Editor's Note: Our annual summer blog series Worst. Night. Ever! is deceptively simple: We pick three events that we know a Mercury staffer will hate, and the readers of Blogtown vote on which awful event our reporter will have to attend, and then write about. And every year, the assignments get increasingly... uncomfortable. What follows are three of the most uncomfortablest assignments of this summer—as well as the hilarious (and sometimes illuminating) results.
- Illustration by Vincent Largoza
Editor-in-Chief Wm. Steven Humphrey's WORST. NIGHT. EVER!: Attend the FaerieWorlds Festival.
For those just joining us, the reasoning behind Worst. Night. Ever! is for you to gain some sort of sick, sadistic satisfaction out of a Mercury employee's suffering and unhappiness. But for me, it means something different. For me, it's about exposing ourselves to a culture that you or I would never voluntarily explore, and while we're there, "walking a mile in their shoes," as it were.
That being said, HOW DARE YOU? How dare you send me to an event where it's impossible to walk in someone else's shoes—because they're not wearing any shoes? I'm speaking, of course, about FaerieWorlds—a three-day musical event and "gathering of tribes" (WHAT?) just outside of Eugene, Oregon. That's right, EUGENE: Whose only significant exports are hippies and Duck fans. AND it takes TWO hours to get there—so that's FOUR hours (there and back) in the car for a music festival catering to a group of people (hippies!) that, historically, I cannot stand.
HOWEVER. There was one redeeming aspect of FairieWorlds that neither you nor I predicted....
Now I've been to "hippie" events before, but I was shocked, amazed, and pleased as I could possibly be (under such dire circumstances) that FaerieWorlds was teeming with a demographic that is far too underrepresented at most of these affairs: the "Super Cute Hippie Chick." In actuality, "Super Cute Hippie Chicks" dominated this event—and to help you grasp this concept, I've constructed my first ever "pie chart" to illustrate the demographic breakdown of the social groups present at FaerieWorlds.
Now, as you can clearly see from the accompanying expertly rendered infographic, "Super cute hippie chicks" far outweigh the "stinkfoot hippies" and "straight dudes" demos—which makes FaerieWorlds very different from your average Renaissance Faire. Plus! I made a startling discovery that may surprise you... which I'll share after this brief history of FaerieWorlds.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF FAERIEWORLDS THAT YOU SHOULDN'T SKIP IF YOU ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT CULTURES OTHER THAN YOUR OWN.
FaerieWorlds is a music and arts festival that began in Oregon and bills itself as "the realm of the faeries," leaning heavily on folklore, cosplay (not just of the faerie variety), paganism, and absolutely terrible "world music." (More on that later, too.) Along with two musical stages, it features over 150 vendors, children's activities, lectures, and people dressed in yak horns eating corndogs. Since 2009 it's been held on Mount Pisgah in Lane County's Howard Buford Recreation Area just south of Eugene (again... BLECCHH!). Unfortunately, due to narrow-minded "Super Cute Hippie Chick" haters on the Lane County Board of Commissioners, this will be the last year Faerieworlds will be welcome in Eugene—though it's expected to move to Portland in 2015. (Good news for festivalgoers, since Portland is not Eugene.)
I NOW RETURN YOU TO MY DISPARAGING AND MEAN-SPIRITED DESCRIPTION OF HIPPIES, ALREADY IN PROGRESS.
So my "startling discovery that may surprise you"? HIPPIE DUDES RUIN IT FOR ALL OTHER HIPPIES. I'd say 90 percent of the "stinkfoot hippies" at FaerieWorlds were dudes, and just as annoying as the ones you see schlumping down Hawthorne. They delight in their phobia of bathwater, their hair is a filthy fright, and the STUPIDEST things pop out of their mouths. For example, when one of those festival copter drones flew over the concert crowd to get video of the festivities, I heard one hippie dude say to another, "Oh man! Like, why does the government have to spy on me here?" HE ACTUALLY SAID THAT.
Conversely, most of the "super cute hippie chicks" I talked to were super smart, level-headed gals who were just there to have fun and dress up in crazy costumes. NOTE: I said "most," not "all." Here is a conversation I had with one such woman.
ME: Hey, how's it going?
HER: Oh, I am so blessed. Just feeling the vibration of love around here, ya know?
