Sunday, December 18, 2005

Tea on the keyboard

Here's a tip: don't slop tea on your laptop keyboard. It makes ythiiinngggs ggffggo ffunnnyt. Fortunately, if there isn't too much sugar and milk in the tea, and if you let everything dry for a few days, and if you have a kind friend who lends you a keyboard for those few days, it might, just might, go back to normal. Still, don't do it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


It's snowing like crazy today, so I'm hunkered down, woodstove cranking away in the living room, pretty ice designs on the windows in the office. On National Public Radio (Talk of the Nation), they're talking about rumors. I think I'm too late to call in, but I do certainly have some ideas about the topic.

There's a great story from India called "The pandit's feather" about a rumor gone wild. The pandit coughed up a little feather one day. Strange! He mentioned it to his wife, but asked her not to tell anybody else. Of course she whispered to her best friend that the pandit had coughed up a little bird. The best friend told her husband that the pandit had coughed up a couple of birds. The husband told his buddies that the pandit had coughed up a crane. Next it was a heron and a crane. Eventually the rumor of flocks of birds flying from the pandit's mouth got back to the pandit himself. He went away for a while until that rumor had gone away and another had taken its place (thanks to Linda King-Pruitt for sending this to me).

Usually we think of rumors as being bad, but a few years ago, I wrote a story about a good rumor. A completely untrue rumor began about a young man's heroism far from home. When he moved back to Springfield, Vermont (my hometown), everyone knew about it. Through a misunderstanding, he never found out about the rumor, but because of it, people started treating him differently--better, in fact. The last time I told this story was in Springfield, at a performance for adults at the public library. I could see people in the audience trying to work out who it was. Hey, maybe a new rumor started because of my personal fiction!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

What the audience takes from a story

I usually don't know how the stories I tell affect the listeners, or what exactly they get from the experience. Donald Davis says "Meaning is the property of the listeners, not the teller."

Years ago, I told the story "Unanana and the elephant" at a school. Later that week, I ran into some of the kids at the grocery store. They said, "You came to our school! You told that story about the kings and queens!" Huh? I couldn't figure out what story they meant, until I remembered that this story has one line about kings and queens, princes and princesses. One line, but to these kids, that was the nut, the key to the entire story.

Another time, I told Japanese stories at a middle school. The following week, I was telling a therapist about one of the stories. She said, "I know you told that one. I have a seventh grade client who told me the entire story in her session."

Last week I was out in Salina, KS, one of my favorite places to perform. I had performances for elementary and middle school kids for three days, then a family performance with another storyteller on Saturday. On Monday, I received an e-mail from a teacher about one of the school gigs. Here's an excerpt:
On Thursday, my students found a large stick out at recess. I gave my usual warnings: "Don't run with it. Be careful so you don't poke your eye out. Don't use it as a weapon..." Elijah picked up the stick and began walking around. (He usually plays "zombies and aliens" at recess.) He said, "This is a walking stick. I'm an old man. I'm a storyteller." He continued to walk around the playground, and then said, "See this playground? This used to be a village a long time ago. I used to live here. See those bars? Those used to be the doors to my house, one for my children and one for me and my wife." In a few minutes, he was back to talking about zombies and aliens . But for a short time, he was an old man, a storyteller.

I told Elijah's mom about this. She said that the night before, he had asked if there were any schools in McPherson. He said, "When I grow up, I want to be a storyteller in the schools in McPherson." (We are not sure why McPherson!)

In my performances, I try not to take on any kind of "storyteller" persona--I prefer to tell the stories simply. There were no old men, no walking sticks, nothing that would lead Elijah to do this, but he created the image on his own from listening to the stories. Clearly there was something he needed in the stories, something that spoke to him on an archetypal level. I could never have planned that. All I can do is tell my very best every time and hope that the right connections are made.

I hope he DOES grow up to be a storyteller in McPherson!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Yesterday I was looking through a few collections of humorous stories. Tales of laughter, edited by Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora Archibald Smith, was published in 1908. Famous tales and laughter stories, prepared by the University Society and the After School Club of America, was published in 1912. Great folktales of wit and humor, edited by James R. Foster, was published in 1955.

As I read through these, I didn't find one story that I would be interested in telling. There were many I recognized, a few I already tell (primarily in Tales of Laughter), but most just weren't funny enough. Some were preachy (especially in Famous tales), some were boring, some were the kind of humor that puts down a class or group of people. Some were just plain dated.

That made me wonder what I find funny in stories. Definitely word plays and twists of understanding, such as in Master of all masters, in which the master uses his own particular words for ordinary objects, or the Tale of the Squire's bride, in which the pompous squire isn't specific about what he wants when giving his boy orders. Bizarre combinations or events, such as the marriage of the chicken and the cockroach in Poule and Blatte. The victory of the traditionally powerless, as in all the stories about the baby I tell. Gentle breaking of taboos, as in Robert Munsch's story We share everything. Unexpected endings, surprises, such as the end of the story of cat and mouse and the butter ("So cat ate mouse, and from that day to this, cats and mice have NOT been good friends.").

I started looking at theories of humor. What could be less funny than a theory about humor? I found this quote from George Boeree, that humor is "the sudden awareness of an alternative construction of a distressful situation which dissipates (to some extent) that distress" Huh? Here's a more digestible quote from Tom Veatch: "Humor occurs when something is wrong that you care about, but everything is actually okay, and only occurs if you see (and feel) both views at the same time."

Is that true? I'll have to think about it.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Being recognized

Last week as I was on my way to Colorado to give some workshops (big fun!), I saw a group of teachers and school administrators in the airport, on their way to a conference. As we were chatting, I recognized one fellow in their group. In that same instant, he said, "Hey, you're the storyteller!"

In Colorado, one of the librarians in a workshop came up to talk to me--she'd been a librarian in Kansas years ago and had hired me to perform in her library. She'd even used something I'd taught her when she went to Colorado for her job interview.

I really like that kind of recognition. It usually happens with children. Today I was at the public library as a patron and noticed a couple of kids in sleepwear. Pajama day at school, I found out. One of the kids said, "We went trick-or-treating at your house!" I was pretty sure they hadn't, since I was home only a short time in between telling stories at Crafty and Co. and at an annual bonfire, so we discussed it a little more. I asked if she had perhaps heard me tell stories at the library. She wasn't sure until I mentioned a story I'd told. Yes! Her face lit up. Off she went with her mother to find my CDs in the children's department.

Once I was in a motel breakfast area in another town and had a mother recognize my voice. She and her son had heard me in their small town library a year or so earlier, and I think they bought one of my recordings.

It's a nice kind of fame to have. No paparazzi, just the occasional recognition that my stories or my puppets have connected with a listener.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"The Portraits"

One of the first stories I ever wrote to tell to adults is called "The Portraits." It's a strange story about the two portraits we had when I was a child. One is the portrait of my ancestor Sarah Vischer Schuyler Hoyle, the other of my great-grandfather on the other side of the family, Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe, the Episcopal bishop.

I've been telling this story since about 1989. I love bringing the characters to life, showing the expressions of these two portraits, and of myself as a kid. I can't quite say it's a ghost story, but it is odd, with unexpected twists in a couple of places.

I tell this story to adults and older kids. Sometimes kids (and occasionally adults) ask me if it's true. I remind them that all my stories start with a seed of truth. I used to say that truth is immutable and facts are flexible, but kids were highly dissatisfied with that answer. From time to time I turn the question back and ask them what they think. Is it true?

For the past few years, I've had the portrait of Sarah in my house. She's a dour looking old lady, with a face that is clearly related to mine. I hesitate to say that the nose runs in the family, but you know what I mean. The portrait was probably painted by an itinerant painter, who had the form prepared in advance (on a bedsheet, it turns out, not canvas) and just filled in the face.

When I first brought her home, I tried putting her on the main wall in my living room, but the darkness of the portrait was like a big black hole. Too scary. I shifted her to a smaller wall, with a lamp nearby. Much better. The only problem is that this wall is directly opposite my bedroom, and my bed is right inside the door. If I keep the door open, she watches me as I sleep. Unsettling. I close the door almost all the way, so the cat can still come and go.

A couple of weeks ago, I got up in the night and had the hingepin fall out of the door. The door then clunked off its hinge. This had happened several times, always in the night. Each time, I grumbled, hoisted the door back, pushed the pin back in, complained to myself about the silliness of having a hingepin on the bottom so it would fall out, and went back to bed, promising myself to fix it in the light of day. This time, I decided to take care of it. There I was at 3 a.m., screwdriver in hand, undoing the entire hinge and resetting it right side up, muscling the door back into place, all under the watchful eyes of Sarah Vischer Schuyler Hoyle and the cat.

She was a resourceful woman herself. As I say in the story, "She took her second husband to court when he tried to cheat her out of money her first husband had left her. She lost that case, but in our family, it was always called a landmark case." I think she might have been pleased that I did this minor repair on my own, even if it was in the middle of the night.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The book habit

"A room without books is like a body without a soul."--Cicero

Cicero would have liked my house. I've got books or magazines in every room. The other day a friend came over after I'd been noodling around in about twelve books, some of which were piled on the floor, some open on the sofa, mixed in with notes on scrap paper, bookmarks, and a magazine or two. My friend took one look and said, "It looks like study hall in here!"

It doesn't always look like that. Today I put the living room in order, so there are no piles of books. Three full bookcases, yes, but no piles. Here in the office, there are only four or five piles on the floor. I would put these books on the shelves, but I need to have these out so I'll look at them soon. One is the brand new annotated Grimm, absolutely beautiful. Some of the piles are library books--I have cards for three libraries in my wallet. I used to have a specific shelf for borrowed books, but I've run out of space for that.

