"Oh my God, we're stopping. Of course we're stopping at the top. Of course."
I peek over the edge of our gondola at the people passing below, and then pull my head back, rigid and upright with fear.
Sosa laughs. "Wow, you're freaked out right now."
"I'm fine if we're moving," I say. "You know, I used to be in the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program - I told you that, right?"
"One time I took my little sister, Faithann - that was her name, Faithann Destiny - on one of these Ferris Wheels. And she was like 11 years old. And she fa-reaked out! She just screamed the entire time. I mean, she screamed so loud, they actually stopped the ride to let us off!"
"Oh my God," Sosa says.
"Right? And the thing was, I was actually really scared, too. But I had to pretend I wasn't because I was the adult, you know? So I had to sit there like, 'Everything's totally fine, Girl. We're gonna be okay.' But in my head, I'm like, 'Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God we're gonna die.'"
I feel our gondola lurch, tilting back with our weight as we move again. "It's weird. I just pretended I wasn't afraid because I had to for her."
Bouncy Ball # 148 - Written by Oklahoma Comedian Steve Reynolds, AKA "Wampus"
So Leah Kayajanian, Bouncy Ball Project creator, gets her friends to give out HER bouncy balls and then write about THEIR experience? That's like Herman Melville saying, "You know, I wrote a hundred chapters of this book about a whale. Why I don't I let 15 asshole friends add a chapter each to it?" Or someone saying "My goal is to lose 100 pounds. I lost 25. Now I'm gonna get 15 suckers to lose 5 pounds each. Same thing."
That was my initial reaction. Now I see she's writing more emotionally honest and interesting things than before, and it's merely briefly interrupted by someone else. Fine.
I got a green bouncy ball in the mail was green on St. Patrick's Day. How cool is that? It says CHINA on it, and it came from a giant box shipped from a factory in a mid-sized industrial boom Chinese city specializing in novelty items that its workers regard with detached disdain for the American maniacs on the other side of the world playing with these things. Probably. I’m guessing.
Getting it, I tried to figure out who to give this ball to. I tried to understand the spirit of this project. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and interact meaningfully with someone and bridge our differences. But my way is not, cannot be, giving a ball with Leah's name on the side to someone to enhance a relationship or to reach out to someone with a sweet and good gesture. I gave it to my 4 year-old son instead.
I know it's hip now to whine about your young children and say they're assholes and a burden. I can't. My son is 4 and right now is so amazingly sweet it hurts to know the rest of the world isn't. Besides, he lost his last bouncy ball a while ago (don't be sad - I doubt he even remembers it). Every kid needs a bouncy ball.
I tell him that I have a surprise for him. "Oh what, Daddy? What do you have for me?" That's verbatim. It's fuckdiculous how he speaks.
"Close your eyes and hold out your hands."
He shuts them, sort of. Kind of squeezes them shut and blinks a lot; he still hasn't mastered shutting his eyes. I put the bouncy ball in his hands.
"A ball!" He's excited. Everything at this time in his life is exciting. I could've put a clump of lint from the dryer trap in his hand, and he'd dig it, but it's a ball.
"It's a BOUNCY ball," I say. He starts bouncing it in the kitchen. And he's four and uncoordinated, and the ball's running under the cabinets. And now I immediately fear he'll have to go through the Pains of Being Bad at a Sport like I did.
In fifth grade, I was on a basketball team that had a coach who promised everyone would play two of four quarters every game. Guess what happened during our last game of the season? He played me ONE quarter. The fourth quarter came, and he called out the lineup. My name wasn't on it. It was pure humiliation. I asked him to put me in, and he flat out said no. My teammates knew it was going on. One friend talked to the coach about it, but no.
I was the worst player on the team for sure, but I wasn't like someone who brought the team down bad. In fact, I can still remember the quarter I played was the best for us score-wise. But this asshole dad broke a promise he made to 10 year-olds because he thought it was going to make a team win. I had to sit on a sideline and watch a game with everyone looking at me KNOWING I was so bad it was worth losing your fucking integrity about it.
We lost anyway. After, I had to go through the handshakes and listen to the final speech by this guy. I walked silently to our car and got in with my mom and dad. I sobbed. Hysterically. It was such a soul-killer. I was not good enough. I was different than other kids. My parents tried to say something at first but gave up. (A few years ago, my mom asked me "Do you remember when you cried and cried after a basketball game?" Oh you mean the day my childhood died? Yeah, sure do.) The coach called my parents that night to apologize and explain, but he didn't apologize to me.
