Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Wrapping Up the Stories

Remember when I didn't have to start my day by calling the Senate committee on Homeland Security to leave a message protesting the confirmation of a terrifyingly inappropriate person to the National Security Council?

Sigh, neither do I. But I can't not. It feels like we're in a battle for our lives and it's only the third week.

To deal, I walk.

On a sunny 55-degree morning, Mac and I walk the T Pot, along the floodwall and back on the Pipeline, marveling at how drastically the river has dropped in the past week or so. Where last Saturday I slipped on a muddy bank dodging puddles, today the water had receded and all the paths were completely accessible again.

Because when you're walking the T Pot and the volume on the river kicks up to 11, it's impossible to focus on democracy dying right before your eyes. But then you're two thirds of the way across and it becomes hushed still water and all is calm again.

Am I clutching at straws seeing a metaphor there? This intensity of disturbing change can't possibly be sustained (and we're stronger in numbers resisting it, right?) and all will one day be settled again.

Or, at least I fervently hope.

All I'm saying is that I appreciate how fortunate I am that I can walk a mile and a half to the river and soothe every frazzled fiber of my being for even a little while. Just another of the many reasons to love this city.

Sunday the two of us had walked from the Roosevelt to Evergreen, the city's black cemetery, taking in gravestones with layers of meaning ("For our dear Mammy") along with higher-profile names like Maggie Walker and John Mitchell. Volunteers were clearing a small area in an enormous cemetery, but tramping through overgrown paths to look at statues and markers distracts a person from paying attention to what the leader of the free world is tweeting.

And who couldn't use a bit of a respite from that madness?

That's where Secretly "Y'All, Tell Me a Story" at the Hof came in tonight, offering an evening's diversion on that most relevant of topics: cyberspace.

There was nearly an hour of mingling first which was just what I needed after an afternoon spent alone and while I could've happily chatted with strangers, friends kept showing up.

Flora's new booker was there and we spent a fair amount of time discussing the goals for the new space in terms of what types of music will be booked and what he hopes to accomplish in terms of diversity of music, always a good thing.

After the career barkeep and I talked politics, the dumpling queen (and her roommate, a Georgia exile looking to return) sat down next to me and whispered her upcoming business plans.

He who had moved to Colorado showed up unexpectedly on my other side, admitting that it took moving to the center of the country to realize that he's a water, not a mountain, kind of a guy. Coincidentally, he's moving back at the end of the month.

My question is, who doesn't know which one they are? You could have given me that choice in kindergarten and I'd have known I was a water person.

What's important here is that we'd all come tonight to hear strangers share stories from their lives on the subject of the Internets and the world it has wrought.

P.S. I'm pretty sure I was the sole person there who still exists without a cell phone, though I didn't poll the group.

As someone who's been coming to these events for years, I can tell you I continue to go because I have heard not just compelling stories, but stories of historical note by being in the audience.

It happened yet again tonight and many of the tales came with a lesson.

Michelle learned the hard way that the web allows some so-called spiritual men to use and discard multiple women from opposite coasts, while Tyra's saga of buying a couch on Craig's List (a recurring theme tonight because of the perfect storm that is Craig's List) turned gory when a rug cleaner informed her it had once been covered in blood.

And while that was the end of her Craig's List purchases, I have to admit (as did several of my seatmates) that I found my lovely apartment there, albeit 8 years ago. Of course, there's no telling how tawdry it's become since because I haven't needed it again.

As a naive young art student, Finula had used Craig's List to solicit nude models, winding up at a nudist colony, hanging out for a day and, yes, eventually disrobing herself ("What have you got to lose?" her willing subject asked) before karaoke began in the dining hall. A year later, she waited on the guy and his parents at Chili's and when the 'rents wanted to know how they knew each other, the answer was, "Internet friends."

Shannon ruminated on the dissolution of human contact due to Tinder, compounded by issues of using it to network and spotting casual acquaintances ("Had I missed something about them before? Could they be my soulmate?") on it and not being sure which way to swipe. He concluded that Tinder is a dire disconnect for humanity because it causes people to objectify each other.

Don't look at me, it's not like Tinder factors into my life.

Kevin's story of Jose, a terrific couch surfing host ("He had beds for us both, made us dinner, gave us 40s and shared a blunt") in Spain, wound up with the compromised guests and host mistakenly setting out on foot at 3 a.m. on the pilgrimage to Santiago.

