Moses on the mountain — a Story Safari

The sermon at church yesterday was part Art History,  part theology, and part—although the rector didn’t realize this—part Story Safari.

What’s a Story Safari? I haven’t written about them recently, so let’s recap. It’s the name I’ve given to analogies and metaphors found in the wild. Sometimes we hunt them down, sometimes they just wander into church while we’re listening to the sermon. But always these metaphors or stories help elucidate a larger point.

After the Old Testament lesson about Moses on the mountaintop surveying the Promised Land, the Rev. Dr. Judith Davis pointed out a reproduction of a painting that she’d pinned to a wall: Frederic Edwin Church’s Moses Viewing the Promised Land.

Does it remind you of anything?

Story Safari
By Frederic Edwin Church – Art Renewal, Public Domain

A murmur went through the choir the moment we saw the photograph. Because of course, Church’s painting is the direct antecedent of…

An artist might call the Church painting a “reference”—and it is. But it’s more than just a similar arrangement of rocks and figures. It’s a visual analogy. (Click on the Lion King photo, by the way, if you’d like to see the whole video.)

How is this a Story Safari?

Maybe you’ve never seen the Church painting before. Or maybe you saw it once, flipping through your Art History book, and it’s been lodged somewhere in the furthest recesses of your brain. When you see The Lion King, the connection might not register consciously. But it’s there.

So practically the moment that scene from the movie hits your retina, you’ve already “read” it. Add some words and you’ve got yourself a Story Safari. This is how I might do it:

Simba the lion cub is a younger, furrier version of Moses. Like Moses, he will lead his people—er, lions. And, if I remember the plot correctly, an assortment of other animals too.

I witnessed a surprising Lion King moment at both Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds games this summer. As “The Circle of Life” played on the speakers, the cameras swept the stands. One after another, parents stood up and hoisted their infants aloft, just like in the picture.

Are they saying, “Behold my child, who will rule all of the land between the foul lines”? Or “Behold my child, a baseball fan”? That may be in the backs of some people’s minds, but I think it’s just about the 15 seconds of fame on the big Diamondvision scoreboard.

And that might launch us into a discussion of the kinds of things people will do to get attention.

The power of visual analogies

Visual analogies work fast. That’s one of the reasons one picture is worth 1,000 words. And they can trigger our emotions. But they’re also complex, and complexity makes them memorable. I’m not likely to forget the tiny baseball fans, legs and arms waving, as their fathers held them as high as possible. The Cubs and the Reds now have some real estate in my brain. (Probably other teams do this too, but the feature hasn’t made it to New York yet.)

Using visuals can be tricky. I’m not a big fan of slides accompanying a speech—I’d rather have the audience focus on my speaker. But if a visual analogy can help move your story along or make it memorable in a way that words cannot, then go for it.


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“I’ll Plant My Own Tree” — Song for a Sunday

I’m oddly ashamed to admit this, but somehow the song “I’ll Plant My Own Tree” never hit my radar until last week.

tree
Movie poster Fair use

Maybe that’s not surprising: I’ve never seen the movie Valley of the Dolls. I’ve never been a huge fan of André and Dory Previn, who wrote the song. And while I like Judy Garland just fine, I’ve never obsessively combed the more obscure corners of her discography.

Garland recorded “I’ll Plant My Own Tree” because she was supposed to play the character who sings it in Valley of the Dolls. She dropped out early in the filming, replaced by Susan Heyward.

The song hit my radar this week when some friends of mine posted an American Gothic-like photograph of themselves, after planting, um, their own tree. So I clicked on the song link and there was Susan Heyward in a glittery gown, belting it out while a giant Calder-esque mobile swirled around her, casting trippy pseudo-psychedelic colored shadows. The setting, choreography, and the relentless 1960s-ness of the arrangement made it impossible for me to form an opinion about the song.

