Bouncy Ball # 97 - Kite-Flying at the Beach - Story by L.A. comedian Nevin Sharma
"Yeah, I guess anywhere is fine. This whole thing is the beach so...really...park wherever."
It's a gorgeous day, and I'm doing something. Normally, I don't have to do anything. I got laid off from my job at the end of December, so I've spent most of my time these last few months doing a lot of nothing. It's both liberating and frightening. On the one hand, I have no obligations, no commitments, no responsibilities, but on the other hand, I have no obligations, no commitments and no responsibilities. I have to create these things. On my own. It's hard. Yeah, wittle baby doesn't know what to do with his life.
What have I decided to do with this freedom?
Fly a homemade kite.
I was tired when we got to the beach. I had been up till 5:30 the previous night because I underestimated how long it would take to make a fucking kite. Turns out it was more involved than I thought. A hacksaw made an appearance. Who knew?
I don't know why I decided to make a kite. I suppose it was just something to occupy my time. Maybe I just needed to do something tangible. Something real. Something with my hands, mannnnn.
Anyway, Lee and I grab the delicate kite made out of thin dowels, electrical tape, a trash bag and some rope and make our way down a steep path towards the beach. No sooner did my foot hit the sand when I heard it:
One of the sticks holding this kite together, the kite that I stayed up till 5:30 AM making, the kite that represented the only tangible accomplishment from the last 4 months of doing nothing, had snapped. It's over. All that work for nothing.
"I blew it. I blew it before we even started. Goddamn it."
"No, I think we can fix this."
Lee runs back up to his car. I stand by the shore looking out at the sea, a bouncy ball in my pocket reminding me that in order to give this bouncy ball a story, I have to do something. But I don't do anything.
And even if I do this, nothing will change in my life. Even if we do somehow get this kite off the ground...who cares? It's a dumb kite. There's some jackass 5 feet away from us with a kite he bought from the store. It's flying! What's the point of trying to fly a kite anyway? This is stupid.
Lee returns with the most bizarre thing I've ever heard of someone having in their car. It was a roll of those produce bags they have at the grocery store. You know, the ones you put things like ginger and parsley and shit in? It was perfect.
He quickly tied a strong, secure, boy scout style knot to re-connect the two pieces that had snapped. We were back in business. As we were attaching the flying line to the kite a strong burst of wind violently took hold of the kite, and I heard it again:
Fucking - Snap.
The stick that was holding the kite together horizontally had also snapped.
Fuck internet kite building websites.
Lee is still optimistic. "No we're good. This thing has to fly. We came all the way out here."
Fuck Home Depot.
Lee refastens the broken stick, and we try to fly this thing again. I hold onto the kite as Lee starts running down the sand. The kite catches some wind, but it doesn't take off. He tries running again. It doesn't take off.
"This thing might just be kicked, dude."
We decide to try one last time. We catch a little gust of wind, and the kite takes off. It's not impressive. But it gets off the ground. The kite is at least taller than us, which feels like a victory.
Then it catches some more wind. Now this kite is getting pretty high. This kite is actually flying! Holy shit! THIS FUCKING KITE FLIES! It's getting up there now! It's high! It's SO high! OH WOW! AWESOME! I find myself yelling - like straight up hootin' and hollerin' - in actual un-ironic excitement louder and with more earnestness than I can ever remember. Lee stands there looking at the kite far above him, one hand holding the string and the other raised high above his head in triumph. It WORKED! I can't believe it worked!
When that kite came down, we tried to get it to fly again with nowhere near the success of that flight. It was pretty beat. We sat down on the beach and looked out at the ocean, both of us exhilarated. Something amazing had happened. As I sat there on a Tuesday, a work day, a gorgeous work day, on a beach, looking out at the ocean, I felt like I had it together. I don't know why. In real life, I most certainly do not have it together. But for some reason.
In that moment.
I felt all right.
I left the bouncy ball at the beach.
I had done something.
Bouncy Ball # 98 - Rhonda
"That's the Zorthian family ranch right there," she says, turning to me like we'd already been having a conversation, and we're not complete strangers.
"Yep. They have a farm in the Foothills of Altadena. They come to this ceremony every year." She has shoulder-length gray hair, and she dresses like my mom - t-shirt, sneakers, jeans, sunglasses.
"Wow," I say. "That's so cool."
"My son is out there." She points to the colorfully robed men and women in front of us, wearing funny hats like scholars in a college graduation and leading animals in large ornate cages to the center of Olvera Street.
Right across from Union Station, Olvera Street is the oldest part of downtown LA. The area, settled by Spanish colonists in the late 1700s and remaining the center of the city after Mexican Independence, still exists today as part of the El Pueblo De Los Angeles State Historic Park. Along the old cobblestone road, nestled between buildings, Mexican merchants sell everything from food to sandals to posters of Marilyn Monroe with a "Day of the Dead" skull as her face. It's less than a mile from my house, but I never even knew it existed until a couple months ago, when I was desperately searching the internet for things to do for this bouncy ball bullshit.
Sosa and I had come here because it was card number 1 of the 50 "City Walk Adventure" cards we'd received when we won the city scavenger hunt the week before. As we approached the lively historic square, we'd noticed a banner raised at the entrance: "The Blessing of the Animals."
"The Blessing of the animals?" I'd read. "That's crazy that something is actually going on here. I feel like we were supposed to come here today."
After wandering through the heart of the cobbled marketplace, we'd run into a roped off section. A young guy herded us to the other side of the rope, and having no idea where we were going, we weaved through people with dogs on leashes, carrying cages with cats or bunnies, and found a spot near the edge of the crowd gathering on the sides of the street, a stage set up at the far end of the area.
That's where we ran into Rhonda.
"They've been coming to this for 60 years," she continues.
"Wow," I say. "And, uh, what exactly is this?"
She laughs. "It's a ceremony. The Blessing of the Animals. The Catholic church blesses all the animals around Easter."
But as she's explaining, a young woman takes the stage and starts speaking into the mic. Sosa ushers me over to a short wall, and we stand on it to see - the best view in the house.
"Welcome, and thank you for coming to this year's Blessing of the Animals," the girls says. She explains the ceremony - a centuries-old tradition - and introduces the Archbishop of the Catholic church, who walks out past the Zorthian family ranchers, waving at all the people gathered on the sidelines. A mariachi band announces his entrance, and they play while he makes his way to the stage.
"This is amazing," I say to Sosa. "I mean, we just accidentally found this."
Again, Rhonda appears next to me on the wall. I don't notice she's there until she starts talking to me, again as though we're mid-conversation. "You know," she says, pointing again at the colorful group in the center of street. "That's the Zorthian Family Ranch. It's a ranch up in Altadena."
I smile. "Oh yeah?"
"My son is out there," she says. "You see the guy in the funny hat?"
Almost all of them are wearing funny hats. "Oh sure," I say.
"That's him! He's an artist. It's an artist community. They've been coming to the Blessing of the Animals for the past 60 years."
I get the feeling that she doesn't recognize me from literally minutes before. But she's dead on with her factual information. Just after she relays these tidbits to me, the lady on the microphone says, "We'd like to welcome the Zorthian family, who's been attending the Blessing of the Animals for the past 60 years."
The Zorthian family starts leading their animals toward the stage, where the Archbishop dips a large wand into a bucket of holy water and sprays it out onto all the animals herded in front of the stage.
"There's plenty of water for everyone," the emcee reminds us. After the Zorthian family and a few other families are recognized, she invites the public to walk their animals past the stage. "We'll be here all afternoon," she says, as people lead their dogs and cats, their beloved pets past the Archbishop to receive his blessing.
I turn to the lady next to me, but she's disappeared. "She's gone," I say, nudging Sosa. "I was gonna give her a bouncy ball."
"We can find her."
We wade through the crowd over to where the Zorthian family is gathering, letting children pet the animals. Sure enough, the lady is there, off to the side, beaming at her son.
I walk up to her. "Hi," I say. "Can I give you a bouncy ball?"
"Oh," she says, pleasant. "Are you part of the Zorthian family?"
Again, she doesn't recognize me. "Oh no," I say. "I just want you to have this. I believe it's good luck."
A huge smile comes over her face. "Thank you so much. That's so kind of you."
Bouncy Ball # 99 - Hula Hoops
It started with a hula hoop - I saw it leaning against a the wall on a patio during this Easter BBQ, and I'd gone over to ask if I could try it out. I couldn't do it (I've never been able to), so I handed it off to Katie, who kept it going for about 20 seconds and then stopped on her own, but I think she could've gone on forever.
Now there's a circle formed around person after person attempting to hula hoop as the rest of us cheer them on. Just minutes before, we'd all been separated into small groups, having our own conversations. Separated.
A lot of people try. Most of them are comics. Rick gives it a try, his beer in hand. It's such a ridiculous visual, I wish more than anything that he's secretly good at it, but after two turns, the hoop falls down around his ankles.
And so on and so on until finally, a girl gets in the center and shows us all up, clearly the best one. I give her the bouncy ball like it's a prize for the contest I'd accidentally created. She's thrilled.
"I can't believe you started all this," Jeff says.
I shrug. "I told you. I'm magic."
And then I laugh. While it's true that I believe I'm magic, I don't really believe that getting a party of people to hula hoop is magic - it's just a thing I can do. I learned pretty early on that you can start a dance circle or a competition or pretty much any spontaneous event by simply loudly declaring that it's happening.
Bouncy Ball # 100 - Hawaii Meets Austria in Australia - Story and photograph by Adair of Dootle Photography
“Oh, please don’t jump!” my co-worker said under his breath.
I was sitting on a giant rock slab on a cliff overlooking an ocean in Manly, Sydney enjoying the view with someone who worked in a couple of the previous U.S. Presidential Administrations. It was one of the few moments of free time I had when I was working abroad, and I’d been invited to take a ferry to Manly. So far, we’d seen the Pacific Ocean more turbulent than it is in Hawai’i (where I live), a ton of sunbathers, three tween boys playing in some rough surf, and a dead possum. After walking past the beach and hiking upwards, we found ourselves on a giant cliff with one other person—the possible jumper.
She stood on the edge of a cliff, reddish-brown hair blowing in the wind, tank top, jean shorts, and flip-flops, her back to us, looking at the water. When we’d first made our way to the giant rock slab, she had been sitting on it and gave us a nice smile when we sat down. She seemed a bit teary-eyed, which was the reason for our alarm when she got up and stood on the edge.
“That’s just what we need to end a nice day,” I replied.
To our relief, she turned, gave us a bright smile, and walked towards us. Both of us, I am sure, gave an internal sigh of relief.
“Hello,” my co-worker said.
“Where you from?”
“What are you doing here?”
“I was here for an internship, but I am taking six weeks to backpack across Australia before heading back to Austria. You?"
“We met though work and decided to take a short detour.”
After chatting with her for a while, we found out that her name was Maria, that she was from a small town in Austria, and this was her first time being so far from home. She seemed ready to go back, but also excited to finish her last three weeks of backpacking. My hiking companion had initiated the conversation, to my surprise, given his previous stature. This sort of ease of conversation with anyone and everyone was not what I had become accustomed to in my job.
After talking to her for a bit, we got up to go. We had to catch the ferry back so that I could get to the airport and head home. As we stood, I pulled the bright yellow bouncy ball Leah had given me out of my bag. I had taken it with me to Sydney with the idea that I would give it to someone while I was there. I had originally thought about giving it to my hiking companion, but decided that Maria should have it. I admired her for backpacking across Australia with no plans in place. Backpacking was something I had always wanted to do, but had missed out on in my younger years because I spent my money impractically. And now I am at a point in my life where backpacking extensively is not an option.
“Maria, do you want a bouncy ball?
“What?” she replied, confused.
“A bouncy ball. A comic friend of mine in LA is on a mission to have a new experience every day. When she has this new experience she gives a bouncy ball to someone who was part of that experience. She asked her friends to help her out, so I have one. Her name is Leah Kayajanian. See, it’s right here on the ball.”
I pointed to Leah’s name.” “This was a new experience for me. Would you like the bouncy ball?”
“Sure!” she said with a giddy laugh. “Thank you! It is the type of ball that bounces high, right?”
“Yes, it is. I hope you enjoy the rest of your travels!”
As we turned to leave, I felt bad for not giving the ball to my hiking companion, who had looked curiously on as I passed it to Maria. I wished I had had two - I would have given one to each. As we walked back down the trail to catch the ferry, I felt silly apologizing for not having another one.
“That’s ok,” he replied, bounding down the trail.
He probably wouldn’t have wanted a bouncy ball anyway, but I like to think that he was playful enough that he would have enjoyed having a bouncy ball as much as Maria. One can hope—a bit of playfulness makes the world a better place.
Bouncy Ball # 101 - The Taco Table
Tuesday night, I'm driving down Glendale, and I see the taco table set up next to the car wash. They've been there every night for a month or so - just three guys wearing red aprons, a rack of juicy meat upright next to the grill while two of them cook at a frantic pace, and the third takes the orders from the line that's always forming in front of them.
Every time I drive by with Sosa in my car, he points at them. "I love that," he says. "That, to me, is real American, you know? They just say, 'I'm gonna set up right here and work all night to make money.'"
I make a last-second decision and pull into the car wash. I stand to the side and watch the guy over the grill. He never looks up to sigh, to pause. He never stops moving at that same pace. He cooks the meat. He fills the tortillas. He wraps them in aluminum foil. And then repeat.
How exhausting that must be. Eight hours every night. I see them there setting up at 6 PM, and I see them when I'm driving home late after mics.
Standing there in front of this taco grill, I feel silly. This is real work with real results - feeding people for money to feed their families. I'm exhausted and I work hard, true, but I don't have anything tangible to point to, no concrete evidence of my blood, sweat, and tears except for a silly blog about fantastic things like trying to find magic in reality.
They hand me my bag of carnitas tacos, and I leave a bouncy ball on the table.
Bouncy Ball # 102 - The Return of the Workout Room
It's my worst nightmare. I'm standing in my own garage with a microphone in my hand, a crowd of comics, people I respect, in front of me, my neighbors who hate me glaring at me from across the street, and here I am, frozen, stoned out of my mind, and having possibly the worst set of all time.
Now, I've had terrible sets - don't get me wrong - and a lot of them have been more silent than this. But this one is bad because of a number of different contributing factors, which I will list below like the obsessive neurotic comedian that I am:
1. As I mentioned, we're at my house. After D3 shut its doors, I'd offered my place as the new location for the show. It's kind of perfect, actually - we open up the doors to my garage, drop some chairs in my driveway, set up a mic, and voila, a comedy show happens. And it's a successful show. Though I'm the last comic on the lineup, everyone who performed before me was hilarious, and before I'd stepped foot onstage, I was so proud to have helped pull this off.
2. I also mentioned I'm stoned. I'd eaten way too much of an edible. This isn't particularly out of the ordinary - I'd gotten onstage the same amount of high before, but it had never affected my performance so severely. But tonight, maybe it's my paranoia about my neighbors hating me, maybe it's all the anxiety I carry around, or maybe it's simply the weed, but I'm standing there, speechless, and I can't think of a thing to say even though I have a set list in my back pocket.
3. There was supposed to be an open mic at the end of the show, but because I'm so freaked out about my neighbors, I announced at the start of my set that we couldn't do the open mic, so all of the comics that came to support the show and stayed to the end of it wouldn't be able to do time. And on top of that, I'm wasting seven minutes saying absolutely nothing. It doesn't occur to me until after I get offstage that at the very least, I should've given up my time to people who actually have things to say.
I'm so embarrassed after my set, I shut myself in my room and don't come out. When I do come out, everything is locked, cleaned, put away.
Okay, so I didn't handle that well. On the surface, it's an easy enough fix. The next morning, I wake up and send personal Facebook messages to all the comics who attended the show and didn't get time, and we booked them for the following week. All of them responded that they actually enjoyed the show, and they didn't hold a grudge against me.
The second thing - no more weed. Not forever. (I don't believe marijuana is a bad thing, and I think that alcohol is 200 times more dangerous.) But personally, it's starting to cause me more anxiety than it alleviates, which is the reason I usually eat it in the first place: to calm down. And it's been about 14 years of smoking weed, so maybe a break would be a nice exercise in control, another thing I can do to better myself during this bouncy ball project.
But that's the problem - this project has always been about making myself a better person. And while I feel that in some ways I've been successful, I always immediately notice another area that needs fixing. It's like I have this bucket that leaks, and once I find the hole and patch it up, the water leaks from another part of the bucket. I never fix it all.
First it was my broken heart - I had to mend that. Then my broken friendships and relationships. Then my sense of self-worth. Then my body, which I'd worked on and took care of with the diligence of a serious athlete. Then it was my soul - trying to make myself a better person by confronting things that I'd like to change in the world. And then it was me trying to deal with this bouncy ball project itself - trying to manage my time around that, my full time job, and standup.
And after all that, there's still a leak, and it's the place I thought was the strongest hold, the place I thought would never give out from under me: standup comedy.
Bouncy Ball # 103 - Sofiya
The next morning, I'm at work, but it's hard for me to concentrate. I'm thinking about quitting this bouncy ball project. While I like doing it, the time I spend on it is taking away from standup, and I'm just not sure that's the best decision to make. I don't know what else to cut out.
I can't cut out exercise because now that I'm quitting the pot for awhile, it's the only activity that can keep me level-headed and sane. I consider spending less time on my relationships with the people I care about the most, but that seems like it will only make me more miserable, and it's just plain unfair to me. I absolutely can't cut any more time away from standup, so it's looking like my only option is to quit this project. It'd be one thing if it made a difference at all to anyone, but it seems to be mostly for me with no real tangible results.
That's exactly what I'm thinking when my friend, LA Comic Sofiya Alexandra, tags me on Facebook, and I click on a link that brings me to this:
"Cookie/Life/Ethnicity Update" - Written by Sofiya Alexandra
I had a bunch of cookies I baked for SURPRISE! left over, and having been reading Leah Kayajanian's amazing bouncy ball adventure blog, I was inspired to connect with other people and to sort of use the cookies as my bouncy balls, my way to connect with people.
I gave some to my grandfather in the hospital (he doesn’t count, I watched him have penis surgery, we’re pretty connected), then offered some to a couple of white nurses in their 40s (waved me away like I had the measles), then 3 older white women and an older white man working the hospital sign-in desk (only one woman took a cookie, almost reluctantly - the others looked suspiciously at me and the cookies), the young Mexican woman valet outside the hospital (she was very excited and took 4 when I told her she could have multiple), then the young male Mexican valet (pretty excited, took 3 and shouted ‘Cinnamon!’ when he smelled them).
Then, when I was driving down Walgrove to my house, two middle-aged Mexican workers in orange vests were planting flowers in a median, and I rolled my window down and told them they were working too hard and to have a cookie (very excited for the cookies, but nervous about other cars approaching, so he only took 2 at first, then 4 more at my prodding, and then passed 3 more to his friend, who exclaimed “Orale, Orale!” and made me laugh).
That night, when I was driving to my writing partner’s house, there was a familiar silhouette of a homeless man at the 10 exit on Crenshaw - I take this exit every day at the same time, and there are about 5 different black homeless men who share it, one at a time. I sometimes have money for them, but sometimes not. Mostly not, to be honest, and I always feel awful after regardless of the money.
It’s a very long light to sit out while looking at another human in a desperate situation while you’re in your warm car, thinking that you’re a piece of shit who should volunteer more. This time, I rolled my window down, thrust the tupperware at him and said, “Hey, I don’t have any money, but do you want some cookies?” He came closer and cocked his head, “Did you bake these?” “Yes!” I laughed. “Then hell yeah!” he said, and reached out for a couple. “Take as many as you want!” He double-fisted that tupperware and it was awesome. I asked him his name as the light changed. “Moochie!” he shouted and waved goodbye.
I didn’t solve homelessness or anything, but the brief cookie moments of connection I shared with people yesterday made my day better, so thank you Leah, I think I will definitely do this again. It helped me step out of my own life, full of grandfather worrying and career worrying and self worrying and think about strangers. I think we all need that. And IMPORTANT QUESTION: why were the only people not into the cookies white? TAKE MORE CHANCES, WHITE PEOPLE
To anyone who doesn't believe there's magic in the world, that's okay. I used to think so, too. But time and time again, the Universe has sent me messages at the exact moment I needed to receive them. And in all that time, I've never received a more clear message from the Universe than I got from Sofiya's story - it's tangible evidence.
What I'm doing means something to one person. That's enough for me.
Universe, I got your message, loud and clear: STAY THE COURSE.
Sofiya, I owe you a bouncy ball.
"Thanks for having me on the show," I say to Steve.
"Thanks for doing it," Steve says, shaking my hand. "Hey, so I read your last blog. Are you really done with the thread about the guy?"
"Yep." I'm hesitant to give up anymore information. Talking to Steve is a chess match - he's always looking for places where your defense is weak, a back way in to personal information that you forgot to guard.
He shakes his head. "But you don't ever tell us what happened."
I shrug. "That's because nothing really happened. There's not really much to tell, other than what I said. It's not a thing anymore."
"So you're not going to talk about it?"
"Well, there's just not much to talk about," I say. "I mean, I write about how I feel when I feel it. So I started writing this blog when I was upset, but that's not the case anymore. I got other stuff going on."
"I'm just saying," Steve says, "as a reader and a fan, I feel cheated if you don't tell me what happened."
"But why do you need to know that?"
"Because look," Steve says, "you hooked me at the beginning because you're all upset about this guy, and now you're fine, and you just expect me to be fine, too, but you're the one who introduced the story. How are you going to keep that part away from the readers? You're robbing us of a happy ending."
"But that's not what the story's about. Why does the happy ending have to mean it's about a guy?"
Steve holds his hands up in surrender. "Look, you can do what you want," he says. "I'm just telling you how I feel."
