Wednesday, May 10, 2017

15 Sentences RE: Forever

I was challenged to write three 5 sentence stories....what's more fun to be brief about than your whole life?

I am a party girl in act one. I come by it honestly as I am born into a world full of hard drinking, fast talking, self absorbed socialites. Growing up in their shadow teaches me that interesting people with big ideas always need people like me to support them while they do their work.  “Just use your cocktail party wit to find a decent guy to escape this mess”, I tell myself. Then go along with whatever he says, because you won't be young and pretty forever.

In act two, I am a housewife. I mean, we're not legally married, but we cook and clean and buy furniture and pay bills together and have sex every Sunday on clean sheets after we both take a shower. It is safe and comfortable and seemingly forever, until one day safe and comfortable becomes a mundane state of emergency and our brains fill with smoke as we scramble for the exits. Forever is wonderful in theory, but in practice it can be elusive as fuck. As is coming up with a new plan when you've been following someone else's lead for most of your adult life.

The party girl returns in act three, as getting wasted seems like the default way to kill time until that new plan emerges. But this time, the hangover involves depression, loneliness, and self loathing that really was there all along during act one, but Chekov's gun loaded with despair was infinitely more romantic through my younger vision. The only thing that keeps me from pulling the trigger is my desire to chronicle the experience to the point of regularly scrawling words on my hands so I will not forget them. The act of honoring and transcribing my thought bubbles teaches me I can get high on my own ideas anytime I choose, opening myself up to a vibrant world I could never access with liquor. Saved by the fact that creativity can fill in the most gray and desperate of landscapes with color, my third act shows the most promise as I vow to stay forever stoned on my imagination.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Love Letter to the Audience

“Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake, a challenge that seeks the password, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing. Every great record or novel or comic book convenes the first meeting of a fan club whose membership stands forever at one but which maintains chapters in every city—in every cranium—in the world. Art, like fandom, asserts the possibility of fellowship in a world built entirely from the materials of solitude. The novelist, the cartoonist, the songwriter, knows that the gesture is doomed from the beginning but makes it anyway, flashes his or her bit of mirror, not on the chance that the signal will be seen or understood but as if such a chance existed.”

This is the opening passage to Michael Chabon’s essay “The Loser’s Club”, one of the first pieces of literature that enabled me to recognize that my relationship with art revolves around my search for connection.

I grew up relying on art in all forms: books, movies, but primarily music to soothe me. To be my parent, my friend, my advisor, my confidante, my security blanket. Some look to art for amusement, for escape, for entertainment. I have always looked at it as my gasoline, my life force, a necessary crutch for when I cannot walk on my own.

My first musical connection came from listening to the Beatles, particularly their later, darker stuff. I played my “White Album” on white vinyl until the cover disintegrated from being pawed by my greasy 11 year old hands. That was followed by Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In the Key of Life, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors”, Led Zeppelin's “Physical Graffiti”. These were my first lessons on love, on loss, on loneliness, with flashes of belonging.

As I grew older I surrounded myself with artists, aligning myself with those who I considered to be superior to me as they were creators. Seeing myself only through the lens of being the guitar player’s girlfriend, the writer’s significant other, or the “fan” caused me to devalue the connection between the art and the audience. I resigned myself to forever being on lesser side of the equation, to being merely the receiver of the gift.

When I began writing and performing, I saw the fluidity between the creator and the spectators. Writing is such a solitary activity, often causing me to feel immensely isolated. I was compelled to create my own accounts of love, loss, and loneliness, but it was in the reveal of those materials that I experienced a similar reaction as when I would hear a song that resonated with me, when I was exposed to a piece of art that made me feel understood. In the case of telling a story to an audience or publishing something like this blog, I feel a drive to do so to reach out to those who also feel alone. There is little difference to me experiencing it from the other side of the transaction. Even when I receive feedback that is negative or confusing from others, I respect and appreciate that they took the time to try to understand my point of view. All I ask is to be considered, to be heard; that the art opens the door to a possible connection.

