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