Something Unexpected – The Understory and Next Theme

Here is Rob McRay’s understory for our November 2018 theme “Something Unexpected.” 

Nashville, tonight was unexpected.

She used to hug strangers in the stuffed-toy aisle, wear hair helmets, and take naked 63- Something Unexpectednursing home strolls. But when the pinpoint was gone, she could still sing that love song…and we missed the crazy.

We loved Hee Haw and theme parks and trivia on the Nashville channel, and dreamed of DJ glory…till the cheese slipped off our cracker, and we were married by Fat Elvis—who turned out to be our teenage crush.

In the Swipe Life of Vancouver, we met a girl who liked “chocolate”, and invited her to come dodge bachelorette parties on Broadway. But on a Sunday morning in a month that sucks, three bullets made us choose how to live and give.

We wanted to seize the day before the day ceased, but we ran out of our flip flops when a face in a ski mask was no nightmare. Fear followed us to Marrakesh and Caroline’s, but supportive friends and tapping pressure points helped us “Fear not.”

In the conciliation-present house, where the baby got the balcony, we were really scared of the attic door knob and Mom’s ugly crying. But we peeked out from the covers to watch our gun-toting grandpa free Coco—who needs to learn to meow!

Our two-year-old refused to swallow her breakfast, and we had a flashback to cat pee under the floorboards, and meat-eating flies in the chimney, and mold forcing us out of the nest. But projectile eggs helped us see we were parenting ourselves.

In Colorado we searched for legal brownies and found a kite store, where we remembered a boy who wouldn’t let girls fly kites. And everyone enjoyed our niece’s butterfly kite—everyone but the child!

We saw the most beautiful girl in the world, but she was waiting for someone special. We got revenge with the “sucko monster incident.” When we learned the revealing truth, we were too absorbed with our own pain to hear hers.

We spent Christmas with our family and a boyfriend whose breathing we couldn’t stand. But we were pleased with the kale-induced body changes that improved our highly toxic wasteland. And we are still loving our 4-year-old present.

Thanks for Daniel, Cindy, Marilyn, Ty, Shana, Rebecca, Gayathri, Brad, and Karla for their stories! Join us December 10 for 9 true stories of “home.” Submit your story proposal here!

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Cary Gibson – Something Unexpected

Here is the lovely story from Cary Gibson at Tenx9’s November event, “Something Unexpected”

How I Discovered A 14 Syllable Synonym For Love.

 :: For Joel ::

The 1964 Disney movie Mary Poppins – a political manifesto about the dangers of unfettered capitalism on the human soul – is also a story about the power of imaginative language to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.,

Crucially, it’s discussion of the word, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” instructs us,

So when the cat has got your tongue
There’s no need for dismay
Just summon up this word
And then you’ve got a lot to say

But better use it carefully
Or it may change your life
One night I said it to me girl
And now me girl’s me wife!

You may think this story hasn’t begun. It has. Hearing the story, as you imagine it, it becomes fiction and yet, no less the real for it.

Our story begins – once upon a time – the 20 May 1845 to be exact –

the day Robert Browning met Elizabeth Barrett. The courtship and marriage between these two writers was carried out secretly & by correspondence, fearing, quite rightly, that her father would disapprove. Is that true? Surely every story, once it’s told and retold, is a fable.

This story has no ending. Not yet.

If we get our wish, the ending will be fatal. Because like every love story, it will in time, one way or another, become tragedy.

This story might prove that endings are rarely endings, because unless something horrifically unexpected happens, one of us will still be here to keep telling our story.

I told our story to a woman at a party and she responded, “What a wonderful tale to tell your children.”

I don’t have any children. If I were to, well, that would certainly be something unexpected. The true story already becoming fiction – being told to children born of another’s imagination.

Ours is a story about stories & the love of stories. And the love of a very blurred line where fact and fiction meet… of embracing everything as true. Everything.

