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Here Be Dragons

ART: Britton Sukys

 

On Washington State’s Peninsula, nestled deep in the Olympic National Park, the Sol Duc Hot Springs tempted me with warm waters and a fantastic origin story. An online blurb said:

Native American legend tells how the springs were created by dragons.

“Once there were two dragons. One lived in the Sol Duc Valley and the other lived in the Elwha Valley. Neither dragon knew of the other’s existence. One day they were both out exploring the forest when they came face to face on top of the ridge separating the Elwha and Sol Duc Valleys. They exploded with anger as each accused the other of invading its territory.

“The fight was brutal as the dragons thrashed and ripped at each other to win back their territory. After years of fighting and clawing at each other, they grew frustrated. Their strength was evenly matched and neither could win. The dragons both admitted defeat and crawled back to caves in their respective valleys and are still crying over being defeated. The dragons’ hot tears are the source of the hot springs in the Elwha and Sol Duc Valleys.”

I read this back in August, while we were on our annual family vacation to the Olympic Peninsula, and I decided we had to go there. Dragons are kind of our thing.

During our first visit to the Hoh River Valley, we started playing Dungeons & Dragons together.

ART: Britton Sukys

Fantasy plays a central role in the way we talk about the world with our kids.

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My mother and my son’s 3rd grade art

I once suspected a dragon was responsible for a problem under our basement.

ART: Britton Sukys

My husband even summoned a dragon to watch over the alley retaining wall behind our house.

ART: Britton Sukys

The thought of bathing in dragon tears was irresistible to my overactive imagination.With a legend like that, it had to be a magic place. Surely, the waters would grant me some powerful vision.

As we drove to the Sol Duc Resort, I imagined there would be dragon relics everywhere. In my mind, I saw myself discovering a portal to the primordial wisdom of the forest.

We paid the $25 entrance fee to the National Park and another $48 for day passes to the pools, and I mentally budgeted for the dragon T-shirts and traditional dragon art I was sure would be in the gift shop. I wanted to document whatever epiphany I received.

But when I got there, I found nothing about the legend. In fact, I couldn’t find any information on the local tribes. I did find that lunch for four at the snack bar cost $78. Without any beer.

Despite the lack of dragon souvenirs, historic documentation, or a frosty mug, the hot spring pools still enchanted me with their heat and lingering scent of rotten eggs.

Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort
Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, PHOTO: Britton Sukys

Soaking in the sulfur, I wondered about the deeper meaning of the legend. Stories, especially ancient myths, speak on many levels. Bathing in dragon tears, shed after bitter, endless battles, seemed like a powerful metaphor for dealing with an unwinnable feud.

The forest hot springs are now channeled into chlorinated, cement pools surrounded by a tall fence. The local tribes were forced off the land many years ago. I could only imagine how the original residents made use of the natural springs.

It occurred to me that the steaming, stinky waters and their accompanying legend may have been a way to cook out the inevitable violent frustration that comes with uneasy truces. Drown your hot rage, sacrifice it to the fantastic beast that also couldn’t vanquish those deplorable neighbors.

After further poaching in the pools, though, I began to think instead that the hot springs percolated warriors for another defense of sacred territory. Absorb the dragon’s rage and strength, fight for your terrible beast’s honor.

Depending on the day and situation, I could see either interpretation as good guidance. If I wanted to hard-boil my hunch, I’d need more context. I decided to track down the source story.

Back at our cabin, I couldn’t find mention of the tale on any of the Peninsula tribes’ websites. All the online references to the legend were on tourist sites and they all circled back on themselves. There were plenty of dragon tears hits, but I couldn’t find which tribe first shared the story – or to whom.

Something smelled fishy. The purported legend started to reek of marketing gimmick. I knew better than to seek enlightenment from a clever commercial.

***

Don’t be fooled by the vast forests and languid mists of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s not a serene wilderness. Much like the Elwha and Sol Duc dragons, people have been battling for control of its rich landscape for centuries. Since the 1880’s, Native tribes, non-Native settlers, tourists, timber companies, and the U.S. military have staked claims to it.

When we first drove along Highway 101 out to the most Northwest point of the contiguous United States, it looked like a 1960’s travel postcard. The overexposed light, the blankets of evergreens, and the isolation made it seem frozen in time.

Then I passed the lumber company clear cuts and ramshackle homesteader sites with crudely lettered signs protesting federal land grabs. The remote tribal reservations, clinging to the coastline, vulnerable to rising ocean waters, were a mix of extreme poverty and fierce cultural preservation. The illusion of the Olympic Peninsula as a pristine sanctuary dissolved.

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Clearcut on Highway 101, PHOTO: Megan Sukys

radio story I edited back in 2009 first drew me to the Peninsula. The self-proclaimed “Sound Tracker” Gordon Hempton determined that deep in the Hoh Rain Forest he found the quietest One Square Inch in America.

I live on a busy city street, near a major Air Force/Army base, up the hill from train tracks and a shipping port. Noise is my life. So, I took my family out there to discover the balm of silence. For a few years we were heard the world as our ancestors did.

The serenity didn’t last. Recently, Navy Growler jets drowned out the frogs with sonic booms. The U.S. Forest Service granted “permission to the Navy to route its Boeing EA-18G Growler jets over Olympic National Park on electronic-warfare training exercises”. (Seattle Times, 4/17/16)

We listened to the jets fly for an hour at a time, twice a day. Then, we inhaled the peace that returned once the jets went back to their hangars.

