journalism, life, movies

Enjoy it while it lasts: Woody, Ira, and the kindness of strangers

Inevitably, I will post at least one of the seemingly numerous videos available of Ira Glass telling people how to tell stories. But until then, I’ll stick with the video above. It’s a clip from a Woody Allen film.

If you haven’t seen his Hannah and Her Sisters, I’m spoiling things a bit by putting it here; I think of this as the climax of that movie, though we can debate that.

But when I watched it—and, especially, heard it—I couldn’t help thinking of Ira Glass. The tone, the delivery, the tics and timing of the narration. The actual story, as told. I suspect that our Mr. Glass learned a lesson in storytelling from Mr. Allen’s films (as many others have).

In fact, the pacing and sequence reminded me of how Glass structures his stories. As Glass said in an interview conducted for Current, a public broadcasting publication:

This is the structure of the stories on our show: There’s an anecdote–a sequence of events. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. And the reason why that’s powerful, I think, is because there is something about the momentum, especially in a medium where you can’t see anything, especially in radio. That you just want to know what happens next. It’s irresistible. You just cannot help but want to know what happens next.

Then, there’s the part of the story where I make some really big statement like there’s something about the kindness of strangers. Because you can’t just have an anecdote. It’s got to mean something. You can have people read the little story from the Bible, but unless you tell them, you know, the lesson they’re trying to draw from it, it’s not a real sermon. And radio, in particular, is a very didactic medium.

The way that we’re taught to listen to it is, I think, largely from news shows, where they’re constantly telling you: here’s what happens, here’s what it means. And so we’re used to that. And if I didn’t say, “There’s something about the kindness of strangers,” this story just would not be as satisfying.

So the way that my staff and I talk about stories is we talk about, okay, what’s the anecdote and then where’s the moment of reflection. And we structure the stories like that, over and over and over.

Now watch listen to that scene with Woody again.

Standard
China, corruption, crime, development, disaster, earth, environment, geography, international, life, lost, unfortunate

An Unquiet Earth

Hard times around the globe these days. Earthquake in China. Cyclone in Burma. Tornados in the U.S. An enormous volcano on the verge of collapse in Chile.

Over the past several months, I’ve been working on a story about a possible earthquake here in the Bay Area. One thing I’ve learned is starkly visible in Sichuan right now: When an earthquake strikes, it’s not the earth that kills you. It’s everything else around you.

In the short term, this typically means buildings.* In China, construction quality will be a part of the discussion about what happened. Corrupt developers, local officials, and cut corners should come as no surprise–I’ve seen alleged evidence of it firsthand. The Guardian covers that angle. As one angry parent told a reporter:

“These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn’t collapse – the school was only 10 years old. They took the money from investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don’t have money for our children. This is not a natural disaster – this is done by humans.”

In China, some call it “tofu” building. Or, as Josh Chin notes:

“Toufu dregs”-style construction (豆腐渣工程) has long been a source of public anger in China, and a potent symbol of corruption at the local level. (Witness the fuming controversy over shoddy electric poles during this winter’s freak snow storms in the south.) And now it appears the widespread practice whereby officials and developers profit through architectural corner-cutting may have cost a few extra tens of thousands of lives.

An erupting volcano can kill–namely through a phenomenon known as a pyroclastic flow. Cyclone Nargis was accompanied by a storm surge–this is what caused much of the destruction in the Irrawaddy Delta. But that damage was magnified by the loss of mangrove forests, which provide some resistance to these forces. The mangroves have been cut away to make room for development. This time, the initial round of damage was increased not by what humans have built, but by what they’ve taken away. And in Burma, human intention contributes to the continued suffering.

Boulder in the city of Mianyang, Sichuan. Kyodo News.*Update: Robert Siegel reports that the village of Gui Xi, in a steep-sided valley, was heavily damaged by displaced boulders and large landslides. (The photo at left, by Kyodo News, is from the city of Mianyan, Sichuan.) The most vivid and gripping English-language reporting from Sichuan is coming from NPR. All Things Considered was originally planning to broadcast features from Chengdu next week. When the earthquake struck, they had many resources in place.

