Fire, Folklore and Family Day

Art Installation, “third beach”. Melany Nugent and Trent Noble.

The campfire light flickered over the floor as we sat around the circle, sipping hot chocolate, enthralled by the rise and fall of the storyteller’s voice.

“Coyote laughed at Crab. ‘Of course I will race you! How can you win, if you can only run backwards?'”

I had never heard these stories before, which is why I went to today’s Family Day event at the local art gallery – the promise of a First Nations storyteller giving Okanagan legends was too good to pass up. The “campfire” is an art installation comprised of rock, charcoal, and clear sheet plastic, with a projection of a digital fire on it. The effect is mesmerising, real and not-real at the same time, the reflections dancing over the walls and the floor of the room reminiscent of both an actual fire and the play of light at the bottom of the lake on a summer’s day.

There were stories of “How Coyote Got His Name”, of “Coyote’s Race”, of “The Boy Who Grew Up With Grizzly Bears”. The one that most tickled my fancy was “Coyote’s Race”. I can’t give it to you in the words of the original storyteller, the way First Nations stories are meant to be told. But when I asked today’s re-teller*, David Florence, if I might share a piece of it here, he thought it could be all right for me to tell  bit of it in my own words. So here goes:

Coyote and the Race of Frog and the Turtles

Frog had won races against many animals, each time for his win taking away their tail. One day, Coyote said to his friends, the turtles, “I will get back your tails for you, don’t worry!” He went to Frog and said, “Will you have a race with me and my friends? The stake is all our tails, mine and the turtles.”

Frog agreed, hoping to add Coyote’s beautiful tail to his collection.

But Coyote said to the turtles, “Here is what you must do. Dig yourselves into the path along the race track, one of you every few hundred meters. The first one of you must jump into the air and come back down hard to raise a big dust cloud. Then the next one digs himself back out of the ground, and also jumps up and makes a dust cloud, and so on.”

And that is what they did. The race began, and the first turtle jumped up and came down and made a big dust cloud. When the dust settled, Frog saw far ahead of him a turtle running along the track. He ran as fast as he could to catch up with him, but the turtle jumped and made another big cloud of dust. When that was gone, there was a turtle again, far ahead of Frog. He ran as fast as he could, but try as he might, he could not catch up with the turtle. Finally he saw a turtle crossing the finish line far ahead of him, and he collapsed on the ground.

“Oh please,” he said to Coyote, “I’m so exhausted, let me rest for a while!”

“Did you let the other animals rest before you took away their tails?” said Coyote. “No, you shall not rest! Give me back the turtles’ tails, and your own too!”

And that is why Frog is such a small, weak creature, who jumps into the water to hide his ugly backside which has no tail on it at all.

What struck me about this tale is how very much it is like the Grimms’ “The Hare and the Hedgehog”, the tale of how the quick, proud hare is being tricked by the slow, humble hedgehog and his wife into exhausting himself running back and forth and thus losing the race. Unlike the similar “Hare and the Tortoise” with its moral of “Slow and steady wins the race”, here the moral is “Simple people working together can beat the proud.” Two tales from almost opposite sides of the globe with nearly the same structure and message. I told David Florence about “The Hare and the Hedgehog”, and he laughed.

Incidentally, in the story of the race of Coyote and Crab, it’s Coyote himself who gets tricked. Crab clicks his pincers and gets hold of Coyote’s tail hairs, hanging on through the whole race. At the finish line, Coyote turns around looking for crab, and crab lets go, flying across the finish and winning the race. I learned today that sometimes, Coyote the Trickster can also be the tricked. I’m still chuckling about the image of Coyote whirling around, calling, “Crab? Where are you, Crab? Hey, Crab!”

In the long, cold, dark Northern winters of the past, David Florence told us, the Okanagan people gathered around the fire in the middle of their big pit house, a space probably about as large as the room we were in today. Their fire was not an art installation with digital projections, and they weren’t sipping hot chocolate from Tim Horton’s paper cups. But the stories are the same, whether they are told in Okanagan or in English.

