All posts by Gary C. Woodward

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Telling Our Origin Stories

Our origin stories probably can’t help but embellish, subtract, exaggerate, inflate and occasionally falsify. But they are also identity markers that matter.

It’s a cliché to ask a writer or if their recent work is “telling their story.” But its easy to see why we are interested. As the analyst Walter Fisher once noted,  we are part of the tribe of ‘homo narrans,’ a segment of the living world which thrives on narratives told and retold. The story format is the primary way we understand the world. And what can be more natural than the pleasure of recounting a version of our past that others want to hear?  We all have our origin stories.  Most of us carry them like I.D. cards, ready to be deployed when someone asks.  As should be expected, some are forgeries.  Others can be revealing or painfully accurate.

Steven Spielberg’s just released film, The Fabelmans (2022), offers a fictionalized story of his own family.  Sammy is at the film’s center and stands in for Spielberg himself: a film nut energized after seeing the technicolor circus spectacle, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). He was among many of us heading off to a first film experience that was an over-the-top melodrama of life and death under the big top. The circus traveled to cities along its itinerary by train, leaving director Cecil B. DeMille the opportunity to whip up a story about confusion and bravery in the aftermath of a nighttime crash on route.  As The Fabelmans would have it, it was enough to hook young Sammy for the rest of his life.

The story written by Tony Kushner mostly takes place within Sammy’s family. Skeptical of his son’s sudden conversion to 8-millmeter filmmaking, Sammy’s father creates the familiar dynamic of a budding auteur facing the headwinds of a suspicious father. It’s mom, a musician, who will provide the psychological  support he needs.  And Spielberg certainly had an abundance of enthusiasm, even to the extent of allegedly sneaking onto the Universal lot years later, hoping to pass as someone who belonged.

Spielberg’s early life has been well documented in several good biographies, so the contours of his earlier years are mostly well known. But this mega-release raises the interesting question of how the rest  of us negotiate the occasional need to account for our early influences and enthusiasms.  I’m sure my own thumbnail account written into the preface of a book1 leaves out a lot: perhaps the result of a faulty memory, selective remembering, and the inevitable temptation to straighten out lines that were far less apparent then implied in the retelling. Our origin stories probably can’t help but embellish, subtract, exaggerate, inflate and occasionally falsify.  For example, I now rhapsodize about the “ideal” family vacations my Denver-based family took to the mountain hamlet of Glenwood Springs.

GLENWOOD HOT SPRINGS jpgIt had the advantages of being at the base of the spectacular walls of Glenwood Canyon, in addition to being a meeting point for the famed California Zephyrs, one heading east to Chicago and the other, west to Salt Lake City and San Francisco. The site of the train creeping along a narrow ledge above a turbulent Colorado River was its own reward. While others might have barely noticed the train, I lived just to see it pass. Then, too, there was Glenwood’s block long outdoor pool fed by hot springs. I now forget how water-phobic I was, choosing to remember the better memories of the mountains, the warm water, and a father who was always nearby.

Some of us hear about the early years of others in Hawaii, in a housing tract a mile from Disneyland, or at the edge of a shore that others  can only dream of. But, of course, a location is perhaps the least important part of origin stories that cut deep. The fullest accounts surely are dense with detail about parents, siblings, schoolmates and the gathering tide of friends that accumulate with time.  More than geography, they will probably take the center of influences that shape what most of us have become.  Writer Annie Dillard grew up in a comfortable Pittsburgh family, transforming a prosaic life into a compelling narrative.  She first met the world in the leafy precincts of Squirrel Hill, in a house “full of comedians” and a city open to adventures. Dillard eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for her non-fiction.

And then there are the fakes: accounts of athletic prowess fabricated to push a high schooler into an athletic scholarship, or stories of Tom Ripleys  or Anna Sorokins fabricating roots would that give them access to wealth or power.

