Category Archives: Stories

What’ll Happen Next?

kids with tapeWhen will the tape holding a kid on a wall start to give way? How’d a little girl get her sister that high on the wall? What’ll happen if some of the tape starts peeling off first, before some of the other pieces?

When people ask themselves “What’ll happen next?” they’re captivated by the story you’re telling. It’s probably the best indicator of good storytelling.

The same is true for a good title or your introduction to telling a story. If it makes  people curious about what’s going to happen next they’ll keep reading or listening.

While we’re actually made of atoms, in our heads we’re made of stories. So we’re always ready for and curious about a good story that’ll add to our lives and let us know what’ll happen next.

Storytime

I’ve started teaching science twice a week to two home-schooled 13 year olds.

Before making a map of where you’d like to go, you need to know where you are; so we started out discussing what they already know about science. One of the kids thought “Pretty much everything’s been discovered by now.” The other one didn’t have too much to say about the subject.

Luckily, neither one knows a lot about science, or is religious, so they’re both blank slates when it comes to science. Maybe they’ll find science fun and interesting.

Science is about how stuff works; it’s really just finding a thing that you want to figure out, and coming up with a model of how you think it works. Next, test and record “experiments” using your model. And finally showing the results to your peers for comment; and hopefully they’ll also try to repeat what you did. And there’s still lots of stuff science doesn’t understand yet.

Most people find the story part of science more interesting than the spreadsheet part; people prefer words over numbers.

Fortunately, there’re lots of science stories to tell before you need to get into formulas and numbers. The story part of science provides the frame to hang the formula and numbers part on. Hopefully these two kids will like finding out how their world works. Who knows, maybe they’ll start asking about the formula and numbers part.

But if they only wind up understanding the story part, they’ll still be way ahead of most people in appreciating the world we live in.

 

Stretching the Truth

“There I was, lost in the oldest part of Shanghai during a monsoon…” that’s how my friend started his story.

“Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” he advises. It’s  important, he says, for telling a good story. This comes from his background as a good storyteller and public speaker, plus he has formal training and lots of experience.

The biggest problem with his approach comes from his wife. She corrects him on the facts, sometimes while he’s telling a story. His wife thinks she’s helping; but he thinks she’s meddling, and is only disrupting a good story. He doesn’t really fib, but just stretches the truth to help propel the story that he’s telling along.

My friend and his wife sometimes get into a spat afterwards, in private, because of their different approaches. He’s trying to be entertaining and while she’s assuming he’s trying to relay facts to an audience. Of course, the situation isn’t resolved because they’re coming from two different places.

So here’s what takes place now. My friend winds up telling his best stories when his wife’s not around. Or he’ll tell a story she wasn’t around for… And they lived happily for the rest of their lives.

Teen Years

The teen years are strange. Mine were. Yours probably were too.

I see teens in the small Mexican town I live in and wonder if it’s still strange. I bet it is.

There was a young teenaged girl in our capoeira (martial arts) class but she’s not taking it anymore. She’s friendly and outgoing and became friends with my girlfriend and me. We tried to get her to continue taking capoeira classes, but she wanted to stop. Now we bump into her on the street sometimes and she’s seems ok. But to us she seems to be running amuck – hanging out with boys who are probably too old for her, for instance.

We sound like old farts, we aren’t her parents, and she’ll probably be fine. But we like her and just want her to pass through her teen years as unscathed as possible. She has a Mexican parent and an American parent, so she has a foot in both worlds and is bilingual. This is important only because gives her more options and information than is available to her spanish only speaking friends in a sleepy little town. Just like small towns in the States, there’re aren’t lots of options for teens here.

I can see the teen years look in her eyes, fueled by the hormonal shiftings and upheavals she’s starting to feel. She’s looking around her world trying to figure out her place in it, how much response she should return to attention for boys, and how to spend her free time. I didn’t know her before this year, but I’d bet she’s changing quickly. Schools here aren’t challenging and she’s sharp. She has two parents, but they give her a long tether. Being cute and flirty might open doors for her she doesn’t want to see behind yet.

That’s it, we’re going to look for her and get her back into capoeira class while there’s still time.

The Word Bag

Writing twice a week got me thinking about the possibility of running out of ideas. Then I remembered a PBS NOVA episode I saw in the 80’s about Richard Feynman (I think it was originally from a 1981 BBC Horizon interview). He was an interesting and colorful character as well as an outstanding physicist of the twentieth century. Feynman won a Nobel Prize and was the youngest physicist working on the Manhattan Project to name just a couple of accomplishments amongst his many.

From what I can remember now, Feynman chatted about his life in general and how his career in physics developed from a young man to an elder statesman in Physics. I found the show so interesting that I ordered the transcript of the show – the only time I’d ever done that.