And how stories are like maps. And that the only true map would be a map on a scale of one to one: an exact replica of the place being mapped. Because when we put things into words we fall short of the truth.  A story is an impartial map. And everything is fiction.

Where else could I begin?

Where and when we met?

Where we declared love for one another?

Or, where and when we fell into love?

The first one is easy. It’s a fixed point in time and space. We met at a breakfast table. In 1998.

But the second question – that’s a little more tricky – for we were in hindsight telling each other we loved one another in so many ways before he, and certainly before I realized it. So that when he did declare it, I was shocked.

So, when did we fall in love?

That really is impossible to tell.

You’d think it was easy. Because we have pages – that run into the hundreds. Each one dated, time stamped. They tell the story of what we came to call “asynchronous symbiosis”. He in one time zone, me in another. Emails sent back and forth, across an ocean, over several months.

Those letters – contained a story. A story we wrote together, in the form of a map. A map of what we called, “the canon.” The canon, contained,  & made everything in it, real.

We fell down a rabbit hole, or perhaps jumped into a chalk picture on a pavement, that took us to a place just left of Narnia, our letters growing increasingly frequent and fervent: ‘the canon’ mapped fidelity with Ray Bradbury’s wedding vow, ‘to always love dinosaurs’, an exploration of wonder was led by Doctor Who, an invitation to pay attention by Sherlock Holmes, persistence was found in Neverwhere, & comics, hegemony was in The Matrix, or the Inklings. Political interviews danced with poetry, which rhymed with history, which argued with doctrine and laughed at certainty.

The stories shared over days, weeks, months were being added to an imaginative wiki – in which nothing gets left out and everything is interlinked, connected by dotted lines…

And somewhere in the midst of that map, we began to write ourselves.

Letters (written weekly, then twice weekly, then daily, then twice daily) wove our  own stories with every story written since Homer’s Odyssey – to name just a few – marked in invisible ink where you and me, was becoming “us”.

Because reading those letters I cannot tell where we slipped from friendship and respect into shared meaning making and then flourished into mutuality, particularity, intentionality, fidelity, and continuance… LOVE.

So, perhaps we’ll say that, ‘This is how it happened…’

That on the 12th September 2009, my friend was on his way to a family wedding in Texas.

The night before he’d been out for dinner with a friend and after cycling home in pouring rain, sent me a poem – A Ritual to Read to Each Other by William Stafford, which opens,


If you don’t know the kind of person I am,

and I don’t know the kind of person you are,

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home, we may miss our star.

I woke in Dublin to that mail and sitting at my writing desk, I sent back a response to say that his nephew was marrying his bride on the anniversary of the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, whose story of tragedy and hope is the source of some of the most famous lines in English romantic poetry…

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Barrett’s 43rd sonnet was appropriate for a wedding day. But this is what I then wrote to him:

Barrett & Browning also have significance because they surely are now living happily forever in the land that was created, and everyday grows and breathes, with the words and spirit of personal correspondence. A part of the canon-map that is as real and true and significant to that world of words as the terrain made from poems or audio-plays or novels.

(I like to think it is reached by mail-coach. And to reach that genre, one passes through cities built with office managers’ post-it notes and memos. Cities, which are saved from being eternally grey cold edifices because they are decorated by notes from loving spouses and children’s paintings sneakily slipped into briefcases on Monday mornings.

The city parks trees are made of the quotes and ideas and vacation postcards that are stuck on fridges. And standing atop soap boxes on the street corners, orators entertain and inspire passers-by with recitations of mottos from magnets – no longer tired clichés but spoken each time as if it were the first, and heard with eternally new ears.


And the land beyond – that is built on personal letters exchanged between families and lovers and friends and strangers kept apart by distance, and estrangement and war and prison walls – is spoken of by those who visit it as the most breathtaking place they ever saw:

Carved from such raw, unedited, deep emotions of love and fear and patience and hope that its majestic beauty is almost too much to bear. That’s the place where Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning dwell.)

