Sunday, December 13, 2015

Say What?! - Stairway to Heaven

When I was at the dump yesterday I looked through the collection of books looking for a new home. One that was there was 'The Boy's King Arthur' by Sidney Lanier, illustrated by the great and wonderful N.C. Wyeth. And inside I found a perfect Say What? Enjoy!

Apologies to Arthur Scribner's Son, Sidney Lanier and N.C. Wyeth.
Original caption "King Mark slew the noble knight Sir Tristan as he sat harping before his lady le Belle Isolde". Nothing to do with playing the classics in a guitar store!

Other Say What?!
all of them (to date) are here:

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Epics! In particular, the Ramayana

When one writes a blog, one wonders if anyone reads it. If no one comments, or checks one of boxes, you have no idea - unless you check the stats. If you have been looking over my blog you may have seen three copies of the Ramayana our on my 'books read this year' list. I finished my latest copy last week. And this week bought a new copy!

Hanuman, Shatrughna, Rama, Sita, Bharata, Lakshmana
Over this summer and up into this October I have been reading the Ramayana. I read it a while ago, specifically the Penguin Classic Shortened Modern Prose version of the Indian Epic by R.K. Narayan. I was not a big fan of it then. I gave it another shot this summer, but something seemed missing. I watched a cartoon movie, more to figure out how to pronounce the names, and discovered there was a lot missing. I bought Ramesh Menon's Ramayana, A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic, published by North Point Press. There was a lot missing in the Penguin version, I discovered. Then I bought Bulbul Sharma's Ramayana for Children. That had more of the story in it than the Penguin edition. This is not to put down the Penguin Classic, I just did not enjoy the style. Maybe because it had to be so short, it became choppy, or because of the missed sections caused it not to flow as well as it might have.

So what IS the Ramayana? It is not just an Epic poem (the above mentioned retellings are all in English prose), but a treatise on life, on dharma. Dharma, in this case, is about your life's path, or fate, and being true to your path and yourself. At least as a high level overview. The Ramayana and Uttra Kanda (the Kanda is what we might call verses or book, and there are seven in this wonderful story) are worshiped by brahmans and the most holy of rishis. The Sanskrit version is about 24,000 verses long, 500 cantos, and in 7 books - the Kandas.

The basic story is of a ten-headed rakshasa demon king called Ravana. He prays for penance and in his praying he gains boons from the gods Brahma and Siva, but these boons, or gifts make him invincible to all but monkeys and humans. Ravana believes they are both too puny to be of any threat to him. The devas (deities) go to Brahma and Siva to ask for help as Ravana wants to take over the three worlds - the above, the below, and this plane we live on - but as they gave Ravana the boons there is nothing they can do. Vishnu says he will be born as a human and defeat Ravana.

Rama is born - the 7th avatar of Vishnu. Rama is one of four sons born to the three wives of their father. They live happily in Ayodhya. Sadly, Rama is cast out from his home, due to political family shenanigans, for 14 years. His new wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana go with him. They fight many adversaries and live in the quiet of the forests of India while Rama's brother Bharata rules reluctantly.

Unfortunately Ravana's demon sister Soorpanakha shows up at Rama and Sita's ashram and tries to take Rama away. She is disguised as a beautiful woman. Rama and Lakshmana refuse and after Soorpanakha sees Sita and realizes she has lost, turns into her demon form. Seeing this, Lakshmana cuts off her nose to get rid of her. Soorpanakha goes to Ravana and tells her brother what happened. Well, her version of events. Ravana goes to seek revenge but when he sees Sita, falls in love with her. Ravana tricks both Rama and Lakshmana away from their home and Ravana steals Sita away.

This is when things go bad for Ravana. All the evil deeds he has done over his extraordinarily long life begin to come back to haunt him - massive karma! To try and keep things here short, Rama and Lakshmana go searching for Sita. The king of the birds who tried to save Sita, is found by the brothers and tells them who took Rama's wife away and the direction he took her in.

