The Conversations I Never Have

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‘Twas the season indeed.

There was tinsel. Presents. The ability to listen to *NSYNC’s Christmas album—arguably their best and most amazing work, ever (I mean, who could forget JC’s “O Holy Night”? Lance’s super deep and perfect “YOU” when he sang “The only gift I wanted was you”? And the sexual undertones and overtones of “Under My Tree”? They weren’t just talking about conifers, am I right?)—without judgment.

There was also home.

And for people living in New York City, a.k.a. land of the people from elsewhere, home is a familiar, comforting, and ever-so-frustrating place.

I know what you’re thinking: Home is frustrating for everyone. You New Yawkers ain’t special!

While I agree, and thank you for speaking in the native tongue, there’s a special kind of frustration that comes from going home after living elsewhere for a long time, and not just any elsewhere, but an elsewhere unlike any other elsewhere in the world. (I’ll give you a minute.)

After all, it’s a city that attracts a high concentration of intensely passionate, ambitious, and competitive people. Which means instead of dreaming of nice, practical things like buying houses with yards, we drive ourselves crazy dreaming of the impossible: writing the next great something or curing cancer, or maybe just some good ol’ fashioned world domination.

Even our food people are intense. Here, you can get the urge to eat something at any time of day and have it delivered to you. Fast. By multiple sources who compete for your measly tip.

You can only imagine the type of people bred by prolonged exposure to such conditions.

Assholes. Yup. We’re assholes.

Assholes who, when found outside of our natural habitat, say:

What is this work-life balance you speak of?

Why does no car appear when I raise my hand likeso in hailing fashion?

And since when does “takeout” mean I have to physically go to the place to take out the food and bring it to the domicile? How positively medieval and wow where’d this giant turkey leg and mead come from because they’re delicious?

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This strange existence gets even stranger when you’re home for the holidays.

In between the tinsel and Justin’s sexy crooning about the wonderful feeling of the love in the room from the floor to the ceiling (down there), you must somehow exist as your present self while surrounded by images of your past life (hi, journalism plaques and pictures from the 4th grade) and while fielding questions regarding your hypothetical present self in a parallel universe everyone else seems to think you’re striving to be.

In this parallel universe, you’re married to the handsome, strapping fellow you’ve somehow convinced to deem you worthy of his ownership, with many offspring, and a career in… doesn’t matter. Because women and careers? Maniacal laugh.

Worse still, on top of being an asshole New Yorker, you’re also the immigrant daughter of two immigrants from the Philippines, which comes with certain expectations set long before any of you were even zygotes.

Like, the writing thing’s cute and all but success is measured by matrimony and procreation. Family. The spreading of the seeds to continue the lineage so that your parents’ sacrifice of leaving behind everything they knew in the Old World so you could prosper in the New World wouldn’t be in vain.

Whoever said you can’t go home again obviously wasn’t a progeny of a people with strong familial, religious, tribal, and conservative views you can never run away from no matter how far you go.

Because regardless of your individual dreams, you’re going home dammit.

Because you are not bastos.

Besides, what would our aunties and uncles—you know, that close-knit community of 200 Filipinos you’re supposed to consider family—think?

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The longer I’m away, the more disconnected I am from this past life. This is normal, as time tends to do its thing. In an ideal world, though, we’d all evolve and change, in disparate yet intersecting ways.

But when it comes to me and my parents, the whole immigrant thing really puts a chink in the armor (Chink sounds super offensive, by the way. How about, a hot sauce in the chocolate chip cookie? A vegan in the meatatarian parade? Birkenstocks in, oh who am I kidding, Birkenstocks are great everywhere.)

Because not only are we separated by time and space, we’re also separated by a set of wildly disparate beliefs shaped by our totally different upbringings.

The more time passes, the further our worlds diverge, to the point where the details of these past lives sometimes feel imaginary.

Like, did I really grow up in what many Americans would now consider an un-hip tiny house without wheels?

Did we really not have hot running water?

Did my childhood jeepney—in other words, school bus—really run over someone on my way to school and this someone was carried off the street and into the center of the jeepney, flanked by two rows of children facing said someone’s bloody carcass, en route to the hospital and, at some point, the school?

