authority comes when everyone can see the leader has made a mistake but won’t admit it.

My friend, Curtis Buchanan, chairmaker extraordinaire, told me of a class he was teaching in which he had forgotten to perform a basic function before the class – sharpening his chisels. He kept trying to perform one procedure and failing, with a dozen people watching. Then he realized the problem, stopped and showed his error. In the evaluations, one of the students said, “The most liberating thing about your class was to see you make a mistake and admit your error. It gave me permission to try things I wouldn’t have tried, for fear of failing.”

Failure? It’s a great thing. When you can admit it.

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Not to worry – I’m not doing the four post a day thing.
Just got a message from my producer at NPR that a news item bumped my piece (What’s that about? What do they think this is, a news show or something?) But so many people had already commented they’re leaving it up on the web. You can still see it there. So thanks for taking a look.
Maybe tomorrow.
Then again, maybe not.
Meanwhile, I have to turn this computer off.

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NPR piece tonight

Tonight on National Public Radio, All Things Considered is playing a story about my learning experience with the National Anthem at a minor league ball game (yay, McCoy Stadium and the Pawsox!). You can listen tonight during the show (not sure which segment, sorry..) or go here http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112484915. Please comment and spread it around – they need to know that these little stories add something to the broadcast. Some people hate ’em. Some love ’em. Like someone at NPR said to me years ago – “There’s two parties here – those that do the hard news and those that want to have fun – guess which one you belong to?”
Well, I want both, I guess, but I know my job.
Hope you listen.

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Ducks, sheep, and dogs

Last week, after finishing up at the Timpanogos Storytelling festival in Orem, Utah, Debbie and I went to the Soldier Hollow Classic International Sheep Dog Championship at a former Olympic site in Heber Valley, Utah. It was amazing, and a reminder that the relationship between dogs and humans goes way, way back.

There were water jumping contests –
Dog Jump

And duck herding contests

Duck herding

(Ducks act a lot like sheep, and so are good training for sheep dogs. Pretty stressful for the ducks, though.)

But the heart of it is the sheep herding contests. A dog comes out to the contest area with his (her) trainer – they’re all border collies, and all descended from one dog, Old Hemp, that lived over one hundred years ago. They’re all black, white, and insanely eager.
Up on a hillside, about a quarter mile away, a group of five sheep is led out and held there by another dog. At the whistle, the dog runs up on the hillside, making a wide arc to get behind the sheep without disturbing them. The other dog leaves, and the contestant has to lead five very ornery sheep down through a gate, around a post by its trainer, up another hillside through another gate, across the slope to another gate past the first one , then down again into a circle marked by red flags. There the dog and trainer have to split the sheep (all this without touching them) into two groups of three and two, then get them into a little pen.

sheep in pen

This all has to be done in thirteen minutes. The trainer calls and whistles, the dog responding to the calls from hundreds of yards away, lying down to wait for the sheep, turning to right and left, circling to get ahead or behind them. The relationship between the trainers and the dogs is amazing.

One of the trainers did a stunning job with his dog – the sheep would not move, but the dog patiently led them through all the gates, and ran out of time at the end, with the gate open and the sheep not budging. Debbie and I talked to him afterwards (and his dog).
“You did a great job,” I said.
“Me?” said the trainer and laughed. “Not me, my dog.”

Debbie and I watched for three or four hours (championships, even more difficult, the next day). We left, struck even more by the relationship between dogs and people that has developed over eons.

Here’s a promotional video from last year:

Now, if I can just get our dog Harpo to listen. Of course, that’s my fault, not his.

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“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”

Those words were written by Salman Rushdie, spoken by the character Haroun in Rushdie’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Haroun is a boy frustrated with, disappointed by, and angry at his storyteller father after Haroun’s mother walks out on them. Rushdie’s book is, to my mind, one of the best book on storytelling out there – insightful, wide ranging, and a good story to boot. Rushdie wrote the book for his twelve year old son after the Ayatollah put a fatwa on him for his book The Satanic Verses.

What’s the use of stories – any kind of stories?

It’s a legitimate question. As soon as someone says “Once upon a time” the teller is removing the story from the present, setting it apart from today as something that has its own internal logic, separated from our world and whatever is happening right now. In that sense, it’s not true – it’s not in the real world. How can it be relevant?

From another perspective, no story is true, whether presented as history or fiction. They’re not true, or “accurate” about reality, because something is always left out of a story – even something presented as history. Story in the end, is not about “truth” as the objective observation of what happens in the world, it’s about the assigning of meaning. And assigning meaning through story – the assembling of events into a causal narrative – is what humans do. We put things in and leave things out so the story makes sense. We do this when we explain why it’s not my fault all the plums were eaten or how we came to the work we do, or why Bank of America is on the ropes (or not). I could come up with a half dozen different stories for each situation, choosing events and putting them in a causal relationship.

Meaning can only be assigned afterward, when an event is put into context – it’s what we do with the right side of our brains – we’re creatures of time, and we take the events that happened to us and string them together to explain why things are they way they are, and how they might be in the future. And in doing so, we leave things out. If it doesn’t fit in with the story, it’s not mentioned. When I explain why the plums were eaten, I may tell you that my friend ate the last one, but will neglect to mention I ate the other five before he got here.

Whether a story is an accounting of events in the world (history) or imagined (fiction), its function in our lives is to give us a way to look at the world. A story gives us a chance to hold the world up for a moment and look at it, a framework for making sense of things, a way to see the world in a new light. If a story names something about the world and the human condition, and has some resonance in our lives, then it’s useful.

But while stories help us understand the world, they can get us into trouble, too. When a country is preparing for war, the first thing it does is come up with a story that demonizes the enemy. Governments ignore their failings, or the legitimate interest of other peoples, and instead focus on the events that prove the other side is despicable. I make up stories about why someone’s a jerk, ignoring the good things they do. We buy into the story, and ignore what’s really happening . When story becomes too divorced from reality, and lacks resonance, there’s going to be trouble.

A good storyteller knows he’s lying, acknowledges it, and that’s why we trust him. “It’s just a story” cuts both ways – it discounts the story, but also frees us to think about the world. Story has a weird relationship with reality: close to it, but not too close – true, but not too true – not so true that we can’t use it as a tool, a way of understanding. Like the Zen masters say, don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon. Stories are fingers, not moons.

In the end, I suspect it’s the fact that “it’s just a story” that gives the story the power it has. Better that they’re not true. Once we let go of whether a story is “true”, we can use it to look at our own lives and world. Stories let us take a step back and consider our lives. We could all use a little more of that.

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