Tuesday, June 6, 2017

"Make Up a Story"

I. Transmission

I've never cared much about Bob Dylan one way or another, but he's always been there, in the background of my life.

When I was little, I was intrigued by the cover of his Freewheelin' album--I imagine my parents bought it when it came out in 1963, when I was two--anyway, it was always in with our other records. 
I don't remember listening to it, I remember sitting on the floor next to the wood-and-bricks bookshelf--records are heavy, so they go on the bottom--staring at it. 

This Dylan looks like a child to me now, but then the photo represented, I think, an adult leading some form of desirable adulthood. 
The whole aesthetic of it--including the VW van--was an advertisement for the sort of life where you could walk around free and happy on a weekday afternoon--but was it sort of mysterious, even ominous, too--the cold street, the dingy color? Not like the bright Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which I also would also stare at a lot, and like way more.

I didn't set out to learn Dylan's lyrics, like I did Sgt. Pepper's, and his songs didn't touch me personally, the way, say, Carol King's album Tapestry did when I was ten, but looking at the tracks on this album, I still know most of them. 

Dylan's stories are part of my soundtrack of my life. 
"Blowing in the Wind" is, to me, like Frankenstein--something so ubiquitous, it seems it comes from folk culture, and you're surprised to realize or remember it has a specific author. (I even looked the song up just now, to double-check he wasn't reprising an old standard. But no, of course he wrote it, in 1962.)

Because Dylan has never meant much to me, I wouldn't have bothered to read his Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance lecture except that Michael at OCA quoted some good lines from it this morning. 

So then I read it, and it made me cry, the way he simply gives tribute to telling stories, by retelling stories, and setting them side-by-side with other stories, starting with the story of how he saw one of Buddy Holly's last performances, and how Holly transmitted something to him:
"Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn't know what. And it gave me the chills."
Pointing to the storyteller, and the transmission of stories--that's what Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing do in their Nobel lectures too.

II. Toni Morrison

Pretty much most of Toni Morrison's Nobel acceptance lecture in 1993 is her telling a story about an old, blind woman, "the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town."

A group of young people approach the woman with a question, and she gives them a sophisticated, show-offy answer, more about her than them.
So they say to her,
"Why didn't you reach out, touch us with your soft fingers, delay the sound bite, the lesson, until you knew who we were? . . .
"Don't you remember being young when language was magic without meaning? When what you could say, could not mean? When the invisible was what imagination strove to see? When questions and demands for answers burned so brightly you trembled with fury at not knowing?
. . . 
"Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong?
You are an adult. The old one, the wise one. Stop thinking about saving your face.
Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story.'"
III.  Doris Lessing

I've quoted from Lessing's  2007 Nobel lecture elsewhere on this blog, and I even put it in my fandom book:
“Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. . . .
It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.”

Lately I've been thinking about the transmission of culture. It was a surprise to me when I was a young adult to realize that the culture I grew up with was not stable and everlasting. 
There were little signs--not just the visible changes in refrigerator colors and the width of pants legs, but changes to things I hadn't even realized were fashions, like types of wine. Burgundy used to be the red wine my parents and their friends drank, then it disappeared and my friends drank meant Merlot (until it was disparaged in the movie Sideways, anyway), then... what now? Cabernet ("cab"), I guess?

And big signs, like how rock-n-roll got relegated to the oldies radio stations, and then radio stations themselves morphed into personalized custom
music streaming services (is there shorthand for this?).

Some stories are transmitted continuously, like, while it's waxed and waned in white mainstream culture, there's been ongoing concern for racial equality my whole life, it seems to me (and an ongoing need for it), while other story-lines got dropped––like feminism, which was even repudiated in mainstream culture for a time (I wouldn't say the need for it dwindled, but its popularity sure did)––and these then have to get reinvented--a messy business.

I recently watched a documentary about the beginning of the second wave of feminism (1966-1971), which hugely shaped my childhood: She's Beautiful When She's Angry

It includes footage from the time and follow-up interviews with participants. One woman comments that the United States doesn't preserve its history of radical activism and activists' successes (aside from the American Revolution, but then, those victors became the Establishment). In the 70's, she said, feminists didn't know the long history of first wave feminism that won women's suffrage fifty years earlier. 

When I was working at a collectively run restaurant in 1980, we had meetings every Tuesday afternoon. I remember us talking about how we didn't know how to work collaboratively--even as we studied the theory, what there was of it, it wasn't bred in the bone, right? It wasn't the unquestioned norm we grew up with, and so we shouldn't be so downhearted that we weren't very good at it, which we weren't.