Next stop, Judy. No setting or stilted choreography to worry about here—the only thing that exists is audio. But the arrangement is even more aggressive, like the conductor and the entire orchestra were on speed. And about as subtle as a truck.

Was that really the best I could find?

Lena Horne plants her own tree

And then I found Lena Horne’s performance. Still a little too peppy for my taste—someday maybe I’ll sing this song the way I hear it in my head. But the emotional intensity gave me goosebumps. No doubt about it, Lena Horne is going to plant her own tree. And if anyone tries to stop her, she may just bite their head off.

Full disclosure: I would like to bite the head off whoever posted this video. It’s the entire song MINUS the climactic ending. There’s a special place in hell for you, whoever you are. Still, there’s enough here to make you fall in love—or at least serious like.

Go plant your own damn tree this week. I know I will.


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The dench Dame Judi Dench — Song for a Sunday

Listen to Judi Dench rap. (I bet you never expected to read that sentence.)

“Hey, I’m Jude-to-the-D—Pow!”

I came across a Huffpost article about Dame Judi Dench “learning to spit lyrics” with a British rapper.

While she does look fetching in the flat-brimmed DENCH cap he gives her, the talent she displays is not so much rapping as it is mimicry—and rhythm. The Dame’s got rhythm.

Have a listen to the video if you like, but the thing that made me want to bring this to your attention is this line in the accompanying article:

“In the United Kingdom, Dench’s surname is sometimes used as slang to describe something amazing.”

Judi Dench
Dame Judi Dench, photo by Caroline Bonarde Ucci, CC BY 3.0

A quick check in the Urban Dictionary confirms Dench as a synonym for sick (in a good way) or nice, and offers the examples:

That was dench bruvaaaaa
look at her saaaaaaaan she is well judi dench

What an extraordinary thing to have one’s name enter the lexicon—and as high praise, no less.

Of course we all know Judi Dench as a marvelous actor. But do you know she’s also quite a, well, a dench musical theatre interpreter as well?

In a production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music in London, she sang the over-sung, often cloyingly sentimental “Send in the Clowns.” Frankly, the song had always put me right to sleep. Until I saw her interpretation. It’s dench, all right. Totally dench. Enjoy.


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Writing advice from Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel in 1928, Public Domain,

No doubt you’ve heard of Coco Chanel, the French fashion designer who liberated women from stiff, formal clothing and popularized the still-ubiquitous “Little Black Dress.” Her fashion advice remains legendary—just Google “remove one accessory” and your screen will fill with blogs and articles quoting or misquoting her famous dictum

“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”

But while Chanel intended that as fashion advice, I think it works just as well for writers.

How many adverbs have you used? Surely you don’t need them all. And those adjectives—wouldn’t a few descriptive phrases enliven your work more?

Of course, before you can revise—your outfit or your writing—you have to create it first. Write until you’ve finished the draft. But before it “leaves the house,” give it a good once-over. Is every word, every sentence, necessary? If it isn’t—copy, cut, and paste. Slap it into the writer’s equivalent of a jewelry box, the Outtakes file.

More advice from Coco Chanel

“Take one thing off” may be Chanel’s most-quoted piece of advice. But I found another one I like quite a lot in this slideshow from Australian Vogue:

“In order to be irreplaceable one must be different.”

While we’re on the subject of revising, I’d lop off “In order” at the top of that sentence. But let’s not blame Chanel; perhaps it got added in translation.

“To be irreplaceable, one must be different.” I tell my writers a variation of this all the time. And my clients, too. They talk about subjects that thousands—millions—of people have already talked about: diversity, ethics, management. How can they differentiate themselves from the crowd? By weaving their own stories into the mix. No one else has had your experiences, has your perspective.

Make your communications irreplaceable—and your ideas memorable—by being your own, unique self. (Little Black Dress optional.)


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Nora Bayes, the Beyoncé of the early 20th Century

Nora Bayes
Nora Bayes in 1912, Public Domain

What do Nora Bayes and Beyoncé have in common?  Vanity Fair included them both in this video celebrating the fashions of “top pop stars” of the past 100+ years.