The mythmaking of the self-made success has not faded. We still want to skew our stories to emphasize the marks we’ve left on the planet or the successes we need to share. One of the most impressive origin stories I’ve encountered is retold in playwright and director Moss Hart’s autobiography, Act One (1959). Born in the Bronx into desperate poverty, Hart eventually found his way into the theater world and, after many years, success as a writer and director. It’s the kind of bootstraps success story we still want to believe about what American life may still allow.  Living large in a society that poses real risks is a reward we frequently seek to share.

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1Becoming a ‘Sound Centric’ Kid  (Preface to The Sonic Imperative)

Because life tends to send us in circles rather than straight lines, we can sometimes catch glimpses of our earlier selves in loops of familiar experience we revisit. Look hard enough, and we see at least some recognizable landmarks that we remember passing before. It is those kinds of moments that can make it seem like it is actually a subject that picks its author. That is a feeling that grew throughout this project. When it comes to the life of the ear, we all have our stories. In my case a pattern emerges early and turns into a persistent curiosity, a magnetic north, always steering my interest to some new auditory experience. A passion for sound began as another 1950s adolescent boy who built radio crystal sets and worked to get a scouting patch for knowing Morris Code. It was clear even then that radio rivaled food and water as one of the essentials for life. That first “cat’s whisker” receiver was one of many breadcrumbs dropped over time, creating a meandering trail that rarely strayed from the geography of sound. When I did take a wrong turn, as with a hand-me-down movie projector that rewarded my tinkering with random electrocutions, the message to stick to the auditory world was clearly received. People and objects that delivered sound in one form or another always seemed to hold the most fascination, like weekend nights listening to KOA radio’s live bands from Denver’s old Elitch Gardens. It had to be KOA, the 50,000-watt giant standing alone out on the prairie. At night and under a cloudless sky, it was an Art Deco apparition glowing in the dark beyond the city’s lights. Fact was then stranger than fiction to know that the high voltage transmitters inside came into their own at dusk, sending a powerful clear-channel signal deep into six other states. If it wasn’t radio as a subject, it was a one-tube electronics kit purposefully miswired to become a nuisance transmitter sending the sounds of my 45s and a crackle of interference to the rest the neighborhood; or a series of shortwave sets attached to a hundred feet of naked copper wire surreptitiously attached to a utility pole in the alley behind our house. New long-playing records joined the singles on a two-tone “suitcase” phonograph. Ravel’s tonal fireworks and the Eastman School’s Frederick Fennell were favorites purloined from our modest household collection, when a family friend roused an interest in becoming the next Sonny Payne or Buddy Rich. Drum lessons began and an assortment of teen bands followed, producing a musician good enough to play in a statewide ensemble, but who also made more of an impression falling off a stage mid-performance than mastering the forty rudiments of percussion. I was also in the distracted post-war generation that had been captured by the world’s rapidly expanding trove of recordings that promised nirvana and sometimes delivered. Bargain label reissues of classical and jazz albums from Sam Goody and Tower Records began to accumulate, as did recordings of European organs that mystified friends looking through my stash for the latest from The Doors. Instead, they found Bach and Buxtehude hanging out on the shelf with Basie and Brubeck. Childhood obsessions may eventually extinguish themselves, but attraction to the aural continued at a campus radio station that was a nighttime refuge from sweltering summer days at a steel plant in California’s Central Valley. There were also rare weekend escapes with parents to nearby casinos in the Sierras. They gave an underage stowaway the chance to hear flawless musicians playing over the din of the slot machines. The cooler fall would bring a new semester and a course in the Psychology of Art that fed this sound-centric student’s interest in writing a paper on Beethoven’s deafness. The research led to an abundance of sophomore empathy for the stricken composer, as well as an art history professor annoyed at the escapee who went over the walls of his well-ordered discipline. But “speech” was my college major, later deepening into graduate work in one of the oldest of the auditory arts, classical rhetoric. Orality and fluency mattered to the Greeks. A person’s mark as a leader rested on their skills to face an audience and win them over with the power of vocalized appeals. It was all to play out in the circularity of returning to where the journey had begun a few years earlier, but now in the person of an academic who taught courses as utterly different as rhetorical theory and radio production. It was a better fit than it seemed, and reason enough to prod young and more hip film colleagues with the dusty old canard that radio is like video, “except the pictures are better.” Back then, audiology and the mechanics of hearing seemed like a required curricular sideshow in widening discipline. But as these pages reflect, it was impossible to miss the passion of instructors who insisted that aural media represented an essential gateway to language. They knew that the extraordinary processes that support listening represent a huge part of the human experience. I should have paid more attention. 