I shrug. "Okay. Thank you. Noted."
I don't say what I want to say, which is this:
You've followed me this far into a web of insanity. Don't you trust me to lead you out of it?
Bouncy Ball # 92 - Crestwood Park
"Oh my God, this is the longest detour ever," I say. "I mean, are we even still in California?"
"There's a sign," Sosa says, pointing to an orange construction sign, a big black arrow prompting us to make our third left.
We'd just left Crestwood Park in Brentwood, where we attended a fundraiser carnival for the school where I work. Nothing of interest happened at the carnival.
On the way out, while we climbed some concrete stairs to the parking lot, I remembered the bouncy ball in my purse and placed it on one of the concrete steps. Halfway up the staircase, I passed an old lady with her hand on the railing, taking each step one at a time, and I ran back down to grab the bouncy ball.
"Oh my God," I'd said to Sosa while we walked to my car. "What if that old lady stepped on my bouncy ball and fell? That would've been a terrible story."
We followed the route back to the 405 freeway, but the on-ramp we needed was closed, a bright orange detour sign pointing us in a different direction.
That was about ten miles back.
"Why do I even trust these detour signs right now?" I ask. "How do I know they're leading anywhere?"
Sosa laughs. "That's a good point. What if the construction workers were bored, and they just pointed us in random directions? They're like, 'Just get the fuck out of here.'"
"That's what it feels like," I say. "Look, there's another sign." We approach yet another intersection, the orange sign pointing left. The only problem is, there are two possible lefts you can take, one sharp left that turns onto a two-lane highway, and one soft left that leads down a hill. I take the sharp left.
"I don't think this is right," I say. "Everyone else went the other way."
Sosa shrugs. "Well, turn around."
I pull off the road into some gravel, turn my car around and head back to the intersection. "No fucking way," I say.
At the light, there's another orange detour sign, pointing back the way we came.
"How is that even possible?" I ask. "Are we in a maze right now? Did we switch detours halfway through our detour?"
Sosa and I crack up laughing as I take a left at the light. "All right," I say. "I'm giving up." I map out the directions on my phone, and it leads us
toward the 101. Within two miles, we both recognize our surroundings.
"We're in the Valley?! We're in the fucking Valley right now? How is that even possible?" It's like we'd found some secret chute that sucked us through hills and woods and gravel roads and spit us out nowhere near where we started.
I get on the freeway. "Well," I say, "I definitely know the way from here."
I'm at work one morning when I get a Facebook message from my comic friend, who lives in Chicago. "Hey, if I don't actually give the ball to someone, does it still count?"
"Sure, it counts," I say. "Anything counts." I don't care what my friends write about the bouncy ball - I'm just happy they're writing something. "Drop the ball near where you saw it, if you want to feel justified."
"Thank goodness," he replies. "Because I saw an old lady fall down on my way to work, and I really wanted an excuse to write about it."
Huh, I think. That's a weird coincidence. Just a few days before, I'd almost made an old lady fall by leaving a bouncy ball in her path, and now a friend of mine will be dropping a bouncy ball in Chicago in the spot where he saw an old lady fall.
Stories of Bouncy Balls Past - Logan Airport
I'm in the shuttle on the way to the Logan Airport, helplessly watching the minutes tick by. 30 minutes until my flight departs, and we're not even at the terminal. We've been stuck in traffic for a few hours now. I'm about to miss my flight.
This is already an unplanned trip. I flew in to Boston the day of my grandpa's funeral, attended the night service and the graveside memorial ceremony the next morning, and then immediately turned around to fly back to L.A. Tomorrow morning, I'm supposed to be in my car driving to Oklahoma for the holidays.
While we finally pull up to my terminal, I'm on the phone with some guy from Orbitz, who's not really helping me. "Never mind, I gotta run!" I hang up and burst through the airport doors.
There's a line in front of the airline desk. I make eye contact with the first security guard I see. "Help me!" I yell. "My flight leaves in 20 minutes! I checked in online!"
He actually rushes over and helps me - I really have no idea why. He grabs my luggage, throws a tag on it, and points to the security checkpoint. "Gate 12," he says, shaking his head. "And you'd better run!"
But I'm already running, my back to him, shouting, "Thank you!" over my shoulder while I take my shoes off, one at a time, mid-stride. I reach the security checkpoint - there's no line, just one girl in front of me.
"I'll give you a million dollars if you let me go first," I say.
She laughs. "Just go!"
I toss my stuff on the conveyor belt, check the time. 10 minutes until my flight departs.
The guard gestures for me to walk through the metal detector. I rush through, but it beeps. "Oh my God," I say. "I don't even have anything."
"Check your pockets," the guard says.
I reach in my pocket. There is something in there. I pull it out. "It's a bouncy ball!" I hold it out in front of the guard. "What do I do? I don't even need this!"
He rolls his eyes. "Just hold it in your hand."
So I clutch the ball in my hand, holding my arms up over my head as they x-ray me. 8 minutes. There's no way I'm making this flight.
Still, I grab my shoes, my backpack, and run down the terminal in my socks until I land in front of Gate 12, out of breath, 7 minutes before the flight is supposed to leave.
But they're not boarding the plane. The gate is full of passengers, and they're all staring at me. Probably because I look like a crazy person.
I walk up to the help desk. "Excuse me, is there a problem with the flight?"
"We'll be boarding shortly," the lady says. "The flight crew got held up in traffic."
I sit down and put on my shoes, exhausted, sad, and a little bit confused. In all my years flying on planes, I've never been delayed because a flight crew got stuck in traffic. I pull the bouncy ball out of my pocket. Did I make this happen? Did I stop this plane?
Am I magic?
I'm on my drive home from work when I receive a Facebook message from one of my LA comic friends. It's about another bouncy ball story that I'm waiting to receive. "Hey btw, what I wrote was incredibly sad, so I scratched it."
I'm bummed, but I don't want her to know. It's not her fault that I can't distribute bouncy balls at the rate I'd set for myself. "That's cool that you wrote something," I respond, "even if no one sees it. And you can always try it again if you want."
"Well I still have some balls," she writes. "Maybe I can try to make it fun and less sad this time."
"Some of my stories are pretty sad, too," I say. "Just so you know."
Bouncy Ball # 93 - Evan
Wednesday night, I'm at the House of Pies with a group of comics after the mic at the Hollywood Hotel. One of the comics, Evan, announces that he's going to try the apple pie with a slice of cheese on it.
"Is that a thing?" I ask.
They point it out to me on the menu.
"Oh cool! I'm gonna try that, too."
Evan and I get our pie before the rest of the food. It's delicious. I pass it around the table, offering bites to all the other comics.
After a while, there's a lull in the conversation, and right then, I miss the easiness of my old friends, how silence is rare, but when it happens, it's never accompanied by the sudden panic that sets in over a group of comics, whose biggest fears are appearing as awkward as they feel.
I loudly sigh. "You guys," I say. "I just feel like, well...why is everyone here always so...I don't know."
I continue. "It's just that my friends are always giving each other shit, you know? I mean, my old college friends. Not that you guys aren't my friends."
They all stare at me.
"I mean, they made fun of each other, you know? It was easy. And I feel like there's just not that easy feeling here. Why are we all so polite?"
"God Leah," Ryan says. "Sorry we're not as good as your real friends."
I know he's joking, but I immediately feel bad. "No, no, that's not what I meant," I say. "It's just..."
But I don't know what to say. I don't know what I mean. I can't tell what's bothering me sitting at this table, but there's something just a little off about it. I feel disconnected and isolated, even here with five other people.
"I still have your ball," my friend Megan says. "I haven't done anything yet, but I promise I will."
"Ha!" I laugh. "There's no rush, really."
"No, I have the perfect thing," she says, "but I'm afraid to do it. It's dumb, but I've never done it before."
"Really? Wow, I can't wait."
"Yeah," she says. "I thought about what I wanted to do, and then I got this idea, and now I can't think of anything else."
Bouncy Ball # 94 - Meah
I've been driving around for over an hour trying to find something to do with this goddamn ball. I pass by a shop with the sign "$6 haircuts." I'd do that, but I don't have six dollars. I only have two dollars.
I'm running out of daylight and options. Finally, frustrated, I pull into a gas station. I take my last two bucks, and I go in to buy a Powerball ticket. I get a quick pick number from the friendly cashier.
"Can I give you a bouncy ball?" I ask him, holding a large yellow one in my palm in front of him.
The cashier grabs it. "What is this?"
"It's just a bouncy ball," I say. "They're for good luck. I like to give them to people."
He smiles, turning the ball in his hand. "You know," he says, "it's crazy you gave me this. I have a son, and he loves these. He plays with them all the time! I'm going to give it to him, if you don't mind." He examines the writing on the side. "What's this say here?"
"It says my name," I say. "Leah."
"Oh, I see," he says.
I glance at his name tag. "Is your name Meah?"
"Wow," I say. I start to leave.
Me holds the ball up. "Thank you so much for this. My son, he will love it. Really, it's perfect."
On my way to my car, I hold my $2 slip of paper, and I think about odds. What are the odds that this is a winning ticket? One in a billion? And what are the odds that I randomly give a bouncy ball to a man who's son collects bouncy balls? One in a million? One in a billion? Once in a lifetime?
I'm walking out of High Fidelity at the end of The Casual when I run into a comic friend on the sidewalk. "Hey," he says. "I'm glad I saw you. What's your email address? I got a bouncy ball story for you!"
"Oh great!" I say. I rattle off my address and run to catch up with Sosa, who's walking ahead of me on the sidewalk. "He's got a story," I say. "Thank God. He's saving me."
I wait, but I don't receive an email.
On Sundays, I record a podcast with my friend Andy. It's his baby - I'm just the co-host that tries to keep him on topic when his ADHD sees some shiney conversation nugget off in another direction.
The podcast, called "People We Know," is about fictional characters. Every week, Andy invites a guest to come talk to us about their favorite character from a movie, a book, a TV show, really anything.
I'm an interesting addition to the podcast, mostly because I'm notorious for not seeing movies or TV shows that apparently everyone else in the world has seen. For instance, I've never seen "The Godfather." (GASP!)
So most of the time when we record, I'm just sitting there with nothing to add to the conversation because I have no idea what super-villains Spider-man has encountered, and Andy can stay on this topic for hours.
Today, though, we're talking about Scrooge McDuck of "Ducktales" fame with LA comic and my good friend, Greg. I still don't know shit about the topic, but since I know Greg, the conversation is easy, smooth.
"So why do you think you connect so much with Scrooge McDuck?" Andy asks, laughing at the absurdity of it. He's asked this question in different versions several times, but I get the feeling he's looking for something deeper than what Greg's given.
"Well, I don't know if I connect with him," Greg says. "But I like the show because it's a treasure hunt. You know? I just like that idea of looking for treasure. The adventure of it."
"We should go on a treasure hunt," Andy says.
"Hell yeah," I say. "I'm in! For sure."
"All right," Greg says, "Let's do this. We just need a map."
"But where can we get a map?"
I shrug. "Maybe we could go to a thrift store or an antique store and look for one."
"No, no, no," Andy says. "That's not how it works. The treasure map has to find you. You can't seek it out."
Later, after we're done recording, Andy, Greg, John, and I are in John's kitchen, eating donuts and discussing whether or not there's a Higher Power.
We're not arguing about it, though we have different opinions on the matter. Andy and John are Atheists, Greg and I aren't necessarily religious, but we entertain the idea that there's something out there, something supernatural, something magical.
"I just think there's some connection between all of us, you know?" Greg says.
"I agree that we're all connected," John says, "but I just think of it like we're all made out of the same thing. That in itself is fascinating enough to me."
"Yeah," I pipe in. "I guess that's true. But don't you ever feel like you can manipulate things? You know, like if you wake up and you're in a good mood, then your day goes better than if you start out pissed?"
"Oh sure," John says, "but that's really more about your psychological mindset."
"I guess," I say. "But I mean, I just feel like I'm able to manipulate things that I shouldn't have any control over. I can make things happen. What comes to me is a direct result of what I put in the world."
Bouncy Ball # 95 - My Neighborhood
After work one afternoon, I walk around my neighborhood with a large trash bag. I scour the fence lines, the sidewalks, the edge of the streets, picking up any trash I find. I don't live in the nicest area - within one block, I've filled an entire bag.
Why am I doing this? Well, during Week 12 of this project, one of my guest writers had referred to dropping her bouncy ball on the ground as "creative littering." I never thought of bouncy balls as litter for some reason, but I guess they are made of rubber, of plastics and man-made chemicals that take years to decompose.
I figure that by the end of this, I'll have released close to 200 bouncy balls in the world. So, in an effort to make right on what I'm putting in the world, I picked up well over 200 pieces of litter around my block.
During my short neighborhood cleanup, I only have one interaction. A man pulls up next to me, parks his car, and smiles. "Thank you for doing that," he says.
"It's nothing," I say. After all, I'm just cleaning up to make up for the messes I've made, the debris like fragmented pieces of my life, my friend's lives, scattered around the world.
Late Friday night, I receive a long text message from an Oklahoma friend and this picture:
"Can't find the contact case to take out my contacts," she writes, "but instead I find a Leah Kayajanian bouncy ball under my bed, and it isn't the one you sent. I checked my purse to be sure. I can't reach it with my arms, so it's stuck there for now and I am bored, so I decided it's cool, like a magic charm somebody put under a bed to protect someone in a movie."
"That's exactly what it IS!" I write. "I put it there in my dream."
I text that because I know she'll like it, the idea of me sending good vibes her way in the form of bouncy balls. She likes things like that. But I also text it because I believe that it's true. I believe I did put it there somehow, that the earth has rotated in such a way that my existence made that circumstance occur. And even my existence is against the odds - I was born because my grandmother survived the Armenian Genocide and came to America, an 8-year-old orphan.
Whatever the reason for it, the fact that I exist has put bouncy balls out in the world in certain spots that seem inevitable, like points on a treasure map that only appear in a certain light, like pieces set up on a chess board that show up and disappear when you let your guard down, like points of connection between me and the world.
Between me and you.
Bouncy Ball # 96 - CityHunt Scavenger Hunt
"I just want you to know," Sosa says, "none of that was fun for me."
I laugh. "Really? I had fun. You didn't like it?"
He shakes his head. "It was definitely more stressful than I thought it'd be. I thought it was gonna be just a fun game thing, but that's not what it felt like. You were really serious about it."
"Oh, I'm sorry! Was I being obnoxious?"
He sighs. "No, but you wanted to win."
Sosa and I just met back at the rendezvous point to find at least 8 teams had finished this scavenger hunt before us, including several teams of older ladies who'd also apparently stopped and done some shopping along the way.
Technically, it doesn't matter if we finished first, just as long as we finish in the allotted three-hour time span. Sosa and I spent two and a half hours running up and down Hollywood Boulevard to find certain stars on the Walk-of-Fame, to count the stairs leading up to the entrance of the Dolby Theatre, to find the answers to questions on random plaques outside the Chinese Theatre. I'd mostly just asked him to Google things, rushing from one place to another while I went over and over our clues.
Now we're sitting on a bench, our scorecards turned in, waiting for the remaining teams to finish. "I'm sorry you didn't have fun," I say.
"It's not that," he says. "I just felt like we weren't on the same team. Like I was just there to Google things."
"You helped a lot!" I say. "You pretty much found all the answers, actually."
He shrugs, takes a sip of water. Once all the teams return, the scores are tallied, and one of the women in charge of the event stands front and center. "Okay," she says, "I'm going to name the top ten teams."
"Huh," I say, looking at the bottom of our stack. "Ours is on the bottom. See where I wrote stuff on the back?"
Sosa turns to me. "Wait. Did we win?"
"No way," I say. "There's more than ten papers in her hand."
But as she counts down, naming the placing teams, she gets closer and closer to ours until it's the only one remaining in her hand. "And the first place team has a very appropriate name..."
Sosa and I exchange a look.
"It's The Winners!" the lady says. That's the name we chose: The Winners.
Sosa jumps up. "Yes!" he says, incredulous. "We won!"
We high five. The lady hands us a paper bag with some silly prizes: a couple of boxes that I assume are candy and two medals that say, "Winner," which we put on right away.
We're both ecstatic. We can't believe it. Sure, it's just a silly scavenger hunt, but we WON! We won because we were fast and diligent and competitive.
On the drive back to my house, Sosa goes through the bag and pulls out the prizes. One of the boxes is some hard candy - he opens it, dropping a few pieces in my hand.
"What's this?" he says, pulling out the other object.
It's a box of cards, slightly bigger than tarot cards. The front says, "City Walks: Los Angeles: 50 Adventures on Foot."
Sosa unwraps the plastic, opens the box. "Oh wow." He pulls out the cards. "Look, Leah. They're all different maps to places in LA where you can walk."
He hands me the deck, and I pull out card number one. On one side, there's a map of Olvera St., the oldest street in LA. "Oh wow, I have this on my list of places to go." I flip it over - there are directions that include historical landmarks, facts, places with stories and history.
"You can use these for your bouncy ball things," Sosa says.
"Holy shit," I say. "That's exactly what I'm supposed to do with them."
"That's why we won," he says. "You were supposed to get these."
I'm speechless. I guess Andy's right. You can't look for a treasure map. A real treasure map finds you.
The Bouncy Ball Project, Week Thirteen: Bad Vibes and Brushes with Death, But the Pool Is Still Half Full
Bouncy Ball # 86 - "Kensai and the Lighthouse" - Written by Anthony Cavazos
I’m a recruiter for a big, flagship state university, and my job takes me to various places around the country, spreading the good word about what a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree can do.
Often times, I find myself in vacation destinations spending half of my day in a suit and the other half in beach clothes. Sometimes, I find myself on military installations – places that kind of feel like home when your parent spent 32 years in the military. The Exchange, the Burger King, the Class Six: they all look the same on nearly every base.
Before the security checkpoint, there’s a visitor’s center where you can “apply” to get a permit to be on base. We pull into the full parking lot and enter the building.
“What number did you get?”
“387. What number are they on?”
Lauren, a friend and coworker from another department, looks down at her phone. It’s 6:10, and we have been flying and driving since 11 AM. Neither of us has eaten since 9AM.
“My stomach is starting to eat itself,” Lauren says with a whimper.
“Lauren, this place is open 24 hours, we can just come back after we grab some dinner. We don’t have to sit here starving.”
“No, we need to just get this over with. I’ll stop whining. I’m going to wait right outside the door and get some fresh air.”
We step outside and families of soldiers are trickling in to get their numbers, wait an eternity, and finally go about their business inside the base. I noticed an old, wrinkled sticker on the door – a pistol with a slash through it. No guns allowed.
“Hey, Lauren, this is kind of haunting. Remember the shooting spree that happened here about 4 years ago?”
“No, I must have blocked it out of my memory.”
“Some army medic or something just declared jihad on the soldiers and shot and killed like 15 of them. They were being processed to go to Iraq or Afghanistan – probably just standing in a line like this. Ugh. I’m creeped out.”
After an hour and a half, the automated system in a robotic, yet slightly female voice (like Siri) calls out, “Now serving…three…hundred…eighty seven.” We approach the counter. The E-3 behind the desk asks to see our car rental agreement, Lauren’s driver’s license, and our Education Fair invite. The process takes all of 90 seconds.
“Oh my god… let’s get off base and get some food.”
Lauren’s a military brat. Her dad was a Lt. Colonel in the Army. She knows bases and military installations better than I do. I chide her about food selections that are always available on base.
“You don’t want to get some Burger King or Anthony’s Pizza? Maybe a Robin Hood Sandwich?”
Lauren rolls her eyes and says, “Ick.” She checks her phone for restaurants near our hotels. We're staying in two different hotels. Our departments have different reimbursement policies – I had to stay at the Holiday Inn Express, which was cheaper than Lauren’s selection, Shiloh Inn. Lauren taps her phone a couple of times and makes a decision.
“There’s an Old Chicago right between our hotels. I haven’t been to an Old Chicago in years. And I want a big ass mug of beer.”
“Let’s do this.”
We pull up to the Old Chicago. It’s like every Old Chicago ever, which is great when you have been on the road for weeks. Just like a military base, you pretty much know the lay of the land in a chain restaurant, and you know what to avoid.
Lauren pulls me immediately to the bar, and we sit. The bartender walks up and asks if we are having food.
“Yes, but first things first. We want beer.”
The beers show up, and I try to order something sensible – instead I end up with a pile of pasta in an alfredo sauce. Lauren orders a salad. Good for her. That will offset the beer she’s chugging. I throw down my first 24 oz mug. I ask for a second.
A young Asian guy with a backpack walks up to us. He can’t be more than 17 years old, but here he is in the “restricted area” at the bar.
“Hello, my name is Kensai (KEN-say). I am selling sun catchers to raise money for my church. We are the Generation Peace Academy. We are followers of God and we do public service around the world. Your purchase will go towards…”
I interrupt, “Did you say your name was Kensai?”
“And you’re into peace?”
“Okay, so if I buy something off of you, you’re going to work on peace?”
“If I don’t, will you go to war?”
“No. I hope not.”
“Cool, well, you’re lucky I’m into this peace thing you’re promoting. How much are your sun catchers?”
“They range in price from fifteen to sixty dollars.”
“JEEEESUS CHRIST! That’s a lot for a sun catcher. Did you make them yourself?
“Do you know the people that made them?”
“Umm. No. They… they…um… well, they just come in a box and we grab 20 of them and put them in our backpacks…”
“So you have no idea who made these?
“I can check. Ahhh, here we go… they were made in the Phillipines.”
“Are you from the Phillipines?”
“Then we still don’t know who made these.”
At this point, Lauren is annoyed by both of us, I’m sure. “Stop messing with him.”
