We Do Not Fail

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When I used to work in offices, I had this inspirational quote hung over my desk. It reads, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” I’d look at it every now and then and think about my parallel universes a lot: The one in which I lived on a farm in Vermont and made pottery. The one in which I have an Oregon bed and breakfast. Going back to acting or singing or learning to play guitar.

I did make that leap from my dank little cubicle life to full-time freelancing from home two+ years ago, and I am 1,000 times happier. I guess that was a risk I took and didn’t fail, at least not yet.

The other night, my daughter, Grace, found the plaque and asked me to read it to her. She held it up in her hands. “We don’t fail. We don’t need this,” she said, and marched it over to the trash can.

This was the precise moment when I started learning something from my child, in a solid, measurable, tangible way.

Yesterday, I was getting ready to send the three chapters of my memoir to my agent. She needs them to sell the book. This was the fourth or maybe fifth pass at this, I don’t know, I’ve lost count. I’d thought I was done at the end of February, but then my readers–the people in my life I trust most, whose opinion perhaps is even more influential than my own–came back and told me it wasn’t ready. I cried for two days solid. And then I got back to work, waking up at 6 a.m. every day to flesh out the bony parts of the manuscript, to make it better, more solid. I just let it take its own path and stopped thinking about what everyone else wanted and more about what the book should be.

I had a final reader lined up, but he was busy with a new baby and a trip to Asia, so I excused him.

I took one final pass at my words, and realized it’s just not going to get any better. I’ve done all I could.

If I send it, and if it’s not good, I don’t know what the next step is. I would no longer be in the dreamy limbo of “writing a book,” but instead, “wrote a book and it didn’t work out.”

I hovered over the email and kept finding things to do instead of sending it. Laundry, tea, dog walk. I thought of all the reasons I shouldn’t send it at all. And then, I remembered what Grace said. “We don’t fail.”

We don’t fail. I hit send.

God, you can keep the confidence of a mediocre white man and please grant me the confidence of a magical, kick-ass, gives zero f***s 4-year-old.

Vanessa McGradyWe Do Not Fail
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A Story of Microfeminsm in Five Parts

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Microbullshit Stops Here, And It Stops Now: A Story of MicroFeminism In Five Parts

A tsunami may be less than a foot (30 centimeters) in height on the surface of the open ocean, which is why they are not noticed by sailors. But the powerful shock wave of energy travels rapidly through the ocean as fast as a commercial jet.”National Geographic News

I wrote a piece in Jezebel that’s gone viral about the tiny sexist particles I’m calling “microbullshit” that add up to a major cultural norm, and how I’m trying to create a different experience of girlhood for my daughter than I had. I’ve gotten more love than I expected for it, plenty of weirdness, and of course, the haters (I was harshly accused of being vegan and gluten-free by someone in the comments. Um.) In one part of the story I called to disappear a book from the library that showed Wonder Woman pushing a child in a swing, while all the other heroes were moving buildings and saving cities. The thing I should have made more clear in this is: I made my first half of my career defending the First Amendment when I worked for a controversial publishing house. In no way do I condone massive book burnings or the squelching of ideas. Rather, I’d was hoping the librarian I mentioned would consider this particular book as she would an outdated history book, say, that had incorrect information about science, slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, etc. Not burn it out of rage, but set it aside to make room for more current reality.

Here’s the story.

Vanessa McGradyA Story of Microfeminsm in Five Parts

Better Living Through David Bowie, or, How I Became My Own Hero

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I’d checked Facebook one last time before I went to sleep, and learned the terrible news. I was flooded with an incomprehensible sadness, an orphaning of sorts. I tossed and turned, trying to explain to myself why the loss of David Bowie meant so much to me personally–I hadn’t been any kind of uberfan. My brain wouldn’t let me sleep until I’d written it all down. Read my story in BUST.

