So when the Literary Death Match folks asked me to read a 5 minute holiday story at the Elbo Room, I got nervous. None the less, I agreed. "It won't be a competition." They promised me. "Just storytelling."
Good. I don't handle private rejection well. I can only imagine the cataclysmic sequence of events a public rejection might trigger.
I'll be honest. I have a repertoire of stories. There's a collection of humiliating experiences I've gotten really good at telling. To sit at a dinner party with me and Melissa will inevitably lead to Mel screaming, "Oh, tell 'em the one about the worst date you ever went on!"
To which I gladly gauge the interest of the crowd, get up from the table, find the best vantage point at which to stand and begin.
Anyway, when I tried to think of a holiday story, I settled early on the time I knocked the Christmas tree over in 5th Grade. I've written versions of it before and told it a million times. It was safe, the Christmas tree story and I was relatively sure that if I talked my mom into driving to the Elbo Room, she'd laugh really, really loud.
But then, a week before the event, I got an email from the Literary Death Match folks saying, "Um, actually, it is a competition. Hope that's cool."
Yeah. Sure. That's terrific. Suddenly, my little Christmas Tree Story had to be representative of my talents against the immense talents of others. And Chicken John was one of the judges! So I forwarded it via Facebook to one of my fellow 5th Grade classmates who gave me some notes before we IMed while looking over the appalling wedding photos of our 5th Grade nemesis.
Nemesis had the lingerie shot. No joke.
I practiced the Christmas Tree Story for my boss and her daughter on Friday morning and then went to work, resigning myself to the fact that in a few hours, highly literary hipsters were going to be throwing copies of their failed 'zines at me while I told a self-involved parochial school story.
The next thing I knew, I couldn't get a cab and I couldn't find parking and it was pouring rain and the Death Match was starting in 10 minutes and I texted Brian, "I AM FREAKING OUT."
Generally, I handle pressure well. But I was very, very nervous to tell a story to strangers. I finally arrived and was handed a program. Not only was I up against a very talented woman who edits an entire column on funny women, but we were in the second round. So I'd have to sit around, like a death row inmate watching others be led to the death chamber before me.
Obviously, I'd have rather just gotten the whole thing over with.
I said hello to my wonderful friends, including the socially awkward Big Chris who'd arrived because "this is one of those supportive things I'm supposed to be doing, right?" My parents stood in the Elbo Room sipping their drinks and saying, "This is so exciting!" to the Brains and Melissa. Tim the Trainer came over to chatted with my folks and upon taking his leave, my dad goes, "He's terrific!" Then my dad looks at me and says, "Okay, Bethy. Good luck!"
He froze, panicked. "Wait, wait. Bad luck. Not good luck. God luck is bad luck. Break a leg. Oh God, break a leg." He looked down into his beer and went to find my mother.
I headed to the Green Room and waited. And waited. And waited.
Honestly, I should've just gone to a movie and come back. The whole thing seemed to take forever. And finally, one of our hostesses came up and said, "You know there's an intermission."
Jesus Christ! The wait to get this over with was agonizing. And, I have no problem reminding you, I cannot drink. Would a martini have taken the edge off? Dear God, yes. Did 12 Diet Cokes make matters worse? It's quite possible.
When intermission was over and I eventually stumbled onstage, I found myself up against Elissa Bassist, a very adorable, tiny, gorgeous woman in a retro ensemble that made me feel like I'd just emerged from the Amazon with a drumstick hanging out of my mouth. And our hosts, very sweet and encouraging women, seemed to go on and on with the various procedural details of the rules.
We got it. Honestly. I no longer care that Melissa and my mother both insist I go last. I don't even care what I'm doing anymore. Let's please move on so I no longer have to stand next to this lovely woman. I look like the poster of The Blind Side.
There was a coin toss and I lost. I had to go first.
Good. Fine with me. Let's end this shit.
I pulled my story from my pocket, leaned into the microphone and said, "Hi."
No one said "Hi" back.
With trembling hands, I started to read. I could feel Melissa and my mother staring at me with grins plastered on their faces more than I could feel anything else. That is, until a man started laughing. Really laughing. I heard him get the giggles and then heard lots of laughing. And suddenly, I was telling that story the way I've always told that story. Only my hands were still shaking.
I don't think anyone noticed.
Thanks to Evan from the Examiner, you can see me tell my story HERE. The fact that I'm sharing this with you even though I'm captured from an angle that makes me look like Precious, is evidence that, yeah. I admit it. I'm proud of this.
Elissa was up next with a very clever fictional holiday letter from her mother. And this is where the longest 2 hours of my life got even longer. After the judges provided us with their very generous thoughts and I had ultimately won my round, I had to go up against Round 1 winner, Derek Powazek in the "Finals." Derek is an incredibly nice guy. He was gave me a "courage hug" in the green room and we were both pleased to be up there together, getting this thing over with.
We had to play some version of Madlibs, each of us providing various words that were laboriously filled in by our hosts. I'm sure some of you that were in the audience have some thoughts on this time-consuming task.
When asked for an example of one-syllable onomatopoeia, I had no idea what they were talking about. I knew onomatopoeia was some kind variable in defining a word, but I had no idea what variable that might be. I froze and reminded myself, "Just ask. I bet lots of people don't know!"
That didn't seem to be the case.
Derek whispered, "A word that's spelled as it sounds."
Okay. So no silent p's?
I said, "Cat."
Listen, I had to say something fast. We were in hour 23 of this thing and I didn't want to request a formal explanation of something I should've been learning instead of knocking over Christmas trees.
Onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like it's spelled, sure. And example would've been helpful, Derek. Like Sizzle. Or Tick. Eventually, after someone yelled out something about the intro to Batman, I came up with "Pow."
Derek and I were then asked to sing our own Madlibs version of Jingle Bells before the audience was asked to vote for a winner by applause.
And, well, golly, gee...I FUCKING WON THAT SHIT.
As I left and headed to dinner with my thrilled parents, Big Chris stopped me. "That's two hours of my life I will never get back."
True. And a lot of emotional turmoil for 5 minutes at a dive bar microphone.
Still wearing my tinsel crown, I excitedly texted my friends and updated Twitter to discover a West Wing quote about onomatopoeia posted by the Mysterious Generic.
News travels fast.
You know, if humiliation and embarrassment didn't follow me wherever I go, I'd never have any good stories to tell. And I really, truly love telling stories.