I oblige. “I tell you what, Kensai. I want a fifteen dollar sun catcher. What are my options?”
Kensai holds up a lighthouse suncatcher. It is a nutty turd compared to the more ornate ones behind it. I peek inside the bag and see one with hummingbirds dancing in a circle around a flower.
“How much for the hummingbird one?”
“Are you shitting me, Kensai? Show me another fifteen dollar one.”
“This is it.”
I begrudgingly pull out my wallet and give Kensai fifteen dollars.
“Thank you and God bless you.”
He hands me the ugly, dumb lighthouse. Complete with “MADE IN PHILLIPINES” sticker.
“Hold on, Kensai. I want to give you something, too. It’s a big bouncy ball. I don’t care what you do with it. Give it to someone. Keep it. Throw it down the street. Just promise me you won’t throw it in the trash.”
Kensai looks me straight in the eyes, waiting for a punchline. “Wait. You’re serious.”
“Yes. The ball has my friend Leah’s name on it. Check out her blog sometime. You’ll understand what is happening here.”
“And keep working on that peace thing. I’m counting on you!”
Kensai moves along to the next couple, probably lamenting that this interaction took way too long – it’s late and he probably has school in the morning.
We tab out. I chug my beer and we head to our hotels. I joke that my hotel was cheaper, so it was probably full of hookers and pimps. Lauren picked her hotel based on how it looked on the outside… buyer beware. When Lauren picks me up from my posh Holiday Inn Express, she tells me all about the Shiloh Inn.
“First, the pool is half full. Second, there is ‘crime scene tape’ surrounding the hot tub. Third, I’m pretty sure someone was murdered in my room. There is a red stain in the bathroom with drips all the way to the door. The manager swears it’s hair dye. I got tired of arguing and went to sleep.”
I thought it was funny that Lauren is a “pool is half full” person rather than “half empty” considering the night she had.
We're at the Ft. Hood Education Fair bright and early. I see the usual recruiters from the various schools – Phoenix, Grantham, Dallas Community Colleges, Thomas Edison State College. Hundreds of soldiers walk through the fair, each of them with stories of staggered education. Some of them have a dozen transcripts from a dozen community colleges attended while they were deployed or relocated to another base. The event is a dream for a military friendly institution like mine. I spoke to dozens of soldiers planning their futures, their second careers, or perhaps careers as officers in the US Army.
On Wednesday, it's time to leave. Lauren and I laugh one more time at the road that leads out of Ft. Hood: Tank Destroyer Boulevard. As we enter the intersection, I look to my right and see a Humvee barreling over a curb towards a motor pool. I think it's a little odd that they're driving kind of crazy on post.
We leave Killeen, TX. Lauren heads to the Austin airport. My wife is en route to a conference in San Antonio, which happens to be my next recruiting destination. I wait for her at a beef jerky place (Robertson’s) on the side of I-35. She picks me up at 3:30.
Just forty five minutes later, we received a news update on our phones: Active shooter at Ft. Hood. Multiple soldiers wounded, dead.
My wife and I are in complete disbelief. I grab my phone and hammer out a text to my boss that Lauren and I are far from the shooting and okay. Details emerge – the shooting occurred at Tank Destroyer and Motor Pool Rd, just 1000 feet from where Lauren and I shook hands and cracked jokes with active duty soldiers.
My mind swirls with images of the happy soldiers we had just spoken to. Was one of them the shooter? Were they victims? Could I have done anything differently? Will I be emailing and phoning the dead about a Criminal Justice Bachelor’s degree? Will I be phoning a family in mourning to talk about something as mundane as educational goals?
I try to clear my thoughts so I can focus on our drive to San Antonio – the first thing that enters my temporarily emptied mind: that stupid-looking lighthouse sun catcher.
I mumble under my breath, “You’ve got a lot of work to do, Kensai.”
Bouncy Ball # 87 - Just for Laughs Showcase
"They were picking up checks during your set," Sosa says, trying to keep pace next to me while I rush down Sunset.
"That doesn't matter," I say. "I just fucking sucked, okay? I sucked. That's all. It wasn't the checks, it wasn't the crowd, but I SUCKED."
I'm staring straight ahead, my arms crossed, briskly walking toward my car. We approach an intersection, the crosswalk light counting down, "6...5...4..." I step out into the intersection, but before I take another step, a Mustang barrels around the corner, missing me by inches.
"You almost just died," Sosa says.
"Yeah, well, that doesn't fucking matter. I'm not doing anything with my life anyway."
Sosa doesn't respond, just walks next to me in silence. He knows I'm not mad at him. I'm not mad at the crowd, or the checks, or the club, or the circumstance. But I'm fucking livid at myself for blowing an opportunity in a place where you just can't afford to blow opportunities.
We'd just left the Laugh Factory, where I auditioned to be in "New Faces" at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. I didn't bomb during the audition. I did fine. If you said, "Leah, go be a comic in the most average way possible," then I absolutely nailed it.
But to me, that's worse than bombing. At least if I bomb, I can look at my set and say, "Well, they hated me the entire time." When I just do fine, that always means I had potential to do better, and the decisions I made onstage weren't the right ones.
I was fine. And fine is forgettable.
"I can't keep doing this," I say, as we climb up the last hill where I parked. "It's not even fun anymore. Nothing about that was fun. And if it's not fun, then why the hell am I putting myself through this?" I open my purse and violently knock a bouncy ball out of it. Sosa doesn't notice I dropped it, and I don't even look back as it bounces down the hill behind me.
I feel sorry for whoever finds it. It's full of my wrath.
Bouncy Ball # 88 - Cashier at the Convenience Store
"Well, I just put my hand in bird shit," I say, turning to Lindsay to show her the white streaks on my fingers. "Motherfucker."
She laughs. Lindsay lives in Seattle, but she's working in LA this week. I'd picked her up to drive to Malibu so we could watch the sun set over the water. I'd gotten about a block from my house before I had a panic attack about driving, and then I'd pulled off the road.
"This is the second time I've gotten shit on this week," I say. "Last night, I stepped in a giant pile of dog shit just before I left for the showcase. How's that for symbolism?"
"Man," she says. "What did you do to put bad vibes out there?"
I shrug. "I don't know. Something. What does it mean that I keep stepping in shit? What is the Universe trying to tell me?"
"I'll look it up." She takes out her phone and Googles various different forms of "what does symbolism of repeatedly stepping in shit mean."
"Well, I'm not seeing anything," she says. "Oh, wait, here's a thing about what it means in a dream." She clicks on the link. "Oh wow, it means you're gonna be filthy rich." She reads the section out loud to me - apparently, dreams of feces represent wealth.
"Okay then," I say. "I guess I'm gonna be filthy rich."
We get back in the car, and during our drive to Malibu, I actually believe I'm going to be rich. I promise to pay off Lindsay's student loans. "I'll buy you a house, and you don't have to work," I say.
"All I need is a hundred thousand," Lindsay says. "And 30 grand a year for living expenses. I can take care of the rest."
"Only 30 grand?"
"Well, I don't want to take advantage of you."
"But I'm filthy rich, Lindsay! I'll set you up."
We sit in silence for a few seconds, and then the slow sinking reality hits me, and I start laughing. "I'm never gonna be rich," I say. "There's just no way!"
Still, later that night I buy a scratch ticket from a cashier in a gas station. I exchange the ticket for two dollars and a bouncy ball.
I scratch it as soon as I get home.
Bouncy Ball # 89 - Sosa - In Recognition of Our Valiant Efforts
"It's cool," I say. "I can just fry them."
Sosa ignores me while he gets down on his knees, poking his head in the back of the oven, trying to find the pilot. "It's gotta be back here."
"Really, it's not a big deal. It's gonna take forever to cook anyway."
For way too long, Sosa and I have been trying to complete a task that should've been much easier - making dinner. I'd volunteered to cook my favorite meal from when I was a kid - baked pork chops with Oven Fry coating and rice pilaf.
My dad used to make this for me and my brother when my parents first got divorced, and every time I make it, I remember standing next to him, watching him while he dipped the pork chops in a beaten egg, then the coating. My job was to pour more coating on the plate between each piece of pork.
I've made this meal so many times, but tonight, for some reason, we keep encountering weird unforeseen obstacles. For one, we had to make a last minute venue switch from my place to his because my roommate was already cooking a lot of stuff on our stove.
But when we get to Sosa's place, there are numerous other small issues, most of which have to do with the oven. The pilot light isn't lit, and we don't know where it is.
I Google a few things and finally stumble on a video that shows us how to get to the pilot. We can't get the door off the oven, so Sosa has limited room to squeeze in and light it. He has to use a short match, which he holds with tweezers.
"It says to use a long match," I say. "Be careful. I smell a lot of gas."
He sighs. "I'm not Clark Griswold. Relax."
He leans in and lights the pilot. "Yes!" he says. He grins at me when he pulls his head out. He replaces the racks in the oven. He puts down the lid on the stovetop. Then he goes to turn the oven to the correct temperature. "Shit, it went out!"
Again, he lights the pilot. Again, it goes out. The third time, it stays on, and we're thrilled, but then we realize that the knob to set the temperature has absolutely no numbers or markings on it, no indication at all for what temperature you might be setting the oven.
"Here seems right," he says.
Could be 100 degrees, could be 500 degrees.
Shortly after we light the pilot, the smoke detector goes off. While the oven preheats, it goes off in two minute intervals until Sosa knocks it off the ceiling. "There," he says. He shakes his head.
"Why is this so hard?" I ask, laughing.
I turn on the burners to cook the rice, but the stovetop pilot light had somehow gone out, so Sosa relights it. We hear a loud shrieking of an alarm and look around his studio apartment, confused, until we notice a second smoke detector, which he also knocks down.
I put the pork chops in. After five minutes, I open the oven, but there's barely any heat at all, so I turn the dial what I believe is a reasonable amount. A few minutes later, I open the oven again, and the pork is already sizzling, the bread crumbs turning deep brown even though the meat isn't cooking.
It's almost ten.
"We're going to eat this dinner," Sosa says. "We're winning this. This is going to happen."
The rice pilaf cooks without a problem, and I wait a half hour before pulling out the pork chops. We're sitting with our plates on our laps cutting into the meat when I realize it's not done, so we put it back in the oven.
This happens three times. The third time, I've cut my pork chop up into bite-sized pieces, so when I take it out, the temperature cranked who knows how high to ensure it's cooked, it's dry and overdone. Sosa's is slightly better.
"This is still a victory," he says, while we chew our overcooked meat. We're not even hungry anymore - we've filled up on bread and rice pilaf - but both of us know we have to eat this. It's the principal of the thing. We finish what we start.
It's 11:00 PM. It took us three hours to make a 45-minute meal.
Bouncy Ball # 90 - Stays in a Drawer
This bouncy ball represents me taking a break from stand-up. After my JFL showcase, I don't get onstage for a week.
I haven't taken a break like this since I moved here three years ago.
"I can't even work out," I say, sitting shotgun in Sosa's car. "Because my stupid arm hurts."
"You just need to give it time."
"I know it's crazy, but working out, that's all I have control over. That's all I have." I fight back tears. "I feel so purposeless."
"It's okay for you to feel bad right now," Sosa says. "But you'll figure it out."
"I think I put something out there in the Universe."
"What do you mean?" Sosa asks.
"I mean, everything keeps going wrong, and I feel like I must've done something to cause it. There's a definite point where everything just started going to shit."
"But what would you have done?"
"I don't know. I keep trying to think of it." I look down at my hands. "Maybe it's because I said I wanted to die on Monday. But I was just mad, you know? How do I reverse that? 'UNIVERSE, I DON'T WANT TO DIE!'"
"But maybe you didn't do anything, Leah. Maybe things just happen because they happen."
"I guess," I say. "Or maybe...well, the only other thing I can think of is I never sent that story to my Dad."
"You know, in my blog? I wrote a letter to my dad with the story I wrote about him, and I put a bouncy ball in the envelope. But I still haven't sent it."
"Well then send it," he says.
"Yeah," I say. "I guess."
Bouncy Ball # 91 - Rachel's Place
"I want to talk about your blog," Rachel says.
I'm at Rachel's place for a delicious brunch. There's several comics here and some people I've never met - Rachel's roommates, friends. Ten of us sit around the breakfast table and enjoy brioche french toast, breakfast potatoes, eggs, mimosas. It reminds me of the brunches I used to have with my college friends.
"I love the part about the thread," Rachel says. "That was so good."
"Really? Thanks! That was my favorite part!" I say. "And thank you so much for your story. It's really, really good. I think I'm gonna post it Monday."
"Oh I was just happy to be done with it."
I laugh. "Yeah, that's how I feel every week."
"I had that bouncy ball in my purse, and I felt like it was burning a hole in there. I was so aware of it. I kept thinking, 'I have to get rid of this thing.' And then I finally did, and it took me another week to write the story."
I smile. "Wow. Thanks so much for taking the time to do that."
It hadn't occurred to me until just now that these people distributing these bouncy balls, these people writing these stories, aren't necessarily doing it because they want to - they're doing it because they want to help me. It's a burden.
And I feel like an ungrateful asshole. If Rachel and Anthony and everyone who's submitted a story can take the time out of their lives to risk looking like a weirdo by handing a bouncy ball to a stranger, if they can write such interesting and heartbreaking stories for no reason other than because I asked them to, then I can keep going, despite all the obstacles I run into. Even when it's no fun, when it's a burden.
Though the Universe has been mysterious in its intent this past week, this message comes through loud and clear:
I am not purposeless. Because of them, because of YOU, I'm not.
Bouncy Ball # 92 - Santa Barbara - Written by LA Comedian and Writer Rachel Mac
To read more of Rachel's incredible insights, visit her blog, "Rachel Tells It Like It Is." I read every post.
On Saturday I drive to Santa Barbara. Specifically, I drive to Westmont College, a small Christian school rather reminiscent of my own alma mater, though mine was in the suburbs of Chicago and Westmont is a hike away from the beach. I go to Westmont to see Pete and Linzi, two of the people I admire most in the world. They had been my mentors back in the Midwest but have since relocated.
Today is not an ideal day to visit, but I have been meaning to visit since October, and the school year is almost over. Tonight is Westmont’s Spring Sing. Because conservative Christian colleges do not allow their students to drink, smoke, or have sex, and because the majority of the students do actually abide by these rules, the students need other activities to occupy them. At my college, we had Class Films and the Talent Show, but apparently Spring Sing is greater than all these.
Spring Sing is a Westmont staple. The dorms are divided, male and female, and each of these groups has to create an 8-minute song-and-dance routine, often with elaborate costumes, non sequitur story lines, and Westmont-related parodies. They do not permit any profanity, any overt sexual material, any titillating dancing. Despite the censorship and the rigid guidelines, some of the routines are hilarious, and many are artistically impressive, especially since they’ve only had a few weeks to prepare and these kids are studying theology, not theater.
I sit with Linzi in the VIP staff-and-faculty seating at the Santa Barbara Bowl and remember that this is where I come from. We open meals and meetings and events with prayer. We don’t use any euphemism for penis let alone penis itself. We are believers in good, clean fun. I look around and feel very safe. I know these people. They are the people of Wheaton College. Of Praise Fellowship Church. Of any evangelical institution.
For years after college I felt like I had only left college yesterday. It had been such an important time, and I made deep friendships, and I kind of felt as if the person I had been in suburban Illinois had remained the same even as I moved out to California and started doing stand-up comedy. But when the senior girl prays to open up Spring Sing, I ask myself, “When was the last time you went to church? When was the last time you prayed?” It’s been a long time. Perhaps because those things really don’t matter all that much to me anymore. This is where I come from, but it’s no longer where I belong.
Pete gets to the Spring Sing earlier than Linzi and I do, for he has cameos in two of the acts. Before it starts, alone in the car, Linzi asks about the guy I’d been seeing back in November. I had called her and Pete one night, slightly hysterical, contemplating losing my virginity. I had called them because I wasn’t ready to lose it, and I needed their logic and their Christian worldview to strengthen my own decision to wait. But a couple months later, these reasons faded. I tell Linzi what had happened. She is not surprised, and perhaps not even disappointed, though it is not the decision she would have made for me.
“Don’t lose any of yourself,” she says. I listen closely but it is difficult for me to understand. I don’t know how the spirit and the body go together. I don’t know what I think about sex. My ideas about sex had been closely linked to my ideas about God, and now that I’m unsure about him, the same uncertainty follows in regards to my vagina. Maybe they shouldn’t be so tied together, but they are nonetheless.
Even with my v-card already punched, Linzi still encourages me to be prudent in my sexual endeavors, perhaps to return to my chaste ways if possible. She knows that most won’t agree with her. She says that most of my LA friends will encourage me to go out, explore, have fun, be safe, be wild, get that D. “But what you do with your body matters. Sex isn’t purely physical, Christianity aside.”
After Spring Sing, Linzi and Pete and I sit in their living room, eating cold pizza. I tell them that I’ve joined Tinder, and I bust out my phone to show them how it works. I’m sure that mingled with their amusement is horror and disappointment, but we don’t talk about it. They are exhausted, and after making up the couch for me, they go to bed. I lie down and return to Tinder, where you make your romantic judgments instantaneously, swipe no or yes, left or right. Swipe right and you could be sexting in mere moments! Suddenly all of it sickens me, and I turn off my phone. I am no longer made for a community that prays before meals and gets worked up over a swear word. But I’m not quite sure if that means I’m ready for sex with men I met on an app.
In the morning I leave early, before Pete and Linzi wake, and I place a bouncy ball on my pillow.
The Things I've Left Out - Bouncy Ball # 17 - Annie G
I stuff my clothes into my backpack, checking over my shoulder to make sure Annie's still sleeping. Her eyes are closed, so I drop a bouncy ball into one of her boots.
She won't find it for another month or so, but she won't let me tell her where I put it, either. Another one of the reasons I like Annie - she wants to figure things out on her own. Like me.
I slip out the hotel door, anxious about getting on the road quickly. I have to be back in L.A., I have to write my blog, I have to do the podcast with Andy, and I have to do all this today, without much sleep.
I haven't figured out how to balance my life yet.
While I drive home, the sun climbing up the sky to reflect on the ocean to my right, I listen to a podcast. They're talking to the show's guest about how he'd met his fiance.
"She told me that she didn't want to date," he says. "So I said, 'Ok. That's cool.' And then we just started hanging out as friends."
"See," the host says. "That's how you do it, Ladies. When a man says, 'I don't want to date right now,' just say okay and be super chill. No pressure, hang out as friends. And eventually, they'll come around."
My vision blurs as my eyes tear up. "Oh my God," I say out loud. "I should've just been chill. The whole time. I was never chill. It was my fault."
Ok, Guys. Real talk time.
When I started this bouncy ball project, one of my reasons for doing it was because I had just ended an ambiguous "relationship" with a man, and I was having trouble getting over it. I imagined that if I wrote about it, the man who broke my heart might show back up in my life, and I could write about that when it happened, and this story would be like "When Harry Met Sally."
But he never showed up.
For the first month of writing this, I brought him up a lot because everything I did reminded me of him, so I wrote about it because that's how I deal with things. I'm weird like that - I don't talk much about my personal life, but I will write about it and post it on the internet for literally hundreds of people to read.
Over the course of the last three months, I've stopped wanting to write about him because, well, I got over it. And I did it the healthiest way possible - by analyzing a recurring pattern I've been running into with the men in my life. I meet someone I like too much before I even really know them, I have unrealistic expectations about the relationship, they don't feel the same way about me because they don't really know me, and I end up hurt.
That's the pattern. I've gone over and over it, but until recently, I've missed the obvious - it's my fault that I get hurt. Every time, it's been a result of me believing I could manipulate reality rather than adjusting to it, adapting to it, or accepting it.
Unfortunately, none of this makes a very interesting read, so I've spent the last few weeks trying to tell you guys what you all probably knew - that I shouldn't want to be with someone who doesn't want to be with me and that my attempts to write about men I've "fallen in love with" have done nothing but romanticize what was never there in reality. I'd hoped the story would be more entertaining then that, but it's just not.
When you unravel a ball of thread, there's nothing in the center but the end of that thread.
I like that metaphor - the thread. Picture this: I'm holding the end of a ball of thread that's just been unraveled to it's center. I hold my end up to the sky and open my fingers. The wind takes it. It flies away.
The story still moves forward because the story is not the thread. The story is me.
That's the difference between reality and fiction. In fiction, the story can be anything, and what happens makes it interesting. In reality, the story is the people, and they're unpredictable, and they can change infinitely, go anywhere.
Bouncy Ball # 79 - Grand Canyon Shuttle Driver
Sosa and I get on the shuttle bus and take a seat halfway down. The driver, an old man, sprays down the windows at the front of the bus with cleaner, wiping them with an old rag. "We'll be leaving in about five minutes," he says.
There's a passenger sitting with his foot up on the seat in front of him. The old man points at his foot. "Sir, please put your foot down," he says. "People put their hands there."
The man puts his foot down. "Sorry."
I turn to Sosa. He's smiling. "So great," he says. He likes it when people get called out for being disrespectful, and I like watching him like it.
The old man greets a few new passengers as he wipes down the last of the windshield. "I see you opened a window back there," he says. "That means that I'm going to have to shut the AC off. Either you can have AC, or the window open, but you guys can't have both."
"Yes!" Sosa says.
I laugh. "He reminds me of my grandpa."
"I see another person opening a window back there," the driver says. "That's fine. I'll turn off the AC. But it looks like you got your fingerprints smeared all over my windows. I just cleaned them."
"I love this guy," Sosa says.
The shuttle driver takes his seat at the wheel and speaks into a microphone as we lurch forward. "Every year, people come from all over the world to see the Canyon. All kinds of people. They come from Europe, Asia, Canada, all over the United States. And I'm pretty sure some of them come from another planet."
