You Really Need to Flag…

My hands were in so much pain as the tape haphazardly covered my raw skin. The muscles in my arms were burning as my hunched up form attempted to climb this DAMN V1. I was discovering that I was indeed afraid of heights… and of falling the short four feet to the crash pad.

“You know… you’re tired because you’re all bunched up and climbing only with your arms. You really need to flag..”

Flagging, is the practice in climbing of fully extending a leg to the side as a counter balance, generally combined with arms fully extended for maximum control and maneuverability. It is critical, but quite uncomfortable… especially for beginners who tend to think that climbing is strictly an upper body exercise.

I remember being annoyed that Crystal was coaching me…. from the ground.

But then again, this wasn’t the first time that Crystal had brought me on an adventure where the primary goal was discomfort and growth.

For some context, I’m going to need to tell you a story about camels, reservations, and the importance of owning your own narrative.

Get ready…

It’s a trip.

Or maybe two or three.


A Trip Built Around a Camel Festival

During college and in the years shortly thereafter, we had bonded over: the latest food trends, Disney runs where we tried to ride the most obscure rides (Mark Twain’s Riverboat anyone), and pity parties where we discussed our sad lives as temporary workers.

Crystal had a reputation for being a world traveler and so in 2018 when she invited me to go on a trip to Turkey, I was honored and thrilled.

The one catch was that I could not for the life of me figure out why she had chosen Turkey of all places to go visit.

See, a few years prior, my cousin had been in Turkey when there had been a coup. I remember FaceTiming her and her friend as they hid out in their Istanbul airbnb waiting for the travel ban to lift.

This experience of my cousin combined with the fact that there was a travel advisory on the U.S. Department of State’s website that said, “Reconsider travel to Turkey due to terrorism and arbitrary detentions,” were enough to make me quite uncomfortable.

Alas, work at Chick-fil-A had been sucking the life out of me for a few years at this point, and I was looking for any excuse to escape. So Crystal, Brian, and I waited for some affordable flights and then booked our trip for January of 2019.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Crystal had actually built our entire three city trip around a single festival that was occurring in Ephesus on one specific day in January. That’ll be important later.

As I boarded the plane, I remember being more than a little bit anxious about the trip: I had never traveled internationally with friends for this long, I wasn’t sure how safe this place was, and I quite frankly had no clue what to expect.

I put my headphones in, cued our “Turkey 2019” collaborative Spotify playlist, and fell asleep to Clueless by the Marias.


Thanks For Not Listening to Your Friends (<-Link to the “written in Turkey” blog)

On our trip we tried new food, made new friends, got creative with our documenting, and learned a lot about the world and our perception of it.

Crystal was always the first to put herself out there when it came to practicing the language and engaging with the natives. While many people travel for the photos and the stories, Crystal always seems to want to see what life is like for the normal person in these different cultural contexts. This is evident in how she plans her trips all the way through to the way she frames her photos.

In experiencing her method of traveling to know and understand rather than traveling to see and commentate, my eyes were opened to so much beauty that comes from experiencing different cultures.

Her courage and adventurousness is what placed us in the thick of a Camel Wrestling Festival on a Saturday morning, where we would experience a party unlike any we had seen before.

In many ways, Turkey was an incredible trip because the people we met there were unbelievably hospitable and friendly. We were offered food, drinks, and warm welcomes almost everywhere we went. Complete strangers would hear us speaking English and they would stop and say hello and share about their sons or daughters that lived in California. Airbnb hosts would shift heaven and earth to get us better accommodations. Food tour guides would take time after their shifts to take us to wine gardens and share recommendations of where we could eat next. The country was beautiful from a nature and sights standpoint, but it was especially beautiful because of the people that interacted with us.

But see, herein lies the catch: we never would have experienced any of this hospitality or any of the great things Turkey has to offer, if not for Crystal’s willingness to plan this trip to a place that neither I nor many people I know would ever try and go for “safety” reasons.

As our world experiences a time of great unrest, and nationalism and patriotism are being flaunted left and right, I think fondly on this trip and how it completely re-framed my perspective of other countries. When a native says, “Thanks for not listening to your friends who said we were barbarians and that you shouldn’t come,” it fucks you up a little bit.

Every country is a melting pot of atrocities, customs, innovations, and most importantly: people.

Thanks Crystal for teaching me the importance of seeing things and people for myself as opposed to just believing what I hear about them.


No Reservations

A few years later, Crystal joined me in Mexico City, in order to see, what all the hype was about an anti-human trafficking organization that I was crazy about.

We spent time with several of the beneficiaries teaching basic math and facilitating some team building exercises and I tried to summarize everything in Benny Yu’s book Painful Miracles in a succinct way in order to explain the anti trafficking work that El Pozo De Vida was doing in Mexico City.

When we weren’t at the safehouse or eating tacos, we were seeing the sights and trying to keep our food down.

As a celebratory meal of sorts, Crystal tried to get us a table at Quintonil, an upscale restaurant in the same stratosphere as some Michelin Star restaurants in the area. Unfortunately for us, there were no reservations available for the time we were free.

Now, I would have just given up and eaten at Taco Express for the fifth time in three weeks, BUT Crystal decided what the heck, I’ll just shoot them a quick email and explain our situation.

Lo and behold: we got a table.

As we sat down and ate, we realized that we were in fact an exception to the rule, as the restaurant had violated its one party an hour rule and double booked us in their opening slot.

If you know me, you know that I am terrified of asking for things. I will eat the incorrectly delivered food at my table because I don’t want to cause an inconvenience. I figure it’s better not to ask and therefore not be disappointed than it is to try and find a creative solution but fail in the process.

Crystal lives this theme of “just trying” to the max.

Windy gales might prevent us from flying in hot air balloons? Eh, let’s try anyways.

We are 20 and 21 on the waitlist for this game theory class? Eh, let’s just hang around anyways.

There’s a contest on this new travel app? Eh, sure what do I have to lose?

There’s a social media giveaway for these tickets to a play? Eh, you should just try.

Thanks for teaching me the importance of asking, Crystal.


Own Your Narrative

It can be hard to get by in a culture that values set-in-stone plans and monetary success so highly above all other things.

As great as the exciting adventures we’ve shared have been, we’ve been privy to each other’s non-instagram highlight-esque life struggles as well. From uncertainty of wanting to stay with certain companies, being overworked and abused by poor managers and organizations, and wrestling with the tension between personal passion projects and making rent, we’ve been privileged to give the other space to vent about all that stuff people generally don’t talk about.

We post on social media about the concerts, the picturesque views, the trips, and the good times, but we conveniently leave out the jobs that are killing us, the painful process of learning about ourselves, and the long ass times we spend at jobs we hate in order to save up enough for the next trip.

People remind us time and time again to get serious about our lives as we brush them off, too busy wandering and discovering just a little bit more about who we are and what we want.

I appreciate the safe space that Crystal has created when it comes to talking about purpose and living the one life that we have.

In one phone call, I shared about how I was pretty sure that I was going to move to Mexico City and that I was finally okay with being the only one in my life who seemed remotely excited about that decision. She cheered me on from the other side of the line and said something along the lines of, “HELL YEAH! OWN your narrative!”

I think Crystal has taught me an immense amount about empathy and being supportive that I have never experienced in such consistent quantities. I’ve learned so much about being a cheerleader to my friends and family just from the conversations we’ve had in which she just hears me out and encourages me to keep chasing what I think I was designed to do.

If you’ve had the privilege to get to know Crystal, I think you know exactly what I’m talking about.


Embracing the Uncomfortable

By far, the trait I admire most about Crystal, is her intentionality with being uncomfortable.

It could be on her travels.

It could be on the bouldering walls she scales.

It could be in the controversial topics she chooses to discuss when everyone is just vibing.

She chooses to challenge the norm and the widely accepted way of doing things and she asks the hard questions which she might not have the answers to.

This takes immense bravery, but without people in our world with this trait, we would never develop, grow, or solve the problems that our societies face.

She doesn’t accept the stereotypes that people blindly assign to other people and instead chooses to immerse herself and to see for herself what makes different people unique.

She’s willing to take risks in order to learn about others and she’s not so quick to assign blame to entire people groups.

To be frank… our world needs more people who desire to see the similarities we all share as opposed to harping on the differences.


Dude, Crystal, you’ve taught me HELLA, about life, perspectives, and just living life authentically. I’m honored to call you my friend, and I appreciate you being patient with all of my tiktok transitions that I make you do for my travel videos. Thanks for caring about my passion projects and encouraging me to chase them down. Also thanks for being down to detox from social media with our janky “social media addicts anonymous” program. Thanks for reminding me to create space for myself when I get lost in trying to do five thousand things at once. Try and remember me when you are the Senior Director of the United Nations who wins the Nobel Peace Prize for inspiring change through photojournalism.

Some people might see Crystal’s life as a bit unorthodox or unbalanced but to be honest….

I think she’s hanging on that V6, flagging, concentrating, and knowing exactly where she’s going next: to solve the world’s next problem.

IP Men

I can still remember walking into the hotel restaurant where the dedication dinner for Chick-fil-A University Town Center was being held.

There was a person in a cow costume, and a ridiculous number of people crammed at dozens of round tables. The girl who I had met at orientation had carpooled with me and she chose a table that already had a handful of people at it.