One of the stories he told was about how kids think about things. When his son was young and learning to speak, he asked Feynman about running out of words. His son was concerned the “word bag” could run out of words and then he wouldn’t be able to continue talking due to a lack of available words.

Feynman tried to relate the word bag question to a similar question his Dad had about where light came from. The next two paragraphs are my paraphrasing of what Feynman said:

Whenever light is seen, it’s coming from a photon. An atom’s electrons send out a photon when it needs to release a bit of energy. There’s no more of a word bag than there is a photon bag. Is the photon in the atom ahead of the time that it comes out, or is there no photon in it so start with? There’s no photon in there, it’s just that when the electron makes a move, a photon comes out. Well, where does it come from then, how does it come out? The view is that photons are just created by the motion of the electron.

When my little boy started to talk, he said that he could no longer say a certain word – the word was “cat” – because his word bag had run out of the word “cat.” There’s not a word bag that you have inside that you use up as the words come out, you just make them as you go along.

And in the same sense that there’s no photon bag in an atom, there’s no word bag inside us to exhaust. When the photons are emitted, they don’t actually “come from somewhere.” The photons come out when they’re needed like words come out when you need them.

Pearls

Someone recently recalled for me an interesting speech given by a successful screenwriter. He said earlier in life he’d attended top schools and eventually became a lawyer at a prestigious firm, but didn’t become a partner. This failure to make partner pushed him into a depression which lead him to seeking help from a shrink.

There was one piece of advice helped him more than anything else. Here’s the idea from the shrink that really helped him: “Life isn’t about going after one pearl. In a lifetime there’re many pearls to be had, all adding to a necklace rather than seeking just one prized pearl.”  The failed lawyer said this piece of advice steered him in the direction to eventually become a very successful screenwriter. He had sought after and paid for help from an advice professional.

The advice he got helped to turn his life around. The chances of getting good advice from a shrink are high, after all they train for years and (we expect) they’re both smart and insightful.

But could the screenwriter have gotten similar, useful advice from a friend or colleague? Maybe. Did he ask for it? Probably not. People with good advice usually wait for someone to ask for help first – they know that unsolicited advice won’t be valued or used. I’m not at all against going to a shrink for help. Since you’re both asking and paying for it, the shrink will have your attention.

There’re situations in life that lend themselves to talk – a long train ride, an afternoon in a coffee shop, or maybe a morning walk in a park. These are examples of times in busy lives when people can talk long enough to present a problem and receive an answer. But help has to be asked for. By asking for help you’re placing yourself in a receptive position for advice.

If the advice rings true it could even be effective. Whether it’s bought or freely given, if the advice is good you’ll be glad that you asked for it.

La Tienda

La Tienda means “the store” in Spanish. In Mexico, la tienda is usually a small neighborhood store that sells most of the things people need. There’s still one every few blocks in Mexico just as there were a generation ago in most cities and towns in the States.

When I was a kid growing up in New Orleans our tienda was Saladino’s just a couple of blocks from our house. It was snuffed out by mass culture before I made it into middle school. We used to buy candy there just like I see kids doing at tiendas here in Mexico. Those kids I see now probably won’t appreciate their little neighborhood tienda either until they’re older and it’s gone.

I love going to tiendas, just looking around at the wide range of objects for sale that have made it through a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” economic sieve. You find mostly grocery items; but tucked away in there you’ll see super glue, hanks of nylon cord, hair dyes, mesh shopping bags, medicines, and on and on. And it’s all shoehorned into a space the size of a McMansion’s bedroom.

Tiendas service a customer base small enough that you can still get store credit. Your tab is handwritten in a notebook; they know who you are and where you live.

My tienda is about a block from our house. It’s called El Indio, The Indian. More often tiendas are named after the owner with the English words “Super Mini” in front of the name. So it’s no surprise El Indio is usually referred to by the first name of the owner (Leo’s) by most of it’s customers.

Leo’s is open early and closes around 11 at night. If you hit it at the wrong time, checking out is like traffic in India, crazy and chaotic but some how it flows with stops and starts. Often, you’ll need to jockey for position at the checkout between a sweaty laborer buying ice cold Pacificos after work and a wobbly grandmother buying fresh cilantro for her familys’ dinner. It’s civil, but the Summer in Central Mexico in a tienda is a toasty place to be and most shoppers are keen to get somewhere cooler.

Because a tienda is usually close to your house it functions almost like a pantry – that’s a block away. You don’t really need to keep lots of supplies at home since whatever you might run out of is only  half minute away. So you wind up going to the tienda on almost a daily basis.

Which is fine by me.