Alisa Valdes

Writer. Producer. Human.

Here’s What Makes Her Beautiful

Jun
09

We met long ago, in middle school. I was the troubled girl with shiny hair and a sneer, she was the thin, tall girl with the gorgeous clothes. We were both smart. We were both funny. I noticed her right away, and in that bullying way I had then I went to her, and pointed to the empty seat next to me. “You? Are sitting there. You’re my new best friend.”

We were in gifted class together. This meant we got to sit in a circle on the floor, on pillows, every week, to discuss the readings our teachers had given us. We participated, outwardly philosophical and engaged. But we also leaned into each other and whispered the sorts of wry, unkind teen girl observations about the teachers and their weaknesses that left us giggling inappropriately, holding the laughter inside until it burst from our noses and closed lips like a bad cough.

Leslie Gallagher. My best friend.

I remember her father’s apartment, and the pet Chinchilla that hopped high enough to hit its own head on the ceiling. Was it unkind that we laughed as it fell back to the bed, shaking its little noggin back and forth as though asking “What the fuck just happened?” Ay, ay, ay.

I remember Leslie’s father, a quiet man, an engineer. He barely looked up when we’d come home, his social awkwardness and shyness feeling, to me then, like disapproval. Children take everything personally. My own father took up so much room, was so boastful and pontificatorial. Leslie’s father, by incredible contrast, was almost invisible.

They moved to Denver from Albuquerque, and I felt the bottom fall out of my world. Who would wander the neighborhood with me, making fun of everything now? My father was kind enough to buy me plane tickets to visit her, and I remember going with her to her new high school in Aurora. It was bigger and nicer than any school in Albuquerque, and the kids had more money than any kids I’d ever known. I loved how it felt, walking the halls with Leslie there. We were young and beautiful and filled with intelligence and potential. After school, we went to the tennis court, but rather than just volleying back and forth we hit the balls and screamed “Wap” the way we imagined the balls might, if they could talk. It annoyed everyone around us, but we didn’t care. We laughed until we couldn’t breathe. That’s just how it always was with Leslie.

This week, Leslie’s quiet, invisible father died.

She texted me from Arizona, having flown there from her home in Minneapolis. Her husband and children stayed behind, the boy being autistic and needing constant specialized care. When did life get so goddamned complicated and painful, Leslie?

She texted me on the day before he died. She and her dad were sitting on his patio overlooking the golf course. They had made a game, she told me, using their iPhones to make fart sounds every time one of the sunburned retirees took a swing at the ball. Invisible father, fading fast, had chuckled then. This is your gift, Leslie, one of many. The funniness. The ability to stare down the worst monster, eye to eye, and crack a joke at its expense.

Some things never change. Nor should they.

Leslie. My God.

Even this, even now, you are still that girl, you are still beautiful, you are still hilarious, you are still the best friend I’ve ever had.

My heart hurts for you.

After he died, in the moments after, she spoke to me. Her quiet, reserved, emotionally unavailable father. He’d been the reason she found men just like him, all her life drawn to those who would not react. But something amazing had happened when she was in college, with the advent of email. Her father, who had difficulty with eye contact and rarely spoke in person, was a thoughtful, compassionate, funny and wise man in email. He offered her advice there, listened to her there. He was born for machines. There were times, she told me, when she would call him with a problem, only to be met by silence, but that he would email later in the day, or the next day, with warmth and kindness. The complexities of the human spirit, Leslie. How blessed, that you found your father’s soul among the zeroes and ones. How beautiful, that you connected there, and how incredible that he, the silent man at the periphery of our adolescences, was more like us than we ever knew then.

I am so sorry, friend. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for the many years that have passed like a comet. I am sorry you have had so much pain, so much loss, so many ways in which life has not lived up to its promises to that tall, thin, beautiful girl I first met in middle school. I am sorry I wasn’t there with you, as he took his last breath and you played Etta James for him as he did.

“I’m picking up his ashes,” you texted me yesterday. “I refuse to say cremains.”