It was there that I cracked a joke that didn’t land all that well. But within a few minutes the guy sitting across from me had worked the entire table and was the star of the show.

That was when I decided that I didn’t like this guy.

How do you even pronounce “Imon” anyhow?


Icebreakers

There were probably a hundred of us working at the store to compensate for the sure amount of people that would quit in due time. Of the people that worked there, a handful were cool, a lot of them were weird, and all of us were eclectic as heck.

There was the cute sassy girl working at the prep station, the mid twenties sleeve tattooed body builder singer guy who exuded coolness, and then there was this well mannered grand opening supervisor who always had a smile and a bowtie on.

I often got scheduled for closing shifts during which, my favorite pastime, was to ask my coworkers icebreaker questions while scrubbing the floors and cleaning the “ice dream” machine.

My go to series of questions was in this order:

1. If you were told by the doctor that you had a year to live and you had access to unlimited resources, what would you do?

2. Okay now let’s say you were just told you had a year to live and only had the resources you currently possess, what would you do?

3. Now why aren’t you doing any of that now?

Most people gave me the standard answers of: traveling, spending time with family, paying off the debts of families, buying houses for family, high risk and adrenaline pumping activities, telling crushes their feelings, telling friends and family they cared, etc.

I think most people thought the question was a little more than they had bandwidth for at 23:30 and would give me a quick answer and just be done.

But Imon (pronounced eye mon and not eee mon, eee man, or some other variation as I learned the hard way) literally stopped scrubbing the floor when I asked him the question and thought carefully about his response.

At that moment, I reneged on my previous decision that I didn’t like this guy.


Koobideh and Tea

Over the next few months, we’d bond over optimizing our closing techniques, gawking at cute new hires, and talking about life over our post close meals.

We loved to go to this one spot called Hen House Grill because it was open late and they served hot tea that warmed us up even as our sopping soapy floor water shoes chilled us to the bone. These meals would prove to be the catalyst for some stupidly deep conversations that we would have.

It sounds far fetched, but as a church kid and college student, I had never been a singular version of myself. There were always multiple versions of me that were catered to the audiences that I needed to perform for.

There was church paul, boyfriend paul, son paul, brother paul, christian friend paul, cursing paul, among many other compartamentalized versions of myself. I had never felt like I had the permission to just be all facets of myself with anybody. And to be quite frank, I wasn’t looking to change anything about myself because keeping everything neat and separated seemed to be working out just fine.

However, the conversations that Imon and I had were unlike any I had ever had before. We talked about everything and by everything I mean EVERY thing. There were no pretenses, assumptions, or judgements of any kind.

One particular night, I parked illegally at the apartment complex where Imon lived and we talked about how we thought porn was affecting our lives in a negative way. And the crazy part was, while I beat around the bush regarding the topic: Imon got straight to the point.

I had never experienced authenticity to this degree and quite frankly: I was inspired.


Reciprocity

Eventually we stopped working together, as we pursued different jobs, and I was deeply afraid that our friendship would cease to be as many friendships built upon convenience tend to do.

And yet, miraculously, we both made time to invest in the friendship.

We bonded over parallel hobbies, music, gaming, trying relationships that tested our sanity, and brief flings with our passions and dreams.

Imon is the one who introduced me to the concept of a collaborative Spotify playlist, a tool that I have used in trips and get togethers ever since.

There has been this harmonious give and take, in which we have learned to appreciate the other’s interests and hobbies even if it may not be a shared interest or hobby.

Even at our lowest points, we have been able to encourage each other with the truth that perfection is unattainable and that all we can do is our best, which is strangely, enough.


Part of the Problem

In 2015, when I came back from Mexico City for the first time, it was Imon who articulated for me what I felt deep in my being.

When I told him about what I saw in Mexico City, he told me that, “I want to help… but I can’t help but think that I’m part of the problem.”

I remember being super put off by his response because I thought, “You can’t just let thinking that you are part of the problem paralyze you from doing anything!”

But the truth of the matter was that Imon was more in touch with his emotions than I was.

It was the first time where I realized that I indeed was a part of the demand, and that is why Imon’s statement unnerved me so.

I would end up attempting to forget what I had seen in Mexico City for the next four years.


Uncomfortable

One year, we decided to go on a camping trip with the goals of creating and relaxing.

We had our respective dreams and passions regarding music and film, BUT because we had found great ways to justify not creating for fear of many different things, we had instead picked up photography as a surrogate hobby.

The trip was filled with DJ Khaled’s summer hit “I’m the One,” Coronas with lime, crash courses in exposure and iso, and of course a shower of bugs.

The story of the shower of bugs is actually hilarious and probably metaphorical, but it doesn’t serve a purpose in this current narrative so be sure to ask either one of us about it.

Long story short, because of this unforeseen bug problem, we spent one of the nights in my 2001 Honda Accord, on the cold ass leather seats, with not so much as a blanket to warm ourselves. It was cold, miserable, and uncomfortable. We both shared later that we kept waking up and wishing for the sun to peek above the mountains so that we could “wake up” and leave.

During that night, the camaraderie of knowing that we were suffering together gave the night less power over defining the whole trip. In fact, we laughed about how terrible that night was even as soon as the next day.

In our friendship, one thing we’ve struggled with is finding a way to manage this gnawing desire to create. We’ve tried just shoving it down and ignoring it or finding a less risky way to still flex our creative muscles. We’ve used the excuse of not having enough resources or experience and we’ve critiqued others’ mismanagement or poorly executed ideas until we were blue in the face.

But all of our attempts have led us to the same place of uncomfortability where we know that we could create something.. but we choose to sit in that uncomfortability indefinitely.


Molting

In the fall of 2019, we had both quit our jobs and were having brunch at El Torito. I jokingly said, “Hey you should come to Mexico City with me since you aren’t working right now.”

He responded, “Honestly man… I’m down…”

We quickly threw together a quick action plan of how to expedite his passport and his approximate timeline but then I was off on the first leg of my month of travel and I wondered if this reunion in CDMX would ever come to fruition.

Three weeks later, I ran down the steps of my hostel to the street below and flagged down the uber that Imon was in, and we embraced for the first time on foreign soil.

We learned a lot that trip. We spent hours at the community center teaching some classes, we captured b roll all over the city, plotted a way to climb the temple of the sun illegally (we did NOT by the way), ate sooo much food, and we spent time with the beneficiaries of El Pozo De Vida.

I am overcome with emotion as I write this because Imon (and a few years later Crystal) are two of my closest and dearest friends who for really no benefit to themselves decided to shell out resources and time to come and see a place that is so meaningful to me.

We had so many conversations in our “jail cell hostel” about how we could join in the fight against human trafficking and what we could do to bring awareness to the issue. In many ways, we began re-writing our own destinies and not allowing our own limitations and demons to hold us back.

We often joke that we are just hyper corrupt and fallible lizard brained individuals. Well if we were lizards: we had just started molting.

Imon has since: been in a Fight the New Drug Interview video with me, sat in Clubhouse rooms with me talking about mobilizing in the fight against human trafficking, and hearing me out when I’m at wit’s end about how big the problem of porn consumption is when it comes to the grooming of the next generation of sex buyers.


Excited Accountability

Last month, Imon and I met up to enjoy an evening of Dave and Busters and a tbd dinner. We played lots of arcade basketball, almost killed some people with the air hockey puck, and took a few Cactus Cooler shots at the bar.

Afterwards, due to the weather, we decided to go to BCD Tofu House to eat dinner. As we were eating, we once again discussed the topic of creativity. For the first time in a while, we were both financially stable enough to talk about pursuing our passions without breaking the bank. We shared once again how we loathed that we always found excuses to create.

Sure we were scared, but we just didn’t know how to start… or where to start.

We stumbled upon an idea that really combined the themes that have woven their way through the heart of our friendship: What if we just created for us?

What if we metaphorically threw caution to the wind and took an impromptu trip and edited a video just for kicks? What if we removed the fear of performing for an audience and just created for each other and shared with the world only if we were comfortable with what we made?

And so even though we had joked about hosting a podcast in the past, or recording a mixtape, or filming a short film, we decided to actually set out in 2022 with the goal of creating.

In just the last month, we’ve read books on creating, brainstormed together, stretched our brains, and cursed at the writer’s blocks that seem to stack on our desks… (we also randomly played trivia night at a brewery after our brainstorming session and came up with the name IP Men for our team name hence the title)

And yet, it has been an awesome and energizing type of uncomfortability. It differs from the “work is work” uncomfortability or the “my relationship is toxic” uncomfortability because for once, the discomfort comes from growth and the exploration of unknown territory rather than obligation, duty, and necessity.

I’m just grateful I get to creatively experiment with a friend who is basically my brother instead of doing it alone.


Flowers

A wise person once said, “give people flowers while they can still smell them.”

Imon, you have taught me so much over the years, and above all of the lessons, you have been authentic and available even in the craziest of times.

I am beyond blessed to call you a friend and it is an honor to get to do life with you. Thank you for being a genuine friend and a gracious brother. I am truly a better person because of you. Even if I was just to look at the blogposts I write, there has been a huge evolution in writing style, subject matter, and transparency that is traced back to you showing me what genuine friendship looks like. I am forever indebted my friend. (also Kristie, I’m not a threat, please still have me over. This is strictly bromance)

We always joke that we are collecting b-roll for the documentary about the musician and director duo that changed the world, and to be honest, stranger things have happened.

