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Experience is an award-winning magazine that tells stories about the intersection of technology and humanity — stories that look to the future; chronicle innovations in work, play, and human relationships; and examine solutions to global problems.
In Sedona, you're supposed to let happy wellness advice wash over you. But what if the advice isn't so happy?
By Schuyler Velasco
“This much yellow, I just know you’re not having any fun.”
This wasn’t what I expected to hear when I sat down for an “aura photo,” a kind of photographic psychic reading. It was the most barbed feedback I’d gotten on my vacation in Sedona, Arizona, where I was having fun suppressing my standard eyeroll and letting dubious health and wellness advice wash over me. I’d smiled as jewelers told me how amethyst stones can cure addiction. I’d nodded along as the guide on our yoga hike raved about celery juice and laid out the mental blocks that keep humans from teleporting.
I had anticipated the same loopy pleasantness here, even though my reader, a woman in her fifties named JoDe Moore who looked like she’d stepped off the Sons of Anarchy set, had warned me that wasn’t her style. “If you’re messy, I’ll tell you,” she said.
‘A strong woman always looks really Yang.’
An aura photo comes from a proprietary camera that hooks up to sensors on a small metal box. You hold the box, and the sensors translate biofeedback, such as body heat and pulse rate, into an array of bright colors. These stand for different emotions and internal qualities (blue=nurturing; orange=creativity, etc.) It’s like putting on a mood ring, though JoDe hates that comparison.
I cradled the box in my lap and JoDe snapped a photo with her web cam. I’d seen a handful of aura photos before, and in the hands of professional photographers, they can be breathtaking. Mine looked like this:
But a pretty photo was beside the point for JoDe, who was likewise uninterested in delivering a reading that merely flattered and encouraged, like a magazine personality quiz. She swore liberally during our pre-reading chit chat, another way of signaling that she wanted to dig in and fix my shit. Doing so generally takes her between 10 and 20 minutes. The more fraught your mental energy, the longer she goes. She’s had couples’ sessions that lasted for over an hour.
I had 15 minutes worth of shit. JoDe printed out a photo and pointed out the colors surrounding my disembodied face: a large corner of blue offset by a sea of golden yellow. The blue, she said, was a “Mother Theresa vibe” — an impulse to help and fix things. The danger, she warned, is that “you keep trying to clean up everybody’s mess.”
The sheer amount of yellow concerned her.
“Do you realize you’re really in your head, trying to control everything?” she asked.
I’d heard versions of these things in therapy before. JoDe’s reading was genius the way a good horoscope or Myers-Briggs test can be: just vague enough to sound familiar to everyone, just specific enough to feel like she had nailed something essential about me. Still, it caught me off guard. I sat up a little straighter.
“Sure. Of course.”
It wasn’t all bad. Shots of pink, angelic “god energy” were peeking through all of that buzzkill yellow. The photo printout also included readings for my energy levels (low), spiritual “age” (I am 33, but my soul is apparently 47) and my Yin and Yang balance, which JoDe didn’t agree with. “A strong woman always looks really Yang,” she said, in an incisive bit of feminist commentary. “I just think that’s a load of crap.”
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We moved on to solutions. JoDe encouraged me to get a “God Box,” where I could symbolically offload the emotional burden of other people’s problems. But her advice was practical, too: do more yoga, set aside time for fun and creativity, drink plenty of water. Unlike the endorsements for healing stones and celery juice, it was counsel I couldn’t argue with – no matter how it was delivered.
What surprised me most about Handgun 101 was how quickly my mind acclimated. As I fired the 9mm pistol, my brain traveled from “fear of the deadly killing machine in my hand” to “surging adrenaline from noise and flashes” to “how accurate is my shot?” in under five minutes. Shooting became an activity, a goal, something to perfect.
This was not the reaction I expected to have when I fired a gun for the first time.
I’ve been familiar with arguments around gun regulations ever since I worked for a Democratic senator on Capitol Hill years ago. Reasonable restrictions have long been obvious to me: we can and should regulate objects whose only purpose is to kill. The right to bear arms is neither infinite nor superior to other Constitutional rights. I can talk about this for days. I have talked about it for decades.
