50 thoughts on turning 50: #32 Nothing but the truth (but whose truth?)

I often read Young Adult books, because I like to see how authors are dealing with difficult topics in a way that young people can understand them.

In this election cycle, I’m reminded of the YA novel “Nothing But The Truth”, by Avi. I read it years ago, and have reread it several times, because it’s an excellent portrayal of how what we see on the evening news – or, with the advent of social media, online – is only a snippet of the truth. And how that truth is filtered and distilled down through the eyes of each person involved in the process of telling the story.

Here’s the premise of the “documentary novel”: Phillip Malloy is a ninth grade student. During the morning announcements, the school has a policy that all students must stand and remain silent during the playing of the National Anthem. Phillip, however, happens to be in a homeroom with a teacher who not only tolerates tomfoolery, he joins in it himself. So Phillip talks and does homework while the teacher cracks jokes. But when the school reassigns all students to new homerooms, Phillip finds himself in Mrs. Narwin’s homeroom. She also happens to be Phillip’s English teacher. And Mrs. Narwin takes the rule of silence during the National Anthem very seriously.

Phillip continues to play the class clown and hums along with the National Anthem in his new homeroom. The more Mrs. Narwin asks for silence, the more Phillip acts up, until she sends him to the principal’s office.

What follows next is a domino effect of events: suspension from school, a civil rights lawyer, national news. It’s a game of telephone, with lives and careers at stake.

What’s so brilliant about this book is that it’s told in transcript style, so readers see the actual conversations between teacher and student, parents and child, parents and local politician, politician and local journalist. There are letters from the teacher to her sister, newspaper clippings, memos from the school board to the teachers in the district. It allows the reader to see the motives behind all of the participants: a dedicated teacher who loves her students and doesn’t want this one punished (she just wants him to stop humming during the National Anthem); a student who knows he’s being a smart ass but doesn’t want to get in trouble at home (because there are bigger issues going on here, including parents expectations at odds with a child’s wants and needs); parents and politicians with their own agendas (and not always with the child’s best interests at heart); a school board on the eve of a budget vote (and dollars often take precedence over people); a journalist with her own goals (and an inability to get the facts right); a conservative talk show host charged with stirring up controversy (and ratings).

The reader gets to see how a complex situation gets boiled down to a headline or sound bite, until a teacher is ruined, parents are vindicated, a politician is elected, and a student is left to navigate the turmoil it all leaves behind.

It’s fiction…or is it? The book was published in 1991, but the premise – the way the story is manipulated, the way the public reacts to a news story without knowing any of the real story – happens every hour of every day. And with social media, every second of every minute of every hour.

This short fiction book – you can read it in a few hours – will remind you that behind every headline is a whole story, and behind every story are real people, with real lives, and that what we pass around as truth is really nothing more than rumor.

Go read it. Now. Before you spout off on social media or forward a story you haven’t actually verified or make a judgement based on a three minute news story that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story…and ruin relationships and friendships in the process. It’s an important lesson to learn in this emotionally charged election year.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

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Notes from the Fringe 2016: Dashboard Dramas

The cast of Dashboard Dramas III, in the rain

The cast of Dashboard Dramas III, opening weekend, in the rain

The first weekend of Fringe Festival is behind us, and unlike last year, when I got to roam around and see show after show and write about everything, this year I was in “Dashboard Dramas III”, the wildly popular and hilariously unconventional show that takes place in cars parked inside the Spiegelgarden.

Less writing time, but way more fun.

It works like this: there are four cars, and each car is the “stage” for a ten minute play. All four plays are happening simultaneously. Two audience members are inside each car, and they rotate from car to car until they’ve seen all four plays in about 50 minutes.

These cars are the stage for four ten-minute plays.

These cars will be the stage for four ten-minute plays.

That means that for every show, the cast performs their plays four times. Two shows a day = eight performances. Three shows a day = twelve performances. The show kicked off last Thursday with two shows. Two more on Friday, three each on Saturday and Sunday. When opening weekend was over, we’d all performed our ten minute plays 30 times. Continue reading

Notes from the Fringe 2016: A sneak peek at Cirque du Fringe

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A sneak peek at one of the acts in this year’s “Cirque du Fringe”.

The Fringe Festival opens tomorrow, and today I got a sneak peek at the main event in the Spiegeltent, the “Cirque du Fringe: Miracle Cure”.

I was spellbound last year by “Cabinet of Wonders”, and Matt Morgan and company are back again with acrobats, a high wire walker, crossbow archers, jugglers, and more. It’s music and comedy and another dose of the magic that made last year’s show a sell out.

