Tom Hanks and Typewriters?

This morning’s CBS Sunday Morning broadcast included a story of Tom Hanks and one of his favorite artifacts to collect…typewriters. Who knew? https://www.cbsnews.com/news/tom-hanks-uncommon-type/

As one of my favorite actors, Hanks has always played his characters on film as if he were really them. This is the first interview I’ve seen that brings out what I feel is the essence of who he is as a regular person. Here are three reasons why:

  1. Mementos and personal artifacts we’ve collected over the years are part of our stories. Hanks explains why he loves typewriters in an emotional way that involves your senses. He even ties this into the book he is about to release, Uncommon Type. His description of each typewriter, “Each typewriter has sort of a personality”, makes me see his personality in each machine. Each of us has an artifact, a memento in our lives that describe the essence of who we are. This interview makes me look around to find the memento in my home that describes me.
  2. He reveals a part of his childhood that I never knew. By the time he was ten years old, both his parents had been married three times and he lived in ten different houses. His attitude of that period of time: “I thought it was a cool adventure. I was confused a lot about why it happened…In some ways it’s like I’m going back and looking at those times, for me and my siblings, and trying to put context into the confusion.” How does that change a young boy? What effect does that have on his future? Hanks explains it with a sense of calm and curiosity.
  3. His comment at the end, “If I see enough stories that are around and start asking enough questions about where it would go, then, yea, I hope to write more.” He’s always looking for more. His next adventure in writing is unknown, but he keeps asking questions. I can relate.

As my first book is due to be published at the end of this month (stay tuned), I, too, hope to keep “asking enough questions” and to write more. Thank you, Tom Hanks. You and your typewriters are an inspiration.

What I Learned From Robin Williams

Robin-Williams-Quotes-Good-Will-Hunting-1

I just finished watching Robin Williams Remembered – A Pioneers of Television Special (PBS). After watching this wonderful PBS special, not only do I miss him more than before, but I feel I have learned new things about him that might help me and, hopefully, you as well. What new things did I learn from Robin Williams? Here they are:

  1. When you have talents that you are keenly aware of, be open to improving your craft by watching, listening and asking for help from others. Robin did this best with his friends whom he looked up to; guys like Richard Pryor and his mentor, Jonathan Winters.
  2. Don’t be afraid to fail. Most of us only remember him for his successes, his award-winning performances on television, stand-up comedy and film. What we don’t remember is that he failed from time to time. Mork & Mindy was cancelled after only its fourth season. The movie Popeye bombed at the box office. Not all of his stand up nights were a success.
  3. He listened and was open to taking direction from trusted friends and colleagues. Of his Oscar-winning performance in Good Will Hunting, he spoke of doubting himself after shooting a scene and wondering if he was getting it right. Robin said of Director Gus Van Sant, “With Gus Van Sant in Good Will Hunting, … at the end he said, ‘Just have the conversation. Just talk.’ So you’re not acting per se, but, eventually, things start to happen.”
  4. He went with what felt right, what was true to himself, and let it come together if, and when, it was supposed to come together. He hadn’t know if it would all come together. But eventually, he found a way to combine his genius in stand-up comedy, serious Juilliard-trained method acting, and film roles into a unique style that set him apart from all others.

I am a bit weird. I have talents that are not conventional or normal. I love listening to people’s stories, I immediately have questions pop into my mind that encourage more of their story to reveal itself, and I continue to want to know more with sincere interest and genuine curiosity. That’s what happens in my mind. I can’t begin to wonder what happened in Robin Williams’ mind, but I know it was strange to most people. From his example, however, I have learned to continue to believe in what I do, and, hopefully, one day soon, the talents will be recognized and appreciated by a larger audience.

“You’ll have bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to the good times you weren’t paying attention to.” – from Good Will Hunting

Thank you, Robin Williams, for teaching me these valuable lessons. May you rest in peace. I miss you!

The Life Story Not Recorded

“I wish I would have known you (x number of) years ago when my grandmother (or grandfather) was still alive. She had the best stories and once she got going telling those stories, you couldn’t get her to stop!” My next comment is typically, “Did you record those stories while she was still alive?” Invariably, the answer is, “No.”

Mother-daughter photo

What is lost by not recording the stories? Only you can answer the emotional response to that question. But based on over a decade of recording the life stories of many individuals, couples and siblings for their families, I can give you the logical main reasons. Lost are:

  1. Many stories you’ve never heard before.
  2. The audible sound of their voice.
  3. The physical movements and body language as they expressed themselves in many scenarios.
  4. The facts that connect you to this loved one. Facts that you never knew or ever dreamed existed.

