Midwestern Robot

The Chicken Little question, answered

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Do the climate change deniers have it right? Are we all just a bunch of Chicken Littles running around screaming, the sky is falling? I have struggled with this question—not only because I respect science. Which I do. I respect people who gather data like the amount of CFCs and water vapors and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. But I have struggled mainly because I have problems with the story of Chicken Little itself.

I resent the way, no matter which version you read, the narrator always tells the reader things than Chicken Little can’t possibly know, so we spend the whole story judging her. The narrator always tells us right from the start that it’s an acorn that hit her, even though she doesn’t see it. So we know all along that she’s jumping to conclusions, getting the whole farmyard riled up for no good reason.

Climate change deniers appropriate this story as proof that people who go around saying, “the sky is falling, we’ve got to tell the king,” are wrong. And this is hard for me to say, but those idiots are right on. I hope you can indulge me just for a few minutes, to think this through, because, as much as the Chicken Little story bugs me, I believe it the definitive folk tale for our climate debate, maybe even for our entire fate as a species.

Let’s start with Chicken Little. And I don’t know why she’s called Chicken Little because her size has no impact on the story, not like Snow White who’s really pure, or Puss in Boots, who likes to look gallant so he can impress people.

But anyway she’s walking along in nature and gets bonked in the head by something—which we know, thanks to the narrator—is an acorn. Only she doesn’t see it. She looks around, nobody in sight, no obvious cause like a bird flying overhead. So she thinks, “Oh no, I don’t see what hit me. It must be a piece of sky! Oh no, the Seychelle islands are disappearing. The sea levels must be rising. I’ve got to tell the king!”

And off she goes, and runs into Henny Penny. That’s another irritating thing. Everybody Chicken Little runs into has a rhyming name that has no payoff, story-wise. The name Henny Penny would be great if the character is frugal, always saving a penny, and that has some impact on her character arc. Maybe it will be her ruin!

Or maybe it will save the day. Like she’s been hording this one grain of corn for no reason, but when the dam is about to break due to “global warming,” Henny pulls out that one grain that everyone scoffed at her for hording, and lodges it in the right place, and the dam holds and the farmyard is saved! But no. I guess it was just the easiest rhyme the writer could think of. I’m still in awe of this story, though. Bear with me.

So Chicken Little tells Henny, “The sky is falling! I’m off to tell the king!” And Henny’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’ll go with you!” Off they go, and run into Turkey Lurkey—Lurkey not because he lurks about and gathers intel which is used against our friends at some crucial point, but just because it rhymes—and they tell him, “the sky is falling, we’re going to tell the king!” “Woah,” says he, “I’ll come with!”

So along they go, and gather a few other friends with lamely rhyming names, Goosey Loosey and Ducky Lucky, and finally Foxy Woxy. And they tell Foxy, “The sky is falling! We’re off to tell the king.”

And Foxy’s like, “What? No way!”

“It’s true! Chicken Little’s got the bump on her head to prove it!”

“Woah, that’s intense,” says Foxy, “Well I happen to know where the king is right now, I’ll take you to him!”

So they all follow Foxy through the forest, this is another CHEAT in the story. The narrator tells us where Foxy is actually leading them, so we can all laugh at how gullible they are. He gets to the entrance to his den and says, “The king is right through there.” And they file in, and Foxy traps them, and kills them, and eats them. End of story.

So why is this brilliant? What makes this smug and lazily constructed story the one thing we should all be reading? It ain’t the acorn. It’s what Henny does about it.

If we really believe the sky is failing, why do we allow ourselves to take one ride in a car that burns fossil fuel? Or spend one minute longer in the shower than we need to? Or accept even one plastic fork at a picnic?

If Chicken Little had thought, “I’m Little but I’m mighty,” maybe she would stayed right there and searched until she found the cause of that bonk on the head. But searching for a piece of sky is lonely. Talking is comforting. Talking lets us focus on our listeners. Are they getting your message? Do they believe us?

I can’t stand here and tell you the glaciers aren’t melting, or there aren’t holes in the ozone. But how do so many of us, including myself, respond? We read the emails and sign the petitions and write to the oil companies and recommend the documentaries.

We’re so busy spreading the word that we walk right into the fox’s den, the fox with the bright red hair and the distractions that keep us thinking we’re doing something when in fact, all we’re really doing, is talking.

Midwestern Robot

Story Report: First Trip to The Moth

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Moth storytellers gathered

I don’t like the competitive aspect of The Moth but last night there I was, wondering if my name would be called and simultaneously hoping I wouldn’t embarrass myself and also that I’d win. I did neither.

