“Oh God.” I sigh. “8 years.”
“Oh wow,” he says. “I mean, you seem like you’ve been doing it for awhile. You always make me laugh.”
“Well thanks.” I don’t take the compliment too seriously. After all, he’s a newbie comic at my house for The Workout Room, a comedy show that my friends and I produce. Though he seems genuine, this musician-turned-comedian might just be trying to network. During the course of the last five minutes, he’d slowly started grilling me on the standup comedy scene in L.A.
“How often do you get onstage? Do you get up every night?”
I shrug. “I used to. But lately, I’ve had to cut it back because I started working on this other project, and it’s sort of a time suck. I’m almost done, though, and then I’ll go back to hitting up mics every night.”
“What’s the project?”
I laugh. “Oh man, I don’t even know if I could explain it. It’s kind of weird.”
“Aw, really? You’re not gonna tell me?”
“It’s hard to explain. And it sounds crazy.”
“Well now I’m really interested.”
I pause, look into his eyes. He seems genuine. “Well, when I started back in January, I was going to do a thing everyday that I normally wouldn’t do, right? And when I did that thing, I’d give someone a bouncy ball and write about it.”
He furrows his brow. “What?”
“At least that’s what it started as. But then it turned into something else.”
“Wait, you give people bouncy balls? But why?”
“Because I believe they’re magic.” I laugh. “I don’t even know if I could explain that. I give people bouncy balls, and then I write about our interaction.”
“So you just write about giving people bouncy balls?”
“Uh, well. Kind of. It’s more like I’m trading a bouncy ball for a story. And I gave myself six months to find stories for 190 bouncy balls.”
He shakes his head. “Bouncy balls? That’s, uh, I don’t understand why.”
I narrow my eyes. “I told you that at the beginning of this conversation. Remember? I said I had a project, and it was hard to explain, and you said you really wanted to hear about it.”
He laughs. He doesn’t seem to notice I want to punch him right now. “You’re right. I guess I just don’t get it.”
“Yeah, I guess not.” I don’t argue with him anymore because there’s no point. I should’ve just told him I’m writing a book and left it at that.
On one hand, he has a point. If I can’t explain what this project is about to strangers, then maybe it’s a ball of chaos that didn’t really need to exist in the first place. I actually consider giving him a bouncy ball for pointing out how arbitrary and seemingly pointless this whole thing has become.
But I don’t give him a bouncy ball because I’ve learned the difference between the people who accept them with joy, and the people who look at them as a dumb toy, as ridiculous, as a burden to bear.
That’s why I didn’t bother to explain what I mean when I say bouncy balls are magic. That’s why I didn’t bother to tell him that they find me in dark places to brighten my path, that I can make them appear for other people like me, that they connect me to the world, and they create stories by simply existing in a place and getting picked up by the type of people I like best, the type of people who pick up bouncy balls.
That’s why I didn’t tell him that I asked my friends to find their own bouncy ball stories. I didn’t tell him how the bouncy ball itself isn’t important, but the people holding it make it interesting. I didn’t tell him that when I asked my friends for stories, the bouncy balls became like a talking stick, and when they held them, it was their turn to share stories of the things they were afraid of, the things that haunted them, the things they faced down, their love and love lost and fears and insecurities.
I didn’t tell him any of this because I knew he wouldn’t get it. Some people just don’t.
Bouncy Ball # 152 – “Dixie’s Lapdance” – Written by LA Comedian Katie Merriam
"Are you drunk?"
“No,” I answer the Russian-accented voice on my phone. We’re standing outside of Cheetah's, a strip club in Los Angeles. Not a real strip club - the girls never take off their bras and underwear - they just dance on poles. The club should be open. Despite the neon sign blaring that very fact, the door’s locked. My friend, Jason, who came with me, wants to leave. I decide to call.
In a matter of seconds there's a loud CLICK, and the door beneath the open sign swings out to reveal a mountain of a man in all black. He regards us with a cross-eyed expression before stepping out of the way so we can sheepishly walk past him. It's only at that moment that I realize how depressing and desperate it must look to call a strip club and complain that we can't get inside.