I’ve also lived for 15 years in a New Hampshire community where I’ve encountered people carrying on the sidewalk, in the grocery store, at the strip mall. My kids have played in countless homes where guns are present. I’m surrounded by guns, but before last summer, I had zero actual experience with them. At a minimum, shouldn’t I have learned a long time ago how to unload a gun if I find one? Some might even say I had a credibility gap that needed filling.
And so, as the death toll in schools and other public settings mounted — and well before the shootings in Pittsburgh, Parkland, Santa Fe, and Jacksonville that refused to let us sweep guns from the forefront of our national conversation — I walked into this all-day class in Epping, New Hampshire, to learn for myself what it would be like to shoot a gun.
Justin inspected targets after one exercise and called me Wyatt Earp. This made me proud, until I remembered that I don’t like guns.
To reach my classroom, I walked past an American flag mounted on the wall, with bullets standing in for the stars. I sat at the rear of the room, on the far side of the rectangular table and listened to an instructor named Justin, a fit-looking, clean-cut man with short, salt-and-pepper hair and law enforcement experience. He seemed like a great guy to talk to over a beer, and also like he was not a guy whose house you’d want to break into.
Justin established safety as the theme for the day, telling us that if we left with nothing else, we should remember “Muzzle Management” and “Trigger Finger Discipline.” (These two rules essentially made up a Golden Rule of Guns: don’t be stupid with a gun in your hand.) Later, he shared his opinion that a “21-year-old shouldn’t be able to walk into Bass Pro Shop and walk out with a Glock [behind his back.] That’s ridiculous…There should be some minimal training to own a gun.”
His measured, consistent emphasis on safety opened me up to considering other points he might make. I mused that if more gun owners felt this way, there could be a chance of cracking open a dialogue. But throughout the morning in the classroom, I was also thinking, with equal parts excitement and dread, about the next part of the class: venturing onto the range. Part of me didn’t want to blemish my perfect record of having come this far in life without having picked up a killing machine.
Eventually, I joined my classmates in the frigid, warehouse-like range, where nine targets had been set up, aligned with nine tables at one end of the room. I found a position in front of a target and checked my equipment: goggles, ear protection, three empty magazines, a box of bullets, and, finally, a Sig Sauer P320.
My fingers fumbled to load the bullets into the magazines. The rest of the class waited for me, and I felt like an idiot. Finally, I was ready. We raised our guns, checked our grips, pointed at the targets, and shot.
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As it turned out, my shot was pretty good. I’m not going to win any competitions anytime soon, but most of my bullets penetrated the form on the paper within an inch or so of where I was aiming. Justin inspected targets after one exercise and called me Wyatt Earp. This made me proud, until I remembered that I don’t like guns. But was I supposed shoot badly on purpose? It was the most uncomfortable I felt all day.
Back in the classroom, we offered Justin feedback on the day. I listened to my classmates talk excitedly about follow-up classes they planned to take, including courses where the targets are pictures of people. For everyone but me, the class seemed to be a piece of a structure they’re building. Momentarily, I saw myself in Handgun 102 and beyond, learning to shoot until my bullet holes layered one on top of another on a target. I could become a skilled markswoman. Surprise my friends. And build upon that point of common ground on firearms safety with Justin and some of my fellow classmates.
But I had learned something new and terrifying about guns that day: an act that I thought would make me feel powerful instead felt like a game. The pointing, aiming and firing consumed my mind. The rest of the world slipped away. It made me wonder what that deep immersion would do to someone untrained, someone whose brain was overcome with stress or anger, or jealousy or hurt, or desperation. I was in a basic class, shooting at a bullseye. But what if the targets had looked more like people? If my target actually was a person?
So I walked away from Handgun 101, remembering one thing above all: What the gun made me forget.
Tracy Hahn-Burkett is a writer and consultant based in New Hampshire.
Returning to an old job used to look like career suicide. But a new generation is rewriting the playbook.
By Schuyler Velasco
In 2010, Kevin Wu, a supply chain analyst for Unilever, decided that figuring out ways to ship Dove Body Wash to stores more efficiently wasn’t what he wanted to be doing with his life.