Now I worry about the moment my son will realize that life and his innate predisposition in its hierarchy can flat out suck. Will it come from a game? A girl? A boy? A teacher having a bad day? The next 9/11? Finding out about Santa? That's the stress of parenthood. When something as sweet and innocent as a bouncy ball can lead you onto a path of wondering what and when A Cold Hard Fact will hurt your child.
But I know there is some karmic balance in this world. It's sometimes imprecise. Imagine a goddess called Zoso, The Hurler of Karma. She hurls Karma Bolts from the sky, like drone strikes that kill groups of craven terrorists who kill people in malls, but sometimes they take out Grandma's 90th Birthday Party. Her bolts of "Hey, You Let Someone In Your Lane Efficiently, You Get Extra Smiles Today" hit the mark more often than not. I just hope my son can avoid dwelling on Cold Hard Facts and think about The Game of Good Stuff instead - the time you concentrated on a drawing and it was better-looking than ever before. The joy in a new hide-and-seek spot. Shit like that.
I work at an elementary school, and the kids are out for summer break. It's pretty quiet around here, so most of the time I just look for random tasks to do to keep myself busy. Today, I'm cleaning out my desk drawers. Tomorrow, I'll probably file something or re-stock the supply closet. The sky's the limit.
In my top desk drawer, nestled way in the back beneath a ball of rubber bands, I find what appears to be a silver coin, but when I pick it up, I see it's plastic. On one side, it has this famous quote: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
I've always had trouble with the first part - accepting the things I cannot change.
I flip the coin and see the letters "CoDA." I Google the acronym - it's for Co-Dependents Anonymous, group that the website describes as a "fellowship of men and women whose common purpose is to develop healthy relationships."
As I peruse the website, I notice a list of "Patterns and Characteristics of Codependence." I brace myself. I just have a feeling that everything will absolutely apply to me, and I'll start having to attend these meetings. It's like when you have medical symptoms and go to Web MD and decide the hard lump on your elbow is definitely elbow cancer.
But as I read through, there are some things I identify with, but many things that don't describe me at all. There are some things I recognize as old patterns I used to follow that I have since identified, modified, changed.
I keep the coin in my purse now, amidst the colorful bouncy balls. Partly, I keep it to remind myself to accept the things I cannot change, like its presence in my purse will soak into my skin through osmosis.
Mostly, I keep it because I don't know who it belonged to, but I think this plastic chip connects me to the person who received it. I think of the relief that anonymous person felt walking into a meeting where there are other people who struggle with this, other people who thought there was something wrong with them before they knew they weren't alone, other people looking for connections just like you and me.
Bouncy Ball # 149 - Written by Producer, Filmmaker, and All-Around Good Guy, John Veron
When I was a kid, I wanted to feel the Holy Spirit so bad. I grew up in a feverishly Catholic family, and Catechism classes, Bible Camp, and youth group were all regular parts of day-to-day life. Maybe some people in that environment can sneer their way through it until they’re not being forced to go anymore, but not me. Everyone looked so damn happy was the thing. I didn’t understand what it was they had that I didn’t, but I knew I wanted it. So I prayed and prayed, and I took confirmation, and I played in the church band, but nothing. No Holy Spirit, not a twinge of whatever Presence the other kids were feeling. By the time I was 16 or so, I’d stopped believing at all. I still don’t.
But that hasn’t stopped me from hauling my heathen ass out to a church in East Hollywood on a Wednesday evening for Mass, on what I learn upon arrival is the Feast Day of St. Barnabas.
As I walk in, I notice something: this Catholic Church is 95% Southeast Asian. Out of a crowd of about 200, I’m one of five white people, including the clergy. As I walk down the aisle to the nearest vacant pew, everyone turns. Everyone. I’m living the Filipino version of that scene in Animal House where the guys go see Otis Day and the Knights in that bar.
I’m feeling way out of place, but it’s not really about being a minority in this situation. I feel like an interloper, like I’m wearing my outspoken atheist past on my forehead. Any minute now, the priest is going to stop in the middle of the Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, walk down the aisle, and tell me that he’s read my file, and I’m going to have to leave. But I settle in and fall into the call-and-response of Catholic prayer, asking a Holy Mother I don’t believe in to pray for me. Each time I do, a neon sign flashes in my head. It reads “liar.”
