For the last year, I have worked for a company doing copywriting. Mostly, this copy has been related to marketing campaigns. Think of all the stuff clogging up your inbox and the websites you look at: promotional emails, newsletters, LinkedIn messages, banner ads hovering along the margin of your Facebook page. I write that stuff. For real money. Weeks go by with me and other smart people breathing all over four lines of text and various stock images, making sure everything’s just right. I’ve spent my days opening new Word documents and spinning out phrases, maybe sentences, rarely a whole paragraph, and then uploading it somewhere so everyone can fuss over and fiddle with it. This, I guess, is “knowledge work.”
Does anyone read it or interact with it or care? I don’t know. That’s someone else’s job, I suppose, to breathe all over the analytics and conversion rates. I suppose, when it comes to what people have begun calling “the socials” (which are also sometimes known as “earned media”— the Facebook and Twitter posts, the LinkedIn events, the YouTube views) I could look and see if what I made had traction. But I don’t usually look at that stuff after it’s reviewed and approved. I just move on to the next round. Another team entirely is charged with handling “the socials”— loading the copy and graphics into each platform and monitoring the comments and response; they’re the ones who are technically paid “to care.”
Writing for “the socials” has been 70% of the words I’ve made in the past year. The other 30% is other types of marketing stuff, plus a few of these essays. I just don’t care about writing fiction right now. It seems pointless, for a host of reasons. I don’t even care about the writing I do for “the socials” of others; I guess it must be okay, since they keep paying me to make it. I guess you could call this a depressive attitude, too.
But it’s not. Because spring has come. And we can go outside. And see people. And this is the kind of “socials” that has me feeling wonderful, for the first time in a long time. Wonderful and hopeful. The opposite of numb.
Okay, so another qualifier: I actually like my copywriting job. Mostly, for what it doesn’t involve. It doesn’t involve me going into an office (let’s hope that never changes). It doesn’t involve a commute, or wearing a blazer, or using an office bathroom, or doing back-breaking labor under a hot sun. Though I do it at home, and it’s always there, so is my publishing work. I can easily leave copywriting behind; I carry no heavy feelings about it like I would a novel. It’s kind of amusing, really, to make money from the task of stripping down and burnishing so few words. It’s craft at an elemental level: picking the exact word, in the specific part of the line, for a particular psychologically motivating reason. Poetry that pays.
But, just as with novel-writing, I don’t really want to talk about it that much. I feel pretty lucky to get to do work that suits my brain and skills. What I really want, after a year of uncertainty, of depression and anxiety, of my loved ones bottoming out, over and over again, is to talk to my friends, in real life, with their faces less than six feet away from mine.
Recently, our child came out to us as transgender. Meaning the person I used to refer to as Matilda, with she/her pronouns, and the person I’d been lately calling “Till” with they/them pronouns, is now named Marshall, a boy, with he/him pronouns. My daughter is now my son.
In marketing, this would be termed “rebranding.” Which, yuck. But there are parallels. There’s the issue of defining who shares this news; it’s not quite mine, but I have had to communicate it all the same. Marshall just turned 18 years old a few weeks ago. He’s my child, but he’s also someone new to me, too. I’ve been writing about him since my pregnancy, since giving birth; I made a fake advice column for my zine from his point-of-view. Even saying “his” about this fake advice column seems wrong. Then, I knew my child as her, with another name we chose, a name put on the medical bracelets worn by all three of us, my husband, myself, our newborn.
I suppose I need some real advice, for myself, about how to think of my kid historically. But I don’t know that I’m asking for it. I’m a bit too brittle right now to take advice, I think. I know what deadnames are. I know I want anything for my child but death. I know my child is attached to the name “Matilda” in some ways, too. I just don’t know yet how to narrate through time with the great before-and-after.
In the last year, I have searched for narratives from parents of transgender children who did not get very obvious signs from a young age. Even Marshall said to me, when I asked if I should remove the pictures of him where he’s wearing femme clothing or hairstyles, “No, Mom. That’s who I was, and I’m fine with that.” Being an either/or thinker continues not to serve me, especially in this case.
What does serve me, though, is not written text. “The socials” themselves don’t make sense right now. What makes sense is contact and attention. What makes sense is something that I have had so much trouble doing regularly in the past: saying yes to outings with friends, meeting up for drinks or meals, sitting on someone’s patio and having a drink over a fire pit. Things I haven’t been able to do easily in normal times. Things I didn’t realize I need—though I still am anxious about them. Things I need so much now.
A while ago, after Marshall—my son, our son, our boy, call him Mars, Marzipan, Mars Bars, Marlon Brandon, the Marvel Universe, can you even imagine the delight I feel at my child picking an appellation with such excellent nickname possibilities!—told us about this change, we went to have patio drinks with some friends of ours. It was a sunny day, and I hadn’t been in a restaurant forever; we went inside with masks and I felt guilty, worried, bad. Once ushered to the patio, I felt better, though still unsure how to manage my mask with the wait staff and my friends, who were all in different vaccination stages (“I’ve had my first dose!” “Just got my second on Tuesday!”) Some cold tap beer helped. I was still wary, though; every time our friends asked about Matilda, I wanted to correct, update, amend. I didn’t know how to do it and if I could. If I should. Adrian and I hadn’t really strategized well on this point. The news was so new, and we were just figuring things out. We’re still figuring things out, to be honest. But we’d had no plan on how to disseminate the information.
