Monday, June 22, 2009

Baby Got Balls

I worried it would be humiliating. I worried my throat would close up, or I would pass out, or burp into the mic.

I am not a good public speaker. The last time I read my writing out loud—in a short story class a few months ago—I couldn't breathe. I gasped through my two pages of handwritten scrawl, sounding like I was on the verge of tears. When I finished reading, the teacher comforted me.

The first and only time I sang in public was even worse. I thought that if I took the private singing lessons offered in high school, I might get over my fear of public speaking and become a more confident, sparkly person. Although I couldn't breathe—much less sing—in front of the teacher for the first week, I warmed up to her and was belting out folk songs by the end of our time together.

And then she said, "So what will you sing at the recital?" Um. I hadn't known there would be a recital. Had I known I would end my private tutorial with public singing, I surely would not have signed up for this. But once I’ve committed to something, I don’t quit. I couldn't back out. And I only knew one song: "I Have Twelve Oxen."

I got up on stage in an old church in front of the entire school chorus and their parents, and I sang a twelve-verse song about cows. For your edification I have found the lyrics:

I have twelve oxen, they be fair and white,
And they go a-grazing down by the dyke.
With hey! with how! with hey!
Sawest not you mine oxen, you little pretty boy?

It doesn’t even rhyme. And the other verses are just as bad. There’s one for each color of cow. I sang in a high, warbling, gaspy voice, and when I finished, my teacher comforted me.

Last night, for reasons I will soon explain, I voluntarily signed up to read a personal essay in front of a microphone in front of a room full of strangers. In the middle of my essay is a rap song. Not only was I planning to read in public, but I was going to rap—two nightmares rolled into one ten-minute performance.

What does an open mic have to do with food, you may well ask. Not much, if truth be told. Except that the essay I read aloud to strangers last night was adapted from my blog post "The Worst Meal of My Life." I reworked this post into a personal narrative that I submitted to 2nd
Story, a Chicago writing group composed of thirty writers who perform personal narratives in bars around the city. There's an application and audition process, and if you're accepted into the group, you meet three or four times a month to workshop, rehearse, and perform in public. It's intense and difficult to get into. I thought that if I could get into this group, the workshops might make me a better writer, and the performances might turn me into a more confident, sparkly person.

Long story short, I submitted my essay to 2nd Story and they called me in for an audition. Which is tomorrow. Which is why I decided to try out my essay on an audience first. Auditions are scary. But an open mic is scarier. If I can get through an open mic, I reasoned, the audition will be a piece of cake.

So last night F accompanied me to Story Club at Uncommon Ground, a coffee shop/restaurant/wine bar. We were ushered into the back room, all brick with funky art on the walls, cozy tables for two, and window seats with pillows. Another door led to an outdoor patio. If I hadn’t felt like throwing up, I would have really appreciated the ambiance.

We were an hour early, so we ordered drinks. I tried to pace myself, but downed the first glass of wine while sneaking wide-eyed peeks at the mic. No podium. No chair. Just a microphone standing naked against the brick wall in front of an entire room full of tables. At the moment, the tables were empty.

As 8:00 rolled around, the tables began to fill up. And I began to panic.

“Why am I doing this again?” I squeaked to F.

“Because you’re great,” he said, patting my hand.

“But what if I embarrass you? Will you still love me if I stink?”

“Absolutely. But you won’t stink. You’ll be great, babe!” he said. “Don’t forget to breathe.

“OK,” I said, hyperventilating.

The organizer of the event, D, came over to introduce herself and handed me a clipboard to sign in. I was the first and only name on the list.

“I’m so glad you came!” she said. “You can go first.”

Then, suddenly, it was 8:30. D took the mic.

“Welcome to the first-ever Story Club. Tonight we have three featured storytellers, and one guest writer. So let’s get started with our guest writer L, who will be reading her story ‘Baby Got Stock.’”

Without further ado, I wobbled to my feet and strode with assumed confidence to the front of the room. There was a stool tucked back against the wall, and I dragged it into the center of the makeshift stage. D helped me lower the microphone a full foot then sat down at a nearby table. I was alone.

I heard myself say, very loudly into the microphone, “Wow. I didn’t know I’d be the only guest writer...” A few people tittered, and I began to read.

I wasn’t nervous! My hands didn’t shake, my heart didn’t race, I didn’t sound like I was on the verge of hysterics. I actually sounded pretty good. And people were laughing in all the right places. Like a baby bird testing the air with its wings, I lifted my eyes from the page and directed them out into the audience. I was reading without looking! I turned my head a little to sweep the room with my confident gaze. I imagined this is what flying feels like.

“Hey, this isn’t so bad! I kind of like this!” I thought as I made eye contact with various audience members, all looking up at me, all listening intently to what I had to say. It was exhilarating to have the floor to myself for a full ten minutes. I don’t talk all that much, in real life. So it was a novel experience.

And then I came to the part I had been dreading. The part of the essay that—if I could pull off—would be really funny, and if I couldn’t, would just be humiliating. I rapped. To the tune of “Baby Got Back.” About stock.

The crowd didn’t quite get it. They were slightly older than the intended audience, so perhaps they didn’t know the song and thought I was just crazy. But there were a few nervous laughs, and I just kept on trucking.

The time seemed to speed by, and before I knew it, I had come to the end. I had done it! I wasn’t humiliated. My throat didn’t close up, I didn’t pass out, and I didn’t burp into the mic. The crowd clapped and cheered, and I sat down to F’s huge grin. I hadn’t embarrassed my husband, after all.

I tried to listen attentively to the three “featured storytellers” who followed me, but I was too full of adrenaline to make sense of the words. I’m sure they were great, but I couldn’t tell you what their stories were about.

As we were leaving, an older gentleman stopped by our table to share his own story about cooking in college:

“My roommate was going to make us his mother’s famous meatloaf. He talked about it all day, and we were all really excited. When I went into the kitchen that afternoon to see what he was up to, I found him heating up a frying pan. Then he plopped in two big scoops of mayonnaise. It started smoking and running all over the pan, and I took a look at the recipe. ‘Um, Bob,’ I said, ‘You were supposed to use margarine.’”

Then a guy at the next table leaned across the aisle,

“That was fiction, right?” he asked. “You didn’t really eat that stock, did you?”

“Oh yes,” I said.

“Ugh! What a great description.” He said, and smiled.

When I got home, I treated myself to a cupcake. After the open mic, reading my story to a handful of people tomorrow night should be much easier. I’m looking forward to it, whether I get into 2nd Story or not. And if you catch me now, while I’m still feeling triumphant, I may even sing you a few verses of “I Have Twelve Oxen.”


  1. BRAVO!!!!
    (and i love how you guys are always an hour early to bars)

  2. I was really great. You rocked the mic like an old hip-hop pro.

    and not to sway the spotlight from where it need be focused, but i can't miss my change to be ominous:

    "You're Next O."

  3. Yes, O, we plan to make this a monthly event. So brush up your working girl stories and come out with us!

  4. thank you for thinking of me but dear lord, no! i'll totally be there cheering you on though.