Monday, September 22, 2014

I finally get back to (un)told

Maybe it's because it's fall: I'm suddenly itching to go out and do things and see shows. And so I was pretty happy that I could finally, for the first time in a few months, get out to (un)told tonight.

The open mike storytelling series has moved: they're now in the Black Rose room of the Heart and Crown on Clarence. Or, to be more clear - that pub in the Market that is really a whole bunch of interconnected pubs where you're never really sure, once you've gone in, which one you're in? Go round to the back of that (the Murray Street side) and look for the little door next to the Black Rose. Or, wander inside, past miles of oak rails and tiled floors, till you see this:

 . . .and then go down the stairs. 

The room feels nicely packed with thirty people, it's cosy, and pretty quiet, because of the stairs.

The format is still pretty much the same - open mike, you can sign up in advance online at the website or, presumably, talk to Liz when you get there - and they still do the thing where they hand out little slips of paper so the audience can share their own stories on the theme of the day, in a smaller, possibly tweet-able format. (The stories from the slips are read out periodically, giving the writer a small taste of how the tellers feel: a clever move, I think.) Tonight's theme was "Fight or Flight."

And the audience is interesting. Definitely a younger crowd than you see at some other storytelling shows in the city. This was a twentysomething crowd for the most part (not everyone though), and tonight, I'd argue, predominantly male (another oddity: many other storytelling shows skew heavily to women. Then again, that might have just been the way it played out tonight.)

But, the stories!

Some memorable lines, and some impressions:

"'It's a fetish,' was the first thing he said." A woman waiting for a streetcar in Toronto gets approached by a guy who explains he just wants her to kick him in the balls. After making sure he's serious, and won't sue her or anything, she decides, well, she's got nothing else to do till the bus comes. . . this winds up spiraling into a strange sidewalk domination session, to which she remains a completely bemused party. Until the bus comes, and he asks for her number, when she says, "no, are you nuts?"

". . . the Grand Canyon, the vast space between a mother and child. . . " The fight: in a dreamscape campground, two momma bears face off over the same child, through a car windshield. The flight: across America's west.

"I have to confess, I've never really been a fan of outdoor sex." Stuck on a tiny island with your wife when a storm makes your northern Quebec lake impassable? Found a nice, comfy bit of flat stone where you could have a little adult fun? Then suddenly aware of a motorboat approaching, carrying two sketchy guys in camo and hunting gear? Convinced for some reason they're here to take your wife? All you have is a Swiss Army knife? What do you do? What do you do?

"So I turned the gas up to maximum and I walked away from that shit." Bad enough that the mouse crawled out of the barbecue when he fired it up for the first time. But to think it might have had a nest in there . . . and little mouse babies . . . when he turned on the gas . . . well, it had been on full blast for twenty minutes by the time he manned up and went back out there, so if anything was left of the mouse babies, it was only their souls that got into the burgers.

"I was going to die. They were all going to die. I closed my eyes and I could see her. Her lips. The smell of her hair. The feel of her body pressed against mine. And the train was still coming." . . . and you thought this was going to be a love story? This was a story with a first kiss, a remote town, young love, and a terrible storm that took out the train bridge. . . and a barreling passenger train heading for the loose rails over the river. . . and the best "gotcha" tall tale ending I've heard in a long while.

"If someone asks you where you live, don't give them a fucking address. Point right here, at your frontal lobes, and tell them 'Right here, and right now,' because that's all you've got." A raw, emotional account of living through a family member suddenly having a medical crisis and winding up in a vegetative state, and why that means you have to live, and you have to laugh. Also included a badass, tough-as-nails smoke jumper who was (almost) too shaken by grief to dig his wife's grave. And a couple of moments where the teller stopped and said to us, yeah, yeah, it's okay, you can laugh, it's funny, this is how life is. This is how death is. And it's kind of ludicrous.

"She turned around to her assistant and said, 'He has to do this! He has to do this! He has to do this! He has to do this!' She said it four times." All DJ was trying to do was vote. And it ended up with her walking in circles in the polling station, trying to calm down, because despite a driver's license and health card and birth certificate that all said she was female, the woman at the polling station was certain she was male. Was it her voice? Does she have 'one of those faces'? When just voting is a fight-or-flight situation, when "proving you're a person" and that you exist is even harder, how do you cope with it?