The conversation went on, though, and it was good. To have people tell you things, even if they were similar things we’d been experiencing: being stuck at home, feeling irritated, feeling scared, putting off funerals and delaying trips, what they’ve been watching on TV, normal-but-adapted life events. To have people ask how we are, how we were, to get to be near them, see what they’re wearing, how their hair and beards have grown and changed color and greyed. We were getting together for the 21st birthday of our friends’ daughter, so her older brother was there, with his girlfriend, and other friends. Realizing how old these kids were, how long we’ve known these friends, felt so good. I don’t want to make this sound like some weird, sentimental version of basic patio drinks. But I guess it was. Despite all my nerves about seeing people, about them seeing me, it was all just so good.
As we were paying the tab, and talking about getting together for a backyard afterparty, Adrian stopped everyone. "Here’s the deal,” he said, and explained about Matilda-now-Marshall. That we’d like to bring him along, but everyone should know this is new, and he is new, and we’d all like to be together.
Right then, I realized he’d been feeling the same as me; the automatic silent correction of name and pronoun happening in his head the entire time, just like it had in mine.
We drove home to let out the dogs and tell Marshall to get ready for the party. He seemed uninterested until we explained. Everyone knows you’re Marshall, I said. Which was true, technically, but not true, really.
As I rushed around to gather up my stuff, I could hear him getting ready, drawers opening and closing, water running in the sink. Then, talking into his phone. A minute later I saw it, on the socials: Hi. I’m Marshall. I’m a trans guy.
I have a backyard. And a fire pit. And lawn chairs. I’ve had those things throughout the pandemic times.
But I haven’t had anyone else’s backyard and fire pit and lawn chairs. I’ve eaten tacos but I haven’t been served taco-in-a-bag in over three years, when I ate one from the snack bar at a girl’s swim tournament my kid competed in.
He was on the swim team, then. The girl’s swim team. Ah, even remembering feels suspect! The same channel that diverts the she/her pronoun to he/she doesn’t understand time! We have to change the name on the diploma. We have to change the name on everything. Someone has an explainer on this, surely. I understand the administrative issues at hand. What I don’t have is an emotional analogue for this kind of renaming.
In the cultures I was raised in, names can change. Misters stay misters, though a Miss becomes a Mrs. or a Ms. Last names abruptly change, sometimes hyphenating. After marriage, I remained Carrie Mesrobian; my sister retained her last name too, both of us wanting to honor our father, who came from people the world tried to wipe out. Interestingly, my kid was given an extra name at birth, a middle name, Anoush, something my father’s culture doesn’t provide.
None of this got explained in my friends’ backyard, though. I drank and smoked and ate and shoveled in a delicious piece of rainbow layer cake after singing happy birthday. I laughed and chit-chatted and gossiped and was introduced to new friends and caught up with old ones. At first, I vaguely worried about my son—my son, I have a son—but then, because I didn’t see him, because he wasn’t behind me, asking to leave, begging to go home already, the way he does when he’s anxious, I realized it was okay. He was talking to people, having fun. These were kids he’s known since his toddler years. And they were kids who had the experience of being with someone they already knew after they’d become someone with a different name. Which is to say, they were fine with it. Easy with it. Not asking a million probing questions like I would have. Like I wanted to.
When we got home later, I fell into bed, with my phone. As I’ve done, embarrassingly, for many nights of this pandemic. Reading the words of other people on the socials, people I know, people I have never met, people I don’t exactly like, people I think are horrible. People, though. They are the thing I’ve missed, even before the pandemic isolated us. For years, I’ve been away from reality, hoarding time like a squirrel gathers nuts, protecting the long afternoons on weekends so I can think eternally about the fiction I write, about stuff that has never—will never—happen. I’m in a place where that transaction I made seems like a poor one.
I have written five books and published all kinds of stuff that 20 years ago would have seemed fantastical to me. But I’ve missed way too much stuff, even before that. My friends from high school joke about how getting me to go out on the weekends was like pulling teeth. Since I can remember, I’ve always worried about how I will look, or feel. What I won’t be able to handle or control. And that worry makes me want to stay home. So, I miss things that can feel good. Like screaming Motley Crue lyrics while drunk out of my mind at a school dance. Like backyard fires and cold beer and laughing with people who know you. All of those things, for years.
There is a world beyond me, full of people who are beautiful and intense and unsettling and funny and broken and generous and so incredibly strong.
On my phone, my son’s socials are lit up:
love u marshall
Love you Marshall!
aka the Marsh man
Love love LOVE YOU Marshall!
I’m proud of you, Marshall.
I’m proud of him, too.
And I can’t wait to see all of you, up close, face-to-face. I want to listen to everything you’ve got to say.
like what I make?