No Villains

Tech, Writing
Sunrise in Potrero H, February 2015.

When the Uber driver arrived at the worst Airbnb I’ve ever stayed in, he told me to double-check that I had the right address. On a sunny street in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco studded with picturesque townhomes, this building had plywood boarded up over one window and graffiti sprayed on the wall. Inside, I would find out, one of the rooms was inadmissible due to a large hole in the center of the decaying floorboards.

Inside I met Roy, not his real name. A man in his ‘60s, he’d lived in this house from his childhood—and seemingly kept it unchanged from then, too. He told me his grandfather built the house in the 19th century. Roy was a Victrola repairman and his living room was filled with ancient record players of varying functionality. When I arrived, he gave me a quick tour: the single bathroom, that we would share. The condemned, off-limits sunroom, its glass walls clearly displaying the dangers within. And the room I was to stay in, a guest room with a vintage teal-green circular bed, allegedly haunted by the ghost of his mother. 

The haunted room.

To his credit, Roy was friendly and had a bizarre sense of humor. He played me music from the ‘20s on a Victrola. He asked me if I was thirsty, and when I said yes, he handed me a mason jar filled to the brim with yellowed toenail clippings. When I went to put down my things, he insisted on going into the guest room before me to yell at the corner of the ceiling his mother’s spirit preferred. “LEAVE HER ALONE!” he shouted. His home may not have been able to pass a municipal inspection, but I didn’t feel unsafe. After all, I’d had two choices for where to stay: with Roy or at a motel with too many reviews including the word “bedbugs.” My company gave me a budget of about $80 for two nights; they had already paid for me to stay in a hotel earlier the same year. 

If you followed me online around this time, my dodgy accommodations were not part of my travelog. Instead, I was posting photos of my visits to the headquarters of Crunchyroll, LiveJournal, GitHub, Pinterest, and Twitter. Since I lived in DC and reported on companies on the opposite coast, these business trips were an occasional necessity. My editor was from the same zip code as me and sympathized with my desire to stay where I was. But that meant I sometimes had to travel on a shoestring.

At least my new employer was willing to put me up in an Airbnb by myself (plus Roy, I guess). At a previous company, I’d shared a double-bed room with a colleague. I was asleep when she returned to our room drunk, removed her clothes, and stepped into the bathroom. There was some commotion and when I asked if everything was okay, she responded loudly that she was masturbating. Finally, she got into bed. MY bed. 

I am not a confrontational person. I got up and got into the other bed without a word. 

In the morning I told my closest friend at work about what happened. He’d been an RA in college and was a good listener. Because a sympathetic ear was all I was going to get in this case. We barely had a travel budget; we had no HR department at all. I simply decided to behave like nothing ever happened. The last time I spoke to this colleague (at least 5 years ago), it went mundanely enough. Perhaps she doesn’t even remember. 

By comparison, I had it made in the haunted townhouse. I slept in the big circle bed and Roy’s mother didn’t disturb me from the time I closed my eyes to the moment I woke up to photograph the San Francisco sunrise out of the room’s ancient window. I was working a job I believed in while visiting a beautiful city, and as weird as this whole situation was, I was happy.

A little while after I got home, my paychecks stopped depositing. The editor-in-chief said not to worry, the situation would be resolved soon. By the time I was owed $10,000 in back pay, I stopped working. I’d sign on in the morning for the all-hands meeting, then go out on a walk. 

Eventually, we found out the company had been purchased. My memory is a bit sparse on the details, but I had a business trip coming up that I had already been comped, so I went back to San Francisco anyway and ended up meeting the new owner. He was one of those wealthy tech bro visionaries; you know exactly what he looks like without me telling you. He was very big on the Internet Of Things, which was an early precursor to the AI movement. He also planned to spice up the site with more coverage of weed and sex. Minutes after I met him, he said something that will live rent-free in my head until the day I die.

“We don’t have an HR department, so don’t get mad at me. But would you like to stay on and become our sex toy reporter?”

