Open at the Same Time

shit show short stories

For my sister Portia <3

Read at “Holidays on Thin Ice” at Blackstone Brewery on Dec 5, 2015.

Open at the same time

Paulina Combow

When you share a bathroom with your enemy, it’s important to let them know who’s boss every now and then. When I was 16, getting ready for
my after school job at an ice cream shop, I had 10 minutes to spare and wanted to use that time to aggravate Portia, my younger sister, before I went off to scoop frozen treats for minimum wage. She was reading a book in her room when I busted in to provoke her. She looked up from the pages with flames in her eyes, stoodportia and paulina in new york city straight up, grabbed me by the throat, and slammed me into the bathroom door. I’m pretty sure she lifted me off the ground that day. It shocked me more than it hurt, and it hurt a lot. I had to go to work with a busted lip and bruised ego. The prophecy my
parents spoke of finally came true, “One day your sister will be bigger than you, and she’ll fight back.” I believed them, I just thought I had more time, she was only 11.

My sister and I are the eldest girls of four siblings. We have nothing in common, we don’t even look related. It’s nothing unusual for strangers to casually ask us if we have different parents. She sports a barbarous brunette bouffant while I’m teasing my flat pallid tresses to look like I have hair at all. Only our blue eyes and tiny button noses reveal any hint of relation. We were mortal enemies from the day she was born. I tortured her and called her every nasty name I could think of. Among them were The Beast, Porkchop, Rude Portia, and Snake eyes. Snake eyes had its own theme song and was particularly cruel because her two front baby teeth had single white dots in the center of each one, as in the worst roll you can roll with two dice. I convinced her she was the sole survivor of a multiple birth, but her twin, Dortia’s, head was hidden in our house and haunted her.

Our intense sibling rivalry started when she decided to be born the day before Halloween, causing me to miss out on trick-or-treating that year. I’d never seen a newborn look so evil. I’d probably never seen a newborn at all before her, but I knew she was bad news. I never got anything to myself after she came. I had to share my room, toys, friends, even gifts. Everything had to be even with us. When friends or family gave us gifts, it would be two of the same thing, in different colors if we were lucky. Once my grandmother saved herself the trouble and bought “twin” baby dolls and let us each take one. As in separate them at birth, like a freaky nature vs nurture experiment from the 70’s. Obviously, my baby was nurtured, while hers was left to nature. To this very day, we’ll be opening presents on Christmas morning and mom will say, “Hold on, you two need to open those at the same time.” You would think we once shared our mother’s uterus with how concerned people seem to be with balancing the scales. I can sympathize with twins. Although our dad is a twin, and according to him, he and his brother were treated like two halves of one person and had to share one of everything, which is why no one feels sorry for us.

After the power shift of the bathroom incident, things changed. We cohabitated peacefully for two years before I moved off for college. On one of my visits home, we had our cousin over with his new wife for Thanksgiving. They were a young couple and planned to visit her family in New Jersey over the holidays. I was invited along to help with gas and driving. They planned to drive from Tennessee to New Jersey in mid-December, a terrible idea, but a cost efficient one. I was won over by the promise of going into the city during our visit, since I had never been to New York. Not being allowed to have anything to myself, of course, my sister was also invited on the trip. I’m surprised she wasn’t set up with her own dormrrom after I left. Why should I have to share my trip to the city with her? I was in college, and didn’t need some junior high dork in her Good Charlotte phase tripping over my heels through Times Square. But the only way I got to go was if she did, so we both went.

I couldn’t wait to brag to everyone back at school about my holiday plans. “Oh, you’re going back home to Beaver Dam, Kentucky for Christmas? I’m spending mine in New York City.” I conveniently left out the parts about carpooling there and staying with in-laws in New Jersey. When someone asked what airport we were flying into, or which hotel, I just changed the subject to something about finals week.

