When is a story not a story?

This question comes up a lot in my line of work – honestly, all too often. Let’s start with a definition. A story is a description of a particular event or series of events with a focus on one or more problems and their resolution, over time. It’s coherent; all the information in the story is in some way relevant. And it has emotional resonance; reading or hearing a story leads you to feel some suspense, followed by its relief.

irisOne thing that isn’t a story is a description of sensations and impressions. It could be the wildflowers you saw on your walk through the woods, a strange cloud in the sky, the interesting melody that’s stuck in your head, the happiness you felt when your extra-shy kitten reached with his extra-big paws to grab at your hand. None of those are stories. This distinction points out a key difference between people with moderately advanced dementia and people with healthier brains, by the way: Once you’ve got dementia, your brain still has plenty of input of what’s going on around you – you still see and hear things – but you tend to lose your ability to connect your impressions coherently, which includes being able to tell a full-scale story about them.

Cultural scripts, which include what psychologists call “event schemas,” aren’t stories either. For example, when you got to the supermarket, there’s a cultural script you need Continue reading

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Whose Law? Whose Order?

The shocking, yet not at all surprising, events in the U.S. Capitol this week revitalized a question I’ve been asking myself lately: How do we reconcile a president’s repeated call for “law and order” with his obvious delight in sheer, utter chaos?

Way back in the mists of time – that is, when I was a college freshman – my friends Dave and Wayne introduced me to a fun new game, Dungeons & Dragons. I soon learned that everything in D&D, from characters to monsters to random objects, has an “alignment.” Everything is somewhere on a scale from pure good to pure evil, and also on a separate scale from “lawful” to “chaotic.”

In ancient Babylon, their creation myth tells the story of how the human-shaped god, Marduk, representing order and civilization, vanquishes Tiamat, the “mother of monsters,” a force of primordial chaos.

Tiamat_Marduk

If they thought seriously about such abstractions, the Babylonians may have conflated “lawful” with “good” and “chaotic” with “evil.” But today we can think of the two ideas Continue reading

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Postcards from my Istrian “stay-cation”

If I were to step outside here in Eugene, in the final days of 2020, I’d find rainy, windy, winter. Thankfully, I’ve had an alternative – I’ve spent much of the past week or two in sunny, cheery, Trieste and the nearby Istrian coast. I’ve never been there, mind you, but the powers of “narrative transportation” have let me experience my chosen destination from many angles.

It started a few weeks ago, when Finding Your Roots, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS genealogy show, dove into the background of TV chef Lidia Bastianich. Lidia was raised Italian, in the coastal city of Pula, which was part of Yugoslavia when she was born (more or less) and is now in independent Croatia. The show got me thinking about how complicated it must be to live in a city where your ethnic identity has to change, depending on who’s in charge – her family name (Matticchio) was changed from Italian to Croat, but the researchers found that it had been Croat even earlier too.

Then, last week, our PBS station showed a 2010 episode of Rick Steves’ Europe, in which Rick visited a fascinating part of Slovenia near the coast (just miles from Bastianich’s Pula), where the Soča river cuts a deep gorge through limestone cliffs, and where the beauty of the Julian Alps is sometimes overshadowed by memories of some of the bloodiest fighting in the first World War.

soca-river-cycling-day-tour

At this point, I remembered that the library had recently lent me a book by British writer Jan Morris – her meditations on the city of Trieste, once the seaport for the Continue reading

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Category Fun with Fiske and Pepper, Part 2

Welcome back! It’s time for more ideas about ideas.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Alan Page Fiske’s way of categorizing human relationship types. In our social worlds, there may be contexts where people are essentially the same as us (as in, our votes all count equally). People may be ranked higher or lower, as in an aristocracy or in the military or other organizations that value hierarchy. We can think in terms of reciprocating, an important type of fairness. And we can think in terms of ratios and exchanges, where one hour of my time is worth some amount of dollars, which I could then take to the supermarket to trade for beer-cheese soup and ciabatta rolls, like we had tonight for dinner. One thing that especially interested me about Fiske’s ideas was that he came up with a system of four distinct categories that are also related.

Today I want to turn to another cool category system. This one’s from philosopher Stephen C. Pepper, who published a book in 1942 on what he called “world hypotheses.” Pepper believed there were four “adequate” ways of understanding everything that Continue reading

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Category Fun with Fiske and Pepper, Part 1

Here’s a post for those of you who like playing with ideas. It’s not politics or history, and it’s not narrative psychology, exactly – rather, it’s about some of the ways that are sometimes used in social science for organizing ideas and making categories that are, intellectually, really cool.