The host, Peter Kim, made us laugh and then pulled a name out the bag and it was mine.

Good news: I was onstage before I could even get nervous. Bad news: I felt like the first pancake. My mom used to say, you always throw out the first pancake, it never cooks right. But I found the mic and started my story.

“Last year our dog Django died…”

And right there, I wish I had paused to take the temperature of the room. Don’t worry, the story went well and I got fine numbers and lots of warm comments from strangers afterward. But the nugget I want to share with other storytellers is:

When you tell a story, allow some space in your opening to accommodate where you are in the running order and to check in with your audience.

My focus, in contrast, was the clock. My inner monolog was Please oh please don’t let me go over time. So although at that moment I heard a little “Oh…” after I said “died” and felt the audience think: “This is going to be a serious one,” I didn’t pause and say something like:

“It’s okay. She’d had a good long life and went about as well as she could without being magically parachuted to Heaven straight from the dog park.”

or something to lighten the mood. Instead I pushed through to what I’d seen as the first joke:

“And the day we got home from putting her down all I wanted to do was clean the house. (pause) Which was weird because the house was already clean.”

To me, that’s funny—a grieving person cleaning an already clean house. But because I had plowed through according to my initial agenda, it took me a few minutes of reshaping the story to reveal the humor in the gap between what I think of as normal grieving and my obsession to erase every trace of loss with Lemon Pledge and Windex.

Story review: If I tell this story again, I will weave in Dave’s role in the events more, because it speaks to what was at stake in cleaning or leaving that dog-smudged window. Also, I’ll time myself more so that I am less panicky about going over.

As it was, I think the story was about four minutes long, so I had more time than I thought. But I’d rather be under than over.

And it was a great night of stories. Some really strong performances including the winner, who made us laugh and cringe over her incredible string of bad gynecologists; Nester Gomez, whose story of becoming the man in the family at 12 years old really hit me; the woman whose stories I’d like to hear more of who talked about a difficult foster care experience; Pearl Ochoa, who told a story about gardening with a happy ending—shocker! …and many more.

So to my friends who have seen me waffle about going to the Moth, here’s my takeaway:

I still don’t love the competitive thing, but I think the rigid time limit and the open judginess provide a good opportunity to sharpen your skills and sensitivity to how a story is living in the moment.

Midwestern Robot

Nature adores a vacuum

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Yesterday was warm and sunny, sweater weather at most. We went to the park and Nola discovered ice cubes. She also got yelled at by the dog who owned the ice cubes. For the first time, I saw her slink away from a dog instead of just shaking it off and going back for more. I find myself watching for signs like that and hoping they’re not signs.

When we got home, Dave left for his matinee and I tried to figure out what to do with the beautiful day. I raked in the yard a little but the lawn is a mud pit and there’s not much to do at this point. I came inside and there was a text from Gloria, “Are u home?”

“Yep,” I texted back, pleased to get such an informal text from someone I don’t know very well. Gloria is a dog whisperer who is unfazed by difficult animals, bad weather, and flaky owners like us who book her last-minute, “Sorry! Can you walk Nola at noon today?” I hoped she was writing to suggest a play date with Weejay, the puppy she’s dog-sitting down the block.

But no. “Jasper’s coming over to help with this vacuum. Weejay has feathers all over from a pillow and I can’t figure it out.”  I thought she must be dictating because the only Jasper in the neighborhood is a realtor and why would he be helping with a vacuum?

“Sure! I’ll come through the back.” I brought our new Oreck along just in case.

In the yard, Gloria and indeed Jasper the realtor were huddled over a bagless canister vac. After greeting me, Weejay  continued nosing the emerging forsythia, wagging his adorable little tail.

Gloria wanted to empty the vacuum before attacking what she called “a mountain of feathers in there.” I couldn’t wait to see the mess. But none of us could open the canister. It seemed like part of it should unscrew or unclip, but nothing was budging and none of us wanted to be the one to pull too hard and break it. Jasper gently poked a long-handled screwdriver into the opening. “Let me just use my vacuum,” I said.

“No. I’m not letting you do that,” said Gloria.

“I need to change the bag anyway,” I said, which was partly true. Dave hates this new Oreck because he claims it smells. I tell him, “No, it’s what the Oreck picks up that smells.” He counters, “The old Oreck didn’t smell.” I come back, “That’s because it didn’t pick anything up.” The old Oreck now lives in the basement, and he insists on lugging it upstairs whenever he’s doing the vacuuming. “Go ahead,” I say. “I’m just going to need to vacuum again tomorrow so whatever.” Surreptitiously, I change the bag as often as possible, even though Oreck bags are ridiculously expensive, being made partially of cloth, which is probably why they smell.

