Lately I have been telling the truth.
Not all the time, or at least not unwarranted and without cause. There's a difference between candor and narcissistic over-sharing, and a difference between honesty in all things and callous disregard for the polite lies that help the day go smoother.
I've known many people that say some variation of "the thing about me is, I don't PLAY games," and without fail that person is either guilelessly unaware of how to deal with most people, constantly hurt and offended or confused, or they're actually saying it as a de-facto power play in itself, positioning him or herself as an authority by claiming to be in touch with some higher order of dealing with people, of some sense of self that lesser plebeians can't articulate (hence all the pathetic "game playing").
The more I think about it, the more I feel pretty much every interaction with another human being is some sort of game. If you're lucky, maybe your parents love you unconditionally and require no pretenses -and even though I AM that lucky I have trouble being honest with THEM. If you're even luckier, you love someone and they love you back, and they come to know parts of you that no one else ever will, and it's not so much a game between you as a dance of mutual satisfaction, balancing exposure and time and meals and smells and the little parts of your lives.
But those relationships have complex games of their own anyway, and all the less meaningful ones, friendships and co-workers, distant relatives and near, people on the subway or in the next car at the stoplight, audience members, anyone: all of these interactions are with other people. All of these other people have known sorts of specific loneliness and pain and terror and happiness that you'll never know, they've lived an entire life that you'll never see, and you're nothing but a degree of supporting role, recurring cast or fleeting unpaid extra.
So you talk to them, and you have no idea what could set them off- either good or bad. They are hurricanes of subconscious bias and buried memory, of unknown predilection and mystery. Some days I stay at home until night falls and then go out to a show and wonder what stress everyone's known, what the rhythm of their day was like and what the right words would be to even ask them about it.
The disappointing truth though, is that simple salutations and platitudes really do apply, the 'how was your day?' and 'how have you been?' type phrases that seem like conceding defeat in this great conversational game -the goal of which seems to mostly be to seem interesting all of the time, and thus to have something unique and interesting to say.
So you ask a simple question, or say a simple hello, and that's when the game really starts, because then there's usually a choice. People will say they're fine, and if you've talked to them a little bit you can hear if they say it with a weary sigh or note of exasperation and then ask "really?" and see if they open up. Or maybe they've asked you first, and you can choose to respond with a platitude (if one applies), or the truth, which is usually more complex.
The thing is, everyone's life appears linear from the outside, but you know that your inner life is as non-linear as your thoughts are. The moment to moments are wistful, scared, euphoric, laughter and depression and a song stuck in your head. All of these broken records play at once, all the waking day, and from far away this all looks like a collage of what everyone else perceives you to be, the person you present to the world.
And all it takes is the rare admission, in the right moment, that you contain this sort of multitude and you become real to the person you're talking to.
To be fair though, it's NOT as binary as the distinction between saying the rote "Oh, I'm fine" and the admission that everything can't always be fine- sometimes you skip the platitudes for specific details, anecdotes from the week, whatever was on your mind when you walked up- the song that's stuck in your head.
I'm lucky in that I've been afforded the life circumstances to have tried comedy a long time ago and thus kind of found a way to cheat at this navigation, because the more truth I put into that, the easier the game gets to play. It's mostly because until I got really into stand up a couple of years ago I had never really actively tried to improve at playing any aspect of it, to concern myself with living in the world, with sharing the wound I feel but can't articulate as well as I'd like and wondering if other people have it, too.
And once those barriers started to fall, the others started to follow, and basically in no way do I excel at any facet of interpersonal communication these days except that I think about trying at it a lot more. And when I try, I say things that are true (except when the truth wouldn't serve the right purpose).
I am still bad at getting back to my parents, for many of the same reasons my credit score is so bad these days. I have secrets in my heart and life that I know now I need to share with someone before I could feel that they truly loved me, and I've made the mistake plenty of times of not sharing those secrets and then wondering why I wasn't loved. I miss opportunities to comfort people, miss the point of what people are saying while concerned with my own anxious fears, check my phone for texts when people are making a point, and generally I look back at social interactions obsessively after the fact and wonder why I wasn't in the moment more.
But the truth is that I'm more willing to try than ever, and I get closer to the world I live in whenever I admit that willingness, and all of the flaws and missteps and bumbling that it brings with it to the surface.
