Friday, November 25, 2016

Strategies for Conducting Interviews over the Phone

Well, it looks like I'll make it through National Novel Writing Month without accidentally writing a novel. Again! My guess is that I never will write fiction (much as I enjoy reading it). Every now and then, though, someone will ask if I think I'll write another book.

Both Through Her Eyes and Crossing Cultures with Ruth dropped in my lap, the first from a couple of busy cross-cultural workers in Central Asia who knew the stories of women like them ought to be told, and second as a write-for-hire job from a ministry that knew I was a fan of their initial book and had what it took to expand it. In both cases my job was to collect and pass along the wisdom and experience of others rather than any of my own. This I was happy to do.

In fact, it's the main way I've used my writing and editing skills these last 20+ years, usually writing without a byline and often in collaboration with a team or partner who had a message to share but needed help putting it into words. These days, it's mostly articles for the web and email publications.

If you count all the notetaking, editing, and writing these last few weeks, I may have exceeded the 50,000-word goal of NaNoWriMo this month. But the bigger breakthrough for me is this:

I finally assembled the right tools and strategies for getting rich interviews over the phone and capturing the content effectively and efficiently.
  1. A good list of contacts engaged with the topic I'm writing about.
  2. Access to contact data that helps me track them down.
  3. Carefully timed emails asking for a 15-minute phone call to pick their brain and hear the story.
  4. A new headset that allows me to talk and type comfortably, gracefully, and simultaneously. 
In the past, I'd tried using Skype. But that didn't work very well for me. The audio-only phone connection may make rapport more difficult but eases the work on other fronts: I don't have to maintain eye contact and non-verbal cues but can focus fully on capturing what is said. Moreover, several people I've interviewed have taken the call on the road, putting on their own headsets to redeem drive time on some boring stretch of highway. I think it set them at ease and made them more generous with their time than if we'd been using something like Skype or Facetime.

Another factor I'd considered was finding a way to record the interviews and then transcribe them, but the transcription process takes more time than I think I can give and actually slows down the writing process as well, so I'm glad to "settle" for copious notes, instead (though they still need to be cleaned up and organized). 

During Caleb Project days, we nearly always worked in pairs, and while it required both teamwork and discipline, the results were great; one person would lead the interview while the other madly but quietly scribbled notes (and then typed them up later).

Trying to replicate this solo hasn't worked well for me. My notes weren't as good and my rapport wasn't either, and the time it took to type them up and fill in the gaps was considerable. Bringing a laptop or tablet for notetaking made for more complete and accurate notes. It was a little better for rapport, too, since I can type without watching what I'm doing, but my laptop is both too big and it was still a a barrier. I was looking for a new approach. And this one works well.

The folks I've interviewed seemed to enjoy it too. None of them has seemed ready to stop after 15 minutes, but have typically given me 30-60 minutes. After all, I'm giving them the chance to talk about things they're passionate about. I've made sure to tell them how grateful I was for their time and made sure to pray with them and for them about the things they shared.

This new strategy may make interviewing over the phone (despite my lifelong aversion to making phone calls) more effective than video conferencing or even talking face to face. Had I put these pieces together sooner, I'm sure my Master's thesis could have been better; I'd left the door open for follow-up phone interviews but failed to follow through since I didn't have an efficient strategy for making it work.

But all this gives me hope for future research and writing projects using phone interviews.

Who knows, maybe even something that will take the form of a book.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Night Lights for the Dead?

In honor of Halloween, I give you: cemetery lights. I've spent enough time in parts of the world where world religions meet ancestor worship to have seen or heard about some elaborate funeral practices and memorial strategies. This one's new to me.

Did you know it was a thing? I didn't, not until last night when Chris came home a different route from the hospital and reported that our closest cemetery is aglow with solar-powered lights next to every tombstone. Some quick research suggests this is not, say, a security issue, but a way those left behind can honor, remember, or keep vigil for those who have gone on.

A couple internet searches for news about the phenomenon come up with no informational articles (though I'll keep looking), just oodles of ads for these from a wide variety of companies. They call them memorial lights, memorial lanterns, eternal lights, or vigil lights. Some are shaped as crosses or angels, others as candles or lanterns. As solar lights have become more popular and affordable, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised to see them cross over from gardens and driveways to graveyards as well.