“My whole objective was to pursue a different lifestyle,” he says. “I was financially comfortable, but complacent.”
So Wu quit and used his savings to travel the world. He got “very passionate” about home brewing. He even put together a bid in his native Ohio to open and operate a Bureau of Motor Vehicles. (This is a thing you can do in Ohio.)
When none of that worked out, he went back to the consumer goods giant in 2012. An opening had come up, and there was a lot he missed about his old job.
A decade or two ago, Wu’s path would have been unusual. In many cases, it was even prohibited. But now, many companies are accepting, even actively courting, so-called “boomerang” employees. And the stigma of returning to an old workplace is fading, in favor of stability, status, a boost in pay — and a different way of defining career trajectories and success itself.
A fixation on forward momentum has long framed American notions of accomplishment. The ladder is the metaphor by which we evaluate a career trajectory. Stability can be suspect; one business advice blog recently warned that “if you work at the same job for too long, prospective employers may assume that you are not motivated or driven to achieve.” Research from LinkedIn shows that job-hopping has doubled in the past 20 years.
But that growing impetus to switch jobs can also send people back to familiar places, says Lee Caraher, whose 2017 book “The Boomerang Principle” advises companies on how to build loyalty among employees. She sees the boomerang phenomenon as a sign that society is evolving beyond the “ladder” mentality — something that’s evident even in the way hiring practices have changed. In a 2015 study by research firm Workplace Trends, nearly half of HR professionals surveyed reported working for a company that, in the past, had explicit rules against hiring ex-employees. But 76 percent said their companies have become more accepting of rehires. It’s now widely recommended that businesses maintain active alumni networks to leverage former employees’ experience and connections, as well as to leave the door open for a return.
Wu returned to Unilever a changed man. His exploits made him “a bit of a rebel” in the world of supply chain management.
Caraher’s own San Francisco-based PR firm, Double Forte, has 30 employees, about half of whom are on their second or third stint. Some of that, she thinks, is generational. “Millennials have a much more sane position on career and life goals than Boomers and Gen Xers on how to patchwork a career, not just ladder up,” she says.
But writers and thinkers of all ages have been pushing back at the notion of climbing up at the expense of all else. When the “Lean In” movement took off in 2012, critics argued that Sheryl Sandberg’s career focus was myopic, and ignored or trivialized the external factors in many women’s lives. Heather Havrilesky, who writes the advice column “Ask Polly” for The Cut, has railed against the appearance of progress for its own sake. (Her forthcoming collection of essays is called “What if This Were Enough?”)
“The kinds of people who bray endlessly about how your various life choices will look on your résumé are the kinds of people who tend to have pretty limited, predictable, unexceptional careers,” Havrilesky recently told one advice-seeker.
Still, that shift in mindset isn’t always easy. Despite a growing acceptance of winding career paths, returning to the old office can feel odd, even daunting, especially after you’ve made a triumphant exit.
“I was worried I’d chickened out on pushing myself,” says Meredith Krantz, who returned to her old job (even her old desk) as an ad sales director for the news website Slate in April. “It was awkward to show my face in the office when I was interviewing for a job I’d already gotten.”
But then she reminded herself of the concrete reasons she had for returning: She loved the product, and getting a job at Slate the first time had been a dream come true.
Other “boomerangers” realize that career diversions can make them better, or happier, in their original jobs. That’s what happened to Meredith MacKenzie, who left a Washington, D.C. public relations firm in 2015 to pursue a second career in the foreign service, going to school overseas and working at the U.S. embassy in Liberia.
MacKenzie found herself back in job-hunting mode at the start of the Trump administration, when the State Department wasn’t hiring. Feeling adrift, she reached out to her old boss about possible freelance work. Instead, he offered her a job.
“It occurred to me: Would I feel weird? Would I feel like I had wasted my time trying to change careers? But it didn’t feel that way.” she says. And in addition to a promotion, the return meant she could put down roots and stay close to her family — things she would have given up for a career in foreign service.
MacKenzie’s stab at a second career turned out to be a benefit: Her contacts abroad were useful to her firm, which works with foreign development NGOs and advocacy groups. It also gave her perspective.