As the service goes on, something happens. Maybe it’s the familiar, mantra-ish cadence of the liturgy, or everyone’s hushed reverence (which, I don’t know what I expected - it’s fucking church, after all), but I find myself feeling a bit meditative. I listen closely to the Gospel and the homily, and I try to wring out some wisdom from them. Mostly, though, I think about all these people doing the same thing, seeking comfort in something larger than themselves, and how sure I used to be that they were idiots, and I had all the answers.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think they’re wrong about Jesus being God or me going to Hell because I don’t feel bad when I diddle myself. But that’s not such a bad thing to be - I’m wrong about shit all the time. And maybe the Church I grew up in gets up to some pretty despicable shit from time to time, but these people aren’t screaming about the evils of homosexuality or trying to take away women’s rights. They’re hearing about St. Barnabas, a guy who’s mainly known for working his tunic-wearing ass off and getting next to no credit for it, and how they should be kind to other people and treat them with love, even if there’s no reward and no one to see. It’s pretty hard to hate on that without feeling like an asshole.
Towards the end of Mass is a section called The Sign of Peace. The priest says “Let us offer one another a sign of Christ’s peace,” and everyone shakes hands with the people around them and says, “Peace be with you.” None of the old Filipina women around me speak English, though, so we’re all smiling and shaking hands with each other, hoping that communicates what it needs to. They smile, and I smile back, and I think it does.
Mass ends, and everyone gets up to file out. I put my bouncy ball on the pew and head back out into Los Angeles.
I got some iron-on letters so I could put my superhero name, The Strider, on my costume. It took me three weeks to complete this simple task. Maybe it's just one of those tasks that you put off forever and then once you do it, you wonder why you just didn't do it before. Like a phone call to a family member. Or that old picture you've been meaning to frame.
Bouncy Ball # 141 Revisited - Taylor
One of my oldest and best friends, Taylor, sent me a beautiful bouncy ball story a few weeks back, and I added it to my last post. It was about a visit she made to her father's grave. She left a bouncy ball there.
A few days after I posted her story, Taylor texted me. She was at Jazz in June, an outdoor mini-music festival in Norman, Oklahoma, where I'm from, where she still lives. Where we became friends.
Her step-son, Hunter, randomly found a bouncy ball there, so she thought of me immediately and sent a pic, proving yet again that I am correct, and there is much magic in the Universe.
I believe that ball appeared from Taylor's dad, to let her know he heard her.
I'm at Flappers, standing outside the Yoohoo Room chatting with a couple of other comics. One of them is teaching us a new word he learned - sonder.
"It's like when you realize that everyone else is the main character in their story, too, and you are a background character in so many other stories."
"So wait, what is that from?" I ask. "What kind of word is it? Is it a verb?"
He sighs, looks it up on his tiny computer phone. He hands me the phone - it's a definition on some guy's Tumblr page called "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows":
sonder n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
Bouncy Ball # 150 - "Myron-Byron" - Written by LA Comedian and host of radio show Crab Nation Ryan Pfeiffer
Everybody in my life is fucking crazy. My best friend tells me that lunatics swarm around my head like hungry shitty gnats. Crazies tend to gnaw at my sanity, but a lot of times they're way fuckin' fun to drink with. I guess that's why I bought this dude a $3 Modelo.
This guy was a loony asshole, but I felt bad for the drunk. For sure, he was lonely, and probably no one gave a shit about him. His skin was old newspaper, and he smelled like he didn't have a house. Myron or Byron was the name he gave. I was high off my ass from hitting a hand-held pot vaporizer that I was given for my 41st birthday, so I don't quite remember. Nevertheless, I was locked into sharing at least one drink with my new buddy.
The bar at which we were perched was like a Pier 1 Imports drizzled with crust. It was actually quite shitty, and you could tell management was way chill about switching out the urinal cakes. But it was right next to my gross gym where I had just been elliptical-ing. I really wish I could remember the name of the stinky dive because they featured good ole white bar napkins. These days, most drinking establishments have trendy black bev-naps, which are impossible to scribble notes on, unless you have one of those rare pens that shoot out white ink.
My new friend Myron-Byron told me he was the oldest of twins. He said his brother got tangled in the umbilical cord during labor. The doc had to work his Mommy's womb like a lazy Susan to get anything out. FYI, "lazy Susan" were his exact words. M.B. plopped forth first, which he says is the reason his slightly younger bro hates him. I had only shared a few minutes with this lout, and I’m quite certain there are a myriad of reasons anyone could hate Myron-Byron.