While I searched the internet for the dragons of legend at my remote woodland vacation rental, the real-life, roaring, fire-breathing beasts of today flew circles overhead. My cursory Google inquiries only yielded dead ends, so I promised myself I’d do deeper research back at home.

***

With my magical Sol Duc dragon fantasy under review, and hoping to distract us from the military maneuvers overhead, I started reading “The Buried Giant” out loud to my husband. My mother-in-law gave it to me as a birthday present, and I knew very little about the plot when I started it.

I had to use my outside voice to be louder than Navy Growlers, but we were still drawn into Kazuo Ishiguro’s take on post-Arthurian Britain. It’s a story of a living under a fragile truce between deeply divided cultures. In the wake of wars between the Britons and the Saxons, Ishiguro follows an elderly couple searching for their estranged son through a mysterious mist causing amnesia across the land.

My husband and I noted the coincidence of the novel telling another story about territory disputes. Then we reached the part of the book where Ishiguro reveals the source of the mist. A creature named Querig. A dragon. We upgraded the coincidence to synchronicity.

ART: Britton Sukys

I reserved our cabin in the woods for six nights, but just before midnight on the fifth night Navy jets began nonstop exercises. The Growlers screeched across the sky for five minutes, then circled to the other side of Mt. Olympus, giving us five minutes of quiet, and then came howling back into our airspace. I didn’t sleep at all.

The maneuvers continued into the morning and stretched past noon. Five minutes of sonic shrieking, five tense minutes waiting for the war machines to return. Finally, I admitted defeat and packed the car to leave early, returning to my urban cave to cry hot tears over the money I spent on a rental I couldn’t use.

Back in Tacoma, I finished reading “The Buried Giant” and all of its resonant themes of mutually assured destruction, military occupation, wounds that won’t heal, cultural divides, and the challenge of forgiveness. Ishiguro’s dragon was not the same as the Sol Duc dragon, or the Navy Growlers, but they all told the same story. Beasts of battle die hard.

***

I expected that my further investigation into the Sol Duc dragon legend would reveal it as a modern fabrication. But, like all my other expectations, this turned out to be wrong.

I contacted the Olympic National Park, the Burke Museum, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and the Quileute Nation. They were all incredibly helpful.

I found that the story being used by the National Park was originally in the book “Gods & Goblins” by Smitty Parratt. Smitty grew up with a National Park Ranger for a father. Smitty went on to work with the National Park Service himself. The dragon legend was one of many stories he catalogued from the Olympic National Park. However, Smitty wasn’t a tribal source. He re-told the story as he heard it.

Then, the Quileute Nation helped put me in touch with Larry Burtness, the tribe’s grant writer and planner. He sent me this link to a Quileute account of the Sol Duc legend by Chris Morganroth III. There I found the same story of evenly matched opponents and hot tears, but the beasts were not called dragons, just monsters.

And then, Larry put me in touch with Jay Powell, an anthropologist who, along with his partner Vickie Jensen, has helped preserve many of the languages, stories, and traditions of Washington and British Columbia tribe. Jay sent me this account, as told by Hal George. Hal’s telling gave me a much richer description of the weeping creatures beneath the hot springs:

Both monsters were fierce, like martens, and strong and wiry and real smart because they were old. They had big mouths full of teeth as big as a man and sharp toenails. And their breath was like a hot wind that could burn you if you stood close, and they cooked their meat by just blowing on it. They were real big; when they walk through the woods you can see their heads and backs above the trees. When they fight they whip their tails on this side and on this (other) side and roll around. Their tails break off trees. And when they roll they flatten the trees they roll over. And sometimes the hard breathin’ sets the woods on fire around the battlefield. So that’s why nothin’ grows on Boulder Peak.

Well, then. Those two monsters are just covered with scars. They have scars all over their bodies from fightin’ because they have been meetin’ to fight for a lon’ time. They have big scars where their skin was ripped and tore. Every time they fight, they fight until they are bloody and tired, all bit, bones broke, skin ripped and burned. They have scars on top of scars.

But, they are even matched so one of them can never kill the other one. Neither one can kill the other one. We say they have ¶ibiti taxîlit, real stron’ spirit power. If you are a good warrior, you need that power. Neither one can kill the other. But they cause real bad injuries to each other every time they fight. Often them fights went on all day until night and it got dark. Then, they stop and roar. Both of them roar and roar and sing a victory song. The Quileute monster sang his song: “¶ip•ll• abi/ ¶ib•ti ti/l. ¶qpitilawli. Ahii. Ahiii. ‘A’a’aaaa. (four times) He’s talkin’ about havin’ a strong power and that’s why he is always winnin’. The Elwha monster sings, too. And then they roar some more and go home. They go to their cave.

These were my dragons! Mouths full of teeth, huge tails, breath to ignite the forest, and “real stron’ spirit power”. And there was the message to the warriors, “If you are a good warrior, you need that power.” Spirit power.

This documentation of the story titles it “The Border Monsters”. Jay Powell says that this tale takes place, “in the liminal region of peaks and rain-forest riverine headwaters where Elwha and Quileute territories come together”. The world liminal jumped out at me.