It looked to me, coming in after a couple of months off (and, I think, as my first time at (un)told as a non-teller) as though the series is going gangbusters. And it's doing some interesting things. A lot of the people who got up to tell were taking some big risks - not just in being emotionally invested, but in the ways they chose to tell. They banked on the audience coming with them, and most of the time, I think, the audience did. Even to some kind of painful places. It was a good night, with hushed moments and laughs trading spaces.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Linguistics geek meets doge

I follow Michael Quinion's World Wide Words newsletter, and he just summed up the Internet meme/fad "doge" (which I have been wanting to do) WAY better than me. I post it here for the edification and amusement of meme-followers and word geeks alike.

---

Such odd. Much cute. So passing fad. The internet phenomenon of doge has been fashionable for some months now and has attracted the interest of linguists. It originally tagged pictures of the Japanese dog breed shiba inu (in multicoloured Comic Sans font), so the name is a deliberate misspelling of dog (no link with the one-time ruler of Venice; don’t ask how it’s said as wars have been started over less and the consensus seems to be “any way you want”). Doge pairs a modifier and a noun to create a dissonant phrase. The main doge modifiers are much, many, so, very, such, plus three words that can be used by themselves: wow, amaze and excite. Typical phrases are very eat, much grumpy, so trick, which usually have meaning only when written on a photo. But I found a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in doge, which begins:

What light. So breaks. Such east. Very sun. Wow, Juliet.
What Romeo. Such why. Very rose. Still rose.
Very balcony. Such climb.
Much love. So propose. Wow, marriage.

What interests linguists is that it’s much more than just bad English. It has a strict grammar that deliberately subverts the standard one. You have to have a sophisticated intuitive understanding of English to write good doge. A newbie user wrote “Much respect. So noble” and was immediately corrected because it was too conventional — it should be “Much noble. So respect.” An article in the Daily Telegraph in February was headlined, “Doge: such grammar. Very rules. Most linguistics. Wow”, which pretty much sums it up."

---

I think that last line should be "so grammar. very rules. most linguistics. wow" - lack of capitalization included - but hey, it was the Daily Telegraph and I bet the editor wouldn't let them do that.

Doge fascinates me because it was so obvious that there were rules and grammar to it, which were unofficially, somehow, agreed upon (and argued about as though they were actual grammar) by people who learned the meme and learned to use it. Doge utterly baffles and confuses anyone who isn't in on the joke, but it doesn't take long to get in on the joke - just see a few doge pictures. Then reconstruct the general rules of the meme. To write good doge, the modifier has to disagree with the noun to the greatest extent possible. It has to be the opposite of the right word. Which is why I'd argue that "so grammar" is better than "such grammar." I can imagine using the words "such grammar" together in actual English. Hence, =/= doge. Though, I could be wrong: and of course, the rules of doge don't actually exist except as some sort of collective understanding between total strangers on the internet.



Lots of memes work like this - the Batman/Robin slap meme, the Boromir "one does not simply" meme. You know, after a few examples, where the text breaks, what sort of font to use (the meme generation sites that have sprung up do dictate some of those fonts: but one seems to emerge as the winner, making others look clumsy and amateurish, as though the user doesn't really know the language of the meme). And some are better written than others. Some are plain dumb. Some are created as in jokes for groups so small that the joke is lost on everyone else. But the successful ones can be really clever, and often pick up some universal frustration that a large number of people are feeling.


Doge, though, is a different breed (no, not shiba inu). Doge - a lot like its grandparent, lolspeak - is a language game. Part of the in joke with doge is "I know how to do this." Beyond "I know how to do this" is "I know how to do this and be clever with it." 

On a picture I posted on Facebook of me rock climbing into the sun, stopping to shade my eyes, I commented simply, "very sun. so squint. wow." That's just demonstrating that I know doge and I can do it passably, and fishing for a 'like' from someone else who's in on the joke. It's when you can do something like this, where the reader/viewer can be in on two completely different in jokes, and you've done something clever with the linguistic rules of doge (say, by finding an example of something that looks a hell of a lot like doge from long before the internet existed): then you've reached doge mastery. IMHO. 