So ask me how it's going, or I'll ask you. I'll play this game.
When I was eighteen I talked myself into going far away for college, to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They offered some decent financial aid, and I had romantic notions of reinventing myself whole along with some family history in North Carolina that made it seem like a less drastic step than it was.
But oblivious, I moved into Hinton James Hall and waved goodbye to my parents, my college experience impatiently beckoning. I woke up that first night, oppressively mugged by the lack of air conditioning in late August, at five in the morning in a bed lofted six feet off the ground, and decided to get up for a glass of water. I chose to just hop down instead of climbing, and managed to slip, fall, and fracture my right wrist by way of a pratfall that only gets more hilarious in retrospect.
After a panicked wait and an embarrassing trip to the student health center, I ended up with a cast on my arm for the next month and a half. I went to classes but I couldn't take notes. I became a point of conversation to everyone I met; too guileless to invent a cover story, I had inadvertently reinvented myself as the boy that fell out of bed.
It was too much: I hit the panic button, which for me involved staying in my room for two months, watching a bunch of downloaded Family Guy episodes over and over (this was 2002) and tracking the Pittsburgh Pirates latest doomed season on internet message boards. I wasn't a new person, I was the same kid I had always been, green and afraid and painfully shy, and the visions of academia I had were blinked out of existence. Like Little Nemo, I woke up on the floor in the real world and just wanted to go back to sleep.
So I went home, to Milwaukee, and I went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which is by all accounts a fine school, but not much of a college. There aren't old buildings with stately pillars, sartorially fussy deans shaking their fists at belligerent fraternity members, or even that many dorms and places to sit on the lawn at UWM. I got an education, and I made a few friends, but I never shook the feeling that I had missed out on something.
It's not that I've ever wanted to get drunk on a regular basis, or sing a fight song for some sports team I don't care about, or organize a mass prank, or something. But I had always imagined a sort of middle stage between childhood and adulthood that entailed becoming part of a vague society of the aimlessly enrapt, of being forced into the trenches with my peers and having that post-adolescent confusion in common at the very start.
Obviously I should have gone to a liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere, fallen in love with the wrong girl, spray painted a statue of the school founder, gotten in a mild tussle with some townies once I was drinking age, join several extracurricular groups and get all of my romantic notions and thirst for mild debauchery out of my system, but this was not meant to be.
Instead I found comedy nine years later.
Here is what I do these days, I walk into about a half dozen bars and comedy clubs and sundry venues of other types and I say hello to someone. And the person they're standing next to. And usually the bartender, and three other people over there, and then another person that was facing away when I walked past claps me on the shoulder.
There are a dozen places or so we all do comedy regularly, and different people come to each one. It is not unlike going to different classes within a major. We study the same things, talk about the same concepts, and bitch about the same people and problems. I have made faster friends than ever before, and it's because we all have something in common, and it's the nameless confusion that I expected so long ago, forced into words by a narrow social pool and the compulsion to speak that comics have by nature.
I realized, talking to other comics on Tuesday, that I can count the non-comedy friends I've made here on less than one hand. It's not intentional, but it's as if comedians treat everyone else like the locals that know they'll be gone in a few years. Comedy is like a perpetual college experience, regardless of age or life experience.
Maybe it means none of us have grown up entirely, but I'm starting to think that's a sham proposition in the first place. After dedicating myself to stand up, I found myself all but compelled this time to move somewhere new, but not to reinvent myself so much as expand outward for the first time. It's easy to speak louder and invent faster, to take longer strides with an entire class of peers everywhere I find myself compelled to go.
With any luck, I won't step off the bed and fall back to reality this time.
Tuesday night someone asked me why I got into stand up in the first place.
It used to be easy to answer that. Making people laugh. Creating something. The challenge, the thrill. But at this point, he may as well have asked why I got into breathing or some such thing.
This is what I do, it's just that simple. It stops mattering why, it stops mattering where and when (as long as it's anywhere and soon), you don't worry about being rewarded financially or emotionally. You just do it.
Comedy is life, and life is hilarious. It's beautiful, and simple, and the rest is a backdrop. I need to sleep more, get a job, communicate better with others, exercise, be a better adult in general. But I've got this thing, these ideas and words and moments I replicate at least five times a week, and if you need to ask why, then it's probably not the thing for you.