One thing I especially remember is the vicious in-fighting that arises among people supposedly on the same side. It's like if a dog's been chained up and mistreated, the person it's going to turn on is the person who gets close enough to try to help it, not the person who chained it up in the first place, who's nowhere near.

And now, some fifty years after second-wave feminism, I see (on Tumblr, for instance), some of the same self-defeating dynamics among gender and queer revolutionaries.
It's disheartening, but predictable, I suppose, since the theory and practice of Social Change isn't taught in school, isn't transmitted the way business practices are, for instance.

If you want to go into business, it's expected you'll get an MBA or something--there're so many smart tricks, strategies, and actual scripts for doing Capitalism; there's so much wisdom out there about how to establish checks-and-balances and how to run a workplace (not that it's always wisely practiced! ha!); if you want to run a war, there's military training (again, not to say that's applied well!); but if you're a social-change activist, you and your colleagues make a lot of stuff up as you go along, and that's problematic. 

I know there is some continuity and some intentional training among social change folk, but mentoring isn't offered free every Thursday at the library, like Business Training is.

Oops. It's noon and I have to get going so I'm going to leave this half-baked... It's something I've been thinking a lot about lately, so maybe I'll return to it again. 

Till then, make up a story, eh? :)


Anonymous said...

I read all your posts but seldom comment,- the proving I am not a robot business. I am English and ten years older than you! Bob Dylan was perceived at the time and I was only 10 as being so different and new and free thinking. He was liberating. You can't ignore the Vietnam war here. I did Business Studies at college and we learned that the American way was all about the individual proving they were top dog, whereas the Japanese way was that a whole team is reponsible and the strongest help the weakest. It's not surprising that this ethos carries on into all walks of life. The perception of Americans from abroad is that they don't see beyond their own continent and what can be learned from other cultures. I don't say this is an accurate portrayal, just a perception. Anyway try to looking at how things are done in other countries.Btw I loved the cards from the last post.

Fresca said...


Thanks for writing!
I'm sorry about the robot thing--I don't like it either and tried leaving it off, but a lot of spam got through, so...

Ha, yes, I'd say the perception that we Americans "don't see beyond their own continent" is generally true--or, rather, beyond our own borders, since we share the continent.

I recently saw an unlabeled map upon which Americans had been asked to locate North Korea.
Around 35% got it right--the others were literally all over the map.

It makes some sense, in terms of psychological-geography (is that an actual field of study? it could be):
Where I live, in Minneapolis, we are surrounded on three sides by thousands of miles by the same country:
Canada is a few hundred miles north, but the rest of it is the USA, so it's really easy to ignore the rest of the world,
...except when it comes to town, which it has in the past couple decades.
I never ever heard Spanish spoken here in town, for instance, until then.

Now I volunteer in a grocery store where I could speak Spanish (and Somali too) every day, if only I'd learn a little more,
and all the US-born folks who run the store are actively interested in sharing culture. But I live in the most diverse part of the city, where there's also an art college and museum, old mansions turned into apartments next to old mansions restored to single-family homes,
so there's a huge disconnect between my life and the anti-immigrant politics of the president and his ilk.

Thanks for your perspective on business & Vietnam, etc.!
Ay ay ay, it all gets to complicated:
I got kind of tangled up trying to write about these huge sweeps of culture:
Yes, definitely, across the board, Americans are not trained to work collaboratively--business teaches teach the tools of domination---as you say, "individual proving they were top dog".

It was a surprise to idealistic young me to realize that it wasn't accidental that bosses know how to be bosses---my uncle who worked as an office manager told me all these tricks for managing people---he had actual scripts for it.
I was shocked.

Community organizers and left-of-center politicos have adopted some strategy and tactics too, but when I was a baby it was often seat-of-our-pants, which works OK in the short run but is prone to break down in the long, which is what I'm seeing in some social change movements (that in-fighting, especially--very damaging).

BIG topics! Thanks again for your perspective!

Fresca said...

P.S. Thanks for saying you liked the cards!

Also, I should say, while I never cared much for Dylan, I always loved Pete Seeger--my parents had his albums, and also Harry Belafonte's, and Peter, Paul & Mary, etc.
I guess I listened to Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" a hundred times.

My *personal* discovery was Bruce Springsteen--"Born to Run," in 1975.
Talk about individualistic! All about escaping, not building community. Interesting that Bruce later circled around and worked on Woody Guthrie music.