A few short hours later, in Nashville, after very little sleep, his shoes not yet dry, and rushing to get to the airport for his flight to Dallas, he wrote back a brief, confessional note that irrevocably altered everything, with this closing line,

‘Love, which I’m using very cary-fully, and which is definitely changing my life’



Faced with this imaginative declaration verging on a proposal, written only for me, in canonical terms that were unmistakably acknowledging I was already in some deep sense, his girl, I’d like to say I reacted with eloquence.

But I could only muster a hurried,


Holy crap, Batman.


Followed by 6 smiley faces.


Yes. That probably covers whatever words fail me right now…


Never have I felt the weight of the phrase,

“I think we are on the same page…” and am struck by the weight of it and

with speechlessness, which also seems to put us on something like the same page.


I just realized I have no map. I hope you packed crayons and some paper….

With the engine running outside, suitcase packed, he responded,


I do have a map. With lots of dotted lines. And boxes and boxes of

crayons, all of which are also, yours.


Kari Hoffman – Something Unexpected

Kari’s story about aging at our November Tenx9 event at Cafe Coco. 

This all started about 10 or 12 years ago  – and it was unexpected alright! Not sudden or exactly surprising not like a car wreck or someone dying young or an evil clown popping out of a box at a birthday party. No, of all the unexpected even shocking things that have ever happened to me the most unexpected thing I’ve ever experienced is the exact opposite of dying young. The most unexpected and shocking thing that has ever happened to me ever, ever up to this very night, is happening right now, is the fact that it’s my birthday and Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, I’m old. I am. I looked it up on the internet and according to the accepted definitions (which must be true if they were on the internet) I’m hardly even middle-aged anymore. I’m pretty much headed out the far side of middle age and into elderly land. Well maybe you’re not shocked, it’s not unexpected to you – you’ve never seen me any other way. But you haven’t been along for the ride.

So when this story (somewhat arbitrarily, I admit) starts or shall we not say starts but when we step into the story I am 20 something. It is summer. Those glorious summers when you were in school and could skip class or had some crappy menial job you didn’t mind quitting at the drop of a hat or being fired from if an invitation to something or anything the least bit interesting came your way. Good economy, believe it or not – there was always another crappy menial job to be had at the drop of that very same hat.

So this particular summer my parents are off on a road trip headed for a reunion of sorts with my father’s siblings, my aunt and uncles and their spouses. They’re going to stay at in inn in Connecticut where one of my aunts works as the manager. It’s summer and I am… in between . It’s so long ago I can’t really recall exactly what I was between or why. Between dropping in and out of school? Between some of those crappy jobs? Between lovers? All of those circumstances were rather common for me in those days so you’ll forgive my mental lapse at the exact details.  I’m elderly – what can I say? I’m between and my parents are going to stay at a lovely inn in Connecticut and there you have it  – a plan was made and I was off on one of those why the hell not last minute adventures – a vacation with my parents.

The inn was lovely I’m sure, the food was good, the sight-seeing here and there not bad at all – a historical site, a vineyard, a museum.  No, these are not the details I remember the most. This is what I remember the most vividly about this lovely trip. I am the only person of my generation in the group. My parents and uncles and aunts are in their mid to late 50s. (Seems young to me now!) Everywhere we went and everything we did was accompanied by an endless running conversation about conditions, about illness, about drugs (and not any good kind of drugs, either), about doctor’s appointments, about surgery, about dentures. The first thing in the morning it was about being stiff and achy getting out of bed, when we ate the conversation was about cholesterol, when we walked it was about blood pressure, and heart attacks, in the evening it was about insomnia. It never stopped. Did I use the word endless yet? my doctor said I should walk more. No my doctor said exercise wouldn’t be good for me. I’m taking this drug for high cholesterol You are? My doctor prescribed this. Well, my doctor prescribed this and I have a friend who’s taking that. It went on and on and on and on morning to night for a week. I’m sure I can’t say I literally didn’t say a word for the whole week but I didn’t really have much to offer to the conversation. I was a perfectly healthy 20 something year old. What was there to say? Oh, uh, I had a cold last winter. Boy I sure did feel bad for a few days. Anybody else get a cold last winter?

So that’s the beginning of the story. I leave them there that group of 50-somethings blathering on and on about their health or the lack thereof. And the young woman with them rolling her eyes. And on we go to the middle of the story.

The middle of the story is just my life – finishing school, getting real jobs (and still quitting some of them), serious relationships starting up, serious relationships ending, siblings weddings, the death of grandparents, the deaths of aunts and uncles, the births of nieces and nephews,  buying houses, going on vacations, performance art, a black belt in kung fu, a marathon run, a book of poetry. The stuff of life, the lovely and dreaded thing called adulthood, and the apparent origins in my opinion of that lovely phrase ‘shit happens’.

And then about 10 – 12 years ago strange occurrences began to transpire.

First there was the time our whole family gathered for some holiday or another and my parent’s house wouldn’t fit all of us from out of town so my by now grown niece and nephew and their significant others were staying in a hotel down the road. We had eaten, we were laughing, drinking, reminiscing, we were having fun when niece and nephew said – we’re going to go hang out at the hotel. You all are just talking about a bunch of  people we don’t know and things we relate to. No big deal..wait a minute. I recognize this. The twenty-somethings are making their escape from the boring adults. Hey, we’re not boring! Are we?

Then after that something odd began to happen to mirrors and cameras. I’m still in here picturing myself looking the way I did when I was maybe not 20-something but maybe 30-something or 40. Seriously I had that face for so long I really forget I don’t have it anymore. I still do a double-take every time I look in the mirror and feel a little shocked to see a photo of myself that someone’s snapped. Who’s that old person with the bags under her eyes and the sagging jaw line standing exactly where I was when that picture was taken? Oh yeah….I forgot. I’m old.

So now of all the folks we left back there in Connecticut at the beginning of my story –  now my 91 year old father and his 87 year old brother-in-law are all that’s left.

And I will leave you now, step back out of this ongoing (one hopes) story with one last scene – 3 middle aged sisters of whom I am one around a kitchen table in my father’s house. We’ll just listen in for a minute at what they are we discussing so intently:

what 3 different doctors in three different cities said about osteoporosis, a dental implant, anti-aging skin care products, rogaine for women, my brother-in-law’s COPD, our brother’s heart, fish oil, calcium, mammograms, colonoscopies, Lipitor, thyroid medicine, bone surgery, OMG! We have become them!

And yet in a world without them there is some comfort to be had in this changing of the guard. Yes, today I am 62 and I tip my (invisible hat) to that old cliché – indeed it beats the alternative!

Katy Kinard – The Greystone Corridor

At Tenx9’s third theme, “Something Unexpected,” Katy Kinard shares of an experience that defies all rational explanation. 

Several years ago, I experienced something unexpected that neither I – nor anyone else – has been able to explain.

My former roommate got married in 2005, and her rehearsal dinner was held at what used to be a top-of-the-line hotel in 1910: “The Greystone.” It’s been a landmark in the tiny town of Paris, TN, but now the hotel rooms are rented out as apartments. However, the lobby and decor of the place still looks like a ritzy 1910 establishment…large dusty chandeliers, elaborate framed mirrors, old-fashioned fancy couches, gold curtains, and the place still looks identically like a hotel, perhaps only a tiny shadow of what it once was. When we walked in, we stepped into the dark, empty lobby… no noise, no tenants out and about, only a dimly lit hallway lined with 8 old hotel rooms, and to the right, the path that led us to the dining hall.

A perfectly normal rehearsal dinner: great atmosphere, eating, dancing, and celebrating. After a while, I excused myself to look for a restroom.

