(Originally performed at Is This A Thing?)
I feel like part of a freak show.
From the moment we walk in, the stares and glares and whispers begin. We, the red-black-and-white-clad drunkards, amid a sea of blue-and-gold-clad drunkards. We, the nine Nebraska Cornhusker football fans, surrounded by 200 Michigan Wolverine fans at this Ann Arbor watering hole.
Mere hours before, Nebraska had narrowly defeated Michigan in dramatic fashion at the Big House, one of college football’s most hallowed stadiums, so we were fully prepared for an icy reception. But it was not enough to deter us from our alcohol-fueled post-game mission: karaoke.
Because after you’ve been drinking cans of cheap beer outside for 10 hours, nothing sounds better than karaoke. Except for pizza.
Our mission had led us here, The Circus Bar, the only karaoke establishment in downtown Ann Arbor, according to Yelp. Two-and-a-half star review be damned, let’s do this.
A row of billiard tables line the long side of the L-shaped establishment. On the other side, a stage. And smack in the middle is at what looks like a concession stand. The low, bright yellow laminate half-moon counter encircles a half-dozen women working furiously beneath a fake lion’s head. But instead of slinging popcorn and cotton candy, they are pouring shots of Jager and popping caps off Miller Lite bottles.
The walls are covered in circus-themed murals. A lion tamer and his beast. A mustachioed ringmaster and old-timey tightrope walkers. And one wall with nothing but clowns – The Sad Clown, The Hobo Clown, The Jolly Clown playing saxophone -- images pulled straight from my nightmares and slapped onto a dingy wall to the left of the karaoke stage.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the only open tables in the entire bar are in front of the horrifying clown mural, so we stake our claim to Clown Corner, a small piece of land in our enemy’s territory.
Once retrieving our first round of PBRs from the concession … bar, something else becomes clear: These people ain’t got NO karaoke skills. I shake my head like a disappointed mother as a group of frat boys slur through “I Want It That Way” and a pair of just-turned-21-year-olds completely fuck up the words to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
At this moment, I finally understand the plight of The Sad Clown on the mural behind me. I feel your pain, dude.
My friend Matt and I had spearheaded the karaoke bar mission, so we immediately approach the “sound booth” to put our names in for a few different songs. The karaoke jockey, or KJ, as I like to call them, has a bit of an attitude.
He gives us the once-over as he presses an ear into ginormous headphones. “We’ve got a lot of people who want to sing tonight, guys.”
He’s taking himself a little too seriously for a KJ at a circus-themed bar in Ann Arbor. But again, this is not our home turf, so we roll with it.
We keep to ourselves in Clown Corner until a few songs later, Matt is called to the stage by his brand spanking new nickname, Big Rascal.
See, the night before, some of my friends had gone to the liquor store to procure tailgating beer, and while waiting in line, a couple of, we’ll call them vagrants, started chatting up Matt, who has legitimately been mistaken for Josh Sitton, a bearded, shaggy-haired 6-foot-3, 318-pound offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers.
“You look like a guy I should know,” one of them said to Matt, who shrugged his shoulders and left with his wares. After Matt walked out, another friend overheard the vagrant say, “That guy right there, that guy is a big rascal.”
And that, my friends, is how nicknames are born. And truly, it’s kind of hard to believe that hasn’t been Matt’s nickname his entire life.
So now Big Rascal is on stage, donning head-to-toe Nebraska apparel. He begins crooning “Runaround Sue,” a classic karaoke jam that, it turns out, is particularly popular with people at circus-themed bars, especially when sung by a giant teddy bear of a man with a surprisingly smooth voice. They love him. We start chanting “Rascal! Rascal! Rascal!” The whole bar chimes in.
The space between our group and the locals dwindles a little, and now there’s some comingling between enemy factions.
And soon it’s my turn to take the stage. In the back of my mind, I know there’s still a small chance of being booed for what I’m wearing and my team affiliation, so I’ve really gotta bring it. Big Rascal throws me a pair of sunglasses, and I grab the microphone as the electronic, bass-heavy intro of “Intergalactic” by the Beastie Boys plays.
Well, now, don’t you tell me to smile, you stick around I’ll make it worth your while, got numbers beyond what you can dial, maybe it’s because I’m so versatile.
