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Life on California's beautiful Central Coast

Being tall and talking to strangers

Yesterday I read a really charming blog post – which I really related to – by Beth Spotswood about being tall and talking to strangers in Target.

I loved this post because I related to it on two levels. Beth, apparently, is irritatingly tall just like me. She describes it as “I have been 5’11” since I was in 6th Grade. I have yet to fully come to terms with my deformity.” I basically say the exact same thing. The other day I caught myself asking someone: “Does it bother you that I’m this tall?,” a question which, I realize, should land me in self-esteem jail for at least a few weeks.

I always thought that if I had been a superstar basketball or volleyball athlete, I might not have minded being my height. But I wasn’t, because I have the hand-eye coordination of an armadillo. (Wait, do armadillos have hands?) And everyone knows that shorter runners are more efficient – it’s that turnover ratio thing – which typically makes you faster if you are under 5’6’’.  The rest of us are just using extra energy to carry all this height and body mass around. Not to mention the added wind resistance.

The other part of Beth’s story that I really liked was her account of talking to strangers, and how strangely rewarding those experiences can be. The first time I ever struck up a conversation with someone I did not know, for no particular reason, was about 15 years ago on the Goleta Pier. A man was sitting on a bench reading a newspaper sports section, and I happened to have written the story on the front page. So I started talking to him about that. He looked at me like I was a crazy person. The conversation didn’t go far, but it was oddly empowering just to put myself out there.

Developing this ability to talk to strangers was a huge help when I was working as a reporter and had to go out and convince random folks that they should talk with me – on the record – and maybe even have their picture in the paper. Whether it was about a news event they’d been a part of, a crime they witnessed, or just the weather conditions that day, charming unknown folks into conversation was never hard for me. People, it turns out, actually want to talk to each other. Smiling at them also helps.

Since then, I have talked to strangers on my travels, especially when traveling alone. I’ve had conversations on airplanes that lasted for hours. When I was in Houston last winter I got the complete scoop on regional demographics and economic trends from my airport shuttle driver. I met a bartender in Fort Collins, Colo. who was a runner and a writer and sent me home with an autographed copy of his self-published book on running. A man on a plane to Austin detailed his marathon training plan. A Vietnam veteran on a beach in Mexico burst into tears when I thanked him for his service.

Most recently I met a really sweet older woman in Solvang with whom I share a common affection for old aprons. We had a long talk about how we both collected them and never wore them, which created an instant connection. Her name is Norma, and she works at a local charity shop and now calls me up when they have vintage kitchenwear come in.

For my mother, who will surely read this and tell me not to talk to strangers, because it’s dangerous – I choose my strangers wisely. These are conversations of the sort that Americans used to have with each other, when we actually talked and connected rather than just Tweeting and “checking in.” They’re harmless, and they leave both parties feeling a little better just for connecting with another human being.

Thanks to Beth Spotswood for a great column. And thanks to Boris Alves for the photo below, in which, you guessed it, I’m the tall one. With Heather Lahr, left, and Liz Werhane, right.

Heather, Leah, and Liz



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