Who knows, say I as I sip my $5 cappuccino delivered to me via drone after speaking into the toilet.

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This disconnect is most palpable over the holidays, when it manifests itself after a year of blissful diversion. Because my family and I immigrated when I was around 8 years old, which was well into my cognizance as a human, our most vivid shared experiences are of the struggles of assimilating into this strange new world.

On Christmas, it makes great dinner fodder.

Unsuspecting Family Friend: Can you speak Tagalog?

Me: I can understand it but I can’t speak it well.

Mother: Why DID you forget it anyway?

Me: You guys told us to speak English at home when we first moved to America so we could lose our accents and not be bullied at school. So… way to go, parents.

Mother: That was your Dad who made you do that! I speak Tagalog at home! Why would I do that!

Me: Sounds like something better discussed not over the sacred Sinigang (super delish, btw, you’ve outdone yourself again!), but behind closed doors, not on Christmas, and in 1992.

Father: Anyhoo, on to lighter matters. How ‘bout dat Trump?

Recently, a friend told me he gifted his dad golf flags with pictures of his mustachioed face. I told him how cool it was that his parents understood his humor. If I’d given my parents the same thing, they’d wonder if I had, like, a hormonal issue or something.

Also, what is golf?

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Thus, I’ve learned to adapt. Immigrants are nothing if not master adapters. “Assimilate or perish!” our collective forehead tattoos say.   

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Gift cards make awesome presents. They say I’m thinking of you, Mom and Dad, without confusing you by getting you something only I think is funny.

2. We can talk about the weather and how New York experiences weather, sometimes seasonally.

3. When there’s a lull at dinner and I don’t feel like bringing up my past life growing up in an un-hip tiny house without wheels nor my shaky grasp of my native tongue, I can pull out the Trump card to really get the party started. Since my parents have declared lifelong fealty to opposing parties, it’s fun seeing a microcosm of our adopted country’s polarizing views in action.

4. Questions about marriage? Point at the partner. Children? Point at the dog. Marriage AND children? Point at the Corona.

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Still, I can’t help but long for a more nuanced conversation about my real, actual self in this universe.

I think it would be quite nice.

Here’s how it would go:

Hello, Karen, darling progeny of ours. How’s your domestic partnership—a totally valid life choice, by the way, seeing how marriage isn’t the only way to solidify a union—of more than four years with Franco, and your progeny from another Frenchie, Henri?

Good. Our family is a small but happy one filled with laughter and many farts (sometimes Henri’s).

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How’s your career going?

Not bad. I wrote a bunch of burrito jokes for two packaging projects that went national—literally my dream projects, NBD. Actually, it was a big deal. I saw the mountaintop and it was filled with burritos, and I climbed it! Then I ate all the burritos.

That’s pretty cool—I’m sure your burrito jokes are funny to somebody. How’s the small but practical apartment for two people who aren’t fond of cleaning, and a small dog who doesn’t like exercise?

It’s good! It’s rent-stabilized, and we were able to renew the lease for 2 years. Plus, the rent only went up by, like, $30!

Amazing. That means you get to save a lot of money and take time off to write about nothing, much like this very entertaining and thoughtful essay, which is like your dream, right?

Yeah!

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And take time off to travel for an irresponsibly long time, which is another one of your dreams, right?

Totally.

How wise and frugal of you, given the whole rise of the far-right movement and the seemingly inevitable end of the present world order (big ups to the big man in the homeland with a name that rhymes with Do Tear Tay, that loveable rascal!)—we’re just kidding of course. But seriously, who knows how long all the borders will be safe to travel freely, am I right?

You’re so right. Tyranny is funny!

<Shared laughter, with one of us laughing way too hard.>

So, what’s next?

I want to keep freelancing and writing in New York City. It’s been swell.

Cool, cool. We’re so happy for you, our sweet, amazing, and one-of-a kind daughter.

Aw, stahp, but don’t stop.

One more thing.

What?

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When are you gonna get married and pop out dem babies?

