I’m driving back to Des Moines International Airport—well, being driven actually. I performed at a college the night before and the gal driving me helped to organize the show. She’s sweet and chatty and I really like her right away.
I’m feeling good in general. College gigs run the gamut. You can be hired to shout jokes into an empty library vestibule for an hour or to play a packed “only bar on campus” and crush so hard the students elect you president of their new cafeteria frozen-yogurt society. You never know which you’ll get until you show up. This show was one of the latter.
I had a bunch in common with the student driving me—not that she could have known that. To her, I’m a weirdly haircutted adult in a cool ass motorcycle jacket (I have this very cool motorcycle jacket) who’s old as fuck and also says “butthole” into a microphone for a living (that’s my best bit—my saying “butthole” bit).
She’s 23 years old and yes, that’s 10 years ago for me, but I remember 23 quite well.
She’s a serious, deliberate person. She’s funny. She’s from a conservative, religious background and she’s trying to figure out what that means for her. Is she conservative? Is she religious? She’s got siblings she’s very close to and very different from and she’s dating someone she really likes but she’s a bit lost on how to integrate that person into her plans for the future. She’s friendly and shy/loud—this combo I’ve had a handle on since I was a kid. She’s a winterized Midwestern gal with lined boots and a pale-as-hell glow. Ten years ago, she’s me.
It’s finals week and my driver is stressed—stressed about the work she needs to finish and the different kind of work she’ll need to find once she graduates. She’s a senior. She’s not sure where she wants to live or who with and what job she’s even looking for. As she talks about her life, she also asks about mine, and because she asks the questions a 23-year-old would ask, I come off as a goddamned genius.
To sum up my answers: I live in Los Angeles, in a kind of crappy apartment in a much better neighborhood. I live at the base of a mountain and I hike there almost every day. I am engaged to marry a wonderful woman—someone I really like, and also love—but we don’t have plans yet for when and where. We have a dog.
My job is draining—the travel is near constant and it’s the travel that kills you—but I’m unbelievably lucky that I got to pick what I do for a living and that I find it fulfilling. I don’t believe any of the specific tenets of the faith I grew up in, but I do find comfort in some—AND ONLY SOME—of the stories it taught me. I’m not super close with any of my exes and I don’t think we should have ended up together, but I think they’re all cool and I’m glad we dated.
I live far away from my family and I miss them.
She doesn’t ask where the fuck I’m going to get kids—since I’m all gay but want to be a parent so there’s a bit of extra planning required—or what’s up with owning a house and how is that even possible? She didn’t ask: Why if I have one drink before bed I wake up at 3 a.m. to sweat it out or when are we all going to die? Those are 33-year-old questions.
I have no idea what 43-year-old questions might be. Probably stuff about eye cream and what to bring to a divorce party. It’s fine that I don’t know yet. Today’s about 23.
Today I’m saying, “Try to relax and remain open.”
Followed up by: “Plan for what you want now and prepare for that to change.”
I’m saying some really true garbage. Really true because those are two of the best things I’ve learned in the past 10 years. Garbage because I ignore those two things multiple times each day. Those things and a bunch of other acquired wisdom too, like not to eat a cabbage-based salad on a plane. I’ve made that mistake several times and I know it’s wrong and I still might do it again.
But my driver doesn’t know about my plane salads. She says, “Wow. You’ve got it figured out.” She says, “I wish I could just fast-forward time to be where you are.”
We’re pulling into the terminal when she says that, so I let it ride, basking in nailing it for a moment before exiting her car. Then give her the old wink ’n’ wave, throw my duffle over my shoulder, and head into the airport like some super chic Saint Nick.
The cinematically correct thing to do is to turn around at the last moment and yell to her, “You can’t fast-forward it! And you shouldn’t try!” but I don’t because I’m a normal person who only occasionally does cinematically correct things, like that one time I used that power loader to fight that alien. So I’ll write it now:
At 23, I was living in Boston. I’d just graduated from college, having studied theology and English, with a faith, peace, and justice minor thrown in there to ensure I was marketable in the workplace. I had a girlfriend, but wasn’t yet out to most of my friends and family. I worked at a high school during the day and an improv theater at night. I lived in a rat-infested apartment with two excellent roommates and a bunch of actual rats that were not on the lease but just showed up and ratted around.
I had no idea what the fuck I was doing or going to do. Kind of like now, when I still don’t.
As it turns out, between 23 and 33, I would realize I could have a career in comedy and drop out of social-work school. I would move home to Chicago and live with each of my sisters for a bit and be there when my Nana passed. For several years, I would travel with the circus. FOR REAL. After that first girlfriend and I broke up, I’d be destroyed. And I’d have eight more girlfriends after that first girlfriend and then marry the ninth. I’m glad I didn’t know those things were coming—I wouldn’t have spent time loving my social-work-school internship or gone to the hospital to be with my family all those times my Nana didn’t pass or have been able to honestly say “I love you” to those women I really loved and mean it.
Stand-up is a skill acquired only by time. That’s one of the reason I love it so much; it’s a trade built by show by show, joke by joke. Every comic starts a novice. Some become professionals and then mastercraftscomics. Natural propensity is important, but it’s nothing next to time. And for a comic, every moment onstage is perfect. Partly because you know you are building something—building experience, building yourself—and partly because nothing else exists just then. It’s you, the audience, the mic. It’s just the room as it is in that moment.
It would seem that a comic might be able to see 10 years for what it is: time passing decision by decision and moment by moment. I guess that’s what I’m supposed to remember now when I wonder where my kids will come from or how I’ll own a house or when are we all going to die. There’s no fast-forward function, and if there was, it’d be better not to use it. You’d miss all that stage time. You’d miss being in the room.