My curiosity surrounding the relationship between art and its audience was recently reignited by watching HBO’s “Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends)", a documentary about the 2015 terrorist attack on Paris’ Bataclan theater. Jesse Hughes, the lead singer of Eagles of Death Metal, who is a compelling mix of Palm Desert rock scenester and tent revival preacher said in reference to their audience, “I don’t look at it like they are our fans. I look at it like we’re all rock and rollers here, I’m just the monkey that shakes his dick for you while you dance.” It struck me that he saw the space between the performer and the audience as highly permeable, rooted in a belief that the monkey would be nothing without those who dance. I truly get that.

I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who say and show me they love me unconditionally all the time so my stories revolve less about loneliness these days. In my writings about connection now there is an implied belonging, a sense of feeling I live inside the circle more than ever before. I finally fully appreciate that nothing I create will be understood by everyone. I'm satisfied that the more authentic I am, less people will connect with me and that is as it should be. I am only attracting people who belong with me, those who deserve to walk beside me now.

For those of you who say you are not creative, know that I see what you bring to the table. Perhaps you don't recognize it, but I urge you to pay closer attention. Feel that there is art in every exchange if you put your energy into it.  In the way you dress, in the way you walk, in the words you choose, in the company you keep. I would contend that no activity is soulless if you attempt to do it with your own sense of style, knowing it is your chance to flash your mirror for those who are meant to see it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Business of Love

Inspired by attending the "Louder Than A Bomb" finals the other night featuring the best of Chicago's teen slam poets, I submit this to you as an experiment in storytelling style and form. Their fearlessness reminded me that sharing your innermost self with the world without apology can be powerful. 

You ask why we cannot be together. You will never understand it is because you are a bank and I am a candy store.

The candy comes in all colors and shapes and sizes. Treats that are tart and sour and sweet. Some that crunch, some that are gooey, some that are velvety smooth.

But I am not always a candy store. 

Some days I am a library, where the written word is my gospel. I’m only of interest to a select few: the very young, the very old, the frugal, the luddites, the outliers. But there is a discernible buzz that cuts through the library’s silence, the humming of reverence from those who choose to read. 

Some days I am a gas station, with people coming in and out to get what they need to move on. Some days I am a neighborhood bar, clamoring with the sounds of the jukebox and people telling stories with their hands. Smelling of sweat and whiskey, echoing with people enjoying each other’s company with the occasional interruption of making sure a lonely soul who’s had too many gets home safely.

You are a bank and you have always been a bank. I am comfortable at the bank because the bank is necessary and predictable. The bank opens at precisely 9 am and closes at 5 pm. I know what to expect from the bank; my paper numbers will be effortlessly transformed into currency. I trust the bank will take the dizzying array of digits involved in identifying my various accounts and credit and debit them correctly to keep my resources flowing. I feel a rush as the pert young teller counts back the bills to me with a sunny voice. She ensures the stack of paper presidents are all faced the same direction. I respect that the bank represents structure and responsibility; I can earn interest and I can borrow and I can save. I look to the bank to be my backbone, to keep me grounded and safe and secure.

You’ve been around so many other banks all of your life that it did not occur to you there were other options besides being a bank. You seem content with me not being a bank at first, in fact you seemed to find me to be a refreshing change. But you grew weary of seeing how many places I could be, and you became confused by the fact that I was something different every time you came to visit. This made you uneasy, it made question your decision to become a bank.

I suggest that although you are most certainly a bank, you can still change and grow. You could be open on Saturdays, perhaps. You could add on a drive through ATM. You could paint the walls or put in carpeting or play something other than classical music.  No, no, no, you tell me. You've always been a bank precisely this way, and it's always been fine. 

I understand your trepidation. I know because I failed at being so many places: a daycare center, a secretarial service, a modeling agency, a health club, a place of worship, a therapy practice, a marriage chapel. I tried to build each one, only to see them crumble and turn to dust. Our constructions are often met with opposition, or worse yet, with indifference. I saw you come alive with the sparks of possibility, only to see them extinguished by your fear.

Still I continue to diversify. Some days I am a nursing home, tending to the infirm. Some days I am an airport, with people hustling back and forth with determination and chaotic energy. Other days I am a yoga studio, warm and quiet, full of ohms and namastes.

I tried to be a bank for many years as I felt that’s what the world wanted me to be. Everyone told me to be a bank as it was safe and reliable. After decades of trying, I became a hospital. Full of disease and unrest, practicing triage to attend to the most serious problems first, with the smell of failure and antiseptic always heavy in the air.

