FGS: Being Different-Stories of not fitting in

I’ve been thinking about this theme for a week trying to come up with a story of how I discovered my own weirdness as a kid and I’m starting to realize there are just too many moments to choose from. Some of them are obvious. My mom was a New York Jew with an accent and strange vocabulary (no one in Alaska knew what a shmuck was.) And some are more subtle. I would spend hours alone in my room memorizing both heavy metal lyrics and Broadway show tunes.

The thing they all have in common, though, is that for most of my life I hated those memories. I hated that I felt different. I didn’t like growing up with a mother who was an atom bomb compared to the scented candles who were my friends’ mothers. I wasn’t happy that I liked reading more than baseball and Blazing Saddles more than Star Wars. The first 25 years of my life were spent feeling like that little black speck in a bag of white rice that the instructions said to sift out before cooking for rest results.

It’s only in the last couple of years that I’m starting to see the benefits of being a little different. Last week in a meeting, one of the managers in the agency I work for said that he needed help explaining to employees that they had the “autonomy to do their jobs.” No one knew what he was talking about. Was he saying that we had permission to do our jobs? The authority to do our jobs?

So I raised my hand and said, “I think what’s confusing is the word autonomy. Maybe you should use the word ‘trust’. What if you said that you trust people to do their jobs in the best way they see fit.” He looked at me for a second and said, “Yeah, trust. That’s a good word. I hadn’t thought of that.”

I could see people around the room nodding to themselves and slowly starting to see how we should have been using “trust” all along because it’s a word we’re all more familiar with. What surprised me was that there were so many people in that room with more education than me. They also had a lot more experience writing for the government. The only thing I had on them was 20 years experience talking to strangers around the country. And the only reason I had that experience was because I had this crazy idea once that I wanted to be a comedian. The reason I had that crazy idea was because my mother was an actress, and going onstage and talking to strangers was a perfectly reasonable career move.

But that was the weird world I grew up in. Listening to my mom practice her lines for Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit in the kitchen was mortifying when my friends were over but strangely comforting when it was just me and her. It all seemed perfectly normal. Actors rehearsed their lines. Future comedians sat on their bed and wrote jokes they would tell the next day in math class. I knew better than to tell anyone I wanted to grow up and do it for a living but I also knew better than to pretend I didn’t have that dream. So I kept that little bit of madness inside me until it hurt more to keep it inside than it did to walk onstage and finally accept it.

Many years later, after realizing I couldn’t live the life of a comic anymore, I quit and got a real job. It was a job where comedy and storytelling were not part of the position description. Except that slowly, people started noticing how well I was able to connect with anyone who walked in the door. Sometimes it was a street person and sometimes it was the governor. Whoever it was, I seemed to be able to talk to them in a way that made them want to listen. The reason I could do that was because I spent all those years trying to figure out how to talk to coal miners in Butte, dairy farmers in Wisconsin, cowboys in Abilene, and wealthy executives in whatever golf club was crazy enough to hire me.

That weird little desire I had to write the perfect sentence led me to be able to raise my hand in a conference room and tell a powerful guy in a suit to use a different word if he wanted to be understood. While everyone around me in that room was getting masters degrees in public administration I was learning how to tell stories to truckers, teachers, cops, and doctors. All my life I just saw myself as a guy who told stories in a corner somewhere to people he’d never see again. I did it because I had to and if I stopped it would kill me. But last week, a bunch of people wearing clothes I can’t afford who drive cars I’ll never own looked at me with a respect that I always thought I deserved but never thought I’d get.

I was the kid who wrote stories and jokes while everyone else was studying math or building something in shop class. The kids in my school grew up to be engineers and lawyers, construction workers and auto mechanics. No one I knew grew up to be a writer or a comedian. Despite my mother’s success, I figured the best I could hope for in life was to work in a bookstore and have two close friends who liked my stories. Now I realize that what I thought was a curse was only a curse because I never thought it could be anything else.

No one outside of a comedy club or theater ever cared about the hours I spent figuring out the best way to say something. Most days I assumed the world would be a better place if I had turned out to be a welder. Now, I guess, I’m seeing things a little differently. The managers I talked to in that meeting had spent months trying to craft that one sentence. But they had never bombed on stage in front of a room full of dairy farmers in Madison, Wisconsin. They never had to go back to their hotel room and stay up all night trying to figure out a better way to get their ideas across.

My lonely desire to write and perform has transformed into a way for me to help people be understood. One of the greatest surprises of my life is finding out that this thing I care so much about is somehow valuable to others.

