Alexandra Petri is a humorist and writer for the Washington Post. She is the author of the book A Field Guide to Awkward Silences and a former contestant on Jeopardy! She has extensive knowledge on many topics, but none greater than her knowledge of puns.
[Kate Bowler] This is Everything Happens. I’m Kate Bowler. For those of you who’ve been with me from the beginning, you know that I’ve been living through my own dark time, after I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. And when you have a serious illness one thing you are definitely going to learn about is awkwardness.
After I was diagnosed, people didn’t know how to respond. Human beings are, by nature, ridiculous. And let’s face it, nothing is more ridiculous than having to answer the question, “How are you?” in a casual way after you’ve been diagnosed. So I thought it would be useful to talk to an expert in awkwardness.
My guest today is Alexandra Petri, and she is easily the most fun person on the planet to introduce. She not only writes a hilarious and clever column for The Washington Post, but she has auditioned for “America’s Next Top Model” and performed more than adequately in an international whistling convention. She once joined a cult, “to be polite”. She is the author of “A Field Guide to Awkward Silences” and has agreed to allow me to be awkward with her today. I’m so glad you’re here.
[Alexandra Petri] Thank you so much for having me.
So, Alexandra, do you mind if I uncomfortably read the opening passage of your own book to you, the author? Because of that Super Cool Introduction no one is going to believe that you are awkward.
[AP] Oh, go for it! It’ll be very awkward, but I think that’s what we’re going for.
[KB] Thank you. This is my favorite. “I am afraid of many things: drowning, fire, the disapproval of strangers on the Internet, that I’ll be hit by a bus without having had a chance to clear my browser history. You know, the usuals. One thing I’m not afraid of? Looking like an idiot.” To me, that seems like a kind of superpower. Does it feel like that sometimes?
[AP] It really does, because I think … recently, I’ve been watching “Trial & Error,” and there’s one character that can’t feel his hand at all, so he’s able to, like, cook and put his hand on stoves and stuff. And it’s like, you should feel that – if your hand were in good shape, you wouldn’t be putting it on a stove. But he’s able to do so much more with that hand while cooking, and I sort of feel the same way. I think Ogden Nash said, “How could anyone do anything immortal when they see they look funny doing it and have to stop to chortle?” I certainly don’t notice how weird I look at any given time. Although increasingly as an adult, I’m like, “Oh, in retrospect, I see how that would have been bad, but….”
[KB] I have to say my favorite example, though, from your book, is the time that you asked to participate in a dog show as a human.
[AP] Oh, well the previous year had gone to a cat show. And I was cheering on and I thought they didn’t have enough spirit for the cats. There was a cat named Mojo, and I was like, “Mojo! Mojo!” And then they were like, “Could you please save this for after the ceremony?” So the next year they didn’t have the cat show that weekend. They had a dog show, and I’m like, “Well, I’m going o get people to go to this dog show, and we’re going to have a good time.” And I get there and I look down and there’s this beautiful dog agility course just laid out there
[KB] Begging to be…
[AP] And I’m thinking this is really fun. Oh yeah. So I go up to the organizer, and I’m like, “Excuse me, I promised my dead dog Topanga that I would do something special for her at a dog show. Do you mind if I run the course in her honor?” And I should mention that this whole time, we’ve been riding around on like mopeds, and so I had a helmet because I’d been riding a moped. So what this organizer saw was this strange woman in a helmet who comes up and says, “Excuse me, I’d like to run your course in honor of a dog named Topanga.” And so I think she was like, “Well, we’re just going to do whatever this person wants.” So they clear the dogs off, and they let me run it. And I ran – it was really difficult to run, honestly. The dogs are much smaller and more agile than I am. And I was like, “Topanga! Topanga!” And at the end, she goes, “I hope that was therapeutic for you.”
[KB]Now please leave, woman in a helmet.
[AP] Goodbye forever please.
[KB] When people get sick, they often create these bucket lists, and then they want to check things off. And one of the things I really love about your approach to writing, and I think life, is that you kind of do that anyway. Like, you’re not waiting to get sick to start collecting experiences. It’s like one of the first things you say in your book, which I also wrote down and will read back to you awkwardly now: “I collected experiences the way some people collect old coins or commemorative stamps.” So what drives you to collect experiences, do you think?