My sister and I were both teenagers, without real forms of income. We were just in awe to be in the city, ride the subway for the first time, and retrace Kevin McAllister’s steps from my favorite movie, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. We saw everything we could despite having next to no cash, being with distant relatives we didn’t know, and the freezing cold wind and rain that chased us through the streets. The night before Christmas, we watched Saturday Night Live hosted by Jack Black, knowing for the first time in my life, I was less than 1,000 miles away from studio 8H. In fact, I had walked past it that very day. The world felt more possible. The places I dreamed of were just an excruciatingly lengthy car ride away.

The hard part was Christmas morning. My sister and I were sleeping in the guestroom of our cousin’s wife’s parent’s house. We asked them to have their Christmas morning and just let us sleep. We asked this so we didn’t impose on their family time, but also the thought of waking up on Christmas morning in an unfamiliar place, without our tree, our parents and brothers, and stockings was emphatically depressing. We were teenagers and preferred to just sleep through the sadness. Our request was ignored, and bright and early we were woken up to meet around the tree with the rest of the family.

“No, you guys go ahead, we don’t want to get in the way.” No such luck. We groggily shuffled downstairs and were presented with smiles and gifts, to be opened at the same time, of course.

Looking back on my past 30 Christmases, I can’t put my finger on any disastrous ones. As a family, we created our own traditions, which we added to and evolved each year. From mom’s baked French toast that sets in the fridge overnight on Christmas Eve, to “the Bird”, a wooden bird gifted to a different family member every year disguised as a real gift, to Portia’s annual jumbo pack of panties in her stocking from Santa. Playing Spoons on Christmas Eve is our favorite card game. We had to stop using spoons because we got so competitive we put gashes in the dining room table. We changed it to Candy canes, but were still so rough that the candy canes got obliterated. Now we use candy canes reinforced with tape, and the game isn’t over until the peppermint inside is pulverized to a fine powder.

Despite everything that was unfamiliar and new about that trip, I had my sister. We got along perfectly, the opposite of any family vacation in the past. We were a team. When our cousin made a double entendre of every road sign we passed for 18 hours, we stuck together. When we ran out of gas five minutes from the house because you can’t pump your own gas in New Jersey and all the stations closed, we had each other’s backs. When the rest of our crew wanted to go to the top of Rockefeller Tower, we decided to stay on the ground level, drink hot chocolate together, and watch people ice skate around the plaza. Our new relatives felt bad for us and offered to pay the $50 for the elevator ride to the top, but it wasn’t really about the money. We needed to have our own family time, warming up in front of the most famous Christmas tree in America. As far as we were concerned, we were already on top of the world; the roof of a skyscraper wouldn’t change our view.

How To Comedian (just kidding, there’s no right way)

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I don’t know if this is warranted but maybe it will help someone out . I had a weird interaction yesterday with another local comedian who felt I was doing comedy wrong. He decided he needed to publicly shame me over it. Maybe no one noticed or cared or maybe they did. Perhaps I’m the butt of a joke now for some secret Facebook group. It’s fine. I know that what I was doing appeared to be amateur and annoying but it did have a purpose. I was tweeting a picture of my upcoming tour poster to famous comedians asking them for a quote, or a word to describe it. Of course I know this isn’t the way to go about getting sincere feedback on something, but that’s not what I was going for. I was working on a funny promo video where I wanted to be able to add dumb taglines like, “Come see the show Amy Schumer is calling ‘WTF, no.’ and Jimmy Fallon has called ‘Who are you?” I could have made up fake quotes but I thought it would be funnier if they were real responses. A fellow comic on Twitter took it upon himself to reply to all my messages and to the comics themselves what he thinks they should respond. Stuff like, ‘BLOCKED, you’re not famous, I don’t know who are, this isn’t how comedy works’, etc. Ironically, this was what I was going for, except having actual famous people answer me was the point. I did get one fun response from Sinbad (who is awesome) but only after I blocked the tweeter in question. Maybe I could have gotten more if this person had stayed out of it. Who knows? With that technicality out of the way I just wanna say, don’t be a bozo.

Even if I had been soliciting real quotes from famous people on Twitter, who cares? If someone had a real problem with it, or was trying to save me from embarrassment, there are several ways they could have told me in private. But no, it was more important to call me out as stupid, than to teach or correct me. Sidebar, this person knows I have a Master’s degree in Mass Communications so I’m not completely clueless as to how social media functions.