Trying to find a telephone in the wilderness so his 6-year old daughter could call Mommy while on her first Daddy/daughter camping trip had David telling us about multiple drives to various phone booths and country stores near Otter's Creek, none of which had phones.

Emily's trials and tribulations involved taking a nanny job in Istanbul with little information ("My parents were good liberals, so they just said to have fun and enjoy my independence") with a ridiculously rich couple who promised her travel and a cushy job and delivered servitude and 24/7 working hours. Fortunately, she escaped and met a woman who convinced her to stay with her and then become a teacher, which she's since done.

But there were also several stories that grabbed you by the gut and didn't let up and that's why you show up on a Monday night.

Samantha began by instructing the audience to take a deep breath before she launched into the story of surfing Facebook last fall and spotting a photo of a local venue's promoter in blackface on Halloween. Yes, in 2016.

Suddenly you could hear a pin drop in the room because everyone (even The Globe in the UK) had read about this story that just happened to go down in Richmond.

"This isn't a digital crucifixion," she assured the hushed room, explaining how she'd called the guy up, looking for a way to process why he'd done it and realized that he, like many others, had no knowledge of the complicated history of blackface.

As a result, she began a 3-part series called "Unmasking RVA" to discuss that kind of history with everyone who's interested and turn something ugly into something positive, making for the best possible ending.

That said, we had a positively crazy town and terrifying story, too.

An unnamed guy took the stage sharing that a coworker had emailed suggesting meeting for a drink only to find they had little in common (she: Kardashians, he: Godzilla) but they gave it a second go just in case (her: tanning and nails, him: space models and B movies) before going their separate ways.

Before long, he's getting dozens of delusional texts a day from her - "You should have fought harder for me!" - which escalated to threats, suggestions he kill himself and eventually 2,837 texts in a matter of months.

She'd been to jail and she wasn't afraid to go back, she told him. He doesn't answer her. He's changed his number repeatedly and she always gets it again. She repeatedly contacts him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

"She's called four times since I got here tonight," he shared. That's why his name hadn't been announced when he was introduced. "Because of her, there's nowhere I'm safe online." He stood there looking a little helpless and hapless, a guy who'd granted a date to a lunatic and was paying a huge price for it.

"There's really no wrapping up of this story," he concluded sadly. "Wish me luck."

The room was stunned and the applause huge, but all the buzz afterward was about how this man's life has been destroyed.

It was the kind of story that exemplifies the secrets you potentially hear from strangers at Secretly Y'All and if that had been the outer reaches for tonight, it would have been a sterling example of such an evening but no, oh, no, it got wilder.

Originally from Brazil, Isabella had moved here 8 years ago without family so she'd made a point of looking up a Peace Corps volunteer, a good man who'd stayed with her parents years ago and whom she'd been hearing about her whole life.

A retired psychologist, he used Craig's List to search out interesting-sounding people and talk to them for research purposes. And ad for a guy looking for someone to show him around Charleston when he visited caught his eye, because it included the caveat, "No Jews, no queers, no n-words."

But when the psychologist contacted him about showing him around and talking, the guy begged off because he was going through a difficult time because he was miserable with no friends "even though I'm cool."

Recognizing what sounded like mental illness and trying to help, the psychologist suggested a peer of his in Columbia where the guy lived, but contact broke off shortly thereafter.

The cool guy with no friends was Dylan Roof who'd gone on to kill nine blacks in a Charleston church. Her friend the psychologist eventually had to turn over his computer to the FBI for evidence in his trial.

There we sat, gob-smacked for the second, maybe third, time tonight after hearing a stranger's secret.

All I could think of was another Secretly Y'All several years ago when I'd been similarly overwhelmed.

Then a woman had shared a story about her college boyfriend's father having had a sex change operation and identity reassignment because as a child he'd heard his uncle admitting to being part of the Birmingham church bombing that killed the four little girls and he worried about retribution (bullets on his window sill didn't help).

Cyberspace turned out to be a hell of a theme for the evening, but was brought into perspective by host Kathleen who reminded us, "Despite the theme, we'e all here in the real world to share stories. That's pretty rad!"

And who couldn't use a great big dose of rad right about now?

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