Liel Leibovitz at The Moth from The Avalon Hollywood

The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.

In this story, as told by Liel Leibovitz, we hear about a boy growing up who finds out that his father is really a bank robber. It’s not something that most of us can relate to. But there is a larger story about the stereotype of what it means to be a man, and Liel’s journey to deciding what that would be for himself and his son.

We’ve all had relationships with our parents during our younger years, and for those who decide to raise a family of their own, there is that ever present past alongside the desire to make our own child raising decisions. Think about your own experiences, then as you listen to Liel’s story, and review the manuscript, identify the story blocks that you could develop to craft a story of your own.


I grew up in Israel in the 1980s, and my father’s mission in life was to make sure that his only son – me – grew up to be a real man. And so, as soon as I turned four, every Saturday he would take me shooting, which was funny because my arm was exactly the size of a Smith & Wesson .45. Two or three years later, when I was six or seven, my father would take advantage of Israel’s surprisingly relaxed car rental insurance policies and he would rent a car to take me on driving lessons, which were terrifying because even sitting in his lap I didn’t reach the wheel.

And every two or three weeks, there was a special treat. We would stop the rental car by the side of the road and my father would make me go out and change tires, whether the car needed it or not, because in his mind knowing how to change a tire was the epitome of manhood.

I really hated changing tires, and I really hated spending these Saturday afternoons with him, but he didn’t care, because he was inducting me to the International Brotherhood of Macho Men. Every chance he got, he would take me to the movies to see his heroes – men like Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris or Burt Reynolds. I didn’t mind these guys too much, but they were not my idols.

My real idol was a real live person named the Motorcycle Bandit. He appeared on the scene shortly after my twelfth birthday, robbing bank after bank after bank all over Israel. He was in and out of the bank in under forty seconds, never leaving behind any clues to his real name or identity, and he just drove people insane.

He got so popular that Israel’s most famous comedy sketch show – sort of the local version of Saturday Night Live – devoted an entire episode to the bandit, speculating in one bit that he probably never robbed a bank in Jerusalem because he didn’t particularly care for that
city. So you can imagine what happened the next day, when, in an apparent tribute to his favorite television show, the Motorcycle Bandit robbed his one and only Jerusalem bank.

People went insane. Women who worked at banks would write their names and phone numbers on little notes so that if the sexy heartthrob robber happened to hit them up, maybe when he got off work he would find their number and give them a call.

But the people who loved the bandit most were us teenage boys. For us he was a complete hero, and on Purim, which is more or less the Jewish equivalent of Halloween, we all dressed up like him – in a leather jacket and a motorcycle helmet and a big shiny gun.

So about a year and a half later, I’m thirteen and a half, I’m walking home from the eighth grade, and no one’s home, so I sort of mosey over to the kitchen to make myself a snack. I hear a knock on the door, but it’s not a tap-tap-tap. It’s a boom-boom-boom. I open the door, and there are three police officers standing there. They’re not looking at me, and none of them are saying anything.

Finally, about half a minute later, one of them looks up and says, “Son, we arrested your father a while ago with a motorcycle helmet and a leather jacket and a big shiny gun.”

And I remember my first thought was, NO WAY! You think, you think MY DAD, with a beer belly and the receding hairline and the terrible jokes, you think THAT GUY is the Motorcycle Bandit? But in the hours and the days and the weeks that passed, I learned that he was.
The real story, as I soon came to learn, began about two years earlier when my father, who was thirty-five at the time and the son of one of Israel’s wealthiest families, was summoned by his father to have “the talk.” Now, if you’ve watched a couple episodes of Dallas or Dynasty or Knot’s Landing, you know “the talk.” It’s when the rich guy calls his wayward playboy son over and says, “Son, it’s time for you to grow up and be a man, take responsibility for your life and get a job.”

My father didn’t like that at all. So he stormed out of my grandfather’s office, and he hopped on his motorcycle – because, of course – and he drove to the beach, and he’s sitting there watching the sun set over the Mediterranean, and he’s thinking about his life. My father grew up in the sixties, so he believed in sayings like “do what you love” or “follow your heart.” So he decided to follow his heart, and his heart led him to robbing banks.

Now, as it turns out, he was good at it; he was great at it; he was an inventor, an innovator. He was the Elon Musk of the stickup job. And later I learned how he did it, and how he did it was incredible. He would rob a bank in under forty seconds, he would run out, jump on his motorcycle, drive around a corner, up a ramp he had custom-built, and into a van, where he would pause, and like some mad philosopher king, he would ponder this seminal, existential question of bank robbing, which is, “Where’s the last place you would ever look for a bank robber?”

And the answer is – and now is the point in the story where any of you contemplating this line of work may want to pay attention – the answer is that the last place you would ever look for a bank robber is the bank.

So my father would take off his jacket and his helmet and tuck the gun back into his pants, and walk out of the van calmly, around the corner, and back into the bank, which at that point was a crime scene sprawling with police officers. One of these police officers would inevitably run up to my father and say, “You can’t be here, sir, this is a crime scene!”
And my father would look at him with this dopey look and say, “Oh, can I please just make a quick deposit? My wife will kill me if I don’t”, and the police officer would say something like, “Sure, but be quick about it,” and my father would walk up to the bank teller and deposit the same exact cash he had robbed three minutes earlier. This being the 1980s and computers were still kind of new, he made the cash virtually untraceable.