[AP] Part of it is, I just really want to get the most out of my time around here. And I think having more different experiences makes you a more interesting person. Because all the people I know who I think are fascinating have like gone and done the thing that scared them and they’ve gone and traveled, or they’ve worked in an interesting field, or they’ve built a gigantic sculpture using only salt and pepper shakers. Like, they’ve really done the thing. And so I wanted to do as much of the thing as possible because I know eventually you get to sit in a rocking chair and just reminisce. So I would hate to have not done a bunch of stuff before that time occurs, whenever that time is.
[KB] So what are some experiences that you’ve been able to have because you weren’t afraid?
[AP] Well I think a lot of it is, I really love getting to meet people in the world where they feel most themselves. One of the neat things about both journalism in general and my personal hobbies and interests is I like to go to gatherings of folk who, once a year, they get to sort of become their truest self. So they’ll be reenacting the Civil War or reenacting Star Wars, which I guess you can reenact. It didn’t happen, but you can reenact it. And things like that and sort of go into worlds like that.
I would go to a Star Wars convention and just like wear a Jabba the Hutt suit and hang out, and that’s the one part where you feel sexier as Jabba the Hutt than you do when you remove the costume. Like you’re on a Disney ride, and this guy behind me … I took off the Jabba the Hutt inflatable head so that I could see. And he goes, “Wow, way to ruin the illusion!” And I’m like, “Yeah, you believed I was Jabba the Hutt.”
[KB] You tell this incredible story in your book of when you started this amazing experiment where you decided to teach yourself to fail in bigger and more spectacular ways. Can you tell us some of the failures that you attempted?
[AP] Oh sure. Growing up watching like “America’s Most Wanted,” a, and “Got Talent,” b, and “American Idol,” c, I quickly realized, well, I’m not going to be able to catapult myself to fame through sheer excellence. I need to figure out something that I can do. And then I saw William Hung. And I thought, “Oh, this man is so good. Like he has this amazing joyful presence.”
[KB] And for those of you that don’t remember William Hung, please just allow everyone to revisit for a moment.
[AP] He was one of those — everyone watched the first few weeks of auditions just to see how bad people could be. And he was joyously and transcendently bad. And I thought, “Oh! That’s my in. I can be really bad at stuff.” So I went and tried to audition for various things, like Halloween backup dancers. I tried to audition for that. They said I had “good enthusiasm.” Because I had not budgeted enough dance per minute, so I had a song that went on for like four minutes, and then I had a dance that turned out only to go for approximately 30 seconds. And it was not ideal.
Subsequently, I went to a beauty pageant to test this theory out further. And the funny thing about beauty pageants is I really should have gotten on this bus earlier because once you’re over 25, you’re in a category that goes from 25 to deceased and is called Crones. And it’s just you and like, there’s four people. But yeah, I also auditioned for “America’s Got Talent.” And I tried to combine a bunch of different non-talents together. Like try to speak in tongues and twirl around and do a whole bunch of stuff.
[KB] You describe this moment where you’re, what I imagine is, sort of deep in the throes of auditioning/trying/not trying, and you look over at one of the judges, and you felt like she knew.
[AP] She knows, yeah.
[KB] And that made you feel kind of terrible, which I think … so what was it about that moment that made you think, “Oh, I didn’t get out of this what I thought I would.”
[AP] Yeah, because I was sort of thinking, “Oh it would be easy. I won’t ever have to really fail. What I’ll get to do is work really hard — like fake fail — instead of just genuinely trying and being told that I’m not good enough.” And instead, it was like, oh maybe I should have tried. Maybe I should have found what’s something that I’m really going to be passionate about and get in there and do it and see how it goes instead of trying to look so bad on purpose that I could never see if I actually would look bad in reality.
[KB] I just thought it was such a great … I mean, that to me was one of the best realizations I’ve read in a long time, is you tried really hard to fail because it would be truly hilarious and wonderful, and it sounds like you’re so open to experience that you’re like, you’re in. But then there is something about failing in that way that just didn’t feel authentic to you.
[AP] No exactly. It wasn’t real failure.
[KB] Because you weren’t really trying –
[AP] I was trying to fail. And I failed at failing, which is like, meta, whoa. But it was also like — real failure is when you really put yourself out there, and you’re earnest, and then you flop.
