Unflattering Imitation

I participated in a fundraiser for my special education job the other night. It was a talent competition called “[Education District] Idol”, and consisted of volunteers singing popular songs with a live band or karaoke track, and attendees buying votes to raise money for our programs. I sang “In the Ghetto” and had a good time.

There was something odd that kept coming up, though. First, at rehearsal, the organizers (and fellow performers) who were listening asked me if I was going to “dress up as Elvis.” They suggested that I go to a thriftstore for a “costume” or maybe “slick my hair back.” Then after I sang on performance night, one of the judges declared, “folks, Elvis is alive and well!” Later that evening the district superintendent complemented me and told me I was “channeling the spirit of Elvis.” Continue reading Unflattering Imitation

Teen hate, adult regrets

My friend Willem wrote an article about the profound disrespect for adolescence imbedded in our culture. He takes a piece of NPR journalism to task for perpetuating this myth while reporting on a neuroscientist’s research into adolescent brain development in a desperate attempt to “cope with” and “survive” her own teenage sons.

Willem expertly laid bare the cultural doctrine of disdain for youth, and scapegoating (teens fight wars, but old men RUN them!) hidden in this “research” and “reporting.” Rather than teen brains being “incomplete,” flawed, lacking, he says, they’re perfectly wired to take risks, which is actually vital to human culture and human survival. Children excel at Play, Teens excel at Risk, Adults excel at Providing, Elders excel at Story. It’s a vital, beautiful cycle, repeating perpetually. Willem concludes with the following assertion:

Consider that if you haven’t done these things to your fullest ability, in your own time, then you haven’t lived.

When I read those words, I wept. Seriously, literally wept. Continue reading Teen hate, adult regrets

Breaking tradition, mending souls

My family decided to postpone celebrating Christmas this year. See, my brother’s in the National Guard currently serving in Iraq, and he doesn’t get home on leave until the middle of January. So we thought, it’d be better to just wait a few weeks, then we can all celebrate together.

This made the actual day of Christmas and the week leading up to it strangely empty. Because I knew our “real” Christmas would come later, the atmosphere of anticipation passed me by, and Christmas day felt flat. My wife and I did join on her family’s celebration,  but for me there was no zest, no family warmth or misty sentiment. I had spiritually drained the life out of the day.

This struck me as a mild example of how breaking with tradition can disrupt your whole being, to say nothing of those around you. traditions are a means of forming identity, and it’s no light thing to reinvent “who you are,” especially if the rest of your culture still adheres to the path you’ve left behind. Continue reading Breaking tradition, mending souls

Reinventing “Us”

I’ve staked out some pretty lofty territory for the role of creating stories together in real time—”roleplaying,” in a word—that territory being no less than the reclamation our shared humanity through mythmaking.

But what good does that actually do for us, really?

Well, the short answer is that through mythmaking we tell ourselves who we are. We burn patterns into ourselves that make it easier to enact specific values. Just because the Labors of Hercules and the Death of Cuchulainn have been replaced by the Tale of the Spider-Man and the Goblin of Green, and the Death of Gwendolyn the Fair doesn’t mean we’ve escaped from that patterning at the soul level. Oral-tradition cultures believe that without stories, you can’t know who you are. And indeed we’re shaped by the stories we’ve received, whether it’s Sam and Frodo, Elizabeth and Darcy, Han and Luke, Scarlett and Snake-eyes, or Jack and Sawyer. Our experiences our contextualized by reflexive associations like “oh, like on Simpsons,” whether we like it or not.

Of course, we like to think that in the brave, bold 21st Century, we’re freed from the bonds of tradition and able to reinvent ourselves as we each see fit. After all, we’re all individuals. But really, isn’t that all the more reason to consciously work to define healthy patterns for ourselves? We’re blessed now with more ability than at any time in history to consciously redefine who we are, so why not take advantage of that?

There are several means available for rewriting our internal pathways. Religion is one; therapy is another. But roleplaying—the act of telling stories to and with each other—is an immensely powerful tool. It works on us in much subtler ways than an explicitly educational activity, because it tells a story rather than preaching a message, and yet acts much more dynamically and relevantly than passively receiving a story. And storytelling helps us swallow the pill of self-revelation and transformation smoother than a purely therapeutic process. Stories are perfect vehicles for receiving messages and processing our existence, as they allow us to live and breathe a thing, to take it into ourselves instead of merely talking about it. And this is no mere dodge from living an experience “for real,” but rather works hand in hand with our actual life experience to help us process and contextualize it.

How this works in passive media is, you receive the story, and it stirs something inside you. You identify with it, or you’re challenged by it; either way you contextualize your own experiences by the story’s metric. When you encounter an experience that evokes that story for you, you’re likely to act in resonance with or defiance of that story’s pattern. That’s powerful enough in itself.