Bouncy Ball # 80 - The Grand Canyon
"This is so great," I say while we hike down into the Canyon. "So much better than being in L.A. right now."
I work at an elementary school, so I'm actually on Spring Break. I haven't had a Spring Break since college, and even back then, I never went anywhere during my breaks. Mostly, I just slept and drank and slept and drank.
Sosa stops to take a video of the scenery, layers of colossal jagged rock pocked here and there with desert vegetation, pine trees, and giant rock formations that I'd want to play on so badly if I were a little kid.
"You know," I say, "I don't think I'm as afraid of heights as I used to be."
"Yeah." I pause to take in the view. We're on a skinny dirt pathway with no rail, our shoes crunching against the sand and gravel. "Maybe it's because my feet are on the ground. I always feel better when my feet are on the ground."
"Let me carry your backpack," Sosa says.
"You don't have to do that. I can carry it."
"I know I don't have to." He holds his hand out. "We'll take turns."
"But really, I'm fine. It's not even that heavy." I'm not used to letting men hold things for me.
"Just give me the backpack, Leah," he says, shaking his head.
So I do. He carries it all day, and I'm preoccupied with it because I didn't need him to carry it, because I didn't want him to think I expect things like that from him. Every hour on the hour, I turn to him. "You want me to carry that?"
"No," he says. "I got it."
Bouncy Ball # 81 - Excerpt from "Planes, Automobiles, and the Bouncy Ball Project" - Written by Antoinette Dieu
(For the full story and more of Antoinette's adventures, check out her blog, "Wild Okie.")
Spring break finally got here. Finally, finally. Finally!
I had a plane to catch for our Monday flight out to Louisiana to visit my in-laws. G and I hauled our luggage to the local stop, hopped a bus to Seattle, caught a plane to Dallas and then Shreveport, and then rented a car to get around. All told, we spent from about 8 a.m. until about midnight in transport.
And yes, I agreed to go visit my in-laws. I like them. They are fun, including my husband's grandma, my mother and father in law, my sister in law, Stashia, and niece (who we call Ladybug on the 'net). We haven't seen them in 18 months and hadn't met Ladybug yet, and we had a week for break, so why not?
It was a great week. One of the highlights was participating in "The Bouncy Ball Project". I have a friend, Leah Kayajanian, who is a stand up comic in LA. Straight up. If that doesn't make you fear/respect/lust after her, you should also know that I met her in grad school. She's a great writer. So when she asked if I'd like to participate in her Bouncy Ball Project, I agreed.
Leah is one of those people you would be like if you had the guts to abandon everything you used to be to become the person you want to be. She's smart, funny (obvs), hard working and I imagine her as something close to Cobie Smulder's character Robin Scherbatsky, drinking whiskey and chasing wild men. I would've driven to LA to get the bouncy ball, just to tell a good story and toss a ball out to the mercy of the universe. She has her name on all of them, too. I think that takes a certain amount of chutzpah, to say, Yes, I'm littering in the technical sense, but I'm really just spreading good plastic vibes. Call me sometime.
I got the ball in the mail and promptly stuck it in my pack. The trip for this ball looks like Louisiana, so off we went. Now, I just had to find the right moment to release the ball and make Leah proud. Actually, I needed to find the right moment, release the ball, photograph that puppy, remember details and write something really pithy about it later to make Leah proud. Damn.
It happened that on our second day in Bossier City (next to Shreveport), we decided to take a family road trip. All of those people I mentioned, plus G and me, all piled in a huge SUV. I think it was the luxury version of the Exxon Valdez. I LIKED it. Smooth ride and as a bonus, I got to sit next to the baby and be silly with her the whole way there and back. We went to Natchitoches, Louisiana, where they filmed the movie "Steel Magnolias". Aha! Strong southern women overcoming obstacles and living in community with one another. Perfect.
It was in the low 60s. After Ellensburg with its snow still on the ground, that's a warm spring day. I got Stashia and Debbie (my mother in-law) in on the plan, which seems appropriate. Yes, my accomplices in creative littering were my sweet, thoughtful, church-going in laws. You'd think that these traits would work against the bouncy ball project, but you would be wrong. These women are sort of hardened criminals, prone to gleeful ball tossing at random intervals.
Nobody would suspect them.
We pulled around the side of the Steel Magnolia House and snapped a few pictures like normal tourists. I tucked the little yellow ball in a bed with a bunch of colorful petunias and hoped it blended in. Then we took off, giggling. Not having sirens and cops and handcuffs was a bit of a letdown, but you can't have it all.
The rest of my adventure will have to wait until I have a little more time and energy.
Oh, and if anyone finds that ball, it wasn't me who put it there, despite photographic evidence. It's got Leah Kayajanian's name all over it.
Bouncy Ball # 82 - Ray
"This is my tenth time doing stand-up," Ray says. "And I don't know if I'll ever stop being this nervous."
The audience, full of comics waiting to get on at the Improv open mic, applauds. Comics aren't necessarily nice people, but we're pretty supportive when someone tells us they're new to stand-up. I have a theory it's because stand-up has ruined our lives, so we want to encourage other people to do it, too, to share in our misery. Kinda like what I hear about having kids.
"I don't know if I'll ever be funny doing this, but I like coming here every week," Ray continues, his voice cracking. "I can't think of my jokes right now. I'm drawing a blank."
"You got this!" someone shouts out from the back of the room.
Ray looks out toward the voice. "I really can't think of what I came up here to say."
It strikes me to see someone so new up there, the Improv logo blazing behind him. I try to imagine it's me, that I've just started doing stand-up. I try to put myself back in that head space - the anxiety, the panic, the insecurity. But I can only remember that because I know it happened. I can't remember the feeling of it, how it feels to be afraid of what people think.
In that way, Ray is brave, and I am not. Like I heard on "Game of Thrones," you can only be brave if you are afraid.
"I can't go on at the Ice House anymore," Ray continues. "I don't ever tell any jokes there because I can't think of any. So I just get onstage there and do what I'm doing now - just ramble about how I can't think of my jokes."
"Tell us a joke!" someone shouts. "You can do it!"
Ray looks up at the red light bulb on the beam just under the ceiling, indicating he has a minute left. "I think that's pretty much all my time." He starts to put the mic back in the stand.
"Ray!" Jamar yells. He's the host of the Improv open mic. "I'm not letting you get offstage until you tell us a joke."
"But..." Ray says. "Really, I don't want to take up everyone's time."
The crowd starts clapping, shouting. "You can do it! Tell us a joke, Ray!"
Even I cup my hands around my mouth to yell, "You got this!"
Ray stares. "Really, I, uh, don't know what to say."
We clap. We woot and holler. We pound on our tables. We chant his name. It's actually a beautiful moment, the way all of us, usually so self-involved and preoccupied with what's going on in our own minds, rally together in this second to get behind this guy. I don't know about everyone else in this room, but I need Ray to tell his joke.
"Come on, Man!" Jamar says.
"Okay," Ray says.
We stop pounding. We stop clapping. A sudden silence takes over the room.
"I used to be homeless," Ray says. "I lived on Skid Row. But I would trick real estate agents into showing me really nice places in downtown L.A. by pretending I was a writer for Warner Brothers. Man, you guys, some of the views that I've seen of this city..."
He continues, "One time, I was in an elevator with this lady, and we were going up to the Penthouse of the Ritz Carlton. And she turns to me and says, 'So who do you know?' So I told her I knew Mike Espy, you know, like the Espy awards? And she believed me! She brought me up to the penthouse, and I walked over to the window, and you guys, I could see the whole city below me."
Bouncy Ball # 83 - Natural History Museum - "The Silk Road" Exhibit
"Would you like to touch a silkworm cocoon?" a young museum guide asks as we approach. He's standing next to a display case housing actual silkworms.
"I have a dumb question," Becky says. "Are these worms considered insects?"
"Yes," Sten says. "They're moths."
I've just met Sten - I made a last second decision to meet Becky at the Natural History Museum's Silk Road exhibit, and Becky brought Sten with her. Sten's her girlfriend. Or a girl she's dating. Or person she's interested in. Or a person in an open marriage that she's fucking. Or they're friends. Or they're close enough to buy a museum membership together. Or whatever. I'm completely exhausted trying to pin down their relationship, but luckily it doesn't seem to matter to either of them.
I like Sten immediately because she's a know-it-all, and she shares random science and history facts through the entirety of our tour. Becky and I know literally nothing.
"That's not a dumb question at all," the museum guide says. "Silkworms are not actually worms. They're caterpillars. And if you look really closely, you'll notice at the front of their bodies, they have six tiny legs. These are their actual legs, their insect legs, but they don't use them to get around. They use those pods." He points out the small circular "feet" on the caterpillars underside, which inches them forward.
I bend down over the glass to get a better look at the silkworms. Sure enough, there are six tiny insect legs. "Wow," I say. "I never knew that." I should've paid more attention in science class. (This is a thought I have at least once a week.)
The guide hands Sten a cocoon, the outside white and soft like a cotton ball, hard in the center. Tufts of white thread are sticking out on one end, raw silk fibers. We pass it down, all three of us running our fingers over its exterior while the guide explains to us that for over two thousand years, China was the only place that new how to make silk. They kept the silkworm a secret from the rest of the world for that long.
"Two thousand years?" I ask. "Really?"
"Yes," the guide says. "Can you imagine?"
I can't. I'm transparent. Everything about my life is out in the open. Everyone knows all my tricks. Everyone knows how I spin silk stories out of raw thread.
At each stop on the exhibit, I'm struck by the fact that so many years ago, people still existed, and really, they are the same as we are now - the world was just much bigger to them.
I think about merchants on long desert safaris, trading Chinese silk from Xi'an for exotic foods and spices in Turfan. I think of their relief when they reach the gates of a new city, hear the bustle inside, and the comfort washes over them because they know that whatever happens on the journey back, they've made it this far. There are people here.
On my way out, I walk down the ramp outside the front of the building and drop the bouncy ball behind me, right in front of a woman who's peddling bags of chips from the inside of a baby stroller.
Bouncy Ball # 84 - Anahit
"Miss Kayajanian? Leah?"
It's rare that people pronounce my last name right on the first try. I look up from the Cosmo magazine I'd picked up from the rack in the "quiet room" at this day spa. I don't read Cosmo, but I also don't go to day spas, so I figured why not see what all these pampered women are doing with their day?
I'm here because Sosa did a comedy show for the people who run this spa, and he got paid in a gift certificate. I signed up for an 25-minute massage ($80 for "non-members"), and I arrived early to take advantage of the "amenities" the place also offers.
As far as I can tell, Cosmo magazine has no actual information in it. Up to this point, my afternoon at the day spa really only made me feel more alienated from other women because I just don't understand any of this stuff and because I am completely unable to relax.
I had gotten in a hot tub for about five minutes. I tried to clear my mind, but I can't stare at walls without my mind telling me I'm wasting time. I drank 17 cups of infused water. I used every single free product they had in the spa (I took a shower to do this, even though I'd showered earlier that day). I stared at a bowl of cucumbers with the sign "Refresh your eyes" underneath, and I thought about how if that sign weren't there, I would for sure have just started eating the cucumbers.
I stepped on a scale that didn't work to see if I'd gained any weight. When no one else was around, I stood naked in front of the mirror, and I realized that I spend way more time doing this than I'd like to admit. I never look at my face, but I always look at my body because it's been my work of art, my magnum opus.
So what am I gonna do when it all breaks down?
I stand up, tighten my robe. I see a middle-aged woman at the doorway, a warm and welcoming smile.
"You speak Armenian?"
"No," I say.
"Ah," she says. "Your last name. I thought you were Armenian. It must be your husband's name."
"No," I say. "It's mine. I just don't speak it."
"That's okay." She wraps her arm around my shoulder like it's the most natural thing in the world, and I feel so safe, I want to turn to her and say, "Mother?" Instead, I look at her name tag.
"Is your name Anahit?" I ask.
"Yes," she says.
Anahit, Anahit, Anahit. I keep saying it over and over in my mind. It's an Armenian name. I love it. When I look it up later, I find it means "moon goddess," "healer," "water and wisdom," "fertility."
I've never had a massage. My whole life, I've been hesitant to let people massage me. I still cringe when acquaintances of mine rub my shoulders - I hate that. Don't do that to me. I know you mean well, but I hate it.
But I don't hate this. In fact, I'm surprised at how sore and beat up my body is. Some of it, I was aware of going in. For example, my left elbow has been aching for two months straight, and I've been waiting for it to just go away even though I have awesome health insurance.
I also have crazy tension in my shoulders - the yoga instructor who comes to our school tells me that every single week. Also, my ribs on my right side have been hurting the past few days, I think because of the 30 Day Ab Challenge, which I finished in February, then decided to do again in March with Sosa.
Still, there are other pains in other places. There's a sharp pain deep in my lower back. It hurts so much that whenever Anahit's hand comes close to it, I brace myself. I feel like one false move, and she'll pop my entire spine out of whack.
Afterwards, when Anahit walks me out, she puts her arm around my shoulder again. "You need to come in for longer," she says. "You need to get better."
I know I'm not coming back. My life doesn't really have a place for luxuries like this.
Bouncy Ball # 85 - UCLA Medical Center
"What did he say?" Sosa asks.
"He said that it's from working out too hard." I'd just come from the doctor, who'd diagnosed my sore elbow by backing up Sosa's suspicion that I've over-exerted it.
"Yes!" Sosa says. "I told you. You need to rest. You can't keep doing that."
"I know." I sigh. "He says no working out my arms. No carrying heavy things. He told me I shouldn't even twist door handles."
"You're not gonna like this," Sosa says, "but I don't think you should do that two-minute plank today."
"Oh come on!" I say. "It's the last thing on the last day! I'm not gonna just stop now!"
"I knew you wouldn't," he says. "But you should. Leah, the doctor told you not to open doors. You want to rest on your elbow for two minutes?"
"It's the last day," I say. "After this, though, I'll definitely rest."
"Fine," he says. "But you can't keep going like this. Your body can only take so much."
The Bouncy Ball Project, Week Eleven: Spencer Goes to Silver Dollar City, and I Pick Back up On that Thread Steve Asked About
“How’s the bouncy ball thing coming?” Steve asks while we wait outside the Comedy Store.
"Man, I'm tired. It’s hard trying to do something every single day.”
“Yeah, I bet. I can’t wait for you to pick back up on that thread,” he says, a knowing smile on his face.
I know exactly what Steve means by “that thread.” He means the thread about the guy. He means, “When are you going to get real again and tell us what happened with that guy you wrote about?”
Because whether I like it or not, I’m the main character of this bouncy ball shit, so it’s silly of me to believe I can gloss over personal things. I’ve passed that point by starting this in the first place - either I have to put it all out there, or hide it away.
But what's the best way to tell the people who read this that I’ve boxed myself into a corner here?
“I’m interested in seeing where you go with it,” Steve says.
Yeah. Me too.
Bouncy Ball # 73 – Giannetta
“I’d like to share with you guys today,” she says, taking a seat onstage at this Christian open mic. “I want to talk about following God. Because when you’re younger, and you want to follow God, everyone is behind you. They say, ‘Go out in the world and share God’s light!’ But really, they want you to be successful.”
“See, I grew up in Virginia, and when I was in high school, I was an egghead. When it was time to go off to college, I applied to all these schools that I couldn’t afford, but I prayed to the Lord for an answer. I remember being in church one day, and I heard God’s voice speaking to me. It was so clear. He said, ‘Go to New York.’ And a few days later, I found out that I got a scholarship to an Ivy League school in New York.”
She switches the microphone to her opposite hand.
“So I went to New York, and I was in my third year studying. And then I heard God speak to me again, only this time, he tells me I have to go to Arizona and be with a Native American tribe! And I was like, ‘Come on, God. Are you sure?’ But that’s what God wanted. So I left school and headed out to Arizona, and I had no idea what I was doing. I just basically showed up and said, ‘The Lord told me to come here.’”
Giannetta tells a series of stories just like this – moments in her life when God personally told her to follow him in a direction that she hadn’t intended to go: Arizona to Oregon to Africa to Australia to L.A. She talks about how every time she calls her mom to tell her about God's work that she's doing, her mom says, "That's nice. Have you found a job yet?"
It’s interesting, the difference between saying you have faith and actually living that faith. It takes a bold person to look someone in the face and say, “The Lord sent me here.” To a much smaller degree, it’s how I feel when I look someone in the face and say, “Here’s a bouncy ball. I believe they mean things.”
When Giannetta gets offstage, she sits next to me.
“I liked your share,” I say. “Can I give you this bouncy ball? I believe they’re good luck.”
“Uh, okay?" She scrunches her brow, confused. "So what, you just carry these around with you wherever you go?”
She laughs, turns away.
Oh yeah, I think. Cuz I’m the weird one.
Stories of Bouncy Balls Past
I used to be in love with a guy named Kevin Smith. He never answered the phone when I called him. He never responded to texts. Weeks would go by without me hearing from him.
During that point of my life, I was also getting my Master’s degree, and part of that process required me to write a book. Since Kevin consumed my mind, I ended up writing him as a character in that book. And I also wrote about bouncy balls because they are wherever I am.
One Monday night, I was at a bar just blocks from Kevin’s house, and I texted him, asking him to come meet me. My plan was to tell him I wrote him in my book – I had the first 100 pages printed out neatly in the backseat of my car, ready to give to him. I think I believed that it would convince him to love me.
He didn’t even respond to my text.
When I left the bar, I drove straight to his house. I parked my car in his driveway, and with a bravery I never had when I was sober, I marched up to his front door carrying the pages of my book, knocked once, and busted into his living room.
He was right there, sitting alone on his worn old couch watching TV. I noticed his phone right next to him on the end table, screen face up.
“Oh hi,” he said.
I walked over to him, slammed the stack of papers on his coffee table, said, “I wrote this book about you, Idiot,” and then turned around and walked right out the door.
The next morning, I found a bouncy ball nestled in the joint of my car's windshield wiper. Kevin had left it.
He'd read my book.
Bouncy Ball # 74 – Branson, Missouri – Written by Spencer Hicks
A "Baby Moon" is a made up thing. So is a "Push Present." These are two things created by the Baby Industrial Complex to get unsuspecting husbands to spend money - money that could otherwise go toward buying for diapers, daycare, or saving for college.
As an unsuspecting husband, I took my wife to Branson, Missouri for a "Baby Moon." Aside from my wife, unborn child, and in-laws, I also brought a limited edition Leah Kayajanian Roast bouncy ball.
I have a shit-load of bouncy balls that say, "Leah Kayajanian - Roasted! - 6/19/11." After I found the box of balls in my garage, I took a second to read the date again.
2011? That can't be right. Where the fuck has the time gone?
I felt a pang of nostalgia. Making funny videos. Hanging out in the back of a comedy club. I feel a camaraderie with Leah. It's a feeling only war veterans and comedians can feel. It's a camaraderie that comes with seeing and doing some unspeakable shit together, and living to tell the tale.
Driving to Branson takes 4 hours according to the GPS. It takes about 5 and a half if you have a pregnant woman with you.
We meet my wife's family at a two-bedroom, one-bath cabin just down the road from Silver Dollar City. I'm not pleased with the arrangements, but we're poor, so I ready myself mentally for the horrors that are going to take place in that bathroom with five adults and two children.
I've been to Branson before. I don't remember it being the Disneyland of Tea Party whackos. Every radio station is either Right Wing talk, Gospel, or rebroadcasts of church sermons. Every truck has the sticker of Calvin pissing on Obama, or something about guns. It upsets me that I'm putting money into this economy.
I bring my green bouncy ball to Silver Dollar City, unsure of what I'm going to do with it. I want it to have a great story. In my mind, I'm going to somehow use this bouncy ball to save a life or thwart a terrorist attack.
Leah always had great stories.
It stays in my pocket as my wife and I search for rides that a pregnant woman can enjoy. These rides are limited to Tea Cups, Carousel, and that swing ride that just spins ya in a circle for 30 seconds.
I should mention that I'm cranky. The smell of my in-laws shit lingered throughout the cabin the night before, and I didn't get much sleep. Also, I hate crowds. My wife has trouble figuring this out, "But you perform in front of crowds all the time. How can you hate crowds?"
There is a big difference between being a part of a crowd and being in front of a crowd. Crowds rape and pillage, crowds riot, crowds are only as smart as their dumbest members. Being in front of a crowd, you are still an individual, and you get to amuse these animals with your thoughts and jokes. Comedians understand this. We've done unspeakable things to get the approval of crowds.
My wife and I get to the park at 10 a.m., but after riding three rides, dealing with the dumbest people in America (seriously, I witnessed one little boy fall down and scrape his knee and his dad came and prayed over it, which if you ask me, isn't as effective as a kiss on your boo-boo), and watching one shitty magic show, it's about 2 p.m. The shuttle to take us back to our cabin leaves at 3 p.m., so I convince my wife we've seen everything Silver Dollar City has to offer.
As we walk toward the front of the park, I realize that I haven't saved the world with the bouncy ball in my pocket. Exiting through the gift shop, I pull the ball out and place it in a display of polished gems and colorful marbles. My hope is that this ball will find a new life. I hope it finds a better story than I can provide, a story worthy of its name.
Bouncy Ball # 75 – Lady at the cafe
“Oh my God, Sosa!” I say. “The lady behind you has a bouncy ball on her table.”
He waits a few seconds before turning to look at the table behind us: two older ladies pointing at a laptop opened in front of them. One of them has a small pouch on the table, a blue swirling ball resting on top of it.
Sosa turns back. “Oh my God, that's crazy!”
“It means we’re supposed to be here right now,” I say. “I think I’m supposed to put my bouncy ball next to hers.”
“How are you gonna get the ball on her table?”
I shrug. “Well, I guess I’ll go talk to her. Isn’t that what this is about?”
