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Games Your Brain Plays When You Have PTSD, Vol. 1

Occasionally making you irrationally suspicious of people you love because you love them.

The chain of thought goes something like this:

  • “The people who’ve hurt me the most were people I allowed to get close to me. Therefore, closeness leads to being hurt.”
  • “The common denominator in all these relationships was me, which means I’m a dismal judge of character. That means deep affection for anybody is a red flag, because my track record reflects a preference for people who hurt me.”
  • “Therefore I should feel suspicious of those I love most, because history tells me my affection for them is a sign of their untrustworthiness.”

The kicker is that this line of reasoning isn’t entirely without basis in reality. Repetition compulsion, the pattern of reenacting traumatic events in a doomed effort to master them, is a real phenomenon. It’s one reason why if you have an alcoholic parent you’re likelier to marry an alcoholic, and why children who grow up in abusive households frequently select abusive intimate partners. It also helps explain my tendency to gravitate toward friends whose treatment of me falls on a spectrum from indifference to, on at least a couple of occasions, wholesale bullying.

This is not to say that most of my friends have been assholes. Far from it. The basically decent people I’ve admitted into my life outnumber the basically shitty ones exponentially, but the shitty ones were doozies, and my impulse to give the benefit of the doubt to people I like a lot means it sometimes takes me way longer than it should to correctly identify an asshole when I encounter one. This self-knowledge only amplifies the little voice of paranoia in the back of my head that loves to remind me of every occasion when somebody I cared about showed me a warning sign that I immediately rationalized away or pretended not to have seen, and sometimes it makes me see everybody, but particularly my close friends, through a lens of misgiving.

tl;dr: Scumbag Brain is very real, and “trust no one” is just one of the many cunning disguises it likes to wear.

A gay marching band made me late to a film festival

Twice last week my volunteer efforts at the Portland Horror Film Festival were almost derailed by public transportation problems. Thursday, shortly before I was scheduled to arrive at the festival venue, Oregon Live blew up (no pun intended) with news that a possible explosive device was being investigated at Hollywood Transit Center, because I guess that particular MAX stop hasn’t been the backdrop of enough awful, pointless bloodshed in the last two weeks. Or maybe, the cynical part of my brain (i.e. my whole brain) suggested, it was a false flag and the PPB was looking for an easy way to earn back some cred after a weekend spent fist-bumping neo-Nazis in the park.

Just as an aside, if you’re the type of person who plants bombs in heavily trafficked public areas and yours blows up while I’m around, you better hope I’m in the center of the blast zone and I fucking die, because if I decide against my better judgment to heave my carcass out of my climate-controlled tomb of an apartment and brave the day star’s assault on my pasty hide, and instead I wind up in the ER having shrapnel tweezed out of my face, I will Google Earth your compound and key the shit out of your van.

Friday, instead of bomb threats, the MAX train I was on got stuck downtown behind what I mistakenly thought was the Pride parade. As a general rule I loathe parades for the way they snarl traffic and quadruple the length of my bus ride to anywhere, and for the additional hazard they pose while traveling on foot. Last year during the Starlight Parade I had to dodge an oncoming drumline like Frogger just to cross the goddamn street, and my life flashed before my eyes, and it was both chilling and aggressively boring in equal measure. Also, I don’t understand what allure anybody older than five sees in spending a relentless summer day sitting in a collapsible lawn chair on the sidewalk, being pelted with rock-hard, individually wrapped pieces of candy hurled from floats at the velocity of a pitching machine, but that’s just me.

Pride is a little different, though, since there’s more at stake than who could eat the most flowers or whatever actually happens during the Grand Floral Parade. The Westboro Baptist cult still shows up every year to preach fire and brimstone and wave their lurid signs, in effect supplying an instructional pageant about why Pride exists in the first place. So I may not participate in the festivities directly, but I also don’t begrudge the tradition or anyone for whom it’s a special occasion. That’s why, when my train stalled in front of a marching band outfitted in rainbow tie-dye playing a brass arrangement of The Village People’s “YMCA,” I didn’t feel my usual slow burn of anti-parade choler. I also recognized that I wasn’t in a position to pass judgment on anything since I was fully clad in a Batman onesie with detachable cape and mask in observance of Adam West’s death that morning.

When I eventually got to the movie theater, I found the event coordinator to apologize for my lateness and explained that I got stuck behind the Pride parade. A nearby drag queen piped up to tell me he was almost certain Pride wasn’t until next week, and some further investigation showed that he was right. So I have no idea what I crossed paths with on Saturday. It may have been just a roving gay marching band. Who knows.

