The Story Slam
The Story Slam
I arrived early, as usual, and squeezed behind a corner table with a small beer and the daily crossword. The Lamb Pub was exactly as described in their web site: quaint ,unassuming and English. It was the kind of place where stories were told, rather than made. Most concerned office intrigues, football highlights, and holiday plans. Soon, my son, Tal, arrived after a long day at work. He, too, had some stories to share. Between my work and his friends we had few opportunities to meet without distraction. When he suggested going to the Story Slam, I did not hesitate. Within 90 minutes the competition would begin somewhere upstairs. Contestants had five minutes to tell a story. There were no other rules. I was curious.
His friend, Josh, soon joined us with his dad, Mike. A young colleague of mine, James, was also in the area and decided to attend. For most it was a good excuse to break the routine: an evening without TV, chores, or boredom.
The competition, however, was never to occur. Perhaps it was because of the Football match. Maybe Monday evenings were too close to the preceding weekend. It could have been due to poor publicity. At any rate, only ten people arrived for the event – mostly story tellers who looked anxious to impress an audience. Notwithstanding, we agreed to go ahead without a competition, devoid of an audience, and foregoing the five minute rule.
Standing was discarded in favour of sitting around a large table. Then, without any particular order or procedure, people began telling their tale. Some, who had simply come to listen, joined in, as well. The informal atmosphere encouraged it.
I began to wonder whether I might join in, as well. Should my story be funny or dramatic? Should I tell a true story, or one based on fantasy? Maybe it would be better to keep quiet and play it safe, for once?
Reaching across the table, I gently tugged at Tal’s shirt sleeve, trying not to disturb the others. Unfortunately, my hand slipped over Tal’s unfinished pint almost causing a disaster. This immediately summoned the attention of the others. “Whew, that was close!” I remarked.
“What’s up Dad?” whispered Tal.
“Do you think I should tell a story?” I asked.
“I mean, if they should call me. What story should I tell? Don’t worry, I won’t embarrass you.” I explained.
“Too late, Dad,” he said.
Yes, perhaps he was right. Haven’t I embarrassed him enough in the past? There was the time when we arrived a day early to the airport because I misread the ticket. Then, there was the regretful incident at my 50th birthday party in which I made a fool of myself by choosing to sing before others. Tal wasn’t exactly pleased with that. The same with funky dancing at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Finally, there were the relentless and senseless jokes. For some reason, the humour of fathers of friends is always funnier that your own father’s jokes. Then again, Tal’s embarrassment is not always the consequence of my humour, but frequently its aim. To me, that is funny.
Never mind, I thought to myself. Perhaps Tal is preoccupied with the gorgeous blonde who was sitting next to him. I had noticed some stolen glances between them, already. Ahh, to be young again. If only I knew then, what I know now. The blonde is pretty, albeit rather talkative. I was certain that she owned a T-shirt that read, “I am trouble, but worth it,” at home. Go for it, Tal, but be careful.
I too was needlessly afraid of rejection at his age. I recall that we used to frequent a particular club with the intention of getting lucky. Alas, we returned alone most evenings to finish a pizza, or something else, by ourselves.
This all changed dramatically on one particular evening. Sitting at the bar, in our colourful polyester shirts, we invented The Rejection Game. Rules were inscribed on a napkin. Points were to be awarded for different imaginary scenarios of rejection. Asking a girl to dance might result in a simple negative, which would be worth 10 points. A slap on the face would be awarded 25 points. The best was to be thrown out by two brutish doormen, who happened to be her brothers. That was worth a whopping 100 points. Whoever achieved the most points at the end of the evening would have his entire bar bill paid for by the others. It was a win-win situation. Suddenly the fear of rejection was gone. Of course, we never managed to finish the game because we were too busy dancing.