It’s weird to write about our friendship in such gory detail for unknown readers to experience, but I know for a fact that the lessons that we have learned corporately AND the lessons that you have taught me can encourage and uplift so many others.

So if you are reading this, and you’ve been scrolling tiktok and waiting to make that thing until you are a little older, have more experience, have more gear, are more qualified, or whatever, our question to you is:

Why not now?

Limited Bandwidth

As 2021 comes to a close, a lesson that I’ve been repeatedly reminded of is the danger of committing to too many things at one time.

Most of us are familiar with the scenario: we say yes to that first request and it is totally doable… and then we say yes to the next thing that comes up… and the next, and the next. Pretty soon, we have a completely booked week, zero time to ourselves, and all of a sudden, it feels like we have two full time jobs and the mental capacity of a dog in a forest with too many squirrels.

For the longest time, people pleasing was what prevented me from saying no to things. Later on, it was a fear of failure and the desire to keep my options as plentiful as possible. But just like the saying about being “a jack of all trades and a master of none,” states, if you attempt to half heartedly commit to everything that comes your way, you end up exhausted and unable to do anything well.


I’ve written about boundaries and saying “no” before, but my heart behind sharing today, is to hopefully encourage those of you who repeatedly feel overextended and exhausted from a life that seems more like an automated and accelerating hamster wheel than a journey to be enjoyed.

One of the first things I mentioned to my therapist was this very analogy about how I felt like a hamster that was running to keep up with this wheel only to get thrown out of the wheel disoriented and exhausted.

Her response was ironically, adding MORE life giving activities into my schedule, BUT with the qualifier of eliminating some life-draining activities at the same time.

Over the next few years, my perspective on self-care went from impulse buying a Nintendo Switch and binging escape rooms to carving out time in my days to intentionally care for myself. From running to basketball, writing regularly to quality time with friends, I began to incorporate a rhythm of prioritizing myself in my own life.

I stopped being the first to jump at volunteer opportunities.

I stopped feeling like every phone call and text message REQUIRED an immediate response.

I started sitting in my own discomfort at being alone in order to give myself space to process everything that I was feeling.

I started drawing my boundaries in my work environment and then for the hard part, I began to enforce those boundaries.

I pissed people off in the process as I began to say no to outrageous requests that I had been more than happy to oblige in the past. In the process, I began to love the time I got to spend alone, and this ENFP began to realize that he was a blend of introversion and extroversion.


Most app games that exist nowadays force you to manage some sort of limited resource. Maybe it’s speedups or gems or gold or food or candy crush hints. Whatever it might be, we gravitate towards challenges that force us to work within constraints.

Our lives are filled with choices and opportunity costs: decisions where choosing one thing means losing out on something else.

Some of us think that we are above these rules of limited time and resources and we try to have it all.

We end up tired, at wit’s end, and it is in those situations of fatigue that we make our poorest decisions, all because we neglected taking care of ourselves.

We think self care is eating out, manicures, video game binges, and shopping sprees. We generally know that certain coping mechanisms are actually negative, but they let us borrow tomorrow’s happiness and so in order to deal with the disappointment of today, we gladly borrow, though we pay with interest.

We self medicate with trips and shows and fantasies in order to take our minds off of the lack of agency we have in our own lives.

And even if we are self-destructing, at least we are making the choice ourselves.


A key tenet behind why I write and advocate so heavily for the issues that I do, is because I genuinely want people to operate at the best versions of themselves.

I often look back on my life and wish that I knew about the resources that I know about now, back when I was struggling to be comfortable in my own skin. I would have rather swallowed my pride, done the personal work, BEFORE I made my poor choices.

Unfortunately or fortunately, I learn best from experience, and so for me a lot of lessons were learned in hindsight. But for anyone who reads, I hope that you know that you deserve to be seen, heard, and understood, and that tools to help you navigate life’s more challenging seasons exist.

We oftentimes come up with excuses and like to play victim cards because it means that we don’t have full control or responsibility for what we do, but the truth is, in doing so, we only hurt and hinder ourselves.

I was homeschooled until high school and so my mom had the answer key to my math textbook. I used to open the answer book when she wasn’t looking and copy the work into my homework. I’d get full credit, but when asked to explain what I was doing, it was clear that I had no clue. My parents would scold me and tell me that “I was only hurting myself” by looking at the answers, but I saw my short term victories as a worthwhile exchange to spending hours trying to understand what was actually going on. This would come back to bite me in the ass later on when I went to public school and college, but that behavior was what started my habit of looking for shortcuts to deal with the day to day stress instead of preparing myself for the long term.

The truth is, most of us are like young Paul.

We see the day to day stress and anxiety, and we self medicate with reactive coping mechanisms that only temporarily distract us. We rationalize our behavior with our age, our finances, or our ability to “generally stay in control,” all the while knowing that we are lying through our teeth. We playact that we have our shit together, but at 3am when it’s just us and the negative self talk dialoguing, we realize that we are deeply frustrated with ourselves and where we deserve and need grace, the same coping mechanisms that provided us temporary distraction are used by us to shame ourselves and thus perpetuate the cycle.


Oof, did I just lose you?

Can we talk plainly for a second?

Our culture is obsessed with perfection and having your shit together. I can be anything as long as no one knows that I actually don’t have it all together.

We post the pictures of the parties, the promotions, the trips, the friends, the weddings, and anything that might get those likes, but we archive or don’t post about the break ups, the unemployment, the mental health struggles, addictions, and all those other imperfections we don’t want others to see.

Now while lying for the sake of our online reputations is one thing, the primary talking point of this blog is, why we lie to ourselves about our own growth points when really it is us that benefits or suffers based upon our action or inaction?


I think of this scene in the Zac Efron acted Ted Bundy Netflix film where, Ted goes to the courtroom and sees that the courthouse library window is a certain height above the courtyard outside. We then see a montage of him in his cell practicing landing after jumping from higher and higher distances. Eventually he jumps off of his bunk mate’s bed and lands safely, after which, the audience sees a shot of him making the courthouse library jump.

This example is SO FUCKING random, but I think it’s an interesting take on self-care and personal work.

We really do each have within us, the capacity to face the difficulties that life presents with us. It requires time and practice to figure out how to deal with our challenges, but we do have the potential to grow. But unlike Mr. Bundy, we’d rather observe the window of opportunity and worry about the risk and then forget about it rather than doing the work of preparing for our escape.


We all have limited bandwidth when it comes to the activities and passions that we can devote ourselves to. On top of this, life is short, and we never know how much time we are going to get. I’m reminded of how short life is every day.

Even with our limited resources, I invite you to invest in yourself above everything and everyone else.

To some of you this might feel foreign or selfish, but I promise you, that while all other relationships and friendships have times when they are unavailable to you, your own self dialogue is ALWAYS going to be your biggest ally or enemy. This reality behooves us to invest in ourselves and to learn to love ourselves in our strengths and weaknesses… because when it comes down to it, no one else is going to magically care for us if we don’t care for ourselves.

I spent years trying to fix myself through self work and therapy so that I could be present for those around me.

About halfway through, I realized, that the biggest goal was and always will be to learn to love myself.

The Art of Deconstruction

An acquaintance asked me the other day, “Paul, what do you even believe any more? Do you still believe in God? Are you even Christian?”

I’ve written a lot about therapy, pornography, purpose, and how race has affected my experience as a U.S. citizen. If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I’m often writing little blurbs about everything from toxic masculinity to finding your purpose. If we are connected on Facebook, you have probably noticed that I post almost exclusively about the harms of pornography which is a stark contrast from the Bible-verse-trigger-happy high school graduate from ten years ago.

There’s been a lot of trauma, a lot of work, a lot of wylin’ out, and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that has led me to this point in time.

As much as I’d like to think that I’m so unique, I’m about 80% sure that my experiences, questions, and confusion are shared by many of you.

For those of you who would consider yourself 100% grounded in your faith and religion, I’d ask for grace, but also encourage you to hear me out as I try to explain where a lot of my doubts and cynicism originated from.

For those of you who are in the same boat, you aren’t alone, and I see you.

For those of you who don’t believe in God any more, you aren’t alone either and I see you too.

This is: the art of deconstruction.


Foundations:

To properly understand my journey, you should know that I was practically born into church. I was homeschooled until high school, took classes on theology, read the biographies of missionaries, and surrounded myself with friends who shared the same religious views.

I went to a Foursquare church in Van Nuys for the first thirteen years of my life. During my time there, I was encouraged and inspired by so many individuals who volunteered their time and resources to teach Sunday school. I remember fondly, this one black family taking the 11am slot to teach fourth grade sunday school and I especially remember them incentivizing memorizing a whole chapter of the Bible by giving an entire Little Ceasar’s Pizza to any kids who could. There was also teacher April who organized the Vacation Bible School and invited me to join the dance team as an elementary school teacher. I remember pastor Bob at Highway 56 sticking around later when my parents were late to picking me up. I remember pastor Brian at Rock Solid keeping us middle schoolers busy at the Jr. High summer internship.

Most of my memories are positive and most of them I cherish and remember fondly.

In high school, I started going to a new church in San Diego, and I remember pastors, Josh and Greg creating a safe space for us high schoolers. I remember Matt investing time and energy into making sure I was not just blindly following sermon talking points. I remember Frank treating me like an adult and not a project as he burned worship cds for me. I memorized scripture, listened to Christian Contemporary Music, and probably annoyed the living crap out of my non-Christian friends.