Friday, June 20, 2014

A midsummer vignette

Walking down the canal tonight, Byron and I approached a group of teenagers hanging out on the park benches, singing "Barrett's Privateers." Well, trying to. They were bawling out the chorus at least, but then I heard them stumble: "What was the ship's name?" 

"I dunno. . ."

"Well, the something sloop was a sickening sight - "

And they all sang out "HOW I WISH I WAS IN SHERBROOKE NOW!"

And just as they all faltered and fell back into silence, we walked through the group. Without breaking stride, I said, "She'd a list to the port and her sails in rags and the cook in the scuppers with the staggers and jags."

They all stared, then burst into cheers and applause. One held up a hand and gave me a high five as I kept walking, and they all started singing, 

"GOD DAMN THEM ALL. . . I WAS TOLD WE'D CRUISE THE SEAS FOR AMERICAN GOLD. . ." 

I was a few feet away when they finished the chorus and dissolved back into laughter. One shouted "That was AWESOME!" and another yelled something like "Bless you!"

I raised a hand without looking back, like the hero walking off into the sunset, and remarked to Byron, "You know, if I've learned one thing in life, it's that knowing all the words to 'Barrett's Privateers' opens all kinds of social doors." 


Thursday, June 12, 2014

The final hours

I meant to post so much more about the Iliad and the process of working on it for this show, but, of course, life got in the way, and when I would get a moment I could post, I'd realize I could either post about the Iliad - or rehearse for it. And so it goes.

But now, we're 36 hours away, as I write this, from the first voice being raised on the stage at the National Arts Centre, and the beginning of the story.

I will be there in the audience at the beginning, and all the way up to my set, and beyond it. Nervously, and excitedly, waiting for my chance to pick up the story and carry it along, and watching to see the audience getting carried along with it. Watching some of them - maybe most of them - discover or rediscover it. And I will have a completely new perspective on the Iliad from when I started.

You want to know why it's lasted almost three thousand years? We fight wars, the human race. We're cursed with it, maybe. And in our wars, we can be at our most terrible and our most beautiful, our most tragic and our most triumphant. There are moments when people shine - and not necessarily when they fight: sometimes it's when they care for each other, or miss their families, or run back to tend the wounded. And there are moments when one fatal misjudgment can get you killed, or where a man stands shoulder to shoulder with a friend.

Spend as long as we have spent with it (as we, the tellers, have learned to know these people, talked to each other about them, thought about destiny and the patterns and parallels that keep emerging) and I think you'll come to the realization that the genius of the Iliad is that there are no sides, there are no easy answers, there's no "just war" or right side.

Or come spend twelve hours with us, and with it, and with all its complicated, courageous, petty, gentle, loving, frightened, monstrous, valiant, blazing human beings (and gods). I'm sure you'll never forget the experience: and I believe it will speak to you, about the sorrow and beauty of being human. It did to me.


Monday, May 26, 2014

What the Iliad has to do with Chris Hadfield

A couple of weeks ago, I got together with my setmate for the Iliad, Catherine Sheehan, and our "assistant director" Tom Lips, for a sightly belated team rehearsal/coaching session. Each group in a set has an AD who's helping out with some of the coaching so it's not all on Jan and Jennifer to get us to our best performances.

I meant to blog more about the whole process of learning my part of the Iliad, but you know how time goes. But I'd been feeling a looming sense of . . . unease . . . about my memorization process. Namely, that I hadn't really been working on it. But I decided something had to be done when the recurring dreams kicked in (the kind where you're rinkside at the Olympics, about to compete for Canada in pairs ice dancing with your friend Terry, and realize that you don't have a routine worked out, and you can't exactly wing it without finding Terry and talking it over first, and you can't find Terry anywhere, and the Russian team is already out there on the ice: not that I'm thinking of a specific dream here).

Anyway, my subconscious said, loudly, "FFS, Kate, get your crap together and memorize your stuff! What would Chris Hadfield do?"

