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Adventures in storytelling

There might be 8 million stories in the naked city, but there are more than 312 million in the United States. StoryCorps wants to hear all of them.

Radio documentarian David Isay (is there a better name for a guy whose job is producing oral histories?) and a host of individual and foundation supporters have built StoryCorps into a Library of Congress archive and a grass-roots movement to get Americans talking to each other. StoryCorps spreads the word--its mission and your recorded stories--with the help of NPR, which airs excerpts of conversations participants have given permission to share.

Through a handful of permanent recording booths throughout the country and a mobile studio housed in an Airstream trailer, people memorialize pieces of a life with the help of trained facilitators. Angelenos are telling tales at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until Dec. 18, the latest of several such L.A. visits since going mobile in 2003. Local NPR affiliate KCRW is airing bits of these oral histories Monday and Wednesday afternoons.

Ten days ago, Judith Mulryan showed up at LACMA to reserve a recording slot. She had tried to sign up online, but those spots were filled, and there was no way she was going to miss talking about her 92-year-old father, John Drury. He lives in the Midwest and is too frail to travel for an interview, but she's keen to capture his experiences in the Pacific Theater of World War II.

She never knew what they were until she overheard a conversation recently between him and her spouse, Joe Mulryan, who also saw action at the end of that war. Like many vets, Drury is reluctant to speak of the horrors of war with people who weren't there. He kept that part of his life from her, Mulryan said, but "he opened up [to Joe] like a ripe melon about [what happened to him on] Kwajalein."

She'll be opening up those memories, probably with the assistance of Joe, in the recording studio next week.

Mac Billups reserved a spot for two members of his congregation at Trinity Baptist Church. The retro-looking Airstream trailer parked at the California African American Museum earlier this year had intrigued him. Via the StoryCorps mailing list, he learned that the mobile studio would be back at LACMA and tried to secure an online reservation. Same response as Mulryan--sorry, we're booked.

So he, too, showed up to secure one of the last spots for a new, young member of Trinity Baptist to interview an older deacon. They'll cut that slice of cross-generational spiritual life next week as well.

On Saturday, Gerhard Gross and his daughter, Rebekah Bartz, emerged from the recording booth. In addition to her smile, Bartz was wearing a T-shirt that read "Reading is Sexy" and waxing enthusiastic about the 40-minute interview in which she learned about her Ukrainian grandparents. Grandpa had fought in World War II, as had Bartz's maternal grandfather ... but on the other side.

Then came Hila Wright, 35, and Edith de Guzman, 31, sisters who allowed a reporter to listen to their remarkably frank, loving and at times gob-smacking conversation about two Europeans who were turned into Californians after their parents immigrated from Milan when they were 13 and 9.

They settled into the booth for a sound check and instructions by facilitator Anaid Reyes, a young San Diegan with a degree in history and Spanish (Amherst '08) and real-life experience as a union organizer. Reyes adjusted the microphones, between which sat a box of tissues. Anyone who listens to the three-minute StoryCorps excerpts on NPR every Friday morning understands their purpose. Often in these conversations, there is laughter; sometimes, there are tears.

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De Guzman was the instigator of this tete-a-tete, and you could tell she'd been down this road before. She interviewed their father when the StoryCorps trailer was stationed on Santa Monica's Promenade in 2007, and had elicited life stories from her husband and mother using home recording equipment in 2009 and 2010 on the day after Thanksgiving. Many people worship at the temple of conspicuous consumption that day, but people like de Guzman and others encouraged by StoryCorps' annual promotion of the National Day of Listening prefer to stay home, talk to each other and worship conversation. Is there a better holiday gift?

In a wide-ranging discussion that covered three continents and four generations, Wright served up a steady diet of confessional epiphany that, for a reporter, is a fastball across the plate. She gradually built flesh onto the bony structure of the incisive questions de Guzman kept feeding her.

There was the early memory of dad photographing the newly toilet-trained Wright almost falling into the commode; the time she spat water onto the carpet and blamed the wet spot on the incontinent dog; the early desire to become a princess, an occupation supplanted later by that of private investigator. (Today, she's a scientist.)

There was the painful account of her teenage decision to quit playing the piano, and, as a result, to be told by her father that she was "worthless." (Only later, outside the Airstream, did Wright explain that mom was a concert pianist and dad was a piano technician at La Scala).

When asked to compare the culture of her early childhood with that of her later years, Wright returns to a common theme--that although it was more difficult than everyone had anticipated leaving the old country for the "promised land," the diversity of America is a welcome and wonderful thing. Yes, it was difficult for her, at 13, to change countries and learn a language, but the shock of Woodland Hills middle-schoolers wearing makeup was transient; not so the common sight of swastikas on the Italian buildings of her youth.

De Guzman observed that Wright and their parents had never lived in the same country as their extended family, and asked her sister who, among those far-flung relatives, had influenced her anyway. Almost immediately Wright withdrew from her memory bank the time they visited grandma in Israel. The two were out walking one day when they passed an Arab man, maybe a gardener, at work. Grandma yelled at him, Wright said, "maybe even spat at him. It was really extreme. I was shocked; it came out of no where. ... She told me, 'He's an Arab, I hate Arabs.'"

"Wow," said de Guzman, "I had no idea. I remember hearing stories about grandma living in Palestine and being friends with Arabs, smuggling bombs in Jerusalem as an 8-year-old..."

"... against British occupation," Wright broke in. "She was not friendly to Arabs."

The sisters pondered the moment in silence. "Maybe the antagonism developed after the wars," Wright said. "I feel she behaved wrongly. There's a big difference between living in the Middle East and here--my boss is Lebanese. We have a good working relationship, even when Israel and Lebanon were at war. In the U.S., it's taken for granted that we'll get along."

De Guzman, with a degree in urban planning, is a research manager for an environmental nonprofit. Wright has a master's degree in industrial hygiene and works as a health and safety consultant for businesses. But she wants to work for the U.N., or an NGO, wants to take her expertise to developing nations. "It's a basic human right to have a job that doesn't kill or hurt you."

"Where did that come from?" de Guzman asked, clearly surprised by her sister's desire to leave commercial enterprise.

"We're as useful as we are useful to others."

De Guzman wanted to know if Wright had ever had an experience she considered sacred. "No," was the complete reply.

Wright's concern about one part of the conversation is the reason it will not be archived at The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Although StoryCorps wants to build its oral history collection, it wants even more to encourage meaningful conversation between people with stories to tell each other, even if they're private. All records pertaining to Wright and de Guzman's StoryCorps interview, except for the CD they're given and this account, have been destroyed.

The sisters concluded their recording by celebrating their differences, prompted by one of the few questions posed by Reyes, the facilitator: "Why do you have such a great relationship?"

"I find it enriching," de Guzman said to her sister, "to witness your path in life... I learn from that. Some siblings have a closer relationship [than we do] ... because they're so similar. How interesting is that? I'd rather be surprised. ... I'm glad you're my big sister even though you're shorter and smaller than me. Whaddya say we continue this conversation over the next few decades?"


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