This year I've made friends faster than I've ever made friends, because it's easier to talk to people if they live inside the same sort of madness that you do. And Austin, at least for these first six weeks, seems like city that doesn't need to ask me why.
I got here a month and two days ago. Let's bullet point my new life:
-Austin has a lot of comedy. And a lot of comedians. Lots of them are super-talented, nearly all of them are super-nice. There are open mics every night but Sunday, there are showcases all over, there are sketch groups and Improv theaters and underground happenings, and this is all in an incredibly hot July- without the vast majority of the UT-Austin students in town to attend things. I am excited for the future.
-Austin is HOT. This is obvious, I know. But it is extreme. August has come sweltering in at 107 every day.
-Austin is geographically odd- it is kind of a grid, but turned 45 degrees. And there are no hard and fast rules within the grid- the numbered streets are sometimes skipped (and there's random half streets, like "38 1/2"), and are arbitrarily switched from East to West several blocks from I-35. I-35 is nonsensically zippered into an above ground expresslane that does nothing to alleviate rush hour gridlock. Everybody drives everywhere here, and you have to learn to be a lot more agressive.
-I've made 42 new Austin-based facebook friends. I think that is equivalent to at least 7 real-life friends.
-I've been doing so much comedy, I have barely had a chance to get into everything this city has to offer- live music, the natural springs you swim in, bats (apparently). But honestly I'm fine waiting until it's not still 90 degrees at midnight to discover the nightlife.
-August looks to be even better- a solid job prospect, a paying comedy gig (!), and another project on the horizon that cold be the most important thing I've ever been a part of. Sorry to be cryptic, but this is what the internet is for.
In August of 1998 I moved to Milwaukee right before my freshman year of high school. The city greeted me with rain- the basement window-wells overflowed and seeped into my new room. My rug was ruined, some of my books, and I was bitter and lonely and anxious about starting over.
High school was a controlled exercise in learning to speak. By senior year I was on yearbook, in clubs, had friends and all. I got a little too confident in my ability to start over, went far away for college, and immediately flamed out.
This city welcomed me back. The Oriental theatre took me to other places, grew my love of film into an obsession. I learned the pot-holes, the freeway exits, the one-way streets, the feeling in the air before the snow, the honest work of shoveling snow, the right times to avoid the lakefront smells.
Milwauke waited patiently for me to lose my way, and find it again in my friends and on comedy stages. I'll always love it, and after being uprooted twice in my earlier years, it's more than earned the right to be the response when people ask me where I'm from.
But the open road awaits, as it always did and always will. I won't miss the winter, and I won't miss the mistakes I made, all the time I spent sitting still.
I'll miss the people, the person I became. I'll miss the mild summers and the rain.
I am on a trip right now. I went to Georgia to watch my cousin get married and then to Austin, to scout it out two weeks before the big move south.
So everything I do seems primed with significance, symbolic in some way. I helped drive down to GA with my parents, but I didn't use cruise control because I don't like what it says about me metaphorically.
Saturday afternoon I sat out by the pool, my eyes readjusting to the light extremely slowly (due to the eighteen months, just ended, working third shift), and I was reminded of myself in the sunshine. I now have, thanks to a pale Irish complexion and a spotty job applying SPF 50, spots of severe sunburn that will soon start to peel, revealing the new me underneath.
I wore one shirt to the wedding itself saturday, changed into a different one for the reception, and finally a t-shirt for the casual, post-reception hour. The bride's side of the family, with only broad visual cues to go on, might've thought that I returned a different person each time.
That's the beauty of being conscious beings, I suppose: we can always reinvent ourselves (ants probably just have to keep being ants). In theory, I can get used to the dry heat (103 F right now) and the one way streets and everything, but I have to avoid old patterns and old cowardice. It's only day one, but I'm still raring to change my diet and cut my hair (soon, I can feel it) and pour myself into a different way of seeing things.
Music is as close to religion as I'll ever get. Those moments, seeing a live band, blasting the speakers in your car, your feet moving on their own, the world narrowing to a sunset or the hand you're holding or the memory that that song takes you back to, those are the best kinds of moments.
I sing constantly, and I hear melodies in my head, but I never had the patience or the self-motivation to learn an instrument. Words are the only thing I can manipulate with any aplomb (landing a line the right way on stage is rapidly nearing a religious experience as well), but it's harder to get that swelling of the score, that cinematic epic profundity that the best songs can instantly lend things.