I scanned the faces of others around the table looking for an inspiration, a cue, a leading word. All had a glass of lager or wine in front of them. Only one poor chap unwisely ordered a full dinner. He must have expected to sit at a back table and enjoy his dinner as everyone was focussed on the performance at the front. Suddenly, he found himself sitting amongst the others, in full view. He was an intellectual type: frail, spectacled, pale, and plainly dressed. Most likely he was reared with manners. He sat patiently while others were speaking as his roast beef dinner got cold. The French call the British, “Roast Beef”. I suppose it is better than being called, “Frogs,” by the British. Funny, this custom, of calling people by their national dish. I guess the Italians are called, “Linguine’s”. The Germans are “Krauts,” and the Americans are “Hot Dogs.” Personally, I wouldn’t want to be called something like “A Gefilte Fish,” but, wouldn’t mind reference to an olive or falafel ball. Anyway, the French say that the British struggle with their food, rather than enjoying it. There might be something true about that.
Next to him sat another young man who told a story about wine. Clearly it was something that he knew quite a lot about. Despite a concerted effort to appear casual and somewhat breezy, this public speaker was anything but. For him, wine provide more than simply culinary interest. It was his Valium, his jaw grease, his fruity confidence builder. I usually have no trouble speaking in familiar groups. There was, however, one occasion that I wished I had taken a shot of whiskey before speaking. It was a brief telephone interview on LBC talk radio. As I held the received to my ear, I could hear the tail end of the previous caller. “Just don’t make a fool of yourself,” I said to myself. Thousands are listening. All I needed to do was to sound relatively sound, professional, and rational. I rehearsed, in my head, what I planned on saying when my turn arrived. Then, the radio presenter wrapped up the preceding conversation and turned to me. “We have David on the line from Southgate. Hello David, this is James O’Brian,” he said. I replied, “Hello David,” unable to stop my foolish lips from moving as I spoke. “No, you are David. I am James O’Brian,” he cynically said. Yup, I managed to make a fool of myself even before I said anything significant. Wine! Why didn’t I drink a few glasses of wine before speaking?
To his left sat an attractive young woman who had just finished telling her yarn. To be honest, I cannot recall the content of her story. It had something to do with a bird in a box, or something like that. But, I did like the way she told stories. There was something adorable, dramatic, and endearing about her. She had attentive eyes and a huggable body. I could easily listen to her for hours as long as it was not important. I would give anything to have the guts to give her a nice, comforting embrace. Nothing nasty, just nice, almost fatherly. Then, I would have to apologise, no doubt. The last time I apologised to a woman was catastrophic. I had received an invitation to join old friends at a school reunion in California. I wouldn’t be able to attend, but the letter interested me. It was from Patti, “an old friend.” I had often wondered what happened to Patti. We had a thing many years ago, when I considered myself God’s gift to women. Hedonistic pursuits overwhelmed good judgment. Patti’s considerate, caring attention to me was hardly appreciated. Basically, I treated her like shit. I sent Patti a letter explaining reasons for my absence. I also took the opportunity to offer a full, albeit belated, apology for my behaviour. Several weeks later, Patti responded in a letter. “ Thank you so much for your thoughtful apology. I am sure that Patti would have appreciated it. Unfortunately, I am not the Patti that you are thinking about. We have never met, but I have known men very much like you and accept your apology on their behalf and on behalf of all the women who have been in similar relationships. “
To my side quietly sat James. He didn’t tell a story. He just listened. A young promising psychiatrist, James remained unaware of his potential. Recent cuts in the health budget had brought into question his future career options. He looked tired, demotivated and somewhat fatherless. I wished that I could encourage him to believe in himself. Few careers provide consistent pleasure. At times, the work is boring. At times it is challenging, At times it is exciting. I recall a similar episode in my professional life as a clinical psychologist. It is not always easy to remain normal when you are a shrink. Someone had once suggested that I engage in creative hobbies to replenish my energy. I purchased a block of paper and some water colours, and began painting familiar objects in the clinic after hours. There was a painting of the flower pot, a shelf of books, my desk, and the telephone. One morning I had left the art pad on the small coffee table. A couple, who arrived for marital therapy, began flipping through the pad, without realising that they were mine. “Oh, that is wonderful,” remarked the wife. “And look at the vibrant colours here,” said the husband. Gee, I thought to myself, maybe I have talent after all. Then, without warning, the wife looked to me and said, “Gee, Doctor, these paintings are really superb. We didn’t know that you receive children for therapy.” So, I started writing.
