Storytelling

2632 Words

2632 words. That’s how long the short story I’ve been writing is, as of the current draft. A couple years ago, I was sick of having a billion ideas, mostly stories, and no way to use them. I was highly versed in filmmaking and screenwriting, but the limitations with those mediums meant my ideas would never face the scrutiny of the world-at-large. Sure I could pass around a screenplay, but how many of you read scripts–more importantly, how many know how to read the script structure?

To get a feel for my handicap, I’ll admit that the simple act of writing an email at work would cause me to tense up with fear. Fear that my crappy grammar and inability to notice the most basic spelling errors would forever paint me as a fraud. Like most challenges I’ve faced in my life, I took it head on.

Books on grammar, writing and craft filled my Kindle. Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, Eats Shoots and Leaves, countless Grammar Girl books. The list goes on. The biggest thing I needed to learn was that writing wasn’t the magical spell of inspiration non-writers assume but, like all the other types of art I’ve dabbled with, the key was in refining. Or in this case, editing.

I started by trying to find a voice. I posted on my blog analyzing various subjects I was interested in, but I quickly learned that interest in a subject didn’t exactly equate to expertise in a subject. I found myself going months without posting because the time needed to research the things I wanted to write about was hard to come by. Hence those “Where has Ronnie been?” updates. Still, I was receiving a great response from the few people who were reading my articles and my confidence was growing. I’d eventually be invited to write on Medium when it was still in beta.

I was excited to say the least. The buzz surrounding the new platform meant my stuff would be read by complete strangers. Folks who wouldn’t shy away from telling me to not quit my day job. Luckily I was never told that and last year my day job revolved around writing. And thanks to Medium’s stats, I was gaining confidence by knowing how engaging my writing was to others. My read ratio, the amount of people who read and finish my stories, was over 90%.

I started writing my yet-to-be named short story a few weeks ago after reading a writing prompt on Reddit. It was finished in a day, but because I had written it out by hand releasing it into the wild was impossible. Over the next few weeks the handwritten manuscript was transcribed. But in before I finished, inspiration struck and I wrote the story recalling the last day I spent with my little brother before he passed. After I wrote it, I spent around ten minutes editing it before I published it on Medium.

Since it was published, its read ratio hasn’t budged 40%. I can tell you why and you probably already know. It’s the same reason you won’t see my 2632 word short story yet. Because I want to refine it. Because I have to refine it or risk no one reading it through. That’s a hard thing to do.

With that said, I’m going to go refine it.

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New Orleans

The Choices We Make – A Refugee Story

This was originally posted on Medium — https://medium.com/the-refugees/7c5f8c0435c3

Four years ago today, I thought my life couldn’t get any better. Two weeks before, I had made a rush decision. One I’d later consider to the best I’ve ever made and probably will for life. Seconds after Garrett Hartley kicked it through the uprights and sent the New Orleans Saints to their first ever Super Bowl, I rushed into my bedroom to grab my laptop. A minute later my phone started ringing. It was my brother, Randy.

Neither of us felt it was the appropriate time to exchange greetings. The only choice was to repeatedly say something like, “Holy shit… Holy shit… Dude… The Saints are going to the fucking Super Bowl.” After a pause, it was time to spring the surprise on him.

Clicking the confirmation button, I asked, “Guess what?”
“Huh?”
“I just bought a flight. I’m coming home to watch the game with you and dad.”

So many things made it the right choice. Too many actually. But if I had to list a few, I’d start with the smiling fella working behind the counter at the airport rental car place. Then the elderly black woman I ran into on Decatur Street after the game, tears running down her face saying, “I believe I wanna be in that number!” We hugged like an old friends who hadn’t seen one another for a decade or more. It could have also been seeing my dad’s smile after the game ended, who despite rarely drinking, held his champagne glass high making sure he toasted everyone at the party.

One thing trumps it all. Although I wouldn’t realize it until three months later. In May of 2010, my brother died in a car accident. When I traveled from San Francisco to watch the Saints play in the Super Bowl with him, it would be the last time we’d see one another. 

That morning before the game, he pulled up to my parent’s house and got out pulling a few loads of laundry from the back cab of his truck. This was the routine, as his apartment in Hammond didn’t have a washer or dryer. My parents were living in Slidell now. After losing everything in Chalmette, the desire to return to St. Bernard Parish simply wasn’t there. After all, many of her closest friends—her safety net—moved out here. I’m certain none of them ever thought they’d live there, too. They say you can remove someone from Da Parish, but you can’t remove Da Parish from them. I guess you could say that’s why I convinced my dad and brother to watch the game with friends in Chalmette.