 

 

Vanessa McGradyBetter Living Through David Bowie, or, How I Became My Own Hero

Sweetness at the intersection of want & need

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Christmas has been difficult for me since my dad died in December, 2003, and it hasn’t helped that soon after, I moved to Southern California where I have exactly zero family. So a few years ago I finally stopped wallowing in my aloneness and started inviting people over for Christmas Eve as a way to make a new holiday with a tribal feeling. Of course it’s a busy time and not everyone can make it, but it’s always a good way to reconnect with neighbors and see how tall all the kids have grown. One year, my friend Valentin invited her church choir to come sing to my guests packed into my very small living room. It was a kind of Christmas magic that wouldn’t have happened had I been burying my face in a pint of coffee chip ice cream, which is always my first instinct.

For Christmas day, I always hand my daughter, Grace, over to her dad, whether it’s “my year” or not, because I want her to have a family Christmas with some of the loveliest people on the planet. Last Christmas I’d gotten stood up by the guy I was dating and had my own sulkfest in the theater. This year wasn’t looking too promising either. 

But get this. In September, guy I’d dated during the summer when I was 19 had resurfaced after 25 years and, surprise … turns out he lives less than 2 miles from me, a single dad with two teenage girls and a 3-year-old son. Unprompted, he asked to fill my dance card on Christmas Day, and pondered what it would take to get someone to make some fake snow fall in front of my window. It’s been simultaneously sweet and hilarious and mortifying to tell stories of our time together and to try to fill in the details about the time we didn’t know each other. It’s like forgetting about your favorite comfy sweater in the closet, then finding it and realizing it was even better than you remembered. We will be friends forever. 

As the Waitresses put it so well in their iconic Christmas song:

Then suddenly we laughed and laughed

Caught on to what was happening

That Christmas magic’s brought this tale

To a very happy ending!

My wish for you this year, no matter what your faith, is that you get what you want and what you need.

Vanessa McGradySweetness at the intersection of want & need
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Love and Entropy in Texas

American Gothic, sort of

I came here to visit my daughter’s birth parents and ask them about their history and their adoption experience. It’s been an intense journey. They have an angrysad hangover, four years later, about how they were treated by our agency. They became homeless a year or so after Grace was born, kicked around LA for a while (and also stayed with us) and found their way back to Texas Hill Country, where Bill is from. They are living in Bill’s grandmother’s home, which has remained vacant for many years. It looks like it’s one bad thunderstorm from falling over, yet they keep it impeccable inside. They have no water; the electricity comes from a neighbor’s extension cord and a solar panel attached to a single car battery. They are coming back to LA where there is life and music and something for them. Something, anything else.

Anyway. Here.

 

Creek rising

Creek rising

 

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Serious cowboy jukebox in Bandera.

 

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Cowboys watch The Price Is Right at the Silver Dollar in Bandera.

 

We’re just a normal, happy family like everyone else.

 

The outside of Bill's grandmother's home, where they've lived for a year. The inside is spotless.

The outside of Bill’s grandmother’s home, where they’ve lived for a year. The inside is spotless.

 

Bill and Bridgett look out over Lake Medina, which disappeared and came back

Bill and Bridgett look out over Lake Medina, which disappeared and came back

 

Bill used to play music at this joint. The picnic table he built is still on the porch. It's for sale.

Bill used to play music at this joint. The picnic table he built is still on the porch. It’s for sale. The building, I mean. But they’d probably throw in the table.

 

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Bill used to live in this house with family friends, from the time he was 8 until 15 years old. He thinks it burned from a meth lab explosion or maybe just some stupid kids.

 

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The house was built from WWII small ammo boxes.

 

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Picnic table cats by the river.

 

Decompressing by the river after an intense interview session

Decompressing by the river after an intense interview session.

 

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Sometimes you get a rainbow to let you know it will be OK.

 

Vanessa McGradyLove and Entropy in Texas
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Dads, stop doing this. It's disgusting.

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Look, Daddy! I’m a virgin!

This post was recently syndicated in Ravishly. Have you visited this site yet? Pretty great.

This cringe-inducing story about a dad who forced his daughter’s prom date to pose in humiliating pictures made its internet rounds this week, and today, I found this gem: The daughter who presented her pastor father with a certificate that her hymen was “intact.” Hey, kudos to her for keeping the panties on, but why on earth did she need to prove to her dad she was a virgin? On TV, the couple described their virginity as “value” and she wanted to share her accomplishment with her father. No, sorry, a virgin is not more valuable than a non-virgin. Having boundaries and taking charge of your own body is the value proposition here.