Life, the Universe, A Fire and Folklore. Together the people are strong.


*Note: From my understanding, in First Nations storytelling the exact wording of the original teller is important. David Florence collected these tales from local people, and he read them to us from a paper so he would not “put his own words into it”. I appreciate his permission to tell a small part of it in my own words, and apologise for any mistakes I doubtlessly made in the retelling, having only heard the story once. If you want to read a very similar tale in the voice of a real Okanagan storyteller, check out “The Turtles Won the Race” told by Josephine Shuttlesworth (scroll to the bottom of the page past the error messages). In that one, it’s Coyote himself who gets tricked by the turtles, and it’s even more similar to “The Hare and the Hedgehog”.

On Princesses and the Unreality of Realism

For this year’s New Year’s Eve movie marathon, we watched Star Wars, the original three movies (on VHS, no less. Yup, we still have a VCR). I’m not a huge Star Wars aficionado, so I haven’t got these films memorised, verbally or visually; when I watch them, they’re always quite new-ish to me. And what struck me this time through is how utterly pristine Princess Leia’s appearance is.


I mean, the first time Luke Skywalker sees this woman, she’s just been through torture (so we’re told – not shown, thankfully), and now she’s imprisoned in a bare cell without even sheets on the bed – no place to hide a comb, let alone a shower or laundry facilities. Yet here she is, with not a hair in her elaborate coiffure out of place, wearing a spotless, unwrinkled white gown.

I used to have long hair when I was a kid, and I can tell you that with fairly straight hair like Carrie Fisher’s was then, pinned-up styles do not stay tidy long. They slip out of their hairpins very quickly, get straggly and messy (which is why I gave up fairly early on trying to put up my hair – I just can’t be bothered). Yet Princess Leia never, ever has even a single strand hanging loose – not even after she goes tobogganing down the garbage chute. And her gown – good grief, wearing white? With all she goes through, by rights she should look like she’s wearing Dobby the House Elf’s ragged kitchen towel.

But she doesn’t. She never looks like anything but – a princess.


Leia is a wonderful character. Carrie Fisher’s passing has brought out in countless tributes what a great inspiration and role model Princess Leia was and still is for now several generations of viewers – a woman of strength, of determination, of agency; a larger-than-life hero.

And part of that larger-than-life effect comes from having a hairdo that never sheds a single bobby pin.

Disney’s cartoon princesses don’t have anything on Leia. You see, in cartoons we know not to expect realism – we know it’s just a drawing, “just” a story. But in a live action film, we think that what we’re seeing is real. So when we see Cinderella’s flowing golden locks and the gown that just appears on her body with a wave of the fairy godmother’s wand, that’s one thing – but we never think that Leia’s glossy dark snail shells and her snowy robe come under the same heading, because, obviously, they’re real. We can see them with our own two eyes, can’t we? What we’re not seeing is the army at Leia’s (or rather Carrie’s) command, an army not of rebel soldiers, but of hairdressers, make-up artists and wardrobe staff, as befits a princess. (“Ah, Recruit Skywalker – you’re in wardrobe today. The princess spilt oatmeal on her dress this morning; go do your duty to the cause.” “What?!? What about flying a fighter plane?” “Never mind that, anyone can handle that. Go make your mark where it counts!”)

We need that army to make us believe in Leia the Princess. We need her to have the superpower of never-a-hair-out-of-place and never-a-spot-on-her-dress because she is a princess. And princesses are mythical creatures on the order of dragons, unicorns and superheroes. In cartoons, that’s easy to handle, but in “realistic” fiction, it takes a bit more doing. Yet when it’s done well, as it is in Star Wars, the impact is tremendous. Because we believe with all our hearts, informed by our disbelief-suspended senses, that what we are seeing is real, that it actually happened, we also believe in the power of The Princess to do what she has set out to do, which is to save the world.