I’m pretty sure I broke up with a girl one time citing God as a reason..

I wrote entire posts on Tumblr devoted to my interpretation of scripture. My mother watched Fox News and I was convinced that being Christian was synonymous with being a Republican.

I knew the verses and the messages about grace and love, but I never stopped and listened to anyone who had a different life experience than I did.

I used to give mini-sermons at Christian club where I just copied the styles and themes that I had seen modeled for me in church.

If you are reading this, and we knew each other back then, this is my formal apology.

I am so sorry if you ever felt judged or shamed by the things that I said. Things that I, a flawed human, asserted that God said about you. Whether it was my blatant disregard for your emotions or my gaslighting and steamrolling of your worldviews, I am so sorry that I caused you pain.

In college, the cracks in my self righteousness began to show. I volunteered my time in my college fellowship, took calculated small steps of vulnerability in controlled situations, and pretended like everything was okay. My closeted addictions started coming out and by the time I graduated, I was full on tripping.


The Cynical Prodigal Son:

I remember going to Mexico City for the first time after I graduated from college and rationalizing to myself that my secret porn habit couldn’t actually be contributing to ruining the lives of real people.

Deep down, I knew I was lying to myself, and so I said that I cared about anti-trafficking efforts, but I quickly forgot everything I saw and experienced.

As I wrestled with my own sexuality and addictions, I became angry. I didn’t know what spurred the anger because I had never done the hard work of naming my emotions. I became frustrated and criticized the church for the needs I saw that it wasn’t addressing.

It was easier for me to blame the church for over-preaching about tithing and under-preaching about mental health and addictions because that meant that my problems weren’t my fault.

I stopped going to church, and lost the one thing I thought I’d always have: my integrity.

I was so confused.

For my whole life I knew that there was a “right” way to be a Christian. Christians didn’t sleep around, didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, didn’t curse, voted yes on Prop 8, and volunteered as much time as possible at church.

But despite knowing that this was the “right” way to to do things, I knew that I was not actually adhering to the full letter of the law.

When I wasn’t at church I was cursing, experimenting, and let’s not forget, watching a SHIT ton of porn.

I felt like a fraud at church because I was.

Yeah, I had read the whole Bible.

Yes I had been to small groups and retreats.

Yes I had been on mission trips.

But there was this huge cognitive dissonance between who I was supposed to be and who I was.

After you attempt to quit porn after a church retreat for like the third time, you start asking some questions about whether or not something is wrong with you.


Toxic Church CULTure:

If you’ve gone to church, tell me if this sounds familiar:

The pastor talks about how everyone needs grace, and then some people at church look straight at you and when it’s time to pray for each other, nobody says jack shit about anything more than “work has been tough.”

At first, you think wow, everyone here has their shit together. I aspire to be this level of holy.

But as you spend more and more time there, you come to a shocking discovery: At ANY church, charismatic or conservative, expository or theme-based sermons, Hillsong worship songs or hymns, people are seriously fucked up.

Marriages are falling apart, addictions are out of control, mental health is a huge issue, volunteers are being abused, affairs are happening on the worship team, tithe money has gone missing, pastors are arguing and causing church splits, and it turns out, that some of the biggest assholes and abusers are churchgoers.

Then, depending on your level of self-awareness, you begin to realize that you are actually a part of the problem.

I remember realizing that I despised the fact that no one was talking about pornography, depression, and suicidal ideation in church. At one lunch with my mother, I asked her WHY the church was so silent on issues that I KNEW were relevant. She just sat with me and heard me out.

I kept criticizing and SLAMMING the church for what it wasn’t doing to make the world a better place. I thought it was ridiculous that churchgoers didn’t act like Jesus did in the New Testament, but it never occurred to me that perhaps I had a part to play in this.


A Perfect Storm:

In 2019, after about a year of therapy and processing my emotions, I realized that I had a lot of work to do on myself in order to not project all my baggage onto my friends, family, and significant other.

An incident, in which my pornography addiction wreaked even more havoc in my day to day life, led me to start aggressively targeting the root cause of my habit in therapy as well.

As I processed my emotions and sat with them for the first time in 25-26 years, I began to see the depth of my own pain and brokenness. And as my therapist validated me and told me that I wasn’t alone, I realized this fundamental need I had to be seen and heard.

It was as this was happening, that I realized that I had not felt seen or heard in really any of my circles except for a handful of scenarios.

My best friend, Imon who sat with me through all of the shit I had been processing even outside of the context of religious camaraderie.

My college pastor and friend, Abe who hugged me after I revealed that I didn’t think I could be a college small group leader because of my porn addiction.

My friend, Crystal who allowed me to sit in post travel and job hating depression because she too was experiencing it.

This concept of sitting with people as they were processing their emotions would end up being the missing piece that helped me tie together everything that I had been experiencing.

For the first time ever, I was allowing myself to be angry, sad, tired, cynical, happy, excited, depressed, worried, doubtful, anxious, heartbroken, worried, and a whole slew of other emotions without shaming myself into putting “faith in God.”

And while my Christian readers are waiting for the other shoe to drop as I say that therapy has led me away from God and into the ever waiting socialist arms of the far left, I have a surprise for you:

God showed up in my therapy sessions uninvited.

As I transitioned from talk therapy to EMDR therapy, my sessions began to tackle really traumatic memories in which I felt truly alone, violated, or damaged. And even though my therapist said nothing about God and I didn’t explicitly invite God into that space, He freaking showed up there in the middle of my deepest pain.

It was at this moment, that I realized the importance of being present during the painful seasons of those in our community. I think of Jesus mourning Lazarus, the disciples falling asleep as Jesus prays at Gethsemane, and the Holy Spirit descending in the upper room.

But hold up, I’m not done yet.


20 Fucking 20:

In the biggest plot twist of our modern day lives, 2020 came and screwed us all over. Whether you were a small business owner, a stay at home mom, a church goer, a food service worker, it really didn’t matter, we all were affected.

We had BLM in the streets protesting injustice. We had a freaking virus running crazy. Trump was re-running for office. Asians were being targeted in public.

I don’t even need to write you about this, you all ALREADY fucking know. 2020 was a cluster show.

It was at this critical point in history, that my faith in the church was shaken to its core.

While my faith in God was just recently reinvigorated, the marriage of christianity and politics that 2020 brought forth absolutely destroyed me.

One day, I’d be playing basketball at a park while being aggressively approached by a racist security guard only to hear from the pulpit that BLM wasn’t a Biblically founded movement. I’d grown up hearing about how Jesus spoke in parables where the heroes of the stories were marginalized immigrants, while my old church friends were lauding ICE and wall building as practically Christian endeavors. I’d learned as a child that loving your neighbor as yourself was second only to loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, but then people were raving that masks and vaccines were inherently unchristian or worse yet the mark of the beast.

We were taught as children in Sunday school that we had a personal relationship with Jesus, but then all of a sudden, there was this HUGE push that God HAD to have us meet in person.

It was like everything was moving and changing and contradicting itself.

My heart sank as past mentors and pastors openly decried governmental mandates and went so far as to assert that being Christian meant defying laws designed to protect us. Nonchalant and cavalier comparisons to the persecution of Christians in other times and countries were liberally used by conservatives. AND THEN, just when things couldn’t get any worse, having views that weren’t as conservative became being anti-God.

All of a sudden the LITERAL depiction of loving your neighbor became rebranded as being socialist.

What?!


A Search For Doers:

As I sat with my dad at the breakfast table one morning in 2020, I shared with him how I was so discouraged and confused about my convictions on what the church should be. I asked him where the heroes were and who was actually doing what Jesus had commanded us to do in the Bible: loving God and loving people.

He didn’t have an answer, but he said that he would pray that I would find more of these heroes.

In the span of a year and a half, I was given the immense privilege of partnering with Fight the New Drug, my friend Calista referred me to join Clubhouse, I met Victoria on Clubhouse and was able to share my story on the Trafficked Truth podcast, and my friends Tina and Randy shared their story with me and hosted me on my longest stint in Mexico City yet.

In the face of the question: Where are the heroes who are doing Kingdom work, the answer came in the the form of El Pozo de Vida, 27Million, and new friends who have been doing Kingdom work in their respective areas of expertise.


Where I am:

It’s weird when you look back on the past few years and realize that the majority of the people who have been the best representations of God’s grace, acceptance, and character weren’t even churchgoers.

I have immense gratitude for my supportive family, my ride or die friends new and old, and for the organizations that have given me the privilege of partnering with them.

It’s interesting how I learned empathy, shameless acceptance, and recovery from sources that weren’t explicitly citing scripture or throwing “Kingdom principles” at me. All of these aforementioned traits are traits that the Bible teaches us that we should exhibit, and yet, as a Christian I admit, we have failed as a body to grow these character traits.

It might make some of you uncomfortable that I don’t quote scripture in my facebook posts every week anymore or that I curse when I write my blogs. It might be disconcerting to know that not all the organizations that I partner with have Jesus explicitly in their mission statements.

But that is just the point: I’m done playacting that I’ve got my shit together.

Never in my life, have I cared less about what people think about my motives or intentions, because I know what they are for one of the first times in my life.

