The Fray Cafe Story Story

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The following is paraphrased.

I go to a lot of conferences, a lot of conventions, meetups… festivals.

2015 was my first XOXO. (I had heard about it before, even crashed a party the year prior, but this was my first time properly attending.) It was also the first to have attendees on its stage; a Fray Cafe was being held, the first run by its creator in over a decade. There were many firsts.

And so I was going to this convention up by the airport. And it was a little ways away from the MAX stop, so I had to take a bit of a route. I mean like… sidewalks, crossing a highway, dirt paths, trails with signs that said they don’t even exist and even if they did, they certainly weren’t safe.

It was the first time I had heard of Fray. For that matter, I had never heard of, or most of the other early-web pioneers that were appearing that weekend. All I knew was the synopsis — an open mic for personal, true stories. You get 5 minutes. It was simple, but a challenge. And since I was starting work on a project that would require me to tell stories, I figured it would be good practice.

So I’m making my way, and I get to this kinda narrow route. And I start to see… animals. If you know Sleater-Kinney, the song “Light Rail Coyote”… this is that general area. So there were coyotes, there were deer, rabbits, wolves — I mean, this is a wildlife kinda area, forest and swamps and all, there was all these animals you’d expect to see just parading by. And I thought, “man, that’s kinda cool, I’ve never seen something like this in person before.” So I started taking pictures.

Besides, I have a lot of stories I could tell. Stories from coming out as trans, from the week-long cross-country drive with my best friend, from a high school life of loneliness and fear. But I had limited time, and I wanted to make an impact. And I wanted to play.

While I’m doing that, one of those wolves noticed me. And he decided to approach. From behind.

I’ve joked many times that I have a Creative Writing minor, and I’m not afraid to use it. This was my chance to use it.

Of course, I’m distracted. I’m taking photos. So he gets up real close, and I’m sure anyone observing would’ve figured it out. He wanted to eat me.

The rules do say the story must be true. But they also say truth is subjective.

The wolf started just kind of… scratching me. Really softly, I didn’t even notice for a while. But eventually I turn around, and he just does this most adorable innocent pose. And I catch on to what just happened, give him a little pat on the head, and he runs off to join the other fursuiters.

There are three reasons I tell this story this way. One, I think it’s funny to mislead people like that, have that punchline. Two, I like showing the kind of stuff you can do if you play with language a little bit. And, three.

A catalog of incidents, a telling of things that happened and who they happened to, is not a story. It’s a history. I wasn’t there to give a history. I was there to tell a story, to show growth and emotion. To allow myself to be vulnerable. To discuss things about myself, on an amphitheater stage under blinding lights, that I wouldn’t have discussed had I been given this chance at XOXO2014.

I’ve been a furry for over a decade now. And despite that, I never really felt like I fit in. Like I belonged. I never felt like I belonged… anywhere, really. And so I didn’t really participate. I’d stand outside of it all and spectate. I’d observe. I’d take pictures.

I was a quiet kid. I was so late to start speaking that there were worries I was mentally handicapped. I always had this vague sense of distance from my classmates, from my friends, from my own family. Eventually I came out as trans, and even then I couldn’t feel a part of that community. Everywhere I went, I was weird. Everyone I associated with, I was somehow different.

But, for whatever reason, that wolf decided… no. You do belong. Of course you would, you’re one of us. And the way he did it, it made total sense. I’m a rabbit, he’s a wolf, of course he’d want to eat me. That’s how we play. That’s the game.

I grew up defensive. Doing what I was told, hiding things I did that I was told not to. I was quiet because I was afraid. Afraid I wouldn’t get things right, that I wouldn’t internalize something I was being taught. And I was taught to be this stoic prodigy that everyone seemed to decide I already was. My parents taught me to make a lot of money and put them in “the good nursing home.” And when you’re raised as a boy, you’re taught to restrain your emotions. You’re taught to keep it all in. You’re taught to be strong.

It’s only been very recently that I’ve started to unlearn those lessons. And it seems my go-to for offering a little piece of personal vulnerability is in being a furry. A member of a chronically-reviled group, which deserves at least a little bit of the shit it catches. A very Internet crowd and a very Internet punchline. (Even if Anil Dash proved the next day that the joke can be empathetic and kind.)

I’ve always taken myself pretty seriously, so I’d always be too serious to play along. But that wolf decided to grab a black plastic fork — I have no idea where he got the fork— and start playing. Start scratching. And he managed to scratch away at that veneer of seriousness and find some warmth. He was saying I was accepted, and for the first time, I accepted that.

I stumbled through the second half of my story. Nerves, perhaps. I know I didn’t practice that part nearly as much as the precisely-worded front half. It didn’t matter, of course; nobody but me noticed the stumbles. But even if they were obvious, like Brad flubbing a chord change in his song, nobody cared. All of us that spoke during the Fray Cafe — Brad, Sandy, Eric, many more I missed or forgot — we weren’t there to be perfect. We weren’t there to be polished.

We were there to tell stories.

We were there to be vulnerable.

We were there to be human.

Even the rabbit.

XOXO illustrations by Brendan Monroe