The room is doused in red fabrics and lights. We sit down at the bar where a woman stands staring at us. Her hair looks like it's been intimate with peroxide for decades. Her makeup says she cares what people think - her expression says everyone can fuck off. She takes our drink orders. A long mirrored stage stands empty against the echoing beats from the DJ. A pole waits silently at the tip of it, like a platform "Prince Albert".
I get up to pee. The room is covered in curtains, making it hard to tell which ones lead to actual doors or hallways. I pull back curtain number one and am immediately confronted by the smell of musky gym socks and trucker jizz. Or maybe that's just Axe body spray. The small room has a red pleather couch along all three walls and a coffee table in the middle. I feel like someone’s about to grab my shoulder and tell me I shouldn’t be in here.
When I come out, women have manifested from somewhere to walk around the room in bras and panties.
A woman with exceptionally large chest baggage makes her way to the stage. My compadre Jason and I watch her dance and put money down. It's times like these that I feel the need to support my fellow females - as if all the lascivious men are there to degrade her, but I'm there to appreciate who she is as a person. Like I’m going to change her life by slipping money in her threadbare thong. I'm going to cure misogyny by participating in it. She slinks offstage as more patrons begin to flow into the club, and it's clear that the clientele ranges from greasy to extra greasy.
The woman with large breasts comes up behind us.
"Hi, I'm Dixie - how are you guys tonight?" (By ‘guys’ I think she meant ‘marks.’)
We both smile a little too big and say we're great. Jason compliments her dancing a little too vigorously.
She ignores it. "Well I also do private lap dances if you want. Twenty dollars a song, but if you want me to do you both at the same time, it's forty dollars a song.”
$40 for 4 minutes or $40 for 2 minutes. Seems to add up. Jason and I look at each other. I tell her we'll think about it, and she leaves. She smells a little too much like that red pleather couch.
We watch the girls work the room. Some are timid, but some, like Dixie, are on the clock, doing their job. It's not something I could ever do. Not as a moral issue - I just don't like people looking at me.
The second time Dixie comes around, we decide to get lap dances. She takes us straight to curtained room. The musk room. The room of too many body smells. The room that never gets hosed down. You get it. We go in and sit down like kids getting on a sticky roller coaster.
"Who wants to go first?"
I point to Jason.
Dixie begins. She leans over him, hands placed on either side of his head on the couch behind him, rubbing her chest in his face. He blushes. His hands are firmly placed by the sides of his legs - he's done this before. She turns around and slams her ass down on his lap, once, twice, three times. I guess that's sexy if you have an appendage there that responds to hard friction? SLAM, RUB, SLAM, RUB, SLAM. She bends over in front of him and shakes - flesh wiggling for viewing pleasure. She turns around and gives him another tit facial. He giggles. The song is over quickly, and she moves to me.
"You're a girl, so you can touch." She grabs my hands and holds them against her bra, squeezing her chest, and I laugh from embarrassment. I want my hands back. Dixie seems to enjoy my discomfort, a perk of the job. The movements are more languid than slamming as her breasts slide against my face. The song is finally over, and I wonder if she's showered recently.
We dig for our money and hand it to her. She thanks us and walks briskly out of the room, leaving us alone. For some reason this is the moment when I am most terrified of this spunky space. Maybe this is when we get whacked. As in dead.
I leave a bouncy ball on the table. It's not the first time they've seen a ball, or a rubber, but maybe the first rubber ball. The Bouncy Ball Project sends its regards.
I just got a smelly lap dance, and it was strange, and it made me feel uncomfortable. Not for myself, but for the person who does this for money. My beliefs on feminism should allow for women to work their sexuality for profit if they want. I don't like slut shaming. I hate when people try to minimize a woman because she has had lots of sex, or shows her body often. But there's something extremely sleazy about this process that I don't even want to really acknowledge. It feels like judgment to acknowledge it, and I don’t want to judge anyone's decisions. What do I know about why or how they made them? Then again, maybe this is just another byproduct of a misogynistic society. But how can you get mad at a cow for selling its milk if people are willing to buy it? I don't pretend to know anything.
Besides, the ball had Leah’s name on it.
“So how’s the blog coming?” Becky asks. We’re at a sex storytelling show at Busby’s East on Wilshire, chatting during the intermission.
“Ugh. I hate it.”
She laughs. “Yeah, you seem tired.”