The vibration of love can change your DNA, you know. It's tonality. Like, the tone changes from second to second... it's like... chaos!
I'm just totally here in the moment, you know? Drawing the power of life! Did you know the power of life actually makes geometric patterns on the earth? The power actually moves... not like it does on the sun, you know... but still! It's EPIC. I see what the animals see.
Okay... thanks! So I'm looking for an ATM.
Oh! Right on. There's one right over there, next to the leather elf ears tent.
But otherwise? Completely charming, rational people. Wait... I forgot about one guy. FaerieWorlds actually has a "no drugs policy"—I KNOW, RIGHT?—which the attendees actually seemed to adhere to—I KNOW, RIGHT? But! There was one guy... shirtless, barefoot, wearing leather pants and one of those Phantom of the Opera half-masks... who was SO INCREDIBLY FUCKING HIGH. He was walking at roughly .005 mph, and had this amazingly creepy smile and thousand-yard stare. Not like a Vietnam vet-style stare... more like Rutger Hauer at the end of Blade Runner. He had the smile of someone who happily murdered a galaxy of planets. But otherwise? I never caught a single whiff of pot smoke... but maybe the patchouli drifting in from downtown Eugene was blocking the smell.
Anyway, per Worst. Night. Ever! instructions, I came to FaerieWorlds dressed as a "faerie" (i.e. wearing powder-blue faerie wings). And yet? I have never before in my life blended into a crowd with so much ease. Most of the attendants were dressed in very creative, wild costumes (half-nude faeries, genies, steampunk dandies, banshees, mermaids, witches, tree-people, etc.) that made my paltry faerie wings seem downright blasé. In this world, the social oddball was not only accepted, but celebrated, and it seemed impossible to shock or be judged harshly by anyone. (Unless maybe you were in a business suit? You should've sent me in a business suit!)
But! The most foul, most unappealing, most ridiculously terrible thing about FaerieWorlds was definitely THE MUSIC. The bands represented here seem to be the exact opposite of the sweet, clever oddballs I'd met thus far. It's like the organizers decided to gather the most ANNOYING instruments in the world, electrify, and then plop them on a stage—to be played by shirtless bald white dudes covered in tribal tattoos.
Were there bagpipes? OH YES. Were there penny whistles? OH YES. Were there harps? OH YES. Were there hurdy gurdies? OH YES. And of course there were didgeridoos—but! These were SLIDE DIDGERIDOOS (like a trombone), and my sides are still aching from laughing at the shirtless dude hopping around the stage, pointing and sliding his didge at the clouds while going "Honk! Honk! Honk!"
At one point I realized the band on stage had been jamming for an entire hour without singing a single word. Then came the following lyric: "Graaaaandfaaaather! Your fire lights the darkness of my sooooooul!" And that was it. Song over. Oh! And here's the chorus of a song from another band I heard: "I am king / You are queen tonight / Everyone has divine rights." Followed by... bagpipe solo! DEAR GOD.
I stayed for six hours (tripling the time I was required to be there, FYI), but here's what struck me as unusual. After that long, you become immune to the yak horns, the painted naked boobs, the leather elf ears... and it all just starts seeming weirdly... normal. Despite the laughably terrible music, FaerieWorlds really is a place to stop hiding your weirdness (if that's a thing you feel forced to do), and it made me think about how much I worry about the wrinkles in my Penguin Munsingwear shirt. And it made me think that sometimes I'm maybe—MAYBE—a bit too judgmental of other people (except for stinkfoot hippie dudes, about whom I am 100 percent accurate).
In a sea of faerie-people, there was a palpable sense of relaxation—and slide didgeridoos aside, it's surprising how "normal" this world became after awhile.
That is, until you're jolted back into reality after seeing a guy covered in Avatar-blue body paint with an actual mailbox on his back (??), who's staring into an ice bucket at a food cart and whining, "Where's the Diet Pepsi??"
Apparently, even denizens of the "faerie realms" have earthly needs. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY
- Illustration by Vincent Largoza
Arts Editor Alison Hallett's WORST. NIGHT. EVER!: Forced to Perform Stand-Up Comedy
When Mercury readers voted to send me to perform standup comedy at an open mic, I thought: I got this. I've done storytelling shows and readings, so I have plenty of experience talking into a microphone. Plus, I don't actually want to be a comic, so I won't be too invested. It's three minutes. How bad could it be?