“Preventing violence around elections, or professionalizing a police force, sometimes is life or death,” she says. On the other hand, “it isn’t life or death in PR.”
So workplace crises that would make her anxious during her last stint at the company don’t feel like the end of the world. “I had to do a lot to get this level of chill and separation,” she laughs.
The corporate world is making increasing nods to the idea that employees have lives outside of work — and obligations that include not just parenting but fitness, health, family care, even sleep. Dick’s Sporting Goods, for instance, has a jobs program specifically tailored to fit the scheduling needs of Olympic athletes, who have to spend much more time than the average person on training and taking care of their bodies.
Caraher argues that it’s more realistic to assume that our myriad life obligations inform our work, rather than get in the way of it. But it may be easier to find that acceptance in a place that already knows you.
“Maybe you are taking care of an ailing parent, or young children, and you need that capital you’ve built up to leverage for more flexibility in your day,” she says. “It’s hard to get a new job and ask for that.”
The need for better balance helped motivate event planner Katharine Panessidi to return to Comexposium, a company that holds industry conferences, when she was pregnant with her first child. Working at home allowed her to maximize time with her daughter, and “if I had to run an errand, I ran an errand,” says Panessidi, who now works for Bose.
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Wu, for his part, returned to Unilever a changed man: His exploits made him “a bit of a rebel,” he jokes, at least in the world of supply chain management. He also got a promotion and was given more responsibility, so the job was more rewarding than the first go-round.
His second stint at Unilever lasted six years — a pretty long tenure, these days. Yet the itch for a different kind of life, which prompted him to leave the first time, never quite got scratched. Last April, he gave notice that he would be quitting in July. “I’m going to travel and look into ways of supporting myself other than what I’m doing now,” he said at the time.
Still, as with the first time, he was careful not to burn any bridges on the way out. “I’m giving them plenty of time to find someone to take over my spot,” he said. “The boss and other people have been very cool about it.”
Comedian Guy Branum has appeared on “Chelsea Lately” and G4’s “X-Play.” His new book is “My Life as a Goddess.”
Where do you come up with your best ideas? I do a lot of my best creative thinking in the car. Los Angeles forces you to spend a lot of time in your car, alone, mulling thoughts. Somehow my brain just seems to synthesize thoughts into ideas when I’m stuck on an onramp for the 101. I also have a lot of ideas after I experience good art. After I watch an engaging film or really lose myself in music, I find my brain making new, interesting connections.
What is the best non-material gift you’ve received? One summer my then-15-year-old niece read the Odyssey aloud to me over the phone. She knows I care too much about book learning, and she likes a good story, so she sat on the phone for hours reading to me. I also made her stop constantly to discuss stuff. Most people would have gotten bored, most teenagers would have gone insane, but she’s the most patient, compassionate person I know.
What is the best non-material gift you’ve given? Every year I have a very splashy, involved Passover Seder. It’s like a dinner party and a talk show and a religious ceremony all wrapped together. I spend weeks prepping menus, writing scripts, and creating games. It’s always at least 10 percent a failure, but it’s magnificent, and invites to my Seder are, like, the most precious thing I can offer.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced? MTV’s Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Inferno II. The men on that season were huge.
That’s a joke.
Growing up in a farm town with very limited educational resources was probably the biggest challenge I faced. We can ignore the way class affects opportunities for success, personal expression, and a range of other things. Most people I grew up with just ended up in working class jobs, and I spent my whole childhood fearing I’d never make it to a world that could appreciate my interests and skills.
If you had to choose a different profession, what would you do? Be Miss India 1970. I think I really could have done a lot to represent India at the Miss Universe Pageant, and then I probably could have leveraged that into a middling Bollywood career. Then I’d marry a mid-ranking politician and be a doyenne of the Dehli dinner party scene.
Law school gave me an exceedingly organized mind. It’s an expensive skill to waste on organizing facts to support a joke, but I enjoy the decadence of the waste.