I try to wrap my sweater tighter around me to protect me from the cold air pouring on us from the air vent. “I haven’t even really been doing it,” I say. “I just…I just couldn’t anymore.”
“Well I think that’s what makes it interesting. When you write about that.”
I smile. “Thanks. But honestly, I feel like it’s made me a worse person. Like over the last six months, I’ve become shittier than when I started.”
“Well maybe it didn’t make me a worse person. Maybe it just made me more aware of the things that are wrong with me.”
“What do you think is wrong with you?”
“Well, I’m insecure. There’s that.”
“But that comes from somewhere,” Becky says. “You didn’t just decide to be that.”
“I know.” Pause. “Also, I can’t just let things be how they are.”
“You’re not the only one who has that problem.”
“Yeah, but I feel like I take it further than most people. It’s like I have good intentions, and so I act on them, but the more I act, the worse things get. I can’t just leave things alone. I make things worse.
“I get that,” Becky says. And we turn to the stage while Dixie, the host of the show, introduces the next act.
Bouncy Ball # 153 – Written by LA Comedian Becky Klueger
“You are actually not a terrible person. You are a well-intending person deserving of love and respect.”
That’s something I started telling myself recently because I don’t believe it. I have never believed anything close to that.
I’ve never hit anyone who didn’t hit me first. I’ve never murdered or raped anyone. I call people back. I have tons of friends who love me and show up for me when I need them. People have told me they can’t imagine their lives without me. Even most other stand-up comedians seem to like me, and they are a judgmental people. But at my core, I think I’m a piece of shit, and it doesn’t take much for me to start thinking I should kill myself.
I’ve heard before that “recovery is an inside job,” but I never really believed it. I thought if I could just get a good enough girlfriend, get successful enough, get enough stuff, a sweet enough apartment…THEN I’ll feel like I’m enough. But now I have a law degree, I get laid plenty, I have too much stuff, I get tons of validation, and I still hate myself.
It must be an inside job. FUCK!
My therapist has been trying to get me to tell myself positive affirmations for a while. When I do it, there’s a voice in my head that says, “This is so gay,” which is weird because I think being gay is awesome and my favorite thing about myself besides my TV.
A few weeks ago, I got really sick and was bed-ridden. All that time alone made it so that I could hear my thought patterns more without the ability to go out and distract myself. I noticed how down I was on myself for being sick. I felt like it was my fault.
Why? No fucking reason, I dunno, everything bad just must be my fault.
After 5 days of being sick, I remembered how my therapist told me about positive affirmations, how I should write them myself because if they’re directly related to my specific negative messages, they’ll be more effective. So I told myself, “It’s ok to not do anything when you’re sick,” and then I started crying. Hard. I started crying again when I later told my therapist about it. She guessed that I cried because, “that was a loving and nurturing thing to say to yourself, and you don’t have much experience with that.”
I expressed to her that I’m willing to do more positive affirmations. She asked me to try to come up with some more, but I just couldn’t do it that day. I felt too vulnerable. I felt like I would just fall apart if I said, “I’m not a bad person.” It’s like the only way I’ve ever known to keep myself together is with self-loathing.
Intellectually, I know I’m not a bad person. In therapy and reading Trapped in the Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in their Struggle for Self, I’ve learned that I internalized my mother’s voice. We all self-parent in some way, and my self-parent is a “negative introject.” When I was a kid, to love myself was to abandon my mother and lose what little parental love I got. Today, to love myself is to abandon my inner negative introject. That’s why it’s so hard for me to say, “I’m not a bad person,” even with (or maybe especially with) my therapist.
But it’s gotten too miserable to be miserable. There’s a saying: “When the pain of staying the same is greater than the fear of changing, we will surely grow.” I think I’m there, and it’s terrifying.
I think of myself as a pretty honest person, but the truth is that I’m not a very authentic person. No one really sees this inner struggle because I’m constantly hiding it by trying to be funny and cool.
Cool is the most appealing, yet the most false of all the false gods. Everyone loves something cool. Think of every Quentin Tarantino movie - I want to be all those characters. But I can never get cool enough to like myself because I’m getting validation for a false bravado. Still, I’d rather be known for saying things like, “Say ‘what’ again! I dare you! I double dare you, Motherfucker! Say ‘what’ one more goddamn time!” instead of, “Your #1 job today is to love and take care of yourself.” But I guess I’d also rather be known for being authentic and loving than pretending to be a cool black guy from a 90s movie.
