Five Big Questions: Alex Dobrenko
Plus, the weekly reading.
Welcome to Five Big Questions, the short interview series where awesome people share a bit about who they are and what moves them.
Today’s guest is the inimitable, a writer, comedian, and actor who writes the newsletter Both Are True, which blends absurd comedy and vulnerable stories in a way that is heartwarming, entertaining, and (at least in my household) begs to be read aloud. (If you’re not familiar with Alex’s work, allow me to direct you to his essay on the truth behind The Piña Colada Song, which is one of my all-time favorites.) He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son.
Here’s Alex, in his own words.
What’s one thing you struggle with that people might be surprised to hear?
This one’s a toughie because my writing focuses exclusively on the things I’m struggling with, so most of that stuff—self-loathing, anxiety, and never feeling like I'm enough (as a writer, father, husband, son, friend, etc.)—would not be things anyone would be surprised about.
I asked my wife, Lauren, if she had any idea about other struggles and here’s what she said:
Organizing group events and who to invite
Putting away the protein powder
Leaving your socks all over the house
An interesting list. The first two items are definitely accurate, but then halfway through it sorta becomes an airing of grievances, but that's okay, that's healthy, that's love.
My answer—and something I don't really write about because I don't yet know how—is that I struggle a lot with body stuff. I’m not even sure how to describe it—maybe it’s body dysmorphia or a term therapists have taught me called orthorexia, which is an obsession with proper or “healthful” eating in a way that becomes very unhealthy for your life and mind and body, too.
Growing up, I decided that the reason for all of my problems, most notably that girls did not want to go out on dates with me, was because of my weight. If only I wasn't fat, I told myself, then and only then would the ladies come a'swoonin. And so began a lifelong obsession with eating only “healthy food,” counting calories, weighing my food, etc. As with all the best mental distortions, this has become so deeply a part of my being that I usually forget it even exists. It's definitely not a fun one, but it is a real one and hey, both are true, so there ya go.
What’s one thing you’re proud of?
The first thing that comes to mind is my son Wilder. He's two years old and just the cutest little goober. These days, I'm most proud and in awe of his ability to pretend. Like, for his little brain to grasp that a mail truck can need some water and can "sip" some water from his water cup (with accompanying big gulp sfx) blows me away. After work, the mail truck and his friend the trash truck go to sleep which we indicate by turning them on their sides and saying "achoo achoo achoo" really fast which is Wilder's sound for snoring. Then one of us screams WAKE UP and both of the trucks wake up and start scream-driving around the living room in a panic that is probably not great for their mental health.
But like—how the hell does his brain know how to do all that? To understand that there’s such a thing as reality (him drinking water) and make-believe (his truck drinking water) earlier in life than learning how to poop in a potty is just a real wow.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The phrase that's been most helpful for me lately is “be good enough for long enough.”
I found it via Mikala Johnson’s Substack Body Type where she referenced this Instagram video by nutrition expert Meredith Root. It’s definitely been useful for me with body stuff, but even more so I find it suuuuper helpful when thinking about my creative work.
I have a tendency to approach my writing from a black and white, banger or bust perspective—either it did SUPER WELL or it bombed and everyone hated it and I am the worst guy who has ever lived.
But “good enough for long enough” reminds me that I don't need the bar to be that high or focus too much on any single post or day or experience. I've got a real big millennial need for stars and validation, and so remembering that no one is grading anything and that all I need to achieve my goals is just to be good enough for long enough helps a lot.
"Live the questions" by Rilke, which I got as a tattoo (full story here).
“Nothing good gets away,” which John Steinbeck once wrote in a letter to his son who was all screwed up about this girl he fell in love with at boarding school: “And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens—the main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”
What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever read?
I'm gonna go with a short story by Borges called The Aleph which is about a magical Hebrew letter found written in a basement. When you lie down and stare at the letter, you see everything that's ever existed all at once. The good and the bad and all. I love how he describes it, but even more I love how he describes his inability to describe it:
Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal. In that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful; not one of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping or transparency. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive. Nonetheless, I’ll try to recollect what I can.
The way the piece both points out and transcends the limits of language was and continues to be mind-blowing to me. In fact, I have a giant Aleph tattoo’d on my left shoulder—it was my first tattoo!
What’s one consumable thing you recommend?
Okay, this is a basic one but it's helped me more than just about anything else—take a notebook and a pencil or pen and go to a coffee shop without your computer and, if possible, without your phone. Spend at least an hour there, ideally two, and let it all hang out on the page. Or don't, it doesn't really matter, but that time away from the loop of your phone’s messaging into the brain and the brain responding to that messaging by doing more computer stuff ad infinitum is precious.
I was gifted such a time last weekend by fate itself when the movie I wanted to see would not take my Apple Pay payment and thus left me no choice but to wander the streets with nothing but my notebook. I sat down at some new coffee shop and wrote and wrote and wrote and though I am not yet sure that any of the writing itself was any good, I do know that, by the end of it, I felt much closer to that creative equilibrium where impulse and critic can dance in harmony.
Thank you so much, Alex. You are truly one of a kind.
P.S. Stay tuned for another fun (likely absurd, hopefully meaningful) BRCP x BAT collab coming soon…
As there was no Sunday letter this week due to the holiday, today’s issue also includes the weekly reading.
But! Before we get to that, can I please take a second to say YOU ARE THE BEST? I was truly blown away by your comments on last week’s post. I’m feeling good and don’t plan to scale back on the newsletter at this time, but I am very grateful for your support. (And will continue to be an advocate for breaks in the future.)
I’ll be back on Sunday with our regularly scheduled essay-plus-a-reading. Thank you so much.
Card of the Week
Here is this week’s card for the collective, as well as some thoughts to carry into the days ahead. As most modern readers will tell you, the tarot is not about fortunetelling, nor is it about neat, definitive answers. The cards are simply one path to reflection, a way of better knowing ourselves and others through universal themes. If this reading resonates with you, great! And if not, no worries. Take whatever may be helpful and leave the rest.
At first glance, the Five of Wands appears to be about conflict—scuffles, skirmishes, struggles—like a dramatic fight scene from a scripted drama. And it is! This card depicts a full-on fracas. (Why don’t we use this word more?)
But it also reminds us that there is a reason conflict is built into pretty much every story worth its salt.