“Cremains sounds like a terrible non-dairy liquid foodstuff,” I replied.

“Yes. The cheapest kind.”

Oh, Leslie. How you make me laugh, even when you’re crying. How beautiful you are.

How I love you.

Why “The Secret” is a Weapon of Privilege

Jun
06

 

I have written two screenplays in the past two months. One is artsy and historical, about a forgotten woman genius from Victorian-era Berlin. It was a passion project and I’m still waiting to hear back from a couple of people about it. The other is an adaptation of my second novel, done at the request of my producing partner, for a Mexican TV and music star. That one, I’ve rewritten twice, from the ground up. Hundreds and hundreds of unsatisfactory pages tossed into the bin of discontent. Writing, they say, is rewriting. Man, is that true.

Meanwhile, my money is once again running out. It has been this way for the past ten years. I lurch from project to project, paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes I get paid once a year. Sometimes twice. Sometimes, not at all. I have to find a way to make the money last until I sell the next thing, and sometimes the timing is off because of a million unanticipated setbacks. This is one such time. I’ve got enough to last me maybe another month, and then – nada.

So I do what any artist with a kid does: I look for a day job. Those are hard to come by in Albuquerque. This is the poorest state in the nation, with the highest unemployment rate. Wages are low, and demand for my skill set is next to zero. I have been stuck here since my divorce 13 years ago, because I am not the sort of mother to take her son across state lines without permission, and my ex is not the sort of father to not care whether he sees his son regularly or not.

This morning, as I shared my frustrations in job hunting with a friend, I was dismayed by his response. He came at me with all this “quit your stinking thinking” bullshit. “Write the job and salary you want to get, on a piece of paper, and put it on the wall next to your bed. Put that energy out into the universe and it will come back to you.”

This is the usual nonsense spewed by people who adhere to “The Secret” and other magical thinking around prosperity and success. If you’re failing, the theory goes, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough to be shiny, sweet, happy and optimistic. It’s no coincidence that the person who told me this happens to be a white male working in the health care field and making a six figure salary. He owns three homes, rents two of them out for income. In his mind, my failure to find money is entirely my own fault, for just not trying hard enough.

The first problem with this pseudo-psychology/science is that it blames the victim. Most of the 7 billion people on earth live in extreme poverty and deprivation; by this privileged man’s “logic,” it’s their own fault. The entire third world just isn’t living up to their potential because of stinking thinking. This is nothing short of metaphysics, in the worst way, a type of prosperity religiosity that absolves society and community from the responsibility of helping those in need, by giving everyone permission to judge those in need as being just not happy enough to deserve success.

The second problem with “The Secret” and other such “advice” is that it isn’t advice at all. It is judgment, often uninformed and unfair, usually given by those who have more than enough and believe they deserve it. It does not take into account the very real issues of classism, racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, ageism, economic disadvantage. It ignores the prejudices of the world, and says, in essence, that those who have, have because they deserve it. This is utter bullshit.

The third problem is that “The Secret” is nothing but a grand experiment in confirmation bias, allowing people to extrapolate and see whatever it is that they want to see, without requirement of empirical evidence or, of course, compassion.

I’m not in this position because I am negative. I’m not in this position because I don’t work hard enough. I’m in this position for a host of reasons, many of them out of my control. My “friend” likes to think of himself as a Buddhist, but in truth he, like so many other new age adherents from backgrounds of privilege, misses the point. Buddha never taught that you could think pain or difficulty away. Quite the opposite. Buddhism gives people the tools with which to endure and accept circumstances beyond their control, without losing their minds or souls.

While it is certainly true that there are some people who find themselves in difficult circumstances because they lack initiative, that is not the case for most human beings. If “The Secret” were real, most of us would not be struggling. But it’s not real. It is nonsense. It’s no different than the idiotic claim some make that we bring about our own illnesses through negative thinking. Sometimes, motherfucker, you just happen to have grown up a block from a toxic waste dump and now you have fucking cancer.