I could list many more, but I think you get the picture.

The next question is, “Why weren’t the stories ever recorded?” Whether you consider the answer that question reasons or excuses makes no difference. The answers are so varied…and so sad.

The good news is that you now have the opportunity to not make that same mistake again. You have the opportunity to record the life stories of a friend or loved one now. This article is written as a guide to help you do just that. I will post helpful hints on how to record those stories in future blog posts.

These blog posts will combine some of the training that I received in the 1990s preparing to interview Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education) with the practical experience I’ve enjoyed interviewing hundreds of people since starting LifeStories Alive in 2005.

My hope is that the posts serve as a guide that gives you the basics to take the plunge and capture the life stories of someone you love. Even though you may have never interviewed someone before in anything that resembles this method or reason, you will not regret it. Why? I know that you will feel, as I do every time I finish a LifeStories Alive interview, that goose bump-causing rush when they finish answering the last question you ask them, and they sigh that familiar sigh knowing that their stories are now recorded for generations to come. You, then, can feel the satisfaction of knowing that you were the one, not anyone else, who gave their lives more meaning and helped them fulfill the goal of passing along their legacy.

Enjoy the process. Have fun. And thanks for keeping those life stories alive!

Why Do We Tell Stories?

As one who helps people tell their stories (on video), I particularly enjoyed this week’s episode of KUT Radio’s “Two Guys on Your Head” with Dr. Art Markman​ and Dr. Bob Duke.  “We need stories in order to make sense of things” is one of the things they explain. Please listen & enjoy! http://kut.org/post/why-do-we-tell-stories

One of their points is that stories help us connect and make sense of the many bits of information in our brains. This is nothing new and most people agree with it (as I do). But if this is widely accepted as fact, then why are so many people hesitant to tell the stories of their own lives?

I have always thought the main reason is that our society teaches us that if we talk about ourselves, we are bragging…and that’s a very bad thing to do! Yet, we learn so much from the stories of others. Valuable life lessons are learned often from strangers who are not related or whom we previously didn’t care much about. In my work at LifeStories Alive, I have had my clients (usually the children of the interviewees) tell me of the exciting and valuable lessons they’ve learned from their loved ones, just by listening to their life’s stories.

So I ask for your help in answering the above question, “Why are so many people hesitant to tell the stories of their own lives?” Your ideas, thoughts and input in the Leave a Reply section below will be much appreciated.

Two Guys on Your Head

 

Kind Words Go a Long Way

Kind words can go a long way. Yesterday, I was having a “so-so” day until late in the evening when a client of mine, Spencer Hayes (name given with permission) http://www.oxfordcommercial.com/our-people/spencer-hayes/, wrote a very kind note regarding the work I did for his family. My entire attitude changed to become more uplifting and positive. Here is his note:

“LifeStories Alive partnered with my family to bring us the greatest gift we could ever have: my parents sharing their stories so that their legacy will continue for many generations.

Mike O’Krent is a uniquely gifted documentarian. But moreover he is an exemplary human being who connects with people on a deep level, and brings out of them the essence of who they are.  The ability to capture all that on video for posterity is rare, and we have been blessed as a family to own the product of his talent.”

I encourage all of you to do as I will now; share a few kind words to someone – to the next person who comes to mind. It’s not hard, won’t take long, and will make you feel good. Thanks, Spencer, for making my day!

I Thought I Would Learn About Classical Music…

I thought I would learn about classical music, but ended up learning about life. This is my conclusion after listening to yet another great TED Talk. This one is by Benjamin Zander. To prove to you how little I knew about classical music, I didn’t know who the hell Benjamin Zander is! I do now. Since 1979, Benjamin Zander has been the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic.

What impressed me most about this talk is how he used a lesson in classical music appreciation (and, by the way, I now appreciate classical music) and turned it into, at the very end, a lesson in life. I will not tell you what he says at the end. It is worth watching this all the way through. I will only tell you this: It reinforces the power of a well-told story…a well-told life story!

Please take the time to watch this: http://tinyurl.com/ntqr4 on and then let me know what you think.

Ben_Zander

What Impact Can We Have On the Life of Another Person?