Standard
Alaska, animals, anticipation, environment, food, geography, life

Spotted: Whale Hunting

umiaq.jpg
The Whale Hunt is worth a look. It’s a high-production slideshow (come on, that’s what it is) created by Jonathan Harris, who is a mere 10 days younger than me. He spent a week on the northern shore of Alaska, photographing a group of natives. Some of the photos are really great, others are just pictures–the conceit was that he took a photo ever five minutes. The whole thing is an impressive construction.
Standard
art, history, ideas, language, life, poetry, talent, unfortunate

Enormous Changes, Last Minute: About Grace Paley

Grace Paley died two days ago. She was a sweet and humane poet and short story writer, one of those individuals for whom many will admit a familiarity with the name if not a specific knowledge of the work because some high school English teacher somewhere along the line (but a fan, truly) assigned a couple of her stories about the lives of working class New York women, narrated by those same working class New York women. But many others will remember her for a long time because they were great stories and great poems and illuminated a talent and a part of society that we would do well to remember–the Yiddish-inflected Jewish street and home life of New York in the 50s and 60s.

Grace was also an ardent activist, particularly for the cause of piece. During the Vietnam War she went to Hanoi on a peace mission to negotiate for the release of American prisoners. To learn more about her, I strongly recommend the obituaries in the New York Times and Washington Post–the Post for its wit (really, Grace’s wit), and the Times for its sheer, uninhibited enthusiasm.

I first met Grace Paley in 2000 or 2001. She lived near my college during the later part of her life, in Thetford, Vermont, and we had a couple of friends in common. One of them, Cleopatra Mathis, introduced me to her after a reading by the poet Grace Schulberg. We were at a little reception, catered by a local African restaurant, with platters of doughy fried finger foods and fresh vegetables. Grace Paley wasn’t in much of a talking mood, but was still very warm and friendly. “Don’t forget to eat your vegetables,” she told me. And then she bit into a carrot.

I saw her again a few years later, in April 2003. During the new Iraq War, it turned out. And she was worried about me. It was like talking to a close family friend or favored great aunt who is in town for the night and really just wants to make sure I’m getting along OK: am I? really? OK?

She was in San Francisco to give a talk at the giant Temple Emanu-el. (I wrote a friend about it, and from that am I getting some of these comments.) She didn’t read much, except a short and excellent story about spending six days in jail, and a few poems by other people. But she did talk a lot, especially about current events, and she didn’t avoid any questions. When asked about US involvement in the domestic situations of other countries, she recalled meeting a Chilean truck driver who had a briefcase full of paper money from the CIA. She and her husband Bob Nichols were visiting Chile to learn about strawberry farming. This was 1973.

I think I must have been the youngest person in the audience, except for a few 12 year olds. Maybe I was the youngest person who went there voluntarily. One woman a bit older than me stood up and asked Grace how she felt about current events as a Jewish person. This woman was young and attractive and well-dressed and well-spoken and after Grace’s talk she was surrounded by complimentary old women who clucked and cooed over her. The question seemed to arouse a sense of approval from some sections of the audience, though not necessarily all. How do you feel about these things as a Jewish person?

And Grace said, I’m not quite sure what you mean.

Grace Paley grew up as a normal socialist Jewish girl, she said, and added that religion never was very important in her family. I think she also said that her parents were quite critical of religion. She did make her opinion on the Israel-Palestine problem clear by suggesting that we transplant the anti-war slogan “Bring our soldiers home” to the occupied territories: “Bring the settlers home.” (This was before Sharon started the settlement withdrawals.) An Israeli friend of hers pointed out that having those settlers integrated into regular Israeli society would drive everyone else crazy, so Grace switched gears: “Send them home. They’re all from Brooklyn, anyway.”

She then mentioned that a series of threats she had received for her criticism of the settlements were traced to a single phone booth at a college in Brooklyn.

I talked to her briefly afterward, and she signed my edition of Collected Poems. (The poet and professor Gary Lenhart gave me a copy of her Collected Stories a couple of years back, as well–there you’ll find much of what the critics rave about.). We talked for what seemed a long time, but was probably just 10 or 15 minutes. I could feel all the middle aged women there eyeing me suspiciously–why is he taking so long? Though by the time I talked to her, there was no line. No rush, I suppose, either, as she made time for everyone who wanted to speak with her.