So here’s the new thing I’m doing for the Bouncy Ball Project: I’m going to rerecord over my negative tapes with positive affirmations. For the first time in my life, I’m really going to try to love myself.
So far, I’ve given away 153 bouncy balls of the 190 that I said I’d give away.
Then again, technically, I’ve left some bouncy balls that I haven’t recorded for whatever reason. I left a bouncy ball at the horse race in Santa Anita when I went with James back in February and picked the winning horse three out of four times.
I left a bouncy ball by the basketball shooting game when I went by myself to the arcade and played until I beat Sosa’s high score of 55.
I gave a bouncy ball to a woman who worked at my school, who retired after 38 years. “I’ll keep it forever,” she’d said.
I left a bouncy ball in a box for one of my co-workers when I helped her pack up her stuff on her last day. I wanted to give her magic to take with her while she left to pursue her real career, something I hope to do one day.
I gave a bouncy ball to my friend Simon before a huge audition, and he got a callback.
But I never sent my dad the bouncy ball I said I would send him. I threw the letter in my recycling bin and returned the ball to my tub full of balls, so I’ll have to subtract one from my total.
Still, I’ll give myself a bouncy ball for completing this:
Bouncy Ball # 161 – Written by LA Comedian Brent Schmidt
Since Ball #69, the orange bouncy ball has rested on the small desk where I spend most of my time. I've been constantly aware of its presence. How could I not? It is essentially a creamy orange eye, everyday attempting to stare into me. I knew of its need for a story, but nothing seemed quite good enough. The orange bouncy ball traveled with me on a couple of journeys, attempts at stories, but inevitably it ended up back at its home between my laptop and stacks of variously colored Post-It notes.
My failed journey to Mt. Wilson with Leah for Ball #27 was right around the time I started work on a large project. I've kept up with her journey and its impacts on her as I trudged through my own. Every time I sat at my desk to think, the orange bouncy ball would catch my eye and elicit a brief panic about my so far shirked responsibility. Then it would remind me of Leah and what the project means.
I finished an early version of my project, the first time in my life I had ever started something and actually seen it through to the end. The orange bouncy ball had been with me the whole time. As my bouncy ball deadline loomed, and I faced another failed story, I had a realization: the orange bouncy ball should spend the rest of its days at my desk. There it is. An answer. An end.
But that still didn't feel right. I wasn't given the ball to find a way to pat myself on the back and keep it. It was meant to go to someone. I decided to reread some of Leah's stories, hoping to find inspiration as to what I should do with this fucking orange ball, and a common theme in the project made the real recipient of my ball apparent.
Anyone that has really jumped headlong into a project, especially something creative, knows that you go through cycles of arbitrary insanity. Detachments and disillusions from your project and your life repeatedly throw you into strange, dark corners of your mind. I would find myself stuck for days, chasing my own thoughts in circles like a dog chasing its tail. Roughly midway through my project, after a couple of consecutive nights of potent song lyrics mixed with dredged up memories causing me to publicly cry into my laptop, I ran into a friend who I will refer to as Caitlyn. I told her what I was working on, and she offered to join me at my regular coffee shop, as she was also working on a project. I happily accepted the offer.
I try not to focus on the idea of cool, but being around Caitlyn has always made me acutely aware of what a square I am. She challenges me and has been unfortunately good at figuring me out, although not as entirely as she thinks.
Over the ensuing couple of months, we spent countless hours in our neighborhood coffee shop, always in the back room and, on the lucky nights, wedged around the small table under the tree house (I write in fantastical places). My productivity took a hit, but that was of little consequence to me. Sure, writing took a bit more time, but I was no longer alone in the battles against my own mind.
We would sift through problems and solutions for our projects, our lives, and the world until the baristas kicked us out as they closed. Then we would walk to her house to sit on the porch and continue our search for answers to whatever our pondering and frustration deemed worthy questions. Equally as important as our endless dialogue was something that I rarely share with someone: comfortable silence. Minutes would pass without a word being uttered, quiet crackles of cigarette drags the only breaks in the eerie quiet of pre-dawn Hollywood. Physically next to each other, we would be on separate worlds, but I was comforted by the notion that, no matter where I went in my mind, I could speak up and not be alone. Eventually a "What are you thinking about?" from one of us would break the silence to bring the other back to the relaxed discussion of absurdities.
