Rabid Raccoons and Other Tales


There was the patent lawyer who claimed to have ESP. He could read minds and knew exactly when people were thinking of him. Animals, too, wolves, particularly.

Over tapas, a television writer told me how he set off on a 3,000-mile solo sailing trip after his sister, his only sibling, committed suicide. Somewhere near the Marquesa Islands in French Polynesia, his sailboat was caught in a violent storm. He went down to the cabin and curled up to sleep, prepared for whatever might come. “Everyone at some point in their life has to decide whether they’re going to live or die,” he said.

Over drinks, a boyish-looking management consultant entertained me with the tragi-comic tale of his first (and last) date with a woman who convinced him to let her up to his apartment so she could use his bathroom for a quick minute. After a lengthy delay, she appeared, buck naked, suggesting they move things to the bedroom. When he declined, she ran through his apartment, screaming, “I just want to be loved! I just want to be loved!”

When I began Would It Kill You to Put on Some Lipstick: A Year & 100 Dates I knew there’d be storytelling. As a writer, I was focused initially on how best to tell my own story. But what I didn’t fully appreciate was how privileged I’d be to hear so many others’ stories – stories ranging from the poignant to the abhorrent, and I began to see that so much of dating is actually about storytelling. From that first second of connection, an exchange of narratives begins and it became a natural structure for my book. Our stories are told in words, both written and oral, and often through photographs and even music.

It’s a creative flow – dating isn’t a job interview. In a job interview, there are social norms and a standard script you’re supposed to follow – you talk about your last position, education and experience. Too much deviation from the script, you’re deemed wacky and they never call again. But in dating, there are social norms of course, but it’s more carte blanche. Each person is editor-in-chief, making the call on what headline story runs on the front page.

Sarah McLaughlin has a song about seduction called “Building A Mystery”. Stories are the cornerstone of building a mystery and storytelling is part of seduction. What stories do we tell others about ourselves? What stories do we tell about others? What stories do we tell ourselves about ourselves?

A man I once dated proudly explained that the translation of his surname means “the strongest man in the world” and it struck me – that label had become central to how he saw himself – a personal brand of sorts.

A few months into my dating challenge I began to wonder about people’s editing processes. Are most of us making our story choices consciously, subconsciously, or a little of both?

Do the stories we tell fit into the overarching narrative of our own lives and self-concept? Probably. And at this juncture I’m sure the psychologists and psychoanalysts would have plenty to add here.

I also began to see some patterns in the storytelling.

Oftentimes the stories begin with back story – looking in the rear view mirror, explaining why their marriage ended, for example. A purging and an explanation of the past. (And I was absolutely floored by the dozens of times I’ve heard men tell me their ex-wives were “crazy”. That was the single most common reason I’d heard as the reason for divorce.) Perhaps we can’t begin to imagine a new narrative until we dispatch with or at least re-frame our pasts? Storytelling is in fact an ordering.

I’ve noticed that stories also cluster around the humorous and the self-deprecating. Maybe it demonstrates lightness and humility to a potential mate?

I dated a ginger-haired opera singer who had a fine tale in this category. Operaman had come down with a nasty case of food poisoning and was wedded to the toilet. He was spending considerable hours in the bathroom. Suddenly, while on his throne, he was accosted by a rabid raccoon, snarling, baring its teeth, foaming at the mouth. Operaman fought the beast with a rolled-up newspaper and from this I learned that Operaman liked to read. Also, that you should keep your bathroom windows closed in the event that rabid procyonids try to bust in and attack you in a vulnerable moment.

Another funny – the adventure-seeking, woman-lovin’ pilot who admitted to having a one-night stand with a doctor. He never learned her full name or the type of medicine she practiced. He spent the night at her place, the next morning, she drove him home. Years passed and they never saw each other again until one day, the pilot has an issue with his man parts. He made an appointment with a urologist. The door opened and in came his former one-night stand in a white lab coat, except now she’s married and hugely pregnant. She appeared ready to give birth practically at any second. They recognize each other and have a bit of a laugh. As the doctor examines the pilot’s junk, he says, “Well, at least you know the area.” (That story made me laugh and then lit off a Fourth of July-style STD Warning flare. Stay back at least fifty feet.)

There are also the Special Skills stories: “I convinced [insert name of famous, aged rockstar here] to check into Betty Ford.” This story says I’m a good manager of people and I just say no to drugs.

Or that pilot, again, boasting he crash-landed in the ocean, saved just in the knick of time by a search-and-rescue helicopter. He showed me the video footage on his cell phone as proof, and sure enough, it’s true. “I didn’t even get wet,” he said. (No, I didn’t date Sully.) That story taught me never to get in a plane with that guy.

You know you’re really getting close with someone when they start to tell you their family stories. I’d say that you cannot possibly have real intimacy until you begin to understand your lover’s family of origin and the cast of characters who helped shape him or her. Jack, a man I fell hard for, shared an illuminating story about his family – that his mother had carried on an affair with Jack’s father’s best friend for over twenty years. She eventually left Jack’s father for the best friend and Jack’s father was devastated. The father never recovered and died heartbroken. The minute Jack made this disclosure, I knew instantly he was letting his walls down, offering clues about his pain and how he might view women and relationships, about how he might see many things.

The act of sharing an important family story can move a relationship to a new place of trust and closeness. Sometimes, even though it’s years later and Jack and I and many of the people I’ve dated are no longer in touch, I still feel somewhat guilty about telling these stories, even as their names and identifying details have been altered, even as they’re protected. There’s a part of me that feels these stories should be locked in a vault forever, yet another part of me feels they are too beautiful, funny, too precious to not marvel at, to not learn from.

Recently a male writer said to me, “I’m so glad someone has written a book about dating. Women don’t really know how to date.” I found myself making a face.

“My book isn’t really about dating,” I said. “It is and it isn’t,” and I explained that my book is partly about dating, but it’s more about a journey, it’s more about stories and a weaving together of my personal story and the stories of the people I encounter during an important year in my life. What we learn, how we impact each other.

(As an aside, Would It Kill You is certainly cross-genre, which makes it difficult to slot for some literary agents, and by the way, I’m looking for one. The book’s advantage is that it potentially appeals to a much larger market, including self-help, dating, memoir and chick lit.)

It was Jack’s story about his dysfunctional family dynamics that inspired me to examine my own family narrative. I grew up never knowing my father, and it was ultimately Jack, who in hindsight, was a father figure to me, who ultimately challenged me to reach out to my dad before it was too late. So my book is only partly about dating. It’s a book that began one way and ended another – it got away from me as good books often do, and it became something better than my original intention. It helped me reconcile with a painful past and find my own happiness in mid-life.

What happens after you’ve been dating awhile and the well runs dry – the story well, that is. It’s an interesting point in a relationship when you’ve been together long enough that you’ve heard all of the best stories. It’s the night where you sit there across the table, looking at your mate and realize you’ve probably heard it all, or at least heard most of the best. In that moment I’ve felt a small sense of loss. I don’t get to marvel anymore at my love’s classic yarns. A certain stage of discovery is over. But I realize too, that it simply means we now have to create new stories together. Stories mean that you have lived and are still living. If the stories dry up, perhaps it means you’ve stopped living and challenging yourself.

Maybe the way to think about dating narratives is that it’s more of an audition. You get to choose your headshot, your song, the lines that best display your natural talents. It’s an audition for companionship and ultimately partnership. Many of us do indeed just want to be loved. Perhaps equally, or even more so, we also want to be known and understood. And the entry point to that understanding is through story.

Writing, DatingKathy WardComment