She hadn’t shaken the Bronx inflections (one former New Yorker told me they all work to cultivate it long after they’ve left): How’s life, dahling, whatta ya doing, are ya making enough money, good luck, dahling, good luck to you.

*

Grace Paley figured in the first blog entry I ever wrote, on the occasion of the death of a playwright. In that little essay, I lamented not getting to meet these great and talented people who lived when I lived, but died before I could talk to them, and noted that when it came to Grace Paley, I was lucky. Another person I mentioned there was the poet Kenneth Koch.

Kenneth Koch wrote a lot about helping people–especially children and seniors–write poetry. Koch figured heavily in me getting to know the aforementioned Gary Lenhart. And a friend of mine used some of Kenneth Koch’s writings when he helped children learn creative writing. Through some circuitous conversation, we ended up talking a little about all that. I hadn’t talked or thought of Koch for a while. This was Wednesday, the same day Grace Paley died. She was 84.

*

“Here,” by Grace Paley. First published in the Massachusetts Review.

Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that’s who I wanted to be

at last a woman
in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sitting
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration

that’s my old man across the yard
he’s talking to the meter reader
he’s telling him the world’s sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa ask him
to sit beside me for a minute I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips

Standard
crime, dissipation, journalism, life, San Francisco, talent, unfortunate

Theft

In June, the Chronicle ran a good story about a woman who discovered—and pursued—the person who had stolen her identity. It is engaging to read and a lucky score for the Chronicle, a story like that, one that unfolds cinematically and neatly. There are advantages to being the only show in town, as far as full-fledged newspapers are concerned. Where else might we have heard this story, if not the Chronicle? The Examiner wouldn’t set aside the column space to do the story justice; local television wouldn’t have the minutes to spare; the blogs have to deal with the dumb rule that everything has to be short; and, frankly, there are no magazines in town that would have managed to fit the story into their pages–it’s not “big” enough to warrant a feature, but too long to cram into a short front-of-the-book piece (although, if following the trail of the identity thief meant you stopped at The City’s 10 Best Places to Eat/Shop/Fall in Love, things might be different).

Maybe there’s room for some other kind of publication that could produce stories like this.

It was written by Mike Weiss. Three months earlier, Weiss wrote about a waitress and bartender who stopped a man from drugging his date. But Weiss doesn’t only write about regular people outwitting the criminal element. He’s one of the best features writers at the Chronicle, possibly the best. He certainly seemed to have free reign for a reporter. His beat covered a little of everything in the Bay Area: San Francisco General Hospital, Gavin Newsom, passion, unsolved crime, solved crime, ash scattering, casualty notification officers, intelligent design, and Duarte’s olallieberry pies, among other things.  In short, he wrote what we vaguely call human interest stories, what editors even more vaguely call enterprise reporting, but what anyone who wants to be a reporter and actually likes to write dreams of getting paid to do–the closest thing around to the old Joseph Mitchell kind of reporting, the closest to the full-steam-ahead Talk of the Town piece.

So should it have come as a surprise that he’s part of the Chronicle‘s Summertime 2007 housecleaning?  Maybe not, but it’s too bad for those who bother to read what’s left of the Chronicle.

Frances Dinkelspiel posted a list of what appears to be all the staff who are leaving the Chronicle this summer. Besides Weiss, some of the others who I’m disappointed to see go include Anna Badkhen (now at the Globe), David Lazarus (going to the LA Times), Keay Davidson, Edward Epstein, Glen Martin, and what looks to be a significant chunk of the photo staff.

Only Catherine Bigelow and David Lazarus really got to say goodbye to their readers, through their columns. Mike Weiss used to have a column, too. And for that, he wrote his own farewell, six years ago. But there was an earlier column, on the 10th anniversary of the 1989 earthquake. He was in Candlestick Park when it struck. He wrote that all in attendance cheered when it was over. It was about close calls and survival.

“We had an opportunity to show what we were made of,” he wrote, “and we did. San Francisco survived to bicker another day. You and I are alive. It doesn’t get any better.”

The whole list after the jump. Continue reading

Standard