I don’t remember my exact reply, perhaps something about my actual coverage beats at the time (Pinterest, cryptocurrency, the learn-to-code movement, and connected home technology). He didn’t bite, and I was adrift again until I found some steady freelancing gigs a few months later.

I’ve resisted sharing these stories in public for a very long time. I love a good travel story, but I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. It wasn’t always comfortable, but it was always interesting. And believe me when I say there are no villains in this story: shortly after the website purchase went through, I received a check for that missing $10k in the mail.

My Year as a Girl Boss

Me in 2013

It was 2013 and I’d just arrived at the largest suburban house I’d ever been inside. I was at a stranger’s place for a two-day writing workshop, and I paid $500 for the privilege.

The house belonged to one of the workshop participants, who reached out to the instructor and offered to host her in order to tempt her into offering a workshop locally to her. It was billed as in DC, but it was actually in a fancy part of Maryland where the homes looked like estates. The host had made her money as a lawyer; one of her neighbors was a Supreme Court justice. I joined about a dozen other students in the chef’s kitchen, milling about while eating fancy (and entirely vegan) treats. I was 26; other attendees ranged from around my age to in their 50s. However, we were all women, and we were mostly white. 

I decided to invest in this program right after I decided to become self-employed. It’s no coincidence that 2013 was also the year John and I got married, meaning I could join his healthcare, the same year that I aged out of my parents’ plan. After I left the Daily Dot, I was certain the only thing that stood between me and success was a killer mission statement for my website. And this workshop was going to help me create it.

Presently, the instructor arrived. For all her success, she was only two years older than me. Like the other students in attendance, I’d closely followed the details of her life on her blog, from quitting her 9-5 in 2010 to her whirlwind rise to seven-figure success as a ghostwriter and writing coach. For the purposes of this story, it doesn’t matter who she is; just know that I thought about her more often than about people I actually knew. Perhaps it wasn’t healthy, but a major reason I signed up for this workshop was that I wanted to meet her. A second reason I had a hard time admitting to myself: I wanted to be her. 

The workshop was about writing foolproof copy for your website designed to clarify your brand, attract a larger audience, and develop products and services. Sounds straightforward enough. But weirdly, it began with a tarot drawing. According to the ten pages of feverish notes I took over the workshop’s two days, it was The Seven of Fire, which still means nothing to me. Then, we went around the room introducing ourselves and the businesses we wanted to create. When one woman announced her goal to educate on the dangers of vaccinating children, there was an uncomfortable silence. She did not show up for the second day of the workshop.

Awkward moments aside, it was intoxicating to be surrounded by wealth and mingling with the women who were certain to be my new best friends as we all grew our businesses together. One detail that eluded me at the time: many of these women were independently wealthy. Like the ex-lawyer who hosted the event, they treated writing workshops as a hobby. 

Perhaps I was a bit distracted, since my car had broken down the day before. (And here I was, spending $500 on something other than the repairs!) I’d gotten a ride from a neighbor to the workshop but I would need to find my own way home. Luckily, I met another participant who lived close by and offered to drive me home and back again the next day. She invited me into her messy sedan, pushing aside a huge stack of books on the passenger seat with titles like Love Worth Making and, I’m 100% serious, Sex For Dummies. Completely unabashed, she explained that she was a Mormon, recently engaged, and had received the books as gifts from a family member. I suppose things worked out, since last time I checked her Instagram, she had three children. And if you’re raising an eyebrow at my obvious judgment here, please know that she got the last laugh: she now runs a seven-figure business. I later paid her for business coaching and ended up attending an energy healing session, but that’s another story

When I got home and John asked me about the workshop, I was almost embarrassed to talk about it with him. I’d invested what was for us a huge amount of money, and I got vegan food and quasi-spiritual circle time. I didn’t want my newlywed husband to think I was making bad decisions. I think I realized already that this workshop wasn’t going to deliver the results I was hoping for, but I wasn’t going to miss the second day because I chose to be a journalist and that means I’m nosy. One of the participants was an urban shaman, whatever that is! Just ask my friends: I STILL talk about the unusual career choices I heard about at this workshop. 