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No circus is complete without a tightrope walker.

The preview wasn’t a dress rehearsal, so my photos don’t begin to speak how amazing the show will be when costumes, lights, and all of the props are in place. (In fact, I don’t even have all of the performer’s names yet; I’ll add them as I get them).

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This is Timo with his father, Jan Damm, one of the performers. Timo makes a brief appearance in the show.

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From the outside of the Spiegeltent, you’d never know there was room for an aerial dancer inside.

But today, media was invited to watch a run through of the show. Even without costumes, and with the stops and starts as the cast finalized show details, it was a wonderful way to spend two hours.

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A comedic musical interlude with a ukelele and belly bongo .

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This lovely pup belongs to one of the performers. She was content to nap amidst the circus preparation.

I liked being able to eavesdrop on discussions about moving apparatus and segueing between acts and synchronizing everything to music cues. They make it look so easy in the show. But in reality there’s a lot of coordination necessary to ensure each moving piece is where it should be, when it should be there.

Which is important when one of your acts is shooting arrows from crossbows. Across the audiences’ heads.

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You’ll be holding your breath during this act.

Music this year is from John and Caroline Shannon; he’s from TheSHIFT (you can learn more on his artist Facebook page). Just like last year, the music really pulls the show together, and you’ll want to check out their CD, which will be available in the Fringe merch tent.

If you haven’t gotten tickets to “Cirque du Fringe: Miracle Cure” yet, don’t wait. Opening night is already sold out, and once audiences see the full show, tickets will go fast. Even though I’ve already seen most of the show, I have a ticket to see it this week. I can’t wait.

For the complete Fringe Festival schedule, visit the festival website.

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Notes from the Fringe 2016: The Spiegeltent

The cast of the Cabinet of Wonders, from Fringe Fest 2015.

The cast of the Cabinet of Wonders, from Fringe Fest 2015.

The centerpiece of the ten-day long Rochester Fringe Festival is the beautiful Spiegeltent, located in the Spiegelgarden at the corner of Main and Gibbs Streets in downtown.

Don’t let the word “tent” mislead you; this isn’t any regular canvas event tent. This is an actual structure with walls and a wooden floor that, as I write, is being constructed from the ground up by a crew that travels with the tent from city to city, assembling and then dismantling the tent of wonders. Today, they’re toiling away in Rochester’s hot and humid weather.

The Spiegeltent, the centerpiece of the downtown headquarters for Rochester Fringe Festival, is being assembled today.

The Spiegeltent, the centerpiece of the downtown headquarters for Rochester Fringe Festival, is being assembled today.

The Cristal Palace, from Fringe Fest 2015, is currently being assembled for this year's festival.

The Cristal Palace, from Fringe Fest 2015.

Last year, I was awed by the Spiegeltent. It’s magical and beautiful, and it houses the festival’s headlining acts. This year it’s “Cirque du Fringe: Miracle Cures and Other Wonders From the Vagabond Caravan”, hosted by Matt Morgan and Mark Gindick, and complete with a cast of characters that include acrobats, musicians, comedians, and more.

It’s all quite spectacular to behold. Continue reading

Notes from the Fringe 2016: the countdown begins

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Cirque du Fringe: MIRACLE CURE & Other Wonders from the Vagabond Caravan

Rochester’s arts and entertainment community is in the final stages of preparation for the 2016 First Niagara Fringe Festival, which takes place Thursday, September 15 to Saturday, September 24, all across Rochester. There will be more than 500 performances at more than 25 venues in and around the city. And 170 of those performances are totally free!

Last year, I had the chance to cover Fringe for Rochester Subway, and I also blogged about it on my own blog (read the posts here). Not only did I enjoy the festival, I got to explore Rochester in a way I never had before. It also helped dispel some myths I’ve held onto about safety and parking and meandering around the city at night.

This year, I’ll be reporting on Fringe from inside the festival: I’ve got a role in the wildly popular Dashboard Dramas! Set inside cars parked in the Spiegelgarden, there are four ten-minute plays happening simultaneously, with two spectators in each car. When each play is over, the audience rotates, until they’ve seen all four plays in about 50 minutes.