In less than a month, I'm packing everything I have into my car and taking a two-day drive south, and I'm crossing my fingers that my cd player doesn't malfunction. I think I might waste a little money on CD-Rs and make 24-hours worth of mixes so I don't repeat, each song corresponding to a mile. I'm open to suggestions. Your favorite road trip music.
Because if you want to reach for those moments, you're going to need a soundtrack. I see the entire population of people with earbuds, presumably people who need music as much as I do, but it's only a small percentage that play air guitar and mouth the words and dance as they walk.
Maybe those people have actual religion.
I've embraced having fun lately. There was a time that irony, cynicism had a romantic appeal.
But they weren't as much FUN, dammit. For some reason there's a prevalent sentiment in our culture, at least the sort of hipster pop culture to which I ascribe, that associates enjoying oneself with simple-mindedness. The implication is that critical thinking leads directly to disappointment, to the prominent noticing of flaws.
But that's just not true. I got wired back in march and wrote a long thing on facebook about how stand up comedy, for me, became so much more invigorating when I stopped approaching things by saying "you know what I hate?" and went with "you know what's absurd, and thus funny?"- the same is true for EVERYTHING.
I'm not perfect. Far from it. Admitting that makes it hard to hold it against the rest of the world. There are ironies, there's cruelty, there's bleakness and despair. And in a way, kneejerk snarkiness was a way of avoiding those depths for me for a long time.
But that's just treading water to avoid drowning. I'm going to laugh to myself loudly in restaurants, play the air guitar to my earphones in public places, say the first things that come to mind, drink some but not too much, be vulnerable, seek out the people and places that make me happy, make those people laugh and those places feel like home, and I'm only going to go diving to the murky depths of the middle of the loneliest nights when I have to, when it's healthy.
In the meantime, I hope to see you on the shore.
Reference humor is very much like the weather in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It waltzes capriciously from one extreme to another, it knows no historical precedent. There's no formula to predict it.
I see movies constantly, watch my share of television. I keep abreast of things on the internet, which itself is a more insular place than it seems like from the inside. But there's no way of knowing, even given a crowd's median age, wardrobe, or the venue they inhabit, what avenues of mass media they'll follow you down on any given night.
Case in point- I have a joke, really the only survivor from my early days, which prominently involves Wham! that never seems to be too old for anyone- 80's references in general seem an easier bet than nearly any other decade, seemingly an entire ten years laced with a perfect mix of irony and nostalgia. I was born in 1984 myself, I remember absolutely none of it, pop-culture-wise.
I've worked in libraries and stayed tuned into to bestselling fiction for most of my adult life, thus I have a Nicholas Sparks joke that can be very hit or miss. Sometimes, in the right crowd, I replace it with a Twilight joke which is more universal (but the punchline itself is less biting. It needs work.).
Movies I reference constantly, but even there, even the hugest movies aren't always familiar ground. I had an Avatar joke that never really caught on for me- I think it might be because, despite the big numbers, the majority of people saw it once and moved on with our lives. I do a somewhat involved bit about The Matrix (it's about the déjà vu cat) that does pretty well- because even though it was an R-rated release over a decade ago, everyone's seen it more than twice by now.
It's a challenge that I relish- it makes consuming new art and media exciting. Even if I see a film and find it terrible, it still means I've punched a lottery ticket for my favorite drawing anywhere.
What is it about creativity that makes time mutable? Bursts of productivity seem like they escape my hands as water, and I wake up to deserts of half-formed ideas, the minutes dragging by in chains of frustration.
Something about writing, about starting a sentence or a setup, makes clocks tick louder and the world focus in on your immobile fingers. The background fades away in slow motion and we sit there, alone and helpless.
The answer, for me, is to make the void smaller. I don't do improv, but I envy the group dynamic that it draws its basis of support from- look into the eyes of your partner, and you're never lost.
I've had a lucky three months, the best three months of my life in many ways, of meeting new people and being challenged. My world has gotten bigger as the void shrinks to nothing, and it's only made me hunger for more new things.
Comedy, especially for me, is just having one half of a conversation. Finding it and embracing it has made me regret the parts of my life I thought I could slide by hardly talking to anyone.