The Circus Bar goes wild. I flawlessly rap for the next 3 minutes and 30 seconds and bust out some sweet robot moves, which are aided by the estimated 47 beers I’d consumed day. I have to use every ounce of restraint not to do a mic drop as I walk off the stage.
The high fives are flowing on my return to Clown Corner, which all of the sudden has become THE place to be.
My next trip to the concession bar is a little different. The glares have dissipated, but the stares and whispers remain. Only now, they’re GOOD stares and whispers.
“Hey, it’s Maggie!”
“Dude, Maggie! You’re awesome! Let me buy you a drink!”
My red Nebraska hoodie has transformed from a target of ridicule to a target of praise. I’m a flippin’ celebrity up in here. We all are. And we won them over with the power of karaoke.
When we arrived, I felt like part of a freak show because I didn’t belong. But now, I still feel like part of a freak show, the REAL freak show that is the entirety of The Circus Bar. Everyone in here is a freak, and I freaking love it.
As we leave after last call, visions of future weekends at the Circus Bar unfurl in my mind. In these visions, they’re still talking about the legendary night of Big Rascal, Maggie and the Nebraska crew. Or at the very least, the patrons have stepped up their karaoke game so The Sad Clown isn’t quite so sad.
(Originally performed at Second-Hand Stories.)
Patrick John Redmond the first is my grandfather, and he’s 94 years old.
By now, he’s been retired longer than he worked. He has the kindest blue eyes and the sweetest laugh. He’s probably the best human on the planet, and I’ve only really come to appreciate that in the last couple years.
So now, whenever I go home to visit my family in Omaha, Nebraska, I make sure to set aside some time to spend with my grandpa, and most of his stories, I’ve just recently learned. It makes me wish I’d started asking him questions and letting him do all the talking years ago. I mean, seriously, I’d trade all of our conversations about my stupid high school soccer games and college English courses for more stories of his time overseas during World War II or his life with my grandmother, who died six years ago.
Anyway, last Christmas, I spent a solid 2 hours listening to my grandpa, and this story in particular stood out to me, especially because he and I have always bonded over sports.
In 1964, my grandpa and grandma and another couple, Jim and Judy, planned a week-long trip to St. Louis and they had tickets to see the St. Louis Cardinals football team play the Baltimore Colts at old Busch Stadium that October.
My grandpa says, “The Colts had that famous quarterback, oh, what was his name?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
Hey, it was 50 years ago. Give him a break.
Well that October, the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team made an incredible late push for the National League pennant. With 12 games to play, the Cards trailed the Phillies by 6½ games and four teams still had a mathematical chance to win the pennant. On the last day of the season, the Cardinals came from behind to beat the Mets to win the National League and earn a trip to the World Series to face the American League champion New York Yankees.
It was amazing for St. Louis fans, but it also meant the NFL would have to move the Cardinals vs. Colts football game to Baltimore because the World Series took priority for use of Busch Stadium.
My grandparents and their friends already had their vacation planned, and the football game was only part of it, so they went to St. Louis anyway.
But, my grandpa and his buddy, Jim, also loved baseball. So they decided, what the heck, let’s go down to Busch Stadium and see if we can get some tickets to Game 1 of the World Series. It was Oct. 7, 1964. “The girls didn’t mind,” my grandpa says. “They went shopping.”
My grandpa and Jim found a scalper and bought two tickets in the upper deck, first base side. My grandpa doesn’t remember how much they paid for the tickets, but “we were on vacation, and it was the World Series.”
They went in early to watch batting practice and to get all of their money’s worth for the day. Before the game started, my grandpa and Jim hit up the concession stand for a couple of oat sodas and hot dogs. While standing in line, they struck up a conversation with the man behind them. He was from New York and in town for business, so it just worked out for him to come to the game. However, when he bought his World Series tickets, they made him buy tickets for all four games in St. Louis, and he was only going to be there for games 1 and 2, and then he’d go back to New York. He asked my grandpa if they wanted to buy the tickets for games 6 and 7 tickets from him. He had four seats together in the lower deck, first base side.
“There was no guarantee the series would even go to 6 or 7 games, so it was a risk,” my grandpa says. “But he offered us a reasonable price and we couldn’t pass it up.” Like he said before, they were on vacation, and it was the World Series.
