Portkey and Introversion

Something I’ve noticed about Portkey.

I’m talking about this variation:

You take turns speaking in the present tense, describing a real location from your past, based on an object. If you threw me “wheel” I might say ” ‘Wheel’ takes me to my bedroom when I was 4 and my brother was 16. There are two beds, only a little shorter than I am. I’m pulling on mine to try to get it next to Mike’s. One wall is a neutral blue, with rectangles fading into and out of it – a mural Mike painted. The other wall has paintings he did, a three of spades with a magic wand. The room is smelling like fresh cold air coming in from the window. The metal from the bedframe is cold and hurts my hands as I pull.” Then someone takes an object from my description and takes their turn.

The two notes I give most often, if I am coaching at all (and I often don’t, and just let it go where it goes) are “Stay in the present tense – just be there and describe your surroundings” or “You are moving into storytelling – try not to – just tell us what you are seeing, hearing, smelling”

That isn’t exactly the variation in the book – but it will be in the next edition!

Most storytelling games that I know favor extroverts. This variation of Portkey is the opposite. It doesn’t have that social pressure of “Tell me a story!” Nobody is doing voices. Nobody is trying to be entertaining. We actually tell players to stop storytelling if they start. The extroverts find that a challenge. The introverts, having spent a lifetime of quietly observing, can close their eyes and tell us what they see.

Of course, one amazing thing about this game is we reveal quite a lot about ourselves by what we notice, and you get to know each other a lot better than hearing Joe tell his “The time I got busted in a Pachinko parlor in Singapore” story for his hundredth time.

I never noticed the thing about the introversion/extroversion until the last time I facilitated it. What do you think?

Vulnerability (3)

So I said something, it got a huge laugh from a roomful of people.  I knew it was funny, I didn’t know it was that funny, and I don’t remember if I intended it to be funny.   I think you’ll like the story.

The party had moved into two rooms with no wall between them. One part had couches and chairs, and people were sitting down with their wines and beers and all, and the other part had an amazing array of musical instruments.  The musicians were jamming.  I’d started in the music room, but I moved to the conversation room because the musicians were really, really, good (especially Alpha Musician) and I couldn’t keep up.

The music stopped and the musicians were talking, and the party dynamics shifted to the conversation room listening to the musicians talk.  They were talking about Tom Waits, and how great and influential he was, and Alpha Musician knew more about him than anyone.  So he was like the Alpha Tom Waits fan, too.

“I love Small Change
“Me too. I saw him on that tour. It made me want to play music!”
ALPHA MUSICIAN: “Yeah, he was backed by The Nocturnal Emissions – they were also excellent, you should check them out.”

“I remember Foreign Affairs
“Oh yeah, Bob Dylan said it was really influential or something like that.”
ALPHA MUSICIAN: “Yeah, Bob Alcivar was its arranger. Tom Waits started dating Rickie Lee Jones after that, even though he had Bette Midler sing ‘I never talk to strangers’ with him on that one.”

You get the idea.  So after a while I, from the other room, piped up loudly.

“Most people don’t know this, but he actually wrote ‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I’ve got Love in my Tummy.’ ”  Now the room went silent.  Even the conversation room which had already been quiet went more quiet.  The musicians all looked surprised and were looking at each other to see who had already known that.  I had been making eye-contact with Alpha Musician when I said that, and his eyes clearly said, “You are lying. I know it.  But I won’t say anything.”  He wasn’t going to rat me out.

One comedy beat went by, and then one of the musicians said, “Really?”

And I said, “No, no, not really,” and everyone laughed, it was funny.

And then I said, “You see, I haven’t said anything in a while, and I wanted attention.”  This statement was completely true.

And everyone went nuts with laughter!  The musicians laughed, the conversation room roared, even Alpha Musician laughed.  It was great.  I don’t like being made fun of, but that isn’t what was happening.  Was I being laughed WITH?  Or laughed AT?  I’m not sure – somewhere in between.  But it was masterful, even though unintentional.

When the laughter died down and everyone was talking, I turned to a good friend sitting next to me and said to her, “Come on, it’s not like other people haven’t done the same thing.”  And she said, “Yes, Douglas, we all do that, but we don’t admit it.”

Vulnerability.  That joke came from a place of vulnerability.  A former mentor, Stevie Ray, taught me about kinds of laughter – laughter of superiority, of contrast, of surprise, of delight, etc. This was laughter of recognition.  “Yes, Douglas, we all do that, but we don’t admit it.”  I guess it is weird to call it a “joke” – but whatever you call it, it wasn’t something I would have said before I got into the whole improv thing.  And I made people laugh – not at anyone per se, but at a kind of kinship.  “We all do that.”  There was a roomful of people who hadn’t said anything in a while, and wanted attention. And now it was out there.  And the laughter kind of released it.

That’s the end – but I have to tie it back to the second part of this three-parter.  I’m not saying “You should be like I was!”  Because I was in a roomful of people who made me feel safe to make that joke.  I laid myself out there, and nobody made me regret it.  I’m not about to sell “Get laughs through being vulnerable” refrigerator magnets and coffee cups on this website.  But it’s something to think about, isn’t it?

