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Melani Kaplan telling her story at the ALLSTARS: Forbidden Fruit StorySlam in 2023.
Photo by Art Montes.
Melani Kaplan telling her story at the ALLSTARS: Forbidden Fruit StorySlam in 2023.

Everyone could use a little more understanding. Understanding is a product of empathy, tolerance and forgiveness. It’s the glue that connects us all; hopefully this episode of Real Stories MKE will help spread a little more understanding around! This episode was hosted by Kim Shine & Joel Dresang, edited by Sam Woods and features stories from Melani Kaplan, Susan Schoeppel, April Leberfing, Julisa Mendez and Horace Tucker.

Episode transcript below from Ex Fabula's Real Storie MKE series.

Kim Shine: Welcome to Real Stories MKE brought to you as part of Ex Fabula’s work to connect Milwaukee through real stories. I'm Kim Shine.

Joel Dresang: And I'm Joel Dresang everyone has personal stories worth sharing. Ex Fabula builds storytelling through workshops where community members can explore their stories and develop storytelling skills, and Ex Fabula host to StorySlams where true stories get shared on stage. In this episode of Real Stories MKE, we're sharing five of those meaningful stories.

Kim Shine: Yeah, and this episode we're talking about understanding. As a noun, it means comprehension, but it’s true or meaning lies more in its definition as an adjective that's being sympathetic and compassionate to other people's feelings. Being tolerant and forgiving. Understanding is how we connect with each other. Seeing each other for who we are and allowing one another to be our truest selves. Respectfully.

Joel Dresang: Yeah. It's hard. It's, you know- but all of the great stories out there, there's a misunderstanding in there somewhere, right?

Kim Shine: Right. And then the resolution you find...

Joel Dresang: If everything goes smoothly, it's not a story. It's, you know, you want that complication in the middle.

Kim Shine: Kind of boring.

Joel Dresang: And a lot of times that complication is misunderstanding.

Kim Shine: So, should we get to our first story? All right. Well, our first one about understanding comes from Susan Schoeppel and Sue’s story shows us that a lot of the time, understanding requires more than just one person communicating with another. It's about empathy and respect. Here's Sue.

Susan Schoeppel: This is so exciting. Thank you. This is my first StorySlam, so I’m really thrilled. So yay, newbies. It's like being a virgin at the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's so cool. So, okay, well, misunderstandings, you know, they kind of happen in all kinds of different- for all kinds of different reasons. And I had a funny one sort of funny happened, just recently, my father…

Oh. How do I describe my father? We're Greek. That should start it. He's about this tall. Type A is where he jumped off the cliff. He is an engineer; an East Coast engineer living in New Jersey and just celebrated his 80th birthday. Yeah. Haha. Yeah. So, everybody who knows what having an 80 year old in your life- knows that stubborn doesn't begin to start.

Okay. So, my father is starting to age a little. 80, he should be. He's starting to slip a little. So, my brother and I decided it was time for this technophobic engineer to get a cell phone. He had not had one. In fact, he had only recently adopted the concept that phones didn't get hardwired into the wall. It was a bit of a transition.

So, I bought him the phone over the internet, mailed it to him in New Jersey because I'm not in New Jersey and he took it out of the box and proceeded to let it sit there for a month. I asked him to go and hook it up. I said, you need to go to Verizon, go someplace, have at it, pick a place, get your phone.

He didn't understand that once he took the phone out of the box- he figured out how to get the cord in the bottom. That plugging it into the wall socket was insufficient to get it to work. I’ll save you the next month. It was basically my brother and I on the phone with him saying things like “push the button! No!”

Awful. So finally, I had to fly to New Jersey.

Okay, I'm assuming the people are laughing, or people who have flown to New Jersey and understand why that's not exactly the beach vacation you're looking for. And to go and get a Greek intense father who really doesn't want this phone to hold on to this phone, let alone use this phone. I've been dreading it. My brother drove down from upstate New York.

He'd been dreading it. And by the time my plane had gotten there, my brother came out of my father's living room and said, “You talk to him. He doesn't understand *a bad word here*.” He's a good Christian. And he shouted it. So anyway, I try sitting with him and he's saying there are no buttons on this phone. “You keep telling me to push buttons.”

