The last time I saw Jack

That night I was having a lot of dreams, but one really stuck with me.  We were in a ‘wilderness-like’ area.  There was a sandy road, a lot of trees and two concrete-bunker-like bus stops facing each other, one on each side of the road.  Everything was wet because it had recently rained.  It was very peaceful.

My friend Marty and I were in one of the bus stops and someone who I thought was a friend of Jack’s in the other.  Jack’s friend seemed ‘distant’ – I couldn’t quite make out his face, but he looked familiar.

I was lying down on the concrete bench and Marty was sitting.

Jack’s friend was talking about someone, reciting all their good qualities.  Before long, I figured-out that he was talking about my father.    Then I realized that Jack’s friend knew my dad and didn’t know that my father died a few years back. The thought of having to tell him that my father was dead really upset me and I began to cry.

At that moment, I woke from the dream and I was crying just as I was in the dream.  It wasn’t a deep sobbing cry, but a very cathartic cry that had me feeling good, if a bit disoriented.  It was 4am.

Later that day, while I was working, I got the news.  Marty called me and said that Jack died during the night.  Jack had been sick for a few months and as he was in hospice care, we knew the end was near.

Marty’s voice revealed his pain, upset that Jack died and also, that we didn’t get to see him before he died – we were planning to visit him the following weekend.

I had one of those work days where I didn’t have a moment to myself all day.  Finally when the day ended and I was descending into the train station, I had time to sort-out the all that had happened.  While the wind from the oncoming trains did help to dry my tears, there seemed to be an endless supply to replace them.

Once seated on the train I began to think about my dream.  I started thinking that maybe Jack’s friend was really a character that was “composite” of Jack, with all the good qualities that Jack had.  But not being content with that explanation, I continued to ponder my dream.  I theorized that maybe the dream was a visit from Jack, before he passed on to his next journey.  I really don’t know which it is.

No, I really do know.

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Presentation of data can be ‘edgy’ and purposeful

Here’s another example that provides us with a few lessons about telling a story with video:

  • It doesn’t have to be an expensive production
  • The presentation of data can be edgy and have impact
  • Conveying a point of view or opinion is sometimes more effective if reinforced by multiple voices

The example below is actually a trailer for a movie.  It is brilliant in that the only props used are pages with numbers.   It conveys emotion, anger and truth.  The use of many men to tell this story reinforces that the indignation is widespread.   That it is presented in black and white  gives it an edgy look, allows us to focus upon the story and leaves the viewer with the impression that, because it is ‘documentary style’, the data being presented is credible.   And above all, it is artful.

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Strict chronology is not always best to tell a story

The video below is a project I did for my first digital storytelling class.  We were given the assignment: Create a video, using photos, images, and sound that tells a story – a personal story.

That seemed easy enough.  But then we got the final instructions: “You have to tell your story in 150 words or less.”

“What?  150 words?  This is a joke, right?”  No, it wasn’t a joke.

After regaining my composure, I created a story outline about my father, with the events unfolding in a strict chronology, starting with his childhood and ending in his elderly years.  The instructor had us present our outlines to the class and when I read mine, everyone looked really bored until I got to the very last outline item and then everyone got really attentive.

While my chronology was, well, chronologically correct, it was really boring.  But the last outline item – my 80 year-old father being arrested – was interesting to my classmates.  Enough so, that by moving that item to the beginning of the story, the rest of the chronology kept people’s interest high enough to maintain their attention to the very end, to find out why he was arrested.

What’s interesting is that I had to be told this, something that I already knew:  That every story needs something, a hook, to motivate people to stay attentive. This is an important lesson, especially for those of us who happen to be analytical in our approach to communication.

The other lesson is to be artful in how information is revealed in a story.  For my assignment, changing the order wasn’t enough.   The original outline item regarding my father’s arrest included the reason for his arrest.   By revealing that he was arrested at the beginning of the story, and finishing the story with the reason for his arrest, it provided for a more engaging experience for the audience.

Anyway, here’s the video.  I did exceed the 150-word limit by a few words, but the instructor said it was fine.   Let me know what you think about it.  Gary.

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Powerful story told in 119 words

Here’s a story that is  encapsulated in an acceptance speech that is powerful and brief.

It is the Academy Award acceptance speech by Gerda Weissmann Klein, who is the subject of a documentary One Survivor Remembers, which is Gerda’s account of surviving the Holocaust.   One Survivor Remembers won the Academy Award for ‘best documentary, short subject’ of 1996.

This 119-word speech is powerful.  Of course, it relies upon the audience knowing about the subject-matter is (the Holocaust) and the speaker’s role in the subject matter.

But the speech is brilliant in that it weaves the related themes of ‘winning’ and ‘winners’ into it, magically jumping back and forth between that terrible time and the present.

Here is the video of her speech and below is the text.

I have been in a place for six incredible years where winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day. Since the blessed day of my liberation I have asked the question, why am I here? I am no better. In my mind’s eye I see those years and days and those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home. On their behalf I wish to thank you for honoring their memory, and you cannot do it in any better way than when you return to your homes tonight to realize that each of you who know the joy of freedom are winners. Thank you on their behalf with all my heart.

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What photographs reveal – hidden stories

Cameras capture so many details that are not always apparent when one is shooting a photo.  Spending time reviewing each photograph can reveal so much that is lost on the naked eye.  Here is a good example. I shot this photograph from the 7th floor of the building at 1111 Broadway in downtown Oakland. The photograph is of 13th Street, with the County Courthouse in the background. After viewing the photo, I saw what is left of an old sign painted on the side of the building. Zooming-in, I found that it was a sign for the Polytechnic College of Engineering.