Caitlyn helped me understand that your accomplishments are yours, but the people with whom you share the time and experiences leading to your accomplishments are just as important. The people that are willing to deal with your specific breed of insanity and help you search for answers to impossible questions are a greater treasure than the solutions you may find together.
I don't know if I would have finished my project without Caitlyn. I don't know if we will ever again spend that much time together. I do know that I can't thank her enough for the time she has spent with me.
I also know that she is the only person the orange bouncy ball was ever meant for.
Bouncy Balls # 162-176 – The People Who Get It
The first person I encounter as The Strider is my neighbor, Rob. He’s in his front yard messing with his gate when he sees me walk to my car Saturday afternoon.
“Oh hey, Leah,” he says, and then he stands with his head cocked, confused.
“It’d be weirder if I explained,” I say.
He laughs. “Hey, you dress up like a luchador, I work on my motorcycle at midnight. Everyone has their thing.”
I smile while I get into my car. I like Rob.
I pick up Brent, who I’d coerced into joining me on this, one of my final adventures. He’d offered to come with me on a quest, and I’d said, “Actually, I’ll be going to the beach to give away the rest of these bouncy balls if you’d like to join. Also, I’ll be dressed like a superhero.”
So here we are at the Santa Monica pier, walking the sidewalk toward Venice Beach.
“I don’t know how to give these to people,” I say, carrying a bucket full of much more than the 30 bouncy balls I have yet to give away. I’d say I have close to 100 in here, but we’ve already made it past the Ferris Wheel I’d ridden with Sosa months ago, and I’ve only given away two. “You got any ideas?”
Brent shrugs. “Nope.”
“Well I guess I just have to approach people.”
I walk over to a woman and her daughter sitting on a bench. “Hi. Can I give you a bouncy ball? I believe they’re good luck.”
The woman looks me up and down. “No,” she says in a thick accented voice. “We don’t want that.”
I shrug. “Okay.” And Brent and I continue to walk toward Venice.
“I think they don’t trust me,” I tell him. “They probably thought I wanted money.”
It’s then that I remember that not everyone in the world enjoys receiving a bouncy ball from a 32-year-old in a superhero costume. I realize that if I’m going to give these away here, I’ll have to reserve them for the people who initiate a conversation with me.
And we do find those people along our path from the beaches of Santa Monica to Venice.
There’s a man standing by a wall strapping on a sequined USA helmet in preparation to ride his sequined USA bike. He accepts a bouncy ball on the condition that Brent and I answer a question.
He looks into my eyes. “What is two times two?”
I can’t stop staring at his chin, where there is a tiny circular tuft of gray hair sticking out of a small indentation. “Four.”
“It depends on what number you assign to two,” Brent says.
“Ah, yes!” The guy’s eyes light up while he explains some weird number theory. I don’t know what he’s talking about, but it involves aliens. After his explanation, he opens his palm, and I place a bouncy ball in it.
There are others, too.
There’s the homeless man who asked me if I was Batman. “No,” I say. “I’m The Strider.”
“Do you have any change, Batman?”
“I have fifty cents. And I also have this magic bouncy ball I’d like to give you.”
As we walk off, we hear him yelling, “I lost my ball! Hey Batman, I lost my ball!” Looks like I’ve provided him with a seemingly crazy mantra that’s actually not crazy at all.
There’s the three Australian surfers who tell me they like my outfit, and when I give them each a bouncy ball, one of them says, “See, compliments pay off.”
There’s the guy dressed up like a leprechaun advertising some weed store, who’s yelling something at me from across the boardwalk, and when I walk over to him, my hand outstretched with a bouncy ball in it, he cowers away and apologizes.
“That guy was afraid of me,” I say to Brent, and we walk on.
There’s the guy in the Henna tattoo booth. When I explain to him that I have magic bouncy balls, he trades me one of them for a sample tattoo, a bouncy ball emblem he draws on my right ring finger. “Every superhero needs a symbol,” he says.
“It’s a bouncy ball. It’s magic,” I say.