The next day began with a second tarot card (The Eight of Air) and a poetry reading. But before long, we got to the meat of the workshop: generating dozens of blog post topics, drafting emails to potential mentors, and bio-writing. The writing exercises were open-ended and general enough for any business plan; good or bad. That was also the problem: at the time, I could have used some tough love about my unrealistic plan to make a living writing Kindle books about geek journalism that I’d priced at $5.99 each. At the bottom of the Google Doc where I wrote my notes is a 90-word website bio that I never used. It looks like I opened the document once, a month later, and then never again until now. 

So what did I really get from that $500? I got to meet the writer I admired and to realize I didn’t want to be like her after all. But more usefully: I got the opportunity to build connections with the type of women who can afford to pay $500 for a two-day workshop. I didn’t write any of the blog posts whose titles I dreamed up at the workshop, but I received multiple leads for copywriting employment from other attendees. I failed to generate much useful writing from the workshop, but if the workshop had been a job interview, I would have passed. My niche as a self-professed geek and my history of tech writing made me memorable to other students, who recommended me for different freelancing contracts. Likewise, I recommended opportunities that didn’t work for me to students I met there, and later hired the woman who gave me a ride home for a more practical business coaching session.

I can no longer afford the workshops that this writer offers. Forget DC; she is now offering far more elaborate week-long retreats now in places like Maui and Tulum. She recently advertised a book publishing retreat at $10,000 a pop. As usual, the real benefit isn’t anything that’s being taught, but alleged access to the kind of people who can help you fast-track success. There’s even a VIP ticket for $20K that includes a private dinner with non-fiction agents at the Big Five. Later on, the sex-book haver told me about attending a conference for $25k in the Bahamas. It was about spirituality, but she ended up meeting wealthy clients there who patronized her business, making her wealthy in turn. In retrospect, this makes perfect sense: the hefty price tag is about buying access to those more privileged than yourself. 

Over 2013 and 2014, I attended multiple conferences targeted specifically at female entrepreneurs. Even the most practical ones had that kitschy “girl boss” vibe. It was the era of the blog, the height of the influencer. Each conference I attended was one I found out about online and centered around a successful woman and her cult of personality. Time and again, nothing I learned at the conference was as valuable as the connections I made there.

Sometimes when I am feeling pretty low, I look up acquaintances that I met in my year of workshops, envious of the way their careers have grown and scaled. I think a big part of my failure to thrive has been my skepticism, my closed-mindedness to the zeitgeist. I have always resisted the way that women’s entrepreneurship seemed so tied to spiritual practices like tarot and pink girl boss font, the same way that specifically men’s entrepreneurship workshops of the era seemed tied to landlord scams and chad alpha mindsets. Another part: my resistance to change and my refusal to delegate or scale. My income varied dramatically over the years, but I certainly never hit six figures. The year I was pregnant with Eva, exhausted and less productive than normal, but before lockdown torpedoed my income, I only made about $30k, or roughly one ticket to a spiritual writing workshop in Capri. 

A decade into the future, my year as a girl boss is on my mind while I’m emerging from a fog of full-time parenting, trying to remember who I am, what I’m capable of, and what I want to do next. I started digging into my conference notes to see what I could salvage and I found a much younger version of myself, optimistic to the point of naivete, blind to my own privilege, confident that the right advice from the right writer would make me a success. I didn’t realize that what I was really paying for was the chance to be seen there at all. 

6 lessons from my 36th year


Today is my 37th birthday. I know I’m supposed to be ashamed of getting up there in years, “never ask a woman her age” and all that, but I’m thrilled to be getting old. Every year, I feel more confident in my beliefs and more comfortable in my own skin. Plus, not everyone gets the privilege of becoming middle-aged and I’m grateful to still be around for it. 

This time of year also marks 14 years of Otaku Journalist! In the photo collage above, I put a picture of me at 22 on the left, coming back from my internship at the Newseum to attend a class for my Masters in Print Journalism at American University. On the right, there’s me about a month ago on the playground with my son.

I used to work normally on my birthday, but as I get older I feel more of an urge to celebrate. So today I got a sitter, went out for sushi, and spent some time working on my end-of-year review questions and resolutions, which is the kind of thing I do for fun. It has me in a reflective mood.

