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.
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.