The Stories we Tell

There is one absolutely awesome thing about being a parent, certainly there are many, but my absolute favorite is being able to scare my children via stories.  This may sound cruel, but it isn’t, because I can say with about 90% certainty that my sons will never fall into a lake, become Carnies, pick up hitchhikers, or wander out into traffic.  Mind you the boys are tweens and a teen, so things that I used to scare them away from are useless and the interesting part is they have realized that my stories (even when they are completely made up) are interesting.  They now know there is no such thing as a “swamp witch”, an evil creature that was said to lurk at the end of my parents long driveway, but they stayed away from the road and the snapping turtles throughout their youth.

Some of these stories really have no purpose other than in telling them, they create a legacy.  Stories live on.  For example, stories that end in “and this is why you should never camp by a river” or “that is why jumping on railway cars is a bad idea” have no moral, but they are fun to tell.  Of course, I have to construct an elaborate tale of the time I jumped on a railway car and ended up in Missouri where I was mistaken for a wanted criminal, who had escaped on a railway car from Mississippi.  I then had to stay in jail for days until the police sorted the whole thing out and my picture was in the paper in St. Louis and this is why you stay away from the railroad tracks and/or never ride on a train.

There is always some grain of truth to these stories, as I would not consider my life boring in the least.  I don’t tell them these tales because it makes my life seem interesting, I tell them because I can.  I have tried to write stories, but who am I, Aesop? Telling stories requires a certain type of gift to weave in truth and fiction and captivate your audience through inflection or other rhetorical devices you can only do with speech.  You must also be prepared for questions and demands for future stories…the latter inevitably leads to me saying something like “well after I picked up that second maniacal hitchhiker, I think I learned my lesson, wouldn’t you?”

Of course we can always tell stories that are 100% true, but what is the fun in that?  Actually I have told some of those, but only in dire times.  The story of being rufied by a female bartender and calling the National Guard in (and yes someone from the Guard did come to the bar I was at, but I forgot what I called them for…it remains a fuzzy picture of someone in uniform with weapons ready) has been told and my kids are more afraid of ending up doing something ridiculous than something bad happening to them.  The story ends with “and this is why you don’t drink….do you want to call the National Guard and embarrass yourself?” It remains a funny story to them and it actually isn’t funny really.  I simply chose to remember the more dramatic parts of my life (a theme) then an actual plot (everything else). There does remain a moral to that story and it is that you have to be careful who you trust and The Hangover was a funny movie, but that tiger could have eaten them…. “and this is why you never feed animals at the zoo…”

I seriously doubt other mothers do this.  The only thing even close this that I have ever seen is in the movie Big Fish, which admittedly makes me cry every time I watch it.  Ironically I also have a story to tell as to why it makes me cry that ends up with “and this is why you never fall in love with someone who is dating a princess”, although I don’t actually tell that story, because it is of no use to boys at all.  I have strived to be more elaborate in my stories as I have grown older and it was something that I remember, really one of the only things, about my Grandpa.  He told “tall tales” about catching alligators and armadillos although he lived nowhere near those kinds of animals.  I used to think it was a Southern trait, but I realize that isn’t the case, even though Big Fish might have a person think otherwise and my Grandpa being from the South and all…

The only problem with this is that people never know when you are telling the truth or weaving a fiction.  This isn’t the same thing as lying, of course, but it does effect the quality of time I have together with my kids and I have learned the hard way to tell these stories on neutral ground where they feel safe.  They will refuse to sit by a campfire and listen to a story, for example and they cringe when we go fishing and I have a Loch Ness monster story to tell.  But when the power goes out and we have nothing to do other than to talk to each other or we are in the car, I begin “Don’t ever think it is a good idea to become a rodeo clown…” and I just bet that they will remember every last detail even though I will forget it as soon as I have told it.  They can now, after all, describe the swamp witch in vivid detail and to my delight, I think that have added some extra details to the story…

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Why Journaling as Therapy may not Work for Everyone

Writing a journal as a form of “self-help” is a common homework assignment given by therapists.  I am not in therapy, though I utilize self-help techniques to become a better person~a blissful person as this blog reminds me… However, writing as self-help has never been something I could do in any medium, although I have never tried with a typewriter and maybe that is the trick, who knows? When I type on a computer, I always search for a “theme” for my feelings which then translates into a thesis, which then leads to references to cite why I am having X emotions at Y time and why.  It becomes academic. It’s inevitable.