One site says (somewhat ungrammatically),
"Cemetery lights also known as memorial lights are widely used in memory and respect for those departed loved person who passed on. As many consider it’s a bridge to the other side that can help in making the place more accessible. While a cemetery light for death can in no way replace the person who has died it can provide a spark of hope that those who have died will not be gone forever."
Maybe they don't use these on the West Coast, or maybe we just don't go to enough / the right kind of cemeteries to have noticed them. Are they mostly a Southern phenomenon? African-American? Catholic? Let me know if you know anything more about where this practice came from or how widespread or popular it may be. Inquiring minds want to know...

If it's primarily a Catholic thing, it may echo lighting candles for the dead, something that might be more likely to happen this week of the year than others:
"Catholics light candles for the dead as an act of remembrance or as a prayer for their souls. They can light candles at any time; however, death anniversaries and All Souls' Day are particularly popular dates to light candles in prayer for the dead."

*     *     *     *     * 

I miss Halloween, you know... Halloween as I think I remember it, Halloween through the eyes of a child in the 1970s. Without all the spooky stuff (which was probably there. I was just unaware).  Without all the institutionally-sponsored Halloween events (Trunk or Treat!). It was just about visiting our neighbors door to door, if only this one time of the year. (Well, this and when we knocked on their doors to sell them Girl Scout cookies or when they came to ours to tell us our dog was on the loose or our sheep had gotten out.)

Costumes were homemade, often a week or day before, not bought in a store. Mom sewed them when we were really small. Later we made them ourselves. Kids might go as pirates, not Jack Sparrow; as mermaids, not Ariel from the Little Mermaid. Now, like everything else, costumes seem to be produced commercially and chosen to highlight some aspect of consumer culture.

Guess I shouldn't be surprised. The culture has changed. It does that! 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Lottie Moon's sister, missionary to Palestine and lady physician to Confederate rebels?

Dr. Oriana (Moon) Andrews
and her husband,
Dr. John Summerfield Andrews.
"One of the most famous single women missionaries of all time would have to be Charlotte Moon," I told my Perspectives students. "She and two of her sisters, touched by the revival that swept America just before the Civil War, ended up as missionaries."

"One sister was supposedly the first female doctor south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and ended up going as a medical missionary to Arabs in Palestine, then came home to be a doctor for the Confederate Army."

"I would love to read her story," I added, before going on to tell a little of Lottie's.

Next day, though, I started wondering if this was one of those things I really could learn more about than in days gone by. I might not need to prowl through archives in Virginia; more and more things can be found online!

After a few tries, Google and I came up with a name and even a biographical sketch of Dr. Oriana Moon. There is also this fun dramatic reading which mentions Lottie's sisters alongside Lottie, apparently drawing on the same secondary sources I'd used previously. (I think that would go well in a Perspectives course, as well.)

So, did I have it right? Or what else might be helpful to share?

The Moon girls were certainly a remarkable bunch. Growing up surrounded by books and well supplied with tutors, they were allowed by their parents to pursue their own interests and given educational opportunities usually restricted to sons. I had to smile when I read that their father purchased an unusually large library for Orie, "consisting of the leading histories, poetry, fiction, and scientific works of the time. For the first sixteen years of her life, Orie was an ardent and persistent reader, often so wrapped up in her readings that she refused to stop for meals. Orie seemed to prefer mental nourishment to material food and craved learning..."

After writing a thesis on the relationship between coronary and respiratory diseases, Oriana got her MD in 1857 from a women's medical college in Philadelphia. That's decidedly North of the Mason-Dixon line, and certainly in company of other female doctors (though, as the article points out, the women were not allowed to practice in Philadelphia hospitals, limiting their work to a clinic the school set up to treat women and destitute patients). Later she did practice medicine in Virginia, though "despite much urging, Dr. Moon consistently declined to 'hang out her shingle' as a general practitioner," at least at that time. Later she did.

Oriana seems to have been just as outspoken as Lottie, warning another sister's fiance that he must be brave to marry into a family that included someone like herself. Nothing in this article, though, confirms that she was the first female doctor in the South. Have to look elsewhere for that. Meanwhile, I should at least soften my summary with a "one of" or "some say."

Shortly after earning her MD, Oriana returned to Virginia and signed on to accompany her uncle, an ordained minister and physician, as he and his family made an extended "missionary journey" to the Holy Land. "Orie was determined to join Barclay and assist him where possible by providing providing medical services to the Bedouins." Here's a telling vignette:
"She sailed to Europe, carrying for protection a revolver with which she was an expert marksman. In Turkey, while crossing the Bosphorus from Constantinople to Adrianople, Orie hired two boatmen to row her across the water. In an incident she often retold in later years, Orie paid the two men an agreed-upon sum before they started rowing. However, midway in the trip, the two boatmen threatened to turn back unless she paid them a second time. Orie pulled out her revolver and barked the command "Go to Adrianople!" So motivated, the two boatmen rowed with great speed, and when the boat touched the Adrianople shore, they fled with equal haste. Orie proved to be a fearless American that even these Turks respected."
Religious zeal for God's glory does not seem to have played much of a part in Oriana's initial decision to go to Palestine; though raised in the church and in a Christian family, she had never been particularly religious. So much for the revival connection, at least in Oriana's case. But some serious conversations with her uncle on the journey across the Atlantic seem to have had an impact, and she had her uncle baptize her in the Pool of Siloam.

It may be overstating things to call her a missionary doctor in Palestine, then, or to suggest she only came home because she was needed when the War Between the States broke out. She was only in the Middle East for 14 months before returning home in 1859. The war didn't start until 1861. What does seem clear, however, is that her "missionary journey" played a clear part in her personal development, that she felt she made a difference among the Bedouin, and that she looked back on the experience as a significant one. She told the stories for the rest of her life. And it's also clear that when the war broke out one of Oriana's first thoughts was to offer herself to the Confederacy as a doctor. Until her death in 1883, she served in both informal and formal roles as a physician (sometimes, later, alongside her husband, also a doctor).

Oriana's missionary zeal resurfaces throughout her life as well, as when she set up, led, and preached in an open-air church in a nearby black village. She stood up to threats from the KKK, once again armed and ready to repel them if they carried out a threatened attack against her. And it was while visiting her sister Oriana that Charlotte Moon decided to go to China as a missionary. In this, Lottie was following in the footsteps of another sister, Edmonia, of whom I know little so far. I gather Edmonia got sick and came home, whereas Lottie served in China for more than 30 years. Time for some more digging, eh? I've never even read a proper biography of Lottie, so let me see what I can find out and let you know.

Friday, October 07, 2016

"Icebreakers Are Terrible. They Also, Unfortunately, Work Really Well."

This is the time of year when walking into a group of strangers with the hope of charming them enough that they will listen to me talk at them for a few hours, or making a new friend (of sorts), is something I do rather a lot. But as a shy (broken?) extrovert, I sometimes find it intimidating and welcome help, like having a bit of structure or someone in charge to set the tone. What about you?

Check out this article from Cari Romm of New York Magazine for an interesting perspective on the effectiveness of "icebreakers."
"It’s back-to-school season, which means it’s time for fresh starts, pumpkin-spice overload, inappropriately themed sale displays, and — if you’re actually going back to school — racking your brain for suitably fun facts to share with a classroom full of strangers, or gearing up for endless rounds of two-truths-and-a-lie in a dorm lounge. Truth: Here’s a thing I did this summer. Truth: Here’s something about, I don’t know, a family pet. Lie: This is fun.

"To all but the most enthusiastic few, icebreakers are just a necessary evil — even though they’re supposed to dispel the awkwardness, forced getting-to-know-you games often feel like they’re just making an awkward event even more so, whether you’re at freshman orientation or a corporate retreat. So why do we insist on beginning so many situations by suffering through trust walks and elaborate name games? Is there any value to making a roomful of people miserable with false cheer?

"Psychologist Anton Villado is adamant that the answer is yes, and that icebreakers don’t have to be pleasant to be effective."
Keep reading to see why Villado says they work and what they can accomplish.

H/T Tony Sheng.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Six Posts about the World of Firefighters

By the end of this month Telling Secrets will have been on the web for 10 years with more than 900 posts. Good reason for a trip back through the archives, I thought. Wanna come?

Half a dozen posts flagged "fire service" reflect my efforts to understand an unfamiliar world I entered when I married Chris.  

Read the descriptions below, or, to pull them all up, click here

Chris has also begun blogging about firefighting, chaplaincy, and more at

July 27, 2012: Cultural notes on the world of firefighters
Why motivates volunteer firefighters to do what they do? An exploration of the appeal of the uniform, the truck, the chance to serve, the fire service family, and more. (Read more).

August 6, 2012: Just a guy thing?
Those big red trucks down at the station seem fueled as much by testosterone as anything else. When talk of them comes up in mixed company, only the men's eyes light up at delight with the thought of tearing down the road in a fire truck, a high-powered toolbox on wheels. You might expect the fire station subculture to be utterly masculine. That was one of the questions I had about the fire district: Is this just a guy thing? (Read more).

August 8, 2012: What does the fire department really do?
From our very first date I could tell being part of the fire department was way more than a little hobby on the side for my husband and his buddies. Here are a few of the "aha!" discoveries that have helped me understand how this world really works, at least in Santa Clara. (Read more).

March 24, 2013: Motivating volunteers with meaningful work.
More than 70 percent of all firefighters serve as volunteers. When your workforce is made up of volunteers, it does change dynamics a bit. Your hands are somewhat tied. Both in terms of sticks and of carrots. (Read more).

June 14, 2013: After the MVA (motor vehicle accident)
Consider, for a moment, this nightmare scenario. You've been in a car accident. You're alive, but your car is mangled. You're pretty sure your body is too. Your leg is pinned under the dash, and you cannot move. Someone calls 911 and the police and fire department arrive. But what then? (Read more).

February 4, 2014: 2013 Santa Clara Volunteer of the Year
Serving with our local volunteer fire department costs those who serve, and their families, a lot. After making 244 calls in 2013, Chris was honored as Volunteer of the Year. Congratulations, Chris! (Read more).

Sunday, September 25, 2016

American History, the Great Migration, and Grandma Burnie

From the first pages of Laura Ingall's Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, I was hooked on pioneer stories. I loved to read about old-time frontier families crossing the country in a covered wagon, homesteaders, Indians, and girls in calico and sunbonnets. Since I grew up in Washington state, social studies class and school field trips reinforced those themes. They featuring tales of Lewis and Clark and the Oregon Trail.

Either missing altogether or mentioned without emphasis were stories of a migration that began a few decades after the covered wagon days came to a close. The Great Migration did just as much to shape our country, probably more. But I'm learning about it now.

You see, here in South Carolina, those Lewis and Clark stories don't do so much to capture the imagination. Not like tales of the day in 1865 when General Sherman and his troops burned down two-thirds of our town... and other important events from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War (sometimes called by other names), Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement.

And probably everybody knows something about the Great Migration. It was a series of several waves between 1910 and 1970 during which more than six million African Americans moved from their rural lives in the South to in the cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and West to take up industrial jobs (starting with WWI war factories). They were driven away by crop failures and Jim Crow laws, and drawn by job offers and the hope of a great new life in places that seemed to be Promised Lands: Chicago. Philadelphia. Detroit.
"Around 1916, when the Great Migration began, a factory wage in the urban North was typically three times more than what blacks could expect to make working the land in the rural South." (
They may have escaped sharecropping, segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan, but they still faced prejudice and discrimination. There were culture clashes, housing shortages, and race riots. But there were also things like the Harlem Renaissance and the rise of black civic culture. The early waves created thriving black communities in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis, with later settlements growing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Phoenix, Seattle, and Portland. No longer was the African American experience a rural one, but now, much more, an urban one. The migration far exceeded the number of Irish, Italians, or other immigrant communities whose stories are part of our national narrative.
"By 1970, when the Great Migration ended, its demographic impact was unmistakable: Whereas in 1900, nine out of every 10 black Americans lived in the South, and three out of every four lived on farms, by 1970 the South was home to less than half of the country’s African-Americans, with only 25 percent living in the region’s rural areas." (Learn more from
My interest in the Great Migration was piqued in learning about a local, 110-year-old African-American lady who recently passed away. She lived through all that, as explained by an SC House Resolution offering her birthday congratulations. Burnie, a sharecropper's daughter, dropped out of school in the fourth grade when her mom died; she had to help take care of her siblings and work on the farm. Married, widowed, twice. Raised children and buried some. When the land could no longer support them, Burnie and her family moved north in 1955 to seek a better life. She worked as a housekeeper in a few DC hotels. Didn't return to the South until she was an old woman. Never stopped praying, says a brief video on our local news.

An obituary states that Burnie Montgomery was survived by four of her children, 21 grandchildren, 46 great grandchildren, and 50 great-great-grandchildren, among others.

Added to my reading list the best-seller The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Need to Relax? Take the Train

After a busy week—including three days attending a conference at a nearby Christian college—followed by a busy weekend—with a 5K run and “afterparty” Friday night, three festival events downtown on Saturday, church, and two trips to the grocery store—I was ready to chill.

We found a soporific ending to our Sabbath with a dose of something soothing on Netflix: the Norwegian “Slow TV” program that takes viewers on the lovely train trip of more than seven hours from Bergen to Oslo. Although, just as I might on a real train, I indulged in a little multi-tasking (the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle), I couldn’t keep my eyes open past Voss.

See How a 7-hour train ride started a Norwegian TV revolution (CBC).

Interested? Take a look, or pull it up in higher resolution on Netflix. If you don't fancy the all-black portions from when the train went through long tunnels, find the edited version on YouTube as well.