Liminal” is used in anthropology, medicine, and literature. It refers to that confusing, slippery space of transformation between an old way and a new way. Terrible things can happen when we leave known territory and venture into wilderness. But, moving through that space is the only way to achieve lasting change.

In the 16th century, liminal space on a map was noted with the phrase, “Here be dragons“.

***

The idea of dragons as threshold guardians resonated. They have held that job in stories around the world, including Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”. But, border monsters didn’t set my imagination running. Soaking in their tears did.

I set up a makeshift hot spring in my tub at home, adding epsom salts, leaving out old eggs, and stewed on the matter. Wading deep into the realm of metaphor, I remembered that the phrase “take a bath” can also mean losing big on a major investment. Certainly, not being able to vanquish a perceived threat can feel like going broke.

In the Sol Duc legend as told by Hal George, though, “both of them roar and roar and sing a victory song”. The Quileute monster sings about having a strong power and “that’s why he is always winnin’. The Elwha monster sings, too.”

It’s only once the monsters go home from the fruitless battle that they move a rock over their holes, lick their wounds, and cry. “They cry and cry because they are hurt bad.”

The description of the monsters sounded a lot like what I know as dragons, but the Quileute don’t use that word. According to Hal George, the Sol Duc dragon was named “the monster who cries in the woods”. It wasn’t named, “the monster who lost”, or even “the monster who sets the woods on fire”. The monster was known for the sorrow it feels that its perceived enemy was so evenly matched.

***

As preface to the Sol Duc legend, Hal George tells how the mythic Quileute hero Q’wati, called “The Transformer” in English, established the border between the Elwha and the Quileute. Q’wati piled up boulders at the boundary because the two tribes fought over territory “until Stormking Mountain had enough of it and tore off a big stone from his head. He threw it down and killed the warriors…” That’s how Lake Crescent came to be.

Mount Storm King over Lake Crescent, WA PHOTO: Wikipedia

The dragons of the legend guard a border meant to keep human battles from fracturing the earth itself.

***

Stories, especially ancient myths, speak on many levels. They also speak different lessons to each person, depending on what the person needs to know.

The Sol Duc legend tells me that if I want to venture beyond the boundaries that fence me in, I will have to face the dragon at the divide. I cannot expect to defeat that dragon, not even if I have a dragon of my own.

Unable to eliminate my foe, I can soak my head in the sorrow of my limitations. But if I go too deep into those bitter tears, I could drown in despair. Or, I could steep myself for another painful, fruitless fight. Either way, those waters stink.

Instead, I’m going to let those tears wash away my fiery rage, a rage so powerful it could burn up the very land that nurtures me. If defeat is impossible, for either side, then I’ll make sure to wear only my human form, and to pack my real stron’ spirit power, as I venture once more into the liminal space that promises true transformation.

Megan’s 3-Step Method for Getting Things Done

Megan's 3-Step-Method

  1. Decide what needs to be done.
  2. Figure out how to get it done.
  3. Do it.

This method is pure gold. If I follow the steps, in order, things get done. If I find myself freaking out over not getting things done, it’s always because I skipped a step.

Perhaps the most common mistake I make is to jump to Step 3 before I think about Step 1. Often, I lose momentum at Step 2. (Right now, I’m avoiding Step 3 for something that’s closing in on deadline.) But, once I double-check my Method, it’s a simple matter of going back and taking it step by step.

For a long time I kept this formula all to myself, even considering a patent for it. Seeing how often things don’t get done, I thought for sure it would be worth money.

One day, though, in the middle of a tough work meeting, I offered to share my super secret process with my boss. When I told him, he laughed. My method wasn’t as marvelous as I supposed.

Since then, I’ve revealed my 3 steps to other people and received the same response. (The only other wisdom of mine that gets even more amused reactions is when I confide that I think, “This internet thing is big.”) It’s enough to make me doubt my highly effective strategy.

Despite the dismissals of others, I follow this method whenever I want to Get Things Done. Send out a business proposal? Start at 1 and keep going. Plan a major event? Just a 1-2-3 till it’s showtime. Clean the House? It’s only 3 Steps away! My method has never failed, so long as I complete every step, in order.

Because I believe so deeply about truth in advertising, I must admit that adhering to the method is not always possible. If the plan depends on agreement from large groups of people, kids, pets, weather, or politicians, among other things, you may never get past Step 1. If accomplishing your goal requires changes to the laws of physics, the involvement of superheroes, or a time machine, among other things, you could get stuck at Step 2 for the rest of your life. If doing your thing takes more time, money, passion, or voter turnout, among other things, than you can ever make happen, Step 3 can be an insurmountable obstacle.

That said, being able to diagnose why I can’t Get Things Done is a balm to my frustrated soul. If I identify that my 3-Step Method is thwarted, then I can turn to another surprisingly simple, yet effective 3-Step approach, The Serenity Prayer:

  1. ***, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
  2. Courage to change the things I can,
  3. and Wisdom to know the difference.

Traditionally, *** is where one says, “God”. My faith ebbs and flows and sometimes changes Streams of Consciousness. For me, this invocation is most effective if I fill in *** with the name my heart calls out at the moment, “Jesus”, “Universe”, “Goddess”, “Great Spirit”, “Santa Claus”, and in times when I don’t believe in anything anymore, “Brain”.

Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian, is credited with writing that prayer. Although I agree with him on some things, I don’t on everything. Looking at his opinions about Getting Things Done in America in the 20th century, I can’t say I’d ever get past Step 2 of my Method with him. That’s where his Prayer comes in handy.

One thing Niebuhr didn’t do was patent his Prayer. For that, I am grateful. I’d owe him a lot of money if he had.

Another thing he didn’t do was to keep his insights all to himself. For that, I am also grateful – whether I agree with it all or not.

Life isn’t as straightforward as my 3-Step Method. Learning from the successes and failures, big ideas and bad decisions of people from all walks of life has helped me avoid some mistakes, and soothe the pain when I’ve fallen awkwardly.

With that in mind, Megan’s 3-Step Method for Getting Things Done is my gift to you.

But wait! There’s more.

For reading all the way to the end of this post, which is payment enough on the Short Attention Span Internet (this thing is big), I give you the awareness that your wisdom, no matter how simple or obvious, is also valuable. You don’t need anyone’s permission to share it.

 

Death Star Public Radio

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“Star Wars: A New Hope” premiered when I was four years old, and I blame the blockbuster for warping my expectations for my career. I wasn’t even aware of the power the story held for me until I got my first public radio job back in 1998.

Below is a loving homage to the epic, with support from John William’s genius soundtrack, about what happened when my path crossed a media Empire in the place I least expected it. There is no written version, as is only fitting for a story about radio.

ART: Britton Sukys

ENGINEERING & EDITING SUPPORT: Britton Sukys

11-14-15Death-Star-Radio

2014 Top 10: #6 To Hadley And Hadley Not

12-26-14 Homer-1

This is what the kids gave my husband for Christmas yesterday. If it wasn’t for Homer, we probably wouldn’t ever have family dinners.

The magazines tell me that I should aim for four meals a week around a table together, but what then? If quick-cook meal commercials were correct, we would all explode into hilarious anecdotes, smiling as we chewed our beefy-mac and talked at the same time, toasting one another with our milk glasses. My family does none of that.

I enforced a few years of diligent table dining, complete with “What was the highlight of your day?” conversation starters. No one enjoyed them. The kids pouted and just pushed at their food. My husband and I gave each other tight smiles. We ended up shoveling our plates clean – or not – and then slinking off to our respective evening entertainment.

Then, we discovered the nightly repeats of The Simpsons. With back-to-back episodes at seven AND seven-thirty, for one whole hour a day we all have a common love. Of course there are many jokes the kids miss, and many that we just talk loud over so they won’t hear enough to question. But, there are plenty of episodes that get us talking – even if it’s just about how we DON’T ACT LIKE BART. OKAY??

The laughs draw us to living room to eat, plates perched on TV trays. Sometimes, though, the show seems to have an eerie correspondence with our real lives, like an animated oracle. That’s what I wrote about in the #6 most-viewed post of 2014.

***

originally published February 15, 2014

***

Rather than joining the throngs of happy, loving couples eating out on Valentine’s Day, my husband and I celebrated with some quick pasta for the whole family at home. We all sat on the couch and ate on trays in front of the television as we watched the nightly Simpson’s syndication on Seattle’s JOE TV.

It was the episode, “The Daughter Also Rises”. Whoever programs the reruns must be monitoring my reading habits.

Early in the show, Lisa spies a boy at the next table through a crack in a restaurant booth. He’s reading “A Farewell to Arms”.

My husband turned to me and said, “Hey, just like your book!”

I’ve been reading “The Paris Wife”, by Paula McLain. It tells the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their life together in France during the early 1920’s.

I am not a fan of Hemingway. In his work I’m most likely to identify with the people he hates. As a woman, I feel like I’m not really invited into his world.

A new friend recommended the novel, though. I only agreed to borrow it if she promised that Hemingway didn’t get a whitewash. “‘Cause I think he’s a jerk, okay?” I surprised myself by how emphatic I was, but she said she didn’t like him either and that’s why she wanted me to read it, so she could talk trash about him with someone else. I started reading it a week ago.

In The Simpsons episode, Lisa meets the boy from the booth next door at the dessert buffet. She learns his name is Nick. He quotes Hemingway, Lisa swoons.

Due to my aforementioned distaste of Hemingway, I don’t know that much about him. But, I felt a little smug at this point in the show because I read in “The Paris Wife” that “Nick Adams” was the main character of many of his short stories about his early life.

Despite my aforementioned distaste of Hemingway, I did get drawn into the novel about his marriage. There’s a scene in “The Paris Wife” soon after they get married. Ernest reveals to Hadley that he has to sleep with the light on, his World War I flashbacks overwhelm him in the dark.

Hadley recognizes his pain. Her father committed suicide when she was a girl. Hadley stays up all night in a chair by the bed, watching over Ernest like he was a newborn. At that point, my heart opened up for them, two lovers bound together by tragedy.

Once the newlyweds move to Paris, though, I struggled to lose myself in their romance. Living off Hadley’s small trust fund, they rent an apartment with communal piss pots on every stair landing. They only escape the squalor of their neighborhood by going to lunches with extravagantly wealthy friends. Ernest refuses any charity from the rich, but he doesn’t resent having Hadley completely pay his way.

She and Ernest drink to oblivion on most nights. She has little interest in creative work of her own, she dedicates herself to supporting her husband’s dream.