“The only button is on this side and you keep getting quiet when I push it!”

I tried for five minutes with him and decided we need to return this phone. So, I'm on the phone with Verizon trying to get this phone brought back because there's no way this is going to work. My brother had managed to take him to the Verizon store and get this thing hooked up. And the guy at the Verizon store, the Paragon's of Patience, gave up on him.

So, this isn't going to work. I'm like, all right, we're just we're going to have to put him someplace where he can be understood, where his problems are understood, and everything is fine. So, I'm on hold with Verizon. I know that's going to surprise you. I'm on hold with Verizon. Now I walk back into the living room, and there's my father with my 12-year-old daughter.

“That's right. Grandpa. No, no, no, don't push and hold. Just tap it. Yeah. See? You did it right. That's good. All right, now call mom. See? Yeah. Okay. No. No. Dragging. Dragging doesn't look like this. No no, no. Just take one finger, put it at the top and put. No, no. Keep your finger on the phone and pull down.”

“Yeah, see? You did it, grandpa!” She spent the most patient 24 minutes with him explaining his cell phone to him. And I think the misunderstanding was actually on my part. You see, there's not much that a daughter can explain to an 80-year-old, Greek engineer. A man who worked in the space program, a man who designed the HVAC system and the cooling system on Harrier jets and other secret projects…

I'm actually not allowed to know about. This is a man who time passed by. He didn't know when it happened. I misunderstood that he didn't know when it happened. And I think that me coming at him and my brother, who's a little bit like him, it was too much for him. The problem wasn’t in his misunderstanding, it was ours.

Because sometimes we have to have the patience with people that a granddaughter will have with her grandfather. And we have to in order to overcome misunderstandings. I think what we need to do is treat each other the way that my granddaughter treats her grandfather with loving respect, because that's how she taught an 80-year-old aerospace engineer how to use a cell phone, so I didn't have to kill him with it.

Kim Shine: And that was Sue Schoeppel. She spoke at a 2018 Ex Fabula StorySlam with the theme misunderstood. Great choice Joel.

Joel Dresang: Thanks. Our next understanding story comes from Horace Tucker, the second. Horace shared this story at a 2016 StorySlam with the theme fatherhood. As Horace explains, sometimes our understanding, especially of who we are, comes from the examples of those around us. Here's Horace.

My father celebrated his 75th birthday, on the 11th, February 11th. So, I'm gonna give I'm gonna give him his praise, his glory, because he created me. I don't have any kids; you know what I'm saying? And it makes me- Every time I meet a woman, she wonders, why I don’t have no kids. You know what my answer is?

I ain't got no wife. I don't want no baby mama. I want to- I want a wife, you know?

So, my father- My daddy is from Mount Bayou, Mississippi. I found out in my teenage years at 40-years-old, at 40-somethin’-years-old, I found out my father couldn't read. Don't feel wrong for me. Don't feel bad for him. At 40-somethin’-years-old, my daddy owned about 20 properties. He had been on his job for 20 years and had me living in Glendale, you know, graduated from Nicolet High School.

So, he did something right, you know. But he had his pride and joy, his pride and joy was a 1984 Cadillac. So, y'all know where this story is about to go. I got my hands on them keys. I took them keys, and I went to the movies, and I ended up crashing that car all the way up, and I didn't just crash it up.

took it home, parked it back in the garage, acting like didn’t nothing happen.

So, the next day, I had- it was 1994, the year I graduated. The next day, I was going on the college tour, so I knew I was about to leave, so I didn't have to deal with it. You know? He’ll get over it by the time I get back, you know? And, I jumped on that bus and I took that trip, and that just showed me who my daddy is.

But see, to understand who my daddy is, I got to give a backstory on my daddy. Imagine two of me, you know what I'm saying? That's my daddy, two of me. And my daddy back in the day- I grew up down the street- where I first originally grew up, was down the street from Rufus King off of 18th and Congress, Woo!

But let me tell you about my daddy. My daddy? He pulled up. When he pulled down the street. All the smart kids ran in the house. They ran in the house. Because when my daddy got out that car, if you was outside, he made you pick up trash. That's what my daddy did. He made you clean up that block because you was outside, you know?