And that’s the kind of story we’re looking for this month. Tell us about a time when you realized you were different or didn’t fit in somehow. Did you forge your own path or try to assimilate? Did you figure out how to make it work for you or did you spend years wishing you were like everyone else?

Remember to keep it clean, practice out loud and on friends as much as possible, and time yourself so you know it’s under 8 minutes.

Here are the rules and guidelines for telling a story if you haven’t seen them in a while.

https://freshgroundstories.com/2013/01/22/storytelling-rules-and-guidelines/

I hope to see a bunch of you on Thursday, April 26 at Roy Street Coffee and Tea

Paul
freshgroundstories@gmail.com

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Thank you

Thanks to everyone who came out to the show last Thursday and made it the best night of the week for me. We heard some amazing stories and got to know a bunch of first-timers. Some of you know that I never advertise FGS because I only want people showing up if someone personally told them to come. That means most of the folks who come out are there because someone in their life thought they’d be a perfect fit for what we do. I think that’s a big reason why each show feels so special to me.

As usual, we learned a lot that night. We learned that Arlene will risk her life to search for her iPhone in near-blizzard conditions. We also learned that Siri really isn’t our friend since she never once yelled out from that snowbank, “Turn back Arlene! Save yourself!” No, Arlene kept plowing through hip-deep snow searching in the dead of night for her electronic friend. I’m pretty sure if she had dropped her phone in the Mediterranean she would have found the Lost City of Atlantis on her way to rescuing it.

We also learned that Leonard, a psychotherapist for 55 years, isn’t afraid to turn the tables on himself. If a therapist isn’t afraid to dive into his deepest fears and insecurities and scream “Please accept me!” on the radio with thousands of people listening then why should the rest of us have such a problem doing the same thing? If you hear a news report next week of a guy in the food court of the Northgate Mall screaming, “Why don’t you people love me?!” it’ll probably be me. Usually, I’m more subtle in addressing my darkest compulsions but Leonard has inspired me. We’ll see what happens.

Obie, one of our regulars, told an amazing story of the time he spent in Namibia working for the Peace Corps. His story wasn’t just about the work he did in southern Africa it was also about the natural biases he discovered within himself before, during, and after his work there. It’s a story that I believe should be told far beyond Roy Street and FGS. I’m going to do what I can to get him an opportunity to tell it before a wider audience. If anyone is interested in learning more about what Obie was struggling with, do a search for “Harvard Implicit Bias Test.” I’m not sure I have the courage to take it myself right now but I’d love to hear what other people’s experiences are.

Our last storyteller of the night was referred to me by one of our regulars and I am so grateful she thought to introduce him to me. Kent Whipple is a treasure. If you see him tell him I said that. I asked him to tell a particular story that he told last year at a Moth grand slam and it was just as wonderful as I thought it’d be. Thank you, Kent, for staying to the end of the show to tell that story since I know you had another show to get to across town.

Thanks again to everyone who told that night:

David, Arlene, Marty, Gus, Debra, Obie, Vidya, Andrew, Leonard, Aimee, Karen, and Kent

Our next show is April 26. The theme is “That’s different – Stories of not fitting in.” Bring a story about a time when you realized you were different or somehow didn’t fit in. I’ve been sitting on the couch all night trying to think of a time when I did fit in and I’m still sorta struggling with it. I’m sure I fit in somewhere. I must, right? Fortunately, we’re looking for stories about not fitting in so we should have a full lineup for April’s show. Telling true stories to strangers in a coffee shop isn’t exactly the national pastime so if you’re reading this email you’re probably someone like me who’s spent a lot of time wondering where they belong in this world.

I’ll get out the official invite as soon as I can.

In the meantime, you can check out the Moth version of the story Kent told at our show Thursday.


Take care. I hope to see you on the 26th

Paul

freshgroundstories@gmail.com

See you this Thursday!

Hi Everyone,

Just a quick reminder that our next show is this Thursday. I hope some of you are bringing stories to tell because the theme is one that comes up a lot in my life. I can’t wait to see how some of you have gotten over being humbled 🙂

We also have a special guest teller I asked to close out our show that night with a story he told at a recent Moth Grand Slam.