In this office, there are three tall and two short bookcases. The bedroom has two tall bookcases, the kitchen has a short one, and there's a magazine holder in the bathroom. All are full. The pile next to the bed is about ten books tall right now.

I can't seem to help this. Sometimes I go through and weed my collection, taking the books I am willing to set free to the used bookstore. That's dangerous--I get credit, not cash, so more find their way to my house.

Last Sunday I got rid of six books at the 100 Good Women chocolate potluck and book swap, and I only brought home two. That would seem laudable, but the day before I went to the free day at the library book sale and came home with about twenty. That's on top of the six or so that I got for full price the previous week.

I scored big at that library sale: five old issues of Parabola, two PG Wodehouse novels (one was a duplicate in my Wodehouse collection), cartoons by Edward Koren, Let's go for broke by Mary Lasswell (well-loved but unknown to all but my family?), Great folktales of wit and humor by James R. Foster, More Celtic fairy tales collected by Joseph Jacobs, a book of Russian slang, a couple of books on Medieval romances, and more.

While it might sound as if I just collect books, I do read them. Like the rest of my family, I've been a reader since I was four. I especially love sitting quietly with my family, all of us reading together. I read while I eat, before I sleep, while I brush my teeth (that strange-looking thing on the side of the sink is a leather bookweight, to hold a book open while I floss).

There's comfort in knowing that I come from a long line of readers. Rumor has it that when my Grandmother Howe was a library trustee in Bristol RI, the books were delivered first to the house, where they were read by the family before going to the library (except for the trashy novels, which went straight to the Rogers Free Library).

Time for supper. Wonder what I'll read.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Short stories

In that last post I remembered that I don't have to write a long treatise. There's a place for short blog posts, just as there's a place for short stories.

Last month in the showcase at Midwest Arts, I had fifteen minutes to present what I do. In that time, I gave snippets from my longest story ("Tristan and Iseult" which weighs in at 95 minutes), and from six or seven other tales. I also told two short stories ("Truth and story" and "The twist-mouth family"). I think I came up with a minute to spare.

Much as I love telling a long story like "Tristan", I like having a pocketful of two-minute stories. Back when I was a librarian in Connecticut, a friend and I put on a Teller's Day. We invited all the storytellers we knew to turn up for a day of storytelling and discussion. Admission? One two-minute story.

These are the stories that work when I'm put on the spot by "You're a storyteller? Tell me a story." (that means you, Mom!). They're the stories that fill in spaces in a performance or that simply add a flourish to a program.

Here's my version of "Truth and Story," which I think has Hasidic origins:

Truth walked into town one day, thinking she'd go shopping. She walked into a store, but the storekeeper said, "Get out of here! We don't want your type around here!"

Truth went outside and some kids started taunting her. They yelled at her, threw rocks at her and chased her out of town.

She stood near the edge of town, crying. Along came her friend Story. Truth said, "Story, I don't get it. I wanted to go shopping, but they chased me out of town. I don't understand."

Story said, "Honey, look at you. You're naked! Nobody wants to look at naked Truth. Let's get you dressed up. I've got some clothes in my bag. What size dress do you wear? Oh, you'll look good in this blue. How about some earrings? Makeup?"

Story dressed Truth up, and the two walked into town arm in arm. Everybody who met them said, "Story! Truth! So nice to see you!"

From that day to this, whenever Truth has gone into town all dressed up, arm in arm with Story, she has been welcome."

©2000 Priscilla Howe

Registration is open

We now have a flyer for "Going Deep: The Long Traditional Story Festival"! Registration has begun. Soon we might even have a webpage for this. My dream now is to have a waiting list. That shouldn't be too hard, as there are only 15 spaces for participants to stay for the entire festival (the evening performances are open to the public and we'll have space for larger audiences). I sent the flyer to the storytell listserv and a few other folks, and within a few hours I had two positive responses. Yay!

Sling me an e-mail if you'd like the flyer. It's in Word and looks best as an attachment (thanks, Liz!).

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Family nights

Quite often I'm booked to tell stories at Family Night at schools. I love these!

My favorites are when the theme is "let's have fun with reading and stories," however it's billed. The kids bring their parents, siblings, grandparents. Sometimes the teachers and principal are dressed up for a theme, like last week's pirate theme at Spring Branch Elementary, or in pajamas and slippers. Everybody expects to have a good time. The students are wildly excited to be at a special event, with their friends, at school but with fewer restraints. I remember running full speed down the corridor during intermission at a play at John Howland Elementary School when I was in 4th grade. Exhilarating!

Even with all that excitement, the kids love the stories at Family Night and will listen for as long as I'll tell. I tell stories from books, especially by Robert Munsch and Philippa Pearce, two of my favorite authors (both of whom have given me permission to do so). I wind them up a bit with "The ghost with the one black eye," then calm them down for bedtime with "The gunniwolf," or another suitably peaceful story at the end of the program. Many of the kids come up to say goodbye to my puppet Trixie, who graciously shakes hands and occasionally kisses. There might be refreshments after the stories--Spring Branch had sundaes. Yum.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Post-trip cleanup

I've been away for most of the past two weeks, so now I have to deal with the mess. That's why I'm at my computer, not dealing with it yet.

Before I left on the first trip, I cleaned up. Now, from where I sit, I see a puppet crawling out of my soft briefcase on the floor (Mavis the monkey), a pile of catalogs and magazines from the first round of mail sorting, big bins of puppets and dress-up that I had to haul out of the closet in order to get to the box of brochures for last week, a bag of practice puppets for some workshops next month, my back up sound system, a stack of miscellaneous paper from the Arts Midwest conference, a bottle of ibuprofen, a box of thank you notes ready to be written, a full wastebasket ready to go out to the bin...

This is only in the office, and doesn't include quite a bit of flotsam on the desk. There's more, much more, in the other rooms of the house. Time to go do laundry.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Hi, my name is Joe, and I work in a button fac-tor-y

Remember that chant?

"Hi, my name is Joe, and I work in a button fac-tor-y
I've got a dog and three kids, that's my fam-i-ly
One day my boss came up to me
She said, 'Joe, are you busy?' I said 'no.'
'Push this button with your right hand.'

It goes on, with poor Joe pushing buttons with his left hand, right foot, left foot, elbow, knee, whatever, until after the tongue, when the answer to 'Joe, are you busy?' is YES!

Anyway, yesterday I made buttons (a.k.a. badges), the kind with slogans on them. Last year I bought a button machine so I could make these for the Midwest Arts conference in Kansas City, where I had an exhibit booth. I'm going again, this time to Indianapolis.

Here are a few of my favorites:
  • All my stories start with a seed of truth (this is my logo tagline)
  • And they lived happily ever after...or did they?
  • Truth is immutable, facts are flexible.
  • Stories rock!
  • Puppets rule! (slightly political, if you read it that way)
  • What if?
  • That's my story and I'm sticking to it!
  • "My tail is told," said the little boy on the block of ice.
  • And then what happened?
  • What's your story, morning glory?
It was fun watching people at the conference sift through the buttons, looking for the perfect one. It was much more interesting than just offering them my brochure, a sample CD and chocolate. Of course, I'll offer those as well.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The wedding last week

Last week seems so long ago. I had a good time in New England, first in Vermont for the wedding, then in Maine visiting my parents, then in Connecticut visiting good friends.

In Vermont, I saw the kids I used to babysit, now all grown up. Pete has a son of his own, a fabulous wild boy who looks a ton like his father did. Angela was married in August and seems happy with her life. The youngest, Kristen, was getting married to Hans on this weekend in a relaxed backyard celebration. Kristen had asked if I would tell a story at the reception, and of course I agreed.

After the wedding, we had appetizers, and then lined up table by table to pile delicious food on our plates from the buffet. Hans is Swedish, and I got to sit next to his grandmother, the only one of the family who spoke no English. She was lovely. After the meal, we had speeches from the fathers (accompanied by catcalls from the mothers and adult children) and the friends, and of course the toasts (schnapps first, with the songs, then champagne). Grandmother sang to the couple in Swedish, and then the hall was cleared so we could get ready for the cake. During the cake, we had a slide show of the wedding couple's parallel upbringings, presented with much laughter by the mothers.

I thought maybe there wouldn't be time for the stories I had prepared, or maybe people would not be interested in listening, but Kristen wanted me to tell after the slide show. Pete and Angela had left early. Too bad--they would have liked hearing "The peanut butter story" again after so many years. They, with Kristen, were the main characters.

I told that story and then "Wali Dad, the simple-hearted," a quiet story from India about a man with a generous heart who brought a princess and a prince together. Next time I'm asked to tell a story at a wedding, I know just the story!

I was surprised. Everybody listened. Nobody chatted in the back of the room, nobody banged the door, nobody even scraped a fork on a plate. And when I was done, it was time to dance.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005


Whew. What a storm. Being here in landlocked Kansas, all I can do is send prayers and maybe cash, look at the pictures in the paper and remember other hurricanes. We had big storms, gales, and I think a few hurricanes when I was a kid in Rhode Island but all I remember is wading in the overflowing storm drain puddle at the end of the street.

I was in Gloria in New York City in 1985. It wasn't too bad. I lived in International House, an independent dorm for graduate students in schools around the city. It was the only day in the entire year that almost everybody was home. We hung out, played scrabble, went up on the roof (!), and went for a walk down Broadway when the skies had cleared.