I used to write a post on my birthday every year. Here’s the post I wrote for my 25th birthday—12 years ago!—and I am floored by how much I accomplished that year, including winning a journalism contest, getting a job at the Daily Dot, and working as an adjunct professor.

This year was subdued by comparison. Some of the professional things I did include:

This is a much smaller list than it used to be, back when I was working full-time. Though I haven’t been putting much out into the world, I’ve learned and processed several lessons this year. Here are a few epiphanies from my drafts folder:

If you don’t do it, somebody else will

Sometimes I feel guilty about barely blogging anymore. Then I remember that millions of people are out there writing more blogs, articles, and newsletters than anyone could ever read. If I don’t write, people will just find something else to read. You can take this one of two ways: either as your motivation to get That Thing done so people read YOUR work instead of somebody else’s, or your permission slip to just forget about it because so many other people are creating new stuff, there’s no pressure.

Small habits add up

After I had my kids, I felt like my brain was turning to mush. But I realized I could read books on my phone and easily read a few pages every day and think about something other than babies. In 2021 I read 50 books, in 2022 I read 60; this year I read 71. Let me know if you want book recommendations because I keep track of everything I read. I read a lot of science fiction, LGBT romance, and self-improvement nonfiction.

Habits follow identity

If you’re reading this, it might be because you started following me as a journalist and author. But I think of myself as “just a mom” more than anything else because I spend all day as my children’s personal janitor. In Atomic Habits*, James Clear discusses the importance of identity for creating good habits: if you think of yourself as a fit person, you’ll be more likely to go to the gym regularly, for example. So weirdly, if I think of myself as a “reader,” it helps me read more books, instead of the other way around. 

If you don’t do anything, nothing happens

I used to think I was really lucky because opportunities were always landing in my lap, like when a publisher emailed me, seemingly out of the blue, to offer me a contract to write a book about cosplay. It’s only that I’ve dialed down my output so much that I’ve realized none of it was luck: everything I published was positioning me to receive new opportunities. For example, the reason Carlton Books offered me the contract was an editor read and liked an article I wrote for the Daily Dot about cosplay.

Write every day (if you are me)

This is advice from me to me; I know this doesn’t work for everyone. I can’t believe how long it took me to sit here and write this blog post when I used to hammer out multiple blog posts in a day. I need to practice something regularly or else that skill atrophies to nothing. In 2023, I’ve been using an app called Way Of Life that lets me make a custom daily checklist with behaviors I want to do (or not do) every day. It’s helped me remember to wear sunscreen and stretch daily, and now I also have an item on it reminding me to write 100 words a day, just to get back into the habit.

Ask yourself: how badly do you want it?

Years ago I read the book How Bad Do You Want It?* about endurance athletes and the circumstances in which they exceed their limitations: namely, they want to win badly enough. This has helped me reframe my work habits with less of a value judgment. If I can’t bring myself to focus on a writing project after a full day of chasing my kids, it doesn’t mean I’m lazy; it means I don’t want it badly enough. Meanwhile if I do end up working on it, it’s not because I’m virtuous, it means that it’s important enough to me that I’m choosing to spend my free time on it.

Thanks for following me down this introspective rabbit hole. I hope you found something helpful no matter how old you are turning this year. 

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Rewriting Painful Memories in ‘My New Boss Is Goofy’


There’s a memory from 15 years ago that still haunts me. When I was in college, I ate the rest of my roommate’s homemade pie. At the time, I didn’t know how to cook. I had no idea how hard it was to bake a pie. So when I saw the rest of her pie in the fridge, I ate it. A few hours later, she came back to the apartment, no doubt expecting to enjoy the literal fruits of her labor, only to find no pie. She even confronted me about it later, and I didn’t get why she was so mad! 

In retrospect, this isn’t THAT bad. Williams Carlos Williams wrote a pretty famous poem about this exact situation. Even so, I’m still horrified at my past self. I think about this a couple of times a year in complete mortification, usually around 3 AM when my brain feels like working overtime to tell me all the ways that I’m an irredeemably bad person. 

