This month’s theme is one we did three years ago but I was inspired to bring it back because one of our tellers, Nathan Vass, just gave a wonderful TED talk on the importance of strangers in our lives. We talk a lot about stranger danger but I think if we look closely at our daily interactions we’ll find that most strangers are polite and sometimes very kind. Nathan says that we often remember the kindnesses of strangers because it’s so unexpected. We know our friends and family will be there for us, but when a stranger helps us it reinforces our faith in humanity a little bit. I think we need some of that right now.
I’d love to hear some stories about a time when a stranger came into your life. Below is the story I wrote three years ago for this theme. I’m posting it again because the couple whose wedding I wrote just announced they’re expecting their first child.
As much as I enjoy being onstage I’m pretty quiet when I’m around strangers. It’s almost impossible for me to start conversations with people I don’t know and even harder to keep those conversations going. Nothing in my life seems easy to explain and the harder I try the worse I feel. I’m only comfortable when I’m being uncomfortably honest and that’s not something most people want to hear over cocktails or a Costco veggie platter. I couldn’t care less about Seahawks, traffic or Game of Thrones so I’m pretty useless at most gatherings.
For some reason, though, I keep getting invited to things and I’m running out of diseases to pretend that I have. For dinner parties I usually go with shingles but people are starting to catch on. For the last couple of birthday invites, I faked bird flu but that got messed up when someone went on WebMD and found that I was the first person in North America to get it. I feel bad that my friends must think I’m at death’s door but if there’s anything worse than being alone at home it’s being alone at a party.
But then six months ago my friend Angela invited me to her wedding and she knows all my tricks. She’s also a therapist so I can’t even claim social anxiety. She’ll just say, “Do you still have that Lorazepam the doctor gave you?” She can read my silences even better than my spoken lies.
I should have started researching exotic illnesses as soon as she told me what the theme of the ceremony was. Everyone was supposed to come dressed as their greatest fear. My first thought was that I should go naked but that was probably more her greatest fear than mine.
How in the world was I supposed to narrow this down to just one life-altering irrational fear? I might be able to get it down to 12 or 15 greatest hits but then the evening turns into a Cher concert with me changing costumes every 10 minutes.
It was really putting a strain on our relationship. Not only did she expect me to mingle with a hundred strangers but now I had to dive into the dark crevices of my soul to come up with a funny hat to wear.
A week before the wedding I was torn between dressing up as dying alone and unloved or being eaten by a great blue heron. Both scenarios have a long history of showing up in my dreams so I felt like I was being true to the theme of fear and commitment. In the end I realized my actual greatest fear is showing up to a party in costume and finding out I’m the only one who thought it was a costume party. I figured no one was actually going to build an outfit for this thing so I would dutifully go in casual-but-slightly offbeat gray shorts and a t-shirt, essentially dressing up like my dad. I would do my best to grow up and fit in.
When we arrived I learned that the theme had changed to “anything silver, gold or shiny.” The only thing shiny about me are my fillings so I still didn’t fit in. But that’s when I really started getting nervous. Usually, I’m the weirdest guy in the room but now I was the dullest. Instead of feeling different because I spend my life telling painfully honest stories onstage now I’m feeling different because I’m not dressed like captain of the Martian bobsled team.
I finally get invited to an event full of people who also don’t fit in and I still feel left out. I’ve gone from too weird to not weird enough. I kinda wanted to get to know the guy dressed like a light bulb but why in the world would he want to talk to me? He probably thought I was there because the groom forgot to sign the catering contract. The bride’s parents were dressed up as the Carl’s Jr star and I had to stand there and be introduced to them feeling like Darren from Bewitched. Mortifying!
It only got worse once the ceremony began. This group of people I had written off as wingnuts, dingdongs, and wackaloons created the most beautifully honest celebration of love you could imagine. The bride and groom, hooked up to wireless drive-thru microphones, stood before a six-foot homemade disco ball, dressed in purple layered gauzy toga diapers and gave some charmingly candid vows.