My grandpa and Jim took their seats and settled in for Game 1. “The ballpark was jumpin,” my grandpa says. They had a great time watching the Cardinals come from behind to win. “I couldn’t tell you the score, but everyone was drinking and cheering, and it was hard not to be excited.” The final score was 9-5.
The next day, the Yankees won game 2 when the Cardinals’ bullpen blew it for starting pitcher Bob Gibson. My grandpa wasn’t in the stands for that one, but they were still in St. Louis, and now he had a lot more riding on the outcome of each game.
“Bunch of bums,” my grandpa says of the bullpen, shaking his head. “But Bob Gibson, he was something else.”
My grandpa loves Bob Gibson. Bob Gibson is from Omaha, and like most mid-sized cities, any local sports hero transcends team fandom. So even if you didn’t like the Cardinals, you liked Bob Gibson. And it was easy to be a fan of Bob Gibson. He went to Omaha Technical High School and Creighton University, where he actually played basketball. After graduation, he played for the Harlem Globetrotters for a year before joining the Cardinals baseball organization. Nine-time all-star, 1968 National League MVP, two Cy Young Awards and inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981. You know, not bad.
The World Series went to New York for game 3, and the Yankees took that one on a walk-off Mickey Mantle home run during what would be the baseball legend’s final World Series. St. Louis won game 4 to tie the series at two games apiece, which meant it would at least go to a Game 6. My grandparents extended their stay in St. Louis by a couple days.
Bob Gibson pitched again in Game 5 and this time, he went the distance. He pitched a 10-inning complete game, and the Cardinals won it on Tim McCarver’s three-run homer in the 10th.
Oct. 14, 1964, and my grandpa and grandma along with their friends, Jim and Judy, were in the lower deck, first base side at old Busch Stadium.
“Your grandmother didn’t care much about baseball,” my grandpa says, “but she knew it was historic and that we’d spent money on the tickets. She had a ball. We all did. And we were secretly rooting against the Cardinals, just so we could come back for Game 7.”
My grandpa got his wish. The Yankees took Game 6, powered by another Mickey Mantle home run, and tied the series at three games apiece.
The next day, Oct. 15, 1964, the fearsome foursome from Omaha, Nebraska, was back at old Busch Stadium. And wouldn’t you know it, Bob Gibson was back on the mound on two days’ rest. He started three World Series games in a span of eight days.
“It was incredible,” my grandpa says, shaking his head. “I don’t know how that guy did it, but it was masterful.”
Bob Gibson pitched another complete game and the Cardinals won the World Series against the New York Yankees. Bob Gibson was of course named the World Series MVP.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about this story is the way my grandfather tells it. The twinkle in his eye and the smile on his face shows how much he loves baseball, but even more than that, it’s the way he shakes his head and chuckles at how the stars perfectly aligned to give him an amazing life experience.
“We never did get that fella’s name who sold us the tickets. I sure would’ve loved to send him a thank you card in New York. … And I never did get to see that Johnny Unitas play.”
Did I mention that my grandfather has a great laugh?
(Originally performed at Serving the Sentence.)
It felt like I had just run a marathon.
But I hadn’t. I was still 4.2 miles from finishing my fifth Chicago Marathon.
The miles had been clicking by as planned. I had spent the previous nine months training for this 26.2-mile race with the intention of not only running it A LOT faster than I ever had, but also running it fast enough to earn a qualifying mark for the Boston Marathon. I told everyone about this goal. I wrote about it on my blog, I told my training buddies, family, friends, anyone who would ask. I believe saying your goals out loud makes them real and holds you accountable, so I put myself all the way out there. And I also put in more miles, more hours, more literal blood, sweat and tears, than I ever had -- and it worked. I got faster and more confident, and although the training had been difficult, I had enjoyed it.
Because for the first time in years, I was running for all the right reasons.
I wasn’t running to escape something, or to fill the void. I was running because I wanted to. For the joy of it.
In the recent past, running was a coping mechanism as I went through some difficult life changes. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s what I needed at the time, and it helped get me to a better place. A place where all of the joy returned.
I had come so far, figuratively and now literally. At each mile marker I would check my watch, and I was right on target. I made it to mile 22, feeling confident. I told myself, “Only 4.2 miles to go. It’s just 35 minutes of your life. You can do this.”