It was a work of genius. He was so good at it, and he became so popular, that eventually he got cocky. He robbed one bank a day, and then two, and then two banks in two different cities. One time he was riding in a cab on his way to the airport when the urge struck. He told the cabdriver, “Would you mind stopping? I promise I’ll only be a minute.” It was literally true, he was only a minute. He robbed the bank, hopped back into the cab, drove to the airport, and flew off for an all-expenses-paid vacation in New York.

But you know how this story ends. Eventually he was caught. And after he was arrested, life got really weird, in no small part because Israel, as you may have heard, being a small state surrounded by enemies, has its own ideas about prison. And one of them is that prisoners get one weekend out of the month off to go home on vacation. The logic being that since the country only has one really secure airport, if you want to go ahead and try to escape through Gaza or Syria, you know, be our guest!

So every fourth Friday, I would go to the prison to pick my father up, and we would go out and have ourselves a weekend on the town. People would come up to him and high-five him and pat him on the back and say things like “Bandit, we love you, you’re cool.” But to me he wasn’t cool. And he wasn’t even the bandit. He was my dad, who had just done something so incredibly stupid that it landed him with a twenty-year prison sentence.

But even weirder than that one weekend a month together, were the three weekends a month apart. Because here I was, and it was Saturday, and there’s no shooting practice, there’s no driving lesson, no changing tires, no Burt Reynolds, and I didn’t know what to do.

So one afternoon I got dressed, which, by the way, was also an ordeal, because when the police searched our house, they took not only all of my father’s belongings but, because we were more or less the same size, also all of mine. So I put on one of the few outfits I had – which was this really ratty, disgusting purple sweat suit with the Batman logo up front, which I assume the police thought no self-respecting bank robber would ever wear.

I walked out and started walking around town, literally looking for a sign. And then I saw it. It was a sign above a theater advertising an all-male Japanese modern-dance show. And I thought about it for maybe five seconds, and then I did something that I’m pretty sure my father would disown me for: I bought a ticket, and I went in.

And I loved it. Here onstage were these amazing, elegant, graceful men, and guess what? They weren’t punching each other in the face, they were not riding Harley-Davidsons, they were dancing. And yet they were so secure in their bodies and their masculinities, and I thought to myself, “If that’s another way of being a man, what other ways are there?”

And thus began a two-decade-long process of trial and error – of trying to figure out what kind of man I wanted to be. And look, some of the things I learned didn’t surprise me at all. I love bourbon, and I’m the kind of guy who would watch as much sports as you would let
him in a given day.

But some other things were really surprising. Like some French poets moved me to tears. And even though bourbon was great, you know what else tastes really good? Rosé wine. And even though I’m really, really good at changing tires, if I get a flat now, I’m calling AAA. I didn’t share any of these insights with my father, because for one thing he’s not really the kind of guy who’s into insights. But, for another, by the time he got out of prison, I was already a man in full – it was too late for him to shape who I became in any meaningful way.

He still comes to visit from time to time, in New York, where I live with my family. And on one of these recent visits, he and I are sitting in my living room, not talking, as men do, not talk. And my son comes prancing into the room – my three-year-old boy. Now, that boy looks exactly like me. Just as I look exactly like my father.

And if there’s one thing in the world that boy loves, it’s his older sister. And if there’s one thing in the world that his older sister loves, it’s Disney princesses. And in prances the child dressed like Princess Anna from Frozen. I look at my son, and I look at my father looking at my son – who, by the way, looked amazing in this light green taffeta with a black velvet bodice and some lovely lacing – and I know that my father is judging me.

But you know what? I don’t care. Because at that moment I realize, strangely, that by going to jail when he did, he didn’t just free me up from the burden of this macho nonsense, he also freed up my son to grow up as a happy boy who can pretend to be whoever he wants to be, even – or especially – a pretty, pretty princess.

And I can’t tell you how grateful I am that instead of going through life mindlessly as two tough guys, my son and I are free to become real men.

[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]

Learn more about the coaching process or
contact me to discuss your storytelling goals!

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Leonard Lee Smith on The Moth Mainstage at the Paramount Theatre

The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.

In this story, as told by Leonard Lee Smith, we are treated to a narrative of how his Granny brightened the holiday season despite his mother’s divorce and the subsequent move from Alabama to Southern California.

Even though we’re watching his talk on video, Leonard’s delivery is one that can make us feel as though we’re sitting in his living room. You hear the emotion in his voice, yet the emotional swings are not dramatic. It’s subtle, yet powerful.

He allows us to be there when opening each heavily reinforced cardboard box filled with mounds of homemade Christmas treats. And he brings us full circle when he tells us about hanging Granny’s plastic poinsettia bouquet with the bells on his own door during the holidays.

How did you experience the holidays when growing up? Was there someone in your life who made the experience special? It may have been a family member, as was the case with Leonard, but it could also have been a friend who altered the spirit of the season.


It was Christmastime 1974. I was ten years old, but I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas that year.

The previous spring my mother and the man who was to become my stepfather – when all the divorces had been finalized and he and my mother could marry – had moved us from rural central Alabama to sunny Southern California. My brother and I were leaving behind our father and all our extended family. This would be my first Christmas away from Alabama.

My beautiful and elegant mother took to California like a swan to a royal lake. My soon-to-be stepfather was a California native. My very athletic little brother reveled in a temperate climate that allowed him to be outside eleven months of the year.

I, however, was a fat, awkward child with a high-pitched voice and a heavy southern accent. I was having extreme difficulty with the transition to a West Coast lifestyle. My first day at my new school, I walked to the front of my fourth-grade class to introduce myself. All I said was my name and where I was from, and the class erupted in laughter, with jeers of “He talks funny” and “He has a weird accent.”