The rest of the film festival was a blast and some of my favorite selections were recognized during the awards ceremony. Here’s one of them, Atlas World by Morgana McKenzie, which I’ve linked to only because WordPress won’t let me embed anything.

Shit I Want to Stop Seeing on Social Media, Effective Immediately

1. Headlines with the following format:

“While everyone was paying attention to [current event], [other current event] occurred!”

You mean to say with seven billion people packed together on the surface of this hell-marble and all the governing bodies of the world racing to see who can annihilate us all the fastest, multiple newsworthy events transpired simultaneously? Well, fuck me sideways! What will I do with this new information?

My favorite thing about this framing is the subtle way in which it trivializes the first current event (which, in the most recent iteration I’ve seen, was the Comey hearing, so, you know, definitely not a big deal) and also judges the reader for their presumed failure to pay adequate attention to every item in the unending funeral procession of fiery nightmares churned out by Herr Shitler’s administration on the daily.

2.  Buzzkilling back-patters:

Last year after the Pulse nightclub massacre, I saw like half a dozen posts in one day that amounted to “How can you plebs care about Pokémon Go at a time like this?” I didn’t even play the stupid game but the pomposity of it all still pissed me off, because how dare people seek comfort in the aftermath of a grotesque hate crime with deadly implications for all queer people and those who love them, amirite? We can’t possibly indulge in a fun, relaxing activity and still be attentive to the tragedy du jour. People can only care about one thing at a time, guys.

More recently, I saw some similarly self-righteous finger-wagging at all who dared snicker at Prawn Goebbels’ #covfefe gaffe and the ensuing parody wildfire, because embracing whatever levity we can find in today’s Lovecraftian news cycle means we’re deeply un-serious Pollyannas too preoccupied with silly Internet memes to care about Real Issues.

3. Virtue-signalling bullshit:

In the fresh horror of every mass shooting in the United States last year, at least a handful of dickbags on Facebook felt the need to share this article about an even more lethal shooting at Garissa University in Kenya. These posts invariably asked why, amid all the hand-wringing over yet more gun violence on American soil, nobody was talking about this other, even more horrific tragedy that had just occurred abroad.  We were so shamefully self-absorbed, so checked out of the global community.

Except by then, the article and the shooting it was about were already a year old, which should tell you two things: 1.) Everybody who shared it was equally ignorant of the event until the article appeared in their news feed, at which point they re-shared it without bothering to actually read it or at least note the publication date, and 2.) The people who shared it didn’t actually give a fuck about the incident either, but saw an opportunity to look more-informed-than-thou and jumped on it like Olympian pole vaulters of grief-policing.

tl;dr: Quit doing this shit. You’re bringing down the curve for the whole class and making yourself look like a huge tool.

In which I memorialize my grandmother.

My grandmother passed away nineteen years ago yesterday. Her payoff for decades of good nutrition, moderate social drinking, regular exercise, and no smoking was death from pancreatic cancer at 62, which frankly leaves me feeling pretty vindicated about my many horrible lifestyle choices.

My grandmother, Vita Bollman.

Grandma was a first-generation Italian-American and the first woman in our family to earn a college degree. After teaching special ed for years and raising four children as a single mother, she completed grad school and started a second career as a social worker. The summer after I finished kindergarten, she retired, sold her house on Long Island, and moved to Ridgefield, Oregon, where she started a llama farm. Bingo and porch-sitting just weren’t her style.

Somewhere my mom has a VHS cassette containing the home video of her retirement party. Grandma is in tears for much of it, laughing herself to the point of hysteria while coworkers and friends lovingly roast her. At one point during the party, one of her colleagues—I believe the superintendent of the school district—delivers a line that’s indelibly burned into my brain: “I’ll never forget the day I first met, or rather, encountered, for no one simply meets Vita Bollman.”

Upon being introduced, he recalls, my grandmother asked whether he would mind if she cursed in front of him.

“In anger?” he asked.

“No,” she explained. “I just like to curse.”

Grandma was an aficionado of all things inappropriate, as evinced by the contents of her library. An incomplete list includes The Naughty Victorian Handbook: The Rediscovered Art of Erotic Hand Manipulation, The New York City Cab Driver’s Joke Book, and a dictionary-sized tome titled simply The Limerick.

My mother says I have her lacerating cackle laugh.

