Love myself? Knowing what I know?
A lunchtime meditation on whether 'being the best' is even a real thing
Like all great tragic comedies, it began at lunch.
It was Wednesday, or as we like to say in Los Angeles: Saturday.
I’d just been seated at a Silverlake Cuban spot - El Cochinito - with, a hilarious comedian, TV writer, and the mastermind behind , a newsletter that fully embodies his personality: super funny and insightful while highlighting the super funny and insightful work of others. (if you aren’t already subscribed to his newsletter subscribe now you’ll thank me later)
We’re trying to decide what to order when Chris points out a special symbol next to the Cuban sandwich—a star inside of a circle. I glance at the legend to see what it means:
"The World's Best."
The lack of detail—when was this decided? by whom? were said judges even accredited?— only makes the claim that much stronger: “We don’t need a contest to tell us what we already know: this is the best Cuban sandwich in the world.”
Chris orders the World’s Best Cuban Sandwich and I get some steak plate thing that’s obviously not the World’s Best because otherwise it too would have had the star circle next to it.
We talk about comedy, our partners, my child— the classics. The subject of Both Are True, this very newsletter, comes up. Chris tells me he really loves reading it, my writing is really good, and I'm really doing it, like consistently putting out great pieces, not just one but like all of them are great.
Compliments like this, regardless of the source, are an all too seductive catnip for my self-esteemless soul, but coming from Chris, they mean A LOT. See, I love Chris’ work, his writing, and comedy—I really admire the dude and look up to him, so the fact that he was saying my work was good, well, it should have been a great moment but, reader, it wasn’t.
I mutter some version of 'oooh ha, oh wow athanks' while staring at the corner of the room where the walls meet the ceiling because I am awkward and really do not know how to take compliments. Or celebrate things. Or really accept that anything positive is happening in my life. I do not recommend it!
The food arrives - The World’s Best Cuban Sandwich and a side of fried plantains for Chris, the lame as shit steak for me.
I envy the confidence of that Cuban sandwich, waltzing out there and just saying it’s the world’s best like that, and I envy Chris for going ahead and ordering it. Confident people ordering confident sandwiches. Why aren’t I one of these confident people? What magical quality of optimism x taste x hope did the gods, both Jewish(1) and Greek(many), forget to give me?
And am I gonna be stuck like this forever?
A Sure Thing
About twelve years ago, back in college—Jesus Christ that’s so long ago I am gonna hurl—there was this competition titled something like "Best College Comedian in the Country.”
As a very insecure yet somehow also overly confident young stand up comedian, I was VERY excited about having my greatest hope slash deepest need confirmed in the clear, objective terms of a competition: “ALEX DOBRENKO IS A GREAT STANDUP COMIC HE IS NOT TERRIBLE, SEE LOOK, HE WON THE CONTEST SO HE IS GOOD HE IS THE WORLD’S BEST (when it comes to college students who only live in America and are aware of this competition).” That’d be a lot to put on a trophy but that’s why we invented different font sizes, Ralph.
The rules of the competition were simple - the top eight comics of the night went onto the regionals. The top eight comics at regionals would go onto nationals, and finally the top one greatest college comedian ever (that year, of the select few who went to one of the participating colleges and knew about it and had time to participate) would be crowned champion.
That night, there were only 10 people competing, which meant I had an 80% shot at making it. I wasn’t worried.
I did my set and it went...good? Fine? The rest of the night was a blur until the judges came out to announce the winners.
Four names were called, none of them mine, but I wasn’t sweating: four spots left for six comics. I was fine.
Then three spots for five comics. Ok sweating a little now.
Two spots for four comics. What the shit?
One spot for three comics. No fucking way and…
No spots for two big time losers, one of which was very much named Alex Dobrenko.
I ran out of there and hid in the music building, locked myself in a tiny soundproof room, and cried my eyes out. Bawled, blubbered and barked. Wailed, wept, and whimpered.
I’d become what I feared most: The Worst.
Actually no, One Of The Two Worst, which is somehow way worse.
The miniscule flame of hope I’d carried with me like the little candle a mouse uses to get around the dark attics of a house to find its mouse family, that flame went out for good.
And so, over the next few formative years of my early twenties, the menu of my personality was finalized, one meal at time, with appetizers like “self deprecating funny guy” and entrees like “first generation immigrant only child”, all with a little thumb’s down icon next to them which, upon checking the legend, you’d learn stood for “One Of The World’s Two Worst.”
Back to lunch
Chris and I discuss ‘growing our audience’ like farmers of the creative class. I bring up the demented way in which I'm often unable to truly appreciate the audience I have, like if they chose me, and I know how awful I am, then they can't be all that smart, right?
I share the line from Ann*e H*ll where W**d* A**en quotes Groucho Marx about not wanting to be in any club that would have him as a member, and Chris wisely points out, “Well at this point, I don’t think anyone would really want to be part of Woody Allen’s club, even if he’d have them.”
We laugh because it's true and he's a monster.
"I'd wanna be part of Groucho Marx's club though, for sure" I say. Though I doubt he’d have me though, given that he’s dead.