I walked back toward the dark lobby… no restroom… kinda strange for a lobby, I though, but ok, maybe it’s more near the hotel rooms. As I walked down the short hall with only 8 rooms, I turned the corner and there was long corridor – at least 50 hotel rooms (25 or so on each side), with a huge, oval, maybe 10-foot mirror at the end of it (very elaborate frame, like the others). Walking toward this mirror got freakier and freakier, cause here I am walking toward myself down this long, dimly lit hallway, and it reminded me of “The Shining.” I half expected to see identical twins appear in front of the mirror, chanting. So I got a little creeped out and decided to stop and instead glance down a short hall that crossed this one… no luck, just a closed door about 3 yards away from me. The short hallway was completely dark, and I remember trying to find a light switch, but there wasn’t one. To the left were windows that revealed something like a dark kitchen with hanging pots and pans. Even if there were a restroom down whatever hallway was behind that door, I didn’t care to find out. Didn’t want to venture further into the maze, so I turned around and headed back.

I quickly found a restroom where the short hallway curved around and connected to the dining room.

“The powder room” was just as elaborate as the rest of the hotel. Another huge oval mirror with a fancy frame, sitting above an old Victorian couch…ivory pedestal sink, and a stall with painted swinging doors…gold trimmed everything. There was a window with tiled glass (almost like clear stained-glass, but opaque, like ice).

I thought it was odd that it looked like twilight outside. Because…we got there at twilight, and it had been about 2 hours since then.

I looked AT the window… It wasn’t tinted glass, so the blue-ish tint wasn’t from that. I nearly pressed my face against the window trying to make out the shape of anything outside…sky vs. ground, outline of cars… maybe a streetlight?…I couldn’t tell.

I came out, went back toward the lobby and noticed that it was pitch black outside.

…OK. Strange.

As I rejoined the dinner party, I told of the scary hallway and bathroom… I’m sure it didn’t sound as impressive as it was in my mind. So before we left, as my friend and her family stood in the lobby discussing plans, I said “Sara, you have to come see this creepy hallway.” I took off on my own, expecting her to follow shortly. I walked in view of them, down the first short hall of rooms…and it lead me straight to the restroom.

It curved around and led me straight to the restroom.

(Where was the long hallway with the mirror?? Surely I missed something.)

I yelled to Sara that I has missed a turn. Slowly I searched again.

No corridor. No crossing hallway without lights… no deserted kitchen.

Six times I went up and down that hall, and six times it curved around to the restroom. The only door that wasn’t a locked, numbered tenant’s room was a broom closet.

I searched for stairs, or an elevator. Perhaps it was on a different floor. …Nope, it was a one-level building.

I called the Greystone a few days after, and I asked the receptionist some made-up question wanting to know “the history behind the huge oval mirror at the end of the long corridor of hotel rooms in the back.” She said, “Ma’am, there are only 8 hotel rooms in the whole place now – the ones in front – and we rent them out as apartments.”

“No, but…the long corridor…with the little hallway in the middle and the kitchen – there were like hanging pots and pans?”

“Umm…we have a little kitchen with a sink, a refrigerator, and a microwave in back of the fellowship hall?…”

“Uh… …Ok…hmm. One more …weird… question and I’ll let you go. Is there a parking lot outside the girls’ bathroom with a bright blue streetlight? I mean, does it always look bright outside because of something like that?”

“Uh…(laugh) No ma’am, there’s no parking lot or light or anything on that side of the building. It always looks dark outside at night when I’ve been in there!”

To this day, I have never been thought of as insane or in need of medication… I had no alcoholic drink – and I wasn’t high – at the rehearsal dinner. I was slipped no drugs… and my friend will tell you I certainly didn’t fall asleep…it wasn’t a dream. I don’t seek out things that are paranormal, I’ve never seen a ghost, or a UFO, or a bright light that was otherworldly.

I’ve heard that some people believe in “thin places of the universe” where time and space, present and past, can intersect for a moment. I don’t know what I believe about that.

But I walked down a hallway that doesn’t exist.