I’ve been thinking of Tall Tales with the #Western106 open course, and have even pitched the idea to everyone to collaboratively write and record a Tall Tale radio program. We’ll see how that goes. (Hey, of course YOU are invited, too. Invent a persona. Add to the script. Venture out West with us. It is loosely labeled Smoke Signals.)
I went into Storybird, a picture book story-making site with an interesting art/writing twist, thinking I was going to start writing an original Tall Tale. Instead, I came away with this story that is definitely not a Tall Tale. I went with the Muse. This one is informed by my reading, listening and watching of Western narratives — of the incursion of White Settlers on traditional American Indian lands, and the great and devastating Changes that would happen. That did happen. That are still happening.
I suspect my story has stereotypes and pillars of the Western genre, but I hope it comes across as a heartfelt ode to remembering the power of Stories to heal and to help the Earth. I know Stories are not enough. But they are something.
Storybird is a site that allows you to write stories, by using professional illustrators’ work. It’s an interesting process because you call up art based on keywords or artists, and then build a story around the images you have available (not the other way around … traditionally, you would write a story and then make images to go with the narrative). So, I took time to absorb the artwork before beginning the story after searching “West” as my keyword. I like how it came out, so much so that I paid a few bucks to get a download of the picture book to save (and share).
I later moved the PDF over to a Flipbook creator for better sharing but you really have to use full-screen mode to get the flavor. Or you can read it over at Storybird.
Here, in the #Western106 open course, we are tackling into the idea of the Western narrative and genre. I am an East Coaster, so as the saying goes in the hashtag, Everything is West of Here. But I have traveled a little bit in my life, and been in some areas on the other side of the Mississippi, and I have been stunned by the majestic beauty of the Western areas of my country.
I was mulling about these memories the other day as we were working on a Daily Create related to remixing the words to Home on the Range. I was also thinking of the references that some participants have made to Country Music as touchstones of the West. For me, though, the Country reference just doesn’t work. I am drawn to Nashville more than Montana when I think of Country music. Nashville and Country feel South, not West.
When I think of Western music, all I can hear is Chris Whitley in my head, and the way his steel guitar, falsetto voice, stories, and production created an aural landscape of open skies and landscapes when he came bursting into the music scene in the 1980s, and how for me, his music became the West when I listened to it.
Listen to Big Sky Country and pay attention to the space in the song, the way Whitley is purposely leaving aural gaps for us as listeners. It’s guitar as mood and setting. You can see forever in those spaces. We’re taking in a view of the modern West with the music in our ears.
Chris Whitley died young, of lung cancer. He went West of somewhere, and still is there.
Also looking west for aural inspiration was U2, with their Joshua Tree album. As Wikipedia (so it must be true ) notes:
“Throughout the sessions, U2 sought a “cinematic” quality for the record, one that would evoke a sense of location, in particular, the open spaces of America. They represented this in the sleeve photography depicting them in American desert landscapes.”
I happened to be listening to Joshua Tree (one of the earlier titles of the album was Desert Songs) the other day in my car, not long after revisiting Chris Whitley in my headphones, and again, I could hear the wide open spaces in the production.
The East coast is crowded; the West is wide open. Music has a chance to bring us there.
(This is a post for Western106, an open online digital storytelling course, that will focus around the Western genre. I’m dipping in with my own experiences with the Wild West narratives.)
When each of our three boys were young, my wife and I made a conscious effort to avoid any kinds of toy guns in the house. It didn’t matter. They would pick up a stick, point it at a squirrel, or each other, or at us even, and go “bang bang bang.” The more we talked to our friends, the ones with boys, the more we came to realize that the stereotypes of boys and guns (and trucks) seemed to be something true, despite all that we did to avoid it.
Strange, right? But true, at least in my circles. We could not shake their obsession with guns.
One time, we were visiting a friend of my wife’s from work and her husband was a retired police officer. Before we even knew what was happening, he had pulled out an unloaded handgun from his gun safe to show our youngest son (he must have been about six years old). I was furious at this man and frustrated by the look of reverence on my son’s face as he was so close to a real gun. One that shoots real bullets. One that kills in a second.
We never went back to that house, needless to say.