FGS: Stories of Being Humbled

Thursday, Mar 22, 2018, 7:00 PM

Roy Street Coffee & Tea
700 Broadway East – Seattle, WA

53 Story Fans Attending

This month’s show is all about being humbled. I have approximately 2,475 personal experiences that I can draw from. I’m guessing each of you has a number close to that. Meetup just cut way back on the amount of space I have to describe each meetup so if you’d like to see the story I wrote for this month’s invite click on the link below. https://fre…

Check out this Meetup →

 

Lastly, I want to let everyone know that one of our storytellers was featured last week on KNKX’s “Sound Effect” show. The show’s host, Gabriel Spitzer, was looking at some of the past thank you wrap-ups I put on the blog and asked if he could have Elliot on the show. I was super excited to put Gabriel in touch with him. Click on the link below to hear about Elliot’s journey from Iraq war vet to phone sex operator.

http://knkx.org/post/war-zone-soldier-found-his-calling-phone-sex-operator

If you have an extra few minutes you can spend it listening to a new Moth story I just discovered. I love this story because it plays out exactly like most of my own adventures do. It starts with a bad idea, leads to a realization that no one knows what they’re doing, and ends up with everyone singing to a baby. Nice, right?


Looking forward to seeing everyone on Thursday!

Paul

freshgroundstories@gmail.com

FGS: Stories of Being Humbled

I spent the last three months of 2017 searching the internet for a car to buy. My old car, a 1990 Toyota Corolla, had almost 270,000 miles on it and the calls to AAA and various friends for rides when it died were getting on my nerves. My buddy Lex, who had spent the last 40 years buying and selling everything from cars to pen knives, offered to help. He had helped me get the Corolla 15 years ago and now he was excited to help me get a car that hopefully had been built in this century.

For the next three months, Lex sent me to links to cars all over the country. Auctions, CraigsList ads, classified ads, there wasn’t a corner of America that Lex wasn’t poking his nose into to find me a car. He routinely flew all over the country to pick up all kinds of vehicles that he would drive home to Seattle and sell at a profit. It’s a weird job but Lex was great at it.

Finally, a week before Christmas we found the perfect car. It was a 2010 Prius that the Helena, Montana city government was selling at auction. At first, I thought it was one of those drug deal cars sheriffs confiscate sometimes but Lex, in his wisdom, assured me that no drug dealer would drive a Prius as they make terrible getaway cars. I went nuts for 10 days watching the auction as Lex called me every day to make sure I didn’t bid too early. “Pauly,” he said, “You gotta swoop in at the last second to get these cars. Don’t tip your hand too soon or they’ll know you want it. Ya gotta be sneak up on these deals.”

So I kept to the shadows as the auction neared its closing date. In the final 60 seconds, I swooped in and got the car. I couldn’t believe I’d done it. It went just the way Lex said it would. “That’s how we do it, Pauly! That’s how we do it!”  he yelled at me over the phone when I told him I’d won.

Two weeks later he told me wanted to drive down from Burien where he lived and take me to SeaTac so I could catch a flight to Helena and bring the car back. I said, “Lex, why don’t I just drive up to your place and park my car there? You only live five minutes from the airport.” Lex was having none of that. He had just scored a great deal on a late model Cadillac with all the options and he wanted to show it off. He was so happy when he picked me up at 6am that morning in Olympia. The seat warmers were going full blast. The dashboard was all lit up telling us how much air pressure was in the tires, what the temperature was in the trunk. It was probably calculating my BMI as I settled into the seat. “Pauly,” he said, “One day we’re going to get you a car like this. You’re going to go to all your shows in style.”

As usual, we talked about a million things on the ride up. I remember telling him how proud I was of my son that he was going to college and Lex said he couldn’t wait for my kid to move out of his mother’s house. My son grew up mostly with me but when he was 20 he moved in with his mom. It didn’t bother me that he moved out. What bothered me was what he moved into. The first week he was over there he said he lost the cat on the kitchen counter. When I went over there to see what he was talking about I saw immediately how you could lose a full grown cat on a kitchen counter. You couldn’t even see the counter for all the dishes, food and small appliances that cluttered it. The entire house was that way. I knew it had gotten worse over the years when my son would come home and mention it occasionally, but I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten.

Whenever Lex would ask how my son was doing I would tell him how angry I was that my kid was living in such a place. It was one of the few things that still upset me about my son’s mom. We had worked through most of our problems and had come together on a lot of stuff, but this hoarding business, it really upset me. And Lex heard all of it. He wanted my kid to move out as much as I did.

When we got to the airport he gave me a hug and off I flew to Helena to drive my new car home at 10 below zero. I called Lex multiple times during that drive to ask him what some mysterious icon meant that would pop on on the dashboard.

