Sunday with Zin: MOOSE!

Hello I am Zin! And I saw MOOSE!

No, not a moose with antlers… the Maine Organization Of Story Telling Enthusiasts ! Who knew there was such a thing! But yes, there is, and there they were, right there in the library! They meet once a month and tell stories! I have known about this for some time, and have thought I might like to go, but one thing or another intervened. But on August 8 I went, and I am glad I did! It was much, MUCH better than I had expected!

I was expecting something like the SLANT event from June, with people telling stories about their lives! That was okay, but it felt more like a 12-step meeting and was not something I was particularly interested in doing again.

But this was completely different! Some of the stories were about people’s lives, but not many. Most were folk tales or jokes! And the storytellers varied from okay to really, really good! I was not aware that there is a market out there for storytellers! Or that there were so many festivals – like the Western Maine Storytelling Festival – and professional organizations – like LANES, the League for the Advancement of New England Storytellers (which includes NY State)! And the National Storytelling Network! All these storytellers, all over the place! They have festivals and give lessons and workshops (check the websites for information if you are interested) and are available for performances at parties and meetings!

Storytelling in this context is very different from the way the term is used in writing. In writing, there is sometimes a distinction between “writing” and a “storytelling” and both skills are needed for great fiction! The post-modernist period (the 20th century, but at its heydey from the 60s to the 90s) kind of moved away from story and plot (“he is a storyteller but not a writer” was considered an insult, indicating he might be able to produce commercial or genre fiction but not literature) in favor of “tricks” of point of view and narration and language. But sometimes this work has been considered boring because “nothing happens!” And it can be hard to read! Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the art of plot construction; maybe we are in a post-post-modern period where an actual story is being told!

But this oral storytelling has nothing to do with writing! It is a matter of finding a tale, modifying one, or creating one, that can be conveyed in a single telling! Susan, the host, explained to me that a good story is constructed like a pizza: the main plot is the dough, the details are the sauce, and the embellishments are the toppings! And the embellishments do not have to be words! They can be sounds, accents, changes in tempo or rhythm or volume or pitch of the speaking voice; they can be songs; they can be props, costumes, and gestures! She told me she started when she was telling stories to her children, and that is all she did for 11 years, but one day she was asked to fill in for a friend who worked at the Portland Headlight – Susan said, “But I only know stories for children!” and they told her that was ok, just provide some kind of entertainment for the tourists! She got interested in telling stories to adults, and has been doing it for 30 years now!

The meeting took place in two parts: first there was an hour of open-mic storytelling, where anyone could sign up right then and there, and take 10 minutes to tell a story! And when they run out of people who are signed up, someone else always realizes, Hey, I do have a story, maybe I will tell! or just jumps in to fill the hour! Then there is a five-minute break for refreshments and to pass a basket for a requested voluntary donation of $5 to pay for the featured speaker. And the featured speaker gets an hour to tell stories!

The open-mic stories started with Phyllis, who told an announcement (about needing help to organize the LANES Share the Fire conference next April) in the form of a story! At the end, she said, “You might be thinking, this is not a story, it is an announcement! And that is right! But I told it as a story because everyone complains that my announcements run so long!” And someone yelled out, “The story was actually shorter than most of your announcements!” But I will bet she got a lot of volunteers!

Most of the stories were folk tales or extended jokes, like Anecdotes. But one woman told a story about swimming in Sebago lake and someone telling her there was a shark in the water (it was a snapping turtle). A woman told a story about something that happened on a trip to Burma (she called it Burma so I wonder if it was a long time ago) but she spoke so softly I could not hear her! That was the only story that was not that entertaining; everything else was wonderful! The stories were terrific, no matter what their origin!

I only took enough notes to remember two stories in full:

Deb is apparently known for her Moments, and she had another Moment! She turned it into a Story! She noticed something going on at the corner near her house, and realized they were drug dealers and prostitutes! She was afraid for the first time in ten years! Everything in her life seemed so stressful, and was getting worse, she could not sleep! She remembered the story of the man who went to the Rebbe (rabbi):