I’d rather be congruent and consistent in who I am and who God has created me to be, than pretending to be someone who I am not.

It doesn’t help me or anyone else if I bury my struggles and pain and pretend that cliches and quotes are what can change lives and the world.

Our world is so fucking messed up, and we need to be on the frontlines addressing the needs, not just criticizing other doers from our high horses of self righteousness.

I honestly think that God created us to be innovative and creative in our problem solving approaches and part of that is trusting that God has given us the tools and gifts that we need to get the job done.

Maybe as a collective body, we as the church need to do a better job of leading with actions rather than words..

Maybe God isn’t so keen on our “defenses of the faith” on facebook so much as he is looking for our actions that display His love to those who need it.


Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a aman who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

James 1:19-27

Have we focused too much on the very last phrase, fixating on spotlessness, while disregarding everything that came before it?

Is the pinnacle of our lives as Christians arguing about vaccines and the mark of the beast or is it going and doing as Jesus commanded: loving God and loving others?

67 Adventures

It is quite easy to find acquaintances who are willing to make plans with you. It is noticeably more difficult to keep friends who will keep true to those plans and follow through, time after time after time.

The year was 2018, and in the middle of a summer where everyone was trying to find different ways to cope, Marco, Dina, and I had decided to hang out together and try something new.

We stepped into the submarine themed escape room and did our best to escape… We did not.

As we scooped the consolation prize of Afters ice cream into our mouths after our crushing defeat, we talked about the room and how it was an interesting experience.

Then someone said something along the lines of…”if you guys want to do the other room…. I’m down”

We did exponentially better in the wizard themed room and when the first secret door reveal occurred, Marco exclaimed “Grab the daggers, we are fucking doing this!”

The rest is history.


Our escape room addiction spanned every genre imaginable, from a super mario themed gen one escape room to an immersive theater/scavenger hunt/escape room hybrid on a farm in the middle of nowhere.

Along the way, our roster also grew and shrunk as we invited friends and acquaintances to join us on our adventures.

But in the end, it was always us three that would be down to do “just one more” after completing a room.


In many ways, the challenges we faced in those 67 rooms were metaphors for the challenges we faced in our real lives.

Many times just like the door that just swung open to reveal a pitch black room, our next steps with our careers or big moves were just as obscured to us.

Oftentimes we waited in anticipation to do a room only for that room to be closed down or tragically destroyed.

Other times, we thought our roster was set and at the last minute someone dropped out or some random person was added into the room.

Some of the worst memories were when we shelled out our money but lost terribly in the escape room. One time we didn’t make it past the second or third puzzle and that was quite the awkward ride home.

On other occasions, I vehemently argued that I was right in a scenario as I steamrolled the opinions of Dina and occasionally my other teammates, only to discover later that I was in fact wrong and an asshole.

There was no lack of lessons from those experiences and I thank everyone who joined us on our adventures!


As I’ve seen the metaphorical leaves change color as the end of this season approaches, I’ve been filled with very confusing emotions. On the one hand, I’m so excited for what is to come, and my heart is so freaking hyped for what is next. On the other hand, endings are something that I have only recently come to appreciate.

As Marco, Dina, and I were preparing for Project Minotaur this weekend, a room that Marco and I had heard was being built 1.5 years ago, I felt a twinge of sadness as I realized that this could be the last time that we could all be in one place to do rooms together.

As I let the sadness run its course, I realized how grateful I was that Dina and Marco were my companions in this epic and expensive journey we had been on. During the height of our addiction, we were doing 2-4 escape rooms per weekend, and our friends and family looked at us with disdain when they realized how much money we were spending.

Other friends feared for our safety when we fell off the find my friends map to do escape rooms in uncharted parts of California.

But looking back, we realized that if we had not been as enthusiastic about completing rooms as we had been, we would have missed out on so many memories and so many room.

2020 was a year that killed so many small businesses, but escape rooms got hit especially hard. Many of our favorite rooms had to close their doors for good in the wake of the pandemic. It wasn’t until the three of us were sitting in the lobby of QuestTavern’s Last Supper, that we realized that the Cromwell Estate, Evil Genius, and countless other rooms no longer existed.


Dina and Marco will always be the ones that I associate with bravery, ingenuity, and teamwork. From our time running shifts together at Chick-fil-A to the countless times we escaped with seconds to spare.

We had to run into rooms that we were terrified to enter.

We had to think outside the box to solve unorthodox problems and puzzles.

And ultimately, we had to set aside disagreements in order to work cohesively as a team.

I’ll never forget our memories together as: ghosthunters, DEA agents, archaelogists, serial killers’ would be victims, secret agents, dinner guests, time travelers, lab rats, and scientists.


I believe that, as much as this is a blog expressing my gratefulness for Dina, Marco, and my other escape room collaborators, this blog is ultimately a thank you to every creator and game master who has invested into the task of worldbuilding.

It’s a huge risk to attempt to build an escape room, and it’s incredibly expensive to own and operate one. On top of that, it’s incredibly brave to take an idea or concept and create it in the physical realm for the world to consume and critique it.

On our journey we’ve met so many kind and creative escape room owners and creatives. It’s inspiring to see your faces light up when we ask about certain puzzles or ask about ideas you have for future rooms.

Us enthusiasts always remember the way that y’all fall into character when you are both the gamemaster and the owner. We see the excitement that you have to share your idea with the world and we are grateful that you chose to share them with us.

I’ve loved it when y’all have pulled us behind the scenes so that we could see how things work. It’s been an honor to get into your creative process and to see the evolution of your rooms. We celebrate with your successes and mourn with your tragedies.

You fill such an interesting space in the entertainment industry, and we are grateful to y’all for doing so.


It was interesting how even though the goal of the room was to escape, oftentimes we played the rooms to escape from whatever stressors were currently affecting us in real life. And while running from our problems isn’t the healthiest way to cope, making memories and learning how to be a better team player aren’t terrible ways to deal with the less pleasant parts of life.

I talk a lot about travel and adventuring outside of your comfort zone. A resounding theme in my blogs is embracing uncomfortability and asking questions you don’t have the answers to. Another theme is that of just taking leaps of faith in order to pursue goals that you might have. Most of these themes have been a direct result of my experiences in escape rooms.

To be quite honest, after I graduated from college my opinion after travelling to a handful of countries was that the United States was superior in almost every way, so why even bother visiting other countries. If it wasn’t for my obsession with adventure in the form of escape rooms that was born in the summer of 2018, I don’t know if I would have said yes to the Turkey trip of 2019. And if I didn’t go to Turkey, I don’t know if I ever would have gone back to Mexico City.


In my blog about the marathon, I spoke about how I needed to force myself into a challenge in order to prove to myself that I was capable of seeing something that seemed impossible, to its end.

In many ways, escape rooms were mini challenges that gave me opportunities to grow certain traits within myself that I wished were true about me, but maybe were not a reality yet.

Whether it was being brave, giving space for opposing opinions, taking risks, or making split second decisions, the lessons that I learned in escape rooms have laid the groundwork for real life applications.


In conclusion, we do not become who we are overnight. If we desire to grow and change, it is a process that comes through trial and error. If we never place ourselves in situations that test us, we will never give ourselves the opportunities to grow.

Wherever you may be, embrace the process and give yourself opportunities to grow and more importantly to fail. Find people who will accompany you on the journey, and be sure to appreciate the time that you have with them as all seasons end eventually.

But the fact that something ends doesn’t make it any less memorable or beautiful.

Adventure awaits!


P.S. Attached below is a list of all the escape rooms that I have done. Most of them have company names attached to them as well. Several no longer exist, but some of the best ones are still open! I have ranked my top ten and included honorable mentions. I hope that you get to enjoy some of them as much as I did!

The List:

