What I’m reading AND listening to: I just finished the last minutes of the 29-hour Audible version of Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, narrated by President Obama. Yes, it is as good as you think it’s going to be. Yes, I cried many times. Yes, it is thrilling hearing Obama use curse words.
What I’m Watching: Moving Art on Netflix. It’s like those loops of B-roll footage that play at the electronics stores on all the TV’s to show off how good the TV is. I have this on because writing is what I call “couch work,” and I like things happening that are beautiful and non-distracting in the background.
WARNING! THIS ARTICLE HAS SOME SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE SOUL IN IT! I’ll warn you when we get close, and when it’s safe to keep reading. For now, you’re OK.
When my children were young — around ages 2, 4, and 6 — I used to make them hide their McDonald’s Happy Meals under their shirts as best they could and sprint from the car to the front door. If they made it to the front door without neighbors seeing the Happy Meals, they would get a cookie. I did this to avoid neighborly judgment. During this run-for-it moment, my youngest fell and bit his lip. His nuggets went flying. Blood dotted the sidewalk, mixing with the chalk of some leftover hopscotch. His little face was smeared with minty-green chalk and tears and some grease from the french fries he clearly snuck into his now-swollen mouth in the car. As he started to cry and hyperventilate, he yelled: “MY NUGGETS” for all the neighborhood to hear. I was worried he would faint since he and his sister both had a tendency to pass out if they cried too hard and too suddenly. I watched this baby violently mourn his Happy Meal and asked myself:
“Is this the way you want to live?”
We lived in Berkeley, California. If you don’t know much about Berkeley, you probably know some of the stereotypes. Many of them are true. I remember one of my first trips to the park after moving to the city, when I only had one kid. It was a small corner lot patch of green space called Totland. This park was heaven for toddlers because it was built for them, not older kids, and was also a place where the neighborhood discarded ride-on toys. For a broke grad-school mom of a 15-month-old, it was amazing to be able to push my kid on a busted Power Wheels instead of having to buy one. But the real moment of clarity didn’t come from the broken tricycles. It came from snack time.
The first time I squeezed myself onto the tiny toddler picnic bench with my first-born for snack time, I was horrified. I looked around at the other mothers and nannies, and I saw them pull out tiny containers of matchstick carrots, complete with an accompanying single-serve hummus. The hummus wasn’t in a packaged container like the ones you would buy at Costco. The hummus was in a vessel clearly designed for dips and sauces for toddlers — sometimes BPA-free plastic, but often glass.
A mother next to me with silver hair, cargo pants, and an NPR t-shirt looked to be 20 years my senior, though she had a child around my son’s age. Her containers were the toddler version of a charcuterie platter — mozzarella cubes, olives, grape tomatoes. If I close my eyes, I can see the fatty sliced salami that she wrapped around the mozzarella. The grape tomatoes and olives were OF COURSE sliced safely so nobody would choke. Every part of this balanced snack was packaged separately, in its own glass container.
The last glass container made me bite the inside of my mouth to hold back tears. It was a container of melon balls. This mother loved her child enough to scoop a goddamn melon that morning. I had loved my child enough to throw a package of “Cheese Whales” into the diaper bag next to the BPA-filled sippy cup of tap water (Cheese Whales being the generic version of Goldfish they sold down the street at the Grocery Outlet). I was out of my depth. I felt young and stupid and uneducated. All my insecurities about being a young mother were mixed up with my insecurities about starting policy school. I was a cesspool of inferiority and fear.
Triggered by a glass cube full of cantaloupe, I vowed right there to reinvent myself. I wasn’t going to be like a stereotypical mom from Bakersfield, my beloved hometown, and #1 in per capita fast food consumption in the US. I was going to be a Berkeley mom. I bought glass everything. I shopped the bulk grain aisle at the co-op. I leaned in hard to the bento box lunches.
I bought a melon baller.
Here’s the catch, though. Inside me, there was still a mom from Bakersfield. There was a hard-working woman who did the best she could, and who–if we’re being real-real–loved a Filet-O-Fish. There was a student trying to make a limited budget stretch the whole month and who felt a sense of joy when her kid’s faces lit up for that Happy Meal.
I exuded charcuterie board vibes to hide my Happy Meal heart. I never gave myself the grace to recognize that you can be both things.
It wasn’t just Happy Meals I hid from my world. I also hid the fact that I went to Church.
Belief in a higher power was incompatible with the erudite, data-driven policy analyst world in which I found myself. I was SMART, and SMART people believed in science. The VERY SMART PEOPLE around me made fun of Christians and “bible thumpers.” I never let it slip over the years I was there, beyond a tiny circle of friends, that on Sunday evenings, I took the kids to a very big church and then stayed after to eat a very big church-dinner. I stayed in the back pews, and on the few occasions I tried to connect with the church mom’s groups, I felt out of place. These other moms had homes they actually owned and husbands in Silicon Valley. I felt marooned between these two worlds, a weak grip on either shore. Everywhere, but also nowhere. Living two lives is unsustainable. We end up face down in a pile of nuggets on a chalky sidewalk if we keep doing it.