(Yes. Really. He has a great chapter in his memoir about he doesn't really feel fear because he knows he is prepared for absolutely anything. How you never have to be anxious if you are really, truly prepared. And knowing how deathly nervous I'm going to be on June 14, I cling to that advice.)

So, I buckled down. There was a godsend of a night when I was babysitting my friends' son, and after I got him down for the night I walked around their living room learning the whole segment where the gods enter the fray and things get seriously fantastical. The success of that was encouraging. The second half (all the hand-to-hand combat) I managed by combining cardio workouts and memorization. I'd jump on the machine, put the binder I keep my script in on the console, and then start running, reading, looking away, repeating, then reading, looking away, repeating. . . Meant I could work on memorizing in convenient 30-minute or hour-long chunks, and I was getting some exercise too. Although I bet I was getting some weird looks from the other gym patrons.

I'm glad I memorize quickly. Within about a week, I could sit down, every night, before I switched out of "work" mode and into "wind down" mode, close my eyes, and say the whole 25-minute piece from beginning to end. So when I got to Tom's house to rehearse, I was pretty sure I could rattle it off. Though I wasn't so sure I wouldn't just be rattling.

I don't think I was. There were spots I thought I could put a little more into, but for the first time telling the whole thing in front of a human audience (my cats are another matter) I did okay. The words were all there (except one word, "astonishing," which blocked me every time, and which I have now changed, just to get it out of my way).

And when it came time to hit the all weekend rehearsal last weekend, I sort of got it, what Hadfield means, because as my time to tell started to loom, I was nervous, but mostly just excited to get going. To step up and take my part of the story forward, as one voice in the chain of voices taking us through. I felt like I knew my words and now it was just a matter of doing.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Shaping a story: an anatomy

This evening I told at the Ottawa StoryTellers' Stories and Tea series. I told a Norse story I was calling "The Giants' Contest" and another storyteller, Mary Wiggin, told a Japanese folk tale called "Three Strong Women."

Afterward, a few people came up to me and asked me things about where my story came from, and how I had adapted it. It wasn't a particularly common or familiar Norse legend, so I even had people asking if I'd written it (although, what does that mean in the context of telling a legend? I suppose the words were mine, but what happened in the story wasn't, at least mostly not: see, it's complicated).

So I thought I'd write about where I got that story, and something about what I did with it before finally standing up to tell it tonight.

It began when Mary and I met a while back, to talk about what we were going to do at tonight's show. At the time I didn't really know what I wanted to tell: I knew that the theme was folk tales, and I haven't really dealt with that material much. So Mary told me about her story, "Three Strong Women," which is about a sumo wrestler, Forever Mountain, who winds up training with a family of three women who are strong enough to carry cows around and throw entire trees.

As she was telling me about the grandmother who wrestles with Forever Mountain as a training exercise, I suddenly remembered a story I loved as a child. It was in a collection of twelve books, the My Book House Books, which had belonged to my mother when she was a child. They were first published in 1920, although I think my mother's set was from 1937. The collection started with a volume of nursery rhymes and poems for little children, and then each successive volume aimed at a higher age group and reading level, until somewhere in the middle was a volume of myths and fairytales from around the world. In that volume, there was a story that I still remembered, at least in part: a story in which the Norse thunder god, Thor, finds himself in a castle full of giants. There was a drinking horn that he couldn't finish, and a cat he couldn't lift off the floor, and an old woman who defeated him in a wrestling match.

I mentioned it to Mary, and she said she thought it would work well for the show. So then I had to go home and try to find the story (I don't have the Book House Books, they're at my parents' place).

The Internet is awesome. After a quick search, I found where the story had originally appeared: in the Gylfaginning, the first section of the Prose Edda, written (or compiled) in Iceland, sometime in the early 13th century, by Snorri Sturluson. So then I went looking for the full text (which is here.)