[KB] Yeah, I really do think it’s something that is so close to bravery and is so close to authenticity and is a real, if done right, is not a facsimile of vulnerability. I think that people need to begin by accepting that the preconditions of life are that you will truly be made a fool of and that most of the fun things are ridiculous anyway.
[AP] Yes. Yeah.
[KB] Yeah, I think that too was part of the key of just learning to be sick in the world. There were times when I had to wear my chemotherapy fluids in a bag around my waist. And then I would have to carry more bags to hold the stuff that didn’t fit on the other bags. And then it was just bags on bags on bags. And then it would go into a big sort of horse needle in my chest, and then I just walked around like a giant horrible cancer conversation piece. And if I didn’t just allow the absurdity of the situation… like, yes I bedazzled it myself. And yes, I nicknamed my bag Jimmy Carter because I saw Jimmy Carter twice getting chemotherapy. I think if I didn’t have that … it felt like it just gets harder and harder to be human anymore.
[AP] Yeah, because if you’re not talking about the elephant in the room, I feel like people will really go out of their way to avoid talking about so many things. It can be very funny.
[KB] Exactly. Well, I mean that I think was one of the weirder revelations about my cancer diagnosis, is on one hand it made everyone incredibly, horribly awkward. Like every conversation always began with, “Well, my aunt.” Or every uncle whose prostate really needs to be described to me right now, wherever I am. So when I read your book, I thought, “Yes! This is someone who accepts people as they really are.” So I was wondering, do you think it makes you a better friend because you simply accept the weird?
[AP] I hope so. I think it makes my friends better friends because they’re willing to have me around, too. I think it cuts both ways because, I don’t know… My friends are always like, my fiancé and I, they’re always like, “You two are friends with some people we would never be friends with.” And I’m like, “No, but they’re great. Once you really get to know name redacted, he’s a terrific human being. It just takes you a little while.”
Yeah, I was reading the back section of your book where you have “Things Never To Say To Anyone Experiencing Terrible Times,” which was super useful because I feel like everyone’s impulse is always to go, “Oh, the similar thing happened to me, and that will bond us together! My aunt’s prostate…”
[KB] I think that’s exactly right. I’m always caught in people’s aunts’ prostate situation, and I’m just trying to live and have a variety of experiences, and people continue to force me to have the same experience with them over and over again. I think it’s just free association. “Hey, you remind me of cancer. Speaking of cancer, this horrible thing happened to me.”
I guess the other thing I wondered when I read your book is that, you seem to have this incredible way of being funny and allowing that to help you grapple with something important. I wondered if there was ever a moment where being funny really helped you deal with something painful.
[AP] I think painful times are the times when people most turn to jokes. I feel like in movies and things, you see people, they’re gathering around a sick bed, and they’re all like, “Oh, let me tell you my regrets.” And that’s the last thing that’s ever happened in my life in situations like that. Everyone’s joking and trying to sort of cheer one another up. Like some of the dark humor, I feel like it’s a reminder that you’re still around.
[KB] Do you think there was ever a moment when being funny wasn’t enough, when humor really let you down?
[AP] I think there are some things where you can sort of try to make jokes about it, but there’s an inherent seriousness to the thing. I don’t know, I guess sometimes if you’re using it to try to insulate yourself from what’s happening, it really doesn’t work.
[KB] I kind of wondered though, I don’t know, sickness is just part of the human experience. And I just wondered, why do you think we as people are so awkward about sick people in general? You’d think that people would have the sense that they are slowly climbing toward death. You know, I mean unless anyone has figured out an exception, other than Walt Disney. But I mean, you’d think that people would get that we’re all going to die. And yet people seem very surprised and weird about it.
[AP] Yeah, everyone’s like, “No but probably I won’t. Everyone else will. Maybe in my case something different will occur.” I don’t know. I think if you look at all these pictures from the 19th century and stuff, people in their homes, you know grandma is sitting there in her bed and you have to sit there with that. You’re walking around the house, and you’re holding a baby in your arm, and there’s old grandpa coughing his cough. I’m not sure, this is like a Renaissance painting at this point. His old timey grandpa cough. But like, all of these things were much more present, and you have to live around them and be with them, and now there are these very sterile facilities where you go and you do the thing, and then you come out and everyone’s like, “Oh good it’s over, and we don’t have to discuss it because, well, here you are, so it must have been fine.” It’s sort of compartmentalized in a way that I think is, I guess sanitary, but maybe not healthy.