It had me thinking of my own childhood as a boy, though, and my own obsession with the same. I distinctly remember watching The Lone Rangerre-runs on television with friends, as soon as it was over, we would run outside and playact out the episode we just watched. We’d use sticks as guns, and bikes as horses, and string as lassos. Cats sometimes would be our cattle, if we needed. (They were never very cooperative. We didn’t have dogs in our apartment complex. Only cats. Yeehaw. Kittyup.)
As I got older, I still gravitated to the idea of the Western, which I see now through my adults eyes as having many flaws — from gender issues to animal treatment issues to violence issues to … well, there are a lot of issues — and yet the theme of Good vs. Bad (another complicated issue) and of Hero vs. Villain (same) and Cowboy vs. Indian (more of the same) are timeless storytelling devices, made so visible it’s as if a mallet is pounding you on the head.
As kids, we liked that. Mallets made the story clear. There were no ambiguities. Cowboys were good,. Indians were bad. (But thanks to Alan Levine’s gathering of Western stories and narratives, I see now that even the stories I thought had a clear divide maybe never really did … look at the peaceful Tonto, who saved The Lone Ranger’s life more times than a viewer can count … and I am probably over-stereotyping the genre completely anyway .. writers do that to make a point, right?)
What began to change my mind and alter my perceptions of that narrative as a kid was the reading of a book. This book.
The Indian in the Cupboardby Lynn Reid Banks brought a whole new perspective to the Cowboy/Indian narrative that Hollywood had created to sell stories, showing me instead how proud the American Indians were of their place on Earth and how mistreated they had been, and continue to be in so many places (It is a travesty that the Pine Ridge Reservation has some of the deepest pockets of poverty in the United States and that casino operations are what keeps some tribes afloat here on the East Coast).
The novel, telling the tale of a boy who brings his plastic toys to life and then realizing the consequences of his actions, humanized American Indians for the first time for me, in a very powerful way that never left my head or heart. It later resonated with other books about the American Indians that I would read, too, such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and The Heart of Everything There is. This was the real history of our country, the kind that I was not being taught in history classes.
Move ahead a few years, and, as a young adult, I got hooked on the Western-themed television show, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. What an odd one. It was a mashup of cowboy and science fiction, told with humor. It didn’t last very long, but I loved that show, and watched it religiously. It skewered the conventions of the Western in so many ways while also maintaining the elements that attracted me to Westerns as a kid. That later led me to Firefly, the short-lived series that is a natural successor to Brisco, with its Western-in-Outer-Space theme. Add in Deadwood and others that I have forgotten over time.
And then came the discovery (or rather, the rediscovery with new eyes) of the Spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood in college, with a friend who wanted to go to Hollywood to work on movies (he did do that, eventually) and listening to him dissect the movies over and over again through a filmmaker’s eyes was interesting, as was the experience of watching Eastwood later in Unforgiven, where he tries to dismantle the whole notions of the Hero as Avenger and Violence as a Way of Life.
Just last week, I was watching The Hateful Eight with one of my sons, now in high school, and thinking of how the myth of the Western permeates so much our media lives, in ways that are often unseen. I didn’t care much for The Hateful Eight (we had it on disc, as our neighbor is a filmmaker who votes for Oscar movies so she gets discs to sway her decision) and gave up on it, but my older sons (the eldest one had already seen it in the theater) enjoyed it, and it brought me back around to the opening of this post.
Neither of my older children are still obsessed with guns. Maybe they have grown out of it or been horrified by the front pages of our newspapers. The younger one still seems to gravitate towards toy guns whenever he can. It still rattles me.
And it raises some questions for me, a father.
At what point does media influence us, and at what point do we influence media? Do Westerns glorify violence or reflect our society’s interest in Outlaws and Justice? Is this notion of boys’ interest in guns innate? And if so, does the interest in guns lead to the potential of violence? Researchers are no doubt trying to figure that out.
Of course, I sure hope not, and I know that our struggle as parents to explain our violent culture to our kids over the years, expressed through exasperation with the proliferation of guns has been an ongoing process. I’ve even used my own experience in the military as an infantry soldier to talk about guns, and the powerful danger they possess in the world.
Here at home, we promote peace in this world of violence. That’s just how it is, I guess. It’s not that we never had Nerf guns in the house. It’s not that we took every stick out of their hands. But it’s also not that we have bowed to the overwhelming wave of pop culture, either. Our family conversations about guns and violence, though .. those continue. They have to. They always will.