A scene from Dashboard Drama II, in 2015

A scene from Dashboard Drama II, in 2015

This is a whole new experience for me. (Fringe seems to really take me out of my comfort zone). I’ve done a few small acting things, but I would hardly say I’m experienced in theater. Not by a long shot. But I do improv, and I love it, and a lot of the people I’m working with in this are people I know from the improv community, and I’m grateful for the chance to try something new.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, unlike last year, when I spent countless hours wandering around downtown, talking to people and taking photos and finding odd stories – including riding in the bucket up the outside of the Powers Building with artist Scott Grove to inspect the facade – I won’t be able to do that this year. But I’ll file some reports from backstage and on the streets whenever possible. I’m hoping to do daily updates and photos here, and then wrap ups at Rochester Subway.

In fact, make sure you follow me on Facebook for pics and updates!

And I’m still hoping to catch some shows. On my long and growing list?  Jeffery Sweet’s “You Only Shoot The Ones You Love”; Alison Arngrim’s “Confessions of a Prairie B;+@h”; “Eulogy”; “Planchette”; “Sneeze”; and “OneYmoon”. And I’ll try and see as many of the improv and comedy shows as possible.

Argh!! Too many amazing shows!! Too little time!! What a great problem to have!

Anyway, time is ticking towards opening night, and tickets are selling out for some of the more popular shows (Dashboard Dramas was sold out before the Fringe guide was even printed). Here are a few things you won’t want to miss: Continue reading

Confessions of an office (and school) supply addict

photo courtesy of pixabay

photo courtesy of pixabay

(Note: This post is cross posted at Patheos.com)

I spent a half hour today sharpening pencils. I enjoy the act of standing at an old-fashioned sharpener and turning the crank, hearing the blade grind the wood and graphite to a fine point and watching the shavings build into a pile at my feet. It helps me clear my head when I’m stressed, on a column deadline, or stumped by the Sunday crossword.

I picked up the yellow No. 2 pencils while I was out running errands. I limited myself to just one box because the truth is that if I didn’t, I would have skipped the milk and bread and spent the grocery money on school supplies.

Never mind that I don’t have kids in school anymore or that I’m not in school myself. It’s “Back to School” time, which means supplies are on sale, and that’s a dangerous time of the year for me.

Because I’m an office supply addict.

I have an abnormal addiction to pens, paper, pencils, notepads, journals—you name it. I rarely walk out of a store without purchasing some sort of stationery item—paper clips, file folders or a snazzy new pen.

I have a notebook in every room in my house, one in my car and one in my purse, so when I have an idea I can write it down quickly, before I forget it. I keep a supply of pocket folders in a range of colors to suit my every mood. I have a panic attack if I can’t find my stapler.

I think my addiction is rooted in my childhood. As a kid, I loved getting ready for the new school year, the smell of autumn and new possibilities in the air, my book bag filled with folders, freshly sharpened pencils and clean, white notebook paper just begging to be filled with stories, notes and essays.

Every fall, I would vow that this would be the year I would stay organized. This year, I would put the science notes in the science folder and the English notes in the English folder. This year, I would save all of the quizzes so I could study for the cumulative final. This year, I would record every homework assignment in my pocket calendar and never again be scrambling at the last minute to complete a project.

But it always ended the same. In less than a month, I had geometry theorems mixed in with grammar notes. I would show up to science class with my Spanish textbook (“Wait,” I’d ask. “Que hora es?”) and had taken to writing homework assignments on my hands (I had the first Palm Pilot). My locker always looked like a tornado had blown through a paper factory.

It’s more than 30 years later and I’m still not organized. I’m continually digging through a towering pile of folders on my kitchen table to hunt for research notes, paper clips and pens. I have three calendars within arm’s reach, but I never know what day it is.

I know what you’re thinking: there’s an app for that. Calendars on your phone, e-books, virtual folders and documents. But I’m not interested.

It’s not just the fact that I can’t keep up with the latest technology on a writer’s budget. The truth is that I like doing things the old-fashioned way. I like putting a real pencil to actual paper and scribbling away, crossing out words, rewriting sentences, and doodling in the margins when I’m mentally blocked. I think better that way.

And science backs me up on this. Study after study has found that students who take notes longhand actually comprehend and retain information better and longer than students who take notes on a laptop. Researchers think it has to do with the cognitive process necessary to listen to someone speaking, digest the meaning in their words, and then succinctly condense the information into notes. Our brains process that differently then when we’re typing the words verbatim on a laptop.

In other words, a valid rationalization for me to buy more office supplies. Thank you, science! Pencils and notebooks are still on sale! Who needs groceries, anyway?

(A slightly different version of this appears in my book “What The Dog Said,” a collection of humor columns penned over the years. It also appeared in the October 2015 issue of Refreshed Magazine.)