Our job on earth should be to unapologetically reach for both things and believe in coexistence, not compartmentalization. Over many years, I realized that my love of social science could help me wrap my head around the things we can’t comprehend. There is a concept in stats — R-squared — that is the proportion of variation in an outcome explained by your model’s variables. It’s a measure of the power of your predictive inputs. Suppose we want to predict, for example, my income. In that case, we could choose a host of things to throw in the model: my parent’s education, my education, my gender, my race, and the rest of the kitchen sink.
But there will always be something immeasurable left over.
There will always be unexplained variance. There will be discrimination or resilience; there will be stubbornness and greed or just genuine hustle-mentality.
I think the true beauty of the world is in 1 minus R-squared. I think that’s where joy and love, and supernatural power live. (I have a whole other stream of thoughts about the concept of the Counterfactual that you will have to hit me up for some other day)
By choosing to do both things, I found a way to marry the parts of me that — when they fight each other — exhaust me to the point I can’t do anything.
This is where the Soul Spoilers start!
I’m not the “Movie Night parent.” That’s the job of my kid’s dad. He sets up forts and lets them have snacks on the couch, and he could, I am sure of it, do this a few times a week. I am the “big things” parent. I’m the one who makes Christmas happen. I’m the one who took them camping in Yellowstone in a teepee, or charmed the Disneyland monorail driver to let them sit upfront. I’m the mother of iPhones and vacations, not Movie Night.
I decided to step outside my box and propose a Movie Night the day after Christmas with the caveat that I would get to choose what we watch. Usually, I would steer clear of animated movies, but I was feeling sentimental thinking about my teens who were once so in love with Pixar that even just driving by the Pixar HQ in the Bay Area made them giddy. Plus, Daveed Diggs was in Soul, and he is my second-favorite Hamilton Broadway star to regularly appear on Law and Order: SVU.
That night, I became the Movie Night parent. I filled bowls with snacks we ate on the couch, and within 10 minutes of the movie starting, I was holding a tear-soaked bowl of Chex-Mix. Something in this movie hit a nerve. I was so overwhelmed with thoughts about it, I immediately scrawled in my “writing ideas” notebook: “WRITE ABOUT SOUL.” When my sister texted me that night to ask me what I thought about it, I couldn’t even formulate a response. I let her text go unanswered until the morning.
People in my circles are obsessed with PURPOSE. In the film, souls can’t get a pass to an earthly body without a spark, which we assume in the beginning to be a neat category of “oh, this is my thing, this is what I do.” I’m a cellist, or I’m a painter, or I like to sell vacuum cleaners. The characters operate under the false notion that by trying a bunch of things, Soul 22 will finally get a pass to earth. It’s like being at a party, and someone asks, “what do you do?”. You immediately respond with the same job title that is on your LinkedIn profile. I always hesitate because I feel like I’m more than my job title, but also not so emotionally unintelligent that I don’t recognize how gross it would feel to answer “I exist to make good policy.” I just say, “I work at a tech start-up” and then switch topics.
Through a cosmic mixup, 22 gets to earth and realizes–accidentally–that the spark isn’t a vocation or a hobby. It’s a deeper connection to the world. It’s the manifestation of what folks into meditation call a beginner’s mindset. It’s an innocent, genuine delight at the mundane wonders of the world. It’s a curiosity about things that others would cynically overlook as basic.
If the world can be all at once mundane and complex, why can’t we?
SOUL SPOILERS ARE OVER NOW.
R-squared exists as a concept because 1 minus R-squared exists. Believing in the things we can explain means, to some extent, we all agree that some things are unexplainable. We can simultaneously be believers in what we can see and what we can’t.
I finally got an Air Fryer this Christmas after many months of telling everyone I didn’t need one. The Air Fryer has replaced the Peloton bike as the thing I will work hard to fit into every conversation with a random person. My Google search history is now 80% “can I air fry a…[insert food here].” A well-meaning mom at the dog park asked me yesterday, “oh! I love my Air Fryer. What’s the first thing you made? Avocado fries? Roasted Sweet Potatoes?”
I paused. It was the Happy Meal dash all over again. But this time, I told myself, I wasn’t in Berkeley. I was 39, not 24. I had a beautiful life and a loving family, and a gorgeous dog. I didn’t have all my life together, but I was getting pretty close. I had a lot to offer and nothing to prove.
I looked her straight in the eyes, my chin slightly raised.
“I went straight to Costco and bought a 72 pack of mini tacos. I wanted Pizza Rolls, but they were out.”
Air Fryers exist in two worlds: the deep-fried and the healthy. An Air Fryer can be both things and be successful and valued and madly loved. An Air Fryer lives in the tension of the in-between and seems to be doing OK for itself.
Since it’s a few days into a new year, raise a glass with me. Hold up whatever you have on hand, and let’s toast to the things we can explain and the things we can’t, each uniquely beautiful in their own right. Let’s toast to purpose and finding new ways to learn about someone when we go back to dinner parties, rather than always asking, “what do you do?” Let’s toast to authenticity and honesty and the hope that, at some point, the melon ball toddler got to taste at least ONE McDonald’s french fry over the last 15 years.
Here’s to a year of being the Air Fryer of humanity!
Cheers, friends. *insert clinking sound*