No doubt you’ve heard of this Beyoncé. But what do you know about Nora Bayes, star of Broadway and vaudeville?

She made a cameo appearance in one of my recent blogs. Nora Bayes, née Eleanora Sarah Goldberg, introduced the world to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” She followed that with several other hit records. George M. Cohan personally chose her to record his morale-boosting song “Over There” during World War I. It became an international hit. Shortly after the war ended in 1918, she became the first woman to have a Broadway theatre named after her, the Nora Bayes Theatre, of course.

Bayes’s second husband, Jack Norworth, wrote some hit songs for her, like “Shine On, Harvest Moon”—probably their biggest hit. But Bayes also wrote songs in her own right—music and lyrics. In fact, most sources neglect to mention that she co-wrote “Shine On, Harvest Moon” with Norworth.

More than half a dozen Broadway shows—including Ziegfeld Follies of 1931—featured “songs by Nora Bayes,” according to her listing in the Internet Broadway Database. Several others bear the credit “additional lyrics by Nora Bayes.”

She died in 1928—but her memory apparently lived on, because in 1980 writer Garson Kanin used her as the central character of his novel Smash. If that title seems familiar, yes, the book served as at least part of the basis of the television series Smash. But the producers swapped out Nora Bayes for a more contemporary figure, Marilyn Monroe.

Who was Nora Bayes?

I could end this post right now and you’d have an interesting bunch of trivia about a star of the early 20th century. But Nora Bayes was more than “…one of those rare female triple-threats in vaudeville entertainment” and “easily the most popular female entertainer in vaudeville for much of the first quarter of the 20th century.” She was also a fiercely independent woman, unafraid to forge her own path. Perhaps the comparison with Beyoncé runs deeper than their fashion style.

The Jewish Women’s Archive profile of Bayes tells us:

“In…battles with male businessmen and in her unconventional personal life, Bayes provides some flamboyant, indeed extreme, examples of the broad social changes happening in the United States in the early twentieth century, namely the questioning of traditional roles for women as well as the challenges to male political and economic power that marked the women’s movement of the time.”

Florenz Ziegfeld banned her from show business after she walked out on his 1909 Follies. But she had the last laugh—audiences missed her. She returned to the stage triumphantly, with an even more lucrative contract than she’d had before: $2,500 a week—more than $60,000 in today’s dollars.

Several years later, she broke her contract with a vaudeville producer and set out on her own:

“…she launched her own two-hour, one-woman show in 1917, starred in the musical Ladies First in 1918, and then continued to perform in vaudeville in the England and the United States through 1927.”

Who knows what Bayes would have done if her cancer hadn’t been misdiagnosed early on? But she died in 1928, leaving behind three young children adopted with her fifth husband.

Story Safari

I love finding stories like these. How many other strong women have been all but lost to history? I’ll look for an opportunity to bring Nora Bayes back to life in one of my clients’ speeches.

 


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Women love baseball — Song for a Sunday

Women love baseball. Always have, always will. Just ask Katie Casey.

Who?

I know, I know—most people, even die-hard baseball fans—have never heard of Katie Casey. But the song that introduced her to the world remains ubiquitous, even 109 years after its creation.

Women love baseball
detail from an illustration of “The Average American Woman of 1908

Yes, friends, Katie Casey is the heroine of the song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” We don’t know about her because we never sing the verses of the song, only its chorus. For the record, then, here are the original lyrics (now out of copyright), by songwriter and vaudevillian Jack Norworth:

Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do:”

Chorus

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:

(Repeat Chorus)

Women love baseball, then and now

We tend to think of Edwardian era women as all buns and corsets. But enough of them spoke their minds, even back then. Women participated in the 1908 Democratic Convention that summer, even though only a few states had granted them the right to vote. Earlier in the year, 15,000 women garment workers marched through the streets of New York City, demanding political rights and economic justice. That was March 8th, the day we now commemorate as International Women’s Day.

