Friday, May 30, 2008

Fireflies

Light rules.

Last night, I was driving home from an especially enjoyable evening out.

My parents' house is on a hill, and you have to drive through the valley before you reach the driveway. On either side of the road are two open fields, and since we live out in the country, the road can be quite dark.

Occasionally, I like to turn my lights off and look at the starry sky on clear nights. Last night was one of those nights, so I pulled over to the side of the road and just savored the night.

I saw something flashing in the grass. Thinking it might have been someone's cell phone or something, I checked it out. It turned out to be a firefly that had crash-landed--the first one I've seen this year.

I looked up, and was surprised to see both of the fields on either side of the road lit up with thousands of fireflies gliding and floating and lighting up at intervals. Seriously, they were everywhere. It was amazing, with the stars overhead and the phosphorous glow from the fields. I've never seen anything like it.

Mmm, summer.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Moth (in a theatre near you)!

This time: an idea and some links.

I'm obviously obsessed with storytelling. And, by now you should know about The Moth in New York, one of the best bastions of storytelling.

The Moth is way cool, and I want to attend some performances there at some point. Maybe I'll do some study-program biz-nass in New York if I'm lucky.

Emily Gilbert directed me to a profile of The Moth by Adam Bright. Seriously, it's worth a read. The hook of his article:

"It takes a rare kind of courage to live like a character in a story, and not many real-life human beings have the nerve to try it—perhaps because the elements that make a narrative compelling also make life miserable. Most people are too attached to the things that make them happy (honor, love, and friendship) to appreciate the subtle appeal of those things that might make them into more interesting protagonists (disgrace, heartbreak, and loneliness).

Luckily, though, even prudent people will occasionally commit spectacular acts of mischief in pursuit of happiness. And when they do, the Moth is waiting—with an audience and a microphone."
This brings us to the idea. Here it is.

I went to see the latest Indiana Jones tonight. This was the opening weekend, so we got there earlier than usual to make sure we could score a good seat. Of course, this meant that we had to endure about a half an hour of pre-preview trivia and advertisements.

This got me thinking. Everyone likes stories. That's why we were all gathered there at the movie theater. What if we had a little story-telling session and shared a common experience at the same time, actually interacting with each other instead of just sitting, glazed over in front of the screen?

So my idea was this: What if I walked down to the front of the theater, got everyone's attention and made a suggestion? What if I explained briefly what The Moth was, and then asked them if they were interested in trying an experiment? I would tell a story, and then someone else could go next. They would be short anecdotes, real, fictional or somewhere in between. Funny, embarrassing, sad or heartwarming.

That way, we could all share something together and a the same time find out a little more about each other. Unfortunately, as I was thinking this over, the previews began. Maybe next time.

Or maybe you could do it. Seriously, I think it could be a great, telling experiment, but it would take some pride-swallowing and the willingness to look silly. Do you have what it takes?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

No apologies, just right

In the absence of a good story to write about, I'll just make a plug for music. I'm ok with that.

I was reading my soon-to-be housemate's blog when I found out how to get the title track of Coldplay's new project, "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends" by pre-ordering the album via iTunes. As a Coldplay fan (although obviously not big enough to hear about this before now), I jumped to it, and I haven't been able to stop listening to it. It promises to be an enthralling turn from the band's already well established sound.

Nothing I can write will do the sound justice, so I'll leave you with a couple of lines from the song itself. (Yeah, lyrics. So what?)

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sweep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
...
One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
...
Revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate
...
For some reason I can't explain
I know Saint Peter will call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world


It's fresh; it's captivating; it's the new Coldplay. Get it.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Tall tales

I've been thinking a lot about the whole Malcolm Gladwell "perverse and often baffling" story and the medium through which it was presented.

This place called the Moth strikes me as an interesting contemporary phenomenon that looks back to the oral tradition that used to be such an important component of life. The Moth is a stage in New York where people gather to tell both true stories and the occasional tall tale, but it is all presented as non-fiction for the added entertainment that suspended disbelief brings.

There was a time when storytelling held an important place in society. Of course, it is still very important, but through the mediums of books, television and movies instead of by vocal delivery.

So, I think that what the Moth and its performers are doing is great.

While I'm home for the month of May, I'm working for the Globe (Joplin's daily newspaper) as a stringer, which is kind of one step above a freelancer, because I'm actually on call for assignments.