Cops, Dallas, and Life With A Badge

photo courtesy of Pixabay

photo courtesy of Pixabay

I woke up this morning to a world gone mad, and I’m not sure how to proceed with my day.

So I write. Without thinking too much, without editing my emotions, and without worry that I might say something that will offend you.

You’ll get over it, and if you don’t then you can find another blogger to read. I really don’t care.

Because twelve police officers were shot in Dallas last night, and five are dead. And the entire police community in America is changed forever.

Again.

I’m the daughter of a police officer; my dad is long retired from a small suburb of Rochester, NY. The scanner was always on in our house, the small black box with the row of blinking red lights calling out each report of someone in need or danger and the response that help was on the way. I know firsthand the toll the job can take on a family, a marriage, a life.

I think the vast majority of Americans understand that the police are the good guys. Are there bad apples here and there? Sure, and there’s no excuse for them.

But they’re a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the family of men and women who wear a badge.

That’s why you hear about the bad ones, why they make the front page, are the lead story on the news, are the memes most shared on social media.

It’s not a big news story when a cop goes to work and no one complains, when he serves a warrant and takes the criminal into custody without incident, when he stops a car and apprehends the suspect and no one is killed.

It happens every single hour of every single day of every single week of every single year. Officers doing their job.

Honorably.

* * * * * * * *

I know in my heart that most Americans believe the police are the good guys. But even so, I think they take for granted that when they dial 911, there’s an officer on duty – and take for granted what that means for him and his family.

If you’re in an accident on your way to work, for example, an officer is on duty and ready to respond – which means he’s not kissing his wife goodbye as she goes to work or seeing his children off to school.

If you come home from work at 5 PM and find your house has been burglarized, an officer is on duty and ready to respond – which means he’s not eating dinner with his own family.

If your neighbors are having a loud party and by 2 AM you’ve had enough, an officer is on duty and ready to respond to your noise complaint – which means he isn’t home in bed with his wife.

When you’re at your kid’s soccer game or school play, an officer is on duty and ready to respond to any call – which means he’s not at his own kid’s soccer game or school play.

When you’re with your family opening presents on Christmas morning, an officer is on duty and ready to respond to any call – which means he’s not with his own family opening presents on Christmas morning.

When an officer is on duty and responding to a domestic disturbance, mediating an emotionally charged situation between a husband and wife, he’s not at home working on his own marriage.

When an officer is on duty and spending time talking with kids on the streets of the city, shooting hoops and encouraging the kids to stay in school, he’s not at home helping his own children with their homework.

And when you want to exercise your First Amendment right to gather in peaceful protest of the police, dozens of officers will be on duty, making sure you are safe.

Even if they are not.

In other words, every day a police officer goes to work and leaves his own family in order to protect yours.

And now five officers in Dallas will never go home.

* * * * * * * *

Here’s another reality about police officers that most people never think about.

Every day they are yelled at, punched, spat on, slapped, kicked, cut. They’re called names by small children who’ve been taught by their parents that all police are to be reviled.

This is not an exaggeration; there is a growing culture across America where adults are actually indoctrinating their children with the belief that the police are out to hurt them.

The police deal with this. Every. Single. Day.

Imagine being the officer responding to a call for assistance today from a person who spit in your face yesterday. It happens all the time.

Think about what that’s like for a minute and then try that at your job. Gather up all of the people who don’t like you, conspire against you, undermine your work or authority, and do their best to make your life miserable. Put them all in a room, and then give them permission to talk openly and to your face about how much they hate you, hope you get fired, wish your dog dead, or even worse – because you know they’re thinking it – would like to slash your tires or put drain cleaner in your coffee. Now smile, help them in and out of their chairs, hold open the door, make sure no one falls on their way back to their office.

Sound like a fun way to spend 8 hours a day, every day? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

But the police don’t have the luxury of refusing service, even to people who hate them. It’s their job to show up when you call, whether you like them or not, whether they like you or not, and make sure you’re safe.

The truth is that unless you are a police officer, are married to a police officer, or have a child, parent, or sibling who is a police officer you have no idea what it’s really like to be a police officer.

But you have the right to judge and speculate and bitch and moan.

And then call 911 when you need help.

And a cop will show up.

That’s the job, folks.

Mathematically, the probability is small that a police officer will be killed in the line of duty. But the possibility is there every time a cop gets a call. No one knows what’s behind the next corner, closed door, dark alley.

Or amidst a peaceful protest.

I pray for the men and women in blue who go out every day and do their jobs, with honor.

Be safe out there. And thank you.

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