The seem lovely, truly, the couple you’d invite to brunch. I don’t care one way or the other if they held out until their wedding day, that’s their own business. But when you involve your dad in a public way, beaming with accomplishment about your intact hymen (which, medically, means nothing. They can grow back. And also, disappear for other ways. And also, as one astute reader pointed out, is it pass/fail? What about the other kinds of sex? Not that we care, really.)

Sexual weirdness between fathers and daughters goes way way back–we have the Greeks to thank for giving us the story of Electra, and her father, King Agamemnon, who ended up together after some brutal offings of the mother and the mother’s lover. Still, the “dad with a shotgun” is standing by at front doors everywhere, waiting to pick off anyone who dares touch his daughter in a way he deems inappropriate–unless he’s the date at a purity ball. Even my dad—for all his goodness and progressive, liberal thinking—had his own version.

I loved Matt, a 15-year-old ringer for Pierce Brosnan, in the way only a hormone-addled 14-year-old girl can. I was the townie living in a remote speck of a place on the pristine waters of Washington State’s Puget Sound; Matt and his family had come from the very exotic-sounding Santa Barbara to escape the Southern California heat to lounge by the resort pool and play tennis. When we met, I couldn’t eat. Couldn’t sleep. Imagined our lives together against the backdrop of an REO Speedwagon soundtrack.

For two summers, we splashed each other in the pool. We saw Porky’s. We kissed, a lot. Maybe a hand on my bra, maybe my fingers grazed the band of underwear. But that was about as far as it went, physically. Upon Matt’s departure that first summer, I wrote in my diary, “This is the first time in my life I have been in love … Love isn’t a bed of roses.” And then I wrote out my first name and his last name, as if we were married, and surrounded it with a heart. We both cried when he left.

By the end of our second summer, we’d still not “done the deed,” as I was saving my virginity. I was in the house alone when Matt came to say goodbye. There were teary kisses and promises to keep in touch. And then my dad came home.

Dad roared. It was the culmination of a years-long circular “I’ll begin to trust you when you’re trustworthy” go-round. He was a singe father who had his way with the ladies–lots of them–trying to keep me away from boys like him, I suppose. He’d assumed the worst, every time, and I wasn’t allowed to have company when I was home alone. Dad unceremoniously kicked Matt out. I screamed, over and over, “We were just saying goodbye!” It didn’t matter. The moment would be etched into my psyche forever. And Matt’s too. We’ve seen each other once in the past 30 years, but we’re Facebook friends. I asked him if he remembers. “I remember it well. Such a tender moment blown out of proportion,” he said.

Back then, I wasn’t aware enough to put my humiliation and outrage into words, about my father having a say in my sexuality, protecting my virginity as if it were some kind of commodity, property, jewel that was anyone’s but mine.

I thought about the scene in my dad’s living room the other day, after I commented on friend’s picture of her daughter I’ll call Abby before a school dance. I said she looked lovely. The guy after me, Tom, commented: “buy a shotgun,” implying that the girl was so pretty that her parents would need to shoot any boy who got near her.

Gents, here's how it's done correctly

Gents, here’s how it’s done correctly

Hold my earrings, I’m going in

I’m not the type to engage in a social media controversy. I’d rather delete a gun nut or Woody Allen defender from my friend list than try to debate (even though I mourn the days gone when I could just love Allen’s movies). Still, I bit, because there were too many times in my life when I was quietly outraged, when I didn’t call people on their words, whether they meant them in jest or not. If I don’t notice disempowerment, it becomes further ingrained into my personal cultural consciousness. It becomes white noise. It becomes sanctioned by default.

“I’m sure Abby is a strong young woman who can make her own decisions. That shotgun stuff? Please.” I wrote.

And then my friend, Abby’s mom, said, “Ah Vanessa, it’s all in good fun.” Tom told me to “Take a pill. It was meant in jest and a compliment to Abby, who is gorgeous.” And then he added, “As a father of a girl I believe in empowerment … 12 gauge.”