I think, because I bought him a beer, the poor fellow felt like he owed me a good story. So the rosy-cheeked Skeksis told me about Pearl Harbor.
During World War II, M.B. was stationed in Hawaii while he was a zygote. When the enemy planes approached, Myron said that you could discern between the Japanese, German, French and Italian fighter planes if you squinted hard enough and focused your eyes on the cockpits. The German pilots all had tiny mustaches just like Hitler. The Frogs wore berets, and the "zipper-heads" (AKA the Japanese) of course all had narrow tiny eyes.
His bullshit racist tale about the Second World War just kind of petered out into a disappointing slurry of jibber-jabber, and my frail fucked up friend carefully rested his face on the neck of the Modelo. He took a nap while I whipped out my phone and read about how the Chicago Cubs were poised for yet another “rebuilding season.” I wondered if Myron-Byron felt like he was re-building or just kind of done.
While M.B. battled windmills behind his yellow lids, a cute California-looking lady busted out an acoustic guitar. She was good, but no one at the crappy watering hole really paid her any attention. The surfer babe performed some Pink Floyd covers, which eventually snapped my dying, drunk friend from his dream Odyssey.
Myron told me that he loved “Dark Side of the Moon” but hated “The Wall.” I suggested to M.B. that most Pink Floyd fans like their entire catalog. How do you hate “The Wall” if you’re a Pink Floyd fan? Also, I mentioned to my boozing pal that my Father totally digs Pink Floyd and that I even bought my Dad “Wish You Were Here” one year for Christmas. Myron-Byron didn’t seem to give a shit, as I think his drink was all gone.
Suddenly, I started feeling like one of those asshole pear-shaped tourists in the Smokey Mountains that feed black bears from their coolers. It’s all fun and games until you run out of sandwiches, and I had not a dime left in the afternoon drinking budget. But before I abandoned M.B., I wanted to leave the dude with something. After all, Byron-Myron entertained my stoned ass through a whole beer. But I had no cash to spare since I was on my to a marijuana dispensary that doesn’t accept credit cards. I didn’t have any food to offer, which would have been nice for Myron, as I’m sure he exists off complimentary happy-hour treats.
And then, light bulb motherfucker!
I reached into my gym bag that my mother sent me two years ago for my 39th birthday. It’s a killer backpack. But it boasts many separate zippered compartments, which means I have to search extra hard when I’m looking for shit. Finally, I pulled out a bouncy ball.
I placed the rubber orb in front of Mr. Sauced and told him to play with it every now and then. I floated him the idea of maybe finding a partner for a game of catch. Cuz fuck it, right? It’s a ball. Balls are fun. No one has ever been gifted a ball and then felt “bummed.”
I'm walking with Sosa. We're in Burbank by Flappers, near the malls and chain restaurants. People swarm all around us.
"Imagine we're in a movie," Sosa says. "Okay? Now imagine the camera switches off of us and onto these people." He points to the group of teenagers in front of us. "The guy in the hoodie. He's the story now."
"I like that," I say.
"And it switches again. Now it's this couple in front of us. It's a whole different story. We're just extras in the background."
Bouncy Ball # 151 - Written by LA Comedian and my old friend Doug Dixon
“I need to give you this,” I say to Taylor as I pull a bouncy ball out of my pocket.
“O...K,” he responds like I imagine most people in his position have responded. We are at Marshall Brewery in Tulsa, Oklahoma where Taylor works as a brewer.
“It’s for a writing project for my friend, Leah. She’s a comic. If you go to her website, it’ll make sense. I just need to leave this somewhere here.” Taylor’s eyes light up; he’s on board. He takes the ball and walks it over to a closet full of merchandise and places it on top in what looks like an old timey spittoon. “This won’t go anywhere for at least ten years.”
I’m visiting my hometown for the funeral of my uncle, who died at the age of 71. He had been fighting cancer for four years. Well, I say "fighting cancer" in the same way Michael Spinks "fought Mike Tyson." It's not so much a fight as it is a long drawn out ordeal that leaves the victim looking like they chose poorly at the end of the third Indiana Jones movie and the surviving family and friends, the spectators in this cruel contest, looking not much better.
I recently learned that death row inmates in Japan are not informed of their execution date. One day, they open your cell door and tell you it’s time. That’s it. It sounds barbaric on the surface until you stop and consider that none of us really know the day we are going to die, either. We are all marked for death, and it is coming for us in all shapes and sizes at any moment. It’s up to us to figure out what to do with the time we have. I have been repeatedly reminded of this “Coors Light Cold Hard Fact” since December 26, 2013.