And seemingly, just like that, a searing pain in my left hip overwhelmed my body and began to infect my brain. It was becoming difficult to keep my stride and fatigue was coming on.
The miles were not clicking by quickly anymore. I became enraged by every song on my playlist and kept furiously skipping to the next one. I would look up, hoping the mile markers on Michigan Avenue would become larger, but they still looked so tiny and so, so far away.
I checked my watch and the seconds, minutes were adding up too fast. My goal, my Boston qualifying hopes, were slipping away.
I was fighting off tears and trying to repeat my mantra — “it’s only 10 minutes out of your whole life, you can do this” — but the pain became unbearable. I finally reached the turn onto Roosevelt Road — and the wretched bridge hill that I knew was waiting for me at mile 26. It was going to require everything I had left to propel myself those final .2 miles into Grant Park.
I made it a few steps up the bridge but then I had to start walking. My entire left leg from hip to toe was rendered utterly useless, and my back hurt so badly that I couldn’t stand up straight. I was hobbling along like a car with a flat tire, veering off to the right, trying to steady myself while on the verge of collapsing from pain and exhaustion. At that moment, a stranger pulled alongside me. She looped her left arm through my flailing right arm and said, “Come on, we can do this.” She said it with a calming confidence, and I’m not sure I believed her, but I picked up my feet and started to shuffle along with her anyway. A few seconds later, she unhooked her arm and told me to keep going.
I made it a few more steps before stumbling into a George Romero-era-zombie-like-walk-thing. A volunteer approached me. “Ma’am, are you OK?”
“I’m gonna finish!” I shouted through clenched teeth as I choked back the tears. If I fell down, I knew they would haul me off the course, and there was no way in hell I wasn’t going to cross that goddamn finish line.
A second volunteer approached me. “I’m gonna finish!” I said it as much for my benefit as for hers.
And then I broke into a run. I had to. That’s just what you do, you RUN across the finish line, no matter what. My arms flailed wildly and I swung my left leg around as best I could while hunched over and wobbling with every step.
I finished the race.
And I missed qualifying for Boston by 24 seconds.
Immediately after crossing the line, a medical volunteer, Chris, was at my side. He put his arm around me and grabbed my hand to steady me. I was still drifting to the right, and the dizziness hit me hard. He led me to get my finisher’s medal and some water. He asked me questions to make sure I was lucid and to assess any potential injuries, but all I remember saying was, “I just couldn’t do it. I had it. It was right there. I just couldn’t do it.”
We reached the medical tent, and Chris passed me off to a small army of medical volunteers. They led me to a cot and helped me lay down. Nurses and med students surrounded my bed, covered me with hospital blankets and elevated my feet on a box. They gave me water and Gatorade and potato chips and took my vitals. Nothing to worry about, I was just dizzy, dehydrated, physically destroyed and emotionally defeated.
Fifteen minutes later, a med student checked my vitals again, and I was ready to try sitting. The nurse, Andrea, pulled me up as I swung my feet over the side of the cot. For the first time, I looked at my medal. And I started sobbing.
Andrea sat down on the cot across from me and held my hand. “I know you’re disappointed and I know it hurts, but you still accomplished something great today.”
After a few minutes, I stood up and walked around the tent, and this time, I could stand up straight and I didn’t feel dizzy, so they signed my discharge papers, and Andrea walked with me to the exit.
Every couple minutes during the slow, painful march to meet my friend, Jennifer, I would burst into tears. I couldn’t believe I had worked so hard for so long and come so close only to fall just short.
I finally reached our meeting spot, and Jennifer was waiting for me. On sight, I began crying. She enveloped me in a huge hug and told me she was proud of me. For the next hour, I abandoned my pity party and tried my best to revel in the actual party happening around me.
When I got home, I fielded dozens of text messages and phone calls and Facebook notifications. I attempted to process what I had just gone through and cope with the intense physical and unyielding mental anguish. I broke down in tears again and again.
Hours later, following celebratory beers and burgers with friends, I finally got the courage to look up my official results — and I lost it all over again. 24 fucking seconds. I had it. I was right there. I just couldn’t do it. I replayed those final miles over and over in my head. I should’ve been stronger, I should’ve pushed harder.
And then, before getting ready for bed, I composed a Facebook post.