Worse is what transpires when I put pen to paper- or pencil or colored pencil or even crayon and yes, I have thought different writing instruments might supply different results. I end up analyzing the doodled mandalas I create attempting to find the secret meaning of that duck or anvil or what is that? Then I give up, move on to crayon or something else and some horrible haiku ensues that makes me question the artistic importance of haiku in the first place.  How can something so “choppy” be art? So I give up things like meter and rhyme or syllable count and just write with my marker or whatever new utensil I have found.

The rest was just a warm-up, I tell myself.  I then end up writing like a person with hypergraphia causing me to wonder if, indeed, I should be seeking mental health attention.  Then to my chagrin, I end up with some horrible Greek Tragedy of a past relationship that turns to a existential crisis with some major Freudian undertones that would make Freud himself blush.  This is rock bottom at this point, since life is apparently hopeless and tragic.  There is nothing left to do but grab a highlighter and some post-its and write self-affirmations like “it could be worse” “at least you don’t have cats” “whatever” “don’t put this on your mirror” “never do psychology on yourself again” “write only self-deprecating humor and/or academic pieces”…and so on.  Not quite self-affirmations, but it’s why writing as therapy doesn’t work for me.  But maybe I am just doing it wrong, where’s the typewriter….?

The Diversity of Dialects and Irritating Jargon

American Dialects : Dialect map of American English

The map above was brought to my attention in (of all academic places: Facebook) in the context of how we judge others based on their speech, more obviously the dialects shown in the map.  While there is no such thing as a grammatically deficient dialect, we do still judge people based on where they appear to be from.  This can be especially troubling for Southerners.  Being in a state that has three distinct dialects that I can attest to and the map does well to show, I do find this interesting and valid.  I have always remarked on what I short distance I had to drive to hear people speaking in a different way.

As interesting as dialects are, jargon has recently been an area that I have been attuned to.  Some people (military and public safety people) are very comfortable with speaking in acronyms, something I have never been quite comfortable with doing.  It is something similar to “text-speak” in that younger people seem to be also confident in by using letters instead of words to communicate.  Mentally I can translate and use text speak or whatever you want to call it, because the phrases are not that important in context.  To say LOL (laugh out loud) is not something I would probably say out loud anyway, I would say “that is funny” or “you are funny”…But the jargon used in Public Safety is the stuff that can save lives or the opposite. To me it is just to important to use shortcuts, so I have trouble with this.  This isn’t even touching the topic of the numbers that correspond with crimes in process that police dispatchers use.

Jargon then along with dialect in something to behold in academia.  I realized yesterday while listening to various panel experts at an academic institution that I was listening to not only what was being said, but how it was being said.  I looked for use of dialects or the opposite for common phrases (jargon) and I never really realized I was doing it until I looked at this map today.  Now I was not trying to judge people by their use of language here, I was trying to improve my own public speaking by positive example.  However I walked away feeling like a horrible academic and one that needed to start changing.  In essence, I was judging myself.

This may come as a surprise, but I do have a mentor in public speaking and one that has never been accused of being a good public speaker; George W. Bush.  Yes, I know.  Now what I always liked about the way he spoke was his use of dialect and the way he said “nucelar instead of nuclear”…did he do this on purpose?  I always thought so.  Even if he didn’t, the use of a humorous mispronunciation of words has always been something I employ.  I have always found academic jargon to be pretentious and unnecessary, so I may use “big words”, but when I do I say them incorrectly or make a face when doing so.  For example, rather than saying, “it is fine with me if you do X”, I may say “I may be amenable to this X”; pronounced A-Mean-Able.  I also refer to cohorts as co-hearts.  Am I doing this to seem more human?  Is it because it amuses me or that I would rather be accused of being someone who does not know how to speak than being accused of being pretentious? It’s hard to say, really. Maybe it is because I am a grammar Nazi and I cannot stand words being misspelled on paper or syntax and grammatical errors being repeated, so I have to give a little with the spoken word.

Ironically, the topic of panel discussions was generational differences, a topic that I spoke about a conference two years ago.  Being a Gen X-er, I found it hard or next to impossible to relate to others that claimed to be in my generation.  Not a one said “like”; not as a preface to a simile, but as in “like I don’t know dude, let’s ask the older man, because he was like THERE and stuff”… Slacker subculture speak here?- possibly.  But this is another topic entirely as is sarcasm and other devices that can be employed in rhetoric.  Funny though, when I write I seem to feel more confident than when I am forced to speak and seem intelligent; translation pretentious. Also I can go back and reread what I write, instead of speaking and then asking others “oh wow, did I just say that out loud? LOL!”