<Fin.>

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2017

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Whenever Franco and I come home, people want to give us things.

A TV. A microwave. Something to make the food that will inevitably find its way to the microwave.

“I thought you were a pauper,” they say, after a brief mention of our incomes. “My apologies.”

When people from elsewhere visit, they make assumptions.

“Being in your 30s is quite old. Sorry, I know you don’t like to hear that,” she says, rubbing my shoulders.

Then there’s the universal: “One day he’ll ask you. Don’t you worry.”

At this point I lower my hands, which have been locked in prayer for who knows how long in a direct appeal to the gods of nuptials and fertility. I’m also kneeling for some reason.

“Golly gee I sure hope so,” say I, nodding extra hard. “After all, my sole purpose in life is to become a worthy partner to a mate so we can procreate with much gusto.”

Often this satisfies them enough that I’m allowed to retreat to my dark corner, where I’m always sipping a dirty martini—definitely with much gusto.

***

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I didn’t grow up with my mom.

This catches people off-guard when I tell them, but it’s just a fact of life. Here’s another fact: I had a very happy childhood. I had a father and aunt who cared for me, my brother and sister. We had many pets—cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, birds, chickens, and hermit crabs—a backyard to roam; a house with doors and running water, which in the Philippines was a big fucking deal. So maybe it wasn’t hot running water because we weren’t the Marcoses or anything, but running water nonetheless.

We had a nanny who loved us, too. She had lice. But having lice there was like having intestinal worms, a scar where the anti-tuberculosis needle pierced your skin, a family dog presumed dead after escaping the yard via jumping a fence and likely falling prey to the neighborhood uncles having many night caps and thus craving a pup-flavored snack, or, as we call it in Tagalog, “pulutan.” In other words, it was all totally normal, guys.

Like many overseas workers who were the backbone of the Philippine economy, my mom lived and worked elsewhere in the world and sent home much-needed funds. But unlike the hardworking overworked nannies and maids of the homeland, my mom had a prime gig as a registered nurse in the Bronx, with benefits and everything, and PTO that allowed her to come home in two-week spurts.

My dad likes to tell the story about how I hit her with my milk bottle when I was 3 because I didn’t recognize the strange woman hugging my dad. My mom doesn’t like that story very much.

But even at a very young age, I knew my mom was the reason my siblings and I went to really good schools, why we had a TV with a VCR (also a big fucking deal in those parts), and why we were the proud VHS owners of all the American musicals and the best animated films Disney made during its late ’80s, early ’90s renaissance.

Even then I knew my mom made the money. Therefore, she was a badass.

***

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Every girl, so the narrative goes, has been dreaming about The Big Day since they were 5.

After The Big Day come the house and the kid and the other kid and… I guess the story trails off after that because there’s nothing more to life, am I right?

My narrative, however, was always something else.

I decided I’d become a writer, see the world, and live in New York City. I’d meet the love of my life at some point, of course, and we’d have a pup and probably adorable offspring, but these would come in addition to the goals I’d set for myself—not at the expense of them.

After all, my mom was living her own badass existence. Why couldn’t I?

***

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When we’re young, we’re told we are the culmination of all the things we do, aspire to be, and become.

But there’s a cutoff.

At some point life just boils down to the paper you’ve yet to sign and the things that haven’t yet come out of your vagina—which frankly, as amazing as those feats are, is insulting.

I get it, though. Real narratives are hard to talk about in bullet form. They’re messy and depressing. They meander and don’t always make sense. They’re often unsatisfying.

If we were to have a real conversation about other notable things in our lives beyond the familiar topics of getting betrothed and procreating, we’d encounter uncomfortable truths about life and the people in it.

The stories would go a little something like this:

I’m 8. We’ve been in America a couple weeks. Two old men talk to my sister and me at a recycling center in the Bronx, and we ignore them. “They’re fresh off the boat,” they say to each other, laughing. “They can’t speak English.” We speak English, I think to myself, just not to strangers.

I’m a tween now, still not allowed to go outside because my dad thinks doing so would spell certain doom in the form of an irresistible urge to do drugs or get pregnant. I read and write a lot.