The Gylfaginning is long, and the story is only a short(ish) section, but it wasn't hard to find with a skim. I was looking for Thor, after all, and there he was:

"Then spake Gangleri: 'A good ship is Skídbladnir, but very great magic must have been used upon it before it got to be so fashioned. Has Thor never experienced such a thing, that he has found in his path somewhat so mighty or so powerful that it has overmatched him through strength of magic?' Then said Hárr: 'Few men, I ween, are able to tell of this; yet many a thing has seemed to him hard to overcome. Though there may have been something so powerful or strong that Thor might not have succeeded in winning the victory, yet it is not necessary to speak of it; because there are many examples to prove, and because all are bound to believe, that Thor is mightiest.'"

And after this came the story, about the giants and the contest. And it started with another short bit that I had remembered, without remembering that it was in the same tale: a story where Thor and Loki, staying at a farmer's house, slaughter Thor's goats and eat them, and then Thor revives them in the morning, only to discover that the farmer's son, Thjálfi, had cut open one of the leg bones and sucked out the marrow, so that one of the goats is lame. In fear for their lives, the farmer and his wife give Thor the son and his sister Röskva as servants.


I printed out the section that told the story - the goats, and then Thor encountering a giant named Skrýmir, and the contest in the castle named Útgardr. But you can tell from the segment above that the story was full of "thees" and "thous," and there was no way I was going to tell it like that.

So I took the printout of the story - about five or six pages - and went through a process of reading one chunk of the action, then looking up and saying it out loud to myself, with slightly elevated language but without the extreme archaisms. I would do that a few times, until I thought I had a way of saying what happened that caught the details but didn't sound like this:

"Thereupon Skrýmir slept and snored hard, and Thor took the provision-bag and set about to unloose it; but such things must be told as will seem incredible: he got no knot loosened and no thong-end stirred, so as to be looser than before. When he saw that this work might not avail, then he became angered, gripped the hammer Mjöllnir in both hands, and strode with great strides to that place where Skrýmir lay, and smote him in the head."

Instead, I would say something like:

"And Skrýmir rolled over and went to sleep. Thor went to the provision-bag, but something very strange happened: no matter what he did, he couldn't get the knots open. They seemed simple enough, but no matter how he tugged and pushed and pulled, not a thong would budge. He even tried cutting it, but nothing worked. And realizing that he must have been tricked somehow by the giant, he grabbed his hammer, went up to where Skrýmir lay sleeping, swung the hammer up and brought it down as hard as he could on the giant's head."

I spent at least one night - very late at night, actually; I think it was about two or three in the morning - walking around my living room doing this. After an hour or two, I had the whole thing reworked in my head into my own words, and I went back to bed.

After that, I turned the story over a little in my head, and retold it out loud to myself a few times. I had initially tried to include, in my introduction of Thor, the bit from earlier in the Gylfaginning about his three marvelous items: the hammer, the iron gloves, and the belt that confers his strength. (I also thought I might include the names of his goats: Tooth-Gnasher and Tooth-Gritter.) But then I cut that: everyone knows Mjöllnir, and the other items aren't important.

And I thought about where I could get away with adding lines. Where I could add a line to get a laugh, for one thing, or to create a through line of Thor getting increasingly angry and frustrated as he loses contest after contest. But also, there were things I couldn't explain using only the words in the story: why on earth would Thor agree to travel with a giant, for example? So I put in lines, knowing what I knew about Thor, to explain that.

I also put in some dialogue for Loki, in part because otherwise he's only there to get into an eating contest with the personification of Wildfire, and in part because people are familiar with the Tom Hiddleston/Marvel Loki, who is a lot of fun, and I wanted to give this Loki some character too. Mostly, what I put in was variations on "I told you so, Thor."

I wanted to keep the question-and-answer stuff, where Gangleri asks about Thor and gets hedged answers, and then finally the story of the time Thor encountered something that he couldn't defeat. So I made sure there was a line in my intro that alluded to this exchange:

"Then spake Jafnhárr: 'We have heard say concerning some matters which seem to us incredible, but here sits one near at hand who will know how to tell true tidings of this. Therefore thou must believe that he will not lie for the first time now, who never lied before.' Gangleri said: 'Here will I stand and listen, if any answer is forthcoming to this word; but otherwise I pronounce you overcome, if ye cannot tell that which I ask you.'
Then spake Thridi: 'Now it is evident that he is resolved to know this matter, though it seem not to us a pleasant thing to tell.'"