[KB] Yeah, that sounds right to me. I mean, it’s just a little awkward for me because I have the hospital physically attached to the same place where I work. And so I have to leave the shiny world, put aside my velvet smoking jacket, and then walk down the steps and then walk over and then walk into another building, and then all of a sudden everyone’s wearing face masks. And like, “Oh, we’re doing something different here.”
[AP] This is not the same!
[KB] There’s no wine available here next to the liver section.
[AP] Yeah, why isn’t there wine?
[KB] You have this hilarious essay where you help people talk to different age groups, like babies and then young people and middle-aged people. And you suggest that maybe people approach four year-olds with caution because they can actually remember things, or you have a list of helpful questions for 17-year-olds, like, “Do you still respect your parents?” — which I thought was really handy.
I have a few suggestions of how people can talk to sick people. But I wondered if we could just add a section to that essay about how to talk to people who are sick. I had a couple ideas for you. Number one is, tell them that everything happens for a reason, and then immediately supply that reason because they will want to know the reason.
[AP] Yeah, what is the reason?
[KB] I think people are waiting, and I have some reasons. And then second, then to just cut out health tips from Prevention Magazine for them, even though by definition they are already sick, so prevention is no longer an option.
[AP] I mean it’s like nine-tenths of cure though right? Isn’t it?
[KB] That’s right. And so the rest of us are stuck without one tenth of a percent. Yeah. Yeah. That’s right. In the end. I wonder if you had any other ideas for how to talk to sick people. Loud voices, probably, even though not many people are hard of hearing.
[AP] Loud and slow.
[KB] I do find that I’ve turned more and more to comedy as a way of trying to bump people out of that script, where I can see that they’re looking at me, they can tell that I’m sick, and then I’m just about to try to preempt it.
[AP] Like if you say the thing, then they won’t have the chance to say whatever bad idea they were going to say. So, at least you will have a different conversation.
[KB] Anyone, I can guarantee you that, anyone who talks to me will have a different conversation. Well, it was such a pleasure talking with you. Thanks so much for chatting with me.
[AP] Likewise, man.
[KB] This was the best. This was really fun.
…brief musical interlude…
[KB] Okay, I was having so much fun talking with Alexandra that I awkwardly completely forgot to ask her some of the things I wanted to know. Gauche, I know. But then again, today is all about awkwardness. So I’m going to take this opportunity to, that’s right, uncomfortably, awkwardly call her back.
[KB] Hey Alexandra, I am so sorry to call you back like this, but I just had a couple more questions.
[AP] All right.
[KB] So based on your age group, what do you think are the most common life script tragedies?
[AP] First, everyone has the grandparent loss, which is like you have the Facebook post, and then you have the people writing in and it’s both sad but also something that you have had reason to anticipate over a period of time. So everyone’s very weird about it. They’re like, “Oh, how old were they?” And you’re like, “86.” And like, oh that’s good! I mean not good but like, it’s fine, right?
[KB] Exactly right. Everyone acts like it’s, well, they’ll give you like a measure of sadness based on how old they are.
[AP] It’s like calibrated! It’s weird. If you’re like, “Oh, 70,” they’re like, “Aww.” And if you’re like, “90,” they’re like, “Well …”.
[KB] Exactly. Grandparent loss, you’re totally right.
[AP] And then there’s also the one peer loss or the unexpected parent loss. I would say those are the two other ones.
[KB] Yeah. And then just the universalizing horror of failed relationships. Yes. Well I do have a sort of ongoing theory that anyone who hasn’t been dumped a few too many times probably isn’t a good person. Because how can they build character?
[AP] Yeah. No. How do you build character, and also, how do you know that you still like yourself even when X person doesn’t like you?
[KB] Yeah, you have to decide in the face of overwhelming evidence that you’re actually still okay.
[AP] Exactly! It builds gumption.
[KB] Yeah, or a sense of delusional grandeur. Like, either way it’s going to work.
[AP] Both are necessary for us in life.
[KB] I think you’re totally right. I did wonder, given your expertise in awkwardness, if you have any tips on how to get over awkwardness when you’re with people who are actually going through awful times.