“It just means the tire pressure is low. You can make it home, no problem,” he told me at midnight. At 2am he returned one of my texts as I was climbing a pass in Idaho. “I have no idea what the B means on the shifter. It’s probably something goofy the Toyota engineers thought of after a night of drinking just to mess with us. Keep it in D all the way.” Meanwhile, I knew he was Googling the letter B to make sure I wasn’t going to slide off the road and into a ditch somewhere east of Coeur d’Alene.

I got home 13 hours later and collapsed into bed. I called Lex the next day to tell him I was safe. He said we had to meet up soon at his favorite Starbucks so he could see the car. Over the next few weeks, we made a lot of plans to meet up but could never make it happen. And then one day he stopped returning my calls. And my texts. And my emails.

Finally, I drove up to his house to see what I’d done to upset him. We’d rarely argued and even then one of us would always call the next day and work things out.

As soon as I pulled into his driveway I knew why he had always come down to my place and had never asked me over to his. The yard was full of cars. Some wrecked, a few maybe still working. I walked to the side of the house and saw piles of junk alongside it. I walked to the back and saw so much garbage leaning against the back door no one could have gotten through it. I peeked in one of the windows and saw papers stacked up to the ceiling.

I banged on all the doors and windows but there was no answer. I called 911 and asked them to do a welfare check. I said, “I think something’s happened to my friend.” The dispatcher transferred me to a police officer. I told him where I was and heard him flipping through some papers. Then he said, “I’m sorry Mr. Currington. Something did happen to your friend. We found him in his bedroom a week ago. It looks like he had a heart attack.”

Lex was 60. He lived alone. He had laid on the floor for two days between his bed and a pile of stuff with his hands clutched to his chest before anyone found him. Lex had made plans to take another friend to the airport that week. When he didn’t call the day before the flight to confirm the pickup time his friend got worried and called the police. It was that friend and the police who found him.

The last thing he wrote me was a text saying that someone had noticed he’d lost some weight. For months, Lex had been thanking me for inspiring him to lose weight. I’d been talking to him about it since I’d joined Weight Watchers in 2007. I’d tell him what meals I was making for the week. He’d tell me about some new diet he was trying and then a few weeks later he would noticeably stop talking about it. Now, after 10 years of stops and starts, he was finally getting in shape. You could hear the joy in his voice when he’d call to tell me some new milestone he’d reached. “Pauly,” he said once last winter. “I walked three miles today. I’m so grateful you never gave up on me. I’m finally turning it around.”

And there I was, so proud of myself for getting my friend to eat healthier and exercise, but in my arrogance, I managed to push him away just enough over the years that he never let me see his home. He didn’t want to see the look on my face when I saw how he lived. I was kind to him but he saw me be unkind in my judgment of others. And it was enough for him to keep me at a distance.

Lex’s last message to me wasn’t really a text to tell me how much weight he’d lost. His last message was when I walked up to his house and realized he was never going to invite me in. He had humbled me in death by reminding me of all the times I criticized others without realizing I might also be criticizing someone I cared for. What I thought was shared righteousness was actually the undermining of a friendship. Not by a lot. And not enough to end it. It was just enough to make me feel like I missed an opportunity. Maybe if I hadn’t been so proud of myself for not being “one of those people” Lex would have felt safe admitting to me that he was one of those people. I know it wouldn’t have helped him live any longer but I bet it would have made his life a little lighter.

And that’s the kind of story we’re looking for this month. Tell us about a time when you were humbled. What happened? How did you deal with it? Did it change how you walked through the world afterward or did it just keep you from doing that thing again?

Remember to keep it clean, practice out loud and on friends as much as possible, and time yourself so you know it’s under 8 minutes.

Here are the rules and guidelines for telling a story if you haven’t seen them in a while.

https://freshgroundstories.com/2013/01/22/storytelling-rules-and-guidelines/

I hope to see a bunch of you on Thursday, March 22 at Roy Street Coffee and Tea

Paul
freshgroundstories@gmail.com

Thank you

I was so happy to see how many people showed up at last week’s show. I figured with the Moth’s grand slam and the finals of the women’s Olympic figure skating going on that night that we’d have a half-empty coffee house. Luckily, like most of my life, my fears were completely unfounded. You guys braved the snow and melting ice to come out and listen to stories and I was really touched by that.

