Sunday, August 26, 2018

Feel the fear and do it anyway



I have been listening to THE MOTH radio shows as a podcast for years, and always fantasized about going up on stage myself. You memorize a five-minute story and tell it, without notes, in front of an audience, and get scored by judges. 

If you win the "story slam," as it is called, your prize is $10,000. (I am joking. You got so excited!) 

Your prize is bragging rights. If you win 10 slams, you go on to the Grand Slam competition as a master. And if you win a Grand Slam, you become a minor celebrity among people who listen to podcasts. 

Ah. The dream. 

Each slam has a theme, and this week's in Los Angeles was "destiny." I decided that was general enough that I could cram my pre-memorized story into it. 

Tuesday night after work I blazed across town to Silver Lake, which is an Olde English phrase meaning "no parking, no how."

By the time I got upstairs it was standing-room only. That was fine. I needed to stand. My stomach was doing that dance your stomach does when it knows you are about to do something which might get it killed. 

I found the sign-up table. Forced my hand to write my name down. O.K., I thought. You are really doing this. 

I stood in the back. The emcee began. I almost bolted. I told myself if I ran I would regret it, and if I have learned anything in 57 years, it is that regret is harder to bear than failure.

Still, I sidled closer to the exit. You know. It was so crowded. 

The first name was announced! It wasn't mine. A young woman went up and talked about a cruise or something. She had a nice laugh line, a nice closing moment, didn't sense it, and went on for an unnecessary minute before fizzling out to polite applause.

The emcee held out the canvas bag of names for her from which to choose the next speaker. He read it. 

"Next up is George Waters."

Oh.       Sh*t. 

So I did as they had instructed. I walked up and waited alongside the stage while they tallied cruise girl's votes. Two minutes of my legs screaming "Run!" and my brain saying "Regret!" Then they called me on, to more polite applause.

When I was 25, I helped my dad maintain these apartments he owned. One of our tenants hanged himself. He popped the ceiling hatch to the attic and put a 2x4 across the opening, to which he tied a cord. 

The 2x4 he used was my board. It was a piece of scrap lumber I kept around the units for help with odd jobs. It was unmistakably mine; it had screwdriver markings on it I had made a few months before. I probably tossed it in the ivy next to the storeroom, and he found it, and he put it to use. 

It's a 10 minute story, a predictably surreal experience for me, funny in parts, self-deprecating, but I had to cut it down to five minutes, which left me only with "poignant." 

Now, the MOTH can do poignant, but not about a dead Latvian tenant from 30 years ago. It didn't fly. 

I rushed it, true, because at five minutes they give you "the flute" (a musical warning), but it just didn't work as narrative. With 10 minutes I could have killed. I have rehearsed 10 minutes in my head for a year or two now. It kills. 

Ten minutes is not the gig. 

More polite applause, and I got what turned out to be the lowest scores of the night, low 8's. Winners get mid-9's. 

I immediately ordered a $6.00 Coke and watched the rest of the show, relieved I had not bailed, philosophical about the mounting high scores which piled up after me.

Gavin bailed. They called Gavin's name, but he was nowhere to be found. We all began to chant his name. I turned to the guy next to me and said, "You could be Gavin. They wouldn't know." He smiled but declined. 

I was no Gavin, at least, poor guy. I felt bulletproof.

The winner was a lady who basically crashed an Australian wedding reception. She was good, relatable, funny, triumphant. Even better, she was good in five minutes. 

As I shot a picture of the scoreboard for posterity, a guy passed me and said "good story" or something. It was very noisy. The winner was whooping with her possé on stage. So he may have been digging deeper. I like to imagine he said, "Wasn't there more to it than that? I sensed a whole missing chunk about the cop who interviewed you and an adorable 1950s TV set and the Berlin Wall."

Or it might have been "Good story."

I joined everyone filing downstairs and out into the night. An old guy who had told a story which might have won three minutes in but took an unselfaware turn toward the child molesty and creeped everyone out was standing on the sidewalk. 

"Great story," I told him as I passed. 

"Thanks," he said.

It's just what you do.


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