Lance Brett Hall

Stories Make Meaning. How Do We Make Stories?

Category: Personal

The Value of the L


I got some disappointing news this week. Nothing life-and-death, but definitely a blow to something I thought was more likely to happen than not.

As I was sitting, and letting myself feel disappointed over my morning coffee, I started thinking about how valuable the “loss” is. The usual platitudes always come to mind, and pass by fairly quickly: when God closes a window, etc., how we react to adversity matters more than adversity, character counts, and so on.

All of those are true and useful, and as I reflected on my own disappointment, I talked to myself a little about how difficult I find it not to take things personally. So in my conversation, I asked myself the question, “What actually happened?”

Nothing. Nothing happened.

This doesn’t mean my disappointment isn’t real or that I should scold myself for feeling it. The reality, though, is that nothing has changed, except for my own sense of how my own story will proceed. Not even that, in this case, what changed is my sense of the potential of how my own story might proceed.

So in this case, the value of not being able to put something in the “win” column was the reminder that persistence is a real thing. This sounds silly as I write it, but as much as any person thinks about quasi-buzzwords like vision, perseverance, grit, or any of those, they don’t often come into play when things are easy.

Years ago, I shared some (other) disappointing news with a mentor, whose one-word reply was “fuggetaboutit”. It was as comforting as anything could have been in the moment, and this time around, was a good reminder: the story goes on, it’s on to the next thing.

“Live a Great Story”


Megan and I were in San Diego a few weekends ago. An old friend worked on a new show at the La Jolla playhouse. In addition, seeing the southern part of Southern California and the San Diego zoo has been on our to-do list since we moved here.

Poking around some cute Coronado stores, I saw a decal stuck to the wall that simply said, “Live a Great Story”. It was apparently a decoration, or left over from some past display. If there had been a stack of them for sale, I probably would’ve snapped one up. Since I saw it, that sticker has been on my mind.

Here’s the problem: you can’t live a great story. You can only tell it.

I recently heard comedian Mike Birbiglia comment that people tell him “stories” all the time that aren’t stories. They’re just things that happened to happen to people. A story is something different. A story is information ordered in a particular beginning, middle, and end.

“Isn’t it wild? [Thing] happened!” is not a story.

In that same way, “living is a great story” is impossible. Life is boring a lot of the time. So much happens in our day that is just not worthy of narration.

I get it, though, that the “Live a Great Story” sticker is trying to tell us to live adventurously, courageously, to go out and find something that we can turn into a great story. That’s good enough advice.

But the fact remains that our days are filled with things that aren’t worthy of story. And sometimes, life surprises us during mundane events, and those make great stories.

Matthew Dicks writes about his “Homework for Life”: his practice of writing one or two things down every day that change us. That’s it: that’s the simplest criteria for a story. For example, Dicks won the Moth GrandSLAM event with a story about dropping his car keys on his shoe.

In that sense, you can’t live a great story, you can only tell one. A lot of really interesting things can happen to you. If your “story”, though, is, “Isn’t it wild, [interesting thing] happened!” It might be difficult to care. If something mundane happened, but it caused you to stop and notice the unrest inside of yourself, it’s possible to make a riveting story.

So, yes, go live a great story! But do your friends a favor and learn how to tell a good one, too!

Default Mode


I currently tutor in LA’s southern beach cities. Part of my work there is administering a series of tests to help figure out why a student is having difficulty reading.

A coworker mentioned to me once that we see a lot of students that are bilingual, or are from bilingual families. At about the same time, I started to notice this word on one test:


Its a made-up, nonsense word. The point is, based on standard English conventions, can a student look at that word and say “noiNGk”?

I noticed that if I were given that test on my first day tutoring there, I wouldn’t do well. I’d look at that word and pronounce two Ks, one at the beginning and one at the end.

I also noticed that I had trouble teaching kids “complex vowel” sounds. The big one for me was always “au”. That sound is usually the /au/ sound in “August” or “caught”. I couldn’t help pronouncing it like /ow/ in “ouch”.

I realized I have a kind of default mode. I’ve been speaking/learning German for (yikes!) 20 years now. When I see a word I don’t know, my brain has learned to shrug and say, “Must be German.”