Gabe promised to look at Angela when she was yelling at him. And Angela promised to look at Gabe when she was yelling at him. Funny but also pretty good advice for any relationship. If you going to yell at each other at least have the courage to look each other the eye when you’re doing it.
There were other vows in there but I had already fallen out of my chair laughing and yelling, “Yes! That’s perfect! That’s exactly what we should say when we get married!”
Then after the vows, each of the siblings got up and said two things about their brother the groom or their sister the bride. They each had to say one good thing and one not so good thing. Can you imagine asking people to speak an uncomfortable truth about you onstage at your wedding? After each sibling said a sweet and sour thing about their brother or sister they looked across the stage at their new brother or sister-in-law where either Gabe or Angela smiled and said, “I can live with that.”
Such awkward honesty! Who were these people dressed in silver jumpsuits and Jack-in-the-Box heads? Didn’t they know weddings are all about artifice and ritual? Was I the only wearing a mask in this place?
At the end of the ceremony, the High Priestess of Love and Baubles repeated a phrase just before the couple kissed. She was speaking to Angela and Gabe but she could have been speaking to all of us.
“Let go of what separates you. Let go of what separates you.”
After the big kiss, we all moved to the other end of the room for dinner and drinks but I wasn’t in the mood for chatting. What had I just seen? I’m in a room full of people I thought were here for some kind of performance art and it turns out I’m the one performing. Is it possible to be honest and authentic in front of people you don’t know even if one of you is wearing pressed shorts and a Gap shirt and the other is dressed like the Statue of Liberty?
I decided to see how honest I could be with people I was pretty sure I had nothing in common with but was beginning to feel some real affection for. I decided I would dance.
I’ve always loved dancing but I never do it outside the kitchen because my threshold for embarrassment is pretty low. My mom was a dancer and I grew up secretly wanting to be Gene Kelly. Or at least a backup dancer for Pat Benatar. But like most boys in high school, I knew that dancing could be a very vulnerable thing if you did it poorly. And I believed my dancing was more controlled hopping than rhythmic expression. So I didn’t dance in high school. Or in college. Or after college. Or almost anywhere outside my apartment. I’ve probably danced five times publicly in the last 30 years.
But last night when the music started, right after Angela yelled, “Whooooooo monogamy!!!!!!” I ran out on the dance floor and began what I’ll call my hop-slide-shimmy-bumpity-bump.
I did what the High Priestess told me to do. I let go of what separated me from the lady in the neon boob dress and the guy with a body full of tattoos and glitter in his beard. When No-Diggity hit I danced beside the aunt from New York who may or may not have been trying to do the Charleston. When the Michael Jackson medley came on I danced beside the uncle who tried to swing on the giant disco ball like Miley Cyrus.
I have no idea why it took a bunch of strangers to finally get me out on the dance floor and do what I’ve wanted to do for years. Maybe that’s the secret role strangers play in our lives. They let us try out our new selves in front of them so we can see how the world will treat us.
Thank you man in the silver onesie for dancing all around me and making me feel less self-conscious. Thank you Gabe for dancing up to me and telling me you were glad I came. And thank you Angela for not accepting my “can’t make it because I have whooping cough” excuse.
Thanks also for anyone who made it to the bottom of this email. I know it’s a long one. But if you’re still here then you’ve made it to the part where I officially announce the theme for this months show which is “Strangers: Stories of Chance Encounters.”
Tell us about a time when a stranger came into your life. What happened? Are you glad it happened? Maybe you were the stranger once. How did that encounter change you?
Remember to keep it clean, practice out loud on friends or pets, and make sure it’s under 8 minutes.
Here are the Rules & Guidelines for telling a story at the show:
I hope to see you at our next show on Thursday, June 20, 7:00 pm at the Olive Way Starbucks