What’s the strangest experience you’ve had? I went to law school. It was an expensive, time-consuming mistake. I will never practice law. I use my JD for nothing, officially. That said, law school gave me an exceedingly organized mind. It’s an expensive skill to waste on organizing facts to support a joke, but I enjoy the decadence of the waste. Oh, and law school gave me a ruthless lack of human emotion. If you walked up to me covered in blood and told me you’d just murdered 12 people, all I’d really worry about is how many hours I could bill for your defense.
What opportunity do you regret passing up? Coming out of the closet before age 23. I was in the Bay Area, at Berkeley, it would have been so easy to do in college, but I waited until law school, in Minnesota, which was much colder and less gay.
What do you do to relax? Marijuana, alcohol, and a pool usually do the job. When no pool is in play, I do solid work with a bathtub.
If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go? Nice.
What is your most indelible childhood memory? My dad would take me pheasant hunting every weekend during the fall. Until the day I die, I will remember the smell of gutting the birds. It sounds gross to the uninitiated, but really, it was lovely. The inside of a wild pheasant smells like a rice field has come to life. It makes perfect sense and no sense. I complain constantly about the terrible little farm town I grew up in, but I feel profoundly rooted and enriched by this contact with the fundamentals of life.
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Describe a perfect day. “April 25th, because it’s not too hot, not too cold. All you need is a light jacket.” – Miss Congeniality
When you’re stuck how do you get unstuck? This is a wonderful question. I change something. That seems stupid and overbroad, but when I’m stuck, I find a variable, any variable, and I change it. Or I go and do something else until my stuckedness gets unstuck.
What is your proudest moment? Having my own TV show was nice. Finishing my book, “My Life As A Goddess,” was pretty great, but the real truth is that the proudest moments I’ve ever had were all stupid stand-up shows. It’s usually when I stop doing material and talk to the crowd, and somehow manage to find a joke in the moment, in conversation with the audience. That’s the best.
What would you like to experience before you die? A thirty-year long, loving marriage with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
As I was walking out of my gym last fall, a woman in the reception area invited me to spin a prize wheel. The flapper click-click-clicked along the pins, passing a personal training session, a restaurant gift certificate, a water bottle. When the wheel halted, I’d won a private swimming lesson.
I gasped, partly out of delight — I’d won something! — but more out of fear. I was 57 years old, and I didn’t know how to swim.
Every adult who never learned to swim has a back story, lined with fear. Mine contains a father who submerged my head in the bath at age 3; terrible eyesight that kept me from seeing the edge of the pool; counselors at a Catholic boarding school camp who tossed me into the deep end. I grew up petrified of any water deeper than my bathtub. I dreamed of losing my Coke-bottle glasses and getting stuck in the ocean.
In middle age, cataract surgery gave me nearly perfect vision in my left eye — and changed my world. When my eye doctor removed the patch, I blinked once, then cried.
A year later, that prize wheel spun.
Yet for months, my prize went unclaimed. My husband, my personal trainer, and the gym receptionist all asked me at intervals, “Are you going to do it?” But I figured that not knowing how to swim hadn’t blocked me from living my life. Or had it? I felt embarrassed; I hated that my fear and my past had shadowed me for so long. Swimming wasn’t quite what I was missing. I was missing a part of myself.
So I finally scheduled a lesson for a Friday at noon. I arrived with goggles and a pink swim cap, looking the part of a confident swimmer-to-be.
But once I reached the L-shaped pool, my confidence disappeared. Breathing in the humid air, I watched a couple of toddlers in the shallow end and two adults swimming laps in the lanes. Nikki, a young instructor with black hair tied in a bun, invited me into the 3-foot section of the pool. She acted casual, like a friend asking me to sit down for coffee. Out of nervousness, I blurted my history. Nikki nodded, smiled, and reassured me that we wouldn’t go in any water over my head until I was ready.
Two toddlers drifted by and stared, their tiny biceps hidden by pink water wings. What were they thinking of this woman, barely capable of staying afloat?
Then she had me lean backwards, into her waiting hands. I held my breath as the water slowly met my back. After a minute, she pulled away so gently that for a moment it seemed as if her hands were supporting me, yet weren’t, all at the same time.
I was floating.
And then I wasn’t.