Pretty bad, actually. Not so much the performance itself, but the preparation, which ate up far more than three minutes of my weekend and involved a lot of lying on the couch, moaning "Why do I have to dooooo this?"
I in no way anticipated how much time and effort would actually go into writing, rewriting, and rehearsing my three-minute set, or how incredibly nervous I'd be when it came time to perform.
For the uninitiated: There are comedy open mics in Portland just about every night of the week. These shows offer a place for new comics to gain experience, and for experienced comics to try new material that may or may not make it into their final sets.
I was assigned to go to the open mic at Curious Comedy on a Sunday. At this particular show there are around 25 spots, and comics hoping to perform arrive at least half an hour early to sign up. Each comic gets three minutes, and exceeding your allotted time can result in the sound guy cutting off your mic. (Unless you're killing. Then he'll probably let you talk.)
Now, the WNE rules said I had to perform at Curious' open mic, but they didn't specify what I had to do. Suggestions from friends included: Do redneck jokes. Read Laffy Taffy wrappers. Make my boyfriend sit up front and make fun of him for three minutes.
When I sat down to write, I quickly realized that I wasn't going to succeed with anything other than story-based jokes. I was not going to be wacky, I was not going to do voices, I was not going to ensnare the room with my staggering personal charisma. Puns and one-liners were out—I'm no good with wordplay—but I felt relatively comfortable with anecdotes and observational comedy. At first I was reluctant to get too personal, so I tried to work on some material about Portland, but all of that seemed to go down a predictable and uninteresting "WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH TOTE BAGS WHY AM I WHITE" kind of path. Ultimately I decided I should try to draw on my own experiences.
After figuring out my general focus, I had coffee with Chris Murray, a Portland actor and occasional stand-up coach who very kindly offered to help me prepare. Chris had tons of great suggestions, and his advice really helped me to think about what I was doing from a structural standpoint.
First of all, he advised me to script an intro and three jokes—but to not feel obligated to make it through all of them, and to feel comfortable going off-book if inspiration struck while I was onstage. He stressed the importance of remaining attentive to the audience, and responding "in the moment" to what was happening in the room. "The worst thing you can do," he said, "is not allow yourself to be changed by the audience."
From a writing standpoint, the most useful piece of advice he gave me was that I should try to eliminate expository details, and instead focus on whittling each joke down to the essentials—in a joke about driving a rental car, you don't need to note the car's make and model. And in terms of generating ideas, he encouraged me to look for inspiration in things that anger me, things that make me feel guilty, personal relationships, things I like that I feel like I shouldn't discuss in public... Things that provoke a reaction in me, whether positive or negative, particularly if that reaction is in any way unusual or controversial.
In addition to Chris' coaching, I asked for advice on Facebook from Portland comics. I got some really good suggestions, ranging from the succinct and practical ("Project your voice and have fun!"—Sean Jordan) to more detailed advice on crafting a set:
" Pick something about the world you actually care about.  Tell us how you feel and why.  After that's done, exaggerate it in a way that reinforces that you are right to feel the way you do.  Repeat.  Practice out loud at home.  Go to an open mic and put your mouth really fucking close to the microphone.  Tell us the thing you practiced."—Alex Falcone.
Lucia Fasano told me to stay vulnerable and honest (eek!), Andie Main reminded me "not to fiddle around too much," and Becky Braunstein said: "Don't do what you think other people will think is funny. Do what YOU think is funny. Even if it's really weird." Bri Pruett made it all sound easy: "Just pay attention this weekend to the things you say to people that get a laugh. Write down the part that made the people laugh. Boom, jokes."
I particularly like Stephanie Purtle's perfectly double-edged observation: "The worst thing that can happen is no one laughs." On one hand: Who cares if no one laughs? Who cares if, on Sunday, July 13 at 8:47 pm, in a room on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Portland, Oregon, 40 adults are not laughing? Could the stakes be any lower?
On the other hand... Oh my god, what if no one laughs.
Which brings us to the one epiphany I had during all of this business: Watching someone else try and fail is more embarrassing than actually trying and failing. My friend calls it "vicarious stage fright," and I have it, bad—I've always assumed that if I feel embarrassed for a performer, the performer must feel 10 times worse.