“The drawback of telling everyone your goals and dreams is that when you fall short, you do so publicly,” I wrote. “Today, I ran my fifth Chicago Marathon, and ultimately, I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do. And while I know that time will help that wound heal — and motivate me to try again — it’s still difficult.
“But in the end, I believe this day served to remind me of the good people in the world. From the incredible support from my friends (especially Jennifer, who drove all the way from Cincinnati just to meet me at the finish line), to every spectator who yelled my name, to the stranger at mile 26 who looped her arm into mine and helped me start running again, to the volunteer who steadied me when I thought I would collapse after I finished, to the nurse in the medical tent who held my hand while I sobbed and told me that I still accomplished something great today.
“Yes, I fell short, but I didn’t fail.”
What happened next amazed me.
Almost instantly, dear friends and vague acquaintances, runners and non-runners, were posting comments, and each one of them lifted my spirits. Their words were filled with support, compassion and above all, love.
And the kind words just kept coming — and the tears kept coming. But now, the tears were not of defeat and disappointment, they were of inspiration and gratitude. And then late that night, I returned to the results web page.
Holy shit, Maggie. You did it. You fought. You finished. You ran faster than you ever have. You overcame obstacles. You inspired people. You DID accomplish something great today.
The next day, every conversation I had about the race helped me gain more perspective, and seeing a dozen brutally honest and horrifying finish line photos – the zombie shuffle, frame by frame, in high definition -- showed me just how close I was to not finishing at all.
Yes, I’m still very disappointed that I didn’t qualify for Boston. But I have no regrets. Some things you simply can’t prepare for, and we can only push our minds and bodies so far. I did my best, I finished, and that’s good enough. With every passing day, I become more thankful for the experience, and I become more motivated to give my goal another shot.
In the end, it turns out the best part of telling everyone your goals and dreams is that when you fall short, you do so publicly. And everyone helps you get back up again.
(Performed at Serving the Sentence on March 9, 2014)
I knew exactly what I needed to do: eat chocolate.
“How much longer until trick-or-treating?” I whine, tugging at the bottom of my cheerleading costume. I hate wearing skirts. And dresses. And tights. They’re stupid. Why did I want to dress up like a cheerleader anyway? I just like how they dance. My mom and dad took me to a football game a couple weeks ago at the high school and I loved watching the cheerleaders dance to the band music and especially the halftime show. It looked like so much fun.
So I told my mom I wanted to be a cheerleader for Halloween and she found me a black-and-white sweatshirt and a red skirt and white tights and my neighbor’s old red-and-yellow pom-poms, which aren’t the same colors as the pom-poms that the high school cheerleaders have. Those are red and black and white, but my neighbor went to the all-girls high school so they had different colors. I didn’t mind so much though because the pom-poms were definitely the best part of the costume, way more better than the stupid skirt.
“We’ll go trick-or-treating after dinner,” my mom says as we walk into school. I’m in kindergarten and today is Halloween and it’s going to be the most fun day of school ever. My mom is one of the room mothers so that means she is helping throw the party for my class. She has a big bag of apples so we can bob for apples later. I don’t know what that means but she says it will be really fun. The other room mother, Mrs. Gage, Lindsey’s mom, is bringing the cupcakes because she’s better at baking than my mom. My mom is really good at writing though so she made all the placemats and other signs and stuff for the party. I hope I can write as good as her someday.
Before the party is the school parade. Last year my mom took me to watch the parade when my sister, Tracy, was in fifth grade and she dressed up like a punk rocker and dyed her hair pink and I jumped up and down and told my mom I couldn’t wait to be in the Halloween parade next year.
The kindergartners get to start the parade, which is really cool because little kids never get to do anything first. It stinks being the littlest. I have two older sisters and an older brother and they’re always bossing me around and picking on me and sometimes my sister Tracy beats me up but she’s a lot bigger than me so I can’t do anything about it. But, ha-ha, today the little kids are the best because we get to start the parade.
My mom made me put on my jacket, but you can still see my red skirt and white tights and my pom-poms so that’s OK and it isn’t that cold outside but it’s kinda windy. The parade starts with the kindergartners walking through our classroom and then the other kidergarten classroom so everyone can see our costumes. Then we walk single-file through the first-grade classrooms so everyone can see our costumes and then the first-graders get in line behind us. And we go through all the classrooms in the whole school so everyone in the whole school can see our costumes and then the whole school joins in on the parade. A lot of the older girls touch my pom-poms as I go by and I shake them and say “go fight win!” like my sister told me to do and they smile and I think everyone likes my costume.