You loved that I was not a bank until you didn’t. I wasn't required to be a bank with you, but you wanted someone from that same predictable, steady category, like a grocery store or a car dealership. You were threatened by all my variety, all of my choices. I loved being a candy store above all else, and it seems you feasted on my confections until you became ill. 

That’s when I became the corner store half a block from your work that you visit every morning, the one where the lady behind the counter smiles and has your coffee ready for you when you get to the register. She knows you like it with one cream and two sugars, just so. 

Until one Monday when you come to find that she is not there. She is sleeping late, relieved she does not have to concern herself with anyone's coffee but her own. She is not there because the store is not there. You do not understand how or why on this particular Monday you find the store shuttered; gone without warning or explanation. That is how abruptly I became a memory.

I now spend my days searching for those who can be an architecture firm full of creative plans for building the future, a music store ringing with joyful noise, a comedy club where magicians transform their pain into laughter. I must believe that people who can embrace all that I am on any given day will continue to find me and that they are willing to make an investment in the business of love.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Look Straight Ahead

Captain Per Holmberg was making his way to work the morning of December 27, 1991. He was a passenger on Scandanavian Airways flight 751 from Stockholm to Copenhagen; in Copenhagen he was scheduled to be in command of an SAS flight to Madrid later that day. He read his newspaper in his second row seat while the ground crew deiced the wings as the plane had been sitting overnight in wintery weather. Captain Stefan Rassmussen and First Officer Ulf Cedermark opted to fly with the cockpit door open as they felt it offered the cabin a chance to connect with them, a remarkable display of trust and confidence.

The ground crew failed to identify and remove clear ice that had accumulated on the underside of the wings after being parked overnight. Twenty five seconds after take off, the airplane shook violently and loud banging similar to cannon fire was heard throughout both engines of the MD 81. The pilots immediately questioned whether they were dealing with structural damage or an act of terrorism. Both engines had sucked in ice upon take off, causing surging and severe malfunction. Within ninety seconds both engines failed, with the right engine catching fire. The cabin filled with smoke and began to fall at a rate of twenty feet per second. Most everyone onboard knew that the quiet of having no power combined with the rapid descent meant they were surely plummeting to their deaths.

I am currently living with the effects of structural damage. After years of suffering from pain in my hips and feet that have stopped me from running and sciatica that often brings my ability to get around to a screeching halt, I was diagnosed with rotator cuff tendonitis last year. First in my left shoulder, which I was able to treat with a few months of physical therapy, then my right shoulder, which thus far has been resistant to treatment. The right shoulder pain started much like the left shoulder; an aggravation that limited my ability to work as a flight attendant as there are constant physical demands, repetitive motions that are particularly destructive while bearing weight with my arms extended above my head. As of last week, I no longer have the range of motion in my shoulder required to do the job at all right now. I worked for four hours after an extended absence and intensive daily physical therapy and I was in such pain I had to admit that I am crashing, unclear about how to proceed, overwhelmed by exhaustion and denial, crushed that my wellness plan is circling the drain.

Captain Rasmussen told himself the worst wasn’t happening; that he was simply living a nightmare. Per Holmberg looked into the cockpit from his seat in the cabin and saw no action, no hands on throttles, no discussion of what measures should follow. He approached the open door to offer help just as the engine fire alarm sounded, prompting the first officer to break the silence with “Shall I pull it?” They all knew that once the fire extinguisher was activated, the engine could never be restarted. Cedarmark pulled the lever without getting an answer as Rassmussen was stunned and silent, consumed by a fog of helplessness.

Holberg asked if he could be of assistance. Rassmussen instructed him to attempt to start the auxilliary power unit as they had no radio contact with the ground. Rassmussen contemplated circling back to the airport, but Holmberg told him he must only focus on what was in front of him.  “LOOK STRAIGHT AHEAD”, he told them more than 20 times, emphasising that turning back would only squander precious energy.  Holmberg found an emergency checklist, but he quickly abandoned it as he determined the situation was beyond a series of rote instructions. “LOOK STRAIGHT AHEAD”, he repeated to them, as their only hope was to harness the remainder of their glide and not stall the aircraft. Captain Rassmussen determined he would land in a forested area in rural Gottrora, Sweden. He looked to the trees below to cushion the impact.