Last weekend, I was reading up on Alan Levine’s move to push ahead with a Western-style DS106 course, even though the college where he was to teach it pulled out due to lack of enrollment. Lack of enrollment in the course? Do they even know Alan Levine and DS106? Their loss, but Alan is launching the course as an open invitation.
There is sure to be lots of critique of the Western genre — of violence, and gender, and more — and I hope to do as much of it as I can, if only to be part of another DS106 adventure. I am already part of an Outlaw Brigade with Wild Toady. I was thinking about Western DS106 this past weekend and started to get inspired to do a webcomic which has come to be called The Wild West Adventures of the Internet Kid.
Really, the comic has little to do with the Wild West and more to do about technology. No surprise there, if you follow my blog and comics. Before I knew it, I had more than a handful of comics created, and so I have decided to “publish” the comics, one per day (except today, when you get one plus my cover), on Twitter via the #western106 hashtag.
My aim is to have some fun with tweaking the Western genre AND technology and writing. Plus, I like making comics. Honestly, some of the Internet Kid storylines work better than others, but I am sending all of them into the Wild anyway. I hope you get a chuckle now and then. And if it makes you think, well, all the better.
This demo song is one I wrote quite a long time ago, and only recently pulled it back onto my guitar. It was first written in the aftermath of the devastating Haiti Earthquake. I tinkered a bit more with it in the last few days, adding a new section, and then recorded this as a spare song. Don’t worry — it’s thankfully not about me. I am happy. I am fine. The narrator of the song is not. (I always feel the need to write that for these kinds of songs.)
It’s cold this morning here in New England. Wind chill about negative 14. Walking the dog … not so much fun. So when the DS106 Daily Create came into my inbox with a note of explaining how to do something, I was reminded of a recent classroom activity/lesson around Rube Goldberg contraptions (my students had a blast with it).
Here, then, are my instructions for putting a winter hat on your head. (My attorney suggests I mention that you should not try this at home. Duh.) At the Daily Create, you could only write text, but I drew out the contraption in the Paper app (which I am still figuring out).
Winter. It sucks. So, you know, you need a winter hat on your head to keep your brains from freezing when you need to walk to the dog.
Here’s how you do it:
1. Superglue fishing line to a bowling ball
2. Stuff bowling ball inside winter hat
3. Place bowling ball/hat on the top of the stairs
4. Sit on the bottom step of the stairs, holding fishing line in hand
5. Pull on fishing line. Be sure to pull hard enough so that the ball and hat start tumbling down the stairs
6. Quickly pull fishing line a second time to dislodge the ball from the hat. Guide bowling ball around you (note: this is important)
7. Hat sails through the air, lands on head
If you set up pins on the ground near the bottom of the stairs, you may even get both a strike AND the hat on your head. Be careful that the bowling ball and the hat don’t change positions. If that happens, you might end up with the bowling ball on your head. If that happens, you won’t need to go outside on your own. The ambulance will take there and it is probably heated.
Blame this one on me .. but yesterday’s Daily Create at DS106 was my idea — getting people to yodel. And darn it if they didn’t. In fact, I completely forgot it was even my idea until Mariana called me out on it with a “Hey, where’s your yodel?” So I got my yodel on this morning and added it to the Soundcloud group.
The other day, I shared out my tribute song to my various communities, in the form of an animated music video of sorts. It is my way of saying thanks to people who inspire me all year in various online homes.
I decided to show a bit of where the song writing came from, and used my comic app to annotate the original piece of paper. My songwriting process is very messy, musically and physically. I am constantly scratching on and scratching out words, drawing lines to show movement of phrases and verse/chorus, and yet, I often take photos of the paper later, to keep a trail of the song.
So, if you are interested, I tried to reconstruct the writing of the song with annotated notes before I forget it all (which I am bound to do). Thanks for being part of my network as a visitor here. This song is for you.
Here is the audio-only version, too. Feel free to remix.
For everyone who is in all of my various online networks and communities and adventures, I thank you. Here is a song, with some animated words, as my humble thanks for all the inspiration and support you give me throughout the year as I write and explore and learn.
I had this urge to create this comic as a sort of reflection point, drawing in connections that have me pushing my own ideas about what it means to be a writer in this digital age. Think of it as a token of gratitude for all those who are helping me along on this journey. I created the comic (making up representative characters for my friends: Simon, Terry, Anna, and Maha) in Bitstrips for Schools, and then moved it into a flipbook creator.