I just finished watching the only TV program I watch on a regular basis – CBS Sunday Morning. I appreciate their consistent cavalcade of positive, meaningful stories. Today’s program was no exception. One of the stories today highlighted the life stories of a living legend, Sidney Poitier http://tinyurl.com/bp9qnje .

Sidney Poitier

 

An integral part of his story, one I had never heard before, was shared. It caused me to reflect afterward, “What impact can I have on the life of another person?” Born as the youngest of a large and poor Bahamian family, he moved to New York at age 17 to become an actor. Washing dishes at a restaurant to  survive, the young Poitier was approached by an elderly Jewish waiter, a fellow employee. The following is from the CBS Sunday Morning account:

“There was one of the waiters, a Jewish guy, elderly man, and he looked over at me and was looking at me for quite awhile. I had a newspaper, it was called Journal American. And he walked over to me, and he said, ‘What’s new in the paper?’ And I looked up at this man. I said to him, ‘I can’t tell you what’s in the paper, because I can’t read very well.’ He said, ‘Let me ask you something, would you like me to read with you?’ I said to him, ‘Yes, if you like.’

“Now let me tell you something: That man, every night, the place is closed, everyone’s gone, and he sat there with me week after week after week. And he told me about punctuations. He told me where dots were and what the dots mean here between these two words, all of that stuff.”

“He took you through high school,” said (Leslie) Stahl.

“Yes, he did. And it wasn’t for long. I learned a lot. And then things began to happen.”

I’m sure this elderly Jewish man, at the time, had no idea the gift he was giving to the world as he offered to help the young man that day. He had no idea that Sidney Poitier’s future would inspire thousands to reach for what was previously out of reach. I believe he did this unselfish act of kindness, teaching a kid to read, because it felt like the right thing to do. I’d even guess it came as a knee-jerk reaction.

So I ask myself, “What impact, then, can I have on the life of another person? What simple act of kindness can I do to change the life of another person?” I believe the answer will appear in my everyday life, perhaps even today. And when the opportunity comes to give, I shouldn’t even think about it. I should just do it…like an elderly Jewish waiter in New York did for a dishwasher who couldn’t tell him “…what’s new in the paper.”

End of Life Lesson Learned Today

Just two days ago at around noon I received an email from my friend, Kristi Curry, who has a wonderful business called Survivorship Now http://survivorshipnow.com/. A friend of hers in Katy, Texas named Ben wrote to her saying that his church buddy, Dan (age 49), was just given bad news about his cancer and was advised to call in hospice care immediately. Ben called Kristi to ask for her professional advice to help Dan’s wife organize her life for what was to come. He also said he wanted to videotape Dan’s stories so his two kids would know him better when they grew older. Ben asked Kristi for advise on what questions to ask and how to ask them. That’s when Kristi referred me.

I connected with Ben yesterday via email, then by phone. Ben explained that Dan didn’t have any funds to afford a professional LifeStory and that he was going to do it pro-bono. I don’t know why it happened, but something inside me said I have to do it. I told Ben that I could be there (two and a half hours away) the following morning by 10:30 to conduct the interview, as long as Ben filmed it.

When we arrived at Dan’s home this morning, we were greeted by Dan’s beautiful and gracious wife, Marcina. We set up the camera in Dan’s bedroom and tried to get as much as we could of an interview, but unfortunately, due to the medications he was on, could not record much. What we did record, however, showed what a loving, caring father and husband he was. Rather than coming home without much of anything for Dan’s family, I asked Marcina if she wouldn’t mind being interviewed…to capture Dan’s LifeStories through the stories of his loving wife. She agreed and we filmed about two hours of her smiles, tears and love for her husband. She showed unbelievable bravery and unselfish caring for her husband who was too ill to express his story himself.

By 1:00 PM, we left her home with hugs and well wishes to her for strength during the tough journey ahead that she faced. I arrive back home at around 4:00 PM, exhausted, but glad I had accomplished what I had that day. An hour later Ben called. He said he called to thank me, to be sure I got home okay, and…after a long pause…to tell me someone from his church called an hour ago to say that Dan had just died.

At first I was in a bit of shock. Yesterday, Dan was a total stranger to me. And now, after only knowing he and his wife for a few hours, I feel like an integral part of their lives. The lesson I’ve believe I learned from today’s experience is to share your stories with the ones you love often, to celebrate life at every opportunity you get, and to give unselfishly whenever you can. Had I thought, “It’s been a long week, I’m too tired to drive all the way to Katy early on a Saturday morning, conduct this unpaid interview, then drive all the way back,” I would not have met Dan and his wife. And I am a better man now…because of them.