14 years old. I’m now a freshman at a high school in Virginia, where people wave Confederate flags at football games. A decade or so later, hundreds of students there will sign a petition to lift the ban on the good ol’ tradition, citing their heritage.

In college, I become editor of the student paper. “Maybe the first Filipino-American editor?” my dad says. I dismiss it. Who knows. Who cares.

21. I intern at a paper, where I talk about growing up in New York City and scoring in the top percentile of some standardized test (the reading portion, of course. My math was and always will be terrible). A staff photographer, a white dude in his 40s, surmises it’s probably because New York standards weren’t that challenging.

23. After interning at a paper for several months, eating ramen and developing a potassium deficiency while making minimum wage, I get hired as a full-time reporter at a time when few papers are hiring, much less hiring people like me. But not before one of the editors of a mostly white, Southern-born and bred newsroom asks, “Do you have trouble making friends?” When another staffer brings around her adopted Asian baby, she points to me and says, “Look. Sister.”

25-28. After getting laid off by the paper during The Great Recession, I move to New York jobless with less than $4,000 in the bank. I get a journalism job at a time when few people in journalism (or anywhere for that matter) are hiring, like, at. All. I kick ass, take names. I eventually get bored of struggling to buy groceries while paying rent (because journalism, am I right?) and decide to go back to school.

27. I ask a person of some authority from a former life for a letter of recommendation to a grad program. “This program is very hard to get into, you know,” he tells me in a way that means I shouldn’t bother. He drags his feet writing this letter, and when he does, a white girl’s name appears where mine should be. I get in anyway.

28-30. In grad school, professors joke about whether I can speak English. The class laughs. Many of them come from places that probably also waved Confederate flags at football games.

30. I graduate from grad school. I move back to New York. I freelance in a field where most writers are white dudes. I get paid an absurd amount of money to make puns.

31. A white dude of some authority, after barely having worked with me, says, “You don’t have to be the most talented person in the room as long as you show much enthusiasm and hard work. You could take out the trash at a place you really like to show your dedication, like I did.” He doesn’t seem to understand that if I took out the trash at a place where most people looked like him, they would just assume I really was the maid.

31. As Franco and I celebrate my new gig, a woman I barely know turns to me and says, “Now it’s your turn to support him.”

31-32. I continue to live and work in New York City. I still get paid an absurd amount of money to make puns. In my spare time I write, but it’s hard because life’s busy. There are all these weddings to go to.

I want to talk about all these things, how difficult it all is but hopefully it’s all worth it, and when do you know anyway, is there, like, a sign that says, “Hey doofus, you’ve freaking made it. Have a margarita.” Is there? Is there a sign? What do you think?

But the only thing they ask is: When are you getting married?

I kiss my index finger, point to the sky and say: “Any day now.”

***

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Not following The Narrative raises eyebrows.

If you’re past 30 and unmarried, it’s not your choice.

Not having a TV means you can’t afford it.

Freelancing means you can’t get a full-time job. Because everyone wants a full-time job. Everyone.

The man makes all the funds. He’s funding you, in fact. Never mind that you once lived independently in NYC before there was even a hint of you two ever dating. You are subservient.

Most importantly, you envy the people of The Narrative. They are the lucky ones. And one day, if you’re very lucky, you too will be one of them.

***

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According to The Narrative, success is defined by the paper you sign, the offspring you produce, and the fancy things your fancy job affords.

Nothing else matters.

Usually I find it best not to refute it. It comforts people. They’ll think what they want to think anyway.

But I’m finding that staying quiet is even worse than taking a stand on anything, no matter how dumb or erroneous. It too perpetuates lies, misinformation, and cowardice, and even elects buffoons—just without the conviction.

So this year I’m taking a stand, dagnabbit. Because, while I may not have control over how people will interpret the truth, the lack of diversity in creative fields, nor the median age of every newlywed in the world, I still can control how I present my truth.

In fact, my wish for 2017 is for everyone to be so bold as to start or keep pursuing their alternate narratives, and dare speak of them at family gatherings, friendly reunions, and random hookups with their most favorite bar persons, if that’s what they’re into, regardless of anyone’s fragile eyebrows.