1. Mario (square) (LOST)

2. San Diego themeless one

3. Minnesota business espionage one

4. Phantom Soldier (square)(Lost)

5. Harry Potter (square)

6. Escape the Darkest Hour (Mission Escape) #9

7. Jack the Ripper (LA mazerooms)

8. The Cromwell Estate (closed)

9. MurderCo (Black Market Escape Rooms)

10. Bloody Elbow (Questroom)

11. Ghost Ship (60Out)

12. Cannibal’s Den (Questroom)

13. The Basement Chapter One (lost) Repeated 1/6/19 and won

14. Secrets of Suburbia (Breach Escape)

15. Zoe (Escapade)

16. Red Giant (Questroom) #1

17. Stashouse (Stashhouse) Honorable Mention

18. Jumanji (60out)

19. Occam’s Apartment (Evil Genius CLOSED)

20. Norcross Art Gallery (Evil Genius CLOSED)

21. The Hydeout (Mission Escape)

22. Fun House (Crossroads) Honorable Mention

23. Trapped in Time (Puzzle Workshop)

24. Davinci’s Challenge (Questroom)

25. Prison Break (Foxinabox)

26. The Attic (Escapex)

27. Labrats (Hatch Escape) #8

28. Welcome home (RealityX CLOSED)

29. A.I. (Exit Game)

30. An Hour to Kill (Exit Game) Honorable Mention

31. Evil Mastermind (Exit Game)

32. Psych Ward (Crossroads)

33. The Hex Room (Crossroads)

34. Amityville (60out)

35. Zombie Lab (Foxinabox OC)

36. Exodus (Exodus Escape rooms)

37. Sorcerer’s Study (The Exit Game SD LOST)

38. The Escape (Unlockables in SD)

39. Cartel (60out)

40. Cursed Crypt (Escape Hotel) #7

41. The Virus (Get the F out)

42. The Attic (Escape Hotel) (lost)

43. Mafia Heist (EscapeX)

44. The Elevator Shaft (The Basement) #2

45. The Pyramid (Escape Room LA)

46. The Study (The Basement LOST)

47. The Courtyard (The Basement) Honorable Mention

48. The Experiment (GTFO)

49. Ground Zero (Prism Escapes) (lost)

50. The Morgue (Evil Genius CLOSED)

51. Perfumer (Questroom)

52. Hyde and Seek (60out)

53. Sister’s Secret (Unlockables)

54. The Curse of the Black Knight (Escapex)

55. Cabin 13 (Legacy Escape Rooms)

56. Smuggler’s Tunnels (Escape Chronicles) #10

57. Decades (Level Escapes CLOSED)

58. Operation Longbow (Mindtrap)

59. Conspiracy (Mindtrap)

60. Resurrection (Questroom)

61. Amnesia (Questroom) #3

62. The Strange Thing (Cinema Escape)

63. Irvine School of Wizardry (Hidden Donkey) #5

64. Headcase (Breaking Point) #4

65. Whitmore Estate (Breaking Point)

66. Project Minotaur (Questroom)

67. The Last Supper (QuestTavern) #6

Lessons from the City

Have you ever re-watched a movie from your childhood, and caught a theme or joke you completely missed when you were younger?

With each year that passes, I find that I learn fewer completely new things and instead learn secondary iterations of concepts I already thought I fully understood.

As I write this, I’m in Mexico City for a three week visit and my heart is full.

Every time I come to the city, I expect to serve and to leave something of value.

Ironically, it’s usually me that leaves with a different perspective.


Lost in Translation

There is something beautiful and exciting about not completely understanding the person you are speaking with. I remember coming to the city in 2015, and having NO clue what some of the beneficiaries were saying when we visited the safe house. That visit consisted of connect 4 marathons and Uno games where people might have broken all the rules.

During my second visit in 2019, I was tasked with teaching a few classes on business principles and I thought that Google Translate would be an accurate translator for me to communicate with… I was definitely wrong. My friend Ixel graciously translated for me, but I definitely bored the girls half to death with my boring and way too long lessons on building their businesses and brands.

When I returned from my trip in 2019, I resolved to practice my Spanish. I dusted off this software that I had long forgotten about, and finished the five course class in five months… Unfortunately, the pandemic hit, and I hardly practiced after finishing the course.

During this current trip, I resolved to try and use my “traductor” as infrequently as possible. It’s been chaotic and yet the trip has been filled with so many laughs and memorable moments as I try and find the words to communicate what I mean. Everyone has been so gracious as I ask them to repeat their phrases and “como se dice” has become my most common phrase.

I’ve learned that there is something beautiful about struggling to find the right word without the help of my phone’s translator. I joked around with my friend Jess that me using my translator was like “phoning a friend” in “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Every time I need to “phone a friend,” I disconnect from the conversation I’m in. By attempting to limit my usage of the translator, I’m able to stay present. Even though it’s not the smoothest process, it’s taught me so much about how communication in any friendship or relationship takes work.

In many ways, we all speak different languages that are informed by our experiences, trauma, and history. Sometimes we are so concerned with saying the right thing, that we disconnect from the present in order to find the “best” way to say something. In doing so, we cease to listen and the authenticity of the moment is lost as we listen to respond instead of listening to know the person we are talking to.


Laughing at Myself

For those of you who don’t know, I accrued a massive amount of debt during 2018-2019. Partially due to poor coping mechanisms and a toxic work environment, I spent a TON of money on escape rooms, trips, and things that I thought would make me happy.

In hindsight, I was just trying to escape my day to day reality and in order to do so I literally locked myself in rooms with friends and tried to escape in sixty minutes.

After returning from Mexico City in 2019, I wanted to return as soon as possible, but I had SO MUCH debt that I literally couldn’t do ANY thing. I had avoided a budget for as long as I could and I was so afraid of knowing where my money was going, that I did everything I could to avoid attempting to get my finances in order.

I literally lived paycheck to paycheck even though I made a decent salary, and if I had been fired or had a medical emergency, I would have been on the street in five minutes.

In February of 2020, I came to the conclusion that I definitely had a problem, and I decided to take a personal finance class.

The first task was to save a thousand dollars for a starter emergency fund, and I wasn’t even able to complete this step until after the class was completely finished. It was depressing and painful to begin budgeting. All of a sudden, I was aware of where all my money was going. I got so sick of handmade sandwiches and having to say no to getting lunch at work. I cried a little when I realized how much money I was losing to interest.

In order to try and achieve my financial goals, I began to gamify my experience. I used T-mobile Tuesdays in order to get free Burger King Whoppers. I fought over mailer coupons with my roommates in order to get cheaper food. I filled out a ridiculous number of surveys to get free food. My budget tracker became my best friend as I tried to buy groceries for as cheap as possible. I started saying no to my initial impulses to buy things and I started donating any extra crap I had.

By the grace of God and many sandwiches later, I was debt free in November.

If you know me, you know that I have this habit of getting really excited about whatever I’m into at the current time.

I blasted my social media accounts with the importance of budgeting and saving and would literally try and pull in anyone that would listen. I’m sure I sounded like an MLM schemer with how aggressive my marketing of Financial Peace University was. So to everyone who I harassed, thanks for being patient with me!

Ironically, in 2021 as I was dealing with last minute trip preparations, I got a call from my old FPU instructor asking me to table lead for the spring FPU class. In the process, I wrote a handful of emails to the individuals at my table, where I shared about my experiences and did my best to encourage and affirm them.

So of course, IF YOU KNOW me, you know my life is just filled with these crazy coincidences that I call divine appointments.

Anywho, after I purchased my tickets two weeks before I was supposed to be in CDMX, I talked with the project volunteer organizer and without knowing of my experience with debt or FPU, she suggested that I talk to the girls at the safe house and transition home about….

You guessed it: personal finances.

As I presented my short presentation on budgeting yesterday, I incorporated some visuals that I hoped would help the girls remember the importance of money management. On a whim, I decided to share in broken Spanish about my own experiences con deuda.

I couldn’t help but laugh at myself a little bit as I presented. The girls’ eyes went wide when I told them about how much debt I had accrued and they asked me if I had learned my lesson.

I told them I had, and it was a great throwback to my conversation with my friend Cheyenne a few years ago about how our own struggles often give us the authority to speak on those subjects in the future.


Sin Miedo: Without Fear

In order to keep my taco weight at a minimum this time around, I had inquired with my host family about the presence of nearby parks or basketball courts. Luckily for me, Benny, the founder of el Pozo De Vida and his son Micah play basketball multiple times a week.

Basketball is a little different here. There’s the rims which seem to be a lot less bouncy. The basketball itself seems to be a tad smaller. And the play style here is a lot more pass oriented compared to the isolation heavy style on the West Coast.

One of the craziest things about basketball here is how fearless and savage the girls are.

Where I’m from, Basketball is this male dominated sport, in which seeing a girl in a pickup game is a rarity.

In the one week I’ve been here, I’ve seen girls play that can literally run circles around most of the guys here.

Three pointers? Of course.

Ball handling? I’ve seen girls keep possession while being double teamed by guys that towered over them.

Defense? SO MANY STEALS.

Driving? They’ll literally take the contact from two dudes in the lane as they euro step to the basket

HONESTLY. It’s insane.

I’m fan girling over here, but I realized something as I was matching up against them.

They attack the basket facing what many would consider to be insurmountable odds stacked against them. But even if they are nervous, they appear to be fearless.

I WISH that I had that level of fearlessness in the game of basketball and in real life…. Unintimidated by the odds or the obstacles, I aspire to that level of courage and boldness.

Unbeknownst to any of the people that I’m playing basketball with, they have been teaching me about perseverance and courage on the court and off of it.

So if you have felt like you can’t do something because you aren’t qualified or because there are too many obstacles in your way, just remember the fearlessness of these ballers and be encouraged that you too can beat the odds.


It’s only been a week, but it’s been a non stop journey of excitement and rest.

Wherever you are in life, I hope that you are encouraged by what I’m learning here in the city.

P.S. If you want to help support El Pozo De Vida and you live in the U.S. text pozo11 to 44321. Their eleventh birthday is this Thursday and we are trying to get people to donate $11 for their 11th birthday.

Welcome to the Club

Fairly recently I started speaking and writing about the less than glamorous parts of my life.

In our cancel culture, I believe this could be misconstrued as a sort of brash arrogance on speaking about my own shortcomings.

I was actually inspired, to begin peeling away the filters I put over myself on social media, by a lyric that Andy Mineo wrote.

In his track “Honest 2 God,” Andy pens the line:

“We post pictures of the party, but not the ones throwing up at the end”

A common theme in Andy’s work is the importance of authenticity and honesty in one’s day to day life.


As a young person growing up within the context of homeschooling and church, I always believed that I either had to have all my shit together or admit that I was a failure.

There was no space for mistakes, and character flaws were promptly punished and behavior modifications were constantly being applied.

I learned the “correct” things to say, the appropriate behavior to engage in, and the activities to avoid.