In summation, there are a lot of people out there who are going to tell you you’re not funny, you’re not going to make it, and you’re doing it wrong. Whether you do or not is all up to you. I’ve only been doing comedy since 2011, but I have learned there’s really no right or wrong way to be funny. The people I respect the most are the ones who experiment and try things I would have never thought of. Maybe something you try will fail, but that’s why you get endless opportunities to try again. And fail again. Until maybe something works. Maybe you get noticed and a headlining comedian takes you on the road. Maybe you make a viral video and get a comedy central special. Maybe you get to be the next host of the Tonight Show, or maybe you spend the next 20 years barely getting by as a feature road comic. If that’s what being a comedian is to you, then don’t feel bad about it. I do know that all the people I look up to didn’t get to where they are by listening to what everyone else said. They took chances and found their own unique voice.

So do your thing, even if it’s not working right now. Work hard and refine your comedy. Try new things and figure out what you have to say. The beauty of it is comedy is subjective. Just find enough people who think you’re funny and create a fan base.

Mostly though, don’t let yourself or anyone else hold you back.

What’s Your Stand-up About?

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(Pictured: Cam and me after his first open mic)

I’m a comedian. I’m also the oldest sister to a 9-year-old boy with Down syndrome. In comedy, we talk about our lives. We have a platform, no matter how tiny, to use as we please. You can use it to talk about your genitalia, rant about things you hate about the world, or share your hilariously keen observations. One observation I had was how strange it was that my little brother was invited to cut to the front of a line of hundreds of families to see Santa Clause one Christmas season. His legs work, he’s capable of waiting, but still one of the elves recognized his disability and escorted us directly to the jolly old man’s lap. We didn’t say no. I did a couple of jokes about how strangers feel sorry for my brother and give him special treatment, so we just started taking advantage of it. I wasn’t always sure how it would be received. I put disabilities in the category of possibly offensive right in there with race, religion and politics. I worked on the jokes, rewrote them, and retold them over and over again in front of different audiences until I felt my position was clear: people with disabilities may have “special needs,” but they’re also just people. I wanted people to relate to my brother and how we find the positive in situations. Unfortunately, not all people see it that way.

My biggest concern was that I was exploiting my brother for comedy. Isn’t this his story? Why should I get laughs from it? But it’s not just his story, it’s mine too. He’s a big part of my life, and a life is made up of experiences, and experiences are how we tell our story. I have the power, albeit a small power, to take our shared experiences and tell our story.

When you do stand-up, you get asked a lot of weird questions, the most common being “what is your stand-up about?” I’ve never been sure how to answer that, and any attempt sounds like a little kid describing how airplanes work. Since making these jokes into bits and telling them to various audiences, I’ve been getting feedback from people. Mostly people who also have a child or sibling with disabilities who understand what I’m talking about. Now that I have them on my side I feel a lot better about it, but I mostly want people who don’t know anyone with disabilities to also be in on the joke.

I could possibly affect real change here. Small examples like how people feel sorry for my brother so they will put his shoes on and tie them. True, you can probably get them on faster than he can, and he’ll be more than happy to let you do it for him. But he also needs to know how to put them on, and to know the feeling of independence when he does it himself. I was talking to a man whose daughter has Autism and he told when they’re out to eat, his daughter will ask for dessert, and even after he tells her no, the person working there might bring her dessert anyway, on the house! They think they’re doing a nice thing by giving a disabled person a cookie. It makes them happy. But what you’re really doing is going against the healthy eating habits and restraint their parents are trying to instill in them for when they’re not around to tell them no.

My little brother was five when I started comedy. It was a sensitive time for my family because he was going to public school for the first time and being incorporated with “normal” kids. We were concerned he would be picked on and not be able to tell us. About once I week I had to talk my mom out of homeschooling him. There were instances of kids picking on him, but more often it would be Cameron who was the aggressor. He didn’t know how to express himself, or wasn’t being understood, so he got his point across by pushing or shoving someone. That’s when I came up with the story “Super Cameron,” and have been reading it to Cam’s homeroom the first week of each new school year. It’s from the perspective of a “normal” child wondering why the kid in their class is different. I read the story and then let the kids ask whatever they want, and I answer as honestly as I can. It’s seemed to help them understand what Down syndrome means and that he can be treated like a normal kid, not a fragile porcelain figurine.