Then we get to the sixth-graders’ classroom and I see my sister Tracy and tell her “go fight win!” and she messes up my hair. I hate when she does that, it’s so embarrassing. But she’s smiling at my cheer so I think she likes my costume too. She dressed up like a hippie this year. I don’t know what that means but she has her hair parted down the middle and is wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and sunglasses. She looks pretty.
Then the parade goes outside and we walk down 78th street to Grover Street and then turn back up 79th Street to the school. Everyone’s parents and baby brothers and sisters and all the teachers are outside to watch the parade. The sun is shining and it’s real windy so my hair is in my face and my pom-poms are blowing all over, so I hold onto them super tight because I can’t lose the pom-poms.
My mom told me to take extra-special care of them because they are my neighbor Angie’s and she was nice enough to loan them to me so I have to be responsible.
After the parade, we go back to our classroom and it’s decorated with orange and black and there’s a big barrel filled with water and I think those are apples floating in there and there are cupcakes and spooky music is playing. This is the coolest party I’ve ever been to, even cooler than Gina Mangiameli’s birthday party last year at the pool.
The party ends and I help my mom clean up the room. I don’t even mind cleaning because it was such a fun party and then we drive home. “How much longer until-trick-or-treating?” I say again, bouncing up and down in my seat.
“Just a couple more hours.”
AHHHHH!!! I can’t wait!!!!
I have time to play before dinner and I hope that makes the hours go faster. The sun is out and the yard is covered in leaves, and my neighbors Randy and Tony help me build a leaf fort. Randy is dressed up like He-Man and Tony is a cowboy. Their costumes are so cool. I’m still wearing my cheerleading costume even though my mom told me it’s not ladylike to climb trees in a skirt and I’m getting my white tights all dirty.
“Are you guys excited to go trick-or-treating?” I ask as I swing myself up onto a branch. Randy and Tony are my best friends but we’re not in the same kindergarten class so I don’t get to see them as much anymore.
“Yeah! We are going to get so much candy!” Randy says while hanging upside down from the lowest branch on our tree. I wish I could do that but I’m too scared of falling.
“I know! I heard the Palmesanos have Snickers this year and the Blairs always have Kit-Kats,” Tony says while piling up the side of our leaf fort. It’s almost as tall as me now.
“Yeah, but don’t go to Old Mrs. Johnson’s,” Randy says, pointing to the brick house down the street, “She just gives out bags of five pennies. That’s dumb.”
All this talk of candy and trick-or-treating, I am so excited. I’m so excited that I don’t think I can take it anymore! I’m so excited that … I kinda feel like I have to pee. Like that time we were playing hide-and-seek and me and Randy found a really good hiding place but as soon as we got there I was so excited that I had to pee and then I gave away the hiding place when I ran inside to go to the bathroom and Randy was like, “Oh, man, Maggie! You ruined it!”
Oh gosh, I really gotta go. It’s hard to do that thing where you close your legs together tight when you’re up in a tree. Maybe I better get down now. Yes, I need to hurry because I don’t want to pee my pants ESPECIALLY not in front of my friends and ESPECIALLY not in my Halloween costume.
I jump down from the tree and oh no. Oh no. I can’t hold it anymore. There is something warm running down my legs and onto my white tights. And then I run as fast as I can to the front door of my house. “Where are you going, Maggie?” I hear Tony shout.
“I gotta go inside now, see you guys later!” I yell as the screen door slams shut behind me. I keep running until I find my mom standing over the sink in the kitchen.
“Mom?” I start crying. “I … ruined my costume.”
Mom looks up and sees me tugging on my skirt again. She isn’t mad or anything. I don’t have accidents a lot, honest, I just get too excited sometimes.
I go into the bathroom and take off my wet tights and underwear and skirt and my mom puts them in the washer machine. They’re not going to be ready in time for trick-or-treating though.
I pout at dinner. “I don’t like meatloaf,” I say.
“Well, you’re not going trick-or-treating unless you eat,” my mom says.