Before she died, I visited her every other weekend. It was our bedtime ritual for her to leave a new book under my pillow, which I was forbidden to peek at until she tucked me in. I was an avid reader, and most nights I would fall asleep with a book in my hands, which she would tiptoe in and recover after I had nodded off. In the morning she’d let me put on makeup in her vanity mirror. I still have one of her fire-engine red Coty lipsticks in its gold tube. She’d let me wear her jewelry, too, which made me feel terribly sophisticated.

Some nights we’d rent videos and she’d roll out the TV she kept on a wheeled stand in her closet. Our favorite movie was Ruthless People, a comedy about Sam Stone (Danny DeVito), an unscrupulous millionaire who plots to murder his wife Barbara (Bette Midler) for her inheritance. Instead, Barbara is abducted by a down-on-his-luck electronics salesman and his fashion designer wife who ransom her for $500K, which Sam refuses to pay. Incensed by his betrayal, Barbara teams up with her kidnappers to extort even more money out of her husband, and the movie ends happily for everyone but Sam.

I’m summarizing the plot to give you a sense of context for Grandma’s favorite scene: the reunion of Sam and Barbara, which occurred in the last two minutes of the movie. She would make me get up to rewind it six, seven, eight times, and she would explode with fresh laughter at each replay until the tears were rolling.

“Well, I’m putting you out of my misery / We ain’t got much but we’ve got history.”

Yesterday I logged into Facebook to find a friend request from an unknown sender. The profile picture thumbnail was too small for me to make an identification, but we had a handful of mutual contacts so I clicked on the profile and was surprised to see that it belonged to one of my high school best friends, a woman I’ve neither seen nor spoken to in almost a decade. Her timeline was protected, but I was able to browse through a small assortment of public photos and see that she’s taken up burlesque and modeling.

I deleted the request and went about my business. A few minutes later, Messenger pinged with a notification, so I opened my inbox and was momentarily dumbstruck to see this:

Why do you hate me? What did I ever do to you? I made mistakes, for sure, but I was a child. A child in an abusive family who would have done anything to be different from who I was. You were my best friend, and I miss you. I’m not asking to be your bestest best friend, but I’d love a chance to get to know who you are now. I know both of us have changed a lot.

The message had been sent from a second, unblocked account, and this one was under the name she used when we knew each other. I can’t say “under her real name” because it’s not, but I’ll get to that shortly.

Before I answer the question of what she ever did to me, let me interject a pro tip: If your goal is to persuade an indifferent former friend that you’ve changed your ways, you undermine your own credibility by persisting in making unwanted contact with the aforesaid friend, and especially by beginning your sales pitch with the preamble, “Why do you hate me?”

But since she asked . . .

I met Lucy in an introductory drama class on my very first day of high school. During roll call, she piped up to correct her name as it was printed on the roster. Instead of Lauren Higgins, her legal name, she wished to be called Lucy Brendon. Our teacher, Dana, dutifully made the correction, advised us that we were free to appoint ourselves stage names, finished roll call, and told us all to form a circle onstage. Lucy and I wound up on opposite sides of the circle facing each other, and she smiled and waved at me with such warm familiarity that I was sure we must have met somewhere before and I’d simply forgotten. When Dana instructed us all to greet each other, I approached her first, eager to figure out where and how we’d been introduced.

It turned out we never had. I can’t recall the reason she gave for waving, but she readily acknowledged that we were strangers to each other. As we talked, I detected the twang of an accent and asked where she was from. Australia, she said. She and her mother had moved to the United States a few months ago. I asked what grade she was in. Technically she was a junior, she explained, but due to some clerical error she’d been mistakenly registered for school as a sophomore. Something about her credits not transferring properly from her high school in Brisbane.

I liked Lucy right off the bat. She was friendly, engaging, and quick-witted, and she had an anachronistic sense of style that aligned perfectly with my own sartorial preferences, which at the time were informed mainly by a love of John William Waterhouse and Renaissance fairs. She was slim and willowy, with waist-length golden brown hair, milky skin and a prominent Cupid’s bow, and she was wearing a peasant top with long bell sleeves. Except for her little wire-rimmed glasses, she looked like she could have stepped right out of a pre-Raphaelite painting.

She did have a few odd affectations, but at first they only made me admire how resolutely she marched to her own drummer. When I introduced myself to her, for instance, she didn’t shake my hand but grasped just the tips of my fingers in her own and squeezed them lightly. This was her customary greeting. Her laugh was a pronounced hee-hee-hee-hee. She had a habit of breaking awkward silences by saying, “Dot dot dot?” aloud. And she had an obviously practiced, gliding gait that I supposed was meant to look sexy or ethereal: Her back was always ramrod-straight, her arms hanging motionlessly at her sides, and every time she took a step forward her hips would move before her feet did. It was like the rest of her body was being pulled along by her groin.