I had seen a grim yet vague post on Facebook from a high school friend. It has since been deleted, but it was along the lines of, “There are no words. RIP.” The condoling comments rolled in, all from people I knew. Shortly thereafter, I got a phone call from Eric Marshall, longtime friend and CEO/Founder/Brewmaster of Marshall Brewing Company. I knew enough not to answer the phone since I was at work and whatever news was on the other side of that phone was probably not going to be good.
Then, Eric texted me. Our friend Niles had passed. A dog bite, a rather routine borderline benign thing for a veterinarian, had developed into a strep infection. He died relatively suddenly on Christmas morning. He was 31 with a wife and young boy.
Death, it turns out, has no concerns with our plans big and small. It is an MRI detecting a lump on a woman’s breast. It is a fault line under Southern California deciding to shake a few people off like fleas. It is a newly sober comedian Sam Kinison getting struck head on by a drunk driver on his way to a gig (I randomly visited his grave site in Tulsa on this trip).
I have thought about Niles every single day since learning of his passing, which, as of this writing, has been 179 days. And I keep asking myself “why?” Not why did he have to die, but why do anything? What’s the point if we’re all going to die? Take me for example: I have had a long term love affair with exercising and eating right. But why do it? Why eat a carrot instead of a donut if I’m just going to die? Why go run a few miles when I could just sit on my ass?
Because that’s what death wants me to do. Its specter wants me, and all of us, to give up and cower under life’s perceived futility. It wants us to shun the beauty that life can be and spend our remaining days in despair. If life is the opposite of death, then we must always embrace life and its beauty because death, for a lack of better words, is a real bummer.
Every laugh, every smile, every learned hobby, every warm embrace, every impromptu road trip, every marveled sunset…is a middle finger to death. That’s all this thing we call life is. It is why Leah and I tell jokes on a stage in front of strangers, and it’s why Eric and his crew brew their beer.
We can live to be 71 or 31; it seems so random and cruel. To paraphrase the great philosopher Blondie: “One way or another death is gonna find ya, it’s gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha.” Our goal, both personally and collectively, is to find ways to spread life’s joy and turn down death’s horrible song. It’s our charge.
Oh, for the record, I’ll still eat the shit out of some donuts.
"Hey, Leah." The voice, almost a whisper, comes from the booth behind me, startling me.
I turn to see Tommy, the Comedy Store manager grinning at me. "Oh hey, Tommy," I say, a little nervous. This is the first time I've stepped foot in the club since early May, when I left a show before going on (see Bouncy Ball # 117). At the time, I didn't know if I'd ever come back, but here I am.
"I'm gonna try and get you up this week," Tommy says.
"Okay. And I'll try not to get pissed and leave."
I feel like I need to explain it to him. "You know, I only get mad when they're rude to me."
"That's because you're smart," he says. "You can see it in your eyes. You have a fire in your eyes. It's the most interesting thing about you. It's what I like about you. I can pick you out of a crowd from across the room."
I smile. "Thanks for saying that."
I suddenly wish I had a chance to take so many things back - this blog, this project, the weird and ridiculous announcements about quitting things or doing things or not doing things that I say I'm going to do. I wish I could be undercover again, without the pieces of my life in the open. I wish I could switch the camera, handing off the story to a new main character, but it's too late - all I can do now is fantasize about what I'd do if I had a do-over.
If I could, I'd go back and approach my life in the past 6 months the way I approached the open mic at the Comedy Store, before I got passed to Friends and Family. For two years, I just showed up, waited, kept my eyes forward, did my time, and walked away with a determined slow, but steady and quiet resolve.
Just act. Quietly. Without making declarations about my intentions. With enough faith in myself to know that I have a plan, I know exactly what I'm doing, and I don't need validation from anyone else.
Bouncy Ball Project Progress Report
Days left before my birthday: 16
Bouncy Balls left to distribute: 38
Friends who owe me bouncy ball stories: 14
30 Day Arm Challenge: on Day 24
30 Day Squat Challenge: on Day 24
30 Day Plank Challenge: on Day 24
Progress on running 3-5 miles a week: Swear I'm gonna run this afternoon.
Progress on learning to Moonwalk: Look, maybe I'm not a dancer.
Fears left to face: 3 (what other people think of me, failure, and heights)
Places left to hide: 0