#935: Hairy Tales

June 1st, 2018

Matted hair, kinky hair, long hair, hairballs. Irish boys’ shaved heads so pale the scalps had “a bluish tinge.” A group of 9 year olds scanning stolen Playboys to find if women had hair “down there.” A religious mother convinced her son’s long hair turned him hippie. A bald man mouthing off to a famed ’80s comedian about what exposed scalps really connote.

They gathered in the theater to talk about hair.

The Moth, as most of you might know, is a live storytelling event and radio show. It’s famous in its circles, so I don’t know how much explanation is needed to advance the story and how much is just me nattering on. There’s a national NPR show. There’s a cabal of followers and little subfactions and sects among “the storytelling community.” It’s a name among people who want to tell crowds about their own lives. It’s a big deal.

More immediately, it’s a contest. Each month at 28 venues across the world, eager audience members show up, put their names in a hat and find out if they’re the night’s entertainment. They’ve all practiced their story on the night’s selected theme. Sometimes they’re funny. Sometimes they’re sad. Sometimes they’ve been asked to prep tales about technology, or the airier, less-defined topic of “endings.” A night’s theme might be summer or learning curves.

At the Lincoln Hall music venue late last month, it was hair.

Think for a moment. Just do. Think about a story you have about hair. A bad haircut before a big event maybe? Or about getting gum caught in it. Falling in love with the way someone’s hair shimmers in the moonlight. The dumb way a newly shorn toy dog blinks in dismay. Finding a long, stringy hair in a gourmet meal.

Maybe it was that, maybe it was some other variation, but something just popped into your mind in that last paragraph. But you have a story. Everyone has a story. And that’s the concept The Moth is dedicated to.

Sure, it needs to be teased out, extended, have some duller bits blown out and colored over, but your story is worth presenting to the world, and that’s what The Moth is for.

Once the show begins and the host (in our case, the excellent Rashawn Scott) warms up the crowd, a name is drawn and the stories start. In total over the night, 10 stories are selected. Teams of audience members judge the stories on a scale of 1 to 10 and a winner is chosen at the end. From there, audio of the best stories are sent to New York to be considered for The Moth Radio Hour.

I’m not a particular fan of storytelling-as-competition, but I will admit it encourages people to bring their A-game. We laughed at the tale of the Irish brothers who set up a head-shaving business at their school, gagged at the (eventually winning) story of a grown human woman who went to the hospital for a hairball. We cracked up at the mother convinced a “cool guy” pastor was behind her son’s long hair and we nodded in solemnity with the young woman talking about hiding her own sad past behind hair dyed the color of a bright flame.

For me, the most telling moment was at the end, when Scott called to the stage all the people who put their name in but who didn’t get selected. They each said the first line of what would have been their story. Line by line, person by person we were given a tease and taste of different stories about something so simple, banal, prosaic and universal as hair. Everyone had a story.

Everyone has a story.

Meet a diner colloquium

Hear a cabbie’s stories

And a veteran’s

And an illustrated story from bond court

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You are currently reading #935: Hairy Tales by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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