Not necessarily the case!
Comic Gabe Dinger, who teaches stand-up classes at Curious Comedy, said something smart about embarrassment:
"[Being embarrassed] is the number-one fear people have. That fear makes stand-up uncomfortable to even watch for some people. It's like watching someone on a tightrope. No one wants to see someone fall. And open mics are a lot of people falling in a row."
And they know they are falling. And for the most part, they're okay with it. Because they know it's what they have to do if they want to get good.
I think maybe—maybe—I knew that on an intellectual level before, but it was eye-opening to experience it firsthand. To go into something expecting to fail, expecting to embarrass myself, and knowing that failure was an essential part of the process.
Which is not to say I wasn't nervous, by the way. I was terrified. I had no idea I'd be as nervous as I was. I've done storytelling shows before, and those are a bit nerve-racking, but this was something else entirely. Storytelling shows have a sort of implicit sanction: If it happened to you, it's interesting. Here, I wasn't just relating a personal experience—I was sharing sentences I constructed in the hopes of eliciting a specific physical reaction from the crowd. If that reaction didn't happen—if no one laughed—it would be because I was doing a bad job. Period.
Gabe dedicates an entire class to fear in his stand-up course. "It's funny how the nerves get to you the night of," he says. "In my class I try to prepare them for the nerves, but it is something that can only be felt in the moment. Ironically, that nervousness is the addictive part of comedy. That's where you get the super powers."
Which brings us to my performance that night.
Watching that video legitimately surprised me—because it's overall much better than I thought it would be. Other than the fact that I seem to have developed a lisp (do I have a lisp?) and I do some awkward fumbling around with my hoodie pockets, you can't tell at all that I was nearly hallucinating from nervousness, or that I kind of rambled off script and skipped a few chunks of what I'd prepared to say.
I'm actually kinda proud of myself! I don't think I've discovered my true calling or anything, though—it's worth emphasizing that my experience was not at all typical for a comedy first-timer. In addition to all the advice and coaching, I got a good spot in the lineup—following our own Alex Falcone, a legit pro who got the crowd nice and warmed up for me. Lots of my friends were in the audience, all the other comics I talked to were super nice and supportive—even Curious' awesome bar staff were encouraging. Had I just wandered in off the street, I likely would've been much closer to the bottom of the list, would've been performing to a considerably colder and less receptive audience.
But! Considering the circumstances—that you guys sent me to this because you thought it would be profoundly humiliating—I'm calling this a win. ALISON HALLETT
- Illustration by Vincent Largoza
News Reporter Dirk Vanderhart's WORST. NIGHT. EVER!: The Hot Dog Eating Contest
The Worst. Night. Ever! rules are very clear: We're assigned an event—an awkward, terrifying event—and we've got to put up with it for two hours, or until it is finished. The rules are clear and they are fair.
But the other night I ate a turkey sandwich and tasted hot dog instead. I'd been avoiding bread altogether, fearful the tiniest bite would recall yeasty mush and strange strangling sounds off to my left. I'm pretty sure my ankles are swelling.
See, the rules didn't account for this. Blogtown sent me to compete in the annual hot dog-eating contest at Zach's Shack on a recent Saturday, and in many ways? I never left. I'm not sure I ever will.
The idea of sending me to a hot dog contest came up in our weekly editorial meeting, and I'm always very, very hungry at the weekly editorial meeting. So I was glad to get the hot dog contest.
Do you know who wasn't glad? Every friend and acquaintance I have. Any time I mentioned competing, my girlfriend would just shudder and change the subject (after making absolutely clear I understood she would not—could not—be there to support me). People winced, mostly. One friend I speak to maybe three times a year texted all the way from Michigan just to be sure I knew how disgusting this impending act would be.
"I really hope you don't have to do the wiener contest," he wrote. "You will hurl."
I shook all of it off for a couple days, until I finally got around to researching competitive hot dog eating. Then I suddenly understood where each and every one of them was coming from.
A few words about the sport.