The brothers come into the kingdom of the vanara - monkey people - help Sugriva become king of the vanara over his brother who has sworn not to fight against Ravana. With Sugriva and the great champion Hanuman, the vanara go in search of Sita. When they reach the southern shore of India, Hanuman leaps to the island of Lanka to see if Sita is there. She is. He has a token from Rama which he gives to Sita who is overjoyed to find her husband is still looking for her. Sita will not go with Hanuman because she wants no one else but her husband to touch her. So Hanuman returns to the main land and tells Rama of his wife's whereabouts.

Because of travel, monsoons, and other issues it is now almost a year since Sita had been kidnapped by Ravana. With the help of the sea god (who Rama nearly destroys), the vanara, the bear people led by Jambavaan, the brothers build a bridge to Lanka and a huge battle ensues.

Many of Ravana's family are killed, including his son Indrajit who was one of the best rakshasa warriors. Sita is returned to her husband. Because she has spent a year on Lanka as a prisoner of Ravana, many of the army say that Sita is no longer pure, that she must have succumb to the wiles of Ravana, as have all woman of all beings he had taken. Rama has her walk into a fire, an agnihotra, and the fire god Agni comes out of the flames asking why she had been sent to burn, that even her thoughts had been pure and only for Rama. All those present hear this and are overjoyed.

But wait! There's more!

Sita and Rama are reunited and return with Lakshmana to their home in Ayodhya. The 14 years are up. Bharata is glad to give up kingship. Rama and Sita are crowned. The people are thrilled. Things go well for a time, but rumors begin to spread. The people of Ayodhya think that Sita cannot be pure, because of Ravana. Rama casts her out to live at an ashram where a great sage, a powerful rishi - Valmiki lived. Sita lives in the women's ashram. She is pregnant with Rama's seed and gives birth to twin boys.

When the now young boys come across Rama and it is discovered who they all are, a great feast and sacrifice is to be held. Sita is sent for as the boys sing the Ramayana, as taught to them by Valmiki. When Sita arrives with the great sage, Valmiki, she says: "If I have not loved any other man but Rama, if I have worshiped only Rama in both my thoughts and deeds, then let my mother, Bhumi Devi, now receive me in her embrace." The earth opens up and Sita disappears into the ground on the throne of her Earth Goddess mother. The boys sing the final Kanda the next day and tell of the future and the success of Rama's rule.

Many, many years later, a rishi enters the palace to talk to Rama alone. He says that none can hear what he has to say, and no one is to enter the room while he is with Rama. Anyone disturbing them would have to be killed by Rama's own hand. Lakshmana guards to make sure none enter, knowing of the fate of any who enter. The rishi tells Rama it is time for his life to pass and tells Rama his history and creation story, that he is the avatar of Vishnu.

As this conversation is going on another rishi arrives and demands to be seen by Rama. Lakshmana tells Rishi Durvasa to wait. Durvasa is known for his power and his short temper and threatens Lakshmana and Rama and their brothers and sons with a curse. Knowing what will happen to him, but also knowing that doing this will save his brothers and nephews, he enters the room. Durvasa is treated well, fed and he leaves.

Rama cannot bring himself to kill Lakshmana and prepares to die. Lakshmana is sent away. To Lakshmana this is as if Rama had killed him. Indra himself came down to take Lakshmana to the other world awaiting him. As the word spreads that Rama will soon give up his life, the rakshasas who helped Rama win his battle over Ravana, the bear people, and the vanara came to be part of the ceremony.

As the news spread over Ayodhya the people came out crying. They rose like a tide before Rama and told him they would follow him to the after life. Sugriva, the rakshasas, and vanaras, said they too would follow Rama. And so it was.

There is so much more to this tale, this poem. I have summed up what I read in three books in a few lines. The original Sanskrit epic poem was 24,000 verses long, as I wrote earlier. The characters are full, rounded, filled with life and all the emotions and drive we have. The locations are real. It is said that Lanka is actually what we now call Sri Lanka.