There was one in 1991 when I lived in Connecticut. My parents were visiting friends in Rhode Island and were on their way to my house. Mostly I remember Dad grumbling about being evacuated--as a Rhode Islander, he'd been through his own interesting times in hurricanes (care to comment, Dad?).

This one is something else. For a resident storyteller's view, check out Dianne de Las Casas' blog.

Wedding stories

I'm going to a wedding this weekend. I've known the bride since she was 6 days old--and I was in college. I asked her mother for suggestions on wedding presents. The e-mail response came a few days later: Kristen would like me to tell a story at the reception.

Wedding stories. The first time I was asked to tell a story at a wedding was back in the mid '90s. A friend of my sister asked if I could tell the story of how she and her sweetie met, and their lives together since. Over ice cream, the couple told me their story. I listened, wrote everything down, listened, asked questions, listened and put it all aside. After a while, I was able to find a thread that ran through all their adventures. I found a form for the story.

I enjoyed telling their own story at the wedding, but it was a little chancy--I seem to have a problem with facts. I got partway through the story and forgot the next bit. I chose to strike a pensive pose, looking down at the ground. Inside I was cursing. What came next?! I couldn't make it up! Then I remembered to breathe and the next piece of their story came back to me.

For this upcoming wedding, it won't be so tricky, I don't think. I'll tell a story I invented when I was about 13 about the kids in this family--I added Kristen's name to the story after she was born. Once the kids made me a little book of "The peanut butter story," nicely illustrated.

And what else? This isn't a full performance, so I'll probably just tell one more, maybe two. I've been looking for the right one. Should I tell an old chestnut, like "Sir Gawain and the loathly lady"? Should I tell a folk tale that's funny and ends well, like the Irish story "The lazy young woman"? Or should I jump right in and tell a new one? It can take a long time to find the right story, and a long time to make it my own, but sometimes, just sometimes, I can find one, love it, learn it and have it work well. It may become a part of the full repertoire as it sinks into my body and mind, or it may be a flash in the pan. Some stories take years, literally, to learn (and sometimes understanding comes much later).

I'll let you know what I tell, but probably not until after the fact.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

ADD and me

Hm. I sat down to write something, not sure what, then remembered that I needed to put a new ink cartridge in the printer, so I can print a promotional piece as I write. I got up to get the cartridge, then decided that lunch would be a good idea. I turned the radio on as I got my lunch, English muffin with mustard, smoked turkey and sharp cheddar, yum! While the English muffin was toasting, I called time and temp so I could set the microwave clock. As I ate, I opened Delivered from Distraction, the book on Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) I've been reading. Oh, that's what I should write about! Even as I write that, I think, dang, I forgot to put the printer cartridge in...

Despite never having had a real diagnosis, I've known for a long time that I most likely have ADD (officially called ADHD, but I like ADD better--am I really hyperactive?). As I read this book I realize that lots of my friends and family probably do, too.

I don' t think of it as a disorder, though. Yeah, there are parts of it which make life more difficult, but generally, it's a gift. For quite a while, I've been calling it "diffuse attention." It means that I'm aware of what's going on at several levels when I'm performing. I'm watching everything: the story, my own energy, the audience. I'm paying attention to where I get a laugh, or where I don't, where a long pause makes a difference, where speeding up shifts the story. I wrote about this in the post on energy of space. Occasionally I find myself pulled out of the story, but usually all I have to do is remind myself to be present.

Because of this, I'm forgiving of children in the audience who need to move a little bit, as long as they're not bothering anybody. I build in repetitive hand gestures and phrases into stories for young children so the kinesthetic learners have something to do to anchor them physically in the story.

It also means that I can keep lots of stories in my head at once, lots of projects going at the same time. I think it's why I can improvise within a story or with a puppet.

True enough, I have phone messages written on the backs of envelopes and on scrap paper around my house, and I have a tendency to procrastinate or lose focus when I'm working on something less than scintillating. Conversation with me can be an adventure or just plain confusing, as I tend to flit from idea to idea. I'm always reading about eight books at once.

I've set up systems to help myself stay on track. Lists and deadlines help. My Palm is invaluable, not only for playing Scrabble. Periodically I sort and file all the piles of clutter in my house, all at once (I think of this as "infrastructure cleaning"). I try to arrive at gigs early enough that nobody, including me, is anxious.

I'm interested in the strategies in this book for working with ADD. I already do some of them: meditation, regular exercise, systems that help me keep track of my life, having creative outlets. There are others that look intriguing: brain exercises to help focus, taking omega-3 fatty acids.

Maybe I'll go look up some of the websites on ADD. Or I'll put the printer cartridge in.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Long story festival

Hmm, I think all I needed to do was write that post yesterday to get myself back to work. That, and talking on the phone with Liz Warren about our upcoming project, "Going Deep: The Long Traditional Story Festival."

We're really going to do it. We've talked and dreamed about this for years.

Here are some details: March 16-19, 2006 at Cynthia Changaris' Storyteller's Riverhouse in Bethlehem, Indiana (not far from Louisville, KY). Three long stories in the evenings, three long workshops the next morning, three afternoons to stroll by the Ohio River or nap or chat quietly. We have space for 15 participants to stay for the entire festival, though of course the public is invited to attend the evening events for a small fee.

What stories? Liz Warren will start us off in style with her elegant telling of "The Grail," the quintessential hero's journey. The next night Olga Loya will captivate us with an Aztec creation myth. We'll save romance for the last night, when I tell "Tristan and Iseult."

Who might come to this? Storytellers, storylisteners, librarians, academics, anybody who says, "Hey, cool! Count me in!"

Whaddya think?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


August is like this. I can't remember what I'm supposed to be doing.

I don't have many performances or workshops, libraries are done with summer reading programs and schools haven't begun. I know I should be working on my marketing or on other projects, but I have very little focus. How about another game of solitaire? Bejeweled? Bookworm? (I warn you, click on those at your own risk. They will suck the brains out of your head and hours out of your life.)

I had a plan this afternoon. I was going to sit down at Z's Divine Espresso and write out a plan for the five or six projects coming up. Instead I went to Office Depot and Target. I thought I'd come home by way of the coffeeshop, but before I knew it, I was pulling back in to my driveway. I sat down to check e-mail (a fine stalling tactic) and then needed to have a nap. Now it's almost 6 p.m., a time that seems just wrong to have coffee, even decaf. I could sit on my porch swing and write, but the last time I did that, I only got a paragraph down before my brain switched into daydream mode.

I guess this is a day off. That's one of the things that happens in the self-employed person's life. It's usually late in the day when I realize that it's a mental health day. There's always a chance that I'll find some motivation after supper for a bit of work. That also sometimes happens--I'll have a little thought that turns into a bigger thought and then it's ten p.m. and I've actually accomplished something. Or it's ten p.m. and I've played another game or six of spider solitaire.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Dog days

Midnight came over to visit again yesterday. She's a black Lab mix who lives two houses away. Her owners seem unaware of the leash law in town. On the one hand, I wish they would take better care of their dog and would clean up after her (good thing the other neighbor who mows my lawn uses a riding mower), and on the other hand, I love her visits.

The first time she came over, she was very skittish. She eventually let me pat her. Now she runs over when she hears my screen porch door open or when I drive up. She has lovely toast-colored eyes, and a sincere look reminiscent of a certain Lab/setter mix in my past. She also has only half a tail, which doesn't keep her from wagging her entire back end.

I thought maybe she wanted food, but the other night when I offered her a corn chip she took it politely, carried it to the grass and put it down. She sat down next to it and watched me. I told her it was okay if she wanted to eat it. She didn't. I've tried throwing a stick for her. She's not interested. She occasionally drinks water I put out for her, but it's becoming clear that she merely wants to be patted.

Midnight doesn't bark and isn't aggressive. The night of the corn chip, she was on my lawn and I was on my porch swing when some boys went by with a big dog on a leash. They were on the other side of the street. Midnight just watched.

Last night I was on the porch swing with my cat, Joe Fish, when Midnight strolled over. At first she didn't notice the cat, but then she began smiling. No barking, no chasing. Joe hissed. She didn't show a strong reaction, but she also didn't come up on the porch. Joe Fish didn't threaten her again.

Last week I had story night in my backyard and Midnight came over. She grazed on some fescue while I told the first story, and eventually wandered out of the yard. Maybe tonight I should tell dog stories.

I'd like to have a dog of my own, but I travel a lot and I have this fabulous geezer cat who wouldn't be pleased. Maybe Midnight is the solution. As I write this, I'm realizing that I'm doing exactly what my grandmother used to do, playing hostess to a neighbor dog. Granny had two or three who used to visit regularly. (Mom, you can probably clarify this.)

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The energy of space

I've come to understand that much of my work is about energy management. While telling the stories I love, in order to be effective, I have to manage my own energy, the energy of the audience, the energy of the story, and the energy of the space. Am I pushing too hard in this place? Am I losing that kid in the third row? Does this story need a pause here? Have I set up the space so that everyone can listen easily? I imagine it is like being a conductor, or maybe like playing a pipe organ (MADewH, want to weigh in on that?), paying attention to everything all at once. I like it. It's also why a day of four performances can be totally exhausting. Fun, but tiring.

I've learned how to do this through the years. A few weeks ago I had an example of how the wrong setup of the space can sabotage all the other aspects. I was at a library that uses a former school gym for performance space. I walked in and saw that it was set up so I was in the middle of the room, and the kids were to be on the bleachers.