It wasn't much but I put it in: I said something like, "Now you might assume that given his fame and his reputation, that there had never been anything in all the worlds, or all his long life, that Thor had not been able to defeat, through strength or magic. You might assume that. But you would be wrong. There was once. And although he might not want me to tell you the story, I can tell it."

I'm not sure why keeping that little piece in mattered to me so much, except that I love the ancient question-and-answer tradition that runs through so much northern European myth (the Celts do it too) and I wanted to honour it a little (not that my listeners would even have noticed).

The other big change came a day or two before the show, when I realized that really, I didn't need Röskva at all. She does nothing in the story. She's Thjálfi's sister, she's given to Thor as a servant after Thjálfi lames one of Thor's goats, but she doesn't have a part in the contests, and the story was running long anyway. I could cut the entire goat episode and lose nothing. And if I cut the goat episode there was no reason to have Röskva. Out she went, and I threw in a line to say, "And there was a reason that Thjálfi was traveling with Thor and serving him: but that's another story."

(Thank you Michael Ende, for giving me the easy use of "That's another story and will be told another time." I used it again at the end: "Thor thought about this often in the years that followed, and planned to bring about another meeting - not with the King of Utgard, but with the Midgard Serpent. And eventually he did: but that's another story.")

So now I had a story, about thirty minutes long. And although it was a little different each time I told it out loud to myself, walking around my house, I thought I had the main beats down. I knew what happened, and everyone's names. I knew which lines I needed to include, and which could be forgotten or changed without hurting the story. I knew the through-line I wanted to take, and how I wanted to play the Giant King (or Útgarda-Loki, as he was called in the original, although I got rid of that right away: with a character called Loki in a contest against another called Logi, the last thing I needed was yet another variant of the name). I knew where I'd throw in modern speech patterns and where I'd be using more archaic language.

I made the mistake, though, of going online to look into some more background, the day of the show, and finding a slightly different version of my story, in the Wikipedia entry on Loki.

It threw me. It was compressed: it left out whole sections, it took place over a shorter period of time. I read it, and for a second thought of trying to incorporate some of the differences, because they shortened things up and, it appeared for a moment, tightened and clarified some events.

Bad idea.

I tried once, telling the story over again to myself, and incorporating the changes I wanted to add: it messed me up. I had to banish that version, and remind myself that my version was actually in the Prose Edda, while the Wikipedia version came from who knew where. And tell my version over again to myself, just to consolidate it in my head.

On the way to the show, I remembered that I had forgotten, in the last few retellings, to include one crucial bit: when Thor and his friends meet the giant Skrýmir, after he wakes and sits up, he says, "What? Have you dragged off my glove?" and then reaches out and picks it up, at which point Thor realizes that what he thought was a house was actually the giant's glove. I'd left it out in all my last rehearsals. So I told myself that part over and over on the way to the show: and I'm glad I did, because the first "Ah!" I heard from the audience was when I got to that part.

And of course, when I told it at the Tea Party, it came out completely different than all the ways I'd rehearsed it to myself. Totally different. When I start telling a story like this one, where the events are set but the words are more or less mine, I always find that standing there talking to an audience changes it. Shortens it, in some places: clarifies and sharpens it in others. The times I'd told it to myself were much more uniform: the way I told it to a room full of people varied a lot more. But still, I think the way I had wanted to tell it stayed constant. If anything, the ears listening make me less likely to wander or trap myself in what I think of as 'sludge words' - when you start talking without really knowing where you're going next, and almost always wind up in a dead end. I don't do that so much when the pressure is on, when there are people listening.

I was asked on the way out about copyright. Well - with this, because what I'm telling is basically from the Prose Edda, I don't worry about copyright. The work is 700 years old. If I'd been telling it word for word from someone's translation? Sure, I'd have been responsible for copyright. But because of how I work with material like this, it was essentially my own interpretation. Copyright is a murky and weird thing with storytellers, but thankfully, when you're working from 700-year-old material, you get a lot more free rein.

Oh, and for my first actual foray into traditional myth? It was fun. I may have to dig up some more old Norse material and see what I can do with it. . .