I’ll start with Alan Page Fiske, who wrote a fascinating paper in 1992 called, “The Four Elementary Forms of Sociality: Framework for a Unified Theory of Social Relation.” Fiske is a “psychological anthropologist” who’s studied the nature of human relationships, and how the types of relationships vary in different cultures. While doing fieldwork in a traditional West African village, he discovered four patterns of interaction that apply to all human relationships. Different cultures do things Continue reading

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The secret to social change

We all have a lot of ideas about what people should be doing differently. What am I talking about? Well, pretty much everything – every topic of laws and norms and morality that affect other people’s decisions. It could be smoking cigarettes (or something more potent); it could be recycling; it could be sex; it could be buying cars that use gasoline rather than some alternative fuel.

And that’s our job as citizens, in a democracy – deciding collectively what people should be able to do and encouraged to do. We don’t just leave it to a king or some other power to declare from on high; we get to have these discussions ourselves. Continue reading

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The burden of George R.R. Martin – and what suspense and its resolution mean for us in the real world

I can still picture the display in our local university bookstore, sometime around 1999 – a major new fantasy series, with at least two books in print: A Game of Thrones, and A Clash of Kings. It looked medieval, and epic, and soon I was learning about the Starks and Lannisters, Baratheons and Targaryens. The author, George R. R. Martin, had sold the series to his publisher as a trilogy, but clearly the scope was beyond that.

And these books were complex. So many mysteries! Friends and I were speculating, early on, that Jon Snow was a secret Targaryen heir, but even if that were the case, there was a massive number of other storylines that needed to be resolved. And so we waited. The third book in the series was published in 2000, the fourth in… 2005, the fifth in… 2011, and here it is, 2020, with at least two more books to come. Martin is now 72 years old.

you_know_nothing_jon_snowPersonally, I stopped reading after the third book, although I’d probably return to the series if the rest are ever published. Other fans are more emotionally invested and have had stronger feelings on the topic than myself. Continue reading

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The story of Dido, Aeneas, a gender-queer Sorceress, and the fate of… England?

This past weekend I had the good fortune to see a most unusual opera. I confess, I’m not actually an opera fan, not in the conventional sense – as of yet I have no interest in Verdi, Puccini, et al. (although like everyone else, I adore the instrumental music in Carmen).

Live performances* of Early Music, though, are endlessly fascinating, and this work was no exception. It was Dido and Aeneas, written by the English composer Henry Purcell, who lived in the late 1600s, and performed by the Boston Camerata, under the direction of Anne Azéma. Continue reading

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The “Nixon-to-China” theory of change

For my friends who’d rather have had Bernie for president… don’t lose hope. Here’s why I think the Biden presidency may be just what we need.

In the early 1970s, mainland China was still recovering from the Cultural Revolution, a violent and disastrous experiment in totalitarianism, and the United States had been holding it at arm’s length, keeping China largely isolated from the rest of the world. Then Richard Nixon shocked America by announcing plans to visit China as a step toward normalizing relations between the two countries.

Now, where capital-c Communism was concerned, Nixon was an arch-conservative. He wasn’t all that conservative on women’s rights, environmentalism, etc., just as many Continue reading

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Choosing your battleground: Joe Brewer’s story

Today is my friend and colleague Joe Brewer’s birthday. In honor of Joe’s special day – and tomorrow’s U.S. election – I’m sharing part of my in-progress book’s chapter 11, “Transcending Loss,” where I write about Joe and the importance of choosing not just your battles, but your battlegrounds.

My book is about the psychology of “meta-narratives,” the stories about the groups we identify with – our countries, our people, even all of humanity. Although optimistic meta-narratives are generally the most inspirational, sometimes decline and loss may be the most accurate representation of reality – and if we accept and grieve this loss, we can find ways to make a difference. Empires do fall; ecosystems can collapse. Our usual emotional responses to collective loss include denial, a sense of helplessness, and sometimes a paralysis born of communal guilt. How can we craft meta-narratives to help us function effectively when systems are failing all around us?

Joe-Portrait-for-WebIn 2007, Joe Brewer, a young man from rural Missouri, found himself reading George Lakoff’s books on cognitive framing, the conceptual models we use to make sense of the world (which include meta-narratives). With an academic background in atmospheric science, and deeply concerned about climate change, he began working with these frames to learn more about the thought patterns that can facilitate or hinder positive social change. Continue reading

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