So the idea of a woman speaking her mind and demanding that her beau take her to the ballgame rather than the theatre—well, it probably amused audiences in 1908 but her outspokenness wouldn’t have come out of left field.

I’m not surprised baseball embraced the chorus of the song. It’s an anthem of consumerism: Buy a ticket. Spend lots of money on the concessions. But I am surprised at how thoroughly Katie Casey has disappeared.

Not just because women love baseball. Although—news flash—we do. And not just because male-dominated society always finds a way to make women invisible.

But why in over 100 years has no one has thought about how odd the lyrics are if the “me” in the song is the guy in the stands singing it:

“Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack”

Just who’s doing the buying here? And why are you, red-blooded American male baseball fan, incapable of buying your own?

There’s more to say about this song, and the men who wrote it. But I can’t say it now. Gotta run—I’m going to the ballgame.


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In praise of imperfection: “The things that are wrong make it art”

Imperfection?
photo from Taylor Hill’s Instagram account

I don’t know who Taylor Hill is. The April 2017 issue of  InStyle magazine tells me she’s a “megamodel”—so even more super-er than a supermodel, I guess. As I said, no idea. But she displays a mega-impressive understanding of imperfection, courtesy of her high school art teacher who told her:

“Don’t try to perfect things. The things that are wrong are what make it art.”

Now, Hill trots out this piece of wisdom in reference to the art of makeup application—she megamodels for Lancôme’s makeup line—but I think it applies to any creative endeavor.

I preach the virtues of imperfection. But do I practice them?

I need to interrupt this ode to imperfection to note that I spent a couple of hours last night ripping out several very long rows of the afghan I’m knitting because I spotted one stitch out of place. But it would have ruined the pattern! And every time I looked at the finished product, that’s the only thing I’d see.

If I truly embraced imperfection, I’d be able to enjoy the tens of thousands of stitches that are in the right places. Or in Taylor Hill’s milieu, I’d still feel gorgeous even if the ends of my eyeliner don’t wing up at exactly the same angle. But to judge from the photos in InStyle, which I cannot link to, anyone who looks at Taylor Hill and sees only mismatched eyeliner needs some serious therapy.

Now, I do actually care about my eyeliner, when I wear it. But I happily release blog post after blog post into the world, knowing full well that some of them are much w*rse—let’s just say less well-written—than others. See for yourself: scroll down.

What’s the difference? Why do I care about an imperfection in the knitting project hardly anyone will see but I’m perfectly nonchalant about imperfections in my blog that the entire internet may see?

Two things:

  1. I’m committed to ship.
  2. Perfection doesn’t exist.

Imperfection and commitment

No matter how much I want to fuss with my makeup, I know that at some point I’m going to have to walk out the door. Because if I’m putting on makeup in the first place that means I have someplace to go. So I’d better get there.

I’ve committed to publishing a blog post every day. I could wrangle with it until 11:59 p.m., but chances are 12+ hours of fussing wouldn’t measurably improve the draft. And, anyway, I have other things to do, a life to lead—which may or may not involve knitting and makeup (though usually it’s one or the other).

So I recognize that it’s imperfect, and I bless and release it. I ship.

I don’t know if you count my blog as “art.” Maybe some days.

But I do know it’s the best my imperfect self can do on any given day. And that’s good enough for me.


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Traveling home—song for a Sunday

traveling...and coming home
Not my home, not that I’d mind…

I had a friend once who traveled extensively for work. I’m talking traveling. So much traveling that on one day she passed through Newark Airport twice—heading to city A in the morning, city B in the afternoon. Midway through the afternoon flight, she turned to the startled lady sitting next to her and said, “Excuse me, can you tell me where this plane is going?”