And in that, there is hope.

Life, the Universe, and the Power of the Unreality of Realism. And here we thought she just had funny hair.

Zootopia and The Power of Story

I’ve been thinking about the importance of Story again. My friend E. L. Bates recently posted the transcript of a talk she gave at her local library on that topic (read the full thing here, it’s well worth it). “This is what stories do,” she says, “they sink into our hearts and give us the tools we need to live more fully, more richly, in the everyday world around us.” Yes, exactly.

Last weekend, we went to see the new Disney movie, Zootopia. I’d heard that it was good, so while I wasn’t expecting any great profundity of the flick (it’s a Disney talking-animal movie, after all), I went into it hoping to be amused for a couple of hours and not have too many groaner moments. And those hopes weren’t disappointed.

But what bowled me over was the message of the film. That’s right, a Disney talking-animal flick with a message that I actually found really meaningful. And not the standard follow-your-heart-you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be one, either (which nowadays just causes an eye-roll reflex in me, but that’s a rant for another day). Now, I don’t want to give any spoilers, the movie still being as new as it is. But what I found astounding is that the makers of Zootopia, who have been working on this movie for, I dunno, years, put out a film that hits right smack-dab at the bull’s eye of the current social issues. It’s as if they’d had a premonition of what the political and social climate of March of 2016 was going to be like, and they set out to tell a story that makes its point far more effectively than any sermon or political rant could do.

And that’s something I found profoundly encouraging. Because, you see, young children aren’t going to go to political rallies. And, let’s face it, most of their parents and grandparents won’t, either. But they’ll go to this movie, because it’s Junior’s birthday and you’ve got to do something with that horde of little hoodlums he’s insisted on inviting. So you take them to the movies to see the story of a perky little bunny rabbit from the country who wants to be a big-city cop, and hope that her and her sly-fox sidekick’s adventure will keep the kids quiet for a couple of hours. And in the process, Junior, his friends, and Mommy, Daddy and Grandma, without even noticing it, are being taught some lessons that couldn’t be more important in this moment in history, lessons about the insidiousness of fear and prejudice and of the power of acceptance.

But let me quote E. L. Bates again: “But [the stories] are not instruction manuals thinly disguised as entertainment! Perish the thought! If you set out, in writing a story, to point a moral or teach people something, you have failed before you’ve even begun.” In the case of Zootopia, Disney most certainly did not fail. It’s a well-told story in its own right, full of endearing characters that will enter the Disney canon, with great animation and jokes (including quite a few that will zip right over Junior’s head, but provide Mom & Dad with a good chuckle – including the teensy little Mafioso shrew with his nasal Godfather drawl). We’ll keep watching this film for decades to come for its story, because it’s a good movie – and in the process, its profound message is going to be absorbed into our collective psyche.

The pen (or in this case, film camera) is mightier than the sword – and that is something that can give us all hope.

Life, the Universe, and Zootopia. Story wins again.

The Power of Story, or, RIP Leonard Nimoy

vulcan saluteIn case you hadn’t heard, Leonard Nimoy died this morning. The Internet is going to be buzzing with remembrance over the next few days; everyone and their pooch will be posting pictures of him, throwing each other the Vulcan salute, and discussing their favourite Star Trek episodes ad nauseam. The whole of Silicon Valley, I’m sure, will go into mourning.

But why? An 83-year-old Jew from Boston passes away peacefully in his LA home after a long and prosperous life – so who cares?

We do. Millions of us do. Because Leonard Nimoy was not just a person beloved by his friends and family, and a man highly gifted in his chosen profession. Leonard Nimoy was Spock. And as Spock, he brought something to our lives that was unique.

In fact, Leonard Nimoy’s passing, just like the tragic death of Robin Williams last year, illustrates with brilliant clarity just how powerful the impact of Story is on our lives. Nimoy became Spock; he became Story. His embodiment of this character, his telling us of who this – entirely fictional! – person was, allowed us to enter into Spock’s being, let us become, for a short time, another. He, like Robin Williams did in his many roles, gave us a powerful gateway into the realm of Story.