And my name is Horace Tucker the Second, my daddy is Horace Tucker Senior. And I'm so proud of my daddy. And, I mean, I got a daddy. I know my daddy. Sometimes you go around people when you take it for granted. You know that. You know your daddy. Everybody ain't got that. Everybody ain't got it. but that's all I want to say.

When you come across somebody that ain't got no daddy, give him a hug. You know, because I know mine. And I got a good one.

Joel Dresang: That was Horace Tucker the Second.

Kim Shine: And, you know, I appreciate the fact that his father dealt, or his father was the reason or part of the reason that he came to understanding, because I feel like in my life, my parents are definitely people who I just take from, you know? Like I just- they don't necessarily have to say anything. I just look and analyze their life and their decisions and I'm like, man, I get it now.

I'm not as old, but I’m at the age where my parents actually had me. They were 35 and 36. Right. And I get it now. To some extent, I get it.

Joel Dresang: Right. Sure. Right. Yeah. That comes with time.

Kim Shine: Right. Should we do some UltraShorts?

Joel Dresang: Yes, please.

Kim Shine: Okay. You tell the people what UltraShorts are.

Joel Dresang: UltraShorts are very short stories that people in our audiences at the StorySlams will write on a slip of paper and they'll hand it off to the emcees and get them read on stage.

Kim Shine: That is beautiful, I love it. All right, well, this first one comes from anonymous. “I was three years old when my 16-year-old sister asked me if I wanted to help her make brownies from scratch. I asked, ‘how do you know what you're going to get?’ I thought from scratch meant you actually scratch the pan, and something shows up. So much for imagination getting in the way and creating a misunderstanding.”

“She didn't even understand my question.”

Joel Dresang: That’s a great one. Here's one that I really like. It's, again from anonymous. “I used to lie until I realized it was just an elaborate way to hide myself from others. I used to keep secrets until I realized they just keep the people I love from understanding who I am.”

Kim Shine: Yup. Keeping them in the dark. Sometimes when it's safe enough and you feel safe, opening up can actually be a really revolutionary kindness.

Joel Dresang: That's right. Understanding through truth.

Kim Shine: Yep. This one is also from anonymous. “My mother told me I could get pregnant from hugging a guy. One particular day at school, I hugged five and then my cycle was late. After a very awkward call to Planned Parenthood to discuss options, I realized my mom lied. I confronted my mom that night and her response? ‘You're 16 and in high school.’

Kim Shine: “‘You're an idiot.’”

I misunderstood because I totally thought parents couldn't lie to children.

Joel Dresang: And what was she thinking? Hugging five guys, right?

Kim Shine: I don't even know.

Joel Dresang: Okay.

Kim Shine: So back in 2018, Milwaukee school teacher April Leberfing explained that she tries to understand how the people around her need to feel loved. And before leaving the stage, the StorySlam emcee asked April why she decided to pursue that approach toward understanding. Here's April.

April Leberfing: I happened to work in the inner city of Milwaukee and by poverty by a million bajillion other reasons. I have children who come from extremely challenging circumstances. I have kids who tell me every year they wish I was their mother, and for that to be something someone says to you, I think is the highest regard you can get because no one chooses their mother.

That's just who you get. So, I think I took that highly into consideration when my dad told me that his dad never once told him he loved him, and my dad told me my whole life he loved me. And that resonated with me, because the thought that someone could go through their entire life wondering if a person in their life loved them, devastated me in my heart.

And so with my students, I tell them usually every day when they're hopping on the bus, “have a great day. Love you.” You know. And I tell them that, and I tell them, truly, I do love you. I you can love people in different capacities, but to- I wanted children to know they're loved even if they never hear it from a parent, a sister, a brother or an auntie, or an uncle. They hear at least by someone in their life before they're in adolescence or other situations that they want to find love.

Sure. All right.

Kim Shine: That was April Leberfing from a 2018 Ex Fabula StorySlam with the theme misunderstood.

Joel Dresang: You know Kim, one thing that I'm learning a lot from the stories in this episode is that a lot of times misunderstandings are because people are different, right? I mean, we don't all have the same brain. We're not always thinking the same way.

Kim Shine: Yeah, people are different and people are also looking through their own lens and not: realizing that.

Joel Dresang: Sure. And you brought this up before, but children. Yeah. No. Children see things differently. And we learn a lot about empathy and respect and listening...