I once did a one-day round-trip from New York to Florida, but travel has never been a big part of my work. So when I do get away, I usually enjoy it. I experienced many wonderful things on this trip I just wrapped up. But it took me away from home for 10 nights, so there’s only one song on my mind today.

You may know the song “Home” from Bonnie Raitt’s recording. But Karla Bonoff wrote the song—and many other songs people mistake for the work of the artists who made them famous. Linda Ronstadt had several hits with Bonoff songs—including “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “Lose Again,” and the Grammy award-winning “All My Life.”

Bonoff recorded as a solo artist and with bands, but she has remained under the radar to most of the music-listening public. I’m happy to do my small part to change that today

So enjoy Karla Bonoff singing about her sweet home and I’m going to stop writing for now and enjoy living in mine.

The Young People’s Concerts — Song for a Sunday

Have you heard about Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts”? They were legendary, and I recently came across a discussion of them in a fairly unlikely place: Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate.

Okay, maybe it’s not such an unlikely place. Duarte’s subject in Resonate is creating memorable presentations. And Bernstein was nothing if not memorable. And he did it all before PowerPoint. Can you imagine?

Bernstein taught his tiny audience—well, a large audience, but of mostly tiny humans—about relatively simple matters like the different sounds of the instruments in the orchestra. And about more complex things like just what the heck the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was doing up there on that stage.

My piano teacher led an expedition to the Young People’s Concerts three times a year. My father helped her out by chaperoning the trip. I can’t help thinking I would have taken in more information if I’d been wearing less formal dress, more comfortable shoes, but that was how one went to the Philharmonic back in the day. And my father brought along special butterscotch candies for me, which went a long way toward canceling out discomfort.

I may remember more about the Callard & Bowser’s butterscotch than I do about the concerts, but Maestro Bernstein was a compelling presence, a Star. Duarte quotes Variety’s description of him as having

“…the knack of a teacher and the feel of a poet. The marvel of Bernstein is that he knows how to grab attention and carry it along, measuring just the right amount of new information to precede every climax.”

Duarte points out how Bernstein explained the complex concepts of symphonic music by comparing them to everyday concepts we children would be familiar with. 

“How does development actually work? It happens in three main stages, like a three-stage rocket going into space. The first stage is the simple birth of an idea. Like a flower growing out of a seed. You all know the seed, for example, that Beethoven planted at the beginning of his [fifth] symphony, “dunt dunt dunt duuuunt.” Out of it rises a flower that grows like this [plays piano].”

I cannot embed a video for you, but find some butterscotch candies, click on this link, and revel in the power of metaphor—and the power of music.

“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”—song for a Sunday

Ah, jazz. The chromatic melody lines. The cool-cat diction. The unexpected sentiments. All of them abundantly present in the classic, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.”

Wikipedia will tell you that Fran Landesman‘s lyrics begin with a riff on the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland:

April is the cruelest month

Wikipedia is—to use a writer’s technical term here—full of shit.

Yes, April does make an appearance, mid-song:

Now it’s April. Love is just a ghost.

And, yes, love’s disappearance can be cruel indeed. But as I believe Shakespeare said, “One shared noun doth not a ‘riff’ make.”

Still, the two poems share a contrarian attitude toward spring. Most people celebrate the promise of warmer weather and the (literally) greener pastures it brings. Landesman’s richly detailed lyrics evoke something deeper than melancholy. Perhaps even despair. Or maybe that’s just my personal relation to the subject at the moment.

I had decided to bring you a spring song today, it being spring and all. But I woke up in my rented “urban cabin” in the back of a parking lot to the dulcet tones of a snowplow clearing my front yard. Spring? Ah, but Fran Landesman knows the feeling exactly. The final stanza of her masterpiece:

All alone, the party’s over
Old man winter was a gracious host.
But when you keep praying
for snow to hide the clover,
Spring can really hang you up the most.

Here’s the divine Ella Fitzgerald doing justice to every syllable of the lyric. Sadly, I can’t embed the video. But it’s worth a click—I promise.