Vulnerability (2)

Last month, my view on vulnerability changed in a way I didn’t expect. I was at a talk by Angie Lina, and it got me thinking in a new way, as the best talks do.

We agree, I assume, that letting ourselves be more vulnerable is (in general) a positive thing. Last week I wrote about how reluctance to be vulnerable takes away from Social Nonsense games in particular, and life in general. And how the act of saying, “Hey, let’s play a game” is a vulnerable act.

The Tom Waits story is a great example, but I didn’t tell it, because that’s not what I really wanted to write about. Just take it as granted that my life got a lot better when I started letting myself be open, take social risks, etc. And that your life will be better, too.

And yeah, that’s kind of bullshit, isn’t it?

I mean, it’s true, for me at least, but let me give you an example. Once upon a time my friends were talking about Yoko Ono, making the standard jokes, and I mentioned that I liked her music. Someone said that they had never actually heard her music, and we’d all been drinking, and I did my falsetto rendition of Sisters Oh Sisters from the Some Time in New York City album. Yes, I can imitate Yoko Ono singing, yes, I do a good job, and yes, I have the lyrics to Sisters oh Sisters memorized. What a social risk I took! I opened myself up! I’m so enlightened!

Except it wasn’t really a risk. I’ve spent decades building a community around myself where I am safe. Yes, I may have gotten funny looks. Yes, I may even have… gotten teased. But risk? Nobody was going to scream “faggot!” at me, like my social group would have a few decades ago. Nobody was going to hit me for it – that would have been on the table a few decades ago, too. Nobody was going to surreptitiously take video and post it on facebook. There are people like that – I don’t hang out with them. Due to a combination of luck and skill I’m in a physically and psychologically safe place. Being vulnerable is difficult for me, but the “risk” isn’t really what it seems like.

So I get paid by the UNI College of Business to tell students about the joys of risk-taking and allowing oneself to be vulnerable by doing one’s best. And the ones who feel safe nod and smile, and I don’t see the other ones, or at least I didn’t before.

Am I being vulnerable now? Is this honesty a risky thing? I feel like it is. But really, how risky is it? I’m a tenured professor of mathematics and highly valued by my department. Maybe you’ll tease me. Maybe you’ll stop reading this blog. But we both know that even that probably won’t happen. I’m feeling brave but it’s not really bravery, is it?

So what’s my point? Maybe instead of exploring how we can learn to take risks, and how to be less afraid of being vulnerable, maybe we should be exploring how we can make other people feel safe enough to take risks. Maybe we should be noticing ways in which we make people less or more afraid to be vulnerable in front of us. Is it safe for people to do embarrassing things at a party in front of us? Is it safe for them to tell us how they really are if “fine” is not the answer? Is it safe for them to choke up and cry a bit? How vulnerable can they be in front of us before we make them regret it?

Since I started thinking along those lines, I noticed things in my own behavior, little things, ways that I make people less able to take those social risks as I’m espousing the philosophy that they should take more. And that’s what I was really thinking about as I wrote that last post. What can we do differently? What should we do differently?

I believe that this has everything to do with the book. Thanks for listening.

Vulnerability (1)

Letting yourself be vulnerable. “Hey! Does that tie in with the book?” Of course it does. When you play one of these games, you’ll notice that some people are afraid to do their best – or at least make it look like they’re doing their best. They’ll finish drawing a torso or writing a phrase, and verbally or physically convey a “Whatevs!” afterwards… because exposing your best to people is risky and can show weakness. (I don’t dwell on this fear-to-commit in the book, but I do mention it.)

But there’s a bigger tie-in, which I didn’t write about, because I didn’t let myself see it until this week. The scariest part of Social Nonsense is being the person to suggest playing it. I was with some people, and we were sitting at a table, and there was that pause, and I knew that we’d all have a good time if I started that legal pad going around, but I remained silent. Because introducing the idea of a game is risky, and opens you up to hurt and rejection, right? What if they said, “What the hell, Doug? Are you eight?” Or if they did play and rolled their eyes and made fun of me the whole time? (I do comedy, and yet I really hate being made fun of) And now that Social Nonsense is out I’m afraid of hearing, “Are you just trying to get us to buy your damn book? If you are that desperate for cash just ask for a handout.”

If you have the book and haven’t gotten up the nerve to ask anyone to play with you yet, you know exactly what I’m talking about, and you aren’t alone. In fact, the author is standing right there with you.

You know, in the first draft of this post, I wrote the above example in the third person and made it hypothetical, because I was afraid of being vulnerable to you. And then I heard Alanis Morissette in my head and told you the truth.

This post is getting long, so I’m not going to tell you the Tom Waits story, but I want you to know that… it’s worth it. I’m not just talking about passing legal pads and telling stories and filling out bingo cards now. I’m saying that if the price of meaningful moments of true connections of creating and receiving is risking an eye-roll or being teased… it’s a price worth paying. I’m paying it too.