Ravana is one of the nastiest pieces of work ever portrayed, but he does what he does for himself and his people. Or at least one can see that in some of his actions. Does this make him a good 'demon'? No, of course not. Is Rama being a complete numpty having his wife do a trial by fire? I think he has to have her do it. He believes in her innocence, after all he is the avatar of Vishnu, but Rama has to prove to others that their future queen is pure after living in Ravana's home for a year. Rama hopes this proves beyond doubt the greatness of Sita.

Rama and Ravana are not the only ones who worship Sita. Hanuman and Lakshmana also show love for her and with that love, the greatest respect and honor. In some ways, Hanuman and Lakshmana are every bit as pure as Sita and Rama, even better than Rama in some aspects. Lakshmana always brings Rama around when the king doubts himself. He is the rock for Rama.

Sita is abducted, and held prisoner, but she is a powerful woman. She decides to go into exile with her husband into the wilds. She helps set up home, when they end their travels over India. She refuses Ravana, the Rakshasa King - no small feat when you know what he is like and what his past is! When Sita is driven to the forest to live at Rishi Valmiki's ashram, she does not fall apart but teaches her sons all they need to know to be future kings. She is a powerhouse.

Hanuman is an extraordinary character, and one of my favorites. One of the Kandas is the story of Hanuman's journey to Lanka and is the only Kanda which does not have Prince Rama in it. Hanuman is another who doubts himself at the beginning, but becomes who he really is - the son of the wind, with amazing powers. Although in his youth he was a bit of a rapscallion, when his powers (which he does not understand at that point) are taken from him, he becomes one of the greatest students of the vanara and one of the most knowledgeable. He learns to use his powers wisely and justly and does not let this strength he has go to his head. When only part of the Ramayana is told, it is usually this Kanda, the Sundara Kanda which is told, and it is said that the telling of this part also imparts blessings on the venue and on to the people where it is told.

Ravana's family is large, with brothers and sisters and sons. Each have their own power, their own character. One of Ravana's brothers, Vibhishan, keeps warning Ravana that his abduction of Sita is wrong and he should stop and ask forgiveness. Vibhishan is so adamant about this, Ravana calls his brother a traitor and casts him out of Lanka. Exiled like Rama was. Ravana's brother goes to help Rama he is so disgusted with the Rakshasa King.

If you have never read the Ramayana, do so. It is worth the read. If you want a full, but quick read, I would highly recommend the sadly out of print Ramayana for Children, by Bulbul Sharma. If you want to go deeper and read all the grim, gruesome adult stuff which is left out of the kids version, then of the versions I have thus far read, try Ramesh Menon's The Ramayana, a modern retelling of the Great Indian Epic.

If you are Indian, or Hindi, I would love to have a conversation with you about this epic poem. Are there versions I should get my hands and eyes on that are better than the three I have? I would love to learn about it, and make sure I can pronounce the names as properly as I can! I want to learn from it. Give me a shout!

This is a great and complex tale which cannot be told in a blog post! It cannot be fully told in Menon's 686 pages I am sure! I hope I have whetted your whistle and got you interested in reading something that has been around since the 4th or 5th century, BCE and captures a way of thinking about what is right, being honest, allowing your emotions to be seen, being able to be strong without being over powering, and is a cracking good story!

Thanks for reading this!

Monday, September 07, 2015

Dilemmas of an Audio Book Narrator

Dilemma - there's a word for you.
There are many in our lives, some large (needing a new car), others small (like the space key on my Toshiba L755 constantly sticking.
I know many people who have come to me saying: "A friend says I have a really good voice and I should do audio books." Someone said it to me and for years I did not believe any of them! Then I did a workshop, and another and thought, why the heck not? I had no idea, so I went for it and did it!

Here are a few things/dilemmas you need to think about before looking at a 2nd career in book narration!
You may have the best voice, but how well can you read out loud? How accurate are you when you read, because when you do audio books, the words you record into a microphone need to be exactly the same words that are on the page.
Noisy neighbours?

Do you have a soundproof room?
Do you have a GOOD microphone? (I mean a professional mic. Not something picked up at Best Buy or the now defunct Radio Shack, recommended by a spotty teenager.)
Do you have a powerful computer? (A tablet will not do)
Can you isolate the sound of your computer so when you are recording the sound of the hard drive cannot be heard?
Are you on a busy street?
Does your neighbor come and go on a loud motorcycle, or frequently work on their muscle car or truck?
Do they often have parties?
Is there a garage band next door?
Do you have pets that will scratch or bark at the door whilst you work?
Does a neighbor have chickens?
Do you like in suburbia where in the summer there is the frequent sound of mowers?
In the winter, is there a lot of shoveling to do?
Do you have or want to invest in a good Digital Audio Workshop (DAW) such as StudioOne, Pro Tools, Audition  (an annual subscription for the latter)?
Do you want to learn new computer skills using said DAW to edit the work you record?

Window so your partner knowsyou are still working and not asleep!
There is a fair amount of investment of both time and money in this business. A professional sound proof booth will cost, at the very least for a plastic booth, upward of $400.00. A basic soundproofed and isolated studio 'room' (see left) will cost at least $2,000.00. And if you want to drop that money, you need the space to be able to put a TARDIS in your home!

I have been doing this for a few years now and I am still learning, a lot. One is: do not take on a large book for royalty only. I am currently recording (well, I would be if the mowers weren't running on this glorious Labor Day) what should be a 19 hour book. This should take me about four times that to record and edit - 76 hours, but that does not include time waiting for mowers to stop, cars to pass by, dogs to stop barking, rain to stop rushing down the gutters. If I got paid $100 per finished hour, that works out to $25.00 per hour - not including the mowers, dogs, etc. As a lump sum, it is not too shabby. Royalty split takes a LONG time to make that kind of money back, if ever on a book that length, unless it sells really well. It's a gamble. These are all the things one needs to take into consideration.

Other things to think about:
There are re-reads. When editing your own work, you will find you mis-said a word. Last night I misread grandpa as grandma. I caught it at the time, but one doesn't always hear these things as you record. You might think you don't do that, but think about the occasions when someone tells you: "you mean...". And you come back with, "that's what I said!" They then say: "No it wasn't!" The brain is a funny thing, or at least mine is! Maybe in the moment you mispronounce a word. Reading a story about the Czech Republic? Better start researching the words you are unfamiliar with!
The weather. You have a deadline and then there are three days of rain storms, or snow days and the kids need your attention.
You get sick, or lose your voice.
You need to be fit. Some sentences can be really long and you need a good set of lungs to read them! You will also need to look after your back as you sit at a microphone for hours on end. (Take breaks every two hours and stretch!)

To make a real career reading books is a rare thing. You have to be good, you have to work quickly and accurately so there is little to edit, or re-record. You need a good room to record in and make it sound dead - no sound bouncing off the walls. (Take all the towels and robes down in a bathroom and compare the sound with when the towels and robes are up all over the room, or compare an empty bathroom to your bedroom with the closet doors open.) If you don't have that, then you need to make and put up false walls to stop the sound, or most of it, from getting through and prevent sound reflection.

All the above are just things to consider. Dilemmas. I really enjoy what I do and have fun with it. I get to read books I would not normally choose to read. I get to read authors I have never heard of before. I get to discover amazing books like 'By Night Under the Stone Bridge" by Leo Perutz and "A Faithful Man" by Robert Elkin. The results are enjoyed by those who commission me to work for them. I enjoy doing the research on some books, or discovering I have been mispronouncing a word all my life (okay, that's not so much fun), or at least have a regional version of how a word would be said.

So this morning, this glorious Labor Day, instead of being shut up in my small office, dark from the sound-proofing, and stuffy for its doors being shut, recording this great book with marvelous characters, I get to sit outside listening to the hammer and saw of a project over the road, the mowers going off down the street, while drinking my tea in the shade and writing this blog as I watch a runner plod by with pain on his face, covered in sweat. (Now read that sentence out loud in one go!)

Happy Labor Day everyone!
(It's time for me to go indoors and record. The mowers have stopped and the project completed - I hope.)


Friday, August 07, 2015

Personal stories: why there is a place for them and why I don't!

A few days ago I was asked to tell a personal story, one about moving here to the states. I did. Move to the States, but also tell the story! It was not really a story, but a few recollections put together in the moment with a few people – all adults. Never thought about it before, just did it. Most likely sounded like it too! But I added some humor, and might work on it a little!

Then today I was asked by a person who attended one of my workshops more about personal stories. I don’t normally tell them. I have seen some awful personal storytellers and I have seen brilliant personal storytellers. I first heard Meg Gilman who set the bar pretty bloody high, so others need to be very much on, A-Game. I used to go to a lot of poetry slams when I lived in Portland, Oregon, and having to sit through the psychotherapy poems which should only have been heard by a therapist to get to the good and great works got too much for me. I feel the same with the Moth. All the stories are brilliantly told, but some of the stories are not anything I feel the teller would want to share with the whole Western world!

These exposures of intimate, personal life, be it in poems or story have left a shadow over me about doing my own personal stories. Why bother, I think, when the older, folk and faerie tales, the myths and legends are so much better – or at the very, very least have been told for thousands of years for a reason – they are so good they won’t go away! How many personal stories or poetry slams are like that? How many will be told in some form 50 years from now? How many BOOKS will be in print still then? Get my point? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against really good personal storytellers and their work, I love what they do, and enjoy it. I just choose not to do it myself, except in my teaching role or in very rare moments like yesterday.

As with poetry, there is I believe, a real issue with personal stories. Some personal stories when told, feel really good for the teller/performer. They think they are sharing a powerful story (true on many counts) but these same powerful stories leave the listener extremely uncomfortable. At those times the lesson (if there is one) and story is lost because people want to forget about what they heard, they cannot take on the weight or emotion of that story. It was too personal for them and not crafted in a way that gave the power, or message, and instead only rawness.

Photo by Simon Brooks

I recently led a workshop for adults, and it was interesting that the men mostly chose to tell personal stories which were filled with action, and stories that had humor. The women of the group told very personal tales rich with emotion and feeling. One of these emotional stories was on the right side of the edge of raw. It was just balanced enough to work, thank goodness, and was told in such a way and with great compassion, the story came out filled with meaning. It was a story of the loss of a child. It could have been too much, too raw. This participant was struggling with which story to tell. The one we worked on was great, but also quite raw, and we talked about the motivation of such a story - what is the REASON for sharing the tale/experience. The other story, the one eventually told, was not one she and I worked on. Both memoirs were very powerful. There is a fine and delicate line, I believe. The teller needs to know WHY they are telling it and needs to look very carefully and deeply at the answer. It is too easy for a very personal story becoming something like a therapy session for the teller, and an agony and embarrassment for the listener! The teller wants to create empathy with the listeners and not make the audience so uncomfortable they want to forget what they heard, or leave. (Also see my blog on telling the wrong story to wrong audience.) There is art in this craft, and both the women tellers nailed it at the performance.

It takes deep searching when stories are raw and keen-edged, if you will. If the are considered being told one needs to make sure the tale can be presented with a purpose of teaching or positive sharing and not as self-indulgent therapy. There is much to be learned from each others stories. By sharing our personal stories we find empathy and understanding with each other.

Photo by Simon Brooks
As an immigrant myself, getting kids in schools where there is a high population of immigrants to share their experiences gives the students a chance to let people know why they came to the States, or what horrors, or such poor living standards they left behind. Kids who are bullied can tell stories to let others know how it makes them feel in a way their peers can understand. Racism, sexism, all those negative ‘isms’ are bullying. We need more empathy.  In this age where real personal connection is so greatly lacking, it is easy to tell too much too soon, putting all of yourself out there. This is not always a good thing, as I have found out in the past. Information can be power in the wrong hands!

As a race of silly old human beings we need to know we are all the same ("If you prick us, do we not bleed?/if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison/us, do we not die?"-William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1) – now more than ever. We are people with our own pain and hurts, our own griefs and grieving, our own foibles and fancies, and we need to know we are not alone in all this; our stories are different yet connect us to each other and the world we live in. We need to do it artfully and thoughtfully, and, as with most things, we also need to listen with compassion.