Perhaps you also have a memory like this one. A mistake you can’t unmake, words you can’t take back. Or maybe it was something you had no control over at all. Whatever it is, it revisits you against your will, sending you into a spiral of self-hatred, no matter how hard you try to forget. 

This is what I was thinking about when I watched the first three episodes of My New Boss Is Goofy. Under the surface, this simple comedy is about rewriting painful old memories with new ones. 

Like other viewers, I take issue with “goofy” as a translation of 天然 (tennen), which my kanji dictionary suggests is closer to “airhead.” Momose’s new boss, Shirosaki, is harmlessly clumsy—rather than inconveniencing the people around him, his antics delight them. Paired with his kindness, he’s the polar opposite of Momose’s abusive previous boss, but Momose can’t shake his old nervous habits. 

A stressed Momose. The caption says, “I hate myself for not being able to let go when all I want to do is forget!” 

Take the fire drill scene in episode two. Even though he knows it’s a drill, Momose recalls a traumatic incident during a fire at his old workplace. He clutches his aching stomach. He starts to develop a tension headache. Trying to brush away his memories only makes him feel self-loathing. “I hate myself for not being able to let go when all I want to do is forget!” 

Just then, absentminded Shirosaki grabs his arm, attempting to rescue Momose from the fire, having completely forgotten that it’s only a drill.

"The trauma of that fire incident vanished without a trace."

While Momose is trying not to smile at his boss’s harmless gaffe, his traumatic memory is already being rewritten. It’s a theme we see repeatedly as Momose approaches each encounter with his new boss with trepidation, only to find out his fears were all for nothing. Now, instead of holding his stomach in pain, he’s doubling over in laughter. This has happened so many times now that in order to keep the show from devolving into unremitting fluff, it has introduced yet another character who is recovering from a traumatic past employment situation. Call it Shirosaki’s Rehabilitation Clinic For Burnt-Out White Collar Workers. 

Shirosaki realizes it's only a drill.

I started watching this show after seeing some clips on Twitter and realizing that it’s a rare anime about characters my own age. At 34, Shirosaki is squarely a Millennial, although his grasp of technology is almost Boomerish. There are a lot of great shows this season, from the prestige TV quality of Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End to the intrigue and charm of SPY x FAMILY. But I doubt I’m alone in wanting a nothing show to turn my brain off to at the end of the day. This fits the ticket because no matter what Momose has been through in the past, its formulaic episodes follow a reassuring sameness as he replaces bad memories with good ones. 

My New Boss Is Goofy is by no means a deep show, but there’s wisdom hidden in its simplicity. What happened in the past is not a prediction of the future. Every day is an opportunity for a do-over. Even if we don’t work for a veritable ray of sunshine.

"If a fire breaks out, I'm going to risk my life to protect him"

Reclaiming my fandom self, two kids later

A Lego set that looks like a Japanese garden.
This Lego set was my first time building a model since Bryan was born.

I was catching up on Ya Boy Kongming! when the first contraction hit. It was May 2022, and it was one week before my son’s due date. Since this was my second pregnancy, I had a pretty good idea about how much time I had left before I needed to get to the hospital. So I pulled out my laptop and started drafting the Anime News Network newsletter, pausing to breathe through the waves of pain and timing my contractions all the while.

Bryan Casval was born punctually, two hours after I arrived at the delivery ward. Lying in my hospital bed, my husband John dozing on the couch, the baby swaddled in his bassinet between us, I emailed the draft to Peter, who used to format the newsletter before moving on to become Director of Film at Japan Society. “Curated by Lauren and Bryan Orsini,” that week’s newsletter read. It was very cute.

“How awful,” you might be thinking, “the monsters at ANN wouldn’t give a person time off while she was literally in labor!” Let’s stop right there; I was offered a break, but I refused it. In a time when I found myself drowning in pregnancy and early motherhood, the newsletter was my tether to the community. To curate it, I had to read the ANN headlines daily. I stayed on top of which anime people were most excited for, at a time when I was barely watching anime anymore. It was my only consistent fandom gig, and I didn’t want it to be eclipsed by motherhood like so many other parts of me. There was defiance in my decision to work through the pain: I wanted and still want to give the world to my kids, but I won’t sacrifice my entire self to do it.  