Kids aren’t the only ones who can be bullies, or say hurtful things though. I’ve also had to grow a tough skin in comedy. Obviously we don’t use or condone the “R” word in my family. It’s not like I never said it. I was just as guilty as anyone until it affected me, and I understood what it felt like to have someone I love labeled the “R” word. But in comedy, anything goes. I would go to open mics and have to hear people throw around the word retarded, or hear the punchline of a joke be how someone looked like they have Down syndrome. We all know the short bus jokes or the comparison, “that’s like being the smartest kid with Down syndrome.” It totally pissed me off. I was offended. How dare they say that in my presence? Then a wiser comedian told me I’d have to get over it, so eventually I did. You can’t be offended by just the things that affect you and not everything else. You can’t pick and choose what’s off limits and what’s okay. It’s the same as how a racial joke may not offend me because I’m white, but a sexist joke would piss me off because I’m a woman. It’s all or nothing, baby. If the jokes not funny, eventually that comic will dump it (unless they suck), and if it is funny, then maybe you should learn to laugh at it too.

I’ve even heard of a fellow comedian saying I’m “not funny”, and I “have to use my retard brother to get attention.” Of course it makes me sad, and hope my brother never has to hear words like that. But more than that, I understand it comes from insecurity…or maybe just ignorance. I also understand I won’t be able to change everyone’s minds, but each one I do is a win.

For now, I’m still working on making disabilities funny, and being an advocate for those with disabilities. There are comedians who have disabilities too, and they do a kick ass job. I’ve even started bringing my little brother to family friendly open mics and signing him up. He’s been treated like such a celebrity his whole life, that he feels right at home onstage. Maybe the day will come where he can articulate it himself and I’ll have to go back to jokes about food (my biggest weakness). He’s already done a great job in nine years of showing people how much a person with Down syndrome can do and accomplish. We have a more active social life than most people and like to show it off on Instagram. Until then, I’m happy to tell people what my comedy is about. It’s about my brother and me going through the world like we own the place, taking the good with the bad, and having a killer story to tell at the end of the day.

What’s your stand-up about?

citations and starvation

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I had a recent 30-hour road trip that was a complete shit show from beginning to end. Sometimes I get work as an extra on TV shows and movies. It’s pleasurable because I make money, meet interesting/ridiculous people and get to add to my “acting” resume.  I wanted to check out Atlanta since there are so many shows filming there that I love.  I finally got booked for a TV show and was available to go.  It was only a one-day shoot and not much money, but I decided to try it out.  The call time was 3pm so I left my house about 9am since there’s a one-hour time change.  First off, my tires were low and I couldn’t get them filled at the gas station.  Maybe my hands were just too cold, but it wasn’t working.  Screw it. I filled up with gas and went inside to find something fit for human consumption.  I decided on an extra large coffee, oatmeal and water.  The coffee and oatmeal went in my cup holders.  About 10 minutes down the road I noticed my cup holders were running over with coffee.  My cup had a hole.  I gulped down the coffee, blotted it up with an entire box of tissues stolen from a motel, and realized a loose earring was stuck in the bottom of the cup.  Ughhh.  In all the commotion I moved the oatmeal and sat it on top of my duffel bag.  Now that the coffee was cleaned up I looked over and saw the oatmeal dumped out onto my laptop.  Son of a B—–!  I pulled over to clean up the oatmeal and thankfully the quilted laptop sleeve kept it safe.  I ate a few bites of oatmeal before realizing I didn’t stir it all the way so there were only huge chunks of dried peaches at the bottom.  Gross. 

