“You know what I think?” he says, riding shotgun in my car. “I think life’s like a connect-the-dot squirrel. Do you remember those connect-the-dots we did when we were kids?”
“Yeah. But how is that like life? And why a squirrel?”
“I don’t know why a squirrel – that’s just what I see.” He pauses. “I just think that everything that happens is connected to every other event, even when the connection doesn’t seem obvious at first. You know when a word pops in your head, and someone says it out loud?”
“That’s a part of it,” he says. “Those small coincidences, they just show how everything overlaps, and everything that happens is part of a bigger picture. One of the dots on the connect-the-dot squirrel.”
He looks right into my eyes. “When I die, if you look at my life from above, it’ll be a finished squirrel.”
Monday morning, 7:45 AM. I’m at work, going through my morning set-up routine: open the conference room, draw the blinds, turn on the computer. I notice a folded Wall Street Journal on my keyboard. There’s a post-it note on top, my boss’s handwriting. “Do you see your name in this article? – Dave.”
For a brief moment, I think maybe it actually says my name in the article even though I know I’ve done nothing particularly newsworthy (unless you consider me calling out the lady who cut in line at Trader Joe’s a hot news item).
But as I read the title, I groan. “The Most Powerful Person in the Office: Executive-Assistant Jobs May Be Thankless, but They Also Offer Big Impact.” I scan through the article – it’s about how Executive Assistants are more concerned with their boss’s lives than their own.
“Motherfucker,” I say, dropping my bag on the floor. Two seconds later, Dave appears in front of me, exhausting early morning energy oozing from his smile.
He points at the newspaper. “I thought you’d like that.” He doesn’t seem to notice that I kind of want to punch him in the face.
I’m Dave’s assistant, my official title “Assistant to the Head of School.” The truth is, I like Dave. He’s good at what he does. And I know he’s just trying to relate to me – to be fair, the article also called Executive Assistants “indispensible” and the “most powerful people in the office.” But it’s early, it’s Monday, and his effort to relate only reinforces the gap between what he thinks I am and what I want to believe I am.
“I am not a secretary. I am not a secretary,” I whisper when Dave walks away.
This is the mantra I mutter under my breath when the copier jams, when 18 teachers ask me “Is the meeting in here?” even though it’s clearly written on the dry-erase board next to the door.
Because to them, I am a secretary. And not only that, I’m a good secretary. I know where everyone’s supposed to be every second of the day. When I see a stray walk by my door out of the corner of my eye, I loudly say, “Board Room,” and watch her turn in the other direction while I simultaneously send an email to schedule Dave’s visit to another school and intercept a solicitation call from the front desk.
This is not a throwaway job – it’s intense, and I care about the outcome. I care about the kids that go to this school. Compared to other people’s jobs that I hear about, my job is great, and I’m lucky to have it. The only problem is, this is not why I moved to Los Angeles.
I moved here to have adventures.
It’s Friday night, and I’m in my bedroom, doing one of those yearly purges of all the unnecessary shit I’ve collected. I’m trying to get rid of some things to free up space, but every piece of junk is suddenly so connected to a memory, it’s hard for me to part with it.
Buried at the bottom of the mound of t-shirts, I find a tiny backpack I used to carry. I unzip it.
I look inside and laugh. Of course. It’s full of bouncy balls.
That’s no surprise – I collect bouncy balls. I always have at least one on my person, usually around 10 in my purse, a few scattered in my car, and in fact, an entire drawer full in my bedroom. Just before I left Oklahoma (now two and a half years ago), my friends had roasted me. They gave me 250 bouncy balls with my name on them to toss them out into the world – 250 balls just waiting to go on adventures. I gave some away that night, but since then, I’ve been storing the rest in a drawer, 190 of them.
I pull a ball from the backpack and hold it between my fingers. It has a date written on it in Sharpie: 2/10/12.
I remember now why I separated these ones. These aren’t just any bouncy balls. These ones are special. I’ve marked each of them with either a name or a date.
The ones with the dates, I’ve found in random places – on the side of the road, in restaurants, buried in the grass outside a friend’s house – and I’ve saved them because I believed every time I found one, it was a sign from the Universe letting me know I was moving in the right direction. The ones with the names were gifts from my friends.
Of all the bouncy balls I have, these are the important ones because these are the ones with the stories attached to them.
I put the marked balls back in the backpack. These, I keep.
The 190 others, well, I don’t know what to do with them.
I’m sitting at my desk proofreading a report. I hear the buzz of an email come through, asking me to schedule a meeting.
Dave walks in. He stands in front of my desk, smiling. “Hey, this is yours, right? I found it outside, and I figured you lost it.” He reaches out, opens his palm.