I stand and walk over to her table. “Excuse me,” I say.
The two women look up at me.
“This is weird, but I just noticed that you have a bouncy ball on your table, and I collect them. I mean, I think they’re good luck, and I really like them. And I see you have one, too, so I was hoping that maybe I could give you another one?” I hold out my ball.
“Well,” the woman on the right says, “let me show you what this is.” She picks up the bouncy ball and uses both hands to twist it, separating the ball into two halves. She holds one in front of me. “It’s my lip balm."
“Wow.” I laugh. “Well, I’d still like to give you this bouncy ball.”
I wonder how many bouncy balls I’ve seen from a distance that were actually not bouncy balls at all.
Bouncy Ball # 76 – Raul
“How come you’re not talking?”
I look up at the middle-aged man in front of me, one of the volunteers. He has dark hair and a mustache, and he's wearing an apron over his white t-shirt and jeans.
“No one’s talking to me,” I say.
“Well why not?”
“Probably because I don’t speak Spanish.”
“Oh, you don’t?" the man says. "You must be white.”
I laugh. “Well, I’m Armenian.”
“That’s white,” he says.
“It is? Man! Okay, I guess I’m white then.” A woman walks up next to me and holds out an open bag, nodding toward the crate of half-rotted onions in front of me. I pick out the best six I can find and put them in the bag for her. She smiles and walks off.
We're at the St. Francis Center on Hope Street in downtown L.A., volunteering for the food pantry program, giving out groceries to needy families in the area.
“I know Spanish from working around other Mexicans,” the man says. “My name’s Raul Rodriguez. I’m Mexican, but I was raised by Germans.” He speaks in German.
“Wow,” I say. “You know German, too?”
“So what do you do for a job?” Raul asks.
“I work at a school.”
“What kind of school?”
“An elementary school,” I say, “for kids with learning disabilities.”
He smiles, points to his chest. “That’s me!”
“Oh really? Are you dyslexic?”
“I have brain damage.”
“I survived cancer. I’ve broken 20 bones. I’ve been shot three times. I was run over by a police car. I was in a coma. Let’s see, what else? Oh, I was stabbed 17 times.”
“My God! How are you still standing here?”
He shrugs. “I’m a miracle.”
“So are you married with kids?” he asks.
I laugh. “No and no.”
“How old are you?”
His eyes widen. “You need to hurry up and have kids!”
“Well, I have some time.”
He shakes his head. “Well, I guess I had my first kid when I was 30. I have three girls.”
“How old are they?”
“My oldest is 24, but I met her when I was 21. She had to find me because I was in prison.” He looks at me, ashamed. “I was a bad boy.”
“What about the other two?”
“The other two are 12 and 18. I’ve never met them.”
“How do you know they’re yours?”
“My girlfriend was pregnant when I went to jail. And the other girl went to jail when she was pregnant. I don’t have a good memory because of the brain damage, so I can’t remember her last name.”
“But the oldest found you?”
“Well,” I say. “That means something.”
He smiles. I rearrange the boxes on the table in front of me, and he disappears for a few minutes before popping up next to me again.
“You need to have kids because it’s your purpose,” he says. “That’s a woman’s job.”
I roll my eyes. “Really? That’s a woman’s job?”
“Yes. You need to have a baby inside of you to learn to appreciate life.”
“Do you think you can appreciate life without having a baby inside you?”
“No,” he says. “Not fully.”
“So men can’t appreciate life?”
“No. Men don’t know anything.” He draws his hand up and counts off on his fingers. “Women live longer, they have more orgasms, they’re smarter, there’s more of them. Is that it? I think that’s it. And all that’s because they know what it’s like to have life in them.”
“I feel bad for men,” I say, “because they can’t show their emotions.”
“I show emotion,” he says.
“Well, you’re the exception. I think a lot of men feel like they can’t show their emotions because they were raised to believe that it’s a form of weakness. So then they hold them all in until they murder something.”
He laughs. “That’s about right. What’s your name?”
“That’s a pretty name.”
“Thank you,” I say. “It means weary.”
“It’s like Star Wars, right? Princess Leah.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot. But I’m as far from a princess as you can get.”
“No,” Raul says. “You’re very beautiful. Are you a lesbian?”
“That’s good,” Raul says.
“Why is it good? Because it’s easier not to be?”
“Because it’s good for a man and woman to be together.”
“Well, I don’t believe that one is better than the other.”
“Really? But you like men?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Then that’s good.”
“Well, I disagree that it’s good. I don’t think it matters one way or the other.”
“But what if we both see the same woman and think she’s cute? Then I say, ‘Look at that woman,’ and you’d be looking at her, too!”
“So? What’s the difference?”
“Then you’d be hitting on her, too.”
“Maybe, but she’d either like me or she’d like you.” I shrug. “Or I guess she could like both of us.”
Later, when I give Raul a bouncy ball, he says, "You gave me something, so now I have to give you something.”
“No, you don’t. You talked to me. That’s good enough.”
Stories of Bouncy Balls Past
I used to be in love with a guy named CP. He took hours to respond to my texts. Months would go by without me hearing from him, but then he’d contact me out of the blue saying he'd be in town for a few days, and would I like to meet up?
I met CP because I worked with him on the road. He lived in Chicago, and I lived in Oklahoma, but I did see him occasionally, when comedy would bring us into each other’s radius.
One of these times was in October 2011. I was in Chicago checking out the comedy scene, so CP picked me up for lunch one day, and we ended up at a hole-in-the-wall Chicago hot dog joint.
After we ordered, we sat down in a booth at the back of the room to wait for our food. As I swung my backpack off my shoulder, the zipper came loose, and about ten bouncy balls bounced in every direction around the restaurant. CP cracked up laughing, watching me frantically chasing them, my cheeks flushed.
When I finally collected all the loose balls and sat facing him in the booth, he said, “What the hell do you have in that bag?”
I shrugged. “Nothing.”
Bouncy Ball # 77 – JP – D3’s Last Stand
“You guys mind if I get real tonight?”
That’s how Ryan started his set at tonight’s Workout Room Comedy Show, the last ever show at D3.
Ryan’s drunk. He describes his set tonight as a “meltdown,” but really, he’s just being honest about how he feels.
“We don’t even really know each other,” Ryan says to us, an audience of his peers. “I see you guys all the time, but we don’t know anything about each other. Jeff, if I die tomorrow, would you care?”
Jeff shakes his head.
“See?” Ryan says. “The only reason I don’t quit doing this is because you guys won’t quit. Let’s all quit. You want to?”
And we laugh.
Because the truth is, we do kind of want to quit. We all fantasize about quitting this stand-up crap to lead a normal life, but we never say it for fear that the Comedy Gods will hear it and think we don’t want it bad enough.
Even though it’s the last night at Dangerfield’s 3, this is typical of what goes on any given Wednesday night here – it’s the place where people get angry or sad, where comedians drop their acts to say what’s really on their minds.
Compared to every other place in L.A.’s vast comedy history, two years as a comedy venue seems insignificant, but D3 isn’t special because of its success as a venue, because of the atmosphere, or because of the quality of comedians who perform there – D3 has always been special because of what it’s not.
First of all, it’s not a comedy venue at all – it’s a guy’s apartment. He turned the front into a homemade stage, set up some chairs, and hung some black fabric on the wall, and just like that, D3.
And because it’s a guy’s apartment, and because he’s welcomed open mic comedians into his house for two years, there are roaches climbing the walls, and there is a constant reek of marijuana absorbed into the carpeting next to giant stains of spillage from mics and shows past, from crazy people and homeless people wandering in the door.
On top of all that, D3 is controversial in the L.A. open mic scene, so much so that a sect of comedians won’t go to the room in protest of the man who runs it, JP. I’m not about to get into details about the incident that caused this rift because it's all based on what other people say and because my opinion on the matter won't change a goddamn thing.
I’m surprised at my sadness when I walk out of D3's gated door. JP’s on the sidewalk talking to a couple other guys about his upcoming plans after he’s released from the burden this place.
“Thanks for letting us do the show here," I say. "Actually, hold on…” I dig through the front pocket of my backpack and pull out a bouncy ball. “Here, I want you to have this.”
“Wow,” JP says, half-joking. “I consider this an honor.”
Say what you will about the man, but this guy made a stage in his house, a place where comics dropped their acts and got real, he opened his door to a bunch of rude, messy, drug-addled comics and people who wander in from the street, and he did it in spite of the fact that he lives in a city where half of the comedy scene hates him so much, they want nothing more than to ruin his career and his life.
I can't think of a damn thing more punk rock than that.
Stories of Bouncy Balls Past
I used to be in love with a guy that I refer to simply as “him.” He always answered the phone when I called him, and if he missed my call, he called me back, even when he was pissed at me.
Almost a year into our friendship, I sent him a video of a bouncy ball with our initials written on it. “LK loves HIM.” In the video, I turned the ball in my fingers so he could read what it said, and then threw it out into the street, my movie capturing bouncing down a hill toward the L.A. skyline.
“Wow,” he’d said when he saw the video. “Thank you. But it makes me feel kind of bad.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I’m not putting any bouncy balls in the world for you. Because I don’t want that.”
And so I thought I knew how this story went because of bouncy balls past.
I had a broken heart before he did anything to break it.
Bouncy Ball # 78 – I-40 Eastbound
We hit the traffic jam just after we cross the Arizona border. People are getting out of their cars to walk over to the shoulder, trying to look ahead to see what’s going on.
“I’m gonna get out,” I say. Sosa gets out, too.
Here and there, a few scattered pedestrians walk by, stopping to chat with each other about what might have caused the jam.
“Bad accident,” a woman says, pulling a German Shepherd puppy on a leash behind her. “One still stuck in a vehicle. My cousin is up ahead, and she saw the wreckage.”
“Where is it?”
“Just right up the road there,” she says.
I shield my eyes with my hand. I see flashing lights of emergency vehicles.
“Three dead already,” the truck driver behind us explains, sauntering over to my car. “I heard it on the radio.”
45 minutes later, we’re back in our cars, drifting forward one at a time until we pass two totaled pickup trucks and what looks like the remnants of an R.V., smashed to pieces on the side of the road. Three people died today traveling on this same road, probably on their way to see the same thing we’re going to see – The Grand Canyon.
"I'm still working on your bouncy ball story," Ryan says as he takes a seat next to me at the Hotel bar. "You need me to get it to you soon?"
"Just whenever," I say. "Think about it like this - when you give me a story, you're giving me one more night I get to go to sleep instead of stressing out about this."
Bouncy Ball # 66 - Joshua Tree - Written by Fernando Ramos Sosa
“What if a man was standing behind that cactus?” Becky says.
“Yeah, and he had red eyes, and they were glowing.”
I’m standing in a desert with my friend Becky. It's freakishly quiet, the moon is very bright like a night sun, and the stars are representin’ like a mofo. We’re parked on the side of the road in a national park without a permit, so we look hella suspicious. “We’re not supposed to be here right now,” Becky had said as we were driving in.
Becky and I are yes-anding the fuck out of each other when a park ranger passes us in a police Chevy Tahoe.
“It’s weird that he didn’t stop," Becky says. As soon as she hits the “p” on stop, I hear him turn around. We’re like, “Oh shit!” We make a mad dash to her car, the park ranger’s ride accelerating towards us. We hop in, she puts the key into the ignition, puts the car in reverse and BAM!
A Chevy Tahoe blocks our path, red and blue lights flashing, a spotlight aimed at the back of our heads. We exchange a look; she puts the car in park, rolls down her window and shuts the engine off.
Officer Mark walks up to Becky's window. "What are you guys doing out here?”
“Nothing,” I say.
“Just came out to see the stars, huh?" He shines a flashlight in the car.
“Yeah,” we say.
He shines the light into the back seat. "What’s with the crossbow pistol? You know that’s illegal to have, right?”
“In California or in the park?” Becky asks.
“Both,” he says.
“Really? But I purchased it at a gun show in California.”
I’m slightly uncomfortable at this point, but I’m thinking, Becky’s got this. This is just a complete misunderstanding. We’re going to be fine. Also, she’s white.
“IDs," Officer Mark says. "Both of you.” He’s definitely in officer mode now, shoulders back, brow furrowed, hand on pistol. He takes the IDs and heads back to his Tahoe.
“Did you know they were illegal?” I ask.
“I don’t think they are. Really,” she says, laughing.
Okay. We’re good. She’s laughing. She didn’t know. Everything’s gonna be fine.
Officer Mark comes back, hunching over to shine his flashlight in the back seat again, trying to get a better look. “So if I search your car," he says, "I’m not going to find anything weird, am I?”
“No” Becky says.
“So where’s the gun?” the officer asks.
What the what?
“There’s no gun in here," Becky says, giggling.
“So what are the ear plugs for?”
I look behind me to where his flashlight is pointing, and sure enough, there's a pair of neon orange earplugs in a small sealed plastic baggy.
Here are some examples of what Becky could’ve said: “I don’t like to hear sounds,” or “I like the way neon orange earplugs look in my ears,” or “They’re the last thing my father gave me before he ventured into the dark mountains of Mordor never to return.”
Becky says none of those things. Instead, she slowly turns her head towards the earplugs, slowly turns her head back to Officer Mark, and you know what she says? NOTHING!!! Absolutely nothing! Nothing comes out of her stupid mouth! You know, like a LIAR.
Oh my god! We are going to fucking jail. I’m going to be handcuffed right now and put into a Chevy Tahoe!
“You know I technically own your car right now, right?” Mark says. “I’m going to search your car and WHEN I find the gun, I’m going to be pissed.”
After the longest four seconds of my life, Becky finally says, “I’m a lawyer, and the worst thing for me to do right now is lie to you.”
“So we’re speaking the same language then?”
He walks back to his Tahoe, rocks crunching under his shoes.
“Becky, do you have a gun in here?” I whisper when he's out of earshot.
“No. I really don’t!”
“Well you’re acting like a fucking liar right now. Why didn’t you answer him about the earplugs?”
“I was nervous. I didn’t know what to say.”
“How about the fucking truth? Why do you have earplugs in your back seat?”
Our conversation is cut short when Officer Mark comes walking back with our IDs. “Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to let you go.”
“Back-up is far off," he says, "and it’s been a long night, so just get this obnoxiousness out of my park and don’t shoot any of my critters with it. Is that fair?”
“Yes” Becky says.
He shines the flashlight on my face, “Is that fair?”
Fair? Let’s see. We’re out here without a permit. We have an illegal crossbow pistol and also a GUN, and you’re just gonna let us go? Fair?
“Yes” I say.
“Alright. Leave. Now.”
I consider giving Officer Mark the bouncy ball, but decide he'll probably shoot me if I do. As we exit the park, I’m feeling grateful that my friend Becky is a lawyer…and also white.
Bouncy Ball # 67 - Keyboard Player at Santa Monica Pier
"Oh my God, did he just say 'human race'?"
"He did!" Sosa laughs. "What is it about this music? It's so...something."
"Yeah," I say. "I know what you mean. There's just something, just, off about it. Like Christian music."
"Yes," he says. "Exactly."
"It's like someone took a bunch of words, entered them into a machine, and this song came out. Just a guy in a room somewhere typing 'love, peace, world, hope, human race, heart.'"
Sosa and I are eating corn dogs at the beachfront in Santa Monica, sitting on a wall that separates the asphalt walkway from the sand.
There's a street performer on the walkway. He's playing keyboard and singing. He has an incredible voice, but his lyrics are generic and corny, rife with phrases like, "True love lasts forever" and "Hope makes the world turn."
A guy pulls his bike up right in front of the keyboard player, and Sosa and I look on with amazement while he closes his eyes, nods his head to the 80s soft rock beat. "Man," I say. "Is that guy really into this?"
The guy's young, maybe 20, and he's wearing skater shoes, baggy jeans, a hoodie, and a baseball cap tilted to the side. He seems a little too cool to be rocking out to these keyboard jams. (Honestly, it sounds like the music playing in the background of a Hallmark store.) Still, the guy stands and listens for the entirety of two songs, and at the end of the second song, he blows our minds when he points at one of the performer's CDs, displayed at his feet.
"Holy shit," Sosa says. "He's buying a CD!"
"Oh my God!" I say. "He's on drugs, right?"
"He has to be!" Sosa shakes his head. "They're 10 bucks. He's paying 10 bucks for a CD!"
We watch in amazement while money and CD are exchanged. I can't wrap my mind around the fact that this kid, this young beach kid, felt so moved by these generic 80s soft rock songs.
What does he hear that we can't?
Bouncy Ball # 68 - Utpara
"Now I want you to walk down a long hallway," Utpara says, his soothing voice seeping into the corners of my mind. "At the end of it, there's an elevator. Step onto that elevator. You're going to ride this down to your heart. So picture the doors closing in front of you and feel the lurch of the elevator as it goes down, down, down, leaves your brain and heads toward the middle of your chest, your heart center."
Utpara works for NASA, but he teaches meditation classes for free on Sundays because he learned so much from meditation, he wants to share that with other people, to spread his peace to the greater world.
"The elevator stops," Utpara says. "The doors open in front of you. Step out of the elevator into a garden. Picture the trees, the flowers, the sky. This is your garden - you can make it look however you want."
My garden is not really a garden. It's the woods in the back of my house that I played in when I was a little kid - a pond, a cranberry bog. My "garden" is New England in the fall. I can feel the crispness in the air, smell the faint scent of dying leaves and a slight hint of saltwater drifting inland from the ocean.
Me and the other few people in this meditation class play around in our heart gardens for a few minutes until Utpara directs us back into the elevator, and we ride back up to our brains.
I open my eyes, and the first thing I see is a picture of Sri Chinmoy staring at me, his eyes half-closed in what Utpara had described as a "high state of meditation." To me, he just looks really really stoned. And creepy. Let's not forget creepy.
This meditation class reminds me of so many experiences I've had in the past few months - the New City Church, which is really not that different from the Scientology Center, which is really not that different from visiting a fortuneteller or a therapist, from attending a yoga class, or an Al-anon meeting. I can see the connection between these things, between the people, who are really the same people over and over again - people who are looking for the best way to live in this world.
Bouncy Ball # 69 - Point Dume
"So you want to tell me about the debate team now?" I ask, shielding my eyes from the sand.
"Sure," Brent says. He pulls out his wallet, takes out what looks like a small business card. "When I was in high school, I joined the debate team my senior year. And the very first debate I was in, I won."
"And I did okay after that," he says, "but then my last match was a split-decision tie. If I would've won, I would've gone to Nationals, but I lost. And it was bullshit."
Brent and I are at Point Dume - it's a small cliff on the coast of Malibu that juts out into the ocean. It's windy today, a little chilly, and as usual, I forgot to bring a jacket. We still have at least a half hour before sunset.
When Brent invited me to ride up to Point Dume, he'd given me instructions. "Bring something that you only hold on to because of a memory." He'd brought his high school debate membership card. I'd brought my piece of The Indestructible Cup.
Brent holds his membership card in his hand while he tells me the story of his last debate, reliving his frustration at losing. "I still get upset when I think about it," he says, "I feel like I've been holding on to that loss for too long. I mean, the way I look back on it, I sound like those guys that relive their high school football games. I make fun of those guys all the time, but really, I'm just like them."
A gust of wind blows sand across our faces.
"I figured it's time to let it go. I've been bitter about this for so long, and I don't think it's good for me."
"Wow," I say. "Well, that's a really good one. My thing isn't that deep."
"No, it's okay," he says.
"I mean, mine's just a funny story that reminds me of my friends." I dig through my purse until I find it, a speckled blue piece of hard plastic, the remnants of The Indestructible Cup.
"This is The Indestructible Cup," I say. "When I was in Oklahoma, I went to a friend's house, and he gave me some wine in this cup. And I said, 'That's a cool cup,' and he was like, 'Leah, that's The Indestructible Cup. No matter what you do, you can't destroy it.'"
"So then for the entire night, he walks around behind me and tells me stories about how he and his friends tried to break this cup, but they couldn't. He was like, 'We ran over it in a truck. We shot it with a BB gun. We threw it off a cliff.' Just all these things he'd done to try and break it."
I shiver, pulling my legs in closer to try and warm up while the sun disappears into the ocean in front of us.
"At some point, he starts trying to get me to destroy the cup. He's like, 'You want to hit it with a sledgehammer? I got a bunch of sledgehammers in the garage.' And I was like, 'Why do you have a bunch of sledgehammers?' So anyway, at the end of the night, he follows me out to my car. He puts the cup underneath my front side passenger tire, and then he stands in front of my car while I start it. Before I back out, he gives me the thumbs up."
I smile, remembering Matt's face, the ridiculous hat he's wearing with flaps that cover his ears even though it's the summer in Oklahoma.
"So I put the car in reverse, and I start to back out, and the cup breaks immediately. Seriously, it shatters in less than a second. I just heard a popping noise, and I saw Matt's face. It destroyed him."
I crack up laughing.
"Matt picked up a piece of the cup, and he came over to my window, and he handed it to me. And he said, all serious, 'Leah, you take this, and every time you look at it, I want you to remember what you did here today.'"
"You broke his cup," Brent says. "You destroyed everything he believed in."
"That's the thing," I say. "I didn't think it was gonna break, either! I believed in it, too!"
It strikes me in that moment, as the sun touches the water, how Matt's excitement about that stupid cup made me believe in its power just as much as he did, how one person's passion can be so great, other people can't help but absorb it.
I dig a hole in the sand, and I place the piece of The Indestructible Cup in the hole. Brent does the same with his membership card, and there in front of the sunset on a crisp, windy night in Malibu, we bury pieces of our past, him leaving his bitterness behind, me finally giving The Indestructible Cup a suitable resting place.
Stories of Bouncy Balls Past - The DMV
I'm new to L.A. I've been here a month, and I'm waiting in line to check in at the DMV.