The man went to the Rebbe and complained that his wife was yelling and the dog was barking and the kids were screaming, and he could not take the noise any more! And the Rebbe said, I think you should get some chickens. The man did not understand, but the Rebbe was the Rebbe after all, so he went out and got some chickens. And now his wife was yelling and the dog was barking and the kids were screaming and the chickens were clucking… he went back to the Rebbe, who said, Hmmmm… I think you should get two cows. The man did not know what on earth the Rebbe was thinking, but he got two cows, and now the wife was yelling and the dog was barking and the kids were screaming and the chickens were clucking and the cows were mooing … and he went back to the Rebbe again, and again, and he added a flock of geese and a pair of mules and by this time the wife was yelling and the dog was barking and the kids were screaming and the chickens were clucking and the cows were mooing and the geese were honking and the mules were braying and he was losing his mind! He went back to the Rebbe and said, Listen, this is not helping, I do not understand, please, I must get some peace! And the Rebbe said, Now I want you to sell the mules and the geese and the cows and the chickens. So that’s what the man did, and that night – ahh, it was so peaceful – how nice, the wife was yelling, and it was so wonderful, the dog was barking, and joy of joys, the kids were screaming, and he finally had some peace!

So she learned from this story and called the police and once the drug dealers and prostitutes went somewhere else, suddenly her stress-filled life seemed very peaceful!

Now, some of the fun of this story is lost by my recounting because she used a lot of gestures and facial expressions; it was so much fun!

I also remember a story told by Michael Cooper. He is famous for the masks he makes; you can find out more about him here, he is quite a performer! He told a slightly bawdy Irish tale in a very good Irish accent (I am recreating the story from memory, so I take the blame for any discrepancy between this and his story!):

Youngman has a black eye, and his buddy asks him, “How did you get that black eye?” Oh, said Youngman, I saw a lovely lass wearing a frilly little dress, and the skirt was billowing this way and that, just as free as you please, but then it got stuck, a little bit, right there in between the cheeks of her bottom! So as any helpful gentleman would do, he ever so gingerly grasped the fabric of the skirt and pulled it free, and she turned around and gave him a black eye! A week later Youngman ran into his buddy again, and the other eye was black! “Oh, no, did you do it again?” asked his buddy. No, Youngman explained, he learned his lesson the first time! But he was at church the past Sunday, and who should be in the pew in front of him but the same lass, wearing the same kind of frilly skirt billowing this way and that, just as free as you please, and again, it got stuck a bit, right there in between the cheeks of her bottom! He stood fast, having, as he said, learned his lesson. But the gentleman next to him apparently didn’t know, and that gentleman reached over and ever so gingerly grasped the fabric of the skirt and pulled it free! “But,” said Youngman, “I knew she didn’t like that, so I stuffed it back in!”

The featured speaker this night was Claire Miller from Nova Scotia – she came down to Maine just for this, which seemed like an awfully long drive for a two-hour storytelling meeting, but then I remembered there is ferry service between Portland/Brunswick and Nova Scotia so it is kind of a fun weekend trip for a lot of people!

She first met the MOOSE people in 1991 in the exact room we were in that night! So she has been visiting for a long time! She is a famous storyteller it seems! She focused on folks tales of Scotland, and added a family story about her grandparents who came over to New Brunswick from Glasgow many years ago! She sang songs in between each story – like the Skye Boat Song, Mairi’s Wedding, and Loch Lomond (which pretty much everyone knows, “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road…” – see?). And she sang a hilarious song, “Ghost Chickens In The Sky ” – yes, it is a parody of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and it is perfect:

A chicken farmer went out on one dark and dusty day
And by the coop he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a rotten egg hit him in the eye
It was the sight he dreaded: Ghost Chickens in the Sky

This farmer had these chickens since he was twenty-four
Working for the Colonel for thirty years or more
Raising all those chickens up to send them off to fry
And now they want revenge: Ghost Chickens in the Sky

Their beaks were black and shiny, their eyes were blazing red
They had no meat or feathers – oh! These chickens all were dead!
They raised that farmer up and he died by the claw
They cooked him extra crispy, and served him with cole slaw

So let this song remind you if you want eternal peace:
Don’t raise up harmless poultry for to cook ’em up in grease
Remember: don’t raise animals that you will some day kill
For a chicken may come haunt you, but Tofu never will.

Her version was not as exuberant as the one by Leon Troy on YouTube, but it was somehow funnier because she was just singing, like it was serious!

The group was about 25 people, and most were around my age! There were very few people under 30! Maybe this is something people grow into; I hope it does not mean this wonderful, entertaining art form, which I have just discovered, is fading away!

If this meeting sounds like fun to you (it was tremendous fun for me), there are videos of more stories on the MOOSE website! And if you do not live in Maine or New England, you can probably find a storytelling group in your area at the National Storytelling Network website!

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One response to “Sunday with Zin: MOOSE!

  1. Pingback: Sunday with Zin: at the 2012 Portland Sidewalk Art Festival | A Just Recompense

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