I am having difficulty looking straight ahead while living inside a body that seems to desperately want to divorce me. I am filled with dread as my job may continue to cause harm to me physically, regardless of whether any future treatments are effective or not.  I am paralyzed with fear at the notion of forging another road at almost 50 years old. I look at my retirement funds with the target date of 2035. That's 19 years from now, daunting as I currently cannot perform even 19 minutes of what’s required of me to keep my life revolving in the big picture. I am crashing; my muscles atrophying, my skin and flesh growing softer, providing no cushion for the fiery pain that comes from basic tasks; putting on a shirt, rolling over onto my right side in the night, shaking hands with many doctors. I often lose myself in thoughts of denial of what is happening as I do not want this to be my reality.

Captain Rassmussen was consumed with fear as the trees began to rip the airplane’s fuselage apart. He knew he would most likely die, and he would be responsible for everyone else who died with him. The plane was torn into three segments. The passengers were able to walk out into the frozen forest through the gaping holes in the plane. They smelled fuel and knew that an explosion was possible. They knew they were at risk for hypothermia as they distanced themselves from the wreckage. They were aware they were still in danger. The flight attendants hugged the passengers who wandered the tundra in a daze. One reported she hugged them as she needed comfort for herself as well.

I take comfort in pain pills and steroids and binge watching Amazon Prime and hot baths with chamomile epsom salts and gin gimlets and eating pasta in bed out of a comically large bowl. I challenge myself to stay focused on what has yet to happen. I treasure hunt for joyful prizes hidden in seemingly awful scenarios. I am grateful for the x-ray technician who was gentle and kind as I stifled back sobs while she pulled my arm across the metal plate into a photographable position. I cannot remember another time that I cried in my adult life sheerly due to being in physical pain. I am blessed with friends who carry my groceries and call to check up on me; those who keep knocking even when my despair instinctively causes me to close the door. They put aside their own troubles and they listen patiently as I describe feeling helpless and overwhelmed and they talk to me with genuine care. I truly want to have nuanced opinions about the precarious state of world politics and gun control and everything else that ignites passionate discussion on social media, but I can’t even change my own sheets right now. I’m presently wandering in a daze when I do have the energy, and when I don’t, I am idling on the sidelines, watching my life trickle by. I try not to think back to times I could run 8 miles or work 8 hours a day or sleep 8 hours a night; looking back only squanders my precious energy. I see pieces of myself in a story of 25 year old airplane accident discussed at an annual training meeting. I write about what scares me in a defiant attempt to defuse its power. I celebrate days I manage to take a shower and shave one armpit and put on clothes that are acceptable for leaving the house. My 100% may be a sliver of what it once was, but I remind myself that I am doing all I am capable of for this moment and my 100% will change and eventually grow.

When the headcount was taken of all the souls onboard Scandanavian flight 751, all 123 passengers and 6 crew members were still alive. Called the “Miracle at Gottrora”, it was determined to be unthinkable that not a single person perished. In order to not feel defined by my circumstances, I must believe that every crash is survivable and help is there for me when I leave the door open.

Here's to looking straight ahead.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Viva Sankalpa!


As 2015 lurches its way towards the finish line, I must say I’m relieved it’s almost over.

I haven’t written much here this year. I have kept myself busy with other writing projects, but I’ve had little to say in this forum because although 2015 was a year I was free of depression, a good part of it I would file under “Sandpaper To My Soul”.

2015 was filled with medical problems, nothing serious, thankfully, just chronic and annoying. Let’s just say Chicago’s physical therapy community and I have spent a seemingly endless amount of quality time together. Combined with friends also experiencing medical problems (#funtobeold), and friends who ceased to be friends, most of 2015 felt like an uphill trudge. I had some significant friendships come to an end this year; some were my decision, some were by mutual decision, some simply faded away without much comment. It all added up to an overwhelming feeling of loss, a theme of failure combined with a calendar full of doctors’ appointments really gave my freshly minted joie de vivre a swift kick in the ass.

Spoiler alert: It all turns out fine!