Kim Shine: Yeah. So, I think that kids help us understand not only them but ourselves and how we respond and how we react to different situations so that we can also be just better people in the world.

Joel Dresang: So, the understanding goes both ways.

Kim Shine: It does. So, thanks to the kids out there.

Joel Dresang: Kim, our next story touches on the importance of making yourself understood so you can advocate for yourself. Julisa Mendez communicates mostly through sign language, but sometimes she creates her own ways of making sure she's understood. Here's Julisa.

Julisa Mendez: My name is Julisa and I go to South Division High School. I use a special device to communicate. I always try my best to speak up for myself and try to tell people my needs and wants. One way I also like to communicate is to use sign language. I know a few signs. I make some signs up sometimes to let my teachers and friends know there is a song that I really like listening to, Can’t Let Go by trio.

The way I sign for this song is by holding my arms up and growl like a grizzly bear. When I do this, my teachers and friends know what I mean. They know that I want to listen to my favorite song. I want to.

Unknown: Show them your sign.

Unknown: How do we do it?

Unknown: This, right?

Unknown: Good job.

Unknown: Woo Julisa!

Joel Dresang: That was Julisa Mendez, who shared her story at a 2022 event with Independence First, part of an ongoing equal access project through which Ex Fabula has partnered with several organizations serving individuals with disabilities. The project has been funded in part by the Milwaukee Arts Board, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and the WisPact Foundation. Hey, Kim, how about another UltraShort?

Kim Shine: Yes, let's do it.

Joel Dresang: I've got one here from anonymous. “My daughter didn't understand amount of time, so we measured everything in Sesame Streets.”

Kim Shine: *Singing* “Can you tell me how to get one?”

Oh my gosh, now I'm looking at you. I think that you should totally be, I can't even remember the name, but you should be that for Halloween. Okay. What's his name?

Joel Dresang: The Count.

Kim Shine: The Count. Oh my gosh. Yes, you should be The Count.

Joel Dresang: Just with my voice, though? Yeah.

Kim Shine: And this UltraShort here is from Zephyr. “My family is one of my favorite things about me. It's amazing. And we all understand each other's queerness. My mother is aromantic, my sibling is gender nonconforming and lesbian, and my brother is trans masculine. It's easy to be me when they're open about themselves.”

Joel Dresang: This is an UltraShort from Lisa. “My dad passed in 1994. My dad would always say, ‘I will eat anything, but don't give me soy beans.’ I could never understand that. Finally, at 46-years-old in 2011, I go to his home town in Saint Joseph, Louisiana, very rural. I asked what all those plants were out there. They said, ‘soy beans.’”

“I felt so connected.”

Kim Shine: Very nice. Well, Joel, our final story. This episode also deals with the importance of language and understanding. It was told by Melani Kaplan that a story slam in 2022 through an interpreter. Here's Melani.

Melani Kaplan: Well, hello, my name is Melani. This is my name sign. I grew up in Chicago. Now I was born absolutely, 100% deaf. The day they brought me home from the hospital, my mom said she knew. I was not able to hear. She knew.

I was the fifth, oh wait, fourth. I'm a little nervous. I have older brothers and sisters. Sorry about that. A little nervous here. Now all my other brothers and sisters would run around hollering, making a fuss, and my mom would say, “Shh! you're gonna wake the baby!” But I was sound asleep. Sound asleep. So, my mom knew at her core, I was deaf.

So, the odd thing for me was most kids who are born deaf don't later become hard of hearing, but I did. It's very, very strange. They can't explain it. It's a medical phenomenon. I became hard of hearing. Now, I can hear, and I can speak somewhat out of one of my ears. But now, I don't think like a hearing person, and I can't hear very well.

So, I'm the only person in my whole entire family who is deaf, and I use sign language is my primary language. My mom did learn to sign and she can sign with me, and my mom became my interpreter at family events. Like I said, no one else in my family learned sign. I am the only deaf person in my family, so I was the only one without access to language.

So...everyone who was hearing was similar and I was very different. I lost out a lot. The family would laugh and joke and eat and I would say, “what's going on? What are they saying? Why is that funny?” “We'll tell you later, Melani. We'll tell you later. we'll tell you later.” And I was left out. It happened over and over and over, and I got upset and frustrated with my family because they kept ignoring me and they're like, “oh my God, she's such a drama queen.”