A German-speaker would pronounce two Ks in “knoink”. The German word knecht and the English word “knight” have the same parent. We don’t bother with the K, the G, or the H, but Germans still pronounce the whole word as written. Germans pronounce the word aus with the same vowel sound as English “out”.

That’s my default mode, at least as far as new words are concerned. I wonder what my default mode is for other kinds of new ideas?



(Written on the road on New Year’s Eve. I originally published this on MeaningWell.)

This year is drawing to a close. I’m thinking about all the ways I’m going back to places I’ve been before.

As I write this, I’m on my way back to my Illinois hometown. My sister is driving us back from Rochester, Minnesota. Our Dad has been having trouble with his strength and stamina since the summer, and his doctors thought he would likely have to have a stent put in his heart.

When Dad had an angiogram, his doctors at The Mayo Clinic told him that no, what he needed was a quintuple bypass.

35 and Still Growing Up


I turned 35 this week. Labor Day is also our 1-year anniversary of moving to LA, so it’s been a week to reflect on getting older and making changes.

A while ago, I heard Susan Neiman interviewed on her book Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age, and some of what she talks about has stuck with me.

The main point I remember her talking about is screens: screens are inherently infantilizing. In an era when there are screens showing ads at every gas pump, growing up is subversive, especially when those ads being shown are geared towards idolizing youth and youth culture.

It’s been a good week to reflect on what I’ve accomplished in the past year, and what I haven’t. I’ve reflected a lot on how easy it is to fall into a computer/smartphone/device screen, and how it really robs me of my ability to direct my own time, my own energy.

It’s been a good week to reflect on the goals I’ve made, and the promises I’ve made to myself, which seem to be the hardest to keep.

It’s been a good week to not be so hard on myself.

The reflection these past few days has been good for me, that I can keep the promises I make to myself, as long as that promise is something little and doable.

I can’t promise myself that that half-marathon I planned on running in 2018 will be done. I can want that, but all I can promise myself is that tomorrow morning, I’m going to lace up and get that mile and a half in.

I can’t promise myself that MeaningWell will get enough business to fly me to exotic locations and make me world-renowned at huge conferences. That’s silly. I can promise myself that I’ll make that phone call I’ve been putting off.

So if you’re reading this, you’ve been a part some aspect of my life these 35 years, the last 12 months of which have been spent in Southern California.

Thanks for helping me make some promises to myself. Thanks for helping me keep some of them, too.

You Can’t Get Rid Of The Babadook


Warning: this post contains spoilers!

One of the many, many reasons I love Halloween is that it reminds me to watch a scary movie.

Horror isn’t usually my genre of choice. In the big picture, I love having a time of year when it’s all right to be spooky, to be scared, and to be cleverly morbid before we Give Thanks, and then celebrate Christmas.

In years past, Megan and I have fixed shortcomings in our movie knowledge, like watching The Exorcist. This year, she and I watched The Babadook.

Home and Heimat As Seen from a Pickup Truck Crossing the Mississippi


Last week, I got back from a trip to Iowa City, Iowa, where I presented at The Examined Life Conference (there’s a whole post of my thoughts on the conference over at my medical narrative blog, MeaningWell).

I traveled to Iowa City via Chicago and Princeton, my hometown(s). Not only was it cheaper to fly though O’Hare than it was to fly through Iowa City’s airport, it was a nice chance to be in Chicago and visit my family.

Since my last post when Megan and I were in Los Angeles for her interview, she got the job. Then I got shingles (there are some thoughts on that over at MeaningWell, too) and when I was mostly recovered from the shingles, we moved to LA. Illinois has been home for most of my life, except for four years in Ithaca, New York, and a year in Rastatt, Germany. Even then, I always knew I’d be coming home to the prairie. Chicago has been home for eleven years.

I knew it would be an adjustment moving to a new place, and I knew it would be an adjustment moving from my Midwest home to the Pacific coast, even if I was moving from the third largest city in the US to the second.

I don’t know if I knew how big an adjustment it would be.

Los Angeles is nice, don’t get me wrong. Megan and I live pretty close to USC where she works, so Megan is the one and only person in LA who doesn’t drive to work. We can hop on the Expo line and be downtown in a few minutes, or stick our toes in the Pacific Ocean within 45 minutes, which isn’t something I’ve ever been able to do before.