Throughout the game, our party was exactly as you’d imagine it to be. Lots of folks catching up while I introduced everyone to my girlfriend from San Francisco. By the time it was over, everyone’s cheeks were rosy. Mine were hurting. We had to go out to celebrate and there was only one proper place to go: the French Quarter.

Mardi Gras was around the corner, but the streets were never packed like there were that night. Strangers from all walks of life high fived as they passed one another. Cars strolling through the crowd blared music while their passengers hung out windows to join in the camaraderie. The smiles on everyone’s faces were gleaming; happiness was everywhere. Someone grabbed my shoulder and turned my attention to Electric Ladyland Tattoo Shop. It was Randy.

“Let’s go get it now.” he said.

Earlier in the day at Winn-Dixie, while stocking up on booze, we made a pact. If our boys won the game, we’d both get fleur-de-lis tattoos.

“I’m gonna get it on my ankle.” he said. I was undecided. I was on board with the tattoo, but not its location. Our flight back to California was midday tomorrow anyway. Being the good brothers we were, we shook on it, agreeing that the next time I was in town the ink would become permanent.

Eventually we called it a night. Slidell was a much longer drive than Da Parish. The following morning he woke me up to tell me I better head out sooner than I had planned. They had just announced what time the Saint’s flight would arrive and it was the same time as ours.

“Why does that mean we have to leave early?” asked my girlfriend.

Easy for her to say. She grew up in the city by the bay during the 80s and 90s. New Orleanians had been greeting their team at the airport after away games since before we were born—even when they lost. And if they did it after a loss, you can be damned sure they’d be doing it after a Super Bowl victory.

Randy was headed back to Hammond in an attempt to catch his first class of the day.

“What nutty professor has class after the Saints Super Bowl?” It was a rhetorical question, but I still felt it was a valid one. Standing in our parent’s kitchen, we pulled one another in for a bro hug. After exchanging I Love Yous, he grabbed his laundry and left.

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A few weeks later he sent me a photo of two Maker’s Mark bottles, except the wax seal on their bottle necks weren’t red, they’re black and gold. A message followed saying one of them was mine and it wasn’t to be opened the next Saints Super Bowl.

While I’ve looked forward to opening it every year, I know the moment could never be as sweet as it was four years ago. Besides, when that day comes and the bottle of Maker’s has fulfilled its purpose—I’ll have kept my promise. Just like I did when I got a fleur-de-lis on my ankle shortly after his funeral four years ago .

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Storytelling

Struggling with the Need to Belong after Hurricane Katrina

This was originally posted on Medium.

 

What is a refugee?

Had you asked prior to August 29th, 2005, I would have painted a picture with broad, distant strokes portraying, only through imagination, a group of Cubans in a converted nautical 1951 Chevy pickup traveling at a painfully slow seven knots toward what they hoped was Florida. After Hurricane Katrina devastated and disrupted the lives of my family, friends, and community, that all began to change. Eight years later, I struggle with my need to belong and the definition of home.

The need to belong ranks third on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Right after the need to eat, breathe, sleep, be healthy, and mortality. The concept of home is essential to our need for belonging. Unless you were a military brat, we all grew up somewhere. There is a fixed point on the map that we call home. For me, that place was St. Bernard Parish. I was born in the next-door-parish of Orleans, but St. Bernard was where I learned to ride a bike, go to school, have my first kiss, and play in a garage band. I always knew that I’d leave, though — explore new places and cultures — but I never once imagined there would be no home to go back to.

I certainly never thought I’d be a refugee. That distantly vague mental picture symbolized by Cuban tragedy suddenly became personal.

Before I continue, though, I’d like to acknowledge some of the most horrific losses during Hurricane Katrina that affected tens of thousands of people, if not more. They were the neighbors and friends. The loved ones. The brothers and sisters. Cousins, aunts, and uncles. Sons and daughters. Husbands and wives. Moms and dads. Their lives will never be forgotten — I will never forget that. Neither should anyone else. Natural disasters can destroy communities, relationships, and entire cities, and many of us will have to endure that pain at some point in our lifetimes.