So many things stand out to me from this show. I wish I could tell each one of you how every story affected me. I remember Bruce beginning his story by telling us that he’d practiced it on the 594 bus coming up from Tacoma that night. Yes, he took the bus all the way from Tacoma and practiced the whole way. That’s how important storytelling is to him. I was happy to give him a ride home that night.

Lynn, one of our regulars, surprised me with my new favorite story of hers. She told us of a love affair that had a 30 years gap in the middle that finally had to end because her lover had a temper. What she said at the end went right into my heart. She said in spite of how it ended she wouldn’t trade those years with him because he loved her more passionately than anyone ever had. There have been so many times that I’ve felt like there was something wrong with me because I didn’t hate a person who hurt me because they also loved me so intensely. Thank you Lynn for letting me know that it’s ok to be glad you’re not with someone anymore and at the same time still miss how much they made you feel loved.

Liz, a first-timer,  got the first big sigh of the night when she told the story of how she purposefully started telling people in her life that she loved them and how long it took her stoic parents to learn to say those words back to her. It was one of those stories you could tell resonated with a lot of people in the audience and I wondered how many of those people were quietly making plans to see if they could get their own parents to say those words.

Morgan, our other first-timer that night, told us about quitting his job last week as an investment banker in DC and moving to Seattle to focus on writing and sharing his story of recovery. He talked about how all his life he’d done what he was supposed to do and it had made him miserable. That misery led to all the things he was now recovering from. What surprised him, though, was how much it seemed to help others when he shared his story. So that’s what he’s working on now. Helping others by sharing his story. You’re in the right place, Morgan. I’m glad you’re here.

I know I need to wrap this up and let you get back to your lives but there’s one story I want to tell you about. It’s been sitting inside me since I heard it Thursday night. I spoke to the teller on the phone yesterday about it. The person who told it is my friend Sea. I love Sea for a lot of reasons but one of the biggest reasons is how willing she is to walk toward something painful because she knows it’s something she needs to do. Sea makes me face things I don’t want to just by sharing the times she’s had to do that herself.

Last Thursday she told us about Gene, a good friend of hers who took his own life many years earlier. The end of his life was recorded in a documentary about suicide. The movie was released quite a while ago and she’s spent the years since making sure she never saw it. But things have come up recently in her life that made her realize she needed to watch it. She needed to somehow come to terms with the last moments of Gene’s life. Two hours before she walked onstage at Roy Street she watched the portion of the documentary with her friend in it. She didn’t want to watch him die but something told her she needed to.

So she watched it. For five long minutes, she watched her friend pacing back and forth on screen knowing what was going to happen. Then, moments before Gene took his life, the clip stopped. The last image she has of her friend is him looking out over the bay, his long hair whipping in the wind. He is still alive.

Sea walked toward something incredibly painful because she knew she had to. She felt she couldn’t move forward in her own life until she accepted how Gene’s life ended. I don’t know why the clip stopped when it did. I like to think it was because she had given herself over so completely to what she needed to do to and the universe decided that that was enough. The next time I have to walk through something painful I’m going to remember Sea and this story and I will tell myself that if I have the courage it takes to embrace it then I will have the strength it takes to get through it.

Thanks to Sea for letting me share a little bit of her story. I took out a lot of details because I don’t want people focusing on how Gene’s life ended. I want everyone reading this to think about what it took for Sea to listen to her heart and face the things she needed to face.

Thanks to all the people who shared stories that night: Ginger, Bruce, Robert, Liz, Lynn, Morgan, Sea, Niranjan, Moreah, Carl. Thanks also to everyone in the audience who supported the ones who walked up to the mic. Most of the stories we here at FGS are funny but some are really heavy and you always make the tellers feel safe in those moments.

One last thing. Niranjan told a hilarious story about starting storytelling meetup at an Ivar’s downtown and I would love for a bunch of you to attend his next one. He needs more tellers and we need more places to tell stories so click on the link below and join his meetup if you’re interested. Seriously, if I lived closer I would love to tell stories at an Ivar’s 🙂

https://www.meetup.com/Healthy-Choice-Fitness-and-Fun/events/246947966/

That’s all for now. Our next show is March 22, and the theme is Humbled. I’ll get the invite out as soon as I can.

The audio recording turned out fine. Send me an email if you want the audio of your story. I only give out the audio to the people who told stories and it’s only of the story they told. Most of our tellers don’t want their stuff on the internet so I never post stories from the show without the teller’s permission.

Paul
freshgroundstories@gmail.com