Driving home, I begin the customary review of everything that happened at lunch, recording with great detail how and why I fucked up just about every single part of the conversation. Why couldn't I just take a compliment like a normal person?
"Thanks man, I appreciate that, means a lot coming from you," would have been great, letting the conversation flow naturally from there, just two cool creative guys talking about cool creative stuff. Contemporaries, that's what we coulda been there at the Cuban place, but no instead it was just one cool guy and some dumbass poser crap nugget.
And then it dawned on me - I DID NOT KNOW HOW TO ACCEPT THE INVITATION INTO CHRIS' CLUB!
That's what his compliment was—a concise way of way of saying, "hey man you're cool, I dig your work, you can definitely be part of my club, and I say ‘club’ here as a metaphor for my accepting you and your work, that is to say I see you and I think you're great."
And the thing is, I really would like to be part of this club! But I don't know how! Having internalized so deeply that any club that would have me is not a club I want to be a part of (because as laid out earlier, I suck), I am not sure how to proceed with a situation in which I have been invited to a club that I would very much like to be a part of!
What a long ass way to say: though I crave acceptance, I do not know how to be accepted.
Growing up, I was obsessed with being the best. Having the luxury of a computer in my room since I was in 4th grade, I dialed up on the 28.8k modem and hopped onto the high speed internet
superhighway dirt road, spending most of my time looking up “cool photos of fast cars,” “woman hot,” and, after I’d seen all the internet had to offer on both those topics, things like “best song ever” or “best movie of all time”.
Know what the best song was according to every single web 1.0 listicle?
Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.
Always, without fail, it was Stairway To Heaven.
And so I downloaded the almost 8 minute prog rock anthem on Napster or Kazaa or Limewire, whichever one of those was least illegal at the time, and would just listen to it, over and over again, hoping that if I could appreciate this thing that was the best then by some ‘transitive property of personality,’ I too would become the best.
It makes sense, in a way, how this absurd way of seeing what was ‘best’ in the world from the outside in became my north star. For a little immigrant boy who NEEDs to be accepted and has no idea how to do so, attaching myself to The Best of things was as good an idea as any.
There I was, twelve years old at my first sleepover, lying in a sleeping bag full of my own farts, trying to bullshit my way through the reasons why “Stairway To Heaven” was the best song ever: “I mean...just listen to it. Hear that? That part? That is one of the best parts of the song, which is the best song. Oooh hear this - that’s guitar. The best guitar.”
Clubs At Lunch
Let’s do a quick math proof on the Groucho Marx line real quick: “I wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have me as a member”. And for all that are wondering, yes I am a big time hardcore computer programmer—how would I ever be able to do this sort of proof otherwise:
GIVENS IF inviteFromClub == yes THEN willIJoinTheClub == no -------------------------------- BIG COOL MATH PROOF IF inviteFromClub == no THEN canIJoinTheClub == no AND numberOfClubsIAmIn == 0 IF inviteFromClub == yes THEN willIJoinTheClub == no AND numberOfClubsIAmIn == 0 ipsoFacto, prestoChango numberOfClubsIAmIn == 0
So what can be done? Well, I’ve done the research for most of my adult life; unfortunately, there’s only one way out: join the clubs that’ll have you. And I want to do that. I want to be part of those clubs.
So what’s stopping me?
And what makes self-loathing go away?
Trigger Warning: what I’m about to write next is so sappy, so self-helpy, so optimistic that I nearly barfed on my computer when reading it back while editing. Ok here it is.
I know. What the fuck.
But I don’t know any other way! And I’m tired of searching, and I really would love to just be part of some clubs lol. Like who cares what clubs they are, if they’re good people who are cool and creative and dope - I’m there!
I don’t know how to keep doing all this work without the community that clubs afford, a community of people who will gladly accept me as I will gladly accept them, a salve for the inevitable moments when we forget how to accept ourselves.
It’s so much easier to see the fallacy of all this when you look outside your own industry. Chris summed it up perfectly: “Take music,” he said, “do you only love the music that’s at the top of the charts?”
And I said “No of course not, I only love music that’s The Best Ever, like for example have you heard this amazing song Stairway to Heaven?”
Ok I didn’t say that, instead answering that “no, I like the music I like.”
I wish there was a better, less syrupy word than self acceptance. Like self okayness. Self acceptance and, even worse, self love - they are two bridges too far.
Love myself? Really? Knowing what I know?
But see, there I go again, serving up a hot plate of self depreciation, a specialty at my restaurant, and I think it’s about time I changed things up.
Let’s not get carried away though—I can’t get rid of the whole “I’m not allowed here” schtick entirely, it’s deep in me, passed for hundreds of years in the great Jewish tradition of “we never belong, but let us laugh”.
I can, however, try and add some new things to the menu. I need to feel rooted enough in myself and my people, my clubs, that I am willing to take the big leaps of faith required to explore the topics I’m most scared to write about.
And, best of all, I feel ready.
Or at least I did when I originally wrote this. Reading it back now I’m like ugh, why are you being so...positive? Positive people are scary.