How it works in roleplaying is even more potent. We choose. We choose. Together. That’s so dead simple and obvious, yet mind-blowingly revolutionary.

Playing out an experience at the roleplaying table is a unique activity—not amateur therapy and not wannabe novelization–that has its own peculiar quality. As I said, we make the choices in the story, and if we choose with integrity to our own hearts and to the vision we see, then we will make something TRUE. Something authentic, not “factual”, not “what it would be like if…” but something valid about us within a shared fiction that reveals our souls and bolsters our hearts.

This is who we are, as humans. This is the birthright we cast aside when we commodify entertainment. This is the mythic force we can reclaim.

Peace,

—Joel

Gets ya every time

onepiece-luffybloodyhand1Some friends and I were talking recently about the manga One Piece by Eiichiro Oda. It’s a seemingly innocuous story about goofy pirates and their physics-bending hijinx, but my friends and I find it irresistible. Why? My pal Jake put it best: “Oda’s a master of his craft. When one of the characters is beaten and bloody and almost dead, and struggles to their feet to say they’ll never give up on their friends–even though there’s a moment for every character in every volume–each time it pierces my heart.”

It seems like it shouldn’t work. It seems like once would be enough, twice bearable, three times too much. I mean, how many times do we need to see Luffy stand up for his friends, or Zoro fight on at the brink of death, or Usopp overcome his fear? But it works. Each time we’re on the edge of our seat. Each time we let out a little cheer. Each time we feel fulfilled.

Whether zany rubber pirates are your cup of tea or not (and believe me, ours is a love not often understood!), chances are there’s some story in your life that does this for you. Whether it’s Luke Skywalker confronting his father, Westley rising from his bed, sword in hand, or Jack slipping from Rose’s fingers and sinking beneath the ice, there are stories that “get us right here”–different for the individual, but repeating the same themes and delivering the same payoffs again and again. And we drink them up.

What need does this fill, that it never gets old, throughout human experience? What role does repetition play in our story-life as humans? Why do some tellings succeed, and others fall flat? What is that “craft mastery” that makes the difference? Is it personal taste or something more?

I don’t know. Do you?

Peace,

-Joel

So what the Hell does THAT mean?

Story by the Throat is a phrase I’ve coined to describe an approach to storytelling in all areas of life, but particularly roleplaying games. It’s something I’m seeking, not something I’m a master of, so I picture this blog being more of a fluid conversation, rather than a teaching or lecture dynamic, as I explore this concept with anyone who’s interested. That’s the hope, anyway.

Story By the Throat is a connotative term, not a definitive one. Meaning I’m trying to convey a certain emotional experience by painting with words, rather than codifying into conceptual law the exact parameters of a phenomenon that has no clear borders. Rather than wrestle that greased linguistic pig, I’m going to go with my gut and try to connect with you all on a more felt, instinctive level. With luck I’ll occasionally succeed.

Story by the Throat in the context of roleplaying is passionate engagement around the whole gaming table in making a story together. It’s roleplaying with heart and fearlessness that really shows what our protagonists are made of, in the tradition of the gutsiest fiction. It’s switched-on, fired-up, total excited attention to what’s happening right this moment. It’s Story Now, not Story Someday When We All Look Back Fondly, or Story Already Fleshed Out Fully in Our Mental Character Concept, or Story Already Worked Out in the GM’s Notes and We Just Run Through The Motions.

Story by the Throat in the context of individual storytelling is a reclamation of the Oral Storytelling art practiced in every culture in the world. It’s learning to use and appreciate a form of entertainment that’s interactive and personal, that’s living and breathing in way that a movie or television show can never be. It’s the age-old scene of the folk of a community gathering at the tavern or campfire to sing songs, tell tales, drink, laugh, and bond. It’s togetherness and participation fueled by creativity.

Story by the Throat in the context of art is boldly vulnerable self-expression, through whatever means speaks to you. It’s a poem, a play, a story, a painting, a woodcraft, a needlepoint, whatever. . .which truly contains a piece of your passion and your heart. It is not safe, paint-by-numbers “oh, isn’t that nice.” It is committing your whole self to expression and beauty.

Story by the Throat in the context of everyday life is realizing the wonder of the world around you. It’s both recognizing when the everyday events surrounding you are charged with the drama and portent, and living a life such that you’d feel proud of its qualities as a tale of wonder and beauty.

Story by the Throat is, in short, emotionally investing in life, being unafraid to laugh, cry, drink deep, and connect with other human beings in a dangerously authentic way.

All of these are open to discussion. I look forward to it.

Peace,

Joel