I’ll go first:

I’m a writer in New York City. Sometimes I go weeks without a paycheck, but I’m an excellent saver. In my spare time, I travel not nearly enough and draw and play the ukulele because like me, it is very small. I live in sin with my boyfriend whom I love very much—with much gusto, some might say. We share a small apartment in Queens with not a lot of fancy things, because that’s how we like it. We may or may not get married one day.

We consider ourselves very lucky.

A Mosh Pit Full of Fist Pumps Episode II

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2015 was such a whirlwind. A blur. A ride. An adventure. A spectacle. A blast. A rollercoaster. A peanut.

Crap, I lost it. Let’s just say, a lot of stuff happened.

In many ways it felt like I was wandering aimlessly on this new writing path. Last I wrote about it, I oh so dramatically outlined my reasons for peace-ing out on journalism (On a scale of 1-10 in breakups, I’d give it a 55. Necessary, sure, but awful as fuck. I enjoyed writing for newspapers for a time but didn’t quite have the temperament for the daily 300-word regurgitation of things you can Google elsewhere. Even as a reader, I much prefer longer narratives and pieces that take months and months to write. But I’d do it all over again, layoff and financial destitution and all. It was like being in a time capsule—a writing bootcamp that future generations won’t get to experience. Suck it, babies).

Unlike the well-worn and fading path of daily newspapering, this new one is much more nebulous.

And in 2015, it showed.

I was all over the place.

Chronologically,

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JAN:

I left a contract job in NYC so I could intern at a cool ad agency in Minneapolis for a couple months. Steeped in great copywriting tradition, this place was like rubbing shoulders with the ghosts of the greats and the rockstars of the current. I also got to see what an agency’s like when it debuts an ad baby on the night of the Holy Grail of admaking—the Super Bowl.

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MARCH:

I got back to New York, probably more unsure than ever of where to go next. Instead of immediately lining up an ad gig, I decided to use my savings to hole up and start drawing. And I kept drawing (more on that later).

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JUNE:

With a couple dozen comic strips under my belt and a revamped portfolio incorporating my doodles, it was time to look for another gig. I soon was faced with two choices: a stable position in Manhattan calling for a very specific skillset or a contract one in Jersey calling for anything and everything that was 1.5 hours by train and train and bus. I took the one in Jersey.

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SEPT:

Franco and I moved into our own space. One word: liberating. Hence, this current spate of posts.

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OCT:

When summer ended, so did the Jersey gig. Days into yet another stretch of holing up and drawing, I got a call for a monthlong project in Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh, by the way, is an awesome town. In another lifetime in another universe, I would have loved it.)

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NOV/DEC:

Back in NYC, I closed out the year with another contract job in Manhattan. Because. Bookends.

***

Looking back now, I see there was one constant: experimentation.

Different ads and clients and cities and agencies and people—I wanted to try them all.

All throughout, I still wrote side projects for myself. Not in this space, because for a while I felt like everything I wanted to share didn’t belong here. They were meant to be short stories, maybe, or diary comics, or shitty tumblr posts or some other form I don’t really know yet.

I’ve grown more patient with them.

2015 made my writing goals much clearer. I’d share what they are but this space is much better in hindsight.

Because

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But I can speak in generalities.

I’ve found that to grow as a writer, you  have to grow as a human. That may include admitting things about yourself you may not like, purging a lot of things that are bad for you, and not being afraid of the changes you need to make to get to where you want to be. Just like anything in life, things may be crap for a while but time has a way of ironing things out.

I’ve found that just because you’re growing in a certain direction doesn’t mean the people you know are going to go with you. And that’s OK. Some people are right for us in spurts, not eternity.

In the same vein, pursuing your own path, especially one that doesn’t quite jibe with the status quo, can be quite lonely. It’s why surrounding yourself with awesome people isn’t just important—it’s pretty damn necessary. And because forging real bonds takes a lot of time and energy, we must be very cognizant of who we give that time and energy to.