Ernest spends his days writing in seclusion and Hadley keeps house and shops by  herself. One day, she walks a block away from the dazzling market vendors to find an alley full of rotten meat and garbage and refuse from the week’s unsold goods.

I laughed out loud at the Simpson’s episode, then, when Lisa joins her new beau at  “Le Petite Appétit”. She holds up her hands to block out the vision of Barney puking in the dumpster and Gil bathing in the fountain so she only sees a fantasy of Parisian cafe life with Nick.

I said, “That’s what Hadley had to do! Wait a minute. Holy crap. Did the writers also read “The Paris Wife”?” I checked the broadcast date of the show and cross-referenced it to the release of the book. The show aired early in 2012, the book was first released in 2011. It was possible, and I hoped the writers had read the novel because I was having trouble finishing it.

The deeper the novel goes into the Hemingways’ marriage, the harder it was for me to imagine myself in the world. It’s written in Hadley’s voice and I felt trapped in her sad, outsider view. I kept waiting to see her “as wife and as one’s own woman”, like Entertainment Weekly promised in their front page blurb. It never came.

When Hadley accidentally loses the suitcase that holds all of Ernest’s writing, every last sheet of it, I shut the book. I had to go online to make sure the novelist didn’t make it up. She did not.

In real life, Hadley packed a bag with all of his work, including copies and notes, and it got stolen. Ernest gets mad when she tells him, but not nearly as mad as when she tells him she’s pregnant.

Hadley says in the book that she loves Ernest and is happy just to know he couldn’t do his work without her. I don’t love Hemingway and I was unhappy to suffer any of his terrible personality, even through historical fiction. By the time his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, shows up on the scene, a mistress posing as Hadley’s friend, I was ready to leave the whole love triangle between closed covers.

Even the prospect of trash talking Hemingway couldn’t get me through the rest of the book. I still had eighty pages to go in “The Paris Wife” on Valentine’s Day, when we happened upon the re-broadcast of “The Daughter Also Rises”.

In the final scene, Lisa takes off for a romantic rendezvous with Nick, but things go awry. Grandpa Simpson gets pulled over as he drives them to the beach, Nick pushes Lisa until she says “Ow!”, Nick lets a branch smack her in the face as they run through the underbrush, he offers little help rowing the boat to their romantic island destination and he complains of the cold. As they are just about to kiss, Hadley Richardson shows up in Lisa’s imagination.

Hadley advises Lisa against falling for Nick. Then, Pauline appears in the bubble and agrees that “Tortured writers make lousy husbands.”

I whooped out loud, “What are the chances!? JOE TV ran this episode based on the novel I’m pointedly *not* reading right now!” It felt enough like serendipity to inspire me to read the rest of the book. It had to be good if the Simpsons skewered it.

Before I read the last section, I checked online for any reviews of the episode. I wanted to see how someone else interpreted the satire of the book. Surprisingly, no one mentioned it.

The fan reviews of the episode are negative. I agree it’s a pretty shaggy plot. In fact, I remember seeing it the first time it came out and thinking that I could probably give up my appointment watching of the show. But, I wasn’t reading “The Paris Wife” at the time.

I Googled every which way, but I could only find one single reader comment that even mentioned a connection. In all the Internet, just this:

  •  I’m kind of surprised there is no mention of “The Paris Wife,” as this episode is clearly a parody of the book (which was based on the real-life experiences of Hemingway and his first wife).

frey78, you’re not alone.

I stayed up late and read the novel through to the end. It was disappointing.

According to the novel, Hadley never stops loving Ernest. She accepts another man, but when she hears of his suicide decades later, she wistfully returns to romantic memories of their time in France. I only remembered the pissoirs, snobbery, and alcoholism.

As I crawled into bed with my husband, he asked, “Well? What’d you get out of the book?” I thought for a long time, looking for the most spare and true way to relate my reaction and came up with, “Meh.” My expectations for books are probably too high.

I woke up this morning with a bad attitude about reading “The Paris Wife”. I felt suckered into spending those hours giving Hemingway’s persona even more validation. I was pissed that I felt compassion for him when he was young and fragile. It hurt me that Hadley never developed her own creative voice. Worst of all, the writer stayed very close to actual events, so I knew it was all really that sad. What’s the use of historical fiction if you don’t rewrite the worst parts?

That’s when I sought refuge in The Simpsons. We actually bought the episode on Amazon to examine it for any hope.

The episode we saw is called, “The Daughter Also Rises”, but the main plot is about Bart and Milhouse cracking school myths in a parody of “MythBusters”. After they dispel everything, including the classic dead girl  in the bathroom mirror, Dolf, the bully, says, “So school is just everything we see?” All the kids walk away morose, very similar to my feeling when I finished the novel.

Bart realizes he has to do something. “I can’t be the one who killed everyone’s fun!”

Milhouse and Groundskeeper WereWillie restore the magical fantasy for Springfield Elementary.

For me, the idea of busting myths made sense of “The Paris Wife”. The author, Paula McLain, pops the illusion of Hemingway the “Champ”. His feats of masculinity come across as desperate acts of self-making, funded by wealthy wives and fueled by the kind of smoke and mirrors publicity that was easier before the days of the World Wide Web.

At the end of “The Daughter Also Rises”, Marge braves water walkers to save Lisa from falling for Nick. Once she gets there, Lisa is just fine. She knows how to take care of herself.