Between the stress of finding an apartment in one of the country’s most expensive housing markets, the bewildering paperwork necessary to get a California driver’s license, the traffic, the unfamiliarity, the unchanging weather (nice as it is), I’ve been longing for home. I wouldn’t call it homesick, exactly, but I viscerally miss my City of Broad Shoulders and my big, open Prairie.

The Examined Life Conference came at exactly the right time: about a month and a half after we moved here. I flew into O’Hare at night. There’s nothing like seeing The Grid of Chicago at night, and seeing downtown’s skyscrapers laid out, like little lighted miniatures below.

I stayed with some of Megan’s long-time friends, then took a train to Princeton. I saw my family, went back to my alma mater, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, to see the completed IN2 and some old friends. Then, a day later, I took off — for the full Midwest experience — in my Dad’s pickup truck across the Mississippi to the conference.

When I returned, my sister and I went camping on our farmland with her dog, Bo. As nice as the eternal warm sunshine of Southern California is, there’s no comfort like a campfire on a cool autumn night. Yes, there were marshmallows and hot dogs around the fire.

After a train back to Chicago and a night on the couch of an old IMSA friend, I left the grid behind me, and am back in LA, where my wife and I have explored Hollywood and Little Tokyo.

Grauman's Chinese Theatre
The two of us at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

Los Angeles is a fun adventure, but it certainly doesn’t feel like home yet, if it ever will. I suppose the fact that everyone is excited for the Dodgers, who are going to the World Series instead of my Cubs, who cubbed themselves and collapsed under pressure, doesn’t help. This has made my wife a little edgy (the fact that it doesn’t feel like home, not the Cubs being eliminated). Living apart from my wife isn’t an option, and she now works at USC. It brings up an interesting question, which my wife — in her own way — has asked: “Isn’t home wherever we’re together?”

It is. But Home and home are two different things. German can help with this. There are two different words for “home” in German. A physical building, a “house”, in German is a Haus. Then, if you’re “at home”, you’re zu Hause, which, as a noun, is your Zuhause, your home. There’s also a completely separate word for one’s childhood or ancestral home, often translated “native land”, but it’s much cozier than that: it’s your Heimat. There’s an entire genre of German cinema called Heimatfilm, all about that person who left the country for the city, and who returns to their cozy, rural home. I never thought I could really relate to a German made-for-TV Sunday movie, but here I am. A corn farmer in LAX’s flight path.

So my wife is right.

I like our home, our little LA apartment. The boxes are thinning out, we’re finding a place for everything, and we’re enjoying exploring the diverse neighborhoods around us. Wherever we’re together is home, because that’s likely to be several different places, cities, states, or regions of the US before we finally settle down. That’s a comfort.

Sunrise over rural Illinois
Waking up from camping

It’s also a comfort that I have a Heimat. My x-times-great, Revolutionary War veteran grandfather is buried in North Central Illinois. My grandfather’s ashes are spread over our Illinois farmland. I met my wife in a café at North and Damen and Milwaukee in Chicago, and I proposed to her at Montrose Harbor looking out over the skyline. We were the third generation to be married in Kasbeer Community Church in Kasbeer, Illinois (which is about the smallest village you’ve ever been in, and about the prettiest little country church). No matter where we go, no matter where our family home is, I can still have a Heimat to love.

By the Ice Machine of a Los Angeles Hotel


Megan and I are in Los Angeles this week for her research.

I saw this when I went to get ice:

Wrapped bouquet of flowers on top of a trash can

For a long time, I’ve wondered about images and storytelling. It seems like a big question: “Can an image tell a story?”

We talk about a story as a series of events unfolding in time: there’s a problem, an obstacle to solving that problem, and a solution to that problem. It’s rare and difficult to find all three present in the same static image.

Once in a while, though, there’s an image that’s so strong, that the mind can’t help filling in all the possible stories: Who gave the flowers? Why? Was it an apology? Why didn’t the recipient want them? Why did they end up discarded by the ice machine… with the plastic wrapper still on?

The mind is built for stories, and when it has a sense that there should be one, it starts to wander.

(Hat tip to my old friend Tom for inspiring the title.)