[AP] With the caveat that I’m super bad at this myself and no expert at all. I feel like all the times when I’ve been most terrified of like, “What am I going to possibly say when I get into this room?” — once you get into the room it’s much easier. You just go and do it and be there. And once you’re there, it makes so much more sense, and when you’re like, “Oh my god, should I go? I won’t even know what to say. I won’t know what to do. Will we just sit around the whole time?” And sometimes you will just sit around the whole time and just watch Hallmark movies, the same one three times in a row, and that’s fine. I guess just getting in the door in the first place and just being there, I feel is the hardest part.
[KB] Yeah. Yeah you’re totally right. Have you ever been in a situation where you feel like you’ve failed a friend who’s hurting, and maybe you wish you’d done better?
[AP] Yes. I mean, countless times. I think my nightmare is always that I will text somebody to invite them to something with their spouse and they will have already broken up and had been divorced for like three months and would have told me. So I’m always terrified. I’m bad at initiating. And I think my regret is that I haven’t stepped up more and done the thing.
[KB] Well it’s hard, especially when like, you’re not even sure nothing has happened.
[AP] Yeah, I’m never sure what I’m supposed to say. After a breakup, I can be like, you are great, you are golden, you deserve the world, etcetera, etcetera. That I feel like I understand conceptually what people want to hear because that’s what I wanted to hear myself at least, and I can extrapolate from that. But in other situations, I’m like, I don’t know what to be like. Do people want me to give my thoughts on the subject, for me to sit here like this? Do we try to do an
And everyone always says, don’t say, “Let me be there for you. I’m happy to help in any way,” because you force the other person to suggest something. I’m always worried oh, no one will want my casserole. Although one time a friend was going through a grief period, and I’m like “I can bring you a casserole.” And she was like, “Have you ever cooked anything resembling a casserole?” And I’m like, “No…” And she was like, “Thank you, I needed that laugh. So, inadvertently, I had provided something.
[KB] Well, thank you so much for doing this. I appreciate you popping back into my life.
[AP] Oh, I appreciate you. Thank you for popping back in. And I’m sorry that I did not to touch on the narrative and therefore required a separate, additional call. It was all a ruse, I swear.
[KB] I mostly just, I mostly just wanted to hear more about your problems. Thanks.
[AP] Here they are.
[KB] That’s awesome.
[KB] So, I think I might just call Alexandra back every day from now on because holy crap, that was hilarious.
When something really terrible happens, it is so weird because it hits you at almost the same place as something that is really funny. It’s just absurd. It’s like completely surreal. So, I’m a normal person who suddenly got stage 4 cancer, and honestly, it made me hilariously accepting of reality that maybe shouldn’t be reality.
Like the other day, a police officer came to my house and accused me of murder. Okay, this is what happened. A police car pulls up to my house, waits, a second police car comes. Officers get out and chat for a minute before approaching our door, warily.
Toban opens the door, and I hear muffled voices, and then my name. “I’m Kate Bowler,” I announce loudly, stepping out onto the porch. “Well,” says police officer on the right, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you have been accused of murder.”
And I could feel my brain freeze and then stop while my body gets that loose feeling I remember from the time I once fainted after working out to Richard Simmons’ “Sweating to the Oldies.”
“Just kidding,” he says. “I think we have the wrong address,” said the other. And I could barely hear them because I was already imagining my life behind bars.
But you know what I said? I said, “I sometimes have murderous thoughts.” And then Toban elbowed me so hard because sometimes being accepting is not the best thing in the world.
…brief musical interlude…
[KB] Next time, I’m going to talk to someone who I think of as the human Tigger. Her name is Margaret Feinberg, and she’s not just a really popular speaker and author, but she is the person I called when I got sick because she knows exactly what to say to make everything less terrible. You’re going to love her.
Everything Happens is produced by Duke University in association with North Carolina Public Radio WUNC. Support comes from Faith and Leadership, an online learning resource. This podcast is produced by Beverly Abel and Alison Jones. Sound engineering is by Dennis Foley with assistance from Ivan Panaruski.
Special thanks to Amanda Wright and the Be the Change Revolution team, and Random House. And we’d love to hear from you. If you like what you’re hearing, please post a review on iTunes. And while you’re there, be sure to hit that “Subscribe” button.
You can find me on Facebook always, Instagram often, and Twitter every day @katecbowler. Let’s chat. Until next time, this is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.