It is a chimeric pursuit, combining the hunched, surreptitious gnawing of an urban rat with the salivary heedlessness of an insane dog. And the sounds. There is cheering, of course, but the true soundtrack of the latter-day hot dog eating contest is one of tongues slapping against lips, pink hot-dog paste slathering onto cheeks, the squirge of sodden white bread squirging through teeth, the protesting gurgle of overworked esophaguses suddenly beset. Belches. Groans. America.
If you subscribe to the Kobayashi Method, I learned, you're leading with a hot dog in one hand while dunking its component bun in water (for quick mastication and compactness). Dog, then bun. Dog, then bun. It is a wild-eyed conveyer belt of offal and calories and carbs Henry Ford might appreciate. Joey Chesnut—considered the best competitive eater on Earth—leaves the dog and bun as a unit and dunks the whole thing. Both men jump as if ecstatic every now and then, just to create room in their stomachs. It's disgusting to watch, but these champions know their business. Both have cleared 60 dogs in 10 minutes.
I decided, watching them online, that my goal would be 10, and dignity—fame and the demands of a howling crowd be damned. And just to be extra safe, I emailed Zach Zelinger, the Shack's eponymous proprietor, to ask for any tips. His reply was terse:
Don't get drunk
Go hard early
Dunk ur buns
The competition was at 4 pm, and I showed up at Zach's half an hour early to pay my $8 entrance fee and fill out paperwork. There was a whole section for biographical info, asking about my training regimen ("burritos"), previous competitive eating experience ("nope"), and my nickname ("The Unceasing Maw," which no one liked). There was also space to riff a bit on my "goals/aspirations"—which I thought was assigning a lot of philosophical import to a hot dog contest. I wrote "6th place," having been told there were nine entrants in this year's competition. Only five of us showed.
And the other four? Serious eaters. Talented eaters.
"Dizzy," my closest competition, lives above Zach's Shack, he said, and had eaten thousands and thousands of dogs there over the years. He'd also competed in the last three or four events, upping his count by one dog each time. His goal this year? 13 in 10 minutes.
"Zane" took the whole damn thing in 2011, after local gluttonous overlord "Max Carnage" puked as he was being handed the title belt. Puke, obviously, results in a disqualification—even if you're able to keep it in your mouth and eventually choke it back down, the rules said.
"Max Carnage," the defending champ since 2012, told me he once ate a footlong meatball sub in 32 seconds—a stunt for an Idaho radio station. He'd been subsisting on protein shakes and peanut butter for two days in preparation for defending his title at Zach's this year (I'd had a scone that morning, but that was it). And he was weirdly preoccupied with the angle of the sun on this 90-degree day, assuring me that gorging ourselves in the shade would yield better results.
"Pac-Man," like me, had never competed at Zach's Shack, but Zach (who seemed unimpressed by my lack of both experience and ambition) shook his hand and said gravely, "I've heard a lot about you."
Both Max and Pac-Man had brought their own cups from 7-Eleven, and were busy mixing their bun-dunking water with red Powerade, which would make the miserable mush of a sodden bun more palatable, they said. The Zach's Shack hot dog eating competition had suddenly become far more serious than I'd ever imagined. (And with good reason, I was told. There was a title belt on the line, and title belts are "few and far between" in the competitive eating world.) Somehow, it was only after seeing those careful Powerade dilutions that I began to worry I'd truly embarrass myself.
We were 15 minutes away from start time, and I began obsessively asking other competitors for tips and tricks. They cautioned me to not push myself too hard—10 hot dogs was an admirable, even ambitious, goal for a first-timer. They told me to jump to clear room, and to snap the hot dog in two before shoving it into my mouth. Probably the most-soulful advice came from a woman known as "Honey Badger." She told me that not puking was a state of mind—that I should banish all notions of vomiting the moment they appeared.
"You have to shut those thoughts down," she said. "Once the puke train starts, there's no stopping it."
Finally, Zach announced us to the crowd and we took our places at a long table on the patio—a plate of nine hot dogs Lincoln Logged in front each contestant. I was standing to the right of Max Carnage, who seemed to be shivering with anticipation. And then we were eating. Oh god, were we eating.
It begins easily. The cold paste of a dunked bun is disgusting from the first bite, but the hot dogs are pleasant and salty in between, and you're hungry. I did two hot dogs in the first minute—my competition was a frenzied, slobbery, disgusting blur to my left—while repeating my internal mantra: "10 hot dogs, and dignity, and damn fame and the demands of a howling crowd." I stood at my full 6'2" at the table, refusing to hunch like the rest of them. I chewed and jammed and dunked, and for probably 4 minutes, I like to think I held my own.