The laws of physics, specifically Archimedes’ Principle, explain why I should have been able to float. Objects less dense than the volume of water they displace — i.e., my body — are pushed to the surface by the upward force of that water. That’s the definition of buoyancy. But other factors came into play, beyond mere science.
Take mind over water. I’d read that just knowing the bottom of the pool was within reach — so that I could easily stand with my head above water — could distract a would-be floater enough to interrupt the process. Tense muscles could sink me. Body fat and lung capacity may not have worked in my favor either.
Whatever the reason, my body and mind were defying Archimedes. I folded like a clam shell, my butt drifting down. My flailing legs raced to find the pool bottom. I scrambled to stand up. More floating, more sinking, more worries about inhaling water, about sinking like a rock, about water clogging my eyes and ears, about keeping my head above water. About failing. I monitored what every part of my body was and wasn’t doing, and where the water covered me. Nikki’s encouraging words reached me through my thrashing and coughing. She wouldn’t let me drown. She helped me find my way through the water, acclimate to it.
We tried again and again until I was floating on my back, gazing at the white corrugated ceiling with its crisscrossing pipes, feeling the water lap softly at my covered ears. Clarity. Calm washed over me, instead of thoughts of drowning. “I did it!” I yelped, grinning from pink-encased ear to ear.
Next, Nikki handed me a kickboard. As I gripped it, my legs flapped like warped scissor blades, leaving a foamy wake. Back and forth across the pool I went, a distance no more than 15 feet. When my legs propelled me nowhere, Nikki tugged the kickboard along. The two toddlers drifted by and stared, their tiny biceps hidden by pink water wings, their feet paddling like ducklings. What were they thinking of this woman, barely capable of staying afloat while they were doing it so blithely? I smiled at them. They stared some more.
Then Nikki handed me a large foam dumbbell and instructed me to dip the lower half of my face in and blow bubbles while kicking my legs. Cough. Snort. Gag. Washout. “That’s OK,” she said. I made another attempt. That feeling of choking, of almost drowning, but not quite. How is it I started life in the watery safety of the womb, and once of this world, I navigated from water altogether?
That was the secret to swimming, it turned out: Giving up that frenzied navigation, escaping from my thoughts, returning to instinct. An hour went by that afternoon, and with each pass and clumsy stroke, my trepidation began to rinse away. Out of breath, I marveled that I had crossed 15 feet of water, albeit 3 feet deep. My pace may have been slow, my course crooked, but I was beginning to have fun, even feeling joy. Deep inside me, I yearned for what those toddlers had: a sense of weightlessness, of being unafraid and carefree. No more self-monitoring. I was letting go and getting there.
I had waited almost a lifetime for these sensations. I scheduled another lesson.
Delia Cabe is a writer based in Boston and the author of Storied Bars of New York.
A casino gig is a comic's rite of passage. It isn't always pretty.
By Allen Strickland Williams
I’m walking onstage at a casino’s comedy club in State Line, Nevada, which feels just as exotic as the name implies. It’s the third night of a five-night run in the middle of the snowiest January since 1982 — which, coincidentally, seems like the last time the decor in here was updated — and the club’s roof has leaked and flooded the venue. So this show is taking place in the exhibition hall next door: a 500-person capacity room, with 30 people in it.
Casino gigs are a rite of passage in comedy. It’s common practice for casinos to hand out free tickets to guests — usually drunk — who busted at the tables. The idea is to keep them happy, but it’s a false premise; funny isn’t money, and the crowd knows it. Plus, it makes me feel like a consolation prize. But between the pay, food vouchers, and access to the sauna, I can’t really afford to turn it down.
I take the mic, thank the host, and recite my standard opening statement: “My name is Allen Strickland Williams, and I’m gonna tell you 23 jokes.” Or, depending on the length of the set, maybe “47 jokes,” or “17.” I started doing this early on, because the vast majority of my set is comprised of one-liners, as opposed to longer observational bits, stories, or act-outs, which are far more common. I realized that I had been throwing audiences a curveball, and I wanted to give them warning — and make sure my first few jokes didn’t die on the vine while people were catching on. Sometimes, my opening line will get a laugh. Tonight, there are none.
