The first half of the performance had ended, and the lights in the theater came up. My wife Julie and I had just seen act I of “The Million Dollar Quartet” at the Paramount theater in Aurora.

It is the story of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and their interactions during a recording session at the famous Sun Records in 1956. The event was before my time, but I am still familiar with their stories and music.  That was not the case for Julie, as she was raised in a Time Life, “100 Most Loved Classical Music Compositions” kind of family. During the intermission I was explaining to her the various sub-plots of the play.

It was clear that the man in front of us was listening to our conversation.  After a minute or two he turned to us and flashed a big smile.  I’m guessing that he was around 80, but a healthy looking 80.  He had clear skin, sparkling blue eyes, and a very infectious smile.  

He started to talk to us. It was the effortless kind of talk that gently tests the waters of a new connection.

Not surprisingly, he started by asking a few questions.  Were we enjoying the show? Where we married? He then offered a little information about himself.  He was in the Army at the same time Elvis was in the service (1959) but he never met him.  He was Lithuanian, but spent his early life in Germany. He came to the states as a child. He lived in Genoa IL.  Then more question for us. Did we have kids? Did we live in Aurora? At some point he introduced us to his wife who was sitting next to him.  She was stylishly dressed, and also had an inviting smile.

Our conversation continued throughout the intermission and ended only when the second act lights dimmed.

When the show ended, we were not forgotten.  Our new friend made sure to say goodbye, and to wish us a good evening.  Both of us commented on how pleasant he was, and how we enjoyed our little interlude with him… and there was the problem.

Dear reader, the problem wasn’t this delightful man, or even our interaction with him.  Rather, it was my awareness of a skill that he had that I lacked despite my many years of training.

As I enter retirement one of my main goals has been to acquire a comfort level connecting with strangers.  I certainly know the protocol, but I have been unable to implement it.  My dear friend Tom connects effortlessly with strangers.  I have watched his behaviors and I have mimicked them.  If I have the security blanket of Tom with me I have no problem engaging with a new face. In fact, in most cases I am successful.  However, I can’t seem to initiate this behavior when I’m by myself.

Why is that, dear reader?  I believe it dates back to my early childhood when the message I received was that I was a troublesome burden when I asked questions or wanted attention.  Dear reader, my goal is not to constantly bash my parents, or to blame my problems on them.  I am an adult, and I am responsible for my behavior.  With that said, it amazes me that I can be impacted so significantly by the past.

Yes, I am an introvert, but that is not the issue here.  If a stranger engages with me I have no problem connecting with them.  In my professional life I am a professional interviewer, I don’t bat an eye asking a total stranger the most intimate of questions. I can lecture to an audience of 500 people without difficulty. Once I have established a connection with someone I have no problem re-engaging with them. Via this blog I am acquiring the ability to write about very personal parts of my life to a wide-open internet public.

Over the last few years I have taught myself the skill of making initial small talk with strangers.  The one to six sentence interactions that others do so effortlessly.  It has work for me, and the more that I do it the easier it becomes.  However, the ability to connect on a more substantive level has remained illusive.

You may ask, “Why is this a big deal?  You have gotten this far without this skill, why bother now?”  Dear reader, one of my goals is to connect with strangers outside the confines of my professional office.  I want to photograph them.  I want to write about their lives.  I am fascinated by the wonder of the common person.  When you get to know someone the common becomes uncommon.  The routine becomes unique.  The ordinary becomes extraordinary.  …but I am stuck.  Stuck with the burden of thinking that I am bothering someone by starting a conversation with them.  That there is something wrong about wanting to connect with them. Stuck with the fear that I am wasting their time.  I do not feel worthy.  I am back in my childhood.

At this point I will continue to push forward.  I will continue to try new strategies.  I will continue to take risks.  I will continue to pray for courage.  But, I am saddened by my lack of progress.

What can I do? One foot in front of the next. I have climbed many mountains in my life, this is just another one.  I already know that to accomplish my goal I will need the help of others.  Perhaps one of them will have the key to solving this issue. I am not one to give up.  I am not one to give up on myself.