Ever since my daughter, Eva Artesia was born (because yes, they are both named after Gundam characters), every moment that I have devoted to my fandom has felt hard-earned, an indulgence of the person I used to be. My children were extremely wanted, to be clear, and I am deeply grateful they exist! That said, nobody with kids has ever noted having more free time than before. Becoming a mom reshaped my life, filling in all the empty spaces with more and more care tasks. As they grow, they continually reshape this tension in my life, a push-pull between my children and my hobbies.

I always vowed that I wouldn’t be the kind of mom who let motherhood define her life, but here we are. Part of it was the pandemic—I lost a lot of work during the lockdown and I couldn’t get childcare anyway, so I became a stay-at-home mom. Since then, I’ve become unrecognizable to myself. ​​I have become the kind of person who gets angry when the kitchen’s a mess—and then I get angry that I’m angry about something so inconsequential. I get mad that my world has become so small that the biggest crisis I can imagine is a filthy kitchen at dinnertime. 

I didn’t have a name for this frustration until I read This Is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch: The Joy of Loving Something—Anything—Like Your Life Depends On It. Never have I spent so much time underlining passages and exclaiming YES! as I did with this book. Replace the words “Benedict Cumberbatch” with “anime” and this could be a book about me. Author Tabitha Carvan writes about how transgressive her fandom felt after becoming a mom, since being a mom is an identity that is supposed to blot out everything else:

“[T]his is exactly why it felt so wrong to fall for Benedict Cumberbatch as a mother. Because what could it mean except that I was dissatisfied with my perfectly good life, and worse, with my healthy, happy family? … How terrible! And greedy! And because being a mother went all the way to the edges of me, if I wanted to scrape out a little bit of time or space for anything else, it was at the expense of the motherness.”

My anger came from being boxed in to a role I didn’t choose or expect. I had no idea how all-encompassing the identity and tasks of parenthood would be until I was in it. At first, I kept up my writing, typing on my phone while nursing an infant; watching anime with the sound off to avoid waking the baby in his crib next to me. But as I time went on, I realized that the expected labor of caregiving and cleaning could expand to fill a whole day, week, life. Whole months would go by and I’d realized I hadn’t done a single thing purely to make myself happy. 

My kids aren’t babies anymore, and I’ve had more time to process the ways I’ve changed, who I am now, and what I want to do just for me. With help from my husband, John, and our support system, I’ve been able to have kid-free outings, dinners with friends, an especially indulgent trip to a local Korean spa with my Japanese club, and in a change that feels both frivolous and extremely affirming, I spent an afternoon getting my hair dyed purple. I try to do something fun every day, whether it’s watching an episode of I’m In Love With The Villainess or building Lego. Activities that have no intended outcome except for pleasure. Carvan writes:

“[Fandom] can have unexpected, maybe profound, consequences, not in spite of being trivial but because it is. Because it’s fun, because it doesn’t matter, because it’s purely for you, because it feels stupidly good. Because the joy of it expands. It seeps into other parts of your life, transforming it, and you, in ways that do matter—a lot.”

I’m not taking time for myself for any productive purpose, like being a better parent. Still, I’ve found that it does make me a better mom because I’m less likely to yell or lose my patience after I’ve taken time for myself. I’m even showing my kids the side of me that’s more than a mom; this summer, we took my oldest kid to Otakon, where she was starstruck getting her picture taken with one of her favorite characters, Luigi. 

Remembering that I’m more than just a mom felt transcendental to me, but it might be a strange confession to my readers. In November, Otaku Journalist will be 14 years old. My oldest child is four, so I’ve been blogging here for a decade longer than I’ve been parenting; which means you might not think of me as a mom at all—or even know that I have two kids, as some of my convention friends were surprised to learn at Otakon. I’m so different from the person I was when I started this blog that I wasn’t sure I could still come back. But I’m ready now. I’m here. 

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