No problem. I wind up and deliver my first joke. “I’m originally from Florida.” Beat. I like to wait here because sometimes a particularly exuberant crowd member will let out a “Woo!” — to which I always reply, “Um, no,” to let them know that what I’m going to say next will be less than complimentary. Tonight, there’s no interruption, so I go on.
“A lot of people don’t understand what Florida is really like, so I have this analogy I like to use to explain it. If America is the Walmart, then Florida is the McDonald’s inside the Walmart.”
I wait for the laughs to roll in. They don’t. I scan the room. It’s pitch black, but I can tell there are enough warm bodies to warrant some sort of response.
In the control center of my mind, warning lights begin to flash. That’s because this moment is important. What happens after telling your first joke is a flashpoint for the rest of your set, making it one of the most exhilarating experiences in show business. It’s like that moment at the top of a roller coaster’s initial ascent, after the monotonous clicking of the chain pulling the cars up the track abruptly stops. But on the ride, we know what comes next. There’s a sharp intake of breath, a steep drop, happy screams.
On stage, there is no such certainty. I tell my second joke, which builds upon the first. “I’m from Jacksonville, Florida. That’s like the bathroom inside the McDonald’s inside the Walmart.”
Someone coughs. Not exactly the response I was going for.
This is the part where I start cursing myself for not going to law school. I crafted this series of one-liners into a cohesive bit from its disparate parts during my first few years of doing stand-up, and typically it works well as an icebreaker, the way you strike up a conversation with a stranger at a party by asking where they’re from. Also, it’s a gradual build on one topic that tunes the audience in. But the audience is dropping out.
I spend the remainder of my 25 minutes onstage telling joke after joke to no response, in some strange existential circle of hell reserved solely for comedians.
Desperate, I go all in with the third part of the joke. “Jacksonville is interesting, because it’s the northernmost part of the state of Florida, but it’s actually super southern in nature. I grew up around rednecks. I was raised Southern Baptist. But if I ever say that I’m from the South, and someone from Georgia or Alabama hears me say that, they always say, ‘Florida, that ain’t the South.’” A beat for the big finish. “Do you know how bad your state has to be for the South not to want it?”
The only response comes from the air conditioner overhead, which seems to be asking, “What in the hell is going on?” I wish I had an answer. I know better than to lash out at the crowd. And you can’t leave the stage and expect to get paid. I recall a quote from Rodney Dangerfield, “Just keep going like a tank.” So I spend the remainder of my 25 minutes onstage telling joke after joke to no response, in some strange existential circle of hell reserved solely for comedians.
The sound guy mercifully gives me the light to show my time is up. I wish it were a light at the end of a tunnel, because I very much want to die. I go backstage, questioning everything about my career and my talents. The next comic avoids eye contact with me as he takes the stage. I can’t blame him. I wouldn’t want my stink on me either. I watch him go onstage, where he proceeds to fare exactly as I just did.
You bomb quite often in the first year or so of doing comedy. The upside is you learn how to deal with it. You tell yourself it wasn’t that bad. You get really drunk and forget it happened. After you’ve been at it for five years or so, you gain your footing. Your writing progresses, along with your stage presence. You can guess what will work before you even take it onstage, and you learn how to sell jokes that may not have landed when you were green.
But bombing never really goes away. Michelle Wolf’s set at the White House Correspondents Dinner — as well as it played on TV — didn’t get the love it deserved in the room, with its awful acoustics and awkward seating and hostile crowd. Comedy is subjective, a never-ending search for that elusive “perfect” show. And even when you’ve found it, the thrill begins to fade as the next show rises on the horizon.
After the show, instead of drinking and looking for trouble, I decide to go back to my hotel room and feel sorry for myself. I listen to a recording of the set on my phone, trying to piece together what went wrong. The jokes sound exactly the same as they always do. Did I look…unfunny? Too ugly to be onstage? No, that’s crazy talk. Was it the crowd? I wish I could say it was all their fault, but I’m past the point of blaming the audience. Unfortunately.
I look at the clock. It’s a few minutes after midnight. And I realize — here’s the punchline — that it’s now technically my birthday.
“Well, well, well,” I say to the comedian in the hotel mirror. “Happy birthday to me.”