I was covering a story about a ceremony for a Confederate soldier who had previously had an unmarked grave. The cemetery recently received a standard, government-issue headstone to mark the grave, so they were holding a memorial.

As I was on my way, I was thinking about the hilarity of Gladwell's fictional account, and I was wondering how he had come up with that tall tale. Then I realized that his story was based on a kernel of truth and an active imagination...

While I was thinking this over, I arrived at the cemetery. Looking around, I saw the customary green tent that is so familiar at cemeteries. I was right on time, according to the information I had been given about the event, but apparently they had already started.

Seeing that the information I had was inaccurate, I realized that I had to move fast to get my sources. This was compounded by the fact that a tornado was reportedly fast approaching, and everyone was understandably anxious to leave.

So, I approached the woman who was obviously role playing as the soldier's widow. (The historical group who was putting on this ceremony had staged a similar event for a Union soldier the last two years, and they had made sort of a dramatic production out of it.)

"Hi, I'm Seth Putnam with the Joplin Globe," I said. "Can you tell me a little bit about how this memorial service came to be and why it's important to commemorate this man?"

She gave me a stricken look and tried to say something.

I looked over at the memorial and pictures of the deceased, and it slowly dawned on me that this was...a real funeral.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Monday, May 5, 2008

Being a bad influence on young journalists

(Photo--Brooke Williams)
The players: The Emilys, Melissa, Malcolm and yours truly.

The story: How I met Malcolm Gladwell.

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of "The Tipping Point" and "Blink." Recently, he came to speak at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. You can find out more about him in a profile written by Chris Wilson for the Washingtonian.

There's some important background for this story. Gladwell semi-recently spoke at The Moth, a stage in New York where people go to tell true stories and tall tales. His story was one that followed his profession--specifically his first stab at journalism at the Washington Post.

It centers around a contest that he and a friend came up with to see how many times they could get the phrase "raises new and troubling questions" into the newspaper. When they found that it was much too easy to get that phrase printed, they held a championship round with the phrase "perverse and often baffling," which Gladwell supposedly got published in a story about gastroenterologists.

Hilarious. To a journalist, anyway.

You can find the uncensored version streamed here. It's about 15 minutes long.

Incidentally, I had happened to write a story about a new personality test being implemented at JBU that contained that exact phrase.

One of my sources said that a vast majority of employees are disengaged from their jobs...a statistic which I said "raises new and troubling questions about the demeanor of the American worker."

Because of this occurrence, and thanks to Emily Gilbert's suggestion, we decided to go hear Gladwell speak and hopefully get my story signed.

He gave a very nice talk about his concept of the "mavens," his term for the people who inform trends and massive change. After the talk and a brief Q&A session, a couple of security guards closed in on him, and the trio disappeared through a door behind the stage.

And our chance disappeared with them. Luckily, we anticipated this.

We acted quickly and slithered through the crowd amidst dirty looks and scoffs and popped through the door. We found ourselves in a storage hall of sorts and spotted Gladwell at the end of the corridor.

"Mr. Gladwell!"
The security guards stop and wave us away with a two-finger salute.
"Can we not--?"
Another wave.
But by this time, their group had stopped, and Gladwell turned to see what was going on.
"Oh hi," he says. "Are you not coming to the reception?"
"Hi." We shake hands, and I tell him that I'm not sure if we can make it.

I explain that I heard the story he told at The Moth, and that I had gotten it into our student newspaper. He spotted the phrase immediately (I had brought a copy of the newspaper immediately) and thought it was hilarious. He graciously signed it, saying that he was glad he was negatively influencing young journalists.

Some other audience members came in after us and, as we were leaving, the security guards shooed them away, effectively making us the only people that got to see Malcolm that evening.

Edit:

Come to find out, the story Gladwell told at the Moth fell into the category of "tall tales."

This is not necessarily a problem because it is a well known fact that stories at the Moth are not all entirely true, but finding out that most of the story is fabricated does detract from the humor.

Nevertheless, it does appear that at least part of the story was rooted in truth, since the phrase "perverse and often baffling" does appear in a story written for the Washington Post on Sept. 2, 1991 about traffic trends.

While the veracity and distribution of this excerpt may have been handled poorly by Gladwell and others, it's still a funny story. And a story is what it is.

For the full story about the extent of the tale's tallness, see Jack Shafer's article "The Fibbing Point" at Slate.com.