She was just strange enough, in other words, to belong right in my wheelhouse.

We bonded immediately and soon became best friends, habitually selecting each other as partners for any two-person assignments we were given in class, writing jokes to each other in a shared notebook, and bonding over a mutual fondness of historical fiction and New Age esotericism—not any specific religious tradition, but the associated trappings of crystals and star signs and tarot cards. On weekends we’d spend hours in Luigi’s, a chichi downtown coffee shop, talking about our favorite musicals, books, and TV shows. We confessed our celebrity crushes to each other: Mine was Joe Lando from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and hers was Nicholas Brendon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (I asked whether she’d adopted the surname Brendon with him in mind, but she said no.) From the very beginning I felt a profound, almost sisterly kinship with her, something I’d always yearned for but had never succeeded at cultivating in my many impersonal, jokey friendships. We had both read and loved The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, and I decided we were Anne and Mary. Light and dark, as complementary as we were inextricable.

It was evident from her stories of the many places she’d lived that Lucy had led a tumultuous early life, being uprooted and relocated not only all around the United States but internationally. It was hard to track the chronology of her many moves. I knew she had lived in Brisbane recently, but she also mentioned attending junior high school in Utah and spending at least part of her early childhood in Idaho. This confused me, as it was at odds with what I knew about accent acquisition, which I understood came with a pretty low age cut-off, but I shrugged it off. Probably there was some gap in the timeline that she had yet to fill in, or I misunderstood the sequence of events.

Either way, I didn’t press the issue. Lucy clearly had a painful past, and I never felt right probing for any information she didn’t volunteer. Instead, as our friendship deepened, she disclosed more of her life story to me. Her father, like mine, had been mostly out of the picture for many years. Her ex-stepfather, like mine, had been an abusive, frightening figure. Her mother, with whom she shared not only a bedroom but a bed, was an alcoholic who expected Lucy to nurse her through hangovers and, during our first meeting, described Lucy’s father to me as “a son of a bitch.” I thought of my own mother, an Olympian shit-talker, and her ironclad policy against ever denigrating my father in front of me, and I wondered how remarks like those affected Lucy.

Lucy lived with her mother and grandmother, and though I never got to know either woman well, my observation during my few brief visits to their home was that they were Grey Gardens crazy. I thought it oddly appropriate that the outside of their house was painted black, like a harbinger of the insane dysfunction within. Once, at the end of one of these infrequent visits, Lucy’s mother drove me home drunk. I didn’t realize she was intoxicated until we were already on the road, at which point she laughingly assured us, “Don’t worry, girls! I am a good drunk, and I am a safe drunk.” I spent the ride petrified by the very real possibility of an accident, and alarmed by how unperturbed Lucy seemed. She showed no flicker of fear or embarrassment about her mother’s behavior, which was in itself concerning.

But rather than make me leery of Lucy, knowing what an unstable shit-show her home life was only intensified the compassion I felt for her. This set the tone for the course our friendship took later. During the first year we knew each other, we would talk on the phone for hours almost nightly. In the beginning these phone calls were lighthearted and reciprocal, but gradually our topics of conversation dwindled down to one recurring subject: the many ways in which Lucy had been betrayed, rejected, and abandoned by everyone she trusted. She told me about Dan, the only boy she had ever loved, and how he’d broken her heart. She raged about Heather, a classmate of ours who Lucy used to be close with, who one day stopped talking to her for no obvious reason.  She told me about other students who hadn’t wronged her in any concrete way, but who she could tell were talking about her or laughing at her when they thought she wasn’t listening. She had countless stories like these, and hearing them made my heart ache for her.

One incident in particular rankled Lucy for weeks afterward. She and her children’s theatre classmates had been assigned to write and illustrate a kid-friendly short story, which they would all read aloud for each other. Leif, a boy Lucy had been nursing a crush on since the beginning of the school year, had written his story about her. It was a parable about a lonely kangaroo who tried to make friends by pretending to be different animals, but instead found herself shunned by the rest of the outback for resorting to fakery to fit in. Eventually the kangaroo realized that she didn’t have to lie to endear herself to others, and the story ended happily with her finally gaining acceptance.