So a few quick searches in Google told me that the downtown Polytechnic colleges (2 of them) were founded by Willis Gibson in 1898, and A.W. Smith was the architect  (see more here).

Interestingly enough, a few years ago, the University of California built its administration building directly across the street from the former engineering college.

I found a scan of the original college, and I have posted it here. This was at 13th and Madison. I’m wondering if it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, because the magazine “The Architect and Engineer of California” January 1910 (which can be seen here) has this article: Work has begun on the new Polytechnic College of Engineering, at Thirteenth and Madison streets, Oakland. . .

All of this to say that off and on, I have been staring at that building for 22 years and I never noticed the painted sign until I shot a photo of it.


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Hawai’i Journal: The kindness of strangers

According to Wikipedia, “the shaka sign is a common greeting gesture. It is often associated with Hawai’i. It consists of extending the thumb and smallest finger while keeping the three middle fingers curled, and raising the hand as in salutation with the back of the hand facing the person that is being greeted; sometimes the hand is rotated back and forth to emphasize the sign.?”

Hawaiian locals use the shaka to convey what locals in Hawai’i call the “Aloha Spirit,” a gesture of friendship and understanding between the various ethnic cultures that reside within Hawai’i, and thus it does not have a direct semantic to literal translation. Depending on context it can also be used to communicate notions such as “all right,” “cool,” “smooth,” and the like.

Theories about the origin, also from Wikipedia, “One theory according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, prevailing local lore credited the gesture to Hamana Kalili of Laie, who lost the three middle fingers of his right hand while working at the Kahuku Sugar Mill. Kalili was then shifted to guarding the sugar train, and his all-clear wave of thumb and pinkie is said to have evolved over the years into the shaka as children would imitate his unique hand “waaaave.”

Every time I have visited Hawai’i (about 30 times as of 2010), I have seen this gesture used by all people of all ages, economic groups and races.

The people of Hawai’i do embrace the ‘Aloha Sprint’ and I will discuss that in another post. Suffice to say that they are friendly and hospitable, and very connect with nature.

This was easily observable during my last visit to Oahu, in November 2010. Early in the morning, I set out to buy some pastries for breakfast. As it was a weekday, there was a lot of commuter traffic. As I was standing on a corner, waiting what seemed like hours for the light to change, I noticed a young man, obviously developmentally disabled, also standing on the corner, selling newspapers.

Occasionally cars would stop and the driver would purchase a newspaper. Nothing new about that.

But what really touched my heart is that the drivers of ALL the cars passing by gave the ‘hang loose’ gesture to this young newspaper salesman. Some of the drivers would actually wait to be acknowledged by him.

This is the Hawai’i that I love.

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Mexico Journal: The charm of Mexico City

This is a gigantic city of over 20 million people. It was impossible for me to get my arms around it. My orientation was off but my logic had me correctly go right when I thought to go left, etc. so we really didn’t spend a lot of time being lost.

One afternoon, Manuel and I just started walking from our hotel in the colonia Zona Rosa. We ended up in the Mercado San Juan, a very non-touristy market several blocks south of the Zocalo. We enjoy markets for people watching and seeing the various local fruits and vegetables, always finding something new to us.

We both were craving fruit and we saw something that we have not seen before. Since we both speak Spanish, we asked one of the vendors, a short (about 4’10” or 137cm), middle-aged Mexican woman, who appeared to have worked hard all her life and was wearing a way too-big and somewhat soiled white smock, about the fruit. She told us that is called “mamey” and insisted that we purchase one because they are so good.

We asked her to select one for us as we had no idea about ripeness, etc. We also asked her to cut it for us and she handed to the other person at the fruit stand, who turned out to be her bother, who cut it up and put it in a plastic bag in such a way that it would not leak onto our clothes. As we were hungry, we asked the woman if she could recommend a place to eat (there are many food stands in the mercado). She spoke with her brother, who asked us a few questions (yes, we wanted meat; yes, we were hungry; no it wasn’t important if the place did not cater to tourists).

After a lengthy conversation between them, the woman insisted that we follow her. We were kind of surprised that she left the market, and crossed a very busy street, dodging traffic – or more accurately – making traffic dodge her/us. While following her, I had a major deja vu moment: This was just like it was when I was child and following my very short but strong-willed grandmother. Nothing could get ever get in the way of something she wanted to accomplish.

Anyway, back to the story: She had us follow her into a small taqueria that had 4 or 5 seats along the grill and two tables in back. She then instructed the taqueria workers as follows, roughly translated: “My bother sent me here with these two men. You are to prepare good food with lots of vegetables and quality meats. Spare no expense in preparing something good and nutritious for them.”

It was so adorable that with her back to me, I couldn’t help but smile and laugh. So did the taqueria workers and 6 people who were already seated and eating. She then turned around to face us and said that we would have a good meal. I tried to get a photo of her but she was too shy. She left in a hurry, looking back once and waving to us only after she crossed the street.

The taqueria workers invited us in. Both tables were occupied so we sat at the grill, with two other patrons. They were all talking and laughing about our entrance. We were treated like honored guests by all. It was obvious that we were among the first tourists to ever set foot in the place. It seemed like everyone in the taqueria had a hand in deciding what we should order. We finally focused on alambres, a house specialty, and a drink made from the mamey fruit and milk.

Two of the customers left saying “buen provecho” to us, freeing up a table and we were directed to move there.

The alambres were fantastic. The mamey drink was great, but a little too rich for me.

The camaraderie that continued through the meal was fun and touching. The warm feeling I got from this experience continues to bring me joy every time I think about it.

Posted in Mexico Journal, Travel | 2 Comments