I explained to the librarian that I'd prefer to have the audience on the floor, with me at the narrow end of the room under the basketball hoop.

She said no, she wanted to be consistent with what they always do.

I explained that when I'm in the middle of the room like that, and the kids are spread the width of the room, they can't pay attention. The energy of the story seems to go into the air behind me, and the kids don't focus. It's better to have something behind me to define the space and hold the energy in. (This is also why outdoor storytelling can be a challenge.)

She said no, she wanted to be consistent with what they always do. They'd tried it the other way once and it didn't work.

I tried again.

She said no, she wanted to be consistent with what they always do.

I was getting angry, something that rarely happens. I've never been a prima donna storyteller, I don't think, but I explained that I've been doing this for twelve years full time (didn't mention the five years part time before that) and that this is something I do understand. She went away to ask her supervisor.

By the time she came back (without the supervisor), I had calmed down and decided that I'd rather not fight. I agreed to do it her way. I resisted quoting Emerson, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, adored by petty statesmen, philosophers and divines."

Did I mention that this room had no air conditioning, just big fans on the floor, on one of the hottest days of the summer? I did know that in advance, so I was prepared. I wasn't prepared for the librarian to give the children, mostly preschoolers, paper fans. Preschoolers and paper fans, imagine it. About 150 of them. On bleachers. Heat rises.

I did my best, but it wasn't very good. There were a few kids in the middle who seemed to be paying attention, but many were unaware of what I was doing or saying. I felt set up for failure. The librarian's comment at the end? "Thanks, they loved it!" Huh.

Thank goodness every other performance since then, including one later that day at another library, has been great fun, with the kids listening attentively and all of us having a good time. In fact, of the more than 60 performances since June 1, only two or three were less than optimal. That's pretty good.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Long traditional stories

The conference seems so long ago now. I've been home for over a week, and have had six more performances (with five more to go this week and then I'm DONE for almost the rest of the summer!).

One of the high points was hearing Megan Wells do her showcase of "Helen's Troy." Last March, another storyteller told me, "You have to hearMegan tell that story!" She was right. Megan's telling is graceful, elegant, compelling. "Crystalline" comes to mind, though that sounds cold, and it wasn't. It's a long traditional piece, cut down for this venue to 90 minutes. Megan has been telling it in theaters, with lighting, costume and sound, since it's hard to find a storytelling venue for these long stories.

I'd known that she tells other long traditional stories, because a few years ago Drew Gibson put on Epic Fest in Vermont, and Megan was one of the tellers. I heard about it after the fact, alas. Even before hearing about it, I'd been talking with Liz Warren from Arizona about our own long traditional stories (she tells "The Grail," I tell "Tristan and Iseult"). In our discussions, we've focused on traditional stories, the ones that have been around for hundreds of years, not personal or literary stories.

One thing we have learned is that these stories are deeply satisfying for the teller and the listeners. We get a chance to live in the story for longer, to go into story trance and come out the other side. Wouldn't it be great if there were more venues for this kind of profoundly nourishing story?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Lyceum performance

Last week at the National Storytelling Conference in Oklahoma City, I performed in the Lyceum (a.k.a. the Fringe). This was the first year of the Fringe Festival. Last fall, over 60 storytellers put their names in a lottery to tell a long performance piece at the conference. I'd been at the top of the waiting list for a couple of months, but when I left home on Wednesday, I figured I wouldn't be telling.

On Friday morning, I got word that the fellow who was supposed to be on at 7:00 p.m. had not yet shown up and hadn't registered. I was the next on the waiting list, so for the rest of the day, I wondered if I'd get to tell. Just in case, I had brought flyers for "Blood, guts, spies and fat naked ladies: the Bulgarian stories." I passed these around with the warning that I might not be on, if the fellow showed up.

I had planned to go to workshops in the afternoon, but decided to rest, soak in the hot tub, and work on my story. At around 5, I learned that registration was closed and the storyteller on the schedule still hadn't arrived (he has a reputation for showing up late). Since the Lyceum performers were required to be registered for the whole conference, it was clear I'd be performing.

Was I ready? I hoped so. I knew that the beginning and ending parts of the story were solid. I'd been telling them for years in performance. I had told the middle parts conversationally for years as well.

I've heard other tellers talk about how scary it is to tell to other storytellers. I didn't feel that. The audience was full of friends as well as folks I'd never met. Barbara Schutzgruber and Mary Hamilton, two of the organizers for this event, made me feel completely at ease. Before I began, I showed the assembled crowd a couple of my warm-ups. The good energy in the room was palpable.

When storytelling works, it can be like a dance with the listeners, each of us taking our steps at the perfect time. This story felt like that, even in the less polished parts. Aaah.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Time for a breath

Not much of a breath, but a little one. It has been a great summer so far, and today I had my 51st performance since June 1. Crazy! I'm going to try very hard not to schedule myself so tightly again. Need I say that I'm a little tired? Wired, too, which is why I'm writing this instead of sitting on my porch swing enjoying the summer evening. Today I had three performances, in Marysville, Clifton and Wamego, KS. I was gone from home for almost 11 hours, and drove more than 300 miles.

Never mind, it was a very fun day. Each library performance is slightly different, though the stories may be the same. Lately my dragon puppet Belle has been very kissy, giving me a smooch on the cheek when I'm least expecting it. In Marysville, one little boy demanded that she kiss me again. Shocking! She also ordered pizza on her "tail-a-phone" at all three performances. In Clifton, the kids had heard The ghost with the one black eye on my CD at the library, so they were happy to hear it again.

I hadn't quite realized what a large fan base I have in Wamego. This was the first time I'd told at the library, but I'd been to West Elementary three times, so kids knew me. They made very specific requests: "Where's the monkey puppet?" "Would you tell that story in another language?" (that was The ghost, which I did in Bulgarian for them, as they'd heard it in French at school) and "Tell The great sharp scissors!" Instead of complying with this last request, I told Rapunzel, which of course has it's own dramatic moment involving scissors.

I get the day off tomorrow. Well, not exactly. I have to do a bunch of office work, take the cat to the vet, and get ready to go to the National Storytelling Conference in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, but that's all in town. Tonight I'll sleep well.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

More rambling from the road

Not much focus today. I've got my 33rd and 34th performances of the month today, with three more tomorrow. This might be the most I've ever done in a month.

I'm writing this from a motel, one I chose because it had a pool. I'm not swimming, though, because I realized that this pool is within sight of the turnpike interchange. Not exactly relaxing! I was a bit alarmed when I registered, worried that I might not be able to sleep for the sound of trucks braking and revving. No need to fret, though--I've been tired enough not to notice.

Not too tired to have a good time at the performances, though. At a library in a primarily Spanish-speaking area, I told "The fleaskin drum," a Mexican story. I don't speak Spanish, but I know a few words and understand a fair amount, so I include some words in Spanish in this story. The kids giggled hysterically when I said "la pulga" (the flea), "la hormiguita" (the ant), "la cucaracha" (the cockroach) and "el ratoncito" (the mouse, though we had a discussion about whether it was mouse or rat and finally settled for small rodent).

There was a big group that came in together. When we were leaving, I commented to the couple who seemed to be in charge. The man told me that they have a bunch of rental properties, so they started a reading program for the kids there. They bring the children to the library. What a great idea!

After that evening performance, I took myself out to eat at a Mexican restaurant that is my friend Judy's favorite. Yum. I've had no pie on this trip, though I asked yesterday at a small family restaurant in Haysville. Last night I had a lovely curry at a Thai restaurant. That's one of the benefits of being in a bigger city on tour--there's a nice choice of restaurants.

Must be breakfast time. More later.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

"Tristan and Iseult" at the JDC

Yesterday I told "Tristan and Iseult" at a Juvenile Detention Center, the same facility where I did a writing workshop in March. None of the kids I met back then were in my audience yesterday.

The kids were attentive, after they settled in to the idea of listening to a story, after they realized that I wasn't going to treat them like babies. A few of them talked to me during the intermission and afterwards, though many were reserved. Kids in this sort of situation often take a little more time to gauge the situation and the adults around them.

The ideal season and time for this particular story would be a winter evening, with the audience sitting comfortably, possibly with a mug of hot cider or some other libation.

Yesterday I began at 9:00 a.m., in the JDC gym, a stark rectangular room with a cement floor. The kids sat on blue plastic chairs, girls in front and boys behind them. There were 11 girls and about 30 boys, down 30 kids from just last week, I heard. I had my microphone set up because of the echo-ey space and the occasional interruptions of walkie-talkies. Staff came in and out. A few kids had to go to other sessions (court? counseling? who knows?) in the middle of the story.

Every time I go to the JDC, I'm struck by how regular the kids seem. I don't know and I'm not allowed to ask why they're there. I do know that they listen in the same way that other kids do, and they ask the same kinds of questions at the end. While I hope the story has a good effect on them, I also know that I'm not in charge of what they get from it. I think it went well yesterday.

On Friday, I'll tell this story again, at a public library, as a Young Adult program. I bet the listeners will look just about the same, though not in JDC uniforms (white or blue tee shirt, blue sweatpants, white sneakers). Hope they like it.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

What's a pigway?

About 300 pounds...

I've always wanted to use that joke. On Thursday I was in Pittsburg, KS telling "A dark and stormy night." This is a circular story--it never ends, so I go around and around telling it in different voices. I tell it mad, sad, with the hiccups, like a chicken, etc. I ask the kids to give me suggestions. After I told it like a--bawk--chicken--bawk, a kid in the front row asked me to tell it "the pig way." Perfect setup! "What's a pig way?" I asked, and then answered myself, "Oh, I know--about 300 pounds." Now I think I'll set it up for myself in the next shows.