I’ve been thinking about when I first moved to Chicago in 2009 with zero plan except to “find myself”, whatever the fuck that means. I was lost, to be sure, but the cosmic Lost and Found can be a real bitch to navigate, particularly with faulty tools. I was filled with anxiety and sleeping poorly, so I turned to doing yoga nidra for awhile in an attempt to chill out. Yoga nidra, for those of you who don’t dabble in groovy crystal deodorant scented self improvement, is a state of consciousness where you are nestled between being awake and sleeping. Your focus is on being present and aware of the world inside you by following a set of audio instructions. Yoga nidra is translated as “yogic sleep”, the goal is to be deeply relaxed but still alert in a state of super alpha calm. In all honesty I would typically fall asleep halfway through the practice, which was perfectly fine with me as I needed sleep more than I needed to be a zen master of the universe.

Part of the practice is to focus on your “sankalpa”, which is a singular goal, an intention, a resolution that you repeat three times. When initially deciding on a sankalpa, I went back and forth on whether to focus on finding another romantic relationship or pushing myself as a writer. Both seemed imperative to my happiness, but I chose to concentrate on the writing as it seemed like an area I had more control over. My sankalpa was to put my energy towards being the best writer that I could be, not to be rich or famous or published or anything quantitative, but to be committed to always be striving to improve.

Even as a majority of 2015 proved itself to be a big helping of THE STRUGGLE IS REAL AND BOY DOES IT SUCK, I did make earnest efforts to fulfill that intention to the best of my ability. I feel content that I wrote and performed some of my most challenging material this year and that in turn brought me unprecedented connection with the rest of the world. I am forever in awe that I am surrounded and supported by people who believe I can do anything. I still marvel at what was seemingly impossible to hope for a few years ago is now happening. I did a TEDx talk in November which will be available to be viewed soon, and it was some bucket list business. (eternal snaps for Jill Howe for including me)  I had to admit in the last few months that even in the face of crushing loss and medical drudgery and a general haze as far as feeling emotionally healthy just to have life continue to kick sand in my face on the regular that I made my sankalpa a reality and THAT IS SOME GLORIOUS SHIT, Y’ALL. I can honestly say that I am truly happy in a highly sustainable way for the first time ever. EVER.

Thanks to all who have loved and supported me thus far. Without you, I’d be nowhere. I am eagerly awaiting 2016; I already have 3 shows booked and it will be the year that I get to pursue my other sankalpa, because I don’t have to choose between romantic love and creative success as a singular focus anymore.


My other promise for 2016 is to minimize my time with technology and just use my eyes and my brain to capture experiences.

Enjoy your holidays. Let us go forth and make 2016 our best year ever. I'm in such good spirits these days, I'm almost excited to turn FIFTY in August. 

Let the record reflect I said almost.

Peace out until our paths collide.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Something Better

The following is a brief excerpt from a story I wrote a few years ago about making peace with my father's memory while dating a guy who was not involved in his son's life at the time. I experienced through his lens, and through his heartache, that it is possible for a parent to truly care about a child even if they are incapable of showing it. Relationships are complicated and forgiveness can be a powerful act of kindness not only for the other person, but for yourself.

I'm opting to publish this snippet for Father's Day as it is the emotional center of the story, a tribute to those who show up to do the work. It's also a gift for Joanna, who recently gave birth to her fourth baby, Charlotte.

I decided I needed a break from my regularly scheduled life, so I headed to suburbia. I always love to drop in on Joanna’s family parties as they are exuberant celebrations full of perogies and sausage and pastries, free-flowing vodka, and oldies blasting from the stereo.

Joanna is a Polish immigrant; she came to Chicago as a teenager in the early 90’s. My worries faded as I stepped into Joanna’s world, her house full of children’s toys, the starchy smells of comfort food, and people talking enthusiastically with their hands. 

Joanna’s father, Grzegorz, had been in and out of the hospital struggling with liver cancer for a good part of the year, and I was pleased to see him well enough to attend the party. Grzegorz’ arms bore scars from all of his recent medical procedures and he looked pale and tired, but his face beamed with contentment. He gestured for me to bring my wine glass and come sit with him, and I was pleased to oblige.  

He asked, “How is your work?

I told him airline life was treating me well.  

He pointed to Alex, his grandson, and said, “I like to take Alex to O’Hare. We watch planes take off. Sometimes we do only that for the whole day.”   

“That sounds like a wonderful adventure,” I replied.  

His smile took a more serious turn when he faced me, gesturing out into the lawn at his blond grandchildren running in circles. To the living room, to his sons and their wives, and to Joanna, who he calls by her Polish name, Asia. 