But warning signs flared with hot dog five. Already I could feel the pink mush threatening to overtop my stomach, and my first plate was barely half done. Meanwhile, other competitors were calling for more dogs—Zach was announcing 10 downed by other competitors, 15. Every now and then he'd check in on me. "Dirk's got six hot dogs!" he'd yell, and the crowd—who, really, could not have been more supportive—would cheer. I like to think they appreciated the decorum I brought to the whole thing.
On the seventh dog, bun matter was sloshing back up into my mouth. The once-pleasant sodium of the franks had long ago turned rank. I looked around for mustard—mustard!—but there was only ketchup and hopelessness. I hopped to no avail. The aforementioned hot-dog contest noises were in full swing, making it increasingly hard to shut out vomitous thoughts. The puke train chugged ominously near.
Max Carnage stopped for a moment, looked out at the audience, and let out a fearsome, leonine belch. He sort of swerved and raised his head all at once, like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park (so much cheering). Then he looked over at me, nonplussed, and explained through a beard spackled with slimy food that I had to keep going, which I appreciated.
I turned to Zach—a nice guy who, in my nitrite-fueled madness, I'd come to view as a sneering tormentor—and asked if he'd ever done this before. "Yeah, I've eaten hot dogs," he cracked. The crowd roared, and I realized I'd fallen into another of his blasted traps.
There was a minute left on the clock when I cleared my eighth dog, and just one hot dog left on my plate. But the song had died in my heart. I could go no further. I lost the contest, and I disappointed my own modest expectations.
Max Carnage: 22
The Unceasing Maw: 8
Of course it didn't end there. I wasn't in pain. For a time, I even marveled how comparatively normal I felt. It was no different than overeating on Thanksgiving, I told myself. That changed pretty rapidly, with unsetting bubbling and gurgling becoming more frequent. More than any discomfort, though, I realized I just didn't want to digest eight hot dogs. It would be better if I threw it all up and maybe ate some kale.
But do you want to know what happens to eight hot dogs that are ramrodded down your throat? They settle and sit low in the stomach, packing tight into a ball. I ducked into the Space Room and attempted to purge myself of that malevolence, but it wouldn't come. Then someone walked into the bathroom, and I got self-conscious and left. I moved down the street, stopping for my bicycle at Zach's, and a group of women who'd seen the contest praised my effort and encouraged me to "pull the trigger," by which they meant vomit.
So I went to Powell's, where I knew I could have a restroom to myself, and my fingers went to work thumping my uvula and scouring my esophagus. The dogs were stubborn, though. I estimate I got two, maybe three dogs out of my system, and even that took prodigious effort and a plenty of vomit-induced tears.
I went home and napped, and now, days later, things that shouldn't taste like hot dogs do, I'm wary of bread, and probably there will be lasting health effects. So nice job, everyone.
There is something else, though. Competitive eating is a joyless pastime. There's little to be gained but disgusting gloats and off-putting online videos (and a title belt, I guess). But when I said at the beginning of this that I'm not sure I ever left that sun-and-anguish-filled patio, I meant it in more than just a post-trauma sort of way. I can't stop thinking about that last hot dog on the plate and an entire minute on the clock. I felt certain, at the time, I couldn't possibly have cleared another dog, but looking back—I'm not all that sure.
"The great thing about competitive eating," Pac-Man told me before the competition, "is that food stops controlling you. You're in control."
But he's wrong. It's our own bodies we were up against on Zach's patio Saturday afternoon. Food was merely a cudgel by which we sought to tame nature, to rail against our own evolutionary limitations, to aspire to more. It is a pointless "more," sure, but more nonetheless. Viewed in a certain light, the Zach's Shack hot dog eating contest isn't so different from the human pursuit of flight.
And what I've been thinking about too much since that Saturday is: I bet I could soar. DIRK VANDERHART
Want more WORST. NIGHT. EVER? Read all of our staff's experiences here, and stay tuned this week on Blogtown for Erik Henriksen's visit to a Doll and Teddybear show. (Too cruel!!)