Finally, #LIVINGTHEDREAM can change as you change. This time 10 years ago, I was a senior journalism major gearing up for a summer internship at a daily newspaper; was editing the college paper and would soon be running it by fall; and leaving it all behind by spring to live in Spain for a couple months. Shit. I was way cooler 10 years ago.

And that’s OK.

Because I didn’t know then what I know now.

That is, #LIVINGTHEDREAM may at times look a lot like wandering aimlessly, making questionable career moves, waking up in the middle of the night going: What the fuck am I doing? It’s talking to people about your dreams about writing and being flat out told: HA. So you want to be a writer? Not if you don’t write in a certain manner at this kind of place, slaving away every night and weekend FOR ALL OF ETERNITY you won’t!

In spite of it all, no, in the face of it all, you keep writing. Not just writing, mind you, but writing in the kind of way that excites you and sounds like you.

Because weirdly enough, this nonlinear path actually gets you much closer to #LIVINGTHEDREAM than the one that came with all the cool, fancy titles.

In my old writing life, I put my work with the capital W ahead of everything. That was necessary for that point in my life, but now… fuck. That. I’m convinced my best writing self comes from being the best human me.

Which means being in the city I love.

With the people I love.

To do the kind of writing I love.

It took a while to get here, but man am I glad I did.

Happy New Year, friends.

I’m back


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I.

I got yelled at.

I’d been back in New York for good, or at least as long as “for good” can be guaranteed by someone who moves a lot, for barely 20 minutes.

And I got yelled at.

Technically it was Franco who got yelled at because he’d been the one driving.

But I’d been the one who had said, YES! Drive over that spikey thing that could potentially damage our rental car in plain sight of the rental-car people just before we return our rental car because YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, NAMSAYN?

We hovered over the spikey thing for a second – I kid you not, a second – when the man driving the bus in front of us got out of the bus, noting our confusion, and said, ever so tenderly:

IT FUCKING SAYS “ENTRANCE.” WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU WAITING FOR? GO GO GO.

What a dick, I thought.

I was home.

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II.

The most valuable thing I learned in grad school is good work has to be true.

It’s something everyone knows to be true and believes they seek, but ridiculously hard to do.

Too often we’re too dazzled by bells and whistles and pretty things to recognize that what’s below the surface is nothing.

That we would have found the real shit, the more interesting shit, a couple of layers below that surface had we just dug a little deeper and racked our brains a little harder.

Like writing, it can’t be taught.

We can be guided to it. We can look at past truths and deconstruct them. We can ooh and ahh. But because each piece of work requires its own truth, whatever we learn from the past can’t always be applied to the present.

But what makes it really hard, what keeps us from striving for it, isn’t that it’s this nebulous thing only a genius can come up with.

It’s because no one really demands it.

Sometimes it takes too long and requires a lot of what looks like sitting around doing nothing when what you’re really doing is turning your thoughts over and over in your head until they form something cohesive that resembles an idea.

It’s hard because it’s much easier to stop before we find it. We can get by with much less.

So, why seek it at all?

Because it’s the only thing that fulfills. Not money, not reward, not external validation.

For a writer, it’s what sustains after writing hundreds of shitty lines, spending weeks on a project only to throw it away, and releasing a beloved something to an empty room.

You pat yourself on the back.

Think it’s a piece of shit.

And start over.

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III.

I’m drawn to truth.

I like exposing truths and making people uncomfortable. Or delighted. Or surprised. Or sad. Or whatever.

It’s why I’m drawn to New York.

It’s a place where you can find the most beautiful things – theater, art, food – and no one shies away from the struggle that makes them possible.

People are open about it. They talk about the hustle. The rent. The shit pay.

They not just talk about it, they live it.

It’s the kind of mentality that others might see as cynical, rude and unpleasant. To me, it’s the kind of mentality that breeds optimists.

It acknowledges life can at once be brutal and ugly as well as beautiful and great.

It comes from a place of truth, and it binds us.

In New York City, it happens every day.

It’s when the richest and the poorest stand next to each other on the train and think: I’ve got to make it to the end of today.