He said, “Here is what I know. When I grew up, when I was bad, I was beaten. When I was good, I got nothing. To see my children treating their children with such love and kindness, this is my joy. This means that they are made of something better.”

I smiled. “Yes,” I said, “something better.”   

We basked quietly in the moment. Smokey Robinson’s falsetto playing in the background, everyone swaying to the music, talking, laughing, the screams of the children without a care on a warm summer night.

His family was his proof that even though he had come from darkness, he had made his own light. It was the last gathering Grzegorz was well enough to take part in before he passed away.

Fond wishes to all my friends who are wonderful fathers. Enjoy your day.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Five Weeks of Funny Business

I recently completed Feminine Comique, an all female five week course in stand up comedy. The course was created by Cameron Esposito, and she turned it over to local comedic super heroine Kelsie Huff when she moved to LA to go all big time. Kelsie also hosts an all lady comedy show called the Kates, which is more fun than should be allowed by law. (check it!

I’ve been a lover of stand up since I was old enough to watch television. I grew up watching Joan Rivers guest host the Tonight Show, loving Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live, crushing on Freddie Prinze (not the junior version, people. THE ORIGINAL). I spent my allowance on Robin Williams and George Carlin records, listening to them over and over until I could repeat all the jokes by heart. I'm currently consuming a steady diet of Tig Notaro, Amy Schumer, and Aziz Ansari. I’ve always felt a connection with those who used their comedic abilities to get people to listen more closely, to discuss life’s absurdities, to express their concerns and often, divulge their pain.

But I recognize there is a huge difference between appreciating something and actually doing it. It never occurred to me to try stand up until I was looking for a writing challenge recently and I saw Kelsie post a link to her Feminine Comique classes. I know Kelsie from the storytelling scene around town. Not only is she always fucking hilarious, she’s also a damn nice person and I had big faith she would run a great class. Plus it struck me as a completely terrifying idea, and I was in the market to be scared shitless.

Kelsie Huff, comedic shero.

Yeah, sure, I tell stories to sizeable groups of people on a fairly regular basis, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that I always tell stories that I read off paper. I spend bazillions of hours laboring over every word choice, choosing every spot to pause, crafting the experience. I AM IN NO WAY EXTEMPORANEOUS. The only time I told a story without paper I froze in the middle as I blanked out on my careful memorization. I recovered and kept going after an awkward pause, but in my mind I felt like I was falling down twenty flights of stairs.  So stand up seemed like a pretty big step outside my comfort zone.

Every Tuesday night from 7 pm to 9 pm, we met at Sheil Park, a local community center to learn about the art of joke making. A joke, as defined by Cameron Esposito, is “a shared cultural reference, backed by opinion and comparison.” Kelsie laid down a few rules for us from the get go: that we would go super crazy applauding and cheering each other on during class, even though the real world would not guarantee us that, and that we would not apologize at any time for any reason. Women are conditioned to be apologetic in so many arenas; asking for other people’s time, taking up physical space, daring to find themselves worthy of time and space. So there would be no starting with “I’m sorry if this isn’t funny…” nope. Just do your thing and own that shit.

She also told us at the first class that being successful at stand up involves “failing miserably, in public, without apology, until it’s not a big deal.” Failing miserably? In public? I mean, it makes total sense, you can’t test jokes out on yourself, you need an audience. But this philosophy was a pretty hard right turn from the soft and fluffy storytelling world of “Every one has a story, and they’re all important and valuable!”  Okay, now officially terrified.

The cheering and support part came naturally as all the ladies in the class were really funny. Each of us brought a different energy, different eccentricities, different styles, which made the class continually surprising and fresh and endlessly amusing. Kelsie told us she couldn’t teach us to be funny, as no one can really teach that, but she could teach us joke structure and how to SELL THE SHIT out of our material, which is a major component of stand up success. We learned about rants, and “punching up”, the idea that you should aim your punch lines at perpetrators instead of victims, particularly with edgier material. That kicking someone when they’re down is a cheap shot, and therefore not really funny. We watched a lot of stand up between classes, we talked about jokes that stood out for us and why. We discussed different comedians' body language, also part of making the package work. We learned that making jokes work involves cutting out unnecessary info, which can be a challenge when you’re speaking on the fly. The editing part was a real eye opener for me, stripping down the material to the bare minimum helps the jokes retain more punch. I tend to gravitate towards MORE examples, expanding things in hopes of gaining more understanding with the audience, but more is not more in comedy. It’s reminiscent of Elmore Leonard’s advice to “try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” If it’s not necessary, CUT THAT SHIT.