Gloria and Jasper poked around with the screwdriver until we agreed the canister looked pretty clean. Jasper clicked it back on the base, and then Gloria nudged another unmoving part, “I need this wand for the feathers.”

“Are there that many?”

“Oh this dog,” she said. “They’re everywhere.” I pictured the scene from North and South where the cotton bits float in a mist above everything, choking the millworkers’ lungs and causing industrial malaise. I was dying to get inside. But none of us could unclip the hose part from the carpet sweeper part. There was a lever that you either pull out or unwind like a clock, but neither way seemed to dislodge the wand, and once again we were all afraid to break it. “I’m just going to use my vacuum,” I said, grabbing the Oreck.

“No!” said Gloria.

“Don’t be weird,” I said.

“It is weird,” she retorted. I went inside and looked for the feathers. None in the kitchen. None in the dining room. Then, in the middle of the rug on the sun porch, a fluffy pyramid of white wisps. A slight drizzle of them on the sunporch sofa, and a random few drifting across the dark wood floor.

Jasper plugged in the Oreck and I vacuumed up the feathers. Weejay was briefly interested. Gloria shook her head slowly. I worried that the Oreck would smell and humiliate me on its outing, but it didn’t, or maybe the good smells in the house neutralized it—faint incense and fresh sunshine air. The procedure took about 60 seconds.

Afterward, Jasper found one rogue feather and suggested saving it for the owners. Gloria took the feather and shook her head again. We all agreed that Weejay was adorable and it was a good thing he hadn’t gone after the couch.

Jasper carried the Oreck back to my gate and went on his way. Gloria texted to say, “Thanks again,” and I texted back, “No problem. Any time.” She responded, “Hopefully it’s all downhill from here.”

Midwestern Robot

I ooze love

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a heart shape in concrete.

I ooze love. It crawls out of my pores and slimes its way across the parched landscape of humanity. You send me a broken computer, Gazelle? I ooze love.

You give me the same eight bars of hold music on a repeating loop? I ooze love.

Same hold music the first time I call, to ask what’s wrong with the iMac I sent to you perfect that you’re now saying doesn’t work.

Same hold music the second time I call, to ask why the Mac returned to us damaged, with the keyboard and mouse loose in the box, where they scratched up the screen and the metal, without the power cord and installation disks that Dave packed so carefully.

Same hold music the third time, after we’ve discovered not only is the iMac scratched up and cordless but it’s missing the hard drive and some of the screws that used to hold on the screen. Love, love, love.

This hold music varies in that it restarts after running its full loop, and any time a voice recording interrupts to say, “The next available customer service representative will be with you shortly,” which is often.

The eight bars – or maybe it’s four, I don’t know how to count music – starts with a bright electric guitar lick, sort of reminiscent of “Sister Golden Hair” from the 70s.

Then it goes into a partial buildup to what seems like it’s going to be a verse.

Then it goes into a second, more dramatic buildup, like “This is really going to be an important verse so be ready for it.”

Then there’s a slight pause…

Then the guitar kicks in again.

Does that sound like eight bars? Regardless, I just keep oozing love, because what else can I do?

I can’t undo last week’s idea to sell the old iMac to Gazelle. I can’t go back and video Dave’s reformatting of the hard disk and reinstalling Sierra and doing disk utilities and careful packing of the components using in the fancy box his new iMac arrived in. I’m not even bothering to mention how he hunted down the original installation disks even though it wasn’t required, because of course he did.

Maybe I can put the phone on speaker and make more coffee. I go in the kitchen. “I assume theft,” says Dave.

But I ooze love. I assume that the customer service rep who will be with me shortly will be as surprised as I was about the now-broken computer. Sure, someone there destroyed the iMac, threw it into a box, and sent it back to us, but surely it was an accident. “Maybe it was a new trainee or something, or something happened between shifts.”

“I’m thinking just plain theft.”

“You mean, some rogue guy at the processing center?”

“I mean the whole company,” he says.

I decide Dave is not in a place where I can put the phone on speaker right now. “They’re a huge company,” I remind him, the hold music repeating in my other ear.

“So?”

“A whole company cannot be built on a model of buying used electronics, then claiming they arrived broken and have no value.”

“Sure it can.”

“You can’t believe they would actually do that.”

“I didn’t used to believe someone like Trump could be president,” he said. “Now I figure anything’s possible.”

The hold music kicks in again. I continue to ooze love.