Apparently, Leif thought Lucy had lied about living in Australia—an accusation I rejected as impossible on the grounds that her accent was too consistent to be artificial—and the story was his way of calling her out. While I understood why his skepticism made her angry, I felt she was reading malice into his intentions where there was none. Was it possible, I suggested, that his story was a misinformed but basically well-meaning attempt to tell her she didn’t have to change herself to please anybody else? No, Lucy was adamant. It was a cruel stunt cooked up to publicly humiliate her. He hated her. All of their classmates hated her. This sort of self-victimizing generalization was pretty typical of Lucy, and I was tempted to dismiss it as paranoia except for one crucial detail: All of our classmates did seem to hate her.

I couldn’t understand it, but nearly everyone I knew seemed to have had a bad run-in with Lucy, and while I didn’t doubt the legitimacy of their claims, I also couldn’t reconcile them with the kind, quirky, funny person she was around me. Even those who barely knew her seemed to loathe her for what I thought were shallow reasons: because they didn’t like her walk, or her dress sense, or her mannerisms. Everyone seemed very eager to judge her. I chalked it up to kids vilifying the unfamiliar and patted myself on the back for knowing better. I also assured Lucy that I would never turn on her the way so many others had. It was a promise I reaffirmed, both to myself and to her, numerous times, but the real test of my sincerity came after Lucy’s mother outed her to our drama teacher.

After the incident in children’s theatre class, Dana began to suspect that Lucy had indeed lied about being from Australia and fact-checked the story with her mother, who confirmed that it was a total fabrication. Dana told his student TA the news, and by the end of the day the truth about “the fake Australian” had made its way all around the school and, eventually, to me. But instead of feeling angry that Lucy had been lying to me since day one, I pitied her. I couldn’t imagine how crushingly unhappy a person must be to not only cut an alternative life story from whole cloth, but to keep up the charade for almost a year. I also couldn’t imagine how ashamed she must have felt about being exposed.

I never confronted her about her deception, and I suppose that must have cemented her confidence in my loyalty, because at that point she initiated Mr. Hyde mode and there was no looking back.

The frequency of her evening phone calls increased, and she would keep me on the line for hours, crying about how unfairly persecuted she felt while I made pacifying noises at her. But now when I tried to hang up, she would become hostile and accusatory. How could I abandon her like this in her time of need? I was her best friend. She had nobody else to talk to, nobody else who understood or cared about her suffering. I started avoiding her calls, so she would corner me at school and badger me into spending time with her. Usually I weaseled out of it by claiming I was busy, but occasionally I gave in and the ensuing get-togethers would follow a predictable pattern: Lucy would suggest we go to Luigi’s, and only after we got there would she reveal that she had no money. I’d explain that my mother had only given me enough for myself, and she would hang her head theatrically. I’d compromise by splitting something with her, and hours later when I was more than ready to call it a night and walk home, she’d tell me her mother was unavailable to pick her up. Instead it fell to my mother to drop Lucy off, which made her furious with me, because the sins of shitty friends are transitive

The more I tapered off contact with Lucy, the more possessive she became of my friendship, and the more she resented any time I didn’t spend with her. At first I tried to placate her by introducing her to some of my other friends. Without fail each meeting would end badly, either with her insulting the person to their face or keeping up a polite, chilly front until they left, at which point she would cite some imagined slight against her and pronounce them “a bitch.” On one memorable occasion, a friend invited me to attend a New Year’s Eve sleepover at her house and allowed me to bring a plus-one. God only knows why, but I decided to take Lucy. The first five minutes were uneventful, but then somebody made a wisecrack that Lucy felt was directed at her and she ran from the room. I followed her and talked her into rejoining the group, but the damage was done. I lost count of how many more times she stormed away in a huff that night. It felt like she was testing me to see whom I would choose: her or them. Each time, I dutifully chased after her.

I spent much of what remained of our friendship chasing after Lucy, consoling her, apologizing to her, apologizing for her. At times I felt less like her friend than her handler, responsible for talking her down from her frequent explosive moods, rationalizing her volatile behavior to others, and defending her against her many critics: They didn’t understand her the way I did. Yes, she could be dramatic and abrasive and sometimes even mean, but she was doing the best she could. She’d had a hard life. Even though she exhausted me, I continued pouring time, energy, and empathy into Lucy partly because I still cared about her, but mostly because I was determined to be as good as my word. I would not abandon her the way everybody else had abandoned her. But she kept upping the ante, making greater and greater demands on my time, requiring more emotional labor, and blowing up at me with increasing regularity. She seemed to be deliberately testing my boundaries to see just how much I would tolerate, and eventually my compassion and my patience were tapped dry.