Two hours into the drive I was stopped for traffic.  It didn’t take too long to get around, but once I got up to the scene of the accident I looked over to see it was an overturned jackknifed SUV pulling an RV. Scary! Even worse, alongside the interstate were a dozen cages filled with PUGS! I’m a huge pug lover and active in pug rescue (yes they need to be rescued, they can’t survive in the wild!), so I hopped on the Facebook and posted on the National Pug Rescue page.  All the pug lovers swooped into action to find out where the pugs were going and turned out they were part of a TV show for FOX and on their way home.  They’re all okay. 

I finally got to the check-in site without a minute to spare.  It was 3pm and all I had eaten was half a gas station oatmeal cup.  Guess what, there was no craft services table! So hungry.  Luckily another extra donated a Cliff bar to my stomach.  We filmed our scenes until about 10pm and I decided I was too tired to drive back to Nashville.  Another female comic said it would be okay for me to spend the night, and told me about a show where I could still get some stage time.  The bar was called “Hole in the Wall” so I looked it up to make sure I wasn’t going to a bad part of town in Atlanta.  I saw there was a Trader Joe’s right next door so I felt more than safe.  “I’ll be the scariest person there.  I guess that’s where people go to drink when Trader Joe’s is out of Almond Butter. What do you mean there’s a two-jar limit?” Yep, those were my jokes.  The only problem was I hadn’t planned on spending the night, and the only clothes I had were workout clothes for the filming.  I searched in my trunk through a bag of clothes that were meant to be dropped off at Goodwill, but they were all summer clothes.  That tell you how long they were in my trunk.  No luck, I had to wear my leggings and racer back tank to do standup in front of strangers in a smoky bar. 

My friend Elise met up with me.  She’s a great comic living in Atlanta and everyone should check her out.  She’s opening up for Dave Atelle all weekend at the Atlanta Punchline.  I put her address into my GPS and we headed to her house to retire for the evening.  I didn’t even think to check the zip code and ended up in the suburbs.  All of Atlanta’s streets have the same names, and all related to peach trees.  I got her correct address and headed over.  She warned me there was a long and scary driveway. It WAS a very long and dark and scary driveway…about a mile long in fact.  I pulled up to the house, which turned out to be a mansion.  There weren’t any lights on and I texted her, “I’m here”.  “No you’re not,” she responded.  I had turned in one house too early and had been sitting in front of a stranger’s mansion at midnight with my brights on.  No big Deal.  I finally made it to her house, got settled on the couch, and spent 30 minutes figuring out how to turn on the TV. 

I planned on getting up early, going to IKEA and getting home before rush hour traffic.  What actually happened was I overslept to about 11am.  I got all showered and packed (still no clean clothes or toothbrush) and headed to IKEA when my phone died.  It was plugged into the phone charger but too dead to turn on.  To get it to charge faster I tried charging it from my laptop…still nothing.  It looked like I was running a Kinko’s/homeless shelter from my car.  I navigated my way through the twisty turny woodsy roads with only my keen sense of direction and love of Swedish home goods.  Finally my phone came on and I was able to find IKEA, but not until past noon.  Way behind schedule.  I feasted on meatballs and shopped till I dropped.  Finally satisfied, I was ready to get back on the road back home.  I was less than a mile away from the interstate when I got pulled over by Atlanta metro police.  Apparently I had made a right turn on red when there was a sign prohibiting it.  Seriously?  There aren’t any drug dealers or rapists that need catchin’?  You can just camp out by this “No right turns” sign?  Fine.  So I got a citation with a court date scheduled for my birthday.  Sidebar: I’ve only been to IKEA one other time, and my car was rear-ended on my way out of the parking lot.  That place is wonderful but cursed. 

Long story longer…I finally made it home just in time to change clothes and head off to host trivia at yet another bar.  Why am I telling you all this? Because despite everything, it’s an adventure.  Every day pursuing the comedy dream feels like an adventure.  Sometimes those adventures cost money and do damage to my personal items, but it’s the path I’ve chosen and the one I intend to stick with.  Probably not everyone chasing that comedy dream makes things quite so hard on themselves or is an eternal shit show such as myself, but hey, I always need new material. 