Here’s the problem. It’s not a compliment in a deeper sense, and it’s not fun. For anyone involved. I’m probably the last person you’d call a sanctimonious prig, what with my uncertain personal boundaries and potty mouth, and I personally hate any sort of word policing.

The “shotgun” reference felt like a demeaning thing to say to Abby, because it nullifies her say in how she chooses to share her body, or not. As if she is helpless livestock that needs a protection from a wolf, and the only way to get that is to have a parent step in with a gun.

It’s an offensive thing to say to a boy, because, yes, I know teenage boys think about sex something like 17,000 times per second, but you’re also reinforcing the message that they can’t control their own actions, and that sex is not a negotiation between the boy and the girl. If all boys are presumed guilty until proven innocent, then maybe that’s how they’ll behave. It’s shrugging off bad male behavior we’ve seen as “boys will be boys.” It is a showdown of sexual dominance, my friend Amy pointed out.

Finally, it’s implying a parenting failure. It is an admission that you have lost control of your child, and the situation, because you didn’t prepare her or him to negotiate sexual contact. I’m not even going to go into the gun as a casual or joke enforcement, because at this precise moment, our nation is in wracking pain because of guns.

I understand that young women aren’t always self-possessed enough to understand their own impulses, never mind communicate them. I know they get themselves into ridiculous, compromising situations all the time (seriously, it’s amazing anyone lives past 17) with inappropriate companions. I know they are assaulted. But standing by the door with a metaphor shotgun won’t change any single part of that.

“It’s just a joke, take it easy”

I know, the shotgun, it’s just a joke. I’d say I fall on the higher side of the funny scale, in terms of giving and receiving hilarity, and I did a root-cause on why the “shotgun” comments strike me so hard. It was also just a joke when, in seventh grade, a kid on the bus of my rural, all-white junior high school held up a can of spray paint and asked “Does anybody want to turn n******?” It was a joke when John Mello leaned over to me in eighth grade after learning the word “gnarled” and applied it to my 28AAs that already mortified me without anyone’s help–I wore baggy shirts all through high school because of that. It was just a joke when some guys razzed my friend Todd, who was gay, about his clothes, and a fight broke out at a metro station, and, according to Todd, they were all hauled off to the police station, where he was raped with a billy club. Todd overdosed shortly after that.

There are funny jokes. There are mean jokes. And there are some “jokes” that have become such a common part of our cultural parlance that we’ve stopped thinking about them. ”Gypped,” “red-headed stepchild,” “Irish twins.”

I’m the mom of a 4-year-old girl. She’ll have her own challenges, I’m sure, when it comes to love and sex when it’s time. We all did. I can only give her so much preparation, the rest she’ll have to figure out on her own.

Getting a second opinion

I spent so much time being mad about the shotgun comment and not being understood when I spoke up that I brought the idea to my Jungian psychotherapist, who helps decode the world for me when I can’t. She completely disagreed with my theory that the “shotgun” comment is demeaning.

“The father with the shotgun is more afraid than sexually territorial. He has the right protective instinct about rushing into sexual relationships and he’s expressing it in a symbolic way,” she said. “A young man needs an older man’s advice about boundaries in teenage love relationships and the shotgun symbolism gives it. It’s the un-nuanced way to say ‘she’s too young for this’ and I want to protect her until she’s more mature.”

I agree that men need to teach each other the way of the world. But your date’s dad is probably the most inappropriate man of all the men in the world to help you with this issue.

I get it. Fear and love and rage, all in the same stew. You don’t take a bite without getting a taste all three. But if anyone in this house will be carrying that metaphoric shotgun, I want it to be my daughter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanessa McGradyDads, Stop Doing This. It’s Disgusting.

Sisters Wiped Out $182K In Debt, Together

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I loved doing this story in Forbes.com about how four sisters banded together, shared their money and tackled their collective debt. Then they went on to help their own family. I’m so inspired by this. Why doesn’t everyone do that?

 

Vanessa McGradySisters Wiped Out $182K In Debt, Together