I survey the room - it's completely full of people waiting in chairs with tiny paper numbers in their hands, their eyes steeped in boredom and irritation, any one of them a time bomb.
I reach the front desk and give the clerk some paperwork. I guess I don't zip up my backpack well enough, because when I turn to go sit down, I swing the backpack up on my shoulder, the zipper comes undone, and about 30 different types of bouncy balls fall out, scattering in every direction.
At first, I'm mortified. It's times like these when I wonder why I feel the need to carry a backpack full of bouncy balls everywhere I go in the first place.
But then a handful of strangers help me chase down these bouncy balls, collecting them, walking up to me, and dropping them in my bag. And the people who aren't helping me, well, they're laughing. Even though I'm embarrassed, I realize that at the very least, I've just done something silly enough to break up the monotony of their mornings.
Bouncy Ball # 70 - Written by Gloria Johnson, Mom
Note: I sent my mom a clear-colored bouncy ball with the note, "Please give this ball a story." Here's what she wrote. Everyone, please enjoy the weirdness that is my mother.
Boing, boing, boing! There I was, pure as crystal, bouncing along, happy, excited about my travel plans, when I was picked up by a homeless person.
He gave me to his pal, Homeless Doggie Duke. I was thrown, chased, drooled on and bitten time and time again. Finally, I was thrown so hard that Homeless Doggie Duke couldn't catch up with me. As I was flying through the air, feeling free again, I spotted my landing destination. Lower, lower, lower...oh shit...an uncovered cesspool!
Well, it could have been worse. Instead of this ugly piss yellow color I have become, I could have been "shit brown" and living with the alligators throughout the sewer systems of the city.
I bounced my way out of the cesspool when an alligator charged at me. He missed, so off of his scaly back I bounced. From crystal clear coloring to pee-pee yellow coloring, oh my! I sure hope you like yellow!
"I forgot to tell you," Sosa says through text. "Last night, Katie asked me if I let you say my name in your blog."
"I guess I never asked you," I say. "Wait, didn't I ask you?"
"I was like, 'let' her? Leah is gonna do whatever she wants."
"Ha!" I say. "That's exactly what my dad said when Brian asked him if he could marry me."
Bouncy Ball # 71 - Dad
I put it in an envelope, but I haven't mailed it yet.
Bouncy Ball # 72 - Apple Squares
On Friday, I find a recipe online for apple squares. My great aunt Agnes used to make these for every family gathering before she passed away, more than 15 years ago, and I've dreamed of tasting them again every day since.
The picture on the recipe looks exactly like her apple squares. I feel connected to my family while I peel and slice six apples by hand.
I feel like a strong Armenian woman while I crush four cups of corn flakes with my knuckles, while I knead the dough into two large balls. I feel like my grandmother, my great aunt, all the women in my family while I roll out the dough on my kitchen counter with the new rolling pin I bought.
Four hours later, after I've missed all the mics I'd planned on making, I feel like a grown ass woman when I finally pull the baking sheet from the oven, golden brown flaky crust glistening atop a bed of apples and cinnamon.
And I feel like a complete failure the moment I fork that first bite in my mouth, and I realize, "Oh my God, these are fucking terrible."
I'm a failure. I failed.
Friday night, after my apple square fiasco, I make it to the Hotel in time for my friend's show. Before it starts, a bunch of us are chatting outside the front doors.
"Hey," James says. "I got a package for you today."
"This guy sent me this package for you. And it's kinda weird, but instead of explaining, I'm just gonna give it to you."
He unzips his backpack, and I watch, interested, as he pulls out...
...a plastic bag full of bouncy balls. Wah. Wah. WAH.
"He says he never wants the bouncy ball thing to end," James says.
I stand, my mouth open, not sure how to react. On one hand, I'm flattered and so honored that someone I don't even know is into this bouncy ball thing enough to buy a package of bouncy balls and mail them to a stranger.
On the other hand, I've been doing everything I can to try and get rid of these things. What had before been my pleasure has now become my burden. Seeing that unopened bag of bouncy balls - how many? 50? 100? 200? - I feel like I just rolled a boulder up to the top of a hill and looked over the crest to find that I have five more hills to go, all of them taller than the first.
"So I think I have an idea of what to do with my bouncy ball thing," I say. "Besides quit, what's another thing I would never do?"
"Another thing you'd never do. Let's see." Sosa thinks for a minute. "I can't think of anything."
"Something I don't like to do," I say.
"Apologize when you're wrong?"
I laugh. "I admit when I'm wrong."
"No, you don't," he says. "Leah, you argue even when you're wrong."
"Yeah, but that's because I believe I'm right," I say. "If I believe I'm wrong, then I'll admit it."
"Ha! Okay." He's looking out the passenger window of my car. "I give up. What's another thing you'd never do?"
"Ask for help."
Bouncy Ball # 59 - Claudio
I'm sitting at a cafeteria table in Leo Politi Elementary school staring at the pendants they have displayed on the wall, representing college teams from around the country. I see Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech. "Huh," I say, pointing. "They don't have my school."
"What's your school?" Claudio asks.
"University of Oklahoma," I say.
His eyes get wide. "That's crazy! My daughter went to grad school there."
"No way! Does she still live there?"
"Oh yes," he says. "Her and her family are all settled in."
Claudio and I are volunteering for an organization called "Reading to Kids" - on the first Saturday of every month, volunteers go to schools around the Los Angeles area and spend the morning reading literature to elementary school students.
When I'd signed up, I'd envisioned a room full of eager children, me at the forefront with "Where the Sidewalk Ends" by Shel Silverstein, capturing their attention with the very first line, "If you are a dreamer, come in..."
In reality, we're given a T.S. Eliot book called "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," and we take turns passing it around the table, reading outdated poems about cats to a group of fourth graders who seem like they'd rather be anywhere else.
And who can blame them? I'm 31, and I'm bored as hell. Imagine being nine, and listening to a lady with stains on her shirt try to explain the importance of a bunch of poems that the musical "Cats" was based on.
"So are you from here?" I ask Claudio.
"No, I'm actually from Columbia," he says. "But I've been here since 1969."
"Wow. You've been in L.A. the whole time?"
"Mostly, yeah. Culver City. Lived there for years, and then I had my girlfriend and her kids move in with me after awhile, and then she decided she didn't love me anymore." He doesn't seem upset about it, just relaying a thing that happened in his life.
He goes on. "I'd told her when she moved in, if she ever decided she didn't love me, she should stay there with the kids, you know? So they could have some consistency. And that's what happened. Then I had to move to Playa del Rey, and that was pretty nice, but I had to move again for my job, and then I ended up back in Culver City, in the place I have now."
"Do you like it?"
"I love it. Actually," he says, leaning in closer, like he's telling me a secret, "it's kind of an interesting story how I ended up there."
"I love interesting stories."
He smiles. "So I was looking for places, and I couldn't find anything. And one day, I'm just driving down Sawtelle, and I'm about to go beneath an overpass, and I look over, and something catches my eye. I turn my car around, and I see it's a small 'For Rent' sign."
"Ah, so it called to you," I say.
"Yeah, but it gets better," he says. "I stopped in, and a guy who lived there called the manager for me. He drove over, opened the apartment for me to check it out. As soon as I walk in, I love it, you know?"
"Oh yeah," I say. "It felt right?"
"Exactly," he says. "So I'm basically telling this guy I want the apartment. I tell him I grew up in Culver City, that I graduated from Culver City High School. And he says, 'What year?' Well, I graduated in '75. He graduated from the same high school in '73. And I look at him really close, and I say, 'Mannfred? Is that you?' Turns out, we played on the same soccer team for two years!"
"Crazy!" I say.
"It gets better," he says. "So he's holding the apartment for me while I get everything ready to move, you know? And the next day, I call him because I got a question about the laundry. I call the number he gave me on his business card, and a lady answers, his wife. I say, 'Hi, this is Claudio,' but before I can say another word, she says, 'Claudio! This is Peggy! How are you?' I worked with Peggy years before that. We used to go jogging together!"
"You're kidding me," I say. "You knew his wife before they were married?"
He nods. "Imagine that?" he says. "I don't even know why I stopped at that place. Something just caught my eye."
"It's like the Universe wanted you to have that apartment."
He perks up. "Yes!" he says. "Exactly! You know," he confides, "things like that happen to me all the time."
Bouncy Ball # 60 - Jessica
It's 8:20, just before classes start on Monday morning, when I knock on Jessica's office door. I can see her through the window, sitting behind her desk, waving me in.
"Hi," I say, shutting the door behind me. "I need to say something."
"About a month ago, you overheard me make a snarky comment about you. I didn't know you were in the copy room, and I said something stupid, and you heard me. When you asked about it, I lied and pretended I wasn't talking about you."
"Anyway, I'm sorry that I did that. It was wrong of me. And the thing is, I didn't even mean it. I was just trying to make Leanna laugh. I actually really like you."
"So I made you these cookies because it's always bothered me, and I've always wanted to apologize to you because you don't deserve that." I place a plate covered in aluminum foil on her desk. "I don't even know if you remember."
"I do remember that," she says. She lifts the edge of the aluminum foil, peeks in. A slow smile creeps up on her face. "Thank you for saying that."
"Well, I mean, I should've said it sooner." I walk toward the door, my hand on the knob. "Anyway, I just wanted to come by and tell you I'm sorry." I turn to leave.
"No, wait," she says, standing. "Let me hug you."
The Things I've Left Out - Bouncy Ball # 4 - Ann
In the course of writing these stories, there have been things I've left out for various reasons.
Sometimes I leave things out because they don't move the story forward, and it makes sense from an editing standpoint.
Sometimes I leave things out because I feel like I'm going on too long, and I cut out things that don't seem vital to the overall arc of the story, if this is a story.
And sometimes I tell myself I'm leaving things out because they're unnecessary to the story, but later, I find that I've left it out because I haven't come to terms with what it says about me.
Take, for instance, when I went to visit Ann, the fortuneteller, during the first week of this project. Just before the end of my reading, while she was summing everything up, she stopped, furrowed her brow, and out of nowhere, she said, "Don't talk behind people's backs."
I had laughed. At the time, it seemed ridiculous. I don't do that, I thought.
Two days later, I was at work. I'd just received an email from Jessica requesting to leave early Friday afternoon. I walked over to Leanna's office, and as I approached her doorway, I said, "Did you get that email from Jessica? Does she ever want to work?"
Just then, Jessica, who'd been in the copy room adjacent to Leanna's office, popped out and looked me right in the eye. "What's that?"
"Oh, I, uh..." I stammered. "Not you," I lied. She shook her head and walked back over to the copier.
I felt terrible. And my mind went right to Ann's weird warning. "Don't talk behind other people's backs."
Bouncy Ball # 61 - The Halfway Point
It's a beautiful afternoon in Los Angeles, and I'm running, meeting Sosa halfway between our places. I struggle uphill on Lucas., but when I reach the top, it's peaceful, easy. I run by a man walking three small dogs, all of which have Velcro shoes on their feet. I think about how if I hadn't run here today, I would have never seen dogs that wear shoes.
I'm still on Lucas when I see Sosa running uphill toward me. "You're kidding!" I yell. "I thought I'd at least make it to 7th!"
He stops next to me, breathing hard, sweat pouring down his forehead. "Oh yeah, I went hard."
"You beat me by a lot," I say. "Man!" I stomp my foot. I'm not a great loser.
"I want to finish this hill and see what's at the top," Sosa says, so we jog up the hill and pause at the next cross street.
"I have a bouncy ball," I say. "And when I was running, I was thinking how crazy it would be if I got murdered, you know? Like what if I got murdered, and I left the ball on the sidewalk, and you came by, and all you found was one shoe and a bouncy ball? Maybe there'd be some blood splattered."
"Okay," he says. "I'd be sad if you got murdered. What do you want me to say?"
"Would you avenge my death?"
He shrugs. "I'd call the police."
I sigh. "But you wouldn't try to find my killer?"
"Oh, yeah," he says. "I'd call the police up and be like, 'Hey, did you find the killer yet? No. Okay, bye.' That's how I'd try to find you."
I laugh. "So you're saying you wouldn't go rogue detective to avenge my death?"
He ignores me. "Let's run to your place."
Right away, he breaks away, and I spend the last leg of our run staring at his back.
The Things I've Left Out - Bouncy Ball # 14 - Sasha
Sasha, the Scientology center counselor, points to a particular low point in the results of my online personality test. "Here," she says. "It looks like you can be a little bit judgmental at times."
I roll my eyes. "I'm not like that," I say.
"Hmm," she says, her lips pressed together. "Okay. Well I think that the way you answered some of the questions maybe shows that you're a little negative at times."
"No, I'm not," I say again. "That's not me."
"Well, remember," she says. "These are based on your own answers. This is your assessment of yourself."
"What do you want me to say? I guess that paper says I'm judgmental, and I don't like people. I'm telling you that's not true."
She nods. "I understand. But maybe...well, do you ever find yourself believing the negative about someone when you meet them?"
"Well, sometimes, sure," I say. "I guess. But I wouldn't say I'm a negative person."
"I'm not saying that either," she says. "All I'm saying is that according to your answers, it seems like you believe the negative about other people instead of looking for the positive."
I sit back in my chair and stare at my fingernails. "I don't do that."
Bouncy Ball # 62 - Sarah
The second grade teacher at the school where I work is having a "Dr. Seuss" week in her classroom. She's asking people around the school to read Dr. Seuss books to her students.
On Tuesday morning, I start my day sitting at a small round table with Sarah and seven second-graders. I read "Horton Hatches the Egg," fully expecting the kids to drift off like the poor fourth graders I'd tortured with T.S. Eliot on Saturday.
But as I read, I'm remembering my own childhood, the first book I read all on my own, "Green Eggs and Ham." And as I read, the kids stare at me, open-mouthed, anticipating the next page. I almost forgot the simplicity and greatness of Dr. Seuss, how his books are timeless, captivating, and more than that, pure magic.
Bouncy Ball # 63 - Andy
"Hey Andy," I say, while Jamar introduces the next comic on the Improv open mic. "I'm changing up my bouncy ball thing."
I lean in so I can whisper. "Yeah, I'm actually giving bouncy balls to my friends and asking them to give the balls stories."
"Oh, that's cool," he says.
"Yeah? You think?"
"So if I give you a bouncy ball right now, you'll give it a story?"
"I'd love to," he says.
I reach in my purse, hand him a bouncy ball. Two hours go by.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Andy Sell...
Stories of Bouncy Balls Past - Andy
"Did I ever tell you my bouncy ball story?" Andy asks. We're standing outside of John's apartment, taking a break between recording our podcast.
"No," I say.
"Well, I have one," he says. "I've had it since I was a kid. When I was little, I had ADHD, but it was before they knew a lot about it, so my teachers just thought I was stupid. They put me in special ed classes and made me take all these tests. People actually called me a retard. That's how bad it was."
"Yeah," he says. "That's one of the reasons I hate that word. And my parents didn't get it because they knew I was smart. No one knew what was going on. But when I went in to take one of the tests, this guy that worked with me gave me a bouncy ball right before. It was one of those ones with multi-colors swirled, you know what I'm talking about?"
"I had that ball with me when I took the test. We got the results back, and it showed I was actually gifted. And I still have that bouncy ball - it's one of the few things I take with me everywhere. It's my 'I'm not a retard' ball."
Bouncy Ball # 64 - Me
I'm at The Workout Room comedy show watching Kevin Camia try some new bits.
The first time I saw Kevin was back in 2008. I'd been only a couple years into standup myself. I was sitting on the couch in the comedy condo for the Oklahoma City Loony Bin, where I was hosting that week. Me and the two other comics working the club were watching Comedy Central's "Live at Gotham."
Back then, it was a little bit hard to make me laugh, but I had no idea how hard I'd become, how years later, I'd sit in the audience in L.A. without so much as a smile while plenty of hilarious, talented people get onstage.
That's one of the curses of standup - once you do it, you don't laugh at it like you used to.
But when I saw that clip of Kevin Camia, he straight up broke me. I laughed harder than I'd laughed in so long. When I got home, I looked up more clips of him. I stumbled on his MySpace profile (yes, MySpace) and sent him a personal message about how much he made me laugh.
And then I went on with my life and never thought about it again until my friend Greg Edwards introduced me to Kevin in San Francisco, and I stood there, fucking amazed that I've crossed paths with this comedian I'd discovered sitting on a couch in Oklahoma City.
And tonight, in 2014, I'm in Los Angeles watching Kevin work out jokes when I realize how amazing it is that I get to see this, how amazing it is that my life has brought me here.
Sometimes, when I'm onstage, I talk about how people like to tell me their life stories.
I try to make a joke out of it, but the truth is, I love that. In fact, I think strangers sharing their stories with me is one of my favorite things about my life, and I wouldn't trade that for anything, not even a five-minute spot on Conan that would prove to my Dad I know what I'm doing.
I used to wonder why people told me intimate details about their lives, but in the past two months of this bouncy ball project, I've figured it out. People tell me things for the simplest of reasons - because I listen to them.
Because we all have stories.
We are the way we are because of experiences - we don't turn into who we are by luck or chance. The crazy person screaming nonsense at passersby on Hollywood Blvd. wasn't taken seriously. The 40-year-old woman has trust issues because someone she trusted did something very wrong to her. The asshole who cuts you off in traffic and leans out his window to call you a fuckwad got beat up on the playground in fifth grade. A woman who stays in an abusive relationship isn't weak - she just believes this is the best she can do.
I'm a 31-year-old woman who tells jokes at night and gives strangers bouncy balls during the day. At first glance, maybe I'm just a weirdo trying to get attention. But I'm also just trying to connect the world in a way that makes sense to me. I'm trying to find a much bigger story by obsessively collecting small ones, patching them together like a quilt.
Bouncy Ball # 65 - Zane - Written by James Nghiem
“I’m a little bit homesick, man,” I say to Zane, nursing a beer as I sit on his couch/my bed. We’re in his apartment/my bedroom.
Zane’s sitting on a sofa perpendicular to me. There’s a dried urine stain from a day-old party on one cushion that I won’t go near for fear that I’ll forget which cushion is which. But Zane looks exceptionally comfortable next to it, lounging and smoking hookah, trying to relax after existing another day in not-so glamorous Hollywood. Maybe he’s just taking the sofa for one more ride, knowing full well that all of his roommates are planning to throw it in the trash when he’s not looking.
Maybe he’s as sentimental as me.
“Los Angeles is cool and sometimes I hated being in Oklahoma, but I still miss it right now for some reason.”
“I get that way too sometimes. You and me probably miss it the most out of the four of us,” Zane says, referring to Neka, his girlfriend, and Chris, his non-
romantic boyfriend who he fights with/cares about as if they’ve been married for fifty years. Me on the couch makes four.
Our collective friendships are moving at a mandatory light speed, dictated by the fact that I’ve seemingly moved into their apartment on a whim. It’s true I
promised Zane I would move to Los Angeles a year and a half ago. But I don’t’ know if either of us believed I would. In my experience a lot of people promise a lot of things that never come to fruition, and I’m no stranger to being one of them.
“Really? We miss Oklahoma more than Chris and Neka?”
“Neka goes on Youtube sometimes and finds 8-hour thunderstorm videos. She falls asleep to it. But yeah, I get that more. I never thought I’d miss thunderstorms. I miss the shit out of some thunderstorms.”
“They don’t have thunderstorms in California?”
“No. If it rains a little everyone goes crazy.”
I take a sip of my beer.
“It’s weird that we’re friends,” I say bluntly. When I helped Zane move last January out of nowhere, we weren’t nearly this close.
“Yeah,” he laughs. “I didn’t even know you that well that time, but I could tell you wanted to come.”
I take another sip of my beer. “When I met you, you were living outside of the Speakeasy in a van. It was during a comedy show. All you owned was a camera.”
“I fucking remember that show! Leah killed it that night. I remember watching all you guys at that place. I loved that shit. Derek Smith was always great. You. So many guys. Were you on that show?”
“Probably. I used to open a lot.”
“Leah was so drunk. I remember I told her I was living in a van and that I hadn’t been able to take any showers and she was just like, ‘You can’t take showers? Fuck that. That’s stupid. You can take shower at my place!' It was so nice.”
“Yeah. She’s like that.”
“And then you were like, 'Leah. You don’t even know this guy. He lives in a van outside of a bar and he has a camera. Don’t let him take a shower at your place. He could murder you.' It was really funny.”
“I loved that van. I had a lot of good times in that van. I really miss living in that van.”
For a second I take a look at the life Zane’s built here, minus the pee-stained couch cushion. I look at the suit he borrowed to attend the Ace Awards, where the show he’s been working on was nominated. Then I look back at him.
“No you don’t.”
“I kind of do.”
“I miss home.”
“No you don’t.”
And now we’ve come full circle. I was the guy who stopped Zane from taking a shower at my friend’s house. And now I’m the friend taking showers every morning at Zane’s house. It seems unfair for someone to help me when I didn’t help them back in the day. Well, if life is a circle, I’ll have to make it up when it comes back around.
I can’t say for sure what this project is supposed to mean to people but as far as I can tell, it’s about connections, stories and breaking out of cycles by doing something you wouldn’t normally do. If that’s the case, it’s not normal for me to feel this optimistic or let go of things.
Hey Zane. Here’s a bouncy ball.
The Bouncy Ball Project, Week Eight: I Impress Some Kids by Beating a Boy and Consider Calling it Quits
"Oh shit!" Sosa says. "I just thought of the ultimate thing you could do for your bouncy ball project."
"Well, the thing is, you have to do something you normally wouldn't do," he says. "And there's one thing that you would never do. The ultimate thing."
"Quit," he says. "You'd never quit."