This was a good week. No pie, but good performances in the libraries of southeast Kansas. My set list changes a little bit but basically is the same throughout. You'd think I'd get bored. I don't, for the most part. This is one of the things I love about telling stories: as I tell a story over and over, I learn more about it. I have the chance to get under the skin of the story and understand it in new ways. Also, as each audience is different, the story changes slightly in relation to the listeners. It's definitely not theater.

The story that fascinated me the most this week is Rapunzel. I've only recently begun telling this classic. I think it's a trance story. Even the tinies go into a very quiet interior listening place. I believe Doug Lipman talks about "front of the seat" stories and "back of the seat" stories. This one is a "back of the seat" story, where the listeners are deep inside, sitting quietly all the way back in their seats. The ghost with the one black eye is a "front of the seat story," where the listeners are laughing, joining in, sitting right up on the front edge of the seat (or occasionally standing up without even realizing it). I told Rapunzel ten times this week, shifting bits here and there, changing pace, tweaking the telling each time. My ending is not completely traditional, but it doesn't stray too far. I encourage the kids to go look for other versions in the library, in that magical Dewey Decimal section, 398.2.

That's it for today. I get a few days off before returning to the fray. Tuesday I'm telling the Medieval Romance Tristan and Iseult at the Juvenile Detention Center. Can't wait!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


I'm writing this from a motel in Chanute, KS. Yesterday I had performances in Garnett, Gridley and LeRoy, today I'll be at the libraries in Chanute and Parsons. I left my good harmonica in the library in Gridley, but Janet has promised to mail it back to me. Fortunately I have a spare in the car.

I like these tours, several days of performances in different places. I like visiting small towns, hanging out with kids at the libraries. Every library is decorated differently for the summer theme.

I have big chunks of time in between performances or afterward, where I'm at loose ends. I often don't know anybody in the area other than the librarians. I walk around the town, I take books to read, I always have my journal, I can play games on my Palm, and of course I can write this blog. I take myself out to eat--Mexican restaurants are often a good bet, Chinese can be iffy, a regular hamburger in the local cafe is usually just fine, especially if I can get a good piece of pie (none so far on this trip). Unless there's a fancy coffee place around, I get my breakfast coffee at McDonalds, I confess, because they have real half and half and the coffee is usually strong enough.

In the motel, I find myself fascinated by the TV, because at home I don't have cable and don't often pull the TV out of the closet. Click, another reality show, click, there are the Golden Girls again, click, intense men with twitching jaws in crime dramas, click, a woman sobbing into her pillow, click, cartoons, click, shopping galore, click, off, maybe it's time for a nap.

More later.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Cake pans, pies, etc.

I haven't been on my quest for the best restaurant pie in a while, but I expect to begin the search again soon. I thought about it yesterday, as I drove through a few small towns on my way to Osage City, KS. I passed Shirley's Cafe in Overbrook, where I had a good piece of apple about six years ago. I went through Scranton, where I've told stories but haven't had any pie. I wondered if there was a place in Burlingame, a town with a main street so wide there's parking in the middle of it.

On Tuesday I go to Troy, up in Northeast Kansas, for a library performance. Maybe I'll find pie up there. Or maybe I'll have to wait for the Southeast Kansas Library System tour, beginning on the 13th.

Back to Osage City... I hadn't been there for a few years, and the last time the library hired me I told stories in a temporary space. They now have a beautiful new library, very welcoming. I got there early, in a downpour, so I had time to look around.

One of the things I noticed was that the library lends out cake pans. Not the standard 9x6 (or whatever the regular size is), but fancy shapes. I had never heard of this until I was up in Norton, KS in March giving a workshop for the Northwest Kansas Library System. They had bundt pans in the shape of a castle for the libraries in the system to borrow, to fit the "Dragons, dreams and daring deeds" theme. We had lunch at the workshop, which included castle cakes and castle-shaped jello.

I wonder if lending cake pans is widespread, or if it's a rural midwest custom. I like the idea, and if I were a cake-baker, I'd be happy to live in a place where I could borrow an unusual pan. I prefer pie, though and I've got a couple of glass pie pans that work just fine.

I don't bake pie often, but I baked two last week. One was cherry, with a homemade crust (half butter, half shortening) and the other was apple, with a store-bought crust. The apple was an afterthought. I think that's why the cherry was so much better.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Cat on lap

I'm kittied in at the moment. I have plans to work on the tower for the Rapunzel puppet show, but I can't move. Joe Fish is curled up comfortably on my lap. Yes, I could get up, but if I do, he'll take the chair and it will be difficult to get it back.

So maybe I need to do some other work here at the computer.

I could do my Quicken accounts, which I haven't looked at in far too long, but that requires getting up to get my checkbook and I don't really want to.

I could work on the pieces of "Blood, guts, spies and fat naked ladies" that need shaping. My friend Joyce Slater came over yesterday and helped me immensely on this piece. I'm at the top of the waiting list to tell it at the National Storytelling Concert in the Lyceum performance (why did they change that from "fringe"?). While I don't wish anybody ill, I hope the next person on the list decides not to come, or maybe decides they aren't ready to tell.

I could work on my novel, which has been undisturbed for months, until this morning when I wrote a little bit that might fit in. I remembered that I really like the characters in it. I cried when one of them died. Writing the first draft as part of nanowrimo was really fun, but now I'm at the point of editing and rewriting the next draft. It's teeeeeeeediiiiiioooooouuuuussssss.

I could write some e-mails, catching up on some old stuff. I could write a draft of a letter to a Bulgarian folklorist, in response to her letter of several months ago.

Or I could play another round of Spider solitaire, to which I am unfortunately addicted. Again.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

It's almost summer!

I love summer. This one is going to be great, with tons of work mostly in libraries around Kansas, a little in Missouri and two gigs in Oklahoma. Maybe I'll find some good pie.

I'm thinking of having my bathing suit in the car, so I can go to the city pools in the small towns, after my performances. It has been a few years since I did that, back when I had a car with no air conditioning (seven years in Kansas with no AC in the car!). I'd ask the kids at the performance who was going swimming after the performance. They'd tell me where the city pool was. After paying my dollar or two, I would jump in and cool off. The kids would show off their dives and dogpaddles, "Watch this! Watch this!" Then it would be time to dress, get back in the car and drive home or on to the next gig.

Library shows are usually big fun. You never know what will happen. A few weeks ago I had a performance where a young child (2? 3? girl? boy?) came up and stood right in front of me for most of a story, facing the audience. I'm not sure what that was about. Sometimes kids get so involved in a story they stand up without realizing it. Sometimes there's a low roar of babies and toddlers, and sometimes those babies and toddlers are completely quiet and listening.

I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, May 12, 2005


My oldest nephew graduates from high school on Sunday. How did this happen so soon?! When I moved here in 1993, Willie was in first grade. I moved here in part to see him grow up. I would test out new stories on him. "What about this one? Does this work?" I sometimes went into his elementary school classrooms to tell stories. The first performance of the beginning of "Tristan and Iseult" was in the fourth grade of Hillcrest Elementary School.

Once, when Willie was about six, I walked past him making faces in the bathroom mirror. I stopped and said, "Good job skill, Willie, good job skill." He has a great rubber face, a very useful attribute, and a well-developed sense of humor. He's a drummer, which only adds to his comic timing. He also has the family penchant for saying ridiculous things in weird accents.

In junior high school, I went to see him in countless plays. He was really good, and I'm not just being a proud aunt. Well, maybe I am, but it's true. A few years ago, when I was given an arts award in town, Willie made the presenting speech simply and clearly, with quiet confidence. That was as nice as the actual award.

I'll be in the audience on Sunday, with plenty of kleenexes handy.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Rereading old journals

It can be so embarrassing--and enlightening--to do what I've been doing today: rereading one of my old journals. This is one I began in 1983, when I was on my way to Bulgaria for the year. I was 22 and thought I was an adult.

In this journal, I see that I left the US (on a standby flight) with $980 for the year. The airplane tickets had to come out of that. I knew that I'd be receiving a stipend from the Bulgarian government, but I had no idea how much it would be. I wrote that my parents seemed worried about me, "and also a bit jealous." My 43-year-old self laughed out loud at this, but my 22-year-old-self was entirely serious. I was so earnest!

I was also often lonely. This isn't my main memory of that year, but it's a theme running through the journal. As I reread, I remember the feeling. It occurs to me that I've only read up to the beginning of January. I was just finding my way at that point. My friend Marie didn't turn up in Sofia until later in the month, and I made other friends more easily later in the year. (Marie, remember going to the country with Salvador and his friend?)

I'm reading the diary for a reason: I've been working on a set of personal fiction stories called "Blood, Guts, Spies and Fat Naked Ladies: The Bulgarian Cycle." It's in parts, some of which I've been telling in performance for years. Some I've just told in conversation. In performance, I try to remember to tell my listeners "all my stories start with a seed of truth."

Within my diary, I'm looking for a specific incident I remember imperfectly, an incident that may be the pivot point in the "Spies" section of the story. I haven't found it yet. We'll see if this seed grows from my memory or from what I wrote at the time.