“Fine. I don’t have a stupid costume anymore anyway. Halloween is stupid.” I eat a couple bites of meatloaf and potatoes and then stomp to my room.
My sister Tracy is getting ready to go trick-or-treating with her friends. The big kids get to go trick-or-treating without parents. They’re so lucky.
Me and Tracy share a room and she sees me staring at her in the mirror. I’m laying on my bed pouting. She walks over to my side of the room and then opens my dresser and pulls something out of the top drawer. It’s a pair of red sweatpants.
“Just tell everyone it’s too cold outside to wear a skirt. Besides, you still have your pom-poms, and that’s what makes a cheerleader a cheerleader, right?”
She messes up my hair and leaves the room. I pull on the sweatpants and grab my pillowcase, which I’m gonna use to hold the mountains of chocolate I get from my neighbors.
Skirts are stupid anyway.
(Performed at 20x2 Chicago on Oct. 19, 2013; You can watch my live performance here, or check out the embedded version below starting at the 3:22 mark.)
I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.
Many a motivational quote says that in order to be successful, you have to eliminate the word “can’t” from your vocabulary. While training for my first marathon, I was given that advice over and over again.
And yet here I am, at mile 24, and all I can think of is can’t. All of my energy is concentrating on can’t.
“Maggie, you can’t pee your pants.”
I’d been running for four-plus hours in unseasonably warm October weather, drinking water at every stop along the way, when the urge to pee hit me. Hard. I scanned through the options in my mental Rolodex, which admittedly, was not firing on all cylinders. One, I could stop at the next aid station and use a port-o-potty. But this was my first marathon and I was afraid if I stopped running, I physically wouldn’t be able to start again. Or two, I could try to hold it for another 2.2 miles.
I decided on option two, to hold off on going No. 1.
Every step is a strain on my bladder. Great. Just another part of my body that’s now in pain, to go along with my intensely aching knees, hips, calves, ankles, feet and back.
Then I realize, I am in danger of pissing myself in front of my friends, family and a million strangers at the Chicago Marathon.
That’s when the can’t takes over.
“Maggie, you can’t pee your pants.”
The last mile is hell. It’s hot and I hurt and now I’m convinced I’m going to have a goddamn bladder infection to go along with my possibly-but-almost-definitely sprained ankle.
I make the turn into Grant Park and now it’s only 800 meters between me and my goal. I kick into whatever semblance of a high gear I have left. Arms raised in a V, I cross the finish line.
YES! I DID IT! I RAN THE FUCKING CHICAGO MARATHON!
And then, in my most triumphant moment of joy, pain and relief, I promptly pee my pants.
I couldn’t help it.
(First performed at Story Club on April 4, 2013. The theme for the night was "Fools," and I won the audience vote.)
Hi there, Mrs. Jones? My name’s Maggie. I’m the one who has been talking to all of the families here in Hanover this summer about those study guides to help your kids with schoolwork. It only takes a quick minute to show you. Do you have a place to sit down?
I have recited that script about 10,000 times. It is seared into my soul. It literally haunts my dreams.
That’s what happens when you devote two summer vacations to selling educational books door-to-door 80 hours a week to unsuspecting moms in New Hampshire, Vermont and Upstate New York.
You’re probably wondering, “What the hell was I thinking?”
For starters, I was 18, a freshman in college, and thought I was pretty damn awesome. The ditzy gal who recruited me for this crazy job had been one of the top first-year salespeople the previous summer. She made $30,000. I figured if she could make 30 grand, I could at least do half that.
I prepared all spring semester, but the week before I was set to leave, my mom said, “Wait, you were serious about this?” I pleaded my case – “I’ll get to travel! I’ll make a lot of money! And I’m 18 so you can’t stop me!” – and my mom begrudgingly relented. So, one Saturday morning in May of 1999, I packed up my Ford Taurus and caravanned with about 60 other students to Nashville for a week of sales school.
Yep, sales school. It’s a thing. It’s a thing for students who decide to work for the Southwestern Company. You go to their headquarters with thousands of other eager/foolish college kids to learn your sales pitch, be force-fed inspirational sayings and become part of what I now somewhat affectionately call “the book cult.”
As a member of the book cult, I learned many valuable lessons that, sadly, were not featured in the study guides I sold.