"Huh," I say. "I...well...that's interesting. But you're right, I couldn't do that."
"I know," he says. "That's why it's the ultimate thing."
Bouncy Ball # 52 - Girl at the Go-Kart Place
"Yes!" I say. "I won!"
Sosa and I are at an indoor go-kart track waiting for our race to start. There's a small arcade room here, so we decided to kill time by playing the basketball shooting game. Our games are linked, so we're competing against each other. I win the first game 44-42.
"It was close," Sosa says. "We're playing again."
If I'd lost, I would've said the same exact thing.
I wait while Sosa goes to get some more tokens. There's a little boy behind me at the air hockey table, his mouth open. "Did you just win that game?"
He runs off. A few seconds later, he comes back in with a girl, his friend, or maybe his sister. She's taller than him with long hair.
The boy points at me. "Her. She just beat a boy."
The girl turns to me, impressed. "You won? Do you play a lot?"
I shrug. "I used to play." I honestly can't believe their reaction, that they're so surprised a girl could win a shooting game. I gotta admit, though, I do feel pretty cool right now.
Sosa comes back with tokens. "Okay, now I'm ready." He puts them in the slot, and as the countdown to the game ticks away, the kids gather behind us. We start shooting, the kids cheering me on. I win again, 44-29. Sosa calls it a "massacre."
"Yes!" the girl yells. The boy jumps up and down in celebration. I give them high fives.
Sosa laughs. "Man!" he says. "I did even worse that time! We're playing again." Again, he walks off to get more tokens.
"Hey, do you guys want a bouncy ball?" I ask the kids.
I pull a couple from my bag, let them choose.
On our third game, I beat Sosa again. I don't even remember the score. A third kid joins my cheering squad.
"You're fucking killing it right now," Sosa says.
"Ooohhhh," the kids say. "He said a bad word."
After the game, Sosa says, "You're good at that. You realize, though, that now I definitely have to beat you in the go-kart race."
"Oh yeah," I say. "I totally get that."
The newest member of my cheer team walks over. "Excuse me," he says. "You gave my friends a bouncy ball. Can I have one, too?"
I smile. "Sure."
They finally call our race number, and I spend a glorious ten-minutes speeding around the track. For four laps, I annoy the fuck out of Sosa by not letting him pass me, but he finally breaks free, and I watch him ahead of me, battling it out with some cocky bald guy named Bert.
When the race is over, we all get printed-out scorecards that break down our lap times. I pick mine up. "Man, 4th place!" I say. Then, "Oh my God! Sosa, you won!"
"What?" He looks at me, his eyes huge. "I did?"
"You fucking won!"
"Oh my God, I won!"
We both start dancing right there in the lobby to celebrate, kids scrambling around us.
Bouncy Ball # 53 - Anonymous Me
"Hi, I'm Leah," I say.
"Hi Leah," a chorus of voices responds.
Even though I've heard them do this several times, I get a strange feeling when they say my name. I feel acknowledged, welcome. That feeling conflicts with the dominant thought racing through my mind during this Al-Anon meeting: "I shouldn't be here. I'm an impostor."
Al-Anon is a support group for people whose lives have been affected by alcoholics, and it provides a safe place for them to talk about this.
Weeks ago, I spoke with a friend of mine who attends meetings, and I related to a lot of the things she'd said. I grew up with an alcoholic stepfather, but I don't think it ever would've crossed my mind to attend a support group. I'd never step foot in this room if it weren't for my friend's recommendation and the fact that I have to do something I "normally wouldn't do" to get rid of a bouncy ball.
That's why I'm an impostor. Here are these people who need this, who get something important out of this, and here I am checking something off of the day's to-do list.
The last time I felt like an impostor I was getting my Master's in English. I'd sit in class without contributing to discussions because I felt like everyone else knew so much more than me. Look at all the words they use with confidence, I thought. Postmodernism, dominant discourse, hegemony.
Look at the guy with the patches on the elbows of his blazer, quoting Foucault about power and knowledge during a discussion about the Harlem Renaissance.
It's not that I didn't understand what they were talking about. It's just that I couldn't grasp the concept of talking about complicated matters in complicated terms. If the point of all this is to change things, to make progress, then why are we excluding people with the way we talk? Why can't we say big things in simple terms?
A few weeks into my American Lit class, my professor called me in to her office. "Your writing is really good," she'd said. "You make a lot of interesting points. I wish you would bring these up in class."
It floored me - there I was thinking I didn't belong. I talked to another grad student about it, and he'd smiled knowingly. "Ah, the Impostor Syndrome."
The Impostor Syndrome is a psychological mindset where people tend to belittle their accomplishments or abilities by writing them off as a fluke. They view themselves a incompetent or as an outsider even though by all standards, they do indeed belong.
Today, while I sit and squirm at the start of this Al-Anon meeting, those familiar impostor feelings creep up again.
But then people start sharing their stories. I won't relay what was said, but I can tell you this - it seems people whose lives have been affected by others' alcoholism share some common traits: anxiety, perfectionism, and the obsessive need to make everything "okay."
Maybe I do belong in here after all.
Even my feeling that I'm an impostor reflects where I came from - it's me wanting to believe I'm fine, that I'm not like the other people in this room. Because when I grew up, there were bigger problems to deal with in my house, so I always wanted to appear "okay." I always wanted to maintain at least the outward show of perfection.
Funny how it is this, the fact that I feel like such an impostor, that actually connects me to everyone else in this room.
A couple months ago, I was talking about addiction to a friend of mine, who's been sober for years.
"I think I can sympathize with addiction," I'd said. "I mean, I don't really have a drug problem. But I get so attached to people, you know? I get addicted to them."
"It's funny you say that," she said. "When you're addicted to something, and you give it up, it's like you lost your best friend. There's this thing that was always there - it's there when you're happy, when you're sad - and then one day, you have to walk around and live life without it. You have to figure out how to function like it was never part of you at all."
Bouncy Ball # 54 - Tom and Cathy
"Okay," I say, approaching a couple sitting at the bar in the Keynote Lounge. "Are you gonna explain that to me, or what?"
I just got offstage at an open mic in Ventura. It's a hike to get here - the drive took an hour and a half - but I got to do almost 20 minutes, and the crowd is mostly "real people."
During my set, I'd talked to this couple, and I found out that the man, Tom, is here tonight celebrating his 71st birthday. When I'd asked him about it, he'd responded, "Everyone gets one. No one gets two."
That sentence confused me, so after my set, I ask him about it.
"Everyone gets one," Tom explains. "No one gets two."
"No, I know," I say. "But what do you mean?"
He sighs. "Everyone gets one birthday."
"Oh, you mean like every year?" I laugh. "I was thinking it meant something deeper."
"Actually," Cathy pipes in, "I disagree with that."
"Yeah, I think that you can have your birthday, and you can also have another birthday that celebrates the day something important happened. My daughter is a cancer survivor, and that day she heard that she beat it, that's her birthday."
"Wow," I say.
"And I survived open heart surgery," Tom says.
Cathy pokes his chest. "That's your birthday."
"Are you guys from here?" I ask.
"Yeah," Cathy says. "We live right down the street. And where are you from?"
"She's from Oklahoma!" Tom says. "Remember? She said it on stage." Then to me, "What part of Oklahoma?"
Tom's eyes light up.
"You know it?"
"Do I know it? Why, yes! I used to date a girl that lived in Bethany."
"Nope, small world. Can you believe that? But that girl broke up with me. She could've moved with me to San Diego where they don't have those crazy tornadoes, but she decided she wanted to stay right there in Bethany."
I look over at Cathy, her face in a pout. "Yeah," she says. "You could've brought her here with you." She's jealous.
"Honey," Tom says. "That was probably before you were even born." He pats her knee, and she smiles.
Bouncy Ball # 55 - Foosball Table in 33 Taps
"You want to quit so bad, don't you?" Sosa asks while we cross the street to 33 Taps, a bar in Hollywood where my friend runs an open mic.
"Yes!" I'm complaining (as usual) because I haven't done my bouncy ball thing yet. I'm hoping that something interesting will happen at this mic because it falls under my rules - I've never been here. It's new. It's enough.
But nothing of note happens inside. It's just a mic. I stand and watch like the rest of the comics scattered about the room.
"Ohhhhh!" I hear behind me, and I turn to see Jeff, his fists in the air. They must've won the foosball game.
I check the time. 10:00.
I walk over to the table and place my bouncy ball in the center. "Hey Preston," I say. "Play this bouncy ball with me."
Preston shrugs, walks up to the other side of the table to control his men, turns his offensive men one time, and hits the ball directly into my goal. It takes less than a second.
"Well," I say. "That's that." I'm about to leave, but now all the comics seem concerned. Preston is reaching into the goal trying to pull out the ball.
"I can't get it." He pulls his head down to look into the hole. "I can see it in there."
Rick walks over and tries to reach in the hole. "Shit, that's not coming out of there."
"What's the problem?" I ask.
Everyone ignores me.
For the next five minutes, four comics try to figure out how to get my ball out of the table.
"I meant to leave that in there," I say. "I don't need it."
Finally, Rick looks at me. "Leah, if the ball is covering the chute, then the other balls can't go through, and the machine won't work."
"Oh," I say. "So I broke this? Just now? I broke this."
He shrugs. Two comics get on the opposite side and lift it while I try to explain. "It literally didn't occur to me that I might break it. There's hinges on the table. They'll eventually be able to open it and unclog it, right?"
"Sure," Rick says. "But it says your name on it."
"Oh yeah." I laugh.
It's at that point that Megan, one of the most blunt people on the planet, walks over, assesses the situation, and says, "How about we all just walk away?"
I point to her. "Yes." And I leave.
"At this point," I tell Sosa while we walk to my car, "I'm just causing problems."
Bouncy Ball # 56 - Mario
I'm sitting on my couch wishing I didn't have to leave to find a bouncy ball quest when I hear a knock at my door.
I open it, holding my dog's collar. There's a teenage boy on my doorstep holding a duffel bag and a binder. "Hi," he says. "I'm hoping I can interest you in buying some items to support our school program."
"Hold on." I drag Davey Dog to my room and shut the door, then I open the screen door. "You can come in. I don't want my cat to run out."
The boy hesitates, and I briefly wonder if I've crossed some sort of boundary. Wait, do I look like I might murder teenage boys?
Still, he comes in, and he sets up on my living room floor, giving his salesman spiel while I watch, the corner of my lips turning into a slow smile. I remember this kid.
He gets on his knees in the middle of my living room and opens the duffel bag. He pulls out a bag of trail mix, a puzzle, some gummy worms, an oven mitt set. He pulls out two candles. "This one is sandalwood," he says, "and this one is a lovely vanilla scent."
He pulls out a jelly bean dispenser shaped like a dog. "He doesn't bite," he says, chuckling at his own joke.
I laugh. "What's your name?"
"Well nice to meet you. I'm Leah." We shake hands. "So what do you get out of this?"
"I get to go on a trip to Universal Studios with my class."
"Cool," I say. "But I mean, do you like doing this?"
"Actually, yes, I really do," he says. "I didn't like it at first though. The reason I had to start was because I got in trouble."
"Oh really? What'd you do?"
He looks down. He doesn't want to answer me. "I just got in trouble at school," he says. "So they showed me a list of programs I could do as part of my punishment, and my mom made me sign up for one. She said I only had to do it for a month, and then I could quit if I didn't like it. But after a few weeks, I started to like it."
"So how long have you been doing it?"
"Over a year," he says. "Actually, it'll be two years on May 29th."
"Wow," I say. "You must like it!"
"Well, yeah," he says. "But also, it's a way that I can do my own thing. It's hard at my house. I have a brother and sister, and we're just trying to get by, so there's not a lot of money. This is really the only way we can do fun things."
"How old are you?"
I nod, walking to my couch to retrieve my purse. "And what was the coolest trip you've gone on so far?"
His face lights up. "Catalina Island."
"Oh, I want to go there!" I say. "Well, listen, I want to buy some of your stuff, but I don't have a lot of cash. So how much are these?"
He points to a couple items. "These are all seven." Then he points to the candy, the candles, the doghouse. "And these are five."
"Okay," I say. "I think I'll take the candle."
I hand him a five, then reach in my purse and pull out a bouncy ball. "Also, can I give you this bouncy ball? I believe they're good luck."
"Sure," he says. "Actually, I really like getting random things like this. It keeps me going."
I shrug. "Well, I wish I could buy more from you."
"Oh, it's okay," he says. "You know, the best part of all this? It's talking to the people. They really really want to help as much as they can."
He packs up his duffel bag and stands to leave. Before he does, he turns to my bookshelf and points to a candle sitting on it, the wick used all the way to the bottom. "Hey, we used to sell these."
I nod. "Yeah, I bought it from you over a year ago."
We shake hands. When I close the door behind him, I'm relieved. I don't have to be anywhere for at least an hour because the Universe sent a bouncy ball story right to my doorstep.
I open a beer, turn on the TV, and light my new vanilla candle.
Bouncy Ball # 57 - High School Student from Denver
My good friend Whitney lives in Denver, where she teaches Creative Writing to high school students.
This morning, I get a message from her - two scanned pages with annotated notes on the side.
Whitney had taken one of my bouncy ball stories and given it to her class as an example for their assignment. "They have to record observations and create prose from the scenarios they encounter," she writes. "And as I was reading this, I knew I had to use it."
I'm truly honored.
So here it is - annotated notes on something I wrote from a high school writer in Denver:
Bouncy Ball # 58 - Brad
I'd be lying if I said I put any thought into today's bouncy ball quest. Still, I've done several things today that I "normally wouldn't do." I went to happy hour with my co-workers, I carpooled to mics with Jonathan, and I ended up at a bar in Koreatown for a comic's birthday party.
This time last year, I'd missed the same comic's birthday party because I'd eaten too much of a weed brownie, and I freaked out in the passenger's seat of Sosa's car. He'd had to take me home and coax me to bed.
Today, I feel like a completely different person than I was one year ago. I think I am a different person.
Before I leave the bar, I ask Brad to start a dance circle in the middle of the bar, and he does because he's just that kind of person, one of the only people in this room confident enough to do it. Once he starts, everyone dances with him.
I don't say anything, just grab his hand and put a bouncy ball in his palm.
Two days later, he tells me that it meant a lot to him.
Ok, Guys. Real talk time.
When I posted my last bouncy ball blog, I felt pretty shitty about it. I felt the writing wasn't my best, and it bothered me that I had to put something out there I didn't feel one hundred percent behind.
I can do better than that. And for you, the people who read this, I feel like I owe it to you to do better than that because we live in an online world of 140-character jokes and short sketch videos, so it's a big deal that anyone reads these stories all the way through.
I appreciate that. I really really appreciate it.
Last week was a breaking point for me because I realized the stories I produce aren't what I wanted to come from this. I know I said at the start that I had no plan, but that wasn't true - I did expect something to come out of this project, but I didn't know what it was. And now, two months in, it seems so obvious to me that when I wrote Week 7, I felt like it was something I had to do rather than something I wanted to do.
If that's the case, what am I gaining from this?
And that's when I seriously considered quitting. I talked to my best friend Rockey about it. I told him that I felt like I couldn't enjoy my life because of all this unnecessary pressure I put on myself.
"It seems like every month, people I know are dying," he'd said. "Just be happy and live life. Life really is too short to put so much pressure on yourself to do things that don't make you happy!"
So with his blessing, I started to formulate a plan for how I'm going to quit.
I thought of how I would make this an epic story, how I could gracefully bow out by explaining to you, my friends, why I couldn't go on, why it was in fact better if I didn't. I would explain to you that if I really wanted to fix myself, to make myself a better person, isn't quitting the best way to do that? Can't giving up actually provide me with the freedom to forget about what other people think?
Wouldn't quitting help me to live in reality?
I tell Sosa about my plan. "It's gonna be great," I say. "I'm going to write something great."
"No, no, no," he says. "You can't do that."
"Leah, if you're gonna quit, you have to just quit. You can't try to justify it. You have to write, 'I'm not doing this any more. Goodbye.' And then nothing else."
He's right. And if I can't quit like that, then I just can't quit.
That's when I came up with a new plan, a loophole that will solve all of my problems with this project.
I know exactly what to do. And I think it's what this was supposed to be all along.
The Bouncy Ball Project, Week Seven: I Sing "Sweet Caroline" with Christians and Let All My Insecurities Hang Out
Bouncy Ball # 45 - Rick
"Welcome!" Lorinda says from the stage as James and I walk in. "Please, come in and have a seat. We have some cupcakes and coffee in the back, so help yourself. Can somebody get them some chairs?"
A guy in the back hops up, grabs two folding chairs that were leaning against the wall, and sets them up in the back row, gesturing for us to sit down.
Cupcakes? Chairs? Feeling welcome? This is already the best open mic I've ever attended. It's a church-run open mic, and I stumbled upon it accidentally (or because the Universe wanted me to).
As James and I get settled, Lorinda introduces the next performer, a guy who makes his way to the stage with a rolling walker. He plays some pretty lackluster songs about Jesus on the keyboard. Midway through the first song, the sound guy, Rick, walks onstage and sits behind the drum set, picking up the beat.
After that set, Lorinda walks back up to the stage and invites her band to come up: a guy on keyboard, a guy on guitar, and Rick on drums. They play behind Lorinda while she belts out a few blues songs with her soulful voice - it blows me away.
The band behind her is pretty good, too - the only time they sound off is due to the drums. Rick lags a few times, his hi-hat quarter notes slowing down the song while the other musicians try to adjust.
A few acts later, Lorinda introduces a group called "Broken Society," a Christian rap/guitar duo. During their second song, Rick once again hops up from his position behind the sound board and sits behind the trap set.
"Oh my God, this guy again," I say.
Rick's drum beat cuts through the song with an out-of-sync snare that doesn't match the guitar rhythm.
The guitarist tries to maintain composure, but when the drums throw him off, he giggles. "I, uh, never had this happen before," he says, too polite to ask Rick to leave. "Praise the Lord!"
Rick continues to play, oblivious to the discomfort he's causing. The guitar player, now bowled over with laughter, has no idea what to do. "Praise the Lord!" he keeps saying. "I don't know if I can do this. Praise the Lord! I'm not used to having drums behind me."
During my set, a pretty solid 7 minutes, Rick locates the "Ba-dum-bum-ching" button on his keyboard sounds and keeps pressing it after my punchlines and some of my setups, which he apparently thinks are punchlines.
When it's Rick's turn to get onstage solo (but really for the 5th time, since he's inserted himself in every other act) he elects to sing karaoke - Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."
And I'm ecstatic to find that during the chorus of this song, everyone in this L.A. church open mic audience does the same thing that people do in Bill's, my favorite townie bar in Norman, Oklahoma - they sing back.
Sweet Caroline, Rick sings.
Bah, bah, bah! we all respond.
Good times never seemed so good, Rick sings.
So good! So good! So good! we sing back.
After the mic, I give Rick a bouncy ball.
"What is this?"
"It's a bouncy ball."
"Oh." His face falls. "I thought it was a tomato."
"Well, it's not."
"At least I could eat a tomato," he says.
"True," I say. "But you can bounce that."
"Yeah," he says. "But I like tomatoes."
Bouncy Ball # 46 - Becky - Laura
"So tell me about your Latin word tattoo," Becky says while we walk up Hollywood Boulevard.
Becky's a comic on the L.A. scene, and I like her because she's funny, she's smart, and she's fun to talk to. When I started this Bouncy Ball Project, she read my first post and came up to me at an open mic. "Hey, you got a minute?" she'd said. "I want to talk to you about magic."
This morning, I met her for coffee, and now we're just killing time before our next endeavors of the day.
"Well it means truth," I say. "And honestly, it's hard to explain. I mean, it's not just truth to me. It's really about a moment. I've tried to tell people about it, but it always sounds insane."
"Yeah, I get that when I try to explain mine," Becky says. She takes off her top layer shirt and pulls up the sleeve of her t-shirt. There's a square with a drawing of a tree in it and the Latin phrase "Omnia Extares."
"Oh wow! So what's that about?"
"It's from where I went to college," Becky says. "Evergreen State. I was in the philosophy program there." She points to the Latin. "This is the school motto. It means 'Let it all hang out.' That's actually something I try to live by."
Later in our walk, my eye catches something on the ground - a small ball with design like a soccer ball. "Oh my God!" I rush over and pick it up. "Aw, it's a ping pong ball." I show Becky. "Thought it was a bouncy ball."
"Man," she says. "That's still pretty cool that you found that. It bounces. It's a ball. What are the odds?"
"Yeah, well, I'm magic," I say. "I told you."
Days later, as I'm writing this, Becky calls me. "Hey," she says. "So I met this really cool girl last night, and I told her that my tattoo meant 'People will believe anything.'"
"I thought I should tell you," she says. "Because we were talking about it. Also, you know that bouncy ball you gave me? Well, I just cleaned out my car, so that was the only thing in there when I went to pick up Laura - that's her name, by the way. And I picked it up, and I said, 'Do you like bouncy balls?' And she said, 'I fucking LOVE bouncy balls.' Just like that. She was so into it."
"So you gave it to her, right?"
"Yeah, I did," she says. "So we'll have to do another thing where you can give me a bouncy ball."
Bouncy Ball # 47 - Benji
"Hi, I'm Leah," I say, holding my hand out to shake Benji's hand.
"We've met like four times," he says.
"I know. I didn't think you remembered."
Benji, a regular at the Comedy Store, sometimes hosts the open mic, and though he's introduced me several times, he always has a look on his face like he's never seen me before.
Tommy, the manager, had mentioned that I should come tonight, that I might get on, so I have no choice but to walk up to Benji and check in, the underlying message, "Hey man, can I get a spot?"
I hate this part of standup.