Also counterintuitive to my usual writing process, I found out quickly that the more I worked on the jokes, THE LESS THEY WORKED. The jokes where I tried really hard to be clever fell flat, the stuff I wrote at the last minute and didn’t overthink landed bigger laughs more often than not. So much for my routine of laboring over my wordplay, this was an exercise in making peace with winging it.

Every week when I did the homework I heard the same voice in my head.

Why are you doing this it will never work you can’t work without your carefully chosen words and your paper crutch you are not fucking funny you will suck you are too old to have this much homework holy shit why are you wasting your time why did you think you could pull this off it’s official, you have totally lost your fucking mind. AGAIN.

Ladies and gentlemen, the voice of the saboteur! It had been awhile, probably since I first started to tell stories. Welcome back, uninvited visitor.

I listened to it and believed it to some degree, but I figured giving that voice too much time or mental real estate was not going to help me to actually get the homework done. FUCK OFF SABOTEUR, I have eight more jokes to write before I can pass out watching House of Cards with a bowl of pasta. And I trusted that the saboteur only shows up when there’s actually something at stake. I’ve lived long enough to know that all of my experiences that involved real growth made me feel less like the star of a motivational poster and more like I was drowning in a fetid sea of WTF HAVE YOU GOTTEN YOURSELF INTO NOW, IDIOT.

But going to class was such a blast, I didn’t worry so much about the graduation show, even though I was unsure how all these random notebook scribbles were going to equate to five minutes worth of jokes that were performance worthy. Kelsie was always immensely supportive, telling us that the grad show always went well, that everyone was able to pull it off and that our objective was to HAVE FUN above all else. I was skeptical, but figured I could always hide under my bed and tell everyone I was exposed to monkeypox at work or something. For sure I was not inviting people. Failing in public would be fine, as long as I didn’t know anyone.

When I went to put together my set for the last class, I only had about two minutes worth of material. TWO MINUTES? When I write stories, I have trouble keeping them to ten minutes or so. But I didn’t panic, I just kept throwing stuff together until I had three minutes, then a little over four minutes.

I took it to class and although I hammered through it in a little over three minutes, it went better than I expected. I worked on it before the show until I didn’t need to look at my notes at all. I invited a handful of close friends, figuring that I should have some people there after all. HOLY SHIT, what if the saboteur was totally WRONG? Let's do this thing.

The night of the show I was scheduled to go first. I felt relatively confident until the house lights went down and then I was struck with a wave of panic. I turned to Kelsie, who was still passing out programs at the front of the house. I said, “Kelsie! I’m really nervous now!” She gestured to the crowd and said, “Who gives a shit what these assholes think about anything?”

Indeed. Instantly I was fine. Genius advice that I will keep in my pocket and use again.

My set went well. I got tongue tied a few times and I had to consult my notes, but none of that stopped me from the main objective, I HAD FUN. Equally satisfying was standing in the back of the theater after, sipping a bourbon rocks out of a jelly jar, watching all of my classmates take the stage and CRUSH IT. They were all SO good, and I was thrilled to hear them get loads of well deserved laughs and cheers.

I have to say that I don’t think I have the drive or the discipline to be constantly crafting jokes and taking them to open mics. That would seriously cut into my pajama jams. I’ll stick to my introverted process of writing my weird stories, sharing them with close friends after laboring over the wordplay. But I am so glad I took the stand up class as I learned so much in five weeks and I was so proud to be involved in the final product and most importantly, I HAD SO MUCH FUN. 

If you’re a lady interested in stand up in Chicago, I highly recommend you check out  If you’re not a lady or would prefer a co-ed stand up experience, check out Or do whatever sounds super scary for you, maybe it’s tango dancing or zip lining or singing acapella or staying up past 11. Any time you can drown out the voice of the saboteur with a loud chorus of I GOT THIS SHIT, I say go for it.

Photo credits - show photos: Chuck Sudo
Kelsie Huff photo: