Sunday, July 21, 2013

Summer Camp and the Oral Tradition


It's summer time again, as evident by the recent 90 plus degree heat wave.  And summer time makes me think of summer camp, which makes me think of campfires.  Campfires, as everyone knows, are a staple of summer camp programming.  It doesn't matter if you went to boy scout camp, or a performing arts camp, a camp for one week, or four, or eight, or even Camp Anawanna, or Camp Firewood, there were always campfires.  Summer camp campfire always features the same things: there are a few camper/counselor skits which are usually one of several traditional skits done at summer camp dating back to the beginning of time, and there are a few songs sung on an acoustic guitar, at least one by the same dude who insists on performing last every time because his song is chill and sets the mood for the end.  Throw in a couple of juggling tricks, and a few interactive songs and chants and call it a night... but not before the storyteller.


The campfire has become the last bastion of the oral tradition in this country.  Everything that happens in the campfire is unrecorded, mostly from memory, and shared from one generation of camp people (counselors/older campers) to another generation of camp people (younger counselors/younger campers).  The storyteller was always my favorite part of the campfire event.

Usually the storyteller went last (unless that one dude didn't insist on singing his sappy, mood crushing love song last).  Sometimes the story had a moral, sometimes it was just a funny folk tale.  Eventually, when I worked at camp, I became the storyteller, which is something I learned how to do from other storytellers (hence the whole oral tradition thing).
He's going to play another Ben Gibbard song

The way I tell stories has been influenced by three separate people.

My father has been secretly teaching me how to tell stories since I was a kid.  From the pulpit, my dad has been telling tales, anecdotes, and analogies to better connect scripture to modern people's lives my entire life.  I learned from him that the plot is the easy part of the telling.  It's the details and language that make the story interesting.  For example, anyone can tell the basic plot of Pyramus and Thisbe, but only Shakespeare was able to write Romeo and Juliet and stretch it out to five acts.

There was a counselor at the camp I went to, and not only was he the storyteller, but also the campfire MC.  Seeing him tell stories was amazing.  From the first time I watched him perform (and it was a performance truly) I decided I wanted to do that too.  I learned from him that a good story is told not just by telling the story, but through enthusiasm, pantomime, changes in volume, pitch, accents, etc.  It wasn't enough to just tell the story, showing the story is a must.

this is how I picture myself when I tell stories
Thirdly, there was another counselor who also told stories.  The lessons I learned from him were more about what not to do.  The way he told stories highlighted his arrogant, self righteous personality.  Most of his stories had morals, and he delivered them mostly in a way that made everyone feel he was talking down to them.  When this particular counselor stood up to tell his story, there were barely audible groans, the rolling eyes, and the whispered not-agains that accompany campfire acts that no one wants to see.  I decided that when I tell stories, it would be done in ways that weren't heavy handed, or obviously message-laden.

My favorite story to tell was one I learned originally from my father.  It's called the stone-cutter.  It goes something like this:


There was once a stonecutter, who was dissatisfied with himself and with his position in life.

One day, he passed a wealthy merchant's house, and through the open gateway, saw many fine possessions and important visitors. "How powerful that merchant must be!" thought the stonecutter. He became very envious, and wished that he could be like the merchant. Then he would no longer have to live the life of a mere stonecutter.

To his great surprise, he suddenly became the merchant, enjoying more luxuries and power than he had ever dreamed of, envied and detested by those less wealthy than himself. But soon a high official passed by, carried in a sedan chair, accompanied by attendants, and escorted by soldiers beating gongs. Everyone, no matter how wealthy, had to bow low before the procession. "How powerful that official is!" he thought. "I wish that I could be a high official!"

Then he became the high official, carried everywhere in his embroidered sedan chair, feared and hated by the people all around, who had to bow down before him as he passed. It was a hot summer day, and the official felt very uncomfortable in the sticky sedan chair. He looked up at the sun. It shone proudly in the sky, unaffected by his presence. "How powerful the sun is!" he thought. "I wish that I could be the sun!"

Then he became the sun, shining fiercely down on everyone, scorching the fields, cursed by the farmers and laborers. But a huge black cloud moved between him and the earth, so that his light could no longer shine on everything below. "How powerful that storm cloud is!" he thought. "I wish that I could be a cloud!"

Then he became the cloud, flooding the fields and villages, shouted at by everyone. But soon he found that he was being pushed away by some great force, and realized that it was the wind. "How powerful it is!" he thought. "I wish that I could be the wind!"

Then he became the wind, blowing tiles off the roofs of houses, uprooting trees, hated and feared by all below him. But after a while, he ran up against something that would not move, no matter how forcefully he blew against it — a huge, towering stone. "How powerful that stone is!" he thought. "I wish that I could be a stone!" he thought. "I wish that I could be a stone!"

Then he became the stone, more powerful than anything else on earth. But as he stood there, he heard the sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into the solid rock, and felt himself being changed. "What could be more powerful than I, the stone?" he thought. He looked down and saw far below him the figure of a stonecutter.




Of course, I tell things a little differently, adding details, changing some things, but the basic progression of the plot remains the same, and it always ends where it began, on the mountain. There is clearly some sort of moral/value to be learned here, but I liked to leave the whole "and the moral is..." piece out, allowing everyone to interpret it their own way.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Selfish Freedom of Religion

click me to read the article

This is quite possibly the best article I've read on the Religious Right lobby in America.  So much domestic policy seems to be held up by this fear of putting "religious freedom" in jeopardy.  However, as this article points out pretty intelligently, religious freedom is really a term used to further an agenda of conservative Christian values.

The focus is on an ongoing lawsuit by the Hobby Lobby, a conservative Christian owned hobby store chain (the Chik-fil-a of the arts and crafts world).  Hobby Lobby refuses to offer health care to employees if that health care system offers contraceptives as part of it's plan.  The Hobby Lobby wants the same exceptions that religious non-profits receive.  The problem is, they aren't a non-profit organization.  They are a for-profit corporation.  At least this isn't about homosexuality and marriage.