From the outside, I was mild mannered and well behaved. Internally though, and to those closest to me, I was a powder keg waiting to explode.


I had a conversation with Imon the other day about how we define trauma and how we can trace the effects of our past trauma to today. We spoke candidly about how some of us have “relatively” less traumatic lives.

It was in this conversation that I was reminded of a conversation that I had with Crystal. In that conversation, we were discussing how it is important for us to validate our own emotions and frustration as we process through our pain.

To anyone who goes to therapy, we know that self validation is the bread and butter that leads to growth and healing, but to an outsider, self-validation seems inherently selfish.

We play the comparison game and we sympathize and pity those with “greater” trauma.

In reality, self-validation does not exalt your struggles over the struggles of others. In fact, self-validation just gives you permission to feel how you feel and to heal what has been broken.

When we give ourselves permission to be angry, sad, hopeful, anxious, frustrated, excited, happy, etc., we acknowledge that we are human and that we are worthy of love and acceptance even amidst the less than glamorous facets of our personalities.


The last year has been a whirlwind of activity.

I went from thinking I was going to travel a whole bunch more and perhaps move to Mexico City to facing the harsh reality of the quarantine.

Despite the change of plan, the year was incredibly eventful.

From a random email response from Andy Mineo regarding perfectionism and creativity, to a surprise video project where I had to learn Adobe Premiere. There was also the random video interview I did with Fight the New Drug talking about my journey over the last few years. As I was dealing with the mental and emotional effects of detoxing from porn, I was in a class where I was learning how to get out of debt and save. I was hitting up friends to do “No Porn November” with me while learning how to cope in more sustainable and healthy ways. I was invited onto the Clubhouse app, and found other anti human trafficking advocates who I shared my story with and I got invited onto a podcast and was asked to share my experiences with a lady’s thirteen year old son.

On the flip side: I had a handful of mental breakdowns last year and relied heavily on Imon to take detox trips with me into nature to calm the heck down. I struggled with anxiety as the covid crisis rose to a fever pitch and AAPI were targeted and treated with aggression. I had several bouts of depression as the institution of church abused its power and asserted that man knew what God’s will was. I went on a porn bender after the quarantine initially started and I struggled to put the bottle of alcohol down.

Amidst all the amazing things that were happening, I felt trapped and stuck. I didn’t feel like I was moving the needle and I didn’t feel like I was where I was supposed to be.

So I did the only thing I really knew how to do and I just started writing about everything I was feeling.


I went from only talking about porn with my therapist and closest friends to blogging about it and then going full blast advocating against it.

An addiction that was a source of shame and guilt for years started dissolving once I began talking about it.

I started addressing depression, anxiety, doubt, frustration, therapy, and my various addictions and vices in my blogs.

The churchboy facade started fracturing and I became less compartamentalized. Strangely enough, as I questioned the motives and actions of the church, I felt God nudging me to continue to deconstruct further.

As I wrestled with the church’s inaction and silence on matters that I thought needed to be discussed, I felt led to speak into those areas where there was only deafening silence.

My friend Cheyenne in Mexico City encouraged me that “Our greatest weaknesses are often what God uses… our struggles give us authority”


Clubhouse is an app that allows users to basically host Ted Talks on any issue they desire.

Rooms range from discussions with Elon Musk, to mental health, and everything in between.

When I got on the app in February, I quickly was serendipitously connected with anti- human trafficking advocates, mental health advocates, creatives, and old friends in far off places.

The free form nature of the rooms I joined quickly revealed to me, that what I had believed to be unique stories and experiences for myself were in fact the stories and experiences of many.

Rarely have I felt so validated by complete strangers, but with little to no space to customize one’s profile, users were forced to simply rely on their stories and anecdotes to paint a picture of who they were. And for people who were looking to connect with organizations and individuals doing specific work in specific areas, Clubhouse provided a unique opportunity.


It was on this app that I met Victoria who runs a safehouse and a podcast for human trafficking survivors. As I shared my FTND interview experience and my desire to get more involved in the anti human trafficking and anti porn space, she was quick to validate and affirm me while thanking me for sharing. I distinctly remember her being a fiery advocate in her defense of survivors that were vulnerably sharing their experiences on Clubhouse. While some white and more privileged moderators steamrolled the stories of survivors, she made sure to affirm and give space to everyone who shared.

She was gracious enough to host me on her podcast and she is doing incredible work representing POC’s in the anti human trafficking space while also giving POC’s the space to share without taking advantage of their stories to push a hidden agenda.

Be sure to check out her podcast at this link and support her work if you feel led to do so!


In conclusion:

We often hide the ugliest parts of ourselves for fear of rejection.

When we hit rock bottom, often we feel alone and isolated and we believe the lie that we are the only ones to have gone through this.

Tobymac in his track “Stories,” models the song after a roundtable discussion in which people are sharing the shit they go through. One of the lines goes:

I’ve been there too

When everything falls apart and the best you can do is

Get through each day wonderin’ will this never end?

Is it always going to be this way?

And the greatest lie you’ve ever been told is that

You’re the only one to ever walk on this road

And that you’ll never see the light of dawn, so we came together to say

Hold on

Cause we’ve been there and found our way home

I promise you that you’re not on your own

One day this will pass, God will see us all through

God will see us all through, God will see us all pass through

What if the ugliest parts of your story need to see the light of day in order for you to heal?

And what if, your struggle and your pain and the isolation you felt when you went through hell was a nudge for you to provide encouragement to someone who is going through that now?

What if we posted not only the birthday parties, and the concerts, and the trip highlights?

What if we were honest about our trauma?

Our broken families.

Our broken hearts.

Our addictions that threaten to derail our lives.

Our doubts.

Our fears.

Our illnesses.

Our dysfunctionality.

Our brokenness.

What if when someone was honest about what was really going on in their lives we could answer with “I see you and I feel you. Welcome to the club”

Caseless

The other day, I saw a video ad for the purple iPhone 12.

I turned to my friend and I said, “Wait, hasn’t the 12 been out for a while now?”

He said, “I think so? But this is probably a new color.”

I just remember thinking to myself that it was hilarious because you can’t even tell what color most people’s phones are because everyone has a case on their phone.

I laughed and forgot about the whole thing within minutes.


I’ve cracked the screen on probably half of the phones I’ve ever had.

Ironically, most of the time, the falls were not glorious plunges off of mountains or from the tumultuous loops of a roller coaster.

One time, it fell from my lap in the car to the pavement. Another time, it fell from the counter onto the ground at work. Or my personal favorite: when the pop socket snagged on my pants and the phone flipped out of my pocket to land screen first onto the floor.

I used to buy the Lifeproof cases at the same time I got my phone just to make sure my phone would be safe from damage. Every phone salesman always pulls out the screen protectors and cases even before you’ve decided on your storage space and color options.

“Well you’ll definitely want to get a case with that. Did you want to get AppleCare today? We also have our own insurance plan which I personally think is wayyy better”

It’s great that they are looking out for us and our quite significant investment. But it does seem a little weird that we care so much about the protection of our phones.


I mean think about it, sometimes we get the limited edition red iPhone, but…. do we get to enjoy that special edition color?

Yes, for two seconds when we lift it out of the box, and then we swiftly hand it to the trained professional to apply a screen protector and a bulky case to protect our precious little baby.

Within that case, our phone becomes bulkier in our hands, and I would argue that we drop them more because of that. But ultimately, it remains safe… right?

Dust and scratches might collect on the lens, but our phone stays pristine within that case.

Sure, the phone might be so bloated with data and “iOS software” in a few years that it’s unusable, but at least we never cracked the screen..


While driving the other day, I thought back to when I decided to forget about the case and just use my phone as it was intended.

I found it to be expensive to buy a durable case, but more importantly I found it to be impractical. I found that I was dropping the phone more often than I would without the case, and I found the overall usage of the phone to be better when I went caseless.

I could more easily access the camera, the screen was more responsive, and lowering and raising the volume, as well as muting the phone was so much easier without a case.

There was a fear that came with dropping the unprotected phone, but I almost found that I was more careful with the added danger.


Was that not the longest metaphor of your life?

How often do we disguise who we truly are for fear of being dropped and damaged by those around us?

We wear these bulky cases and change what we appear to be in order to protect ourselves from damage.

We don’t live life to the fullest and we aren’t our true selves, but at least we know that we won’t ever be damaged beyond repair.

The extra barriers might make us clunkier, and maybe we miss out on things in life because we can’t open our camera apps fast enough. How much do we muffle our voices with the protective cases we wear?

And really… were we designed to exist within these cases?


As I drove, I realized that the designers at apple probably did not intend for the phones to be put into cases.

When they design the phones (I mean the iPhone really hasn’t changed all that much but just stick with me for a sec), do the engineers design the phones to be in cases? Are they made to be contained?

Without the phones, there can be no market for cases and so the genus business model of a necessity for cases was a brilliant sales tactic from the makers of Lifeproof and Otterbox..

But think about it:

Everything from the volume of the phone, the weight of the phone, the feel in your hand, the color of the phone, the responsiveness of the screen, it is all designed for the user to interact directly with the phone.

But so many of us can’t imagine our phones without their cases.


Safety is important to all of us and I’m not saying throw caution to the wind and just remove your life proof cases. I also don’t accept any liability for any damaged phones that may become damaged due to ideation caused by this post… however, I do ask you as the reader to consider this:

How have you changed your identity and your persona to protect yourself?

