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

Love and Entropy in Texas

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



Serious cowboy jukebox in Bandera.



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.



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.



The house was built from WWII small ammo boxes.



Picnic table cats by the river.


Decompressing by the river after an intense interview session

Decompressing by the river after an intense interview session.



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


Vanessa McGradyLove and Entropy in Texas

Dads, stop doing this. It's disgusting.


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


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

Pen Is Mightier: Letters I Wrote This Week


1. To Grace’s karate teacher

I’m Grace’s mom, and I wanted to let you know how much I enjoy watching her in your class and what a great job you do with the kids. It’s the perfect balance of silliness and discipline and I know she has a great time and she will carry those lessons forward.

One thing I wanted to point out, and I do this in the spirit of fairness, is that I noticed you commented on the girls’ smiles but not the boys’ in the class. She will go through enough of her life being asked to smile by strangers, and will have the intrinsic challenge trying to balance the importance of how she looks with what she can do. I’m wondering if you’d consider applying the “great smile” comments to all the kids, or none at all in the future. I think you’ve done such a good job at showing that both girls and boys can be powerful, so I know you understand what I’m talking about. I don’t want her to come away with the subliminal message that smiles are less important for boys than they are for girls.

Thanks very much and we look forward to class resuming in the fall.

Please let me know if you want to discuss this.

I received a very nice and prompt reply that he’d certainly be more aware of this aspect in the future.

2. To a “content marketing” company that complimented a story I’d written for Forbes.com, then offered to pay me “double” for writing stories about their clients and pitch them to my editors as actual news

Thanks for thinking of me. What you’re proposing is highly unethical, as I’m sure you are aware.
Content writers generally are paid to write for a specific site, and it’s understood that the site is sponsoring the work–such as my content for BBVA Compass bank. If you’re positioning it as news and then asking journalists to pitch it as such to reputable sites, they are endangering their careers.
Let me know if I’m misunderstanding what you are proposing, because the way it reads now, you’ll have a hard time getting any reputable journalists on board.
No response, as expected.
3. To our library

To the Fine Librarians at Glendale Public Library,

As a journalist and avid First Amendment advocate, I’ve never called for removing a book from library shelves before. But I hope you will consider burning “Super Heroes Opposites” (© 2013, Downtown Bookworks/DC Comics) in the hottest fire you can make.

Here’s why: As I was reading it to my 4-year-old daughter, Grace, I noticed that all the male superheroes featured are performing feats of strength and showcasing their superpowers—jumping off buildings, lifting cars, pulling what appears to be a gigantic oil rig, and the like. The page featuring the solo female, Wonder Woman, shows her pushing a swing with a child in it.

I was disappointed to have to explain to Grace that this didn’t count as a superpower. Why wasn’t Wonder Woman wasn’t shown in a more heroic light, as the others were? It might have been different if they’d added Batman whipping up some pancakes to make it more fair.

In addition, something to consider in these heady days of gender fluidity and flexible designation: The book lists “Women” (Supergirl, Hawkgirl and Batgirl) as opposite from “Men” (Superman, Hawkman, Batman). Do we really need to go there, pitting the genders as opposites when we now understand there’s so much more in between that even young children can grasp?

I hope you’ll consider my request, and I would welcome a discussion with you about this if necessary. Please let me know your decision.

We love the library and hope you’ll fall on the side of fairness and equality.

No response yet on this one, but the librarian who took the letter agreed and promised to run it up the chain.


It’s exhausting fighting for truth and justice.

Vanessa McGradyPen Is Mightier: Letters I Wrote This Week

In Praise of Sad Things

My friend Matthew sent me this Steven Wilson video, for no particular reason except that it’s lovely and we share music and amusing Internet Things (we both were bummed we didn’t think up the ship a box of glitter thing). The video is also really, really sad and haunting. I watched this on the heels of Inside Out, which I saw with my daughter. While the movie was a little intense for her in places — when you’re 4, you basically travel through the story AS the character witch which you most identify–we stayed for the whole thing.

We talked a lot about feelings after, and our favorite parts of the movie. Grace is a very happy, silly and wickedly funny kid, so it surprised me that her favorite part was when the character Sadness couldn’t get up off the floor because she was so sad. “I feel like that sometimes when I don’t want to go to school and just stay in bed,” she told me. Which is ironic, because for me, I really latched on the the reminder that you can let sadness breathe in the same space as so many other feelings. So of course. Of course.

I need to honor sadness just as much as I need to honor rain, or nighttime, or hunger. What I loved about the Steven Wilson video, and the movie and also sad songs and sad art and sad friends, is that in a way they bear witness to my own sadness, and don’t try to talk me out of a feeling, or cheer me up. it’s a kind of keeping company of like hearts.

Someone once told me that if you don’t let your negative emotions come in and out through the front door–grief, anger, sadness, what have you–they will find a way out through the basement window, up the chimney or seep out the cracks in the weatherstripping, and the byproducts of those feelings may emerge in surprising and not very good ways. It may take a while. They may become stuck and malignant.

So, hello, Sadness. Time for tea.


Vanessa McGradyIn Praise of Sad Things

Cupcakes, lemonade, paper and magic


Charles Papert photo

Grace, my newly minted 4-year-old, is coming off a 36-hour high-rev cycle of excitement about her birthday, breaking into her own little “it’s my birthday, birthday, birthday” tune once every 20 minutes or so. A magician and his rabbit show up in the park for her. She is surrounded by grown ups and kids who adore her.

At the end, 10 cupcakes, some smushed, some salvageable. Those go into the freezer, for what, I’m not sure, but they’re too pretty to trash. A bag full of bags, neatly folded, ready for future gifting. Enough paper for a small indy weekly, and even though it’s in my nature to pick the scraps and revive them, it goes into the recycling. All of it. Too tired. But so happy that it went well, even with divorced parent awkwardness, spilled lemonade, renegade balloons. I realize I got not only a kid when I became a mom, but I got all the other kids we know, and their darling parents, who are there cheering her on: I hit the community lotto.

And the girl, after a thorough scrubbing in the bath to rid the layers of sunscreen and pizza and sweat and dirt, falls asleep quickly after two books about birthdays and one about the friendly snowman named Olaf, who finds joy in every situation. This night, there are no extra potty trips, no pleas for the light on, no, “mama, I have to tell you something … ” Just a happy, deep, delicious sleep.

Of course, this day belongs to her. But there are others who are, unsimply, with us today and every day. I think about the man and woman who brought her into this world; from every angle I see his eyes, her legs, their hair. Grace doesn’t like to talk about adoption much. But today, I make sure she remembers the people who made us a family.

And then I add a little hot to her leftover bath and slip my sunburned shoulders underneath the water. We’re in a drought, you know.



Vanessa McGradyCupcakes, lemonade, paper and magic