I've put my name in to the lottery to be in the Lyceum performance at the National Storytelling Conference, and last I heard I was third on the waiting list. This is the first time they've done this fringe festival as part of the conference. Each performer will get 55 minutes. Not enough for me to tell "Tristan and Iseult," but enough for these Bulgaria-inspired stories. Even if three people don't drop out, I'm happy to be working on this cycle, and to be meeting my younger self.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Up to Downs and back again

I meant to follow last week's post immediately with one about the Kansas Storytelling Festival in Downs, but by the time I got to it, I was knee-deep in the Kansas City Storytelling Celebration. Now I have a moment to breathe.

The Kansas Storytelling Festival started in 1994. This date sticks in my mind, as it was one of the first festivals I was invited to since I became a full-time storyteller in 1993.

Downs is a pretty little town in north-central Kansas, between Osborne and Cawker City (home of the biggest ball of twine). It's not far from the geodetic center of the continental US. The Downs Art Council is active, hosting the storytelling festival, the festival of the trees, and an acoustic coffeehouse called "Downs Unplugged," among other events. They've got a great corps of volunteers who dive right in to the work of putting on a festival.

At the first KS Storytelling Festival, I had several performances. Most, if not all, were attended by a set of four blonde sisters, ranging in age from six months to six years (I think). The Koops girls were my first Downs groupies. Even the little one, Jenny, listened attentively. Now the oldest is on her way to college, and Jenny is 13.

This year was my fifth time at the festival. Lots of the locals know me and greet me by name when I arrive. This time, I got there at lunchtime, just pulling in at the same time as Jim "Two Crows" Wallen and his wife Deb.

We went down to the Railroad Inn for lunch, a tiny restaurant right next to the tracks. We peered around, trying to find an empty table, and I spied Terry Koops (the uncle of the blonde girls, I think--Koops is a common name in this Dutch-settled town), sitting with a friend. We pulled up chairs to his table and I began the introductions before we even ordered (incredible fried chicken, and if I'd had room, I would have had the strawberry shortcake). Terry is famous for having won the liar's contest at the festival many years in a row. In fact, they told him he couldn't enter anymore. The prize is, of course, a shovel of the kind often found in barnyards. No subtlety there, but it is a liar's contest...

Anyway, that was a good start to the festival. We were welcomed everywhere we went. I was put up in the home of the Bihlmaiers, a gracious couple who've moved into town from their farm (Margaret even gave me some of her chokecherry jelly to bring home). The stories flowed all weekend. The first year of the festival, it was mainly locals who came to listen. Now there are folks from all over--Oklahoma, Missouri, Colorado, other parts of Kansas, as well as the locals.

Hmm, I was going to write about the Kansas City Celebration here, but I'll save that for next time.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Family resemblances

Last week I went to a festival where I didn't perform. Not even a storytelling festival: the William Inge Theatre Festival in Independence, KS, home of the late playwright William Inge.

My sister Mary and our friend Joyce Slater went down for a specific reason: we wanted to meet the featured playwright, Tina Howe and see her current work-in-process, "Luncheon on the grass." The reading was great--I can't wait to see the play when it's done! Tina is our second cousin (our grandfathers were brothers), but we'd never met. Our extended family is huge, so that's not uncommon. It was big fun to meet Tina, even briefly.

Every time I meet a long-lost relative, I'm amazed at the power of our genes and our family culture. We look related! On this side of the family, many of us have this big rectangular smile and deepset eyes. On the other side, we look Dutch. The resemblances transcend the physical. We often seem to have a similar outlook on life, similar sense of humor, similar ways of speaking. In our family, on both sides, literature and arts are valued. Many of us dwell in the impractical world of ideas. We're able to make our livings, and our lives, from those ideas. Daydreaming is in our job descriptions.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Prairie fires, miniatures, misc.

Last week I had a treat: I drove out to McPherson, KS to tell stories at the library, and on the trip I got to see the fields burning. They do this on purpose to promote growth, to simulate the fires started by lightning. Best of all, I drove back in the dark and could see the lines of orange flame stretching for miles. The car smelled just like Girl Scout camp. I love watching these fires. Back in 1994, I drove home from Topeka on a back road. One of the fires had come down into the ditch by the road.

I just found a site for Flint Hills Adventures, a company that takes people out to "range burning parties." Could be interesting.

Then on Saturday, I had another treat: I told stories at the Toy and Miniature Museum of Kansas City. They have storytellers there every Saturday, booked through the River and Prairie Storyweavers, the local storytelling guild. It's not much pay, but the museum is incredibly fun. Room after room of toys, games and miniatures, all laid out wonderfully. There's a temporary exhibit of boat models, fancy square riggers. I went through an entire room of Russian laquer boxes. I looked at all the peep shows (nothing risque that I noticed). There's a big new exhibit of marbles of every type and description. My favorite part in that room was a three-sided Rube Goldberg contraption/sculpture involving marbles, pulleys, ramps, bells, hoists and gravity. Very fun!

The performance was small, appropriately for the Miniature Museum. That is, I had only four children: a three-year-old, a two-year-old and twin babies. There were also five adults. I think they had a good time with the gentle stories for tinies. The babies gave me lovely gummy smiles from time to time. I learned early on as a storyteller not to mind if I had a small audience, or none at all, especially in a library or museum. You never know who will turn up.

I loved examining the miniatures. Tiny, tiny furnishings for houses, complete with petit (extremement petit) point embroidery, eensy little apples in a bowl, a display of weapons designed to slay the largest beetle. My friend Chris, who came along for the ride, found out that in the true miniatures, all mechanical items work, as the miniature camera does. I'm fairly sure that the printing press was functional, though I couldn't read the print it produced.

These miniatures reminded me of a book a friend recommended: Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Corrine May Botz. It's about the dollhouses created by Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy woman in Chicago in the 1940s who had a fascination for crime and investigation. She made dollhouses of crime scenes specifically to train investigators. These dollhouses included all details, including bloodstains and overturned chairs. Creepy and fascinating. Bruce Goldfarb wrote an article about this in 1992 in American Medical News.

Back to the museum. I didn't get to all the rooms. I know I missed the dolls, the trains, most of the games, the teddy bears. I missed some of the dollhouses. I'm planning to go back, possibly many times, just to take it all in.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Driving, driving, driving

I did the last three of the Kansas library system workshops last week, in Russell, Wichita and Iola, KS. Big fun, as I'd expected. Lots of driving, as I also expected.

As I drove to Russell, I could see a thunderstorm coming in from the Southwest. It's not like Vermont, where I grew up and where the mountains create a more immediate horizon. In Kansas sometimes you can see a storm coming for miles and then THWACK! it hits the windshield. Good thing, too, because my car was filthy with road dust and needed a good wash. No hail, whew. I got to Russell just after the storm began, and was able to get into the hotel without getting too wet.

Usually I listen to NPR (especially the talk shows) or books on tape when I drive. This helps me concentrate on the road. A librarian at the workshop on Friday mentioned that ADD kids need to divide their attention so they can concentrate--she must have meant me. Anyway, in the past few months I've had a problem: my car tape deck has been reluctant to spit tapes out. It can take days before it decides it will relinquish a cassette, and then it does slowly. It doesn't even play the one in the deck while it's considering letting go. I've tried begging, pleading, poking, even prying with needle nosed pliers, but the machine has its own timetable.

For a while, I used a walkman-ish cassette deck in the car, but somehow, it's not the same. I find myself listening to oldies music stations, appalled that I know the words to a lot of really crappy songs from my youth.

I'm wondering if I should invest in a new car stereo. My Toyota has 181,000 miles on it, a new timing belt, new water pump, new brake rotors and fresh oil. I've got close to 60 performances booked for June and July. Is it worth it? Can I survive without recorded books?

Monday, April 04, 2005

We interrupt this regularly scheduled program...

...for this important news:
Making Fiends, episode 17, is in my favorite Slavic language! If you haven't seen these yet, I'd recommend starting with the first episodes, just to get the flavor (gack!). Lovely and twisted.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Sometimes when I don't have a lot of performances or workshops in a week, I forget what I'm supposed to be doing. I forget what projects are coming up, I forget the things I've been putting off, I forget to look at that big list of things I'm working on I made a few months ago. I've been self-employed since 1993, so you'd think I'd have the hang of it by now. It looks like it from the outside. People compliment me on my self-discipline, and yet, here I am, wondering what to do.

I pick up projects in my mind, turn them over in my hand like pebbles at the beach, look them over carefully, and put them back down.

I could work on "Blood, Guts and Fat Naked Ladies: The Bulgarian Cycle" in case I get to tell it at the Fringe Festival at the National Storytelling Conference (I'm #3 on the waiting list). Nah, I'm not ready.

I could start work on the puppet show of Rapunzel. I need to add a little piece to the stage, so I should go to the hardware store to play tinkertoys with the PVC pipes and fittings. Too much trouble. I need to make a couple of puppets, but the floor of my office is littered with workshop stuff for next week. It will be easier to do the puppets when that stuff is out of the way.

I could work on the stalled novel I wrote in National Novel Writing Month a year and a half ago. I wish I'd read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers before I began writing. Too daunting.

I could go out and work in the yard or the garden on this sunny day. I could look for new stories to tell in the pile of books by my desk. I could make a list of other blog topics. I could go for a walk on the levee. I could pot up that Swedish ivy on the kitchen counter. I could watch the rest of the Bill Moyers/Joseph Campbell Power of Myth DVD that I began last night (I never saw this when it first came out).

Ah, never mind. I think I'll go shopping with my sister. I can always do some work tomorrow.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Some days are more productive than others

A few weeks ago, at one of the librarian workshops, I was asked what a typical day looks like. That's such a hard question! Becky refined it to ask what a day without performances is like. Still hard.