Growing Up in a Nursing Home

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Has anyone ever had their grandmother live with them? Has anyone ever had someone else’s grandmother live with them? Because I have. 23 years ago my mom decided to leave her life of luxury, housekeeping at the opryland hotel, and open her own business: cedar haven.  This is my origin story. When my mom was on maternity leave with my sister she met someone who cared for elderly people in her home. Since my mom was also trying to keep our family off government assistance, she decided this could be worth a shot. My dad was a patrolman for the local police department, which doesn’t really pay the bills. As a small town cop he didn’t have to worry about terrorist attacks or serial killers but it was highly likely he was going to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time when a meth lab exploded.

There are pros and cons to having your house be a nursing home.  There are now four kids in my family, none except me have any memories of daycare or babysitters.  We always had a warm home to come to and a snack waiting on the table after school.  Home cooked meals and a clean house.  No latch key kids here.  Sounds like a dream come true, but of course there is a downside. 

Mainly, someone always had to be at our house with the elderly person.  The “patient” had their own living quarters, bathroom and private entrance but was still a part of our household.  Most elderly people can’t be alone in case they fall or there is an emergency.  This meant we could never go anywhere together as a complete family unit.  If we wanted to go out to eat or on vacation or even to a school function, we had to hire a sitter, which we couldn’t afford for the majority of my childhood.  Me being the oldest and dad on duty at night, I was usually called upon to stay home while mom ran errands, picked up dinner or went grocery shopping.  I liked having a quiet house free squabbling siblings.  One year I decided to use my Christmas money to buy hamsters.  Anyone who was anyone in fifth grade had hamsters.  I was pumped to watch them burrow through their little tunnels and run on their exercise wheel.  I had to stay home while mom went to the local pet shop which meant I didn’t get to pick them out myself.  I decided to just be a good hamster mom and be happy with whatever came back and love them like my own.  What mom came home with was two hamsters; one male and one female (check), food (check), accessories (check), and a birdcage.  Even though I had given her very specific instructions, the person at the pet shop assured her it would work.  Except instead of having tunnels and slides to play on they had a perch and ladder.  I learned to deal with disappointment early on. 

It was also hard to get rides places, ballet, cheerleading practice, piano lessons, basketball, girl scouts, I was usually dropped off and picked up in a police car.  Have you ever been dropped off for a school play, in costume in the back of a squad car? It’s not exactly the red carpet attention you hope for.  If we were in route and my dad got a call, I would have to ride along.  Guess I can’t watch the Simpsons tonight, gotta swing by the jail to help book an inmate.  I don’t know who was more surprised, me watching my dad slam a smelly drunk guy into the back seat, or the inebriated perp looking up to see a toe headed munchkin in a brownie uniform.  What are you in for? Trafficking Thin Mints? I put a hit on another troop’s leader.  Insider trading of achievement badges. 

Once my dad was taking me and my friend to school in his police car.  Since there were two of us we both rode in the back.  Dad ran inside the station to clock in.  Several minutes later we were still sitting there.  Finally another officer noticed us and let us out.  My dad had gotten carried away in the break room and forgot all about us.  Of course we were late to school, but they don’t ask a lot of questions when you roll up with lights and sirens blazing. 

I spent a lot of time at the police station waiting for rides to places.  They had a TV and weight room, and usually stuff to snack on.  You never saw anyone so happy to get their driver’s license than me.  Actually, you never saw someone so crushed when they failed their driver’s test the first time.  PS – to prepare for the second time around, I also had a random police officer take me along the DMV route. 

The worst part of growing up in a Nursing home is explaining it to people.  I choose to just avoid topics I’m uncomfortable with so I would just wait until a friend came over for the first time and let them bring it up.  Which they always did. 

“Who is that old lady?”

“Who?”

“The one watching Billy Graham on your couch.”

“Oh, her,”

“Is that your grandmother?”

“Ummm, no.”

“Then who is it?”

“She lives here.”

“What do you mean?”

“My mom takes care of her.”

“Why did she just pull one of your Beanie Babies out of her bra?”

“Those are hers now.”

I know what you’re thinking about this point.  It’s the question everyone has.  Yes, people have died in my house, and yes it’s super haunted.  It’s just yet another thing you learn to deal with when you grow up in a nursing home.