But maybe that’s the leap of faith I’m talking about. Jumping before I’m fully ready and, *trugdes through self loathing to type this* accepting that I am a writer and actor and comedian which, if true, means I can join the clubs that would have me, and - this part I think is essential - to start welcoming others into the club too!
When you think that you suck, it’s hard to feel like you’re allowed to welcome others in because (a) I’m competing with them and (b) I’m not allowed in the club in the first place.
Just as the Cuban sandwich is the best at being that cuban sandwich, I am the best at being me and yes it’s cheesy but so is that amazing cuban sandwich so, who cares, life is short and soon we die—let’s enjoy the ride, there’s room for us all in the clubs that we care to be a part of and, well, that’s sorta it because I’m going to resist the urge to end on another sarcastic ironic self depricating bit of bullshit.
Next time you check out the menu at the restaurant that is Alex Dobrenko, you’ll notice the thumbs down symbol next to each option is crossed out in pencil and replaced with a new symbol:
You’ll check the legend and there, next to that obviously professionally created symbol, in super tiny font, will read the following:
“World’s Best At Climbing His Own Personal Stairway To Self Okayness aka Heaven — His Thumbs Are Up But At An Angle Because He’s Looking To Hitch A Ride Toward The Clubs That Will Have Him As a Member.”
A postscript from Chris
I senta draft of this essay to make sure I didn’t misrepresent anything that happened. Here’s what he sent back:
I read the piece and it's very fun and thoughtful and I object to nothing!
My only observation is that this really made me laugh:
""Thanks man, I appreciate that, means a lot coming from you," would have been great, letting the conversation flow naturally from there, just two cool creative guys talking about cool creative stuff."
Because that literally is what you did say and what did happen!
Love that you're like "I messed it up, if only I'd said this good thing instead" and then the good thing is exactly what you did say and what did happen afterwards
But truly it's a very complimentary essay of me! MAYBE TOO COMPLIMENTARY! I SUSPECT IT BECAUSE IT'S SO NICE. WHAT KIND OF DAMN CLUB IS THIS ANYWAY??? WHO'S JUST LETTING ME INSIDE????
Also there is a Turkey Club, best sandwich ever, joke to be made here
Reading this, I was shocked. First because I missed an absolute gimme easy layup of a joke w the Turkey Club, but even more so because from Chris’ vantage point, I had accepted the invite and all was good! But in my mind, it most clearly wasn’t, which tells me that accepting these sorts of invites is not just about RSVPing yes, but doing so internally by believing that you are allowed in, that you belong, that you are welcome.
And so I must say to my own mind psyche whatever, thank you for finally letting me believe that I can join these clubs, to which the mind psyche would reply, simply:
you are welcome.
Don’t just stare, share!
Thank you to everyone who keeps sharing this thing with their people and on their newsletters!!! Sharing it with people you love who might love Both Are True is the single greatest thing you can do to help me grow this thing.
Join the club and subscribe!!
Ok so I lied. There’s one thing you can do that’s even better than sharing, and that’s taking the plunge and becoming a paid subscriber! It’s a good time and we have swag (note from lawyer: delete this Alex you do not have swag and are deep in the red financially after buying a billboard in rural Kansas because you were sure that your “audience lives in flyover country!”)
Hey it’s Alex’s lawyer / accountant / uncle — let’s just say he could really use your support right now. Please consider subscribing.
Wanna vent? Leave a comment!
Been loving all the wonderful thoughts and ideas that live inside your brains. Keep those coming! Some prompts to get ya goin
Do you struggle with the whole ‘I wouldn’t want to be part of any club that will have me’ thing? If not, wtf, how?
Have you learned how to do this whole self acceptance thing and, if so, tell me how.
What do you think the best song ever is?
What are some of your earliest memories of using the internet?
For real go and subscribe to Chris’if you haven't already, TRUST ME.
Chris would win awards for having that rare combination of being incredibly funny AND genuinely nice, kind, and inclusive. For example, Chris organizes a monthly LA Adventure Club in which he curates, well, a day's adventure in LA such as heading to Malibu's Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine or checking out Glendale's NEON ART Museum.
I have it on good record that there are several readers named Ralph who, specifically, are very worried about whether all the text would fit on a trophy it’s like their thing.
How would the top eight of this first round be decided? The audience. Specifically, their applause. Whoever got the loudest applause would move on.
A sort of weird way to do things, more People’s Choice Awards and less Oscars but whatever.
I share all this neither for pity nor to fuel my own self-loathing, rather because (a) it was how I felt and still feel a lot of the time and (b) the belief is so deep in there that without naming it and thus differentiating myself from it, it will continue to rule over me, a god in self’s clothing that is neither god nor self (nor sheep).
I realize that all of you reading this ARE my audience and I know for damn sure that you’re the coolest smartest cats around town. This sick belief I have is a product of my own broken heart, made all the worse GIVEN how awesome you all actually are. So please, I ask, forgive me.
yes Ralph it will fit if the font is tiny enough, STOP asking.