Today was a pretty productive day:
  • Haircut at 8 a.m.
  • Home to breakfast with the newspaper (tea with milk and sugar, toast with butter and neuchatel cheese). Lit a fire in the woodstove. Fed and patted the cat. Let the cat out, let the cat in.
  • Checked e-mails until I heard thunder. Turned the computer off.
  • Vacuumed the house, cleaned the bathroom. Remembered that the word for dust bunny in French (at least in Belgium) is "mouton"--sheep! I had a flock under my bed.
  • Patted the cat some more. Turned the computer back on. Checked e-mail, played a little solitaire. Talked to a friend and my sister briefly on the phone.
  • Had lunch (steamed kale, carrots and tofu in a sauce of umeboshi vinegar, mustard and olive oil, the last bit of stollen, one chocotoff). Read. Let the cat in, let the cat out.
  • Went to my tax advisor for the yearly visit. Worried a bit as usual, but it's truly just fine.
  • Stopped at Crafty and Company to say hello to Chris.
  • Continued on to Z's Divine Espresso to write in my journal and drink mocha. Forgot to ask for decaf. We'll see how that works for me later on.
  • Erranded around for a while, first by myself, then with my sister. Yakketa blabbeta.
  • Stopped at the library to look at the DVDs.
  • Home. Got the woodstove going again, patted the cat, checked e-mail.
  • Supper (corn tortilla quesadilla, steamed asparagus with lemon and butter).
  • Wrote two thank-you notes, one contract, three invoices. Addressed, stamped and sealed all. Checked more e-mail, wrote responses to a few, deleted many.
  • Let the cat out, played solitaire.
  • Remembered to write blog entry.
Now it's time for bed. First I'll let the cat back in. The Messiah is on the radio, a really great rousing section. That, combined with the afternoon's caffeine, may mean that I'll be reading for a while before sleep.

That's today. Who knows what tomorrow will be like.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Writing at the JDC

Have I mentioned a million or three times how much I like the variety of my life?

This week I've been teaching creative writing at a Juvenile Detention Center, with the totally cool Young Adult librarians from the Johnson County Library (they just were written up in Library Journal!). Well, sort of teaching. Mostly just encouraging, listening, connecting, and writing with a small group of kids.

I like working in JDCs. It's weird at first, making sure I have nothing in my pockets and am not carrying anything dangerous (an ink pen, for example, or the fold-up scissors I've been carrying for years), having to go into a series of locked hallways, being eyed by the staff and kids. Once I'm past that part, when I'm with the kids, I usually have a good time. These kids have done some bad things, some have made terrible decisions, some have been caught in awful circumstances, but they're not much different from the kids I see on the outside.

We started by writing down Natalie Goldberg's rules for writing practice, from her book Wild Mind. I like to have everybody actually write these down, because they seem to go in the pen hand--pencils only in the JDC--and up to the heart and brain that way. Some of the rules are "keep your hand moving," "be specific," "don't worry about punctuation, spelling or grammar," and "you're free to write the worst junk in America."

Then we started writing. I made sure the kids knew the other rules: no swearing (so none of us would get in trouble), and no writing about their charges. I also let them know that we would be reading the pieces out loud. That's always a tricky one, but essential.

We began with a neutral topic, coffee, for three minutes. We couldn't believe that the wind-up timer really worked, so when it went off, I set it again. The next day I brought an electronic timer. The next topic was candy, for five minutes. From there we dipped our toes into scarier topics, like darkness. Today we wrote a poem about death. In between some of the pieces, I read some of my favorite poems (a few are at this link) and some pieces written by kids in detention. I also talked about the process of writing.

We were supposed to have two separate groups, but as happens in institutions, the plan changed at the last minute. The first day we had two groups, seven and six, and the other three days we just had long sessions with the same kids. They didn't even want a break, just wanted to write.

So that's what we did. We wrote on specific topics, some I gave the kids and some they suggested. We wrote a couple of poems together. We wrote about some old snapshots I handed around. We played a ridiculous pass-around story game in writing. I read poems. They read poems. We wrote. We read aloud. We laughed. We talked. We wrote.

I was sorry to say goodbye today. The core group dropped to four, but these kids were dedicated to putting themselves on paper. They were respectful to me, to the librarians, to each other and to the writing. Though of course I hope this helped them in some way, I have no idea what they'll take from these four days--I'm not in charge of that. Still, I wish them all well.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Kansas is a BIG state

I grew up in New England, in Rhode Island and Vermont. When I lived in Connecticut as an adult, it was a big deal to drive two hours to go to Boston. Now I live in Kansas, where two hours isn't all that far.

Kansas is a beautiful state. People who drive through it as fast as possible often don't see this. It's subtle, not the breathtaking beauty of New England or the Rockies, but lovely all the same. Last week I drove out to western Kansas. I went through the Flint Hills on I-70. I love the colors in that stretch of land, different in every season. Sometimes they're burnt orange, sometimes gold, sometimes a brilliant green. On another trip, I saw the burning of the fields at night, long fingers of fire reaching for miles.

On this trip, the sun went down around Abilene and it was dark by Salina. I still had hours to go to get to Norton, up in the northwest part of the state near Nebraska. There's not much artificial light, so the stars fill the sky.

After my workshop on Thursday, I left Norton, driving straight south to Dodge City, about two and a half hours. Up in the north, it's hilly (hence the name of the town Hill City), but dry, dry, dry. The fields have irrigators in place, of course. As I drove I watched the tumbleweeds skitter across the road. Was that a pheasant I just passed? As I went further south, the land flattened out, becoming the landscape people think of as Kansas. You can see forever. The weather was fine, though very windy. When I got out to buy fuel, I held onto the gas cap as I pumped, or it would have flown across the parking lot. On other trips, I've seen thunderstorms far off in the distance, impressive natural fireworks illuminating the sky.

After my workshop in Dodge City on Friday, I did indeed "get out of Dodge." I drove west to Garden City to stay with storyteller Margaret Meyers and perform at a house concert with her that night (I got to hear her tell a wonderful Icelandic story, among others). The drive from Dodge to Garden was a straight shot, past stockyards and fields, with that hot flat horizon in the distance. Margaret said she'd heard that there are 300 days of sun in Garden City. It's greener than the surrounding area, but still very dry, and all but the hardiest of trees have a rough time of it. Both Dodge and Garden are supported by stockyards and meat packing plants, so there's a certain aroma present in both. Once when I was out in Garden City, I heard a teacher say, "Yes, my daddy always said that's the smell of money." Beef, it's what's for dinner.

I drove home through Great Bend. The road into Great Bend from Garden City took me past oil rig equipment suppliers and farm implement stores. Still flat, still dry but it was beginning to get hilly again. Occasionally the soil was reddish, sometimes tan, and in the fields I saw rich dark loam. I love watching the horizontal strips of color--the verge of the road, the fields, the blue sky.

A few years ago I traveled from Dodge City to Ashland in June, during the wheat harvest. I'd pass huge combines and tractors in the fields, watch fountains of golden wheat pour into trucks. Suddenly I found myself in a red rock valley, with mesas and buttes, completely different from the landscape a few minutes earlier. I looked at the map to find that I was in Big Basin, a 1.4 mile bowl on Highway 283.

Anyway, yesterday from Great Bend I headed up to I-70 again and home. In the four days, I traveled about 900 miles by car. Today I think I'll go for a walk.

Librarians rule!

What a week I just had! On Tuesday, I told stories at a couple of schools in Holt and Kearney, Missouri. I've been to these towns before, so kids remembered me. I heard a second-grader (age 7 or 8) say to his teacher, "We heard her before! She's hilarious!" Guess I have a reputation.

Then on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I gave the first three of seven workshops for public librarians around Kansas, in preparation for the summer reading program "Dragons, dreams and daring deeds." I got to hang out with about 200 librarians in all. I like working with librarians, not just because I used to be one myself. I still think of myself as a librarian, even though I've been a storyteller for longer than I was ever a librarian. I was a Slavic cataloger (!) for two years and a children's librarian for five; I've been a full-time storyteller since 1993.

At each workshop, I met inspired librarians who enjoy what they do and truly want kids to love books, reading and the library. We pooled our ideas on the theme as well as on storytelling and puppetry. I know this is going to be a fabulous summer, or as a kid once wrote in a letter to me, "alsom". Marshmallow catapults (I don't think anybody's going to do the flaming pumpkin trebuchet, though one intrepid librarian has plans to catapult a TV set), Medieval insults, dragon puppets, stories of kings and queens, knightings, tea parties and much more are in store for kids all over the realm.

I'll write about the realm in the next post.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Jet lag is almost over

Home. Though this trip to Belgium was one of the best so far, I'm happy to be home. I love this life of traveling around telling stories, and I love my house, my cat, my own bed. This morning I got up early (thanks to jet lag) and made a fire in the woodstove. The cat is basking on the rug in front of the stove as I write.

It was great fun to see my friends in Belgium, and especially to stay with Marie and her family. We've known each other for over 20 years and always fill the visit with lots of blabbing--though after I leave we remember things we didn't say. We tell each other our stories of past, present and future. I try to describe my life here in the US, but I know it won't be clear to Marie until she comes to visit (hint, hint).

There are several things I like to do while in Belgium: eat chocolate, go to "Le Grand Mechant Loup" (a children's bookstore in Louvain-la-Neuve), buy notebooks and pens, have a chicken curry sandwich, eat a waffle from a street vendor. These waffles are not the light and airy confections Americans think of, but heavy and sweet, with sugar in the interstices (love that word). This time I didn't burn my tongue, amazingly enough.