Lisa does get a kiss from a true love, her mother. It’s not romantic, of course, but the whole episode starts with Marge sending Homer off with Bart so she can spend Valentine’s with Lisa.

Nurturing, functional, family love, not really the stuff of great literature, possibly a myth as well, is the prize of the episode. It’s what gave Lisa the self-confidence to see past romantic illusions. It’s what both Hadley and Ernest were missing, and what they couldn’t build together.

While I never fell for Hemingway the writer, I have succumbed to romantic illusions and men who were mostly myth. The dream of a dazzling lifestyle as a celebrated artist has also afflicted me, making me feel like my current situation is as bland as Hadley. But now, I have a different perspective on the gift of spending Valentine’s Day dinner eating on the couch with my husband and children.

 

File this under ‘blog post talking about a cartoon that’s a satire of a novel that’s a historical fiction account of a famous novelist writing about something that actually happened to him because he wanted to be a famous writer who everyone talked about’.

You win this round, Hemingway.

 

2014 Top 10: #7 It’s All About Tone: Listening To David Candow

On Christmas Eve, 2002, a group of six Magellanic penguins arrived at the San Francisco Zoo. Rather than settling into their new burrows, they began the annual winter migration they take in the wild, two-thousand miles, from Argentina to Brazil and back.

The transplanted penguins swam, circling in laps, in the tiny pool of their new home. They even convinced the other forty-six penguin residents of the zoo to join them. It wasn’t until Valentine’s Day that the birds finally completed their mock journey. The penguins sparked a media frenzy at the time, but never repeated their epic swim.

When I saw the penguin story back in ’03, I felt so sad for their futile effort to obey an instinct rendered meaningless by captivity. This past Fall, I thought of them again, this time with sincere sympathy. Two years after quitting public radio, I realized I was still following the same calendar, the same routines, as when I worked as a host and producer – my own futile attempt to hold on to an old way of life.

It wasn’t until I wrote about my first job in radio for our September “Take This Job And Shove It” Drunken Telegraph show that I recognized how much I was still operating out of an old paradigm. Then, the day after I drafted my story, a friend called to tell me David Candow died. A former CBC trainer, he’s the man who taught me the art of interviewing, the discipline of great stories, and the power of child-like curiosity. The shock and sadness of losing a dear teacher woke me up to the new life that is waiting for me.

The critical tone of my remembrance of David Candow, my #7 most-viewed post of 2014, is another break from my past. As a Southern woman, I would rather die that say something unkind. But, just like working in radio, being a Southerner no longer defines me. It’s time I spoke my mind.

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originally published September 23, 2014

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October 9th is the two year anniversary of the day I quit public radio. I wasn’t happy about walking away from a fifteen-year career in broadcast. It hurt to look at anything from my old job. I boxed up the eleven spiral-bound steno pads that hold more than a decade of to-do lists, pre-interview details, aircheck feedback, and notes from training sessions. I didn’t want to look at them again.

Last Thursday, though, I decided it was time to sift through the detritus of my years as a host, producer and editor. On top of the stack was a piece of paper, “Writing for Radio”. David Candow gave it to me during one of his annual training sessions at my station.

David was a former CBC producer and trainer who became a circuit riding consultant at public radio stations around the country. His list of yellow flags for writing hung by my computer for years. Looking at it last week, I thought, “I’ll never need this again.” I crumpled it up and threw it away.

The next day a friend who still works at my old station called me. She said, “Megan, I wanted to be sure you heard it from me. David  Candow died.”

I sat in silence, which is rare for me. I started crying. David inspired me and encouraged me. His message about the power of oral storytelling made me feel like I belonged in public radio. Losing him severed the last emotional tie to my past life.

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David started at the CBC back when the network still produced radio theatre. Like me, his first love was the stage and performance. Unlike me, he became a major documentary producer, a trainer for CBC Radio, and he traveled the world teaching journalism. I knew there would be tributes to him all over the place. He touched so many lives.

Right after I hung up the phone, and stopped crying, I started searching the Internet. I wanted to find something that went deeper than 140 characters, something to tell me what I didn’t know about him.  I couldn’t find anything.

It wasn’t until late Saturday afternoon when I found Scott Simon’s remembrance on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. I purposely avoided reading the transcript and listened to the audio instead. David Candow’s gospel was that the tone of your voice tells more than words on a page ever could. Voice conveys true emotion.

I was disappointed. Scott Simon used pretty words, but his script and delivery defied all of David’s teaching. It sounded like Scott was just reading the page, not speaking from the heart. He used the auto-voice of a seasoned broadcaster. With each sentence, I could hear David calling out, “Words don’t carry a message! Only TONE tells the listener what it means. Words by themselves mean nothing!”

Rather than a warm memory of a man who shaped a generation of public radio voices, I remembered what David Candow railed against in his trainings. I looked at the transcript of Scott’s commentary. It was exactly what he read on the air. To the eye, the tribute was fine. But, having spent days analyzing scripts with David Candow over my shoulder, prodding me to make it better, I saw yellow flags all over the place.

Since I already had the Pandora’s box of steno pads open, I took the time to go through each one and mark the pages of notes I made during David’s training. Then I transcribed the notes into a spreadsheet. It was something I meant to do since February 2010 – the post-it note reminding me to do it was still on top of the notebook. His words jumped off the page. I could hear his voice in my head again. And I saw exactly what David would say about his radio tribute, if he edited it.