The end of our friendship was uneventful. I was too afraid of the potential fallout to tell her off, so instead I pulled a slow-fade. Since she stopped taking theatre classes our paths rarely crossed at school, and that meant I could simply stop talking to her with minimal backlash. Every time she called my house, my mother helpfully told her I was in the shower. Her calls decreased, and after a few months they stopped altogether. Since then, I’ve interacted with her only a handful of times, briefly and for the sake of politeness rather than real interest. At no point has she ever apologized for the way she treated me or acknowledged any wrongdoing. As far as I can tell, she still sees herself as the victim, misunderstood and unfairly maligned.

The impulse to rescue damaged people is still strong in me, but now I suspect my haste to offer a shoulder to cry on is as much a convoluted effort to heal myself as to help anyone else. Like Lucy, I’ve been abandoned and mistreated by my caregivers, and maybe on some level I think my own refusal to walk away even from repeated boundary violations and exploitation means I’m better than they were. Because if I can tough it out, it proves they went away because they were too weak to stay, not because I made staying unbearable, and I’m absolved of the primal fear that I deserved to be left.

Which brings us to Sunday. I contemplated Lucy’s message for a long time before composing a reply, and when I finally responded I wrote—and then made myself erase—the words “I’m sorry” several times before hitting send. Because to answer her question, I don’t hate her. Even after writing all this and remembering how shamelessly she manipulated me and took advantage of my goodwill, I still feel sorry for her. I’m sorry that she was born into such a fucked up family. I’m sorry for whatever horrible formative experiences made her into such a difficult person to love. I’m sorry she learned that she could only get her needs met through the application of guilt and deceit. Nobody chooses that sort of life, and nobody deserves it.

But I’m also done apologizing to Lucy for the hand she was dealt. Instead I advised her to seek the therapy she so clearly needs and blocked her.

Author’s Note: All of the names in this story have been changed except for Dana’s. I’ve also fudged the locations and a few other identifying details about “Lucy,” but my account of events is factual to the best of my memory.

2016 Year in Review

I loved memes like this one back in my LiveJournal days. It’s been a few years since I filled one out, and in light of what a shit-show this year has been now seems as good a time as any to resume the practice.

1. What did you do in 2016 that you’d never done before?
Got an agent.
Attended a commercial audition.
Directed a musical.
Began seeing a therapist in person rather than through a web app.
Project managed a sick friend’s hospitalization.
Supported another friend through a mental health crisis.
Attended an all-night horror movie marathon (and managed to stay awake for most of it).
Taught myself needlepoint.
Attended a Naked Lady Party.
Saw the same play three times in a row.
Went to Pip’s Original on my birthday for a dozen free mini-donuts. Do recommend.
Began co-writing a serialized play with a friend.
Acted in an immersive horror/comedy play. (This, incidentally, was the first play I’ve appeared in locally that I felt really proud of and excited for people to see. Oy vey.)

2. Did you meet any of your important goals this year? What are your goals for next year?
I hate questions like this for forcing me to confront what a goal-oriented person I am not.

That said, my most immediate goal for next year is to meet the informal reading deadline my co-writer friend and I set for the second episode of our seven-episode play.

My major long-term goals are to stop expending energy on relationships that involve me being blown off for months at a time until somebody needs a favor/my labor/free entertainment/asses in seats at the matinee, to deepen those friendships characterized by reciprocity, to stop compulsively committing myself to projects and obligations that don’t interest or excite me, and to stop treating my own material and emotional needs like they matter less than everybody else’s.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
The above-named writer friend became a first-time dad.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
Came close, but no. One of my idols died, though. My post about that can be read here.

5. What countries did you visit?
Still landlocked here in the US.

6. What would you like to have in 2017 that you lacked in 2016?
Good mental health, a steady income, a gratifying artistic life, a sense of community, zero one-sided relationships.

7. What dates from 2016 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
As a rule I don’t remember dates, just events. November 8th is the only one that will stand out in my mind because that was the day all American citizens were forced to pile into the clown car that will destroy democracy. (Thanks for that one, Andy Richter.)

Other than that, the deaths of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, and Carrie Fisher will be indelibly printed on my memory for their impact on my loved ones and their cultural significance.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Directing a musical with a cast composed of mainly non-actors.