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Reserving Time for Direct Contact

[We are so deep into the digital age that we may not notice that a norm of mediated interpersonal exchange has replaced the direct contact humans in all earlier generations experienced. The norm now is to connect by phone or text–a degrading of the idea of contact that we may hardly notice. The issue is not whether there is usefulness in smart phone technology.  There surely is. It is whether we have taken away one of the key elements required for gaining a degree of social intelligence.]

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For those of us who study human communication, direct face to face conversation is usually the fundamental model for understanding all other forms. When two or more people are in the same space addressing each other, their exchanges are likely to contain all of the critical yardsticks for measuring successful interaction. These essential processes include awareness of the other, the potential for immediate and unfiltered reciprocity in an exchange, and access to all the visual and verbal feedback that comes with direct person-to-person contact. All other channels of communication—including the devices that extend the range of human connectivity—alter or diminish one or more of one of these processes. And though it may not seem like it, altering or reducing a conversational asset is a big deal.

Until the advent of widespread electric telegraphy in the 1850s direct communication with another in the same space has always anchored human communities. The very idea of a sociology of human relationships is mostly predicated on the expectation that we have direct and real-time access to each other.

Even so, the default model for understanding how we maintain our social nature is increasingly at odds with the ways we now live. What has changed most dramatically are the preferences of younger Americans who are less eager to seek out conversation as a problem-solving tool.

We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

The most interesting research on this subject is from Sherry Turkle at M.I.T., who has been documenting the well-known drift of the young away from direct interaction to alternate channels that enlarge connectivity but diminish communication richness (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015). The platforms are well-known, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other forms. Under the misnomer of “connectivity,” changes in technology and adjustments to them are slowly schooling younger generations to prefer communication that is mediated and intentionally isolating. We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

Turkle has noted a wholesale flight away from direct conversation and toward electronic messaging.  In the words of many of her interviewees, meeting directly with someone is “risky,” “too emotional,” “an interruption,” and “anxiety producing.” As a high school senior she interviewed observed, “What’s wrong with conversation?  I’ll tell you what’s wrong with conversation!  It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you are going to say.”

Responses like these suggest a desire to escape the burdens of acquiring the essential rudiments of what psychologists sometimes call “social intelligence,” meaning the ability to navigate through many essential and unavoidable relationships that unfold in real time.

It has always been true that some conversations are difficult.  But this kind of face-work is also the essential work of a complex adult life. As Turkle notes,

Many of the things we all struggle with in love and work can be helped by conversation. Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.  We are diminished, in retreat.  But to generations that grew up using their phones to text and messages, these studies may be describing losses they don’t feel. They didn’t grow up with a lot of face-to-face talk.

Of course there is always a risk among the old to assume that progress has been overtaken by regression. To paraphrase the Oscar Hammerstein lyric from Oklahoma!, it’s easy to believe that “things have gone about as far as they can go.” Even so, it’s worth remembering that forms of mediated communication are usually not additive, but reductive. Texts, e-mails, and even video games start with various fundamentals of communication, but almost always take something away.  It may be immediacy.  It may be full interactivity.  But the most consequential of all is a reduced intimacy that happens when humans are not in the same space breathing the same air.

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