It's not that I mind proving that I'm good enough - honestly, I probably wouldn't be happy if I got something any other way - but I do mind the pathetic feeling I get when I sit in the back, trying to catch the host's eye while he passes me over, while he tries to decide whether or not I'm worthy enough for a three-minute spot in the Original Room tonight.
Nobody likes this, I remind myself. You're paying your dues.
Benji passes me again, rushing to the back to greet a more important comedian. I sidle over to Tommy, who's in the booth at the club's entrance, and I lean against the wall until he notices me.
"Hey Girl," he finally says, popping his face out the window.
"Oh hey," I say. All breezy.
"So I can maybe get you on the second half of the show. We need a few women. Are you gonna hang out?"
Internal dilemma - if I say "no," then I don't want it enough. If I say "yes," I might be committing myself to hours of waiting with no guarantee of stage time. "How long will that be?"
"Maybe a half hour," he says. "But you don't have to stay if you don't want to."
"No, I want to," I say. "I just have to get up and work early. I know, that's lame."
Tommy shrugs, walks off.
A few minutes later, Benji walks over. "Hey," he says. "Look, I'll try to get you up."
I stare at him. I feel like he wants me to thank him, but I can't bring myself to do it.
"I know that doesn't mean anything," he says.
"Well, I'll stay for a little." But I decide right then - tonight, I'm actually gonna wait this one out.
Turns out, I don't have to wait long. About twenty minutes later, Benji points to me. "You're next."
Even though there are only a handful of people in the audience, I have a really good set. After, I walk up to Benji. "Hey, can I give you this bouncy ball and not explain why?"
"Sure." He smiles. "Thank you."
Bouncy Ball # 48 - Marc Maron
"Oh, just go," Katie says.
"I'm gonna," I say. "In a minute. He makes me nervous." I'm standing five feet away from Marc Maron, standup comic, producer of the popular podcast "WTF," writer and star of his own show, "Maron", and I'm trying to force myself to give him a bouncy ball.
It doesn't make sense that I'm so weird around Marc. No offense to him, but he's not that famous. And most celebrities, I don't give a shit about. I've met one or two here in L.A. for various reasons, and my favorite thing to do when I meet them is repeat their names back like I have no idea who they are.
But Marc, he's different to me. I've heard his voice for so long on his podcast, and I've heard his stories, very personal things he shares, so now I feel like I know him even though I really don't. I've only been in the same room with him twice before.
Two years back, I went to a comedy show and saw Marc right when I'd walked through the door. I panicked, refusing to look in his direction, but every now and then, I became aware of him in my periphery. It seemed like he was trying to get my attention, but I just kept staring straight ahead.
After a minute, his face popped right in front of mine. "Hi," he'd said.
I laughed. "Hi."
Then he just stood there staring at me like he was waiting for me to speak. He seemed to be enjoying my discomfort.
"I, uh, love your podcast," I said. "I listened to it while I was driving through your hometown on my way to Oklahoma."
"Oh really?" he said.
"Yeah. It got me through a snowstorm."
My second Marc Maron encounter happened about a year later. I was sucking onstage at the Comedy Store. Instead of telling jokes, I was creeping out a woman in the crowd by telling her I was going to follow her home later and kill her.
I walked offstage, and when I crossed to the back of the room, I saw Marc sitting alone at a table. Oh. Great.
He hadn't been in the room before I went on. In fact, a few minutes into the next set, he got up and left. It was as though he'd only come in to see me suck, and then went on with his life while I had to somehow live with the fact that I just bombed in front of him.
Cut to tonight. I'm close enough to him that I can eavesdrop on his conversation with a girl who seems like she's trying really hard to fuck him even though he's more into his phone than her.
"Just go!" Katie says.
"Fine!" I walk over and stand in front of him. He looks up.
"Hi Marc," I say. I hold out my ball. "Can I give you this?"
"Yes," he says. "Thank you. That's very nice of you."
I stand there for a few seconds, but I have nothing else to say, so I shrug and walk off. He gets up and walks right outside, and I imagine that he's launching my ball down the street, muttering something like, "Fucking whack job giving me trash."
For the rest of the night, something's bothering me, but I can't quite figure out what it is. Is it because I didn't say anything meaningful? Is it because it was anti-climactic?
Or is it because I am just like any other weird fan, believing there's a connection where there's not?
Bouncy Ball # 49 - Nicole
"So why are you filming?" I ask the girl in the front row.
"I'll explain later," Nicole says, poking her face out from behind her giant camera.
"You keep saying that," I say. "But I don't think you're really gonna tell us."
I'm hosting The Workout Room, a show I help run on Wednesday nights. It's called "The Workout Room" because the comics booked are asked to "work out" new jokes rather than trying to do their best ten minutes. Because everyone knows it's new material, the show has a chill vibe - we've had a lot of great nights in this room, a lot of spontaneous moments, and a lot of huge laughs. Many jokes were born here.
Tonight, not only is the vibe less forgiving - the crowd refuses to laugh at pretty much everything, and only two of the ten people that go on have even a passable set - but on top of that, there's a woman filming us from the front row, and she has yet to explain why she's there. The rest of the comics and I use this as an opening for all of our insecurities to flood out - we believe she's here to make fun of us.
Maybe she's planning to use us as an example of sad open mic comics who will never get anywhere in standup and are too delusional to realize it. I imagine a shot of a successful comic, maybe like Chris Rock, talking about how some people just don't know when to quit, and then she'll cut to me onstage telling some stupid half-formed joke about my boss being the whitest guy on earth, getting no laughs, and then turning to the camera and saying, "So why are you filming?"
That's the thing about standup - it's consistently inconsistent. One night, I'm congratulating myself for a job well done at the Comedy Store, two nights later, I'm bombing in some guy's apartment-turned-comedy-venue in Koreatown in front of some stranger that's filming a documentary. Any time I have a great set, I feel elated for ten minutes, and then I remind myself, "Leah, don't get too excited. This doesn't mean anything. Tonight, you're lucky, but you will fail again."
Because standup is a deck that's always stacked against you, and the best you can hope for is to become numb enough that it doesn't sting anymore.
"No, I'm gonna explain," Nicole assures me. "But for now, just act like I'm not here."
"Oh okay," I say. "Does that mean I should stop talking to you?"
"Well, it's better if you don't acknowledge the camera. I'm filming a documentary."
"You say that like there's some unspoken documentary rules you think I understand."
She pulls her face from behind the camera. "I just mean act natural."
"Oh okay," I say. "But I have this problem. When people tell me to do something, I can't stop myself from doing the opposite thing. It's a sickness, really."
She pulls the camera back in front of her face. "Then go ahead and talk to me."
"Ooh, I like that," I say. "Good use of reverse psychology."
Bouncy Ball # 50 - John
"Hey, My Love," John says. "Remember I used to have a Prius like you?"
"I just bought a Lexus. 8-cylinder engine."
"Yes," he says. "When I drive this car...oh man! I get out on the freeway, and the way the engine sounds, the way it feels to push that pedal all the way down to the floor. I just sit back and watch that speedometer go past 100, 110, 120, and-"
"And your dick grows four inches?"
"No, it's big enough," he says. "But driving that car, My Love. It's a beautiful thing. Only thing, 18 miles to the gallon in gas."
"Oh wow! Damn! Is it worth it?"
"Well, for young people like me it is," he says. "I'm 30. But people your age, maybe you want a Prius because-"
"Hold up! How old do you think I am?"
"I think," he says, "that you are one year older than me."
I narrow my eyes. "Okay," I say. "You're actually exactly right. You just avoided a real bad situation. I mean, how old do I look?"
"Oh, My Love, you look 25. Well, let's be honest. 26."
"Yeah, yeah, I look 30," I say. "It's fine."
He smiles. "You know, I've spent so much of my life living for my family and giving them everything. Everything I do has been for them. That car is the first thing I have that's just for me, you know? When I drive it, I think about who I was before, back before I had kids. When I drive, it feels like I don't have any worries. Like I'm a teenager, you know?"
"Ah," I say. "So it's a time machine."
Bouncy Ball # 51 - Jack
"So how've you been?" Jack says.
"Good." The bartender hands me two beers, and I hand one to Sosa. We're at X-Lanes, a bowling-alley-slash-arcade-slash-bar in Koreatown for another comic's birthday party. "What about you?"
"I've been pretty good," Jack says. He chats with us about standup for a few minutes, but then stops mid-sentence, an odd look on his face. "You know, I am literally standing back to back with the guy behind me right now."
"What?! Do you know him?"
"Nope," Jack says. "Complete stranger. I don't know how this happened, but our backs are pushed right up against each other."
Sosa and I are cracking up.
"It's like we're sewn together," Jack says. "It's like he's my backpack."
Bouncy Ball # 38 - Gary the cab driver
"I can't imagine having to deal with this everyday," Meredith says. "I could never live here. What's it like?"
I stare out the window of the cab, my head pressed up against the glass, watching the blurry Vegas lights zoom by and listening to a drunk Meredith chat up our cab driver.
I'm pretty messed up, too. We've just left the Flamingo, where I'd lost 50 bucks trying to play Texas Hold 'Em.
"It's not fun," the driver says, waiting to turn while of herd of women in tight dresses and heels cross in front of us. "The people around here. They're not good people. The men don't like to work, and they use the women."
Last time I was in Vegas was in April 2011 for my friend's bachelorette party. Over the course of one Saturday night, I lost my phone, got in a fight with a douchebag who grabbed my ass, and woke up sprawled out in the hallway of my hotel, a security guard tapping me on my shoulder, saying, "Miss. Miss."
Before that, I'd only been to Vegas one other time, years ago, with my friend Lindsay. During that trip, we met some dude at a karaoke bar, and he led us to the shady part of the city, where I bought a dime bag of pot on the street. We went to a hotel to smoke with a bunch of strangers, and Lindsay left me sitting on one of the hotel beds while she went outside with the guy we'd met at the bar.
Minutes afters she left, one of my new friends pulled out a gun from a dresser drawer. "Hahahahahaha," I said, "a gun!"
The guy holding the gun cracked up laughing and pointed it at my face as a hilarious joke.
For years, Lindsay maintained that I shouldn't tell that story because "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." But I don't think an ad slogan supersedes the fact that what happened in Vegas is she left me in a hotel with strangers who pulled a gun on me.
We pull up to our hotel, and I drop a bouncy ball in the cab console. "Here's the only thing you need to know about this place," the driver says. "Don't trust anybody. Just remember that, no matter what, okay? Don't trust anybody."
Bouncy Ball # 39 - Mr. Guns
"Oh come on," I say. "It's not like a Golden Corral. It's good food. They have crab legs and steak and shit like that."
We're sitting in a pub in the MGM Grand. I've been trying to talk Ryan into going to one of the Vegas casino buffets for the past hour, ever since we got off the New York New York roller coaster ride (another activity he had been against doing), during which he made this face:
"I don't want to spend 50 bucks on dinner," Ryan says.
"Well, maybe they have a cheaper one," I say. "I'll ask the bartender." I wave him down. "Excuse me. What buffet would you recommend around here?"
"None," he scoffs. "I don't go to buffets. I don't like hundreds of disgusting people breathing all over food that I eat. They're like dens of bacteria. Don't go to one."
"Well, okay." I order a drink, something called Jungle Juice, and Ryan and I watch as he mixes it in front of us, putting the concoction into two shakers, and then holding them out next to him like free weights, shaking them to show off his huge biceps.
"See?" Ryan says. "I'm glad you asked Mr. Guns over there."
"Ha! Mr Guns," I say. "You dare me to call him that?"
"Yeah, actually," Ryan says. "Call him Mr. Guns. But don't do it now."
"Because I don't want you to piss him off before he brings our drinks."
"Oh, come on," I say. "I'm very charming. He's not gonna get pissed."
Cut to ten minutes later...
"Hey, Mr. Guns," I say.
Mr. Guns stares at me.
"Can I call you Mr. Guns? Because that's what I call you in my head."
He shrugs, completely unaware that he's become a character in one of my stories.
Back when I was getting my Master's, I started writing about real people accidentally. I'd assigned myself the task of writing a novel about my grandmother's experience during the Armenian Genocide, an almost unbelievable story in which she and her younger brother were the only members of their family to survive the forced death march through Syria.
I wrote my grandmother into the story, of course. That made sense. But then I did something weird - I wrote about myself writing the story, and I introduced a character from real life, a guy I had a crush on - a floppy-haired red-head named Kevin Smith.
Kevin had no place in that story, but I made one for him anyway. I don't know exactly why I did it - I guess it was my way of keeping him around. I'm embarrassed of the character I play in the book: her dependency, her obsession, her insecurity. I'm embarrassed that she's me.
But when I read the book, even now, years later, I see the undeniable truth: it’s a good book. Despite how embarrassing it is for me, it’s really good. And I think if I had hesitated to tell the truth in it, if I hadn’t included the things I did, the personal things that make my cheeks burn when I remember them, it wouldn’t have been as good.
So after that, I just kept doing it - stealing people from the world and making them characters in fiction until I woke up one day and realized that maybe I'm not supposed to write fiction. Maybe I'm supposed to write reality.
Right now, my reality is still standing in front of me, stone-faced. "So can I get you something?" Mr. Guns asks.
"Well, uh, can I get one more drink?"
He walks off, and I look at Ryan. We both crack up laughing.
"Oh my God, I feel like such a creep!"
"You said it all serious," Ryan says. "Mr. Guns."
"I like how I thought I was gonna be charming."
"Eh, you could probably still fuck him," Ryan says.
"I'm not even attracted to him. You're the one who named him Mr. Guns, remember?"
When Mr. Guns brings my drink, I hand him a bouncy ball. "I'm sorry I called you Mr. Guns. I feel like an asshole."
"Oh, it's cool," he says. "Believe me, I've heard much worse."
"You know what bothers me?" he says. "The fact that you wrote about this guy." He just finished reading my book. He loved it to the point where he can't stop talking about it, but he's getting caught up over the fact that I included Kevin Smith.
"He doesn't deserve to be in this book," he says. "Why him?"
I shrug. "I don't know. There was just something about him."
Bouncy Ball # 40 - Sosa
"Right there," Sosa says. "You know what you're doing? You're putting too much weight on the foot you're dragging." He demonstrates a perfect glide. "You see? You barely want to touch the floor. It looks like you're dragging it, but really, all your weight is on your other foot.
"Yeah, okay," I say, trying not to show my frustration. I try again, but my foot gets caught.
"You're getting better," he says. "But you're still putting too much weight on that foot. Here, try it with music." He pulls out his phone, searches a minute, and then places it on my coffee table, pressing play. I hear the first few measures of the song "Billie Jean."
"Okay," Sosa says. "Like this." He demonstrates again, the perfect Moonwalk across my living room floor.
Again, I set my feet up like he told me. Again, I try to Moonwalk. Again, I get tripped up in five seconds. I sigh. "How long did this take you to learn?"
"Once I figured it out, like five minutes," he says.
I roll my eyes. "Of course it did."
"Try it again."
"You're still putting too much weight on the other foot," he says. "Okay, so this leg here," he hits my right thigh. "When you start, all your weight should be here, and-"
"You know, I get what you're saying," I say, interrupting. "It's not that I don't understand. It's that my body can't do it yet. Okay?"
He laughs. "Okay, just making sure. Try it again."
I try it again about a hundred times, getting no closer to being able to do it than when he first started to teach me. After about 10 more minutes, I toss my arms in the air. "I can't do this right now. I'm getting too frustrated."
"Okay," he says. "But you're gonna get it eventually."
I throw myself on my couch and groan. "Oh my God, I'm so tired."
"You should go to sleep."
"But I can't! I have to work out."
"Leah," he says. "You don't have to work out. You just drove back from Vegas. Just go to sleep. I promise, it will be okay." He pulls a chair up and sits down. "What you're doing is hard. You get that, right?"
"I know," I say. "I don't even want to do it anymore."
"Well, then why are you doing it?"
"Because I have to. Because I said I would."
"Well, if you're not having fun, and you're stressing yourself out this much, you don't have to do this. You know that, right?"
"I'm gonna finish," I say. "I'm just frustrated. It's like I do so many things all the time. And sometimes I just want to sit back and do what I want, not some stupid shit that I'm forcing myself to do."
"Write about that then," he says.
"Yeah," I say. "It's late. Thanks for talking to me. And for trying to teach me to Moonwalk."
"You'll get it," he says, standing. "Get some rest."
After he leaves, I do a second thing that I wouldn't normally do: I take his advice and go to bed.
Every day since, I try to Moonwalk. I still haven't done it, but I'm getting better.
Bouncy Ball # 41 - Wendi
"I'm really excited for the end of my set," Wendi says, sucking on the butt of her cigarette. "I have something crazy planned."
"Yeah, well, I don't know if it's funny. I thought of it earlier, and I just kept cracking up. I'm so excited."
Wendi and I are standing outside the Downtown Independent waiting for Sleepaway Camp to start. I just walked up, fresh from an open mic. Normally, I'd be at another mic, but tonight, I came here specifically to see Wendi - she's one of the best comics around, and the last few times I tried see her, I showed up late and missed her set.
"I really like your shirt," I say. It looks more like a wrap than a shirt - a long sexy opening v-shape meets down at her waist, where it's secured with a brown belt.
"Oh, thanks," she says. "This is actually for that bit. So excited."
This is Wendi before any set - focused on what she's going to say, almost frantic, obsessing about the new stuff she plans to try.
She's on second to last. I'm enjoying the show, sitting there eating popcorn, drinking a Cherry Coke. About four comics in, when there's only kernels left floating in the bottom of my bag, I set it on the floor and wrap myself in my coat. It's so cozy.
I wake up during the next comic.
Oh awesome. I just fell asleep watching a comedy show.
Finally, the host starts Wendi's intro. She has a good set, which doesn't surprise me. When she gets the light, she pulls the mic stand in front of her, slides the mic in the slot. "Okay, I never do this," she says, "but I want to do an impression for you guys. I came up with it when I was 14."
She steps out from behind the microphone. "This is an impression of me as a stripper."
The crowd yells, "Wooooooo!"
Wendi starts writhing back and forth. She reaches for her belt buckle, slides it off while tossing out small weird phrases like, "Show me your weenis." She drops the belt to the side, grabs both sides of the wrap she's wearing for a shirt, and rips it off.
"Give me your money!" she screams.
The crowd roars.
She's naked from the waist up, save for two chunks of blond wig hair, which she's affixed over each nipple. She has writing on her chest and stomach. It takes me a second to focus on what it says - two words in all caps:
Bouncy Ball # 42 - Skid Row
Tonight, I bring pizza to the people on Skid Row in downtown. Sosa won't let me go alone, so the two of us walk through the alley until we find some people. I give an entire pizza to one man, sitting by himself on the sidewalk, rocking. He smiles slightly, but doesn't say anything.
One block over, Sosa opens a pizza box and walks down the sidewalk, dispersing it to the men huddled next to buildings. "Hey Bro, would you like some pizza?" he says. "Take two."
As we head back to my car, he turns to me. "You know, that's the first time I saw homeless Mexicans."
Bouncy Ball # 43 - Arcade Guy
Thursday night, the Universe calls me to go to the arcade.
When I was young, going to the arcade was one of the many Saturday activities my dad had planned when he had my brother and I for the weekends. We'd camp out at the Skee-ball machine because that's where you get the most tickets, and my dad would egg me on while I tried to beat his high score.
I play a few games. I suck. On my way out, I walk up to a guy holding a toy gun. "You want this bouncy ball?"
Bouncy Ball # 44 - Laura
I check the clock again. It's only been five minutes. Man. This woman has a way of explaining things that makes time stop.
I guess that makes sense, seeing as how I'm sitting in the back room of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, an actual store on the south side of Sunset Boulevard that sells products like Robot Milk, Viking Odorant, and Barbarian Repellant.
The store's actually affiliated with a volunteer program called 826LA, which provides free tutoring, workshops, and in-school services for the kids in our community. I'm here at a volunteer orientation on a Friday afternoon, and I'm somehow managing to sit still while the trainer goes through boring details.
It's really not that bad - I'm just impatient, a trait that I no doubt inherited from my mom, who to this day can't wait at a stop sign for more than 20 seconds without loudly huffing, "Well by golly, I'm never getting out of here!" Due to my recent activity, I don't sit still well these days, always forging ahead in my mind to an hour, a day, a week in the future. I'm rarely present in the moment I'm living in.
Laura, our trainer, passes around a few examples of some of the projects 826LA students have made in the past. "Every year," she explains, "we pair with a different high school in the area, and we produce a book like this." She pulls out a professional-looking printed book made by the students at Boyle Heights High, titled "La Vida Diferente".
When I have the book in my hands, I scan it, stopping randomly on one of the entries, a short interview with a Mexican street vendor from the area. The entire interview is less than 10 questions, one of them, "How heavy is your cart?"
I don't know if I'd ever even think to ask that. It's so simple.
Another question asks the street vendor about his motivation. "I do this for my family," he says. "My family is my hope."
I close the book and pass it to my right while I listen to Laura use words, words, words, words, words, so many words to say such small things.
Later, when I give Laura a bouncy ball, she asks why. Up to this point, she's the only person who asked.
It occurs to me what I'm doing wrong with this bouncy ball project - I'm not letting the episodes speak for themselves. I'm not letting you see the simplicity of the impressions people can make in such a short time.
I've forgotten that the best way to tell someone's story is to let it be what it is, to become transparent and let it move through you. I should record it how it happened, the way a journalist would, instead of making it mean something, the way a novelist would. I should let it run through me without mucking it up with my own values, my insecurities, my own passions.
I should let it be more like a picture, a glimpse. It shouldn't tell you what to feel. The thing itself should tell you all you need to know.
Like this does:
About the Bouncy Ball Project
I have in my possession 190 bouncy balls. I'm on a quest to give all these bouncy balls stories.