9. What was your biggest failure?
Allowing friends and lovers to treat me like a non-priority.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
A 24-hour stomach bug sent me to the ER because I was vomiting virtually non-stop for hours and couldn’t even keep down water. They gave me an anti-emetic and IV fluids to rehydrate me and sent me home a few hours later. It was horrid and I hope to never experience anything like it again.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
A Timbuk2 bag and the Hamiltome.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
Danielle, Corinne, and Jack are at the top of the list for reasons too many to enumerate here. These three women are reservoirs of compassion and fortitude, and without them I wouldn’t have made it through this summer without cracking.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
The Bernie-or-bust crowd, many Democrats, most Republicans, many members of my community, several friends, one romantic partner.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Basic living expenses. I don’t make enough to splurge on much of anything.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
The Hamilton Mixtape, and it did not disappoint.

16. What song will always remind you of 2016?
“Wait for It” from Hamilton.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
a) happier or sadder?
Sadder. Much sadder.

b) thinner or fatter?
About the same.

c) richer or poorer?
At the moment, poorer.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Saying no.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Motherfucking Reddit.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
I spent it with my mom, her fiance, and his family.

21. Did you fall in love in 2016?
I fell in weapons-grade like. That was short-lived, but not so short that I didn’t manage to make a few bad judgment calls first.

22. Read any good books?
Trainwreck by Sady Doyle, How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk.

23. What was your favorite TV program?
If we’re talking about shows currently in production, it’s still Bob’s Burgers.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?
No. I’m disappointed in a few more people, though.

25. What was the best movie you saw?
Christine was a feat of character acting and cemented my love for Rebecca Hall. Don’t Breathe and Wiener-Dog were honorable mentions, too.

26. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Snow Tha Product’s verses in “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done).” I loved her contribution to that song so much I’m reprinting the lyrics here:

It’s a hard line when you’re an import
Baby boy, it’s hard times
When you ain’t sent for
Racists feed the belly of the beast
With they pitchforks, rich chores
Done by the people that get ignored

Ya se armó
Ya se despertaron
It’s a whole awakening
La alarma ya sonó hace rato
Los que quieren buscan
Pero nos apodan como vagos
We are the same ones
Hustling on every level
Ten los datos

Walk a mile in our shoes

Abróchense los zapatos
I been scoping ya dudes, ya’ll ain’t been working like I do
I’ll outwork you, it hurts you
You claim I’m stealing jobs, though
Peter Piper claimed he picked them, he just underpaid Pablo
But there ain’t a paper trail when you living in the shadows
We’re America’s ghost writers, the credit’s only borrowed
It’s a matter of time before the checks all come
But

Immigrants, we get the job done

27. What did you want and get?
A particular notch in the proverbial bedpost.

28. What did you want and not get?
These Golden Girls prayer candles.

29. What did you do on your birthday?
Saw Blair Witch with Bobby, Seth, and Estela. The movie was underwhelming, but I spent it in good company.

30. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Not having to watch so many people I care about suffer. Just about everyone I love has been through the fucking wringer this year.

31. Who kept you sane?
Heather Havrilesky and The Coquette.

32. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
Philip Seymour Hoffman.

33. What political issue stirred you the most?
The ascension of a badly spray-tanned reality TV star with narcissistic personality disorder to the highest office in the land was pretty goddamned stirring.

34. Who did you miss?
Dana, my high school drama teacher, mentor, and friend. There were countless times during this terrible summer when I wished I could turn to him for advice. He always knew exactly what I needed to hear, and he knew how to be comforting in a way that still left me feeling like I could stand on my own two feet.

35. Who was the best new person you met?
Alicia. One day we were rehearsing Coriolanus outdoors, and I was crouching in the grass reviewing my script. Without any warning she ran up to me and exclaimed, “I am the Senate!” and pushed me to the ground. I laughed hysterically and fell instantly in friend-love.

36. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2016:
You teach people how to treat you. I’ve taught people that I’ll accept scraps.

No more.

37. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year:

It’s just a knot in the small of your back
You could work it out with your fingers
It’s just a tune that got stuck in your head
You could work it out with your fingers
It’s just some numbers tangled up in your sums
You could work it out with your fingers
It’s just a simple braille missive from the person you miss, a reminder you could always be
A little bit better than this

So try and get better and don’t ever accept less
Take a plain black marker and write this on your chest
Draw a line underneath all of this unhappiness
Come on now, let’s fix this mess
We could get better
Because we’re not dead yet
We could get better
Because we’re not dead yet

Christmas.