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes it is.”
He shrugs. “Okay.” And then we part ways.
There’s a little girl in a lamb costume. Her dad chases me down because she wants to see my mask. I give her a bouncy ball. “I like your mask,” I say.
And so on and so on…
One trip down to Venice Beach and back, and I’ve given away at least 15 of these to the people who get it. I’ve lost track of the exact count.
Still, the whole day is anti-climactic, just as I’d predicted it would be. Because the thing is, I’m not afraid of walking around in public wearing a superhero costume. It’s just not a big deal to me. That’s not what I mean when I say I’m afraid of what people think of me.
And besides, even if I were afraid, I’d still do it.
See, I’m just now realizing that this entire bouncy ball project has been misguided. At the start, I made it sound like I’d go on adventures and learn something about myself, that I’d face down the things about my life that needed changing.
But that’s never been my problem. For one thing, bouncy ball or not, every single day, something interesting happens to me. Every day, I do something I wouldn’t normally do because that’s the type of person I am, and that’s really the type of person I’ve always been.
My problem is not that I don’t do things out of fear. I always do things, especially when I’m afraid of them.
My problem is that I can’t let things be. My problems has always been that I try to manipulate the world around me by acting, I try to change things that I have no control over, and I put so much pressure on myself to do this, I lose sight of the reason why. I over-do it in every direction until I make the things I love become my burden rather than my joy.
I did this to stand-up – I put so much pressure on myself to do well at auditions, at The Comedy Store, but in doing that, I forgot why I love stand-up. I forgot that it has nothing to do with success, and everything to do with what it feels like to make people laugh.
I did this with my relationship – for so long, I’d wanted the chance to show that I would be a good girlfriend, and when I was given the chance, I spent too much time trying to make things perfect. I spent too much time trying to create a fantasy of what I believed meant happiness, and I forgot to just enjoy the moments of it. I forgot to be grateful for them when they happened, and now I just have fading memories of wispy moments I wish I’d enjoyed more.
And I did this to bouncy balls. Before this year, they brought me luck, they brought me joy, and time and time again, they appeared in my life enough to make me believe in magic. And I’ve almost ruined that magic. Today, they have become such a burden on me that I’m walking down Venice Beach dressed like a superhero, desperately trying to give them away.
So the reason I’m dressed as The Strider is probably not what you’re thinking. I never had any intention to feed the homeless dressed like this – I feel it would be arrogant. I’ll feed the homeless when I can, dressed in my regular clothes.
I never had any intention of fighting crime. I never had any intention of rescuing strangers.
I’m wearing this costume today because as I see it, there’s only one person I actually can rescue, that needs a hero to relieve her burden.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and I’m about to pick Sosa up to drive him to the airport. I know that it’s probably torturous to try and be friends with your ex-boyfriend, especially so soon after it ends. I know it’s probably a bad idea, but the thing is, I don’t think of him as my ex-boyfriend. I’ve tried, but my mind just doesn’t fit him into that category.
He texts me, asking me to grab his iPod from the console of his car.
When I open the cover and look in, I see an assortment of things: a few pictures of his cousin, some tools I don’t understand, his iPod…
And five bouncy balls that I’d given him over the course of the past six months.
Some people, they just get it.
“So as a person who reads my blog,” I say to Brent, etching a note out on the back of a CVS receipt, “do you think I’m cheating?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know.”
I’m leaving the bucket of bouncy balls on the wall dividing the Boardwalk from the beach. I place the note inside: FREE MAGIC BOUNCY BALLS. PLEASE TAKE ONE.
“But am I a failure?”
“I don’t think so,” he says.
This is what I mean when I say I’m afraid of what people think of me – I’m afraid people will think I failed. I’m afraid they’ll think I’m a quitter. I’m afraid they’ll think I don’t work hard enough, that I don’t deserve the things I get. I’m afraid the people who’ve read this blog will think I tricked them.
I’m afraid, but I leave the bucket full of bouncy balls alone on the wall anyway. I don’t know how many are in there, but I know it’s well beyond the number I needed to reach 190.
Besides, I still have two left, and those are the two quests I’ve been dreading the most.
“Let’s go in,” I say to Brent, and as we head toward the water, I feel nothing but a peaceful sense of relief.