Starting with …
Lesson 1: How to find a place to live
At the end of sales school, my managers assigned me two roommates and we headed to New Hampshire. Without anywhere to live. Upon arriving in picturesque Hanover, home to the prestigious Dartmouth College, us three girls literally started knocking on doors to ask people if we could stay with them.
Remember, this was not 1959, it was 1999.
Eventually we found a retired couple willing to let us live on the second floor of their guest house. The first floor was already occupied by their brother, Mounir, a hard-of-hearing, 91-year-old Syrian. We quickly learned to appreciate his incessant hummus-making and loud Arabic singing.
The following summer, my two roommates and I rolled into Cortland, New York, during graduation weekend, so there were no hotel rooms available. That first night, we wound up sleeping in a church rec room before hitting up mass and asking members of the parish to take us in. Would you believe four families offered to put us up? I still keep in touch with the older couple we lived with, Joe and Linda, and they still refer to the place I slept as “Maggie’s room.”
Also, once you’ve knocked on someone’s door and asked them if you can live in their basement for three months, asking people to buy stuff isn’t that big of a deal.
Lesson 2: How to manipulate mothers
Turns out, moms will buy stuff just because their friends do. Women let me, a perfect stranger, into their homes because I had a clipboard with names of people in their neighborhood. “A lot of families have been picking up these study guides for their kids, like the Smiths and the Johnsons and the Petersons, you know them!” I sold books to Woodstock, Vermont, PTA president Debbie Conners. I’d drop her name, and boom, moms would bust out their checkbooks left and right.
Lesson 3: How to gain 20 pounds in just 12 weeks
When you hear the phrase “door-to-door book salesperson,” you probably picture someone hoofing it from house to house, hauling heavy volumes and walking miles upon miles. Wrong. I worked in rural areas and drove around all day, every day. The only exercise I got was walking from my Taurus to the front door and back. And I ate like total shit. PB&J, Pringles and Sunbelt granola bars were my staples. I even started mooching off my clients, telling them I forgot my lunch. One time I interrupted a family’s movie night, gave them my sales pitch, then ate hot fudge sundaes and watched the end of “The Mummy” before moving on.
Lesson 4: How to live large
The key to being a high roller is to be a total cheap-ass. The more you spend, the less you save. Buying superfluous things like soda or nutritious food meant less money in my pocket, so I gave it up. My total haul for two summers of book-selling cheapskate hell was more than $25,000. I bought a ‘96 Chevy Corsica with cash straight up. I graduated without a single student loan. And to this day, I still don’t drink soda.
Lesson 5: Work hard, play hard
Our goal Monday through Saturday was to knock on our first door by
8 a.m. and keep going until 10 p.m. We were to give 30 sales demonstrations every day. “Each no gets you closer to the yes!” Then on Sundays, the 60 book kids spread throughout the area would get together for a day of organized fun.
We whitewater rafted in New York, we ate fresh lobster on the beach in Maine, and we wandered around historic Boston. And because I was kinda good at selling books – not to brag, but I was the No. 23 first-year salesperson – I earned incentive trips. First, a Carnival cruise to Key West and Cozumel, Mexico. The second year, it was a week in Thailand.
Lesson 6: How to not give a fuck
In sales school, you are taught to smile no matter what. Through barking dogs and slammed doors and threats to call the police and rain and heat and asshole dads and bitchy moms and bratty kids. Then somehow, through all that smiling, you really do stop caring what other people think of you. Plus, when you rock a turquoise fanny pack for 12 weeks, your ego pretty much disappears.
You also stop freaking out about stuff. On the drive back home to Nebraska at the end of my first summer, I dropped my transmission 30 miles east of St. Louis. So, I left the Taurus at the mechanic’s shop and rode home with another bookseller in my caravan. Fucks given, zero.
Selling books wasn’t glamorous, and I spent a good chunk of time crying in my car over the constant rejection, homesickness and self-doubt. But I somehow made myself keep knocking on doors.
And the truth is, if I hadn’t sold books, I might never have had the balls to take jobs in Utica, New York, or Des Moines, Iowa, without knowing a soul. Or to move to the city and switch careers at age 30. Or to try storytelling or standup comedy or marathon running.
In the end, my book cult education actually did turn out to be worth its weight in study guides.