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I was one of the fortunate. I didn’t lose anyone—just my home and my possessions. The nostalgic videos of Christmas mornings, photos of generations gone by, and personal, one-of-a-kind items were the hardest to swallow. I was able to put things in perspective because there were others who were much worse off than me—those stranded at the Superdome—those trapped in the Morial Convention Center—those trapped on their roofs waiting for help. I’ve always had a knack for internalizing the positive even in the most dire of circumstances. Although many died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many were saved, and although the response to that disaster has been the subject of debate and criticism, the crystallized view of humanity that emerged from the stories of survivors and impacted communities was bittersweet in hope and despair in the months and years following Hurricane Katrina.

Some might say I was lucky. I moved to San Francisco, met a beautiful girl, moved to New York City to work in film, and moved back to San Francisco for the beautiful girl. All of these things were not possible if it weren’t for Katrina. Yet, each time I returned home, something was missing. Something didn’t feel right.

Eventually, I figured it out. So did a lot of people.

Like me, Steven Hoffmann was a native of St. Bernard. After graduating high school in 1997, he joined the United States Air Force. During his enlistment, he said, “I couldn’t wait to move back.” After all, it was home. If you moved away from that fixed point on the map, you might understand his feelings. Even if you didn’t love where you’re from, it’s still familiar. When you went home, you ran into familiar faces at the grocery store, ate at familiar restaurants, and maybe even felt grounded. When Steven finally returned home in 2010, everything had changed. “Things changed. People didn’t seem as nice. Going to the grocery store was different.” The close knit community of “Da’ Parish,” as its lovingly referred to locally, used to be a breathing, living thing. It was by all means its own culture.

When Katrina flooded all but 8 of the 27,000 homes in St. Bernard Parish, it acted as an indirect genocide of our hometown. The social fabric of the parish drowned. The compounded effects of a little known hurricane named Rita caused residents to be homeless for months. For some, the easiest way to cope was to move on. Homes in the surrounding parishes were being purchased for more than their worth. The northern neighbor of St. Bernard, St. Tammany Parish, was jokingly called St. Tammanard because of the newly merged population.

When the media began to refer to us as Katrina refugees, I cringed. After all, we were still Americans. We weren’t refugees from other countries. But as our family, friends, and communities began to scatter, the core of who we were was fading away. Home was growing distant in the rearview mirror of our collective exodus. Nicole Bauer LaCava lived her entire life in Chalmette and says this is what she lost the most.

“Our family, friends, and everything we needed used to be literally two minutes away. Now we can’t have a family gathering without someone traveling at least an hour.”

After I moved away, I noticed how deep my relationship with home was when I’d visit. My arrival in New Orleans would spark a frenzy of messages and phone calls—all wanting to get together and catch up. Had Katrina never happened, this would have been an easy task, but with everyone having been displaced to surrounding cities and parishes, it was a logistical nightmare. My brother was in Hammond, my parents were in Slidell, one group of friends were in Metairie, some were in St. Bernard, and others were in Covington. Each of these places was an hour or more away from one another. Add the conflicting responsibilities of kids, jobs, and other obligations then you begin to realize how getting everyone together could be considered an Olympic sport.

Some of us were determined to make it back to Da’ Parish. Folks like Tiffany Clement Andrisani.

“I was one of the people who couldn’t wait to get back to St. Bernard after the storm. We bought a fixed up house in Meraux. I lasted about two years. I just couldn’t do it. The home that I knew was no longer there. The place lacked character. In place of all the home grown businesses that we had grown up with were a bunch of generic, throw ‘em up quick places mixed with the big chains coming in with their new and shiny buildings. Nothing held memories. I can still drive down Judge Perez today and feel like I don’t know where I am.”

Tiffany now lives in Long Island, Nicole lives in Jefferson Parish, and Steven lives in St. Tammany. It took us a while to realize what we really lost in Katrina. What remains of the St. Bernard Parish we knew and loved can only be found in our hearts and souls. And if home is where the heart is, there are stories to be told.

The memories we can never show you will be our burden to carry for the rest of our lives. At least we still have those, right?

You can call us flood victims or survivors. Heck, you can even call us displaced—but without a place to call home, may as well call us the refugees. No matter what name you give us, whether you love or loathe your home — I hope you’ll be grateful that you still have one.

 

 

Eight years ago today, Katrina’s strong winds and storm surges affected the lives of many on the Gulf Coast. My story is one of many, so please find yours and tell it.

Thank you to Swede White, Tiffany Andrisani, Christopher Ard, Carlyn Leeds, Steven Hoffmann, Brandon Cressy, and Nicole LaCava for your contributions.

To the people who grew up in St. Bernard Parish, this is for you … and ya mamma n dem.