Are these changes simply aesthetic… or perhaps are you only a shell of who you could be?

So often we allow the fear of danger to dictate our actions and the trajectories of our lives.

We choose what we consider to be safety, even though in the end, we all end up as useless iPhones with too much bloatware on them.

Sure we might be “safe,” but do we lose who we truly are in the process?

And for you, is that a tradeoff you are willing to make?

The world would be infinitely more colorful if more of us chose to go case less.

Openhanded Victories

Dad always plays Settlers of Catan with an open hand. At any point in the game, we can all see his resource cards. When we play our knights or shift the robber, he lets us take whatever card we want.

When I first played Catan with him, I sneered at his lax playing style and determined that I was going to win this game.

“He’s not going to fool me into letting my guard down,” I thought to myself.

The crazy thing?

Dad wins quite often at Settlers of Catan.

While the rest of us play politics and cut the shrewdest bargains, Dad politely asks for resource trades while having all his resources face up….

And he still wins about half the time.


My Dad has taught me many things throughout my life. Many traits to model, and many to avoid.

But with his Catan playstyle, he has arguably the most fun out of all of us. He’s just having a good time spending time with his family. Victory is a nice bonus for him, but the real treat is just spending time together.

AND YET HE STILL WINS TIME AFTER TIME.


For a long time, I’ve lived my life in constant fear of “losing.”

As a child, one time as we exited the freeway, I asked my Dad, “Which car wins the race?”

My Dad asked some clarifying questions, and verified that I was referring to the cars that just exited alongside us.

“No one wins the race Paul, because there is no race. People are just driving.”

“But who wins?!” I protested.


It’s such a funny and seemingly pointless story, but it perfectly encapsulates my years long outlook on life.

I don’t have time to smell the flowers..

I never appreciate the season I’m in and I’m always thinking about the next.

If I’m not thinking about the next season, then I’m agonizing about the last few seasons.

What could I have done better?

What should I have said instead?

It it’s a good time that I’m having, how can I replicate this in the future?

It’s exhausting and it’s sad, because you don’t really appreciate the good ol days until they are a story about the good ol days.


There’s something so deep about my Dad showing how many sheep, ore, wheat, brick, and wood he has. His actions imply that he has surrendered keeping his intentions secret, in order to more enjoy the time he is spending with his family.

He finds that the family time is more valuable than winning and in doing so almost asks all of us: Was the game created to be won, or to connect us?

And so I turn and I ask you: Is life a race to be won with competitors to be beaten?

Or is it a journey where the connections and being present are what make it unforgettable?

Because my Dad plays to connect with us….

But he still ends up winning.

Canceled

I spent most of my time as a 27 year old having a quarter life crisis yet again.

With a pandemic, an election, and surprises at every turn, 2020 turned out to be quite the effective vision test.

As I questioned both the institutions that I grew up in and the mentors that inspired me as a young person, as they reacted to (or failed to react to) spikes in anti-asian hate crimes, it was as if the very foundation upon which many of my core beliefs were built upon, came into question.

As people, we idolize those we look up to. When they support causes we approve of we praise them. Alternatively, when people say something we disagree with, we are quick to crucify them.

This phenomenon has been referred to as “cancel culture,” and as I’ve thought about this concept, I’ve struggled to find my own bearings on the matter.


As a young person growing up in the church, we were taught at a young age that idolatry was bad.

We were told that money and celebrities were not meant to be worshipped or idolized.

Ironically , we were just as guilty of idolizing theologians, artists, and money as the “other” that most sermons were about.

In church, we really like broad sweeping generalizations, because it helps us to categorize things. We talk about “sin” as if it is just a list of behaviors that we aren’t partaking in and we choose which Bible passages to take literally and which ones have “varying interpretations.”

This sliding scale of morality and religious superiority is one of the most troubling aspects of religion in general: we see the flaws and shortcomings of those around us, but we overlook our own fallibility.

Now while I had grown accustomed to seeing this kind of behavior inside the church, I was surprised to see this level of hypocrisy outside of the church walls.

As I pondered cancel culture, I realized that this sliding scale of religious morality stemmed from a similar place.


In past years, I’ve become increasingly vocal about causes I’m passionate about while also being a little too honest about my own struggles and vices.

For the longest time, I tried to keep my personal struggles under wraps in order to protect my reputation. Besides, telling people about my struggles seemed like a surefire way to be written off as a failure.

Maybe five years ago, I began to tell my inner circle about my misdeeds. It was comforting to know that even though they might not condone my behavior, that they still saw me as someone who was worthy of being their friend.

As time passed, I realized that so much of my own growth took place in the midst of me dealing with the messier parts of life.

In fact, it was my personal depressive and suicidal seasons that taught me how to be present with those who were struggling through those same seasons. It was my own unfaithfulness that gave me the grace to extend to those in similar situations. It was my own deconstruction of faith that gave me the ability to empathize with those who had experienced hurt at the hands of the church.

My blogs up to this point had tried to simplify universal truths and combine what I had learned with anecdotes. I tried to promote positivity but I definitely wrote about vices in a very vague and very personally removed fashion.

As my own therapy began to increase in frequency, I began to sneak my own vices into my writing. I tried to shed the vagueness that I grew up with in church and I started trying to write about life as it is as opposed to how it should have been.


It was terrifying when I started, but with each blog I began to get a clearer picture of what my goal was.

As third generation Chinese-American growing up in the valley, I have always been confused about who I am. I was homeschooled until high school and when it was time for me to start high school, my family relocated to a completely different city. I tried to find meaning in religion for such a long time, but the institutions were cracked and tarnished with financial mishaps and affairs… it felt irresponsible to cling to an ideology that openly condemned certain sexuality choices while rampant and out of control sexual misconduct cases were a dime a dozen in church..

As puberty hit and the pre-college grind began, I struggled with emotional and mental health. I quickly found unhealthy coping mechanisms that prevented me from having to process and healthily deal with my disappointment and fear. After a few years in college, I reeled from the failure of dropping out of the school of engineering and switching majors. Not long after I graduated I struggled through being laid off, working a shitty temp job, and just being relatively clueless about my direction and my place in life.

I say these things not to evoke pity, but more so to communicate the fact that most of my life has been me wishing to be seen and heard while not feeling like either of those needs was being met.

Our culture is fixated on the illusion of looking successful and so nothing is really ever wrong. We are told that no one has time to listen to the hard shit in our lives and so we struggle alone while only the really fucked up people go to rehab, therapy, and AA meetings.

You take this stigma towards human problems and you magnify it at a societal level and boom, cancel culture is born.


When I was in high school, my aunt and mother were super into these TLC shows. The dysfunctionality in Jon and Kate Plus 8 was so obvious from day one and I remember not understanding why this was entertaining to anyone. I felt like I was watching and participating in the undermining of this marriage…

Somehow, we find comfort in labeling other people as more fucked up than we are. Yeah we might have some addictions or some other issues but good lord we definitely weren’t as bad as those other people...

As I processed having all my dirty laundry on display for everyone to see, I realized that my ability to antagonize the “other” decreased substantially. My conversation responses began to veer away from “you should do this” or “you better be careful and not do this.” I began to listen more actively while devoting more energy to empathizing and affirming rather than preaching at people from my moral high horse.

I found my relationships with people deepening the more honest I was with them about the real day to day shit. I realized concurrently, that I had a lot more in common with everyone than I had initially thought.

It was hard to believe that I had spent so much time lying about who I was when the best conversations I ever had were literally about the taboo and stigmatized topics.


The fact of the matter, is if we were all under surveillance 24/7, we would all be canceled.

We have all said terrible things.

On top of this we have all done terrible things.

I mean just imagine if someone taped you being an ass to that service worker.

Or imagine if someone dug up that archived ig post.

Better yet, imagine strangers sitting at your dinner table listening to all your off color comments.

Takes a little bit of the self-righteous wind out of our sails doesn’t it?


And that’s just the thing, just because we are flawed and make mistakes doesn’t mean that nothing we ever say is valid. And just like that rule applies to us, it applies to everyone else as well.

Cancel culture asserts that people should be judged by their most regrettable moments and comments, but I challenge you to look within and realize that if we were personally judged by the dumbest things we ever did or said, we would all be ostracized.


The hardest part of processing cancel culture for me was the role of accountability.

Growing up in church, oftentimes the phrase “we’re all human and fall short” was the solution band-aid that was slapped on every shady thing that happened. Oftentimes nothing would change, but that phrase would be used as a cover up and explain-away.

I think it’s really important for us as individuals and as a collective group to demand investigation and changes to institutions that foster environments in which harmful behavior is rampant. It’s incredibly uncomfortable and it is difficult work, but it’s how we can move forward while changing the spheres that we exist in.

This starts with us, because we need to be aware of our own vices and growth points. This self-awareness gives us the necessary empathy to call out people in love rather than choosing to just decry and cancel them.

We speak and act differently when we can see our own fallibility and I think there is so much power in that self-awareness.


The Bible said it best:

“How can you say to your neighbor ‘look at the splinter in your eye’ when you yourself have a plank in your eye? Shouldn’t you remove the plank from your own eye first?”

The problem always has been us.

So let’s stop trying to smokescreen by highlighting the flaws of others and instead work on addressing our own growth points.