I sat there, palms sweating, trying to hex the basket of name slips in my favor. “Call my name next,” I channeled, psychically trying to force my name to be called.
I had been sitting in giant auditorium of the Flushing Town Hall surrounded by other eager storytellers hoping for a chance to perform at a Moth StorySlam. At these Open Mic-like events, storytellers come from near and far to share their spoken word around a theme. You’re guaranteed a packed crowd and at least a couple of mind-bendingly good stories, with a winner chosen by audience judges who goes onto the next level called the GrandSlam, which happen every couple of months. What you aren’t guaranteed is a chance to be one of the ten storytellers who get randomly picked to go onstage.
It was my third time I’d been to a StorySlam, and I’d been fortunate enough to have my name picked out of the hat the prior two times. I’d been very happy with both stories I’d shared — one about gay bathhouses and the other about tripping out of my mind and becoming a shroom superhero on NYE in 2010) — but I’d lost each time by 0.1–0.2 points. There’s a winner chosen by audience judges picked at random pre-show by the Producers (something that I object to personally — if you’re going to judging, then have it be from Pros who are storytellers themselves — though I understand why they do it democratically). Both prior times, I’d been beaten by the second-to-last person to hit the stage, after I’d sat there twiddling my thumbs as the forerunner, not-so-subtly hoping everyone yet to perform did well but not so well they beat my score. The Moth serves alcohol at these events, and it’s a pattern not only noticed by me but by others I’ve talked to that the drunker the judges get over the course of the evening, the higher the scores trend upwards. I have no authority to say the story I told was subjectively “better” than the older man who spoke of talking to a moose in the woods, but he did speak near the end of the evening and squeaked out a win.
And so here I sat in Flushing, at my third Storyslam, armed with a true-life, emotional story of coming out as the most powerful gay wizard in the history of the game Everquest, ready to bring down the house and win this thing. Sitting on the edge of my seat. Waiting to hear my name called. Hoping to get picked — ideally toward the end when the judges are feeling those good red wine vibes. But now, I’ve been waiting for three hours and there’s only one slip left to be plucked. And they read the name, and it is not “Philip Markle.” I could tell the second before the host announced it wouldn’t be my name because every time I’m chosen, the host furrows his/her brow like the name “Philip” is something they’ve never had to pronounce and then has a conniption over my last name (and poor handwriting). “Alright, let’s get “Philip Maaarrrbbble” to the stage everyone!
So I didn’t get picked. What was there to be angry at? It’s a game of chance, and I’ve no right to be upset. I was among six people out of 16 total entries that weren’t chosen that night. Those are pretty good odds, regardless, and I’d simply lost this round. But rationality didn’t stop my brain from imagining all the ways I’d jinxed it. Like thinking I should have waited until later to put my name in the tote bag because most of the names are skimmed off the top of entries in the tote bag — no one bothers to shuffle the bag pre-show. Or wishing I hadn’t invited my friend along — who had indeed been selected to tell a story — as if he had, in the grand randomness of the universe, taken my potential spot by his very presence. It was nutso thinking, and after fake smiling through the obligatory end-of-show-wrap-up-logistics, I justified ordering an Uber Pool home because I was sad and tired and wanted to get the fuck back to Brooklyn.
The rollercoaster of anticipation and disappointment from waiting to hear my name called made me think about my relationship with time. Time — the most precious thing we have on Earth and perhaps the thing I rail against the most. The thing that flows too fast when you need it and too slow when you’re waiting for something you want. Malleable, invisible, some would say not even real but invented by our minds…time.
In a perfect world, I would have made peace with the three hours I spent waiting and wanting to perform. I would have accepted the random outcome of the evening in advance. But, my toddler brain inside threw a tantrum: “I wanted to tell my story, damn it!” I deserved my chance to tell — I had come in that day with something important and personal to share and perfect for the theme. But I had not come to terms with the rules of engagement. There is no guarantee you will get to perform at a Moth StorySlam. You have no cosmic power to bargain your way in and change the fate of the night. Just like there is no such thing as being magically good at finding parking spaces. Either a space opens up while you’re looking or you’re going to drive around the block fruitlessly until you find a less desirable ending to your trip. Fate doesn’t exist and prayers don’t help you park your car.
This goes against my upbringing. My mother thought she was pyschic. She used to pray to The Angels whenever she was in trouble, and she’d swear that if she prayed sincerely, they would always get her out of it. Show her the way. Give her a lil’ boost. Help her find her car keys. My mom would tell me we have psychic powers in our bloodline. My Great Aunt choosing to not go on the Titanic. Apparantly, she had a Second Class ticket but chose to miss the trip after having a nightmare. I suppose I just don’t believe in magical thinking like that, despite my subconscious trying to telekinetically manipulate the name slips in the tote bag throughout the course of the evening.
What I can admit to is this: I am only happy when my time is paid off by opportunity. I can accept failure. I am truly OK if I tell a story, and it doesn’t go well and I lose (even if I quibble with the logistics of the judging). But at least I got the chance to tell it and let the chips fall as they will. I’m not OK with being denied the opportunity. So…I truly I am insane for pursuing a career in the arts, where there is no baseline guarantee of opportunity provided whatsoever. You have to get lucky — get your “big break.” The same day I waited in an auditorium in Flushing, I had sent out a mass invite to an upcoming one-man show, Sparkle Hour! I was checking my phone like a mad man, seeing the many responses, most of which in the vein of, “Sorry, I can’t make it, have a great show!!” These rejections particularly stung from industry who I wanted to come see it and see my voice onstage. I would be fine if anyone didn’t like the show, no sweat; I respect everyone’s opinion. “But, C’mon, give me a chance!” I railed, checking my email again and again at The Moth’s far-too-long intermission. I check my phone like an internet addict, and proved by a recent screen cap here:
I made it back home to bed and popped a Xanax, muting the gamut of my disappointment. It outweighed the innumerable ways I had been fortunate that day and failed to acknowledge or appreciate it. For example: I hadn’t been hit by a car. I was about to go to sleep in a nice, comfortable bed. I saw a great movie during the day. I had two callbacks for auditions. I had a wonderful catch-up chat with my dad. A lot of people said they would try to make it to my show. I came home to a dog who loves me.
How can I make time my friend, my ally, and not my tormentor? How can I improve my patience and ability to simply wait without reward. I can justify time spent when there’s a payoff, but can I accept when nothing comes of minutes except more time spent? Even though time is truly the only limited quantity of our lives, and is therefore the most precious thing on Earth, can I still treat it lightly? Like it’s a penny I’m flipping and not diamond for which I’m digging.
I don’t have a solution to the question posed by this story. Other than meditating, which helps erase time’s hold on me, this is something I hope I figure out with age. And despite the irony of writing a story about not getting a chance to tell a story, perhaps something did come out of all that waiting.