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Thoughts

A Penny For Their Thoughts: Our Privacy and The New Illiterate

This was originally posted on Medium

“How’d you know my name?” – Everyone who’s forgotten about their name tag

Pretext

Visual literacy is the blanket term for the ability to understand all forms of communication, be it written, spoken, graphical, or even non-verbal. The ability to use any form of communication gives us access to a world of knowledge and information. The literate control the gateways to information, which in turn influence our perception and ideas about the world around us.

Today, gross misunderstanding surrounding the nature of media and the resignation of our private lives are creating chasms in our society and deepening new forms of illiteracies. To explain, let’s start with a field trip to the fifteenth century.

“Knowledge is Power” – Sir Francis Bacon

The Rise of Reading Literacy

Almost six hundred years ago, the world was turned upside down when one great idea disrupted the establishment. Before Gutenberg’s printing press, the feudal aristocracy used the religious doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church to retain their power. Bibles were for the wealthy and, like masses, were in Latin. Access to the wealth of knowledge contained in the Bible was subject to translation from a chosen few , namely the leaders of the Church and elite members of the European nobility who could read it. That was until Johannes’s invention sparked a printing revolution.

The mass production of the Bible contributed to a large-scale translation from Latin into common languages, which led to variants of interpretation. Followers of the Church were no longer slaves to information asymmetry and suddenly were aware that Jesus was a simple man who rejected wealth. Threatened by the tides of change, the Church did the most obvious thing – made the printing and possession of unauthorized prints a crime. It was too late. The printing revolution was under way and the mass production of the written word brought forth the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning the Renaissance. The Church was now waging a multi-front war against the democratization of its holy scripture and the ever-growing field of science and the divinity of Kings was being called into question.

“All men by nature desire to know.” – Aristotle

Save The Twinkie, Take My Privacy

As of 2011, eighty-four percent of adults in the world could read and write. The printed word transformed from pulp and ink to a cathode ray tube and then to light emanating diodes and e-ink. The act of reading also evolved, moving from the bounded book to newsprint, from glossy magazine pages to the phone in your pocket. In that time, the world got richer during the Golden Age of Capitalism. With money flowing from one corner of the globe and back, the advent of multimedia advertising began to inch a little closer into our private lives until one day … we decided to give them away. Without notice, our identities became a commodity to use in the marketplace. Fill out this form with your name, home address, and telephone number and you could win a fancy car or your dream home!

As information storage shifted from physical media to binary code in the postliterate world, signing away our identity was a click away. And we’re getting a bargain too! Companies no longer gave out coupons or promises of an all-expenses-paid vacation in exchange for viewing a timeshare property, now they let us use their products and services for free. All they need is our email address, name, date of birth, location, mother’s maiden name, list of friends, and our whereabouts by the hour.

I’ve met an overwhelming amount of people who believe their favorite social network, email service or blog is free. Even those aware of the transaction feel the price is fair. I mean, why not? Afterall, we get to keep in touch with friends, express our opinions in the comment field, and rally to bring the Twinkie back from death row – all on our mobile phone or tablet (while sitting on the loo). Yet, a lot of us are alarmingly unaware that every tweet, check-in, or photo of the hors d’oeuvres we’re devouring is another transaction exchanging privacy for #SundayFunday – each bit of shared life sent to a server farm to be laundered into cold hard cash. The inability to see this is digital illiteracy and if we can’t see the transaction, it’s almost certain we won’t be able to read the receipt. It might as well be in Greek … or Latin … or more likely, binary code.

Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

The New Illiteracies

It’s one thing to not understand we’ve been handing over our private lives to corporations, but the lack of awareness surrounding how this information is used to influence our perception and shape our ideas has led to a pandemic in media illiteracy.

Last year Google alone made a cool forty-three billion dollars, ninety percent of their revenue, from selling our information to advertisers and businesses in the form of demographic profiles. Do you know your demographic profile? Are you a Beltway Boomer or part of the Winner’s Circle in the Elite Suburbs? Maybe you’re a Young Digitari who lives in a trendy apartment and loves drinking microbrews. This is who we’ve become – an aggregate of our likes and retweets.

The first chapter of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War explains that the commander who considers all factors and calculates the chances of victory is likely to win. Or as Rage Against the Machine so eloquently put it, “Know your enemy.” The war for our attention has become lopsided.

We’ve empowered corporations and advertisers to craft an ungodly accurate message and find the most opportune time and place to say it. Our digital biometric … our digital fingerprint .. has also allowed industry conglomerates to craft the perfect product, meaning if you’re not into Budweiser they can trick you into thinking you support craft brews with Shock Top. Media conglomerates have added to our illusion of choice. Six companies control ninety percent of what we read, watch, or listen to. The media illiterate, whether they’re aware of this or not, see their overflowing choices in media as something that’s been awarded to them in the digital age. Indeed, mass media claims to satisfy individual needs but in order to sell highly-specialized ad space. Cha-ching! The case in point is how one media conglomerate operating thousands of media outlets around the world can shape our entertainment … and our news.

“WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” – the Party, from George Orwell’s 1984

Inside The Corpocracy

In the capitalistic society, we mock the dwindling list of communist governments in the world and their state-run media networks; yet, the illusion of choice doesn’t free us from propaganda. Despite our instincts to seek knowledge in pursuit of truth, we hate being wrong.

We hate being wrong so much that we’ll blatantly ignore information that disputes our beliefs. Continuing to satisfy our individual needs and armed with our demographic profiles, twenty-four-hour news networks shifted their emphasis from basic news reporting to opinion-oriented programs that could analyze the clutter and confirm our bias. Depending on your segment, they know whether to remind us that guns are evil or that the president is going door-to-door, personally, to rip them from our hands. It didn’t help that these shows were indistinguishable from your run-of-the-mill news show, from the “breaking news” set to the luxurious and dapper news correspondents.

It bears repeating: The literate control the gateways to information, which in turn influence our perception and ideas about the world around us. Traditional literacy and the internet have permanently kept us out of the Middle Ages, but the busy pace of life in the twenty-first century causes us to rely on the media to make sense of our oversaturated, hyper-connected world. This transformation in our media consumption reveals itself to be all too familiar, resembling the days when the nobility and the Church were the middle men.

The new illiteracies have created a monster of the general public. Due to our tendency to seek the confirmation bias, we’ve become overconfident and polarized. I read it on the internet and it aligns with my beliefs, so it must be true. Void of healthy skepticism towards media and recognition that our personal data has been used to manipulate us it’s easy to understand how a politician can leave one thinking, “Wow, it was like he really knows what it’s like to be me.”

Despite all of this, I remain an optimist (for better or worse). People like Frank Baker and organizations like UNESCO are advocating and fostering media literacy in education. The digital natives, those who have grown up with the internet their whole lives, will be armed with their twenty-first century skills that could level the playing field of digital literacy the same way Johannes did so long ago.

What do you think?

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Shameless Self Promotion, Uncategorized

Medium, SST, & Other Exciting Things

So I had a few weeks where it seemed like I was writing a new post every other day. Now, suddenly, I haven’t written one in a week. Well like anyone who’s late, I have a ton of excuses.

First is that I have been invited to use Medium. What is Medium? It’s yet another publishing platform, but it has quite a few things that make it unique. It was founded by Ev Williams, the co-founder of Twitter and Blogger, who decided to push publishing platforms into the next step. For the writer, it has a WYSIWYG unlike any other and it allows you to publicly share drafts with collaborators to be your editor-in-chief. For readers, the content is beautifully curated and the reading experience is fresh. It’s fresh because you can comment on individual paragraphs and unlike Tumblr or other blog sites, the sense of community feels bigger.

Does that mean I’ll be posting here less? Hell NO! While Medium is bad to the bone, there are things I can’t do there, such as Where part two of Music Takes Me. Damn. I just reminded myself that I’m overdue on that. It’s okay, I have an excuse! For my first Medium article, I’ve been doing some research, planning, and studying. It’ll be about new literacy in the digital age and you can rest assure that I’ll be cross posting it here.

I’ve also been working on some new developments with Short Story Thursdays. Namely, putting together a quick website and moving us over to a new email address that will make us more legal in our correspondence.

So yeah, busy. I didn’t even mention my day job and my three freelance projects. So if you’ve been reading, sorry for the silence. Until next time, feel free to leave a comment if you’d like to be a collaborator with me on Medium.

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Recommended Reading

“Interesting people often lead surprisingly ordinary lives, but they are not ordinary. What sets them apart is their ability to tell a good story.”

This is a pull quote from Storytellers Have More Fun by Refe Tuma.

I love this piece. Refe Tuma defined the magic and power of storytelling in a clear, concise way. I found a little confirmation bias in his statements about social storytelling, because I use Facebook, Reddit, and this blog to tell stories in a community – which are exactly what he says they are, “a beautiful thing.”

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