On every trip, my suitcase weighs a ton on the way home, from the chocolate and books I bring back. This time I tried to be restrained, but still had 23 kilos of baggage to check (1 kilo=2.2 lbs). I think the limit is 25.

Though I have several other things to do today, I'm tempted to have a look at the books I bought. I try to find collections of folktales in French, especially with stories I've never heard. Here's this year's haul:
10 Contes de Turquie (collected by A. Uzunoglu-Ocherbauer)
24 Contes des Antilles (collected by Olivier Larizza)
14 Contes de Russie (Collected by Robert Giraud)
Contes et legendes de Belgique racontes aux aux grands qui les ont oublies (no author cited, but this is put out by Jourdain le Clercq Editions, as part of the series "Le patrimoine de nos enfants")
Les philo-fables (by Michel Piquemal and Philippe Lagautriere)
Contes populaires de Lorraine, compares avec les contes des autres provinces de France et des pays etrangers (collected by Emmanuel Cosquin)

This last one is a treasure. Cosquin was a folklorist who lived from 1841-1919 and who collected stories from one village in France. After each story, he goes into great detail, comparing the version with others from all around the world. Cosquin had an incredible breadth of knowledge, citing stories from Cambodia, Lower Saxony, Flanders, Russia and elsewhere. This edition was republished in 2003. It's more than 700 pages to chew on.

Before I chew on that, though, I think I'll go get a Chocotoff (Cote d'Or). Yum!

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Belgian notes 3

Today I have the morning off. I'm not performing in the afternoon, but I'll go to Louvain-la-Neuve to the bookstore again, and possibly to the toy store where I bought a bug puppet last time. I like to find puppets that are not made by Folkmanis or Manhattan Toy or the other American brands--those are very good puppets but it's nice to find some that are unusual, other than the truly weird ones I occasionally make.

Monday I went back to the school in Brussels where I've performed before, in French. My French has improved to a point where the mistakes are minimal. This time, in order to avoid the echo-filled gym, I did shorter performances for more groups in the library, and one for the preschoolers in their loft. It's hard to do a performance for less than 30 minutes--we've all just settled in and it's time to stop. Never mind, we had a good time anyway.

I had not wanted to do a performance for les tout petits (the tinies), because last time I didn't feel that I was successful, but I agreed to do 15 minutes with them. It turned into 25, I think. Two fingerplay stories, a song my friend Marie taught me, and lots of puppet schtick. These were 2 and 3 year-olds. They LOVED the puppets, especially my frog Prince, who had le hoquet (hiccups) after eating too many sauterelles (grasshoppers).

Yesterday Marie drove me to a school 80 minutes away where they have just started to do English immersion. Most of these children had not learned enough English to understand the stories, no matter how slowly and clearly I told them, no matter how much body language I used. I'm not quite sure what the teachers were expecting. I suggested that I translate a little, but they said no. Add to this the fact that one of the teachers kept taking the younger kids in small groups to the bathroom during the performance, and you'll understand that I found this experience frustrating.

Good thing I have plenty of successes to focus on, instead of that little blip on the radar. Friday I have two more English immersion schools, one where I had a great time performing two years ago.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Belgian notes 2

I'm having a little break between high school performances. This morning went well, other than being on a stage where I couldn't see the audience (nobody knew how to put the house lights up).

Yesterday I was at an English immersion primary school. In some of these old schools, the gyms are tile-lined, tall and narrow, with horrible acoustics and the heat full-on. That was the case here. The children in the first group were grades 1-3, so they haven't been studying English for long. They were quite chatty, too. We had some fun, but it was a challenge. Thank goodness for puppets and fingerplays!

The second group, grades 4-5, was much easier. They understood everything, listened attentively and asked really great questions. In both groups they asked how old I am, right off. I always tell them, but I also explain that though this is a question adults always ask kids, it's a question kids aren't really supposed to ask adults (I think it was Judy Nichols who pointed that out to me).

My puppet Trixie brushed her hair with her toothbrush, thought her foot was a telephone, and generally fooled around in front of all the kids. I don't believe she picked her nose, though I can't be sure. Mavis didn't come out of the bag, as the energy in the room was already fairly frenetic, especially with the younger kids.

In both groups, kids clustered around me at the end, asking questions and telling me important things in both English and French. Some were surprised to hear me speak French. One told me that she would tell the stories to her Mamy, and that her Mamy speaks English. One wanted to know if I had children and was interested to hear that I have a cat.

This English-immersion idea is fairly new in the elementary schools in Belgium. Next week I have three more, in three different villages.

More later.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Belgian notes 1

I just had a little piece of dark chocolate today. Yesterday I had a couple of milk chocolate mignonettes (about the size of a credit card, though thicker). Yum.

I'm in Belgium, having a day off. Yesterday I did four performances at the European School of Brussels I, two for the English as a second language children, two for the native English speakers, in the Primary School. It was quite fun all around. I even remembered to switch a few words from American English to British English, since most of the native English speakers are from the UK. "Nappy" instead of diaper, "rubber" instead of eraser, etc. Despite the change of vocabulary, the stories are universal.

Here's a difference, though, between American public schools and Belgian private schools: the teacher's cafeteria. No, not a cafeteria, more of a restaurant. I paid for my meal (around 5 dollars) and was shown the soup and starter bar--salads, artichoke hearts, sliced ham, hard-boiled eggs, bread, yoghurt, fruit. When I finished my soup and salad, a server came to take my plate and my order for the main dish. I chose turkey, couscous and green peppers in a tomato sauce. It was a huge serving, but I applied myself diligently. Then I helped myself to a chocolate mousse from the bar and waited for a cup of coffee, which came with a cookie (speculoos with chocolate). All around me the teachers were relaxed, taking their time, enjoying the meal together. I saw the server bring wine to one table. It was all very civilized, like the good coffee and croissants served in the teacher's lounge.

ESB I is not exactly typical. It's a good school that I would guess charges a hefty tuition. Next week I'll be at an inner-city Belgian school at the opposite end of the social scale. Never mind. Wherever I am, the children have a good time listening to stories.

Maybe I'll have another piece of chocolate now.

Friday, February 11, 2005


I'm ready to go. Bags are packed and by the door. There's the giant silver duffel, full of clothes, presents for friends, a few puppets, and some of my CDs. Next to the duffel is my messenger bag, with more presents, trip food, a couple of books, passport, my purse, important papers, brochures, and some pages from the NY Times crossword puzzle calendar. Also ear plugs, an eye mask and melatonin. The third bag is the home-away-from-home for my puppets. I'm also carrying some extra clothes, more presents, a harmonica (you never know), and the apples that didn't fit in the messenger bag.

When I thought I was done packing, I wandered back through my office. My eye was caught be another puppet. How could I leave her at home? I ended up putting three more in. I'll try to restrain myself when I go through security--the puppets just want to speak right up. Hope they don't eat my trip food.

I'll be in Belgium for a couple of weeks, telling stories (mostly in English, with a few gigs in French), hanging out with old friends, playing, eating chocolate, haunting bookstores for collections of folktales in French. The space taken up in my bags by presents now will be filled with books and chocolate on the way home.

That's it for now. More later. A la prochaine!

Sunday, February 06, 2005

My great-grandfather, snoring, and language style

Thanks, Tony, for the link to your blog. Your mention of being a parish priest in the UK reminded me that I need to update the news on my great-grandfather's memoirs. I finished transcribing them, tra la!

Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe was an Episcopal Bishop in Pennsylvania in the 1800s. In transcribing the memoirs, I realized that he most likely wrote them with an eye to church history. This made for a hard slog for some of the transcription. In the beginning, there are allusions to his family life, but almost nothing in the last half of the memoirs. My grandfather, the youngest of the 18 children (11 lived to maturity, 2 of his 3 wives died young), is not mentioned at all.

The last big chunk is about the Lambeth Conference of 1878. He went to this conference of the Bishops of the Anglican Communion from around the world, held at the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth. He and my great-grandmother took a ship to England, with a whole passel (herd? flock?) of bishops.

On the journey, they were in a stateroom, which didn't have walls all the way to the ceiling. In the next stateroom were two "musical gentlemen". Here's a little piece from the trip:

"When I awakened in my upper berth on the first morning, I found this opening in the partition between me and my musical friends stuffed with pillows and shawls, and [...] while I was dressing [...], I heard the upper man say to his friend, 'Did you hear the old gentleman blowing his horn all night?' 'No,' said he. 'But I did,' rejoined the complainant, 'I tell you, he’s a regular old steam tug.' So I was enlightened as to the purpose for which the shawls and pillows were stuffed there."

On a similar theme, during a visit to a Cathedral in England:

"In the afternoon of the same Sunday, a preacher of much more soporific influence occupied the pulpit at the Cathedral, while Bishop Littlejohn, Bishop Wilmer and myself occupied stalls in the choir. I became unconscious in the progress of the discourse, and by and by awakened by quite a resonant snore. I looked about to determine, if I might, whether I was the transgressor, and I saw that Bishop Littlejohn and my other friends were doing the same thing, agitated probably by the same solicitude."

What language! People just don't speak like this anymore, or not often. I hear remnants of it in the speech of my father, a retired Episcopal priest, and occasionally in my own speech. Within the family, some of us drop into this style sometimes. In general speech, we don't, because it sounds like affectation. Maybe it is, or maybe it's just habit. It feels as much a part of our family as our big rectangular smiles.