It’s a bouncy ball. I’m speechless.
“It’s just a little joke,” Dave says, confused.
“No, It’s great.” I grab the ball. “You know, I…” I search for the words that might explain to my business-minded boss why it’s significant that he handed me this stupid toy. I have a feeling, “I’m magic,” won’t go over well, so I finally just settle on, “I collect these.”
“Oh really? Well, I’m glad I could add to your collection.” And he walks away.
I inspect the ball, holding it between my fingers. It’s an eyeball.
This just can’t be. I’ve been trying to stop believing in fantastic things like magic. I’ve been trying to be logical and realistic. I’ve been trying to be an adult.
But this is just too big a coincidence. I think – no, you know what? Fuck it! – I know that magic exists. I’m holding the evidence in my hand.
The Universe speaks to me. And because Dave just handed me this bouncy ball, there’s not a soul in the world that will ever be able to convince me otherwise.
It’s Wednesday, late afternoon. I pull up outside the Ice House in Pasadena.
They haven’t put out the open mic sign-up yet, so I go back and sit in my car for a few minutes, his texts running through my mind like headlines on a marquee. “I’ve decided to say yes to more things. Hang out with more new people. Branch out a little more. It was starting to feel all the same.”
Then: “I’ll still hang out with you. Just not gonna hang out as much.”
When I’d read those words, I read the underlying message: “I need to change my life to be happy, and that means I need less of you in it.”
“Why are you taking it so personally?” he had said later, in person. “It’s not about you.”
I’d stared at him, all the muscles in my body clenched in frustration, angry tears welling up in my eyes. Why am I taking it personally? Why am I taking it so personally?
Well, because of the injustice of it. We had spent our weekends together eating weed brownies, watching TV, going to breakfast on Saturdays, writing, going to mics – that’s what we did because that’s what I thought he wanted to do. Now he’s bored.
I think about all the times I chose to hang out with him on my couch instead of going to a mic, instead of running, instead of meeting up with friends, instead of so many things. I had suggested other things – I’d brought up seeing Bill Burr at the Wiltern, having a beer while we watch the football playoffs, riding the boats in Echo Park, taking a weekend trip to the Grand Canyon, running up the Baldwin Park stairs. But he’d dismissed all of them. He didn’t want to do those things.
Or more truthfully, he didn’t want to do those things with me.
Why am I taking it so personally?
Because I feel like I’m a little kid, and I just lost my best friend. But not like he died, or moved away, or even like he decided to ditch me for a cooler best friend. It’s like I had a best friend, and then I woke up one day and found out he never even existed.
Stop thinking about it. I take a deep breath and head back into the club.
When the mic starts, I sit in the back next to my friend Jonathan. Adam sits down to the left of me. There’s something about Adam that always makes me feel comfortable – he’s just an easy person to know.
A thought occurs to me. “Hey Adam,” I say. “It’s January 8th.”
He stares at me. “Okay.”
“It’s our half-birthday today.” Adam and I were both born on July 8th.
He laughs. “Oh yeah! Happy half-birthday!”
I turn to Jonathan. “Jonathan, it’s me and Adam’s half-birthday today.”
Jonathan rolls his eyes. “Oh. My God.”
But I think it’s cool that I’m sitting next to Adam on our half-birthday. I think it’s significant somehow.
I think it’s one of those squirrel moments.
Thursday night, I’m standing outside the Hollywood Hotel. I already went on, but I don’t want to go home, so I stand at the entrance with all the other comics.
A guy that looks vaguely familiar walks up. “You’ve been here awhile, right?”
“I mean,” he says, “you’ve been coming to this open mic for awhile.”
“Oh,” I laugh. “Well, I guess so.”
“I was here a couple years ago, and I remember you from then.”
The phrase “a couple years” hits me like a shot to the gut. “Shit,” I say. “Wow. Yeah. I guess that was me.”
I turn to my friend Jeff. “Jeff, I’ve been coming here for more than a couple years.”
“Oh God, that’s not a healthy line of thought,” Jeff says.
“Yep. Gonna think about that all night now. It’s the same thing over and over again. What am I doing with my life?”
And right then, just like that, it hits me. I know what I need to do. I know exactly what I’m supposed to do.
And it’s weird.
I have in my possession 190 bouncy balls without any stories attached to them.
I also have 190 days until my 32nd birthday.
I’m going on a quest to give these bouncy balls stories.
Here’s the plan: everyday, I will do something I wouldn’t normally do. Everyday, I will find a person with a story, big or small, and I will give them a bouncy ball until I have none left, until they’re all out in the world where they should be. I came here to live an adventure, but one hasn’t fallen in my lap, so maybe it’s time for me to find my own.