Perhaps, my most exciting job as a psychologist was as the consultant for the Dolphin Reef Therapy Project, in Eilat. Surprisingly, I had few opportunities to actually swim with the dolphins, Mostly I remained on shore and supervised others who conducted dolphin-assisted therapy. One afternoon, a young swimmer approached me and asked about the two tailed dolphin. I thought little of this, but Maya, the dolphin trainer, immediately knew what he meant. All swimmers were immediately instructed to vacate the water as available staff, including myself, jumped in. Maya realised that one of the dolphins was about to give birth. We took positions along the floating circumference of the lagoon to ensure that the newborn dolphin does not get caught up in the net and tragically drowns. He emerged from the female dolphin like a torpedo. His cetacean mother, Domino, could hardly keep up with his wild and haphazard thrashing. Maya would yell, “Heads up David, he is heading in your direction!” Eventually, Domino gained confident control of her new baby dolphin. Surprisingly, a second birth was to occur later that day. Sadly, at this stage in my career I sought less adventurous pursuits. Not so with Josh, Tal’s friend, who was sitting next to me. As a newly qualified doctor, Josh had his entire career before him. He was about to go on an extended experience in India before continuing training in London. Josh was the kind of person who appears laid back, non conforming and mischievous, but would receive the highest marks in his class. A conventional career he would not have.
Like myself, Josh’s father, Mike, sought opportunities to steal some quality moments with his son. We meet infrequently, but when we do it is as natural as chatting with a friendly neighbour over the shared garden fence. Mike has many experiences that he could share. He is the one that I would go to if I have a question about anything practical: cars, DIY, literature and films. Most importantly, Mike is a good person. We are of similar age, hence in the same boat. Youth is recaptured in memories or vicariously through our children. I have, alas, long given up the health club. For a while, I went to the gym every morning before work. I worked up a decent sweat on the treadmill, took a few laps in the pool, relaxed in the Jacuzzi, showered, and arrived bright and refreshed for work. A knee problem prohibited treadmills, which left the swim and Jacuzzi. Then, a chronic ear infection cut the swim from my routine. Eventually, I arrived at the club for a relaxing Jacuzzi and refreshing shower before having a full breakfast at a local diner on my way to work. Finally, my wife, Rina, wondered if the monthly membership fees were worth it since mysteriously I seemed to be gaining weight rather than the opposite.
Another presenter told a humorous tale about vegetarians. The ugly truth about meat eating was drummed into us with gory details of a fishing trip that went drastically wrong. The last, and only, time that I went fishing was with my old friend Danny in the Okefanokee Swamp in Florida. We stayed with his grandpa, Bubba. Danny thought they would get a kick out of my New York accent. “You might omit the fact that you are Jewish,” he said, “unless you want to sleep in the car.” Bubba took us in his old Ford pickup to a secluded river bank within the swamp. Cat fish’n is done at night, at full moon. Several were caught, cleaned, and deep fried in corn flour and salt at the camp site. We enjoyed the meal as Bubba refilled with his favourite illegal brand of moonshine, “White Lightening.”
Danny drove the pickup home as Bubba collapsed in the bed of the truck. The dirt roads that unimaginatively crisscrossed the marsh were virtually indistinguishable at night, or by day. Every now and then, Danny would nudge his grandpa out of his alcoholic stupor for directions. He would barely sit up, glance at the surroundings as if reading a road sign on the highway, and say, “Turn right at the next turn and then left at the tree where we shot that bear,” or something like that. By dawn we hit tarmac.
Tal elbowed me back to reality. It was apparently my turn to tell a story. Nothing came to mind. I raised my glass and toasted the group. “Thanks for the wonderful stories, but, I think I will pass,” is what I said.