Thank you Kristi, Ben, Marcina, and especially Dan. May you rest in eternal peace.

Listening – Uncovering the Forgotten Communication Tool – Part II: Handling the “What Ifs” (Emotion)

The subject of communication is as vast as an ocean. I’ll try to teach the tools I’ve learned one drink at a time, so we can swallow and enjoy each one.  Let’s begin exploring the “what ifs” that inevitably come up in conversation. As we learn together the tools used to become a better listener, one of the most fearful situations that people are forced to handle is emotion.

“What if they start crying?” “What if I start to cry?” “What do I do?” In the work I do at LifeStories Alive, I have, as you can imagine, encountered tears in many forms and for many reasons. Here are some rules of thumb that I use when emotion comes up. Please realize that my comments are taken with my role at LifeStories Alive in mind, as an interviewer there to record their LifeStories…not as a parent, loving spouse, or best friend.

What if they start to cry?

 

  1. Don’t interrupt the emotion or say anything! This one is tough for me to do. My childhood upbringing taught me that it is proper to comfort a person who gets emotional. What I have found, however, in the setting of a conversation, is that if I let them get the emotion out…completely out…they will feel better when they are finished. Another benefit is that some of the most valuable pearls of wisdom and heart-felt comments have come at the end of uninterrupted emotion. Here’s an example: http://tinyurl.com/6n3cge8. What would I have missed if I interrupted that emotion?
  2. Be compassionate with your body language but never say, “I understand” (because you don’t) or “It’s okay” (because it might not be). It’s better to acknowledge the emotion, but don’t try to make it go away.
  3. Don’t invade their personal space. I’m a hugger. I want to gently touch them when the emotion happens. I have learned that invading their personal space will interrupt the emotion, and that’s the last thing I want to happen.
  4. How will I know when they are finished with the emotion? They will always let you know by making eye contact with you. Even after they make that eye contact, take a good, long pause to be sure that they are finished.

What if I start to cry?

With the work I do at LifeStories Alive, I get emotional during an interview. Here are some helpful tools I keep in mind:

  1. Take a deep breath. I try to do this as quietly as possible. I don’t want the audio of a deep breath on my part to be heard (although my editor can remove it in post-production editing).
  2. Keep a tissue or handkerchief near. The audible sound of sniffles is distracting to the speaker/interviewee.
  3. After their emotion is finished, it might be appropriate to explain why what they said touched you…but do this only after you are sure they are finished.

Emotion is a natural part of life. Handling emotion in a respectful way will help make you better listener and, thus, a better communicator.

Elie Wiesel – a Conversation I Overheard

It has been said that there have been certain people through history whose presence and energy could be felt when they walked into a room. I felt such an energy from Elie Wiesel http://tinyurl.com/pjkde when he walked into the studio yesterday morning at our local PBS station, KLRU http://www.klru.org/ , for a taping of Overheard with Evan Smith.  This taping was part of the incredible Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project http://www.balletaustin.org/light/  (more on this project in a future blog post). Being a partner in the Light Project, I was invited to be in the audience for the taping.

Evan Smith did an excellent job facilitating this conversation with Professor Wiesel. There were many things he said that were noteworthy. Here are a few that meant a lot to me:

I was able to ask him a direct question at the end of the interview. I mentioned Edmund Burke’s quote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” My question was, “I am at times frustrated by friends and colleagues who choose to do nothing when they know injustice is present. What advice would you give to encourage them to do something?” His answer was for me to speak up against the injustice first. He said, “If there is an injustice and I am silent, I am guilty.” Those around me will only speak up if they witness my example of speaking up and doing something against the injustice. Brilliant!

Other questions were asked that had to do with humanity and injustice in the world. One of his closing quotes was, “I am not defined by my humanity unless it is linked to yours.” This man of peace (1986 Nobel Peace Prize awardee) realizes and teaches that it is our link to one another that will cause peace (or harm). It is up to each one of us to accept that responsibility, the responsibility to link to one another, and act upon it, in order to achieve peace.

I encourage all of you to learn from, or be in the room with Elie Wiesel, if given the chance. If you cannot be in the same room with him, pick up and read one of the many books he wrote. You will feel his amazing energy through his words.