I expect to be surprised at my readings by unexpected guests -- which is to say, I expect to encounter old friends, enemies, and lovers. Which is further to say, I vaguely assume I know what to expect, which is contrary to being surprised. You can't really expect the unexpected.
Yesterday, at a reading at George Mason University, an older man joined the audience late. He was so late, in fact, that I assumed he was early for the next speaker. He was of indeterminate age -- somewhere in his late 50s or early 60s -- black, and wearing the kind of baseball cap I associate with Navy veterans. As soon as I finished my Q&A he came up to introduce himself.
"I worked with your dad," he said. "I was sorry to learn of his passing."
It's worth mentioning that my father, Edward Yourdon, died in January of this year. Though he was in his early 70s at the time, it caught everyone by surprise. From my perspective, absolutely everything changed with this event -- my life has been turned upside-down. And now this man whom I'd never met before, with his firm handshake and unwavering gaze, was offering me his condolences.
"I was an instructor at Yourdon, Inc.," he continued. "In the 80s. I was walking by and recognized your name."
This is a blog post. Elsewhere, I could write at great length about publishing my first novel after my father's death, all the things he did or couldn't have anticipated for me; or about being a public speaker, the myriad ways in which he and I are similar, as a result of genetics and disposition; or I could describe 2016, a year in which everything horrible and momentous seems to have occurred, save for turning forty (a treat reserved for 2017). I could try to make sense of the unexpected. I could provide context.
But this is a blog post, so I'll leave you with the gut-punch. A man, a strange man, to whom I'd only speak for 90 seconds, walked into a room and invoked my dead dad. Then he left me alone. And there I was -- in Virginia, of all places. In 2016, this seemingly interminable year.
On the first stop of my book tour, in Great Falls, Virginia, I told my audience it was a momentous occasion: that morning I'd tucked in my shirt. This comment got a laugh, so I said it again: I'd tucked in my shirt and I'd tied my shoes, a momentous occasion, indeed.
These days I conduct freelance work from home, but for the two years I spent writing Froelich's Ladder (and the two years prior to that), I was the office manager at a CPA firm in Northwest Portland. I wrote fiction while filing people's tax returns and, you know, "working." My boss could tell I was up to no good. Or, if he wasn't absolutely certain, he was suspicious. I figured, the man was leasing my brain for nine hours at a time; if there was only enough work to occupy three hours, well, I'd spend the difference as I saw fit.
Tax season lasts from early February though early April. No one gets their act together in January and CPAs burn out by 4/1, muttering, "File an extension." Sure, there's a burst of activity in September when those extensions come due, but most of the calendar year is spent twiddling one's thumbs. Me, I made coffee. I ordered sporks. I tucked in my shirt and tried not to spill on myself, lest I be forced to pay for dry-clean. I wasn't opposed to earning a living -- if anything, I work longer and harder now than I did then. I was, however, opposed to faking it, which is what I was doing.
I'd like to say I got a book deal and quit in heroic fashion, but that just wasn't the case. I tucked in my shirt until the very last day, when I quietly announced my intention never to return. Since then, with the exception of a few weddings, my attire has remained casual -- until now. For you, Virignia, it's worth tucking in my shirt. Same for you, New Jersey, New York, and Maine. There's nothing fake about it.
I recently gave a reading to a small audience -- seven people, two of whom worked at the venue and two of whom had clearly come together. It was an intimate space, made all the more intimate by the empty seats; however, it afforded me an opportunity to learn something.
I should clarify: I wasn't disappointed by the small crowd. I would happily address an audience of one, because that person came to see me. Can you imagine that? An adult who could've spent his or her evening doing anything else chose to do this instead? Hell, you can sit in my lap, if you like! But the turnout at my previous reading had been ten-times as large and the group dynamics were now significantly different. For one thing, we all teetered on the edge of embarrassment. Was this it? Was that okay? When the bell chimed above the door, would anyone turn to look? (The answer was no. Everyone faithfully kept his or her eyes trained forward.)
I like to make an audience laugh. By the time we get to the Q&A, it's usually a pretty jovial crowd. But laughter is a social contract. Have you ever noticed your tendency to laugh in a crowded movie theater, but not so much on the couch? That's because your laughter -- and the laughter of those around you -- is a way of demonstrating, "It's okay, gang, this loud noise/awkward exchange/self-deprecating author isn't a threat to our collective security." The smaller the audience, the more difficult laughs are to come by -- and without laughter, it's difficult to gauge my performance. So that was tough.
I thought maybe there'd be a heightened sense of community, given our modest numbers, but the opposite was true: my efforts at group-bonding were strongly rebuffed. It dawned on me (as I quickly back-peddled) that each person had come in his or her own right to listen to me speak. These men and women weren't speed dating -- I'm not OKJamie. I mean, I am okay, but -- well, you get the point.
Finally, and most unnerving to me, when I read aloud from Froelich's Ladder I noticed that one woman was reading along! Maybe this is normal behavior? But I alter the text I'm performing. I skip words, I move clauses -- occasionally I delete an entire paragraph. Sentences have a different relationship on the page than they do in the ether. That voice you hear in your head, in all likelihood, is not my voice, so I have to make allowances for my natural tendency to rush and concatenate. This adaptation is a necessary improvement, I believe, but try telling that to the woman on my left.
"You may have noticed I changed some stuff," I confessed when I was done.
"You skipped," she scolded me.
"I didn't skip. I edited. For content."
"No. You skipped."
And so I did. Thus, let this be the lesson learned: next time I'll give fair warning, whether it's an audience of a hundred or one.