We need Story; we live in Story. And that is why so many of us are touched by the passing of a man who lived thousands of miles away from us; whom we have never spoken to; who, in real life, did not have pointy ears and go around classifying everything as “logical” or “not logical”. It almost feels heretical to say that – Spock is not real, he does not exist. But, actually, he does. He existed in what Nimoy created, and took root in our imagination. And as such, the death of Leonard Nimoy does not put an end to Spock’s existence. The power of Story simply carries on. There was no Spock before Nimoy became him (and created the all-memorable Vulcan salute – there is a very interesting video clip here, where he explains its origins). But now, there always will be Spock.

And we can continue to draw inspiration from his story, from the portrayal of the man who lives in logic but yet has to come to grips with the emotion seething inside him; a story that draws us out of ourselves and lets us grow with him. Leonard Nimoy brought us the empowerment of seeing Spock live – of being Spock.

Life, the Universe, and the Power of Story. Rest in Peace, Leonard Nimoy – you lived long and prospered.

Famous Last Words

Winner-2014-Twitter-ProfileI just rolled across the NaNoWriMo finish line. That’s right, I did make it after all. And I must say, I was quite pleased with the words that kicked me across that line: “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” (one of my characters is really happy with having won a draw). And there it is, 50,002 words. I just think they’re great words to have passed the NaNo goal posts with. So eloquent, so erudite, so evocative… The writer’s craft at its finest.

Oh, but to be clear, those words just brought me to the finish of NaNo – the story isn’t done yet. You see, the draw that the character in question won only means he gets a chance at entering another contest, so I still have to write that, and the outcome of it is what determines everything – well, maybe not everything, in a manner of speaking, but… Okay, I’ll shut up. The story isn’t even finished, and if I told you what it was all about, I’d be letting all sorts of cats out of the bag (small-c cats, not big-C as in Catriona – but yes, she is an important part of this story, too. I’m not giving anything away if I tell you that. And if you don’t know who Catriona is, read Seventh Son, you’ll find out).

Besides, this story is still quite a muddle, but that’s the nature of NaNo novels. When you’re pounding out 50k words in four weeks, and without the proper clear outlining a novelist ought to have engaged in beforehand (which I’ve never yet done, but have good intentions for), the story you end up can be a little, umm, bumpy. To the tune of “Why the heck is this person doing that? That makes no sense. Ah, whatever, gotta keep writing to make my word count…” And then you go in afterwards and smooth out all the bumps. Or sometimes take a pickaxe to them and dig them out of the pavement altogether (I’ve just been writing lots about streets with cobblestones. Pardon me if my road works imagery is a little skewed in the medieval-ish direction rather than the modern asphalt one).

I’m learning all sorts of things about how the novelling process works, and this bumps-smoothing-or-pickaxing is one of those things. But that actually comes later, quite a bit later. For now, I’m going to celebrate my NaNo win, first of all with a glass of wine, and then by going to the last write-in of our local NaNo bunch tomorrow to keep on writing until I actually finish the story.  Because the whole point of this exercise, for me, isn’t to just write 50,000 words – else I could have just repeated “Yes!” another 49,995 times – but to get a story. And one I like, at that. That’s what I’m doing when I’m writing tales of librarians and cats and magical blue-glazed pottery bowls – I’m telling myself a story, which is something I’ve done in my head for as long as I can think (I kid you not. I remember doing it when I was perhaps three or so, every night in bed in order to put myself to sleep. I believe back then the storylines involved chimpanzees who had lots of really cool toys to play with). And if out of that, the storytelling-for-myself, comes a book that others enjoy too, that’s a big bonus.

Life, the Universe, and Famous Last Words. I finished NaNoWriMo – yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!!