Every Monday, I’ll post a blog, a bouncy ball journal of sorts, about the people I meet, the things I do, the places I go, and the bouncy balls I leave to mark the adventure. If you’re interested in keeping up with me, you can track my progress and read my blog, but the truth is, I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing it for me. I’m doing it because something has to change here.
Partly, I’m trying to prove to myself that I’m not boring, that I enjoy new experiences and new people. Partly, this is one of those “get my shit together after a bad relationship” montages. But mostly, I believe that systematically getting rid of these bouncy balls will help me let go of some of the weight I’ve been carrying around inside.
I’m not looking for meaning. I’m not looking for a common thread or theme to come out of this, though I’m open to the chance that I could find one. There’s no big plan for the end, and I have no delusions that this is going to make me understand the meaning of life. When I turn 32 and finish this quest, I’ll just be 32.
The only thing I’m looking for are stories, and in those stories, tiny connections with other people.
Bouncy Ball # 1 – Adriana
“So what do people look at while they’re getting haircuts?” I ask.
Adriana runs a comb through my just-washed hair. “You know, it’s funny you asked that. Sometimes, I get customers who just stare right at themselves when they’re talking to me.”
“They don’t look at you?”
“Nope, right at their own mouths.”
“So they’re just like, ‘This is what I look like when I have a conversation.’ That’s pretty narcissistic.”
Adriana’s cell phone dings a text, and she puts down the scissors to respond. “I’m sorry about that,” she says when she’s finished. “My boyfriend’s coming to pick me up. We got robbed last month, and I’m still a little freaked out.”
“Yeah, I was the only one here. I was sitting at the front with one of our iPads, and a guy just walks in, grabs it, and runs.”
“Yeah, and I’m kinda ghetto, so I ran after him.”
“Wait, you chased a guy down the street? I don’t think you’re supposed to do that.”
“Well, I’m not just gonna let him get away with it!” She shakes her head. “I was talking mad shit, too.”
“Did you catch him?”
“Well, so I’m running after him screaming, ‘Thief!’ And no one’s paying attention to me. But he turns around to see where I am, and he trips and falls like a dumbass.”
“Oh my God!”
“I know! But right before I made it to him, a Mercedes Benz pulled up, and two guys wearing suits got out and pulled him into the backseat. Then the car just took off.”
“That’s crazy!” I say. “Maybe he’s from the future, and he needed that iPad to complete a task to save all of humanity.”
“So are you from here?” I ask.
“Yeah, I grew up here. I lived in New York for two years, but then I just had to get out of there.” She sighs. “There was this guy, and we spent so much time together, and then it went so bad that I had to physically move away from him.”
I nod. “I know how that is. I need to move away from here for the same reason.”
“Did you like New York?”
“Loved it,” she says. “It was a really good experience.” She pauses, her hand on her hip. “Actually, a lot of it was good because of him. We had some great times. But when it was over, every single thing in that city just reminded me of him. You know?”
“Yeah. I know.”
“So,” she says, clipping my hair up in giant rolls. “Where are you going to move?”
“I’m not really moving,” I say. “I just like to fantasize about it.”
“Oh,” she says.
“I have a plan, though,” I say. “Everyday, I’m going to do something that I normally wouldn’t do.”
“That’s a great plan. What are you doing today?”
“This,” I say, gesturing toward her in the mirror. “Getting my hair cut.” For the last three years, I’ve been getting my hair trimmed every six months at Supercuts. This haircut will cost me a hundred bucks with the tip. This is a fancy haircut.
“That’s awesome!” Adriana says. “I’m so glad I get to help create the new you!”
I chuckle. “Me too.”
“So are you doing anything fun tonight?” she asks.
“Well, I’m doing some open mics, so not really sure if that’s fun, but it’s something.”
“Oh cool. You know, the last time I went to an open mic, I went to see a friend of mine who also moved to New York.”
“Is he liking the standup scene in New York?”
“Well, yeah. Actually, the last time I talked to him, he said that he was walking down the street, thinking about what he was doing with his life, and he walked right by Louis CK. It was like a sign from the Universe that he should keep going.”
I smile. There aren’t a lot of people in the world who say things like, “a sign from the Universe.”
After I pay, I hand her a smiley face bouncy ball. “Here. I want you to have this.” That’s all I say.
She doesn’t ask questions. “Thank you!”
I walk to my car feeling pretty okay. Day one, story one, bouncy ball number one – this is the first of 190 bouncy balls.
Or to put it another way, it’s the first dot of 190 dots that make up my very own connect-the-dot squirrel.
Originally published 01/13/2014 at The Bouncy Ball Project