It took the teacher nearly two full minutes to restore order, and she was angry at me for having caused a disruption. I was so disillusioned after that first day that instead of walking home after school, I went to a nearby gas station and used a phone booth there to try and place a collect call to Granny Smith, my paternal grandmother.

She was my biggest ally. I was going to ask her if I could return to Alabama and live with her and if she would send me the money for a bus ticket home. But despite several attempts the line was busy and I never get through. My mother was always encouraging, nagging, and badgering me to lose weight and always trying to help with that endeavor with whatever the latest diet craze was.

She had been a fat child herself, but with puberty she had gained height and lost weight and undergone the proverbial ugly-duckling transformation to become a great beauty in high school. She saw weight loss as the panacea of all problems and believed it to be the key to my happiness. She was very relieved to have me away from the annual holiday sugar binges and weight gain that my Granny Smith’s cooking provided.

Granny Smith was, for me, everything good about Christmas. Her language of love was food. She was an excellent baker and candy maker. She would cook for weeks in preparation for Christmas Eve, when all of her children and grandchildren would gather at her house.

Every favorite dish, dessert, and confection had been made to specification. Her table and sideboard groaned under the weight of all of the food. My brother, my cousins and I would burst through her kitchen door, brimming with anticipation, our arrival announced by the sound of five silver bells suspended from red velvet ribbons hung on a plastic poinsettia bouquet on the door.

Her house was tiny and saturated with tacky Christmas decorations and cigarette smoke. But to my childhood aesthetic, it was glorious. She sewed new pajamas for all of her grandchildren. She scoured newspaper ads, catalogs, and stores all over town to get us exactly the toys we had requested. She was interested in me and my happiness. She was my resilience. She was magical, and I missed her desperately.

It was Sunday evening, and I was moping around the house, dreading Monday and the return to school. Fortunately, there was only one week left until the Christmas break. I was longing for my familiar southern Christmas. That Thanksgiving we had spent with my step-father’s extended family. He and my mother had finally gotten married in Vegas over the summer.

His family were polite, kind people, but I did not know them and fit poorly into their established routine, and I feared that Christmas would be more of the same. The phone rang. It was Granny Smith. She often took advantage of the discounted long-distance rates after 7:00 p.m. on Sundays.

She spoke with my brother Todd and I chatted for nearly half an hour, asked us about our life, and school, and how things were going, assured us she had gotten us the toys that we wanted and they would be there by Christmas. But before we hung up, she asked to speak to our mother. This request made my brother and me very anxious.

When our parents separated they didn’t so much dissolve a marriage as declare war on each other. My brother and I knew that the campaigns and battles of this war could be long and brutal. My mother considered Granny Smith to be in the enemy camp. They maintained a civil but strained relationship. My brother and I were always worried that hostilities might erupt whenever they spoke to each other.

Granny Smith informed my Mother that she had sent a Christmas package and that it should arrive in the coming week. My mother said, “Thank you, but you didn’t have to do that. It’s very expensive to ship things across the country. I hope you did not have to spend a lot of money.” Despite their differences my mother understood and respected that Granny Smith was a woman of very modest means. Granny had been a widow for nearly thirty years and worked mostly menial jobs. For her, money was always scarce.

Granny said, “It wasn’t very expensive at all, and I was happy to do it.” They exchanged polite but tense pleasantries, wished each other Merry Christmas, and then said good-bye, and my brother and I breathed a sigh of relief. Sure enough, on Thursday afternoon after school the phone rang, but it wasn’t the US Postal Service – it was the Greyhound Bus Lines calling to say we had a package waiting at the bus terminal in Claremont, California.

My mother said to the clerk on the phone, “I didn’t even know that Greyhound shipped packages.” The clerk said, “Oh, yes ma’am, and we’re much cheaper than the US Postal Service because we don’t deliver door-to-door.” We have some of the cheapest rates around. My mother was a little annoyed by this since the bus station was nearly ten miles away. But the clerk assured her that the bus station was open twenty-four hours a day and that there was someone on duty at the shipping desk around the clock. We could pick the package up at any time.

So after supper we drove to the bus station. We went in to see the clerk. He confirmed that we had a package. And then he said to my mother, “You can pull your car around into the loading bay.” My mother said, “What for?” He said, “The package is too large to hand over the counter.” My mother said, “Are you sure you’ve got the right package?”

This irritated the clerk and he learned over the counter and addressed my brother and me and said, “Are you guys Lee and Todd Smith?” We nodded and said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Then this package is for you. I’ll meet you around back.” We drove us around to the loading bay, and the shipping clerk came to our car with a hand truck carrying a heavily reinforced cardboard box, large enough to hold a dishwasher or small refrigerator.

He said, “This barely makes it inside the maximum freight dimensions and weight restrictions,” as he hoisted the box into our trunk and went to get some twine to tie the trunk lid closed. My brother and I were giddy with anticipation on the drive home, wondering what the box contained. Our mother was not in such a good humor. She knew her ex-mother-in-law well and was suspicious of the box.

When we got home, we had to go inside and get our stepfather – the box was too heavy for us to get out of the trunk. He grunted and complained as he set the box down in the living room, and said, “What the hell did she send, a jeweler’s safe?” My brother and I tore into the box, and the smell of our granny’s house wafted into the air: a combination of fried meat, grease, furniture polish, and cigarette smoke.