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“David Candow was 74. He was a slightly tubby man from Newfoundland with a sly smile and a soft voice.”

Scott described David using adjectives. From a February 2010 training, I found this note:

“Bad Radio Habit #7: Using adjectives rather than verbs. Adjectives are paint by number. Verbs allow the listener to paint their own picture. Describing someone as a “plain woman with a brown sweater and simple shoes” tells me nothing about her as a person. Instead, recount the action of her character, “she would blush when spoken to and shuffle around the corner”. 

Tubby reduces David to a caricature. David had the physique of a man who traveled thousands of miles of year, squeaking out a living on consulting fees. He didn’t think twice about eating tinned meat from a drugstore to save money. He built a house with his own hands. I never saw him sitting and relaxing.

“People who make their living on the air often distrust consultants.” 

Scott assigned his attitude to all broadcasters. From a May 2004 training, I found this note:

“It’s wimpy to use “Those who say” or “Some people” or attribute statements to the masses. Stand up to being the devil’s advocate. Wear what you say as your own.”

When the Washington Post wrote an article about David Candow in 2008, they quoted Scott Simon. Candow led a training at my station six weeks after the story ran. He was humble about it, and laughed that Scott said anything. He said he spent very little time with him, and confirmed that Scott didn’t want to talk to him. David said their meeting had been years and years earlier, and that he didn’t hear that he made any difference in Scott’s delivery.

The yellow flags continue through the whole script.

“David had a few rules for writing, which he called “good ideas,” because he knew journalists balk at rules. Over the years, I’ve found David Candow’s advice as valuable as George Orwell’s, with which it had a lot in common.” 

A  “good idea” from David’s “Writing for Radio”:

“The words which or that are strong indicators that you are about to write a subordinate clause. Put a full stop in front of them, and begin a new sentence.”

David’s advice came out of the knowledge that listening is linear and contextual. The ear can’t process information the same way the eye can. So, he advised us to only deliver one thought per sentence, in order, leading to a conclusion.

“Avoid corporate and technical cliches, and if you begin to hear a word too much — bandwidth, curate, eclectic and robust are my current least-favorites — it’s become a cliche; don’t use it.” 

“The use of a conjunction in the middle of a sentence indicates you are linking two thoughts.”

“And like Orwell, David said, “Break any of these rules if it will help people remember what you say.” 

The second reference to George Orwell, without telling me what George Orwell’s advice was. It reminded of something David said in May 2004,

“Don’t be stingy with knowledge. Don’t be exclusionary.”

I had to search online to find George Orwell’s Rules of Effective Writing to know what the comparison meant. I’ve read Orwell’s books, but I’m not an expert. As a listener, the reference made me feel like I didn’t do my homework rather than illustrating the subject of the tribute. I couldn’t remember what Scott said because I was too busy trying to figure out what he was saying.

Scott closed by saying,

David Candow used to remind us, “One of the most compelling sounds for the human ear is the sound of another human voice talking about something they care about.”

If you’re reading this post rather than listening to the audio version, you’re missing my point. You’re also making it.

Radio is all about tone, something the written word can never provide. From May 2004,

“Tone is as important as script.”

It’s simply not compelling to hear someone read an article written for the eye.

In my indignation after hearing Scott, I e-mailed all my old radio friends, asking if they heard it. None of them did. They saw the written version, read it, and were touched by it. They even shared it on Facebook. Indeed, it’s a fine piece of writing for the eye. But, none of them listened to it.

In the era of the Internet, no one has time to listen. Not even radio professionals. Twitter was awash in mentions. I eventually found a tumblr site with heartfelt remembrances and personal photos that made me smile. A web producer shared an e-mail exchange about applying David’s work to the web – prophetic about the shift of media.

Lots of writing. No audio, except Scott Simon. It looked to me like David took radio – and the authentic tone of the human voice – with him.

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Scott Simon flouted David Candow’s lessons, but he did me a favor. Had I heard a passionate, sincere and informative remembrance of the man who gave me my most valuable storytelling tools, I might not have gone back and combed through all those notes. David sprang to life again in my mind as I read them. My memories came back as vivid as when I struggled to make daily deadlines and produce radio that touched people’s lives.

Scott still has the deadlines. He still faces the pressures that I quit two years ago. He managed to turn around his piece and have it ready for national broadcast in twenty-four hours. It’s taken me four days to pull this together. I admit I’m not being fair in dissecting his work. We all express grief in different ways.

***

When David and I last met, back in October 2011, I asked him if he was archiving all his workshop information. He said he tried to write a book with his daughter. He said she’s an excellent writer. But, he found he couldn’t convey the importance of tone through writing.

David and I often talked about the tension between the oral tradition and the written tradition. The spoken word is transient and malleable while the written word is permanent and authoritative. He told me this as we discussed why it was so hard to get journalists to tear themselves away from the page, to let their natural way of speaking lead their delivery.

I grew up awash in oral storytelling. I admired Carl Kasell, Charlie Rose, David Brinkley, and Charles Kuralt – all fellow North Carolina natives. Their straightforward style and honest connection inspired me. David once asked me, “You know why so many radio people came from North Carolina?”

He said, like Newfoundland, it was a place of Irish immigrants and not much money. Oral tradition dominates where formal education is unavailable. As a result, the oral tradition was often connected with poverty and ignorance, people who didn’t have the benefit of learning from the higher form of the written word. But, David pointed out, radio is an oral medium.