My mother has always excelled at holidays. When I was little and she was a stay-at-home mom, she transformed our enclosed porch—our shitty apartment’s one nifty feature—into a craft room, and she spent hours in there every day manufacturing her own decorations. She soaked colorful glass balls in bleach to remove the metallic paint and then painstakingly filled them with dried flowers, sequins, and Easter grass, tying the necks with satin ribbon and attaching pompoms and charms with hot glue. (She was distraught if one broke.) She cut pictures out of magazines with a hobby knife and then decoupaged them onto keepsake boxes. She made wrapping paper from grocery bags and rubber stamps and she’d use it to wrap all the gifts she gave, decorating each one with twine bows and handmade tags addressed in gold paint pen. She had a small artificial tree for every holiday, and it was always decorated with seasonally appropriate handmade ornaments.

It could have been a tranquil pastime, but instead her perfectionism turned it into a furious ordeal with a soundtrack of profanity. She was like a very angry Martha Stewart, if Martha Stewart was from Long Island.

Christmas was when she went all out, festooning our living room in decor worthy of any department store window: nutcrackers, Santa figurines, holly, poinsettias, tiny porcelain houses lit from within by miniature light bulbs, reindeer, mistletoe, and of course the tree, which was a particular point of pride. She would spend days on it, hanging ornaments and applying handfuls of tinsel with surgical precision. One year she pulled a Clark Griswold and wrapped it in some ten thousand lights. My asshole stepfather, looking for something to criticize, remarked that it was overkill and advised her to take some off. She did nothing, then called him back into the room an hour later.

“How’s this? Better?” she asked.

He affirmed that it was a huge improvement.

One of two Christmas trees in my mother's house. She decorated this one.

One of two Christmas trees in my mother’s house. She decorated this one.

Since it was always so laden with expectation, Christmas was naturally also the time when my mother and I fought the most. My memories of holidays in our family are a mixed bag that includes hand-written letters from Santa stamped with reindeer hoof prints, and being called a “stupid fucking idiot” for failing to hold our newly cut tree steady in its stand while my enraged mother struggled to anchor it to the living room wall with fishing line. It’s having the words “It’s obvious that you hate me!” shouted in my face on Christmas Eve while Johnny Mathis croons in the background. History has taught me that winter is conflict season, and my nervous system is accordingly programmed, gradually ramping up my anxiety beginning in early November and reaching a fever pitch in mid-December, at which point I am fully armored and ready for a showdown. An emotional gladiator.

For the better part of the last three months I’ve been buckling under the weight of depression. This isn’t new. I’ve dealt with it for most of my life, but it’s been a few years since its last visit. Fortunately, therapy has helped transform my mother from a person who shouts hateful insults at her teenage daughter over the correct positioning of a Douglas fir into an approximation of a comforting maternal presence, so the four days I spent in her home for the holidays were restorative rather than corrosive.

We ate glazed ham and drank mimosas. We watched The Oranges and DVR episodes of Hoarders and Intervention. I told her when her remarks hurt my feelings and instead of angrily doubling down she stopped making them, so that’s one family tradition we’ve successfully put behind us.

The second tree. Doug decorated this one. It doesn't look it, but it's substantially shorter than his standard thirty-foot affair.

The second tree. Doug decorated this one. It doesn’t look it, but it’s substantially shorter than his standard thirty-foot affair.

In keeping with tradition, Mom cautioned me that she had scaled down gift-giving this year. She’s given me the same warning every year for probably the last fifteen years, and like always I still made out like a bandit. I got:

  • Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself by Anneli Rufus.
  • If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t) by Betty White
  • My First Five Husbands and the Ones Who Got Away by Rue McClanahan
  • Your Beauty Mark by Dita Von Teese
  • Love at First Stitch: Demystifying Dressmaking by Tilly Walnes
  • The Stitch Bible by Kate Haxell
  • The Official Bob’s Burgers Coloring Book
  • A Batman onesie
  • These Bob’s Burgers socks
  • This Tina Belcher figurine
  • Assorted stocking stuffers, mostly chocolate

I gave Mom a book, a parody prayer candle depicting a heavenly cat with Jesus dangling from its mouth, two pieces of embroidery, and a stocking full of small goodies. After four days, I rounded off our visit by missing the bus home and having to kill six hours in Seattle while I waited for the next Greyhound, which departed an hour late. I’ve never been so happy to crawl into my own bed.

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This and everything pictured in the other two photos accounts for only a fraction of her total decorations. I’m serious. She has an entire storage unit.

It was a satisfying footnote to a year that has been, on the whole, fiery garbage.