And I felt very isolated. I wanted that connection. I craved that connection from my family. I love them so much, and I know the love was there for my family, but there wasn't language and that really did impact our relationship. So, you know, I did have some drama. I felt strong, I became a very strong person and expressed myself slowly.

But my- just like my dad, I was just like my dad. We grew up both angry at each other, both mad. And it was very interesting. Then my father aged and became ill. His lungs weren't working right. He had to do a breathing therapy. He was very weak. He, you know, he used to be very strong and was able to do all these things and our favorite holiday, which we shared was Christmas.

We love the lights. We love the activities, the decorations, the music, the shows on TV, our Hallmark movies. My dad didn't like the Hallmark movies as much. I love Hallmark movies. So, one of my best friends is deaf. They also don't have a family that they could associate with, and I invited them to come over to my house for Christmas.

Just stay with my family. And my family welcomed my friend. They welcomed the stranger into their house and then she became part of our family, and we developed our own traditions. So, my friend would come over, she would stay, we would cook. The two of us would watch the hallmark movies, and we would just have these best conversations all through the night.

And while the family was having a party, the two of us would talk. I finally had somebody I could relate to and talk to during my family events. I had someone to stay with during family holidays, celebrations, so that last Christmas I had seen my dad's health decline and I knew this would probably be our last Christmas together.

I had come to terms with that. So, my friend came over and the day before we had a party. So, we were in the kitchen cooking, getting ready for Christmas, and she and I were just having the best time telling stories, sharing this wonderful Christmas time. And my dad was having a lung treatment at the time, so he had to be attached to a machine that would vibrate very strong and hard to help get the phlegm out of his lungs, and at the same time, he had to use a nebulizer to breathe through.

That meant, as a result of these two pieces of equipment, he couldn't do anything. He couldn't hear anything because it was very loud. He couldn't read or watch TV because the vibration of the machine would not allow that. So, he just had to sit there attached to this machine for half an hour. So, he used to sit in the dining room and look at the kitchen to get these treatments.

That's where his treatment was located. So, he was watching us and I wasn't paying attention. I knew he was in the other room, but I wasn't really paying attention to him. So, at some point in the night, he waved me over and he said, “come here.” And he said, “I can see you signing with your friend in the kitchen, and I'm sorry.”

And I was like, “dad, what are you sorry for? What are you apologizing for?” He says, “I can see now why you wanted your friend to come to Christmas. You've always been alone. You've been so lonely growing up. And that's why you left the family. You'd go to parties, and you'd be by yourself. I don't blame you. I'm not-”

“I was mad at you, but I realized you weren't mad at us. You were alone. You were lonely. And I'm sorry.” And I knew at that minute my dad got it. He got it. And that was the last Christmas. That was the best Christmas and the best gift he could ever give me. Thank you.

Kim Shine: That was Melanie Kaplan through an interpreter at a StorySlam with the theme language. And we did get an update from Melanie, who noted that her father passed away about two months after their conversation. So, our thoughts are with Melanie. Well Joel, that is all the time that we have for this episode and also this season of Real Stories MKE.

But you guys know that there is more storytelling where all of these stories came from. Ex Fabula has been at this since 2009 and there is plenty of audio. There's plenty of video stories available at exfabula.org.

Joel Dresang: That's right Kim. The Ex Fabula-website lists upcoming storytelling workshops and StorySlams. You can check it out and join us at an event. Maybe even share one of your stories. You can also connect with Ex Fabula on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok and listen to more Real Stories MKE episodes wherever you get podcasts.

Kim Shine: Yeah, I'd like to see some of you guys in the audience just let us know. Come up to us. New friends are always great, new people to understand, right? Thanks to everyone who makes this program possible, including our Ex Fabula-staff, the storytellers, our producer JJ Draper and audio engineer Sam Woods.

Joel Dresang: For Real Stories MKE, I'm Joel Dresang.

Kim Shine: And I'm Kim Shine. Remember, everybody has a story worth sharing, so please think about sharing yours.

The hosts of "Real Stories MKE" are Joel Dresang and Kim Shine.