I suggested recording a series of interviews where he could share all his experience and insight. Like music, you can’t learn radio from a book. David wasn’t interested. He hustled to make a living. He was an itinerant preacher of a dying art form. I suspected he didn’t want to compete with himself. Why would anyone fly him in for a week of workshops if they could just buy a packet of audio files?

I don’t know the real reason he didn’t want to preserve his oral wisdom. But I do know I couldn’t cajole him into even one interview. When we parted I implored him to consider recording something. I hope he found a way to preserve the real magic of his teaching, if only the melody of his Newfoundland accent. I’ll keep listening for him.

Megan Candow 2007-1

 

***

I’m a story consultant and an independent producer now. Last week I threw away David’s “Writing for Radio” because I thought it no longer applied to me. But, that’s not the case. As I unearthed all my notes, I found that his teaching still applies.

So long as people talk to one another, mastering direct language and authentic tone pays off. Even if radio as an industry becomes simply a reading service for online articles, there will always be places where people want to hear humans sounding like humans.

You can’t replace sitting in a room with him, but for the sake of passing on the wisdom he gave me, I’ve created a spreadsheet of all my notes from Candow’s trainings, by date and topic. Feel free to download it and see if any gems help you in your work.

I finally completed my post-it note task from 2010.

**UPDATE: 10/2/14, I found one more notebook from a January 2009 training and added 75 more entries to the spreadsheet.**

Download (XLS, 25KB)

I also scanned pdf’s of all the handouts he gave me. He told me a producer helped him pull those together. He was reticent about documenting even that much. When he passed them out, he kept asking if they made sense, if they were helpful at all. They are. My thanks to the nameless producer who wrangled him into that much documentation.

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

 

Rembrandt’s Selfie: A Humblebrag Portrait

Portraits used to be a mark of class. You could only get an artist to paint your likeness if you had enough money or social stature.

These days, though, it’s no problem. You just grab your phone and snap a “selfie”.

03-25-13 Megan Selfie

But, the “selfie” has a lot of haters. People point to them as examples of our runaway narcissism.

And yet, the self-portrait is a pillar of fine art. So, what’s the difference between a self-indulgent “selfie” and a self-portrait worthy of generations?

I turned to Gary Faigin with that question. He’s an artist, an art critic and co-founder of Seattle’s Gage Academy of Art.

He pointed me in the direction of this self-portrait from Rembrandt, created just four years before his death, around 1665.

Rembrandt Self Portrait

 

Gary notes that in this portrait Rembrandt paints himself as “artist in the studio”. He wears simple clothes, carries his palette and brushes, and sits in front of a wall with two simple circles painted on it.

When Rembrandt painted this he was out of fashion, bankrupt, and watching his students rise above him in wealth and social stature; students like the fellow below, Ferdinand Bol.

BolSelfPortraitRijksmuseumAmsterdam

 

Bol learned his craft from Rembrandt, even teaching the style to students of his own. When he painted this, Bol was more financially successful and socially well-regarded than Rembrandt, and he painted himself like that. Sumptuous fabrics, a pricey statue and a Roman column were the trappings that Bol chose for his self-portrait, portraying himself as “successful man”.

Gary says that Portraiture was big business during the Dutch Golden Age. In an era before advertising and social media, portraits were branding. The wealthy class commissioned portraits to show the world how successful they were.

Hals_PieterVanDenBroecke

 

Rembrandt’s contemporary, Frans Hals, painted this portrait of Dutch merchant Pieter van den Broecke. This guy comes across as friendly, and he was in fact a close pal of the artist. But, Gary did research and found that van den Broecke wrangled a nutmeg monopoly for the Dutch in the Banda Islands, killing and enslaving natives. The portrait captured the image van den Broecke wanted, not reality.

So, what message does Rembrandt’s portrait convey? Gary Faigin believes the secret message is in those simple circles.

Like many other art historians, Gary thinks the two circles are a reference to another great painter, Giotto. The Italian painter of the Middle Ages was said to have been able to draw a circle, perfectly, free-hand. By putting those two, simple circles so large behind his head, Gary says that Rembrandt thumbed his nose at the fleeting fashion of the Dutch art scene. Rather than portraying himself as rich or successful, Rembrandt painted himself, quite simply, as a Master. He connected his image to one of the greatest artists of all time, branding himself as bigger and more enduring than his era.

Now, very few of us intend to set our image as Great Masters of Art, but Gary Faigin says there is something we can learn from the way Rembrandt crafted his own “selfie”. It’s something Gary thinks about when he paints his own self-portraits.

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Portraits should do more than just show what you look like, whether you’re fat or thin or beautiful. In fact, portraiture as art has very little to do with what a person looks like. The test of a portrait is what someone will be able to connect with one hundred years from now. It should reveal something about the life of a particular person in a particular place at a particular time.

So, the next time you snap a “selfie” for your profile pic, ask yourself, what am I really saying with this picture?

Megan in the Studio

 

RELATED EVENT:

Rembrandt’s Self Portrait with Two Circles, and other portraits from The Kenwood House, London, are on display at the Seattle Art Museum through May 19, 2013.

Enjoy the “Art History Lovers” edit of my Interview with Gary Faigin, jam-packed with stories, here: