Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Judges and the Storyteller

My early life was full of singing. Rounds in the car with my mom and sisters, Christmas carols learning the alto from my mom, The Fireside Book of Folksongs with my sister on the piano, guitar songs around the campfire, high school choir. I always thought I had a pretty good voice.

But I was carrying some judges around with me.


I sang in the chorus at my high school. One day they announced auditions for the lead roles in Oklahoma. Wow, I thought, I’m going to try for this. Maybe I’m good enough. At least I can find out.

They didn’t really say what an audition entailed. I think they assumed we’d done it before. The choir director mentioned where to find the sheet music in the music office, but I didn’t know why he was talking about that. I knew how to prepare.

I spent the week zealously protecting my voice, not going out in the snow to keep from getting a cold.

I thought I was going to be evaluated on how good my voice was. How good? How pure, how exactly on pitch, how pretty. I was going to find out if my voice was good or bad.

Audition day, and the others had all learned a song from the musical. I had no idea you were supposed to do that. I was embarrassed, but the nice music teacher helped me sight-read my way through “People Will Say We’re in Love.” Whew.

The judges

Fast forward to my first voice lessons. I’ve been singing in various contexts all my life. Now I’m starting to perform as a duo with my friend Paul, and I want to bring my singing to a new level. My teacher, Linda Leanne, is the perfect coach for me. She believes in supporting the whole self as you sing: body, emotions, fears, joys, power.

So here I am, in the safe warm studio with Linda smiling at me, trying to sing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” And my heart is in my throat.

Because before I can work on breathing techniques or jazzy style, I have to face those judges.

Who are they? They’re dressed in black. They’re men with stern faces. They’re sitting in a row at a table, ready to mark an X if I’m not good enough. It will either be good or bad—there’s no middle ground.

I sing the song, but I don’t know if it’s good or bad. I’m scared.

And the storyteller

And a revelation: Linda doesn’t tell me if it was good or bad. She asks me, “What do you want people to feel as they listen to you sing this song?”

People? Feel?


Well. I want them to feel wistful. I want them to remember the joy of a past relationship. I want them to laugh a little.

“Try it again.”

And the song that comes out next is completely different. The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea…

Why am I singing? I’m singing to help people feel something. To draw them into my world and take them along with me. To tell a story.

So how is it different?

When I’m standing in front of the judges, even though this mode is named after them, my focus is all on me. I stand stock-still. It’s all about the sound I’m making, this isolated sound. I funnel in on myself, tightening my throat in a desperate attempt to control my voice and make it sound good. When it cracks a bit because I have allergy gunk in my throat, I want to cry. At the end, I barely remember what I was singing.

When I’m the storyteller, even though the mode is named after me, my focus is much wider. Part of me is inside the story: the memory of that dance, the way you changed my life… Part of me is paying attention to my body, to my feet moving on the ground, to my belly holding my power, to my breath moving through my throat. Part of me is meeting eyes in the audience, expressing the feelings to them. It’s all about the energy swirling back and forth, connecting me to my listeners.

And if my voice cracks, it’s very likely to help the mood. To help it. This is unbelievable to me.

Is it good?

That’s not the question. The questions are, “How expressive was I?” “How much did I stay in the story?” What physical and emotional tools can I use to help myself do that? It’s a continuum. There’s always more to learn.

That first lesson was almost three years ago. I continue to joyfully work with Linda Leanne. I’m still playing in that flow of energy between me and my listeners. I’m playing with each word. I’m playing with melody. I’m playing with my face. I’m playing with my body stance.

I’m playing with the stories.

Here’s a story (with my wonderful singing partner Paul accompanying and supporting me). It’s not perfect, though I like it fine. The important thing is that I didn’t sing it for the judges. I sang it for you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Jumping Off a Cliff

Have you ever felt as if you were about to jump off a cliff?
Photo courtesy of Mr. Mystery on Flickr

Adopting a child. Moving to a new town. Diving into a new relationship. Leaving your job to start a new business.

This is very scary stuff. You’re looking out into an expanse of emptiness. You’re preparing as well as you can, but you don’t really know what to prepare for.

You might fail. You might fall.

When I’m in one of these situations, I try to think back to when I used to jump off of cliffs all the time—literally.


As a teenager I did a lot of rock-climbing. It’s been many years, but I can still remember it in my body.

Climbing up tall cliffs also involves getting down. And the way to get down is to jump off the cliff. It’s called rappelling, and it’s one of my favorite things.

Here’s how it goes:

You’re at the top of a tall cliff. The view is amazing—tops of trees, rock formations, distant rivers. If you peek over the edge, it’s straight down. A long way.

You get all strapped into your gear: harness, carabiners, belay rope, helmet. You feel nice and protected, but you start to wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into.
Photo courtesy of Laurel Fan on Flickr

You plant your feet on the very edge of the cliff. With your heels hanging off.

You go through a lovely ritual with the person who’s going to pay out your rope as you go down the cliff. She has a good hold on your rope, and you’re gripping it front and back. You can let it feed, or you can pull sideways to let the carabiner stop it. You have a lot of control.

“On belay.” “Belay on.”

It’s all very well to say you have control, but the next step is to lean back. Back, back, back, until you’re horizontal. Out over the emptiness.

“Ready to rappell.” “Rappell!” “Rappelling.”

And you jump. Out into the air, off the cliff.


The first time I did this, I expected to fall. To fall through the air, or maybe to feel like I was flying. Isn’t that what happens when you jump off a cliff?

Well, no.

Photo courtesy of Madmolecule on Flickr
What happens is that you pay out a little rope and land a few feet down. And what you see is not a vast expanse of frightening sky. You see your feet in their climbing boots, planted reassuringly on the cliff face. There’s an interesting crack in the rock, and some moss growing along its top. The moss has tiny flowers in it.

You take that in, take a deep breath, and then you pay out a little more rope and jump a few more feet down. The jumping feels fun. You and your carabiner are in complete control.
Photo courtesy of Schoop Digital on Flickr

It’s not even slightly scary.

And other cliffs

So…are you facing a metaphorical cliff? Let’s say you’re quitting your day job to start a new business. Risky, exciting, possibility of large failure or larger success. You could use all your savings, disappoint your spouse, embarrass yourself, have to run back to the job you’re hating.

Deep breath. You have your technical gear strapped on: your internet is up and running, your Twitter page is customized, your Wordpress theme is installed. You've done your research. Your support group is ready to belay you. But there’s still a whole lot of sky out there.

And then you jump.

And it’s only a little jump. Just far enough to see, next to your boots on the cliff face, one email to answer. One color to choose for the menu on your website. One piece of free software to download.

One person to help.

You can do this. And the treasures on the way down will be beautiful.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Raw History: Indexing Primary Documents

Most of the books I have indexed are textbooks, encyclopedias, or scholarly books. Secondary documents in their fields, they present information that scholars have researched and organized for their readers.

There are lots of challenges in indexing books like these! I wrote a whole book about that.

But primary documents are a whole different animal.

For the last twenty-six years I’ve been indexing the Foreign Relations series from the U.S. State Department. These volumes are collections of the recently declassified documents of the State Department. Each volume covers a time period (one or several years) and an area of the world or issue (the Middle East, the Soviet Union, foreign aid). And within that very broad topic, the only organization is chronological. Memoranda from the CIA and the National Security Council staff, telegrams from the Secretary of State to the ambassadors in the field, secret planning for summit meetings…they follow each other higgledy-piggledy.

In a volume that’s usually about 900 pages long.

This presents some interesting challenges.

Where’s the topic?

In a textbook, the main topic of a section or chapter is usually in the heading. The Beginnings of Impressionism. The Backwards Flow Chart Method. In a scholarly book, the main topic may be obfuscated under the author’s agenda, but the language provides a path to it. The author wants the reader to know what she’s saying.

But in the minutes of a State Department consultation, the participants know what they’re talking about. Their goal is to communicate with each other, not with us. They’re not thinking about the history scholar reading their words forty years later.

For instance, in my current volume on the energy crisis 1974-1980, I jump into document one to find Henry Kissinger meeting with some people from the Treasury Department. Kissinger says, “Have we all read the paper?” Yes, they havebut I don’t get to, because a footnote says “Not found.” They never say exactly what the paper is about, either. I have to figure out by deduction that it’s a proposal for bilateral contacts with the oil-producing countries.

Shall we do it or not? What is it?

Because these pages document history as it’s made, important events aren’t just presented in finished form. They grow organically out of the fertile soil that is the U.S. foreign relations bureaucracy.

So in my energy crisis book in 1974, a conference of the OPEC countries and the consumer countries comes up in a footnote. France and Saudi Arabia want it. Our State Department people are very dubious. They brush it aside. Then they talk to the French about it some more. Then Saudi Arabia brings it up during a presidential meeting. Meanwhile they’re spending a lot of energy trying to get the consumer countries to coordinate their conservation efforts. The French make a formal proposal. Everybody wonders about it again. This goes on for about six months.

And all of a sudden we’re planning an actual conference that actually happened: the Conference on International Economic Cooperation in December 1975. That’s easy to index: preparatory conferences, attendees, discussions of various topics.

But way back in 1974, I have to notice that proposal, mentioned in footnotes or asides or as an item in a long list of possibilities, and pull it together (or, darn it, go back and get it when I realize it’s a serious discussion).

And what do I call it? It would be strange to index all of those many mentions and pooh-poohings under the very formal conference name. But they did lead up to it. In this case I indexed “producer-consumer conference proposals” until the formal plan. Then I moved over to the formal name.

The Summit

Then there are the summit meetings. Eisenhower meets with Khrushchev. Nixon goes to China and meets with Mao. Whew. This is important stuff. Everything’s preserved—the briefing notes, the preparatory National Security Council meetings, the telegrams back and forth—and the actual minutes of the discussions between the two heads of state.

Photo from
Digging the meat out of these minutes is always interesting.

Meetings at this level always have quite a lot of, let’s say it nicely…padding. Jokes are made. Little speeches propound the friendship and respect in which one government holds the other. Allusions to historical alliances or tensions set the tone. Difficult domestic situations are mourned. This can go on for pages and pages before we get to the real topic at hand.

The real topic turns out to be “how much aid are we getting” or “you’d better not side with the Soviet Union on this UN vote.”

So important!

It’s worth going through this because the information in these documents is incredibly important.

The writers and meeting participants aren’t thinking about the reader because they didn’t know anyone was going to see these documents. These were secret documents. They were only declassified later. This means that some of the information in them is not available anywhere else.

What exactly Nixon and Mao said to each other. Why the U.S. ambassador to Egypt was removed in 1956. Proposals for using atomic weapons on Northern Vietnam, and how the decision was made not to do it. Who was in on the plans for the Bay of Pigs.

This information would be incredibly difficult to access without an index. No historian is going to sit down and read one of these volumes cover to cover (trust me!). To find their information, they will need to go through the index. My index, which makes paths from every way they might look something up to the document they need.

And so fascinating

And it’s worth it because, although the text does repeat itself and drone on in government-speak, this is absolutely fascinating stuff. This is raw history. This is Nixon and Kissinger on the telephone. This is Kruschev banging his shoe on the table.

Photo from
And in my current volume, it’s December 1978. People discussing energy policy are talking about how Iran is one of our allies among the oil producers, and what to say next to the Shah. And then the next document is a paper analyzing how the strikes in Iran’s oil fields are going to affect the world’s oil supply.

The Iranian Revolution is starting, and they don’t know it yet. I get to watch them find out.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Building Blocks

When I poked my head out of the undergrowth this winter, there was a handy task waiting for me. Making a website for the educational publishing business I’m starting with my partner.

Making a website?? Really?

Okay, I knew a bit about it. I had done some website work with the help of my brilliant friend Chris Ashburn. I had learned some HTML. But that was seven years ago. The confidence had disappeared along with the HTML, deep into my brain.

Photo courtesy Marjan Krebelj on

But I wanted to do it myself if I could.

So I got my website installed on Wordpress with the help of the amazing Wendy Cholbi (she translates tech into English and has free office hours! How awesome is that?). She set me up with a very customizable free theme called Atahualpa. All I needed to do was to do the design and organization.

The feet first method

Okay, I said to myself, I can learn how to do this. I have been lucky enough in my life to learn many things fast and easily. The way I automatically start is to jump in, follow whatever directions appear, and hope that I’ll be able to do it. This does sometimes work.

So in I went. I found the Wordpress dashboard with all the options. I didn’t know what half of them meant. CSS? Widgets? Plugins? PHP code can be used in HTML inserts?

Atahualpa has a very active help forum. So I went to look at some of the threads, hoping to find some guidance. I found things that looked like this:

img#bg {

#wrapper {


I almost gave up. What I was saying to myself was, “I don’t know this. I can’t do it.”

And another way

Then I stopped and thought about it. I knew that I really wanted to do this myself. I wanted to be able to update the website without help. I was ready for a challenge.

And I thought about those words I was saying to myself: “I don’t know this. I can’t do it.”

Now wait a second. Of course I don’t know it. I haven’t learned it yet! I was expecting myself to already know the thing I wanted to learn.

And I felt myself switching modes. Remembering another way that I love to learn. Remembering how exciting it is to find building blocks.

Building Blocks

When I’m faced with learning something large, I love to start with the very basics. I did this when I studied Spanish in evening classes with my partner. Even though I knew some bits of Spanish, I wanted to start at the very beginning. I wanted to write down a very short list of words in my notebook. I wanted to memorize the basic verb conjugation and make sure I really knew it. Why does this feel so good?

Here's part of a mindmap from a few years ago, in which I was exploring the ways I learn.

What I learned from the mindmapping process:

• I’m allowed to be a total beginner. I’m allowed to not know a single thing about it.
• I know I’ll have all the tools I need to learn. I won’t be lost.
• I won’t miss anything because I’ll be learning from the ground up.
• The big foggy mysterious thing will form itself into an order.
• I’ll be able to go as far as I want to!

So I started looking for building blocks.

I started by reading Pamela Wilson at She talks on a beginner level about choosing colors, fonts, and layout for your website. Choose two main colors. I can understand that!

Then I found some very simple Atahualpa tutorials. “How to upload a header image.” Three steps. “How to set the width of your site.” Two steps, with explanation of fluid and fixed widths. Okay, I can understand this.

Then I looked at my site and picked just one thing that I wanted to change. Let’s see. I want there to be blocks of color on the sides so it doesn’t just go off into space. I looked around on the dashboard and saw “style and configure sidebars.” Aha, that must be it! Indeed, there it was, and I was able to add sidebars with different colors.

Pretty soon, though, I found things I couldn’t quite figure out. So I went back to the help forum with the awesome volunteer moderators who answer your question the same day you asked it.

I asked my simple question: how do I make some space between my menu items, which are all crowded together? The answer came back: insert padding in the CSS.

Oh-oh. Padding? CSS?

Back to the building blocks. I had heard of CSS, but only vaguely. So I found the best tutorial website: And I did my building blocks again.

CSS tutorial, first lesson: Here’s some CSS code that controls style and layout. Look at it and play with it.
CSS tutorial, second lesson: Why they invented CSS.
CSS tutorial, third lesson: Here is what a CSS rule looks like. (I love the giant green ovals!)

Aha! That’s what all those curly braces are about!

But how do you tell it that you’re talking about the page menu? Back to the forum, copy and paste the bit of code for the selector (it was u.rMenu li).

And I wrote my first CSS code: ul.rMenu li {padding-left:30px;}. And the page menu items magically moved to where I wanted them. I can't tell you how good that felt!

The routine

And now I had my web design routine:

• Identify something (usually a very small thing) I want to create or change on my website.
• Surf the dashboard to see if I can tell where to do it. Usually I have no idea.
• Search the help forum for similar issues.
• Try something.
• It doesn’t work. Not only do I not have the right color, but the whole page menu has disappeared. Take a breath.
• Search the forum again.
• Try something else. Repeat several more times.
• Post on the forum asking my question. Get back an answer very quickly.
• Discover that a piece of what I don't understand is too elementary to ask the forum. Call Wendy Cholbi’s free open office hours and get the missing piece of information.
• Continue trying things until the magic happens.
• Run squealing down the hall to tell my partner that it worked!

This is a very slow process, but it’s getting faster.

And I’m understanding more and more. For instance, when I went looking in the forum for an example of intimidating code, I had trouble finding one. It makes sense to me now.

And I have a website

And I have a website. Go look at it! It’s at I made it! I learned how to use hex codes to make a consistent color scheme. I learned how to insert an image in the sidebar. I learned how to make a mailing list with Mailchimp. I learned how to make a downloadable form. I learned how to make a shopping cart with E-junkie.

I did it! With my building blocks.

And because I almost never learn or create something without immediately starting to teach it, I’m going to help my friend move her website to Wordpress. More unknown territory! More questions!

And the building blocks are still there.

Join me in the comments! How do you like to learn? What is intimidating you right now? What are the building blocks for a field you know?