There beneath wadded newspaper and excelsior was our southern Christmas. There were presents wrapped in colorful paper and bows to go under the Christmas tree. Neatly folded in brown paper was a new set of pajamas for both of us. There were also two five-count packs of Fruit of the Loom underwear in the appropriate sizes for us both. There was a countless number of decorative tins and repurposed Cool Whip containers.

We opened them to find mounds of homemade Christmas treats: Divinity. Fudge. Boiled chocolate cookies. Parched peanuts. A massive container of “nuts and bolts,” which is what southerners call homemade Chex Party Mix, but to which no prepackaged Chex Party Mix will ever compare.

A whole fruitcake. A chocolate pound cake. She even included our traditional stocking stuffers of candy bars, chewing gum, citrus fruits, and pecans and walnuts in the shell. The box was as bottomless as Mary Poppins’s satchel. As every sugary confection came out of the box, my brother and I shrieked with delight and our mother moaned in defeat.

Mother tried a last-ditch effort to hide all the confections and dole them out a few at a time, but each evening when our stepfather would come home, he would begin to search for them and our mother’s scheme would be thwarted. Eventually she just gave up and just left it all out on the kitchen counter.

Each Christmas that we spent in California, Greyhound would call and say that our package had arrived. Over the years many treasures arrived in the box: hand-crocheted afghans, an heirloom family quilt, homemade Christmas decorations. A check to help with the purchase of my first car. For me it was always the best part of Christmas. Even after I moved out of the house, the box continued to arrive. My friends and roommates at college were always astounded and delighted by the contents of the box.

My grandmother was able to package and ship magic and love. Granny is long gone and missed more each year. Since her death I have discovered in conversations with my cousins that Granny came to the rescue of all of her grandchildren at one time or another, softening what would have been hard and harmful emotional landings. She did it in such a way that we each thought we were her favorite. Granny had endured a sad and difficult childhood with a mother who suffered from mental illness. She understood the importance of a child having an ally when a parent fails them.

Each year, a few days after Thanksgiving, I hang Granny’s plastic poinsettia bouquet with the bells on my front door to announce the arrival of holiday guests. I have mastered many of her recipes, and last year finally managed a very respectable batch of divinity. When the Christmas season arrives, I lovingly remember Granny and cherish that the magic and resilience she gave me.

And during the holiday season, when I see a Greyhound bus on the highway, I think to myself, in the belly of that machine may travel some child’s Christmas.

[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]

Learn more about the coaching process or
contact me to discuss your storytelling goals!

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Aleeza Kazmi at The Moth from The Beacon School in New York City

The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.

I’ve always felt that storytelling should be a required course in high school, as it’s fundamental to how we formulate our thoughts and how we’ll express ourselves throughout our lives. I was delighted to discover this story by Aleeza Kazmi when she was still a student. (she’s a professional storyteller now)

Children of color often deal with issues related to identity when they’re growing up, and in this story, Aleeza recalls such an incident from when she was just six years old. Beyond her particular circumstances, it’s a narrative which speaks to the courage we sometimes need in order to express the fact that we are proud of who we are.


So I’m six years old and I’m in the first grade and I’m sitting at a table with my three best friends and we’re all really similar. We all wear the same clothes from the children’s place that our mom’s by us, and we play on the monkey bars during recess and we play house underneath the playground at St. Catherine’s Park, which was behind our elementary school. All of our names start with A, there is Anna, Amanda, Ashia, and Aleeza. We’re working on self portraits, and this is sort of an icebreaker project of the first grade. My teacher, Ms. Harrington, presented it as a way to get to know each other’s faces. These were gonna be hung up on the wall, and I was really excited because we were on our third day of self portraits and we were going to color them in finally.

I was super excited about this because my mom had bought me a coloring book over the summer and I learned how to color inside the lines. I learned all these, yeah, really excited about that, and I learned all these really cool techniques for how to draw properly. I was basically young Picasso and I was ready to show off my skills to my friends. I knew this was an extremely special project because Ms. Harrington had brought out oil pastels. Every table got one box, and every box had one of each color. I love oil pastels because I used there really soft, and so I used to take them and pinch them between my fingers and feel them melt into my skin almost. Because there’s one of each color in every box you had to be patient and wait for your color to not be used, and the color I wanted was being used.

I was ready to color in my face, and all of my friends had colored in their face peach, and since we were all the same girl, I figured I would use peach as well. So finally, peach was available, and I color in my face and I’m going slowly and I’m watching the oil pastel melt into the paper and I color inside the lines. It’s beautiful, and I look down and this self portrait, this girl I had just drawn, is exactly how I see myself. It’s like I’m looking into a mirror, and I’m proud, and I feel Ms. Harrington, my teacher, looking over my shoulder, and I get really excited because Ms. Harrington loved it when people drew well. And I was like, she’s gonna say to me that she’s gonna hang it above her desk, so that when people came in, they knew that I drew this amazing portrait.

I was getting ready for her to compliment me, and instead she looks down and she says, “Aleeza, that’s not your color.” And I’m confused by this cuz I don’t understand how colors can belong to people. So I start panicking and I’m like, Was I not supposed to use oil pastels? You know, did I do something wrong? What did I do wrong? I couldn’t figure it out, and I couldn’t find a way to ask her.

She didn’t explain further, she just grabbed the oil pastel box and started looking through it. Didn’t find the color she was looking for. So she went to the crayon bin. Now, every elementary school had this infamous crayon bin where little bits and pieces of broken of crayon that were unwrapped and disgusting and mixed together over years and years and years and never went away.

And I never used crayons. I always used markers or color pencils or something. But Ms. Harrington went to the crayon bin, and she’s rummaging through it, and she pulls out this crayon, and it’s this nub of a brown crayon that’s unwrapped and gross. Ms. Jill Harrington hands it to me and she says, “Lisa, this is your color.”

I still don’t understand it because how can colors belong to people? But I can’t figure out a way to ask her, and so I take it and she tells me to color in my face, and so I do. But crayon and oil pastel don’t mix together and they’re not friends and they don’t wanna be on the same page together. So I’m pushing in this crayon and I’m going in all different directions and trying to make it mix with the peach, but it’s not doing it.

I’m coloring outside of the lines now and I’ve colored into my eye and my lips and now’s red on my chin. I’m panting, and Anna, Ashia and Amanda are all staring at me and I’m embarrassed. When I’m done, I look down and I’m this grotesque monster that can’t decide if it wants to be peach or brown. I wanna scream at Ms. Jill Harrington, “Please do not hang this up, I’ll do it again. I’ll do it your way this time.”

But she grabs my self portrait before I’m able to say anything, and she puts it into the pile with all of my even tone, beautiful peach friends, and it’s hung up on the wall. I go home that night and I ask my mom, “Why am I not allowed to be peach?” And she explains it to me as well as a mother can to a six year old who’s going through an identity crisis.

You know, I’m not peach and your dad isn’t peach. She does her best, but I still don’t understand it, and I don’t wanna ask her cuz I don’t wanna sound stupid, cuz everyone else seems to understand this concept of color, but I cannot wrap my head around it. So I put this idea on a shelf and I don’t think about it again until the sixth grade when I’m in a new school, and we’re all asking each other questions like, “Where did you go to elementary school and what’s your favorite book?” Just trying to get to know each other a little bit, and this one boy comes up to me and he asks me, “What race are you?” Which might be a complex question. Some people, they can’t look at me and know what race I am.

I didn’t know what race I was because I never really thought about it, so I’m trying to look for an answer. I think back to this Jill Harrington and that brown nubby crayon, and I tell him, “I’m brown.” And he looks at me, and he’s so confused, and he says, “What do you mean you’re brown? Brown isn’t a race.”

I find the words finally and they come up, and this little six year old me inside is screaming, and then now I’m screaming and I’m saying, “Who are you to tell me what I am? If I say I’m brown, then I’m brown and deal with it.”

So this boy never spoke to me again, which is fine, because I finally found the words and was able to stand up for myself.

Watch Aleeza’s video, make some notes about what impressed you, then read the manuscript and watch again. You’ll see and hear it differently the 2nd time around. You will also notice a bit of editing. To avoid the talk from reading as a run-on sentence, the word ‘and’ was removed in several places.

[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth, or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]

Learn more about the coaching process or
contact me to discuss your storytelling goals!

Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest updates!

Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

Tara Clancy on The Moth Mainstage at the Avram Theater

The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.

I recently came across this video and knew that I had to share it as an example of how the lessons that we learn early on in life can change the way we see the world and our place in it. For Tara Clancy, one such lesson involved a shift from fear to choice.

She does so with a sharp sense of humor while taking us back five generations to set the stage for stories about her mom, her upbringing in Brooklyn, and a most unusual set of after dinner conversations.

It’s a revealing look at straddling cultures, spanning generations, and absorbing the wisdom that comes from interesting dialogues. Consider the experiences as you grew up which shifted your outlook on life. I’ll bet there’s a great story there.


I am a fifth generation native New Yorker. Yes. And while there is definitely something cool about that, there is also actually a downside. Like there was this moment when it occurred to me that while many other American families also first landed in New York City for the most part, at some point they kept going, pioneering their way west with little more than the rags on their backs and all of that. Meanwhile, my own family got off a boat, took two steps, looked around, and were like, good enough for me, forever.

I come from a place where discovering the great unknown means New Jersey. All right, well, it didn’t take me too long to realize that the reason for all of this was mostly fear, and that that fear pervaded everything. Where you live, what you do for a living, you just find the first solid thing and you don’t risk going any further. But as it turned out, my mother was something of a pioneer herself, although not without her share of false starts. So at 20 years old she had hardly been outside of Brooklyn, and when she did finally leave a year later, it was only because she married a guy from Queens, which she then called the country.

Anyway, they had a baby – me. But by the time I was two they had divorced, and to make a little extra money afterwards she had to take on a weekend job cleaning apartments. So the very first was this duplex filled with antiques and artwork and Manhattan skyline views. But as it winds up, it would be her last, because over the course of one year, she would go from being the cleaning lady, to the secretary, to the girlfriend of the multimillionaire who owned it, named Mark. They never wound up living together full time. For one, they were both divorced, so it was just kind of a been there, done that.

But also my mother had this philosophy, which was just that if you take somebody’s money, you have to take their advice. And so when it came to raising me, she wanted to do it her way, which she felt like had to be on her dime. So she would go on to spend every weekend with him, and then every weekday back home in Queens living this dual life for the next 22 years. And on the weekends when I wasn’t with my dad, I was right there with her. So together my mother and I had kind of become superwomen, able to jump social strata in a single bound.

Because of my mother’s plan my life was really never very different than anybody else’s around me. I wasn’t sent to some special school or moved to a penthouse, so I just kind of grew into your typical queen’s teenager. I was a walking cliche in every other way, except for the fact that I still spent every odd weekend talking and talking with this brilliant art collecting, croquet playing man at his mansion in Bridge Hampton. And when I say talking and talking with him, I actually really mean it. I don’t just mean we just sort of made some chit chat. I mean that after dinner, every odd Saturday, for 20 years of my life, he would look at me and ask me some enormous question. Something like, “If I were to tell you that the universe was infinite, how would that make you feel?”

And for that when I was five years old, right? But I just lived for it. And we would just talk and talk, and sometimes my mother would, would kind of leave us to it, and then she would come back in an hour later and she would be like, “Are you too gonna talk about the moon and the stars all night?” And that’s actually what she came to call them. Our Moon and Stars talks. So by 16 years old, like every other teenager, I didn’t wanna be away from my friends for five minutes, let alone a whole weekend. And so for the first time, I decided to ask Mark if they could come along. So I give him a call, ring, “Mark speaking, hey, it’s Tara. Would it be okay if I brought some friends this weekend? Yeah, that’d be fine.” Click.

He wasn’t one for small talk, right? So the problem wasn’t him. The problem was that some of my friends had no idea about any of this. Now, it really wasn’t that I was trying to hide it. It’s just that the details weren’t always easy to slip into conversation. Truly, the only thing I could compare having to tell them about all this stuff is just kind of like my own coming out. You know? I’d sit them down and I’d be like, “I have something to tell you, and I hope you find it in your heart to accept me. But I know a rich guy.”

But truly, I wanted them to come. I didn’t want them to be embarrassed, so I knew that I had to explain some things to them. And so literally here I am in the schoolyard one day at recess, and in one corner kids are just beating the crap out of each other. It’s how we do recess in Queens, right? And in the other corner I’ve pulled aside my friend who I’ve invited, Lynette, and I’m just sitting there and I’m trying to explain to her what it means to go antiquing.

But before you know it, there we are. Me, Lynette, her boyfriend Rob, piled into this little red civic. We’re flying down the highway heading from Hollis to here, to the Hamptons. And just for brevity’s sake, we’ll say Lynette’s, like Rosie Perez, Rob’s like Eminem. They’re in the front. I’m in the back, and as we’re getting closer I’m getting more and more nervous, and I’m trying to think of everything I haven’t explained, and I’m like, “Oh my God, did I tell you about the ketchup? The ketchup? Listen, you can’t put the ketchup bottle on the table. You gotta take the ketchup out of the bottle. You gotta put it in a little bowl with a spoon. Don’t ask.” And then I keep getting nervous, and more things, that I’m like, “Oh, guys, I got another one. I forgot to tell you guys. Listen, there’s no TV there.” And they’re like, “Dear God, what does he do all day?”

So that kind of led me to explain what we did after dinner, which wasn’t watch TV, it was the talks, the moon and the stars talks. So I should have said while I loved these talks, they actually were not for the faint of heart, meaning Mark didn’t care if you were some kid unaccustomed to this kind of thing. He was going to talk and argue with you like you were his peer and fully expect you to keep up. I just didn’t know if my friends were gonna be into that or if he was gonna be into them, but before you know it, too late, there we are, pulling into the driveway.

So the most shocking thing you first saw at Mark’s house actually was not the beautiful hand laid stone pool, or this enormous regulation croquet court, or even the historic farmhouse. It was just Mark himself. He was six foot 10, yeah, six foot 10. So here are these two kids from Queens, like, is that a man or is that oak tree wearing Chinos?

Likely because everyone completely ignored my stupid paranoia and were just themselves the day went without a hitch. But after dinner that night, when I knew the questions were coming, I couldn’t help but to be a little bit nervous again, and then of course, he just goes for it. He looks up at them and he’s like, “So if we were to presume we could fix all of the societal ills right here and now, where would you begin? Go.”

I mean, you guys gotta understand. Nobody is asking us these kinds of questions, right? And even though we are at an age where you might be starting to think bigger picture, you might be starting to think about what you wanna do for a living, we come from a world where it only ever felt like there were two job options. It was cop, not a cop. What else could there be really? You know, really.

Sort of like your parents, you took the first solid city job that came along and you held on for dear life, and you were proud, and you did your best, and you did it forever. So solving society’s ills. But of course, soon as he says it, I kind of look down, take this breath, and then I hear Lynette say something, and I look up, and now Rob has disagreed with her. And now Mark is sort of nodding along and just like that, it’s on.

And not just that one time. Most of these friends would come back for many more of these talks over the years. And while in a way it was this beautiful thing, of course, in another way it was a little bit sad because what most of them would tell you now is that those talks forever changed the way we thought of ourselves.

They really made you think that maybe there was a little more to you than you knew. And for some, certainly not all, but definitely for me, they even made you think like, boy, you know, if A) I like talking about these big things and B) the universe is infinite, then C) there’s gotta be some more job options than bus driver.

But truly, I think this experience gave us something that unfortunately I know my parents didn’t have. And that’s just when we came to that crossroad in life the next couple of years, we had the confidence to know that we had a choice. And so today I live in a whole other world, Manhattan, a whopping 20 minutes away from where I grew up. But that’s not because of fear. That’s my choice. Thank you.

Watch Tara’s video, make some notes about what impressed you, then read the manuscript and watch again. You’ll see & hear differently the 2nd time around.

[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth, or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]

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Sangeeta Bhatia: This tiny particle could roam your body to find tumors @ TED Talks Live

TED Talks Live were held at The Town Hall Theater in NYC, in November of 2015. I had the pleasure of attending all six nights to hear speakers present impactful Ideas Worth Spreading. This post is an analysis of a talk by Sangeeta Bhatia that explores new and smaller solutions in the fight against cancer.

Watch Sangeeta’s TED Talk. At one level her talk is rather technical, as it involves the latest, most advanced science, but her story allows the audience to see how the concept works by way of analogy, description, and visuals. If you’re trying to convey a complex idea to a public audience, this is a great example of how that can be accomplished.


(my notes in red)

In the space that used to house one transistor, we can now fit one billion. That made it so that a computer the size of an entire room now fits in your pocket. You might say the future is small.

One way to open a technology story is by making a statement directly related to your topic, but another technique is to offer an analogy that describes something completely different, but that shares a common feature. In this case, the feature highlighted is ‘small’, and it will remain a theme throughout her talk.

As an engineer, I’m inspired by this miniaturization revolution in computers. As a physician, I wonder whether we could use it to reduce the number of lives lost due to one of the fastest-growing diseases on Earth: cancer. Now when I say that, what most people hear me say is that we’re working on curing cancer. And we are. But it turns out that there’s an incredible opportunity to save lives through the early detection and prevention of cancer.

The focus pivots from computers to cancer, and Sangeeta lets the audience know that she’ll be exploring how miniaturization may play a role in the detection and prevention of cancer. We see that connection in another way, by saying she’s an ‘engineer’ and a ‘physician’.

If you click on the link to her bio, you’ll see that’s true, but in a short story there is rarely the time to go into any greater detail. And that’s something to remember. Two details change how we think about her, and yet it only took seconds to do so. Brief can still have impact.

Worldwide, over two-thirds of deaths due to cancer are fully preventable using methods that we already have in hand today. Things like vaccination, timely screening and of course, stopping smoking. But even with the best tools and technologies that we have today, some tumors can’t be detected until 10 years after they’ve started growing, when they are 50 million cancer cells strong. What if we had better technologies to detect some of these more deadly cancers sooner, when they could be removed, when they were just getting started?

Sangeeta uses two statistics to describe characteristics of tumors that few people outside the field of medicine would know. In this case, they point to the need for early detection. Before 10 years have passed, and before there are 50 million cancer cells. This type of framing applies to a range of scientific topics, as well as social problems. It follows the logic of, ‘the sooner we know, the better’. Consider whether this technique might apply to your story.

Let me tell you about how miniaturization might get us there. This is a microscope in a typical lab that a pathologist would use for looking at a tissue specimen, like a biopsy or a pap smear. This $7,000 microscope would be used by somebody with years of specialized training to spot cancer cells. This is an image from a colleague of mine at Rice University, Rebecca Richards-Kortum. What she and her team have done is miniaturize that whole microscope into this $10 part, and it fits on the end of an optical fiber. Now what that means is instead of taking a sample from a patient and sending it to the microscope, you can bring the microscope to the patient. And then, instead of requiring a specialist to look at the images, you can train the computer to score normal versus cancerous cells.

Sangeeta comes back to the concept of smaller (miniaturization) as a potential solution. And using a story block about someone else – one of her colleagues – she is able to highlight a solution that improves the detection of cancer. The framing of ‘instead of…’ with ‘you can…’ illustrates the notion that an existing process can be improved by implementing a new idea.

Now this is important, because what they found working in rural communities, is that even when they have a mobile screening van that can go out into the community and perform exams and collect samples and send them to the central hospital for analysis, that days later, women get a call with an abnormal test result and they’re asked to come in. Fully half of them don’t turn up because they can’t afford the trip. With the integrated microscope and computer analysis, Rebecca and her colleagues have been able to create a van that has both a diagnostic setup and a treatment setup. And what that means is that they can do a diagnosis and perform therapy on the spot, so no one is lost to follow up.

Once a new technology (or a solution of any sort) has been developed, can your story talk about how it worked? If you don’t have a story block that validates your idea, then it remains theoretical. Which is sometimes the case. Your story’s narrative can take us to the present moment with a desire to take the next step in the future. Probes have been to Mars, but humans haven’t, so your story may end with your vision of the future.

That’s just one example of how miniaturization can save lives. Now as engineers, we think of this as straight-up miniaturization. You took a big thing and you made it little. But what I told you before about computers was that they transformed our lives when they became small enough for us to take them everywhere. So what is the transformational equivalent like that in medicine? Well, what if you had a detector that was so small that it could circulate in your body, find the tumor all by itself and send a signal to the outside world? It sounds a little bit like science fiction. But actually, nanotechnology allows us to do just that. Nanotechnology allows us to shrink the parts that make up the detector from the width of a human hair, which is 100 microns, to a thousand times smaller, which is 100 nanometers. And that has profound implications.

Having taken the ‘smaller’ idea to one level, Sangeeta takes us to place that, as she admits, ‘sounds a bit like science fiction’. In this case, ‘smaller’ is not just some smaller device, but something so small that we can’t even see it. This is common for science related talks, as processes which occur at the the molecular or nano level, can only be imagined, which means the responsibility falls on the storyteller to bring their audience into that world.

It turns out that materials actually change their properties at the nanoscale. You take a common material like gold, and you grind it into dust, into gold nanoparticles, and it changes from looking gold to looking red. If you take a more exotic material like cadmium selenide — forms a big, black crystal — if you make nanocrystals out of this material and you put it in a liquid, and you shine light on it, they glow. And they glow blue, green, yellow, orange, red, depending only on their size. It’s wild! Can you imagine an object like that in the macro world? It would be like all the denim jeans in your closet are all made of cotton, but they are different colors depending only on their size.

And the way Sangeeta does that, is to compare a property that exists at such a small scale to something that everyone can relate to – their denim jeans – different size equals different color. While jeans are completely different than nanoparticles, we still get the picture.

So as a physician, what’s just as interesting to me is that it’s not just the color of materials that changes at the nanoscale; the way they travel in your body also changes. And this is the kind of observation that we’re going to use to make a better cancer detector.

So let me show you what I mean. This is a blood vessel in the body. Surrounding the blood vessel is a tumor. We’re going to inject nanoparticles into the blood vessel and watch how they travel from the bloodstream into the tumor. Now it turns out that the blood vessels of many tumors are leaky, and so nanoparticles can leak out from the bloodstream into the tumor. Whether they leak out depends on their size. So in this image, the smaller, hundred-nanometer, blue nanoparticles are leaking out, and the larger, 500-nanometer, red nanoparticles are stuck in the bloodstream. So that means as an engineer, depending on how big or small I make a material, I can change where it goes in your body.

In my lab, we recently made a cancer nano detector that is so small that it could travel into the tumor body and look for tumors. We designed it to listen for tumor invasion: the orchestra of chemical signals that tumors need to make to spread. For a tumor to break out of the tissue that it’s born in, it has to make chemicals called enzymes to chew through the scaffolding of tissues. We designed these nanoparticles to be activated by these enzymes. One enzyme can activate a thousand of these chemical reactions in an hour. Now in engineering, we call that one-to-a-thousand ratio a form of amplification, and it makes something ultrasensitive. So we’ve made an ultrasensitive cancer detector.

Once again, we have an example of how the idea becomes real, and we also come back to more of Sangeeta’s personal story, of what is happening in her laboratory. Instead of an ultra-technical description of what the tumor’s enzymes actually do, she uses a visual metaphor of how they ‘chew through’ the ’tissues’. They don’t have teeth, of course, but listeners make the connection and realize that the enzyme has a way to get through, and that’s all the audience needs to understand in order for Sangeeta to continue with the narrative.

OK, but how do I get this activated signal to the outside world, where I can act on it? For this, we’re going to use one more piece of nanoscale biology, and that has to do with the kidney. The kidney is a filter. Its job is to filter out the blood and put waste into the urine. It turns out that what the kidney filters is also dependent on size. So in this image, what you can see is that everything smaller than five nanometers is going from the blood, through the kidney, into the urine, and everything else that’s bigger is retained. OK, so if I make a 100-nanometer cancer detector, I inject it in the bloodstream, it can leak into the tumor where it’s activated by tumor enzymes to release a small signal that is small enough to be filtered out of the kidney and put into the urine, I have a signal in the outside world that I can detect.

The use of visual images is critical here, as they show, in graphic terms, what is happening. If the audience had to figure that out on their own, most of them would be lost. One of the most important uses of static or motion images is to say more than the speaker is saying.

OK, but there’s one more problem. This is a tiny little signal, so how do I detect it? Well, the signal is just a molecule. They’re molecules that we designed as engineers. They’re completely synthetic, and we can design them so they are compatible with our tool of choice. If we want to use a really sensitive, fancy instrument called a mass spectrometer, then we make a molecule with a unique mass. Or maybe we want make something that’s more inexpensive and portable. Then we make molecules that we can trap on paper, like a pregnancy test. In fact, there’s a whole world of paper tests that are becoming available in a field called paper diagnostics.

Alright, where are we going with this? What I’m going to tell you next, as a lifelong researcher, represents a dream of mine. I can’t say that’s it’s a promise; it’s a dream. But I think we all have to have dreams to keep us pushing forward, even — and maybe especially — cancer researchers.

I’m going to tell you what I hope will happen with my technology, that my team and I will put our hearts and souls into making a reality. OK, here goes. I dream that one day, instead of going into an expensive screening facility to get a colonoscopy, or a mammogram, or a pap smear, that you could get a shot, wait an hour, and do a urine test on a paper strip. I imagine that this could even happen without the need for steady electricity, or a medical professional in the room. Maybe they could be far away and connected only by the image on a smartphone.

Now I know this sounds like a dream, but in the lab we already have this working in mice, where it works better than existing methods for the detection of lung, colon and ovarian cancer. And I hope that what this means is that one day we can detect tumors in patients sooner than 10 years after they’ve started growing, in all walks of life, all around the globe, and that this would lead to earlier treatments, and that we could save more lives than we can today, with early detection.

Related to the previous comment about people going to Mars, Sangeeta takes the narrative beyond the laboratory and tells us her ‘what if’ story, which is a type of ‘better future’ story block. Anyone proposing a solution to a problem is, in effect, saying, ‘what if we implemented my solution? if we did, the world could be better for the following reasons’.

Many times speakers will conclude their story with an emphatic statement, along the lines of, ‘the world will be better’. You have to decide whether to frame your statement as a ‘could’ or a ‘will’. Just know that the audience may have their own opinion on the topic.

By using words such as ‘dream’ and ‘hope’, Sangeeta is clear on this point.

Thank you.

[Note: all comments inserted into this transcript are my opinions, not those of the speaker, the TED organization, nor anyone else on the planet. In my view, each story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these analytical posts is to inspire a storyteller to become a storylistener, and in doing so, make their stories more impactful.]

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contact me to discuss your storytelling goals!

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