Don’t Be So Traumatic

I have two friends: one grew up in a loving, wealthy family with all the opportunities in the world. Another is the son of a serial killer. Which one of these people do you think is “traumatized?” You probably guessed wrong.

Folks can wear their trauma as a shield of armor, a black shroud, a monster mask, a clown costume, a skydiving parachute, or a three-piece business suit. We’ve all got dreadful experiences burrowed into our subconscious. The memories can be triggered by a person’s name, the sound of fireworks, or the smell of a house. Our response varies by how much time has passed and how well we’ve processed our anguish. The recollections can feel like a boiling cauldron, a punch in the gut, or a small cattail in the sock, especially after some time has passed.

We don’t have to be defined by the worst things that have happened to us

America’s Gen Z is our most emotionally expressive generation. They are fluent in setting personal boundaries and continually take stock of their mental health in a way that can feel foreign to older people trained in the ancient School of Suck-it-Up. One of my friends who owns a cannabis company shared that many of her younger employees routinely take days off because they feel “emotionally unprepared” to work. Adolescents speak of “abuse” when they are beset by requests to do simple chores or finish their homework. College students have refused to read books with specific “triggering” language or scenarios. #Traumatok—TikTok’s public forum for trauma-dumping with nearly 420,000 posts—reconstitutes many normal behaviors (e.g., thinking about one’s mortality, overachieving, mindless screen-scrolling) as “trauma responses.”

Look: we should all be grateful that sharing one’s emotions is more common today than in the past—it’s healthy and healing to realize others experience common feelings. I also recognize that there are unique challenges in our time. We’re highly divided as a nation and still processing the collective heartache of the Covid-19 pandemic. Prices are rising for kitchen staples, healthcare, housing, and education. Our government is providing weapons and billions of dollars to Israel that are being used to slaughter Palestinian women and children. Global warming continues to accelerate. Just reading this paragraph makes my blood pressure rise, and yet…

There’s always been scary shit happening in the world. The Great Depression, two World Wars, the threat of nuclear destruction, and the Vietnam draft were all causes for widespread distress. Did earlier generations complain about how much harder everything was for them than their predecessors? I wasn’t there, but I doubt those folks were “triggered” by words in a book or missed work due to being “emotionally unprepared.”

Rather than recognizing with gratitude one’s privileges, many young people are too busy counting everyone else’s blessings through the filters of TikTok or Instagram. There’s a widespread lack of resilience and preparedness for adulthood among teenagers and twenty-somethings. I wonder what role the constant navel-gazing of trauma has played. Why do so many people these days seem to crave feeling damaged, victimized, or oppressed?

The word “trauma” has been overused in recent years, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, which wreaked havoc on our schools and society. I can’t be the arbiter of what anyone else considers to be traumatic, but a tendency to dwell in the worst parts of one’s past can be paralyzing or maladaptive. Engaging in the Martyr Olympics through trauma-dumping can be a total buzzkill in social situations. It might be one of the reasons young people are having less sex.

There have always been forces beyond our control, and there’s only so much we can do to exist happily among so much uncertainty. Life’s routine challenges, such as divorce, imperfect parents, and academic achievement, have created scores of “broken” people. We forget that in the past few centuries, life has improved considerably. Our life expectancies have doubled; infant and maternal mortality have decreased precipitously; far fewer people die violent, agonized deaths in conflict or ravaged by disease; opportunities for education, healthcare, and economic mobility are much more widespread. Almost every realm of life has improved by objective measures. Better isn’t perfect, but it’s still noteworthy.

An individual’s response to violence or tragedy is a choice, at least after one has developed enough knowledge of the world and the self to endure life’s constant churn of crises.

There’s one person I know who’s done this better than anyone: a dear friend of my family, Russ Boston. He was dating my mom for a few years in the 90s and continues to be an important presence in my life. He’s spoken openly about growing up the son of serial killer Silas Boston. After Silas murdered Russ’s mother (which he didn’t find out until later), 12-year-old Russ witnessed the killing of two British tourists in Belize and had his life threatened by his own father. He suffered abuse and was in and out of foster homes. Despite these horrible experiences, he grew into one of the most thoughtful, intelligent people I know. 

When I was a child, Russ always told me, “You’re given life, and everything else is a gift.” He constantly reminded me, “We’ll all be worm food someday,” and encouraged me to seize every moment and be grateful. He always picked up the phone when I was going through any relationship difficulties or breakups, listened patiently, and helped me maintain proper perspective in the face of my mundane problems. 

I wish everyone had a Russ in their lives. He’s taught me so much about staying resilient, kind, and curious no matter what life throws at me. When an incredible person like him can emerge from the most dire, violent circumstances, there’s hope for the rest of us. 

Perhaps part of our pain is the plague of loneliness in American society. We need to increase the volume and duration of our brokenness to feel heard or cared for by others who are consumed by their own struggles. But we don’t have to feel like victims. No matter who or what has injured us, the best revenge is living well and caring for each other.

Addiction: As American as 50 Apple Pies

My first day back in the U.S., a man collapsed on the sidewalk across the street. He’d fallen so suddenly onto his back that his stained sneaker slid into the shoulder of busy W. 11th Street. A ragtag group surrounded the man, laying down their heavy backpacks and tying up their barking dogs. A woman stopped her truck in traffic, dodged several cars, and began to administer chest compressions. The smoke shop clerk threw open his door and unwrapped a canister of NARCAN nasal spray. He did this with a calmness indicating it wasn’t the first overdose he’d witnessed on that corner, or his second, or his third. His face announced that it was another day in America. 

Mural in Coyoacán, CDMX (2023)

With that man on the ground, not breathing, sirens roaring in the distance, I froze with tears dripping onto my collar. I was jolted by the contrast of where I’d been 24 hours earlier: sunny, colorful, jubilant. I had just returned after six weeks on my “Sabaticán”—the annual trip I take to Mexico to escape late winter in Eugene, Oregon. Our southern neighbor has plenty of problems, but widespread drug overdoses aren’t among them. The scale of these human tragedies is unique to the U.S., particularly among countries as rich as ours.

Preventable drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed in recent years. In 2019, 62,172 folks died, compared to 100,105 in 2022—a staggering 797 percent increase since 1999. Opiates such as fentanyl account for the vast majority.

I was an addiction specialist at a methadone clinic in San Francisco from 2010 to 2012. Working in addiction broke me—I was too wet behind the ears to realize that my 50 clients wouldn’t benefit from our underfunded clinic’s treatment model or from my experiences. Some of them openly mocked my “fancy degrees” and accorded more respect to the counselors who’d actually struggled with heroin and gotten clean. I get it. In their shoes, I wouldn’t have wanted to hear a damn word from me either. What the hell did I really know about opiates that didn’t come from a book?

More than a decade later, I’ve realized something about American addiction. Sure, it’s related to the easy availability of everything we could desire—food, drugs, gambling, shopping, video games, etc. But why do so many Americans become addicted to anything in the first place? It’s because we suffer from being lonely, status-driven, and fearful of losing what little we have. The social and economic stresses in the U.S.—especially the exorbitant costs of shelter, education, and healthcare—have devastated people. That pressure breeds an addiction to food, alcohol, drugs, consumerism, and easy entertainment. Without the embrace of a community and a guarantee of what our people need, we’ll continue to withdraw and die by our own hands. 

Mexico, by contrast, has strong communities and families, less emphasis on “what someone does” for work, and a constitutional guarantee to healthcare. There, drug overdoses and homelessness are virtually non-existent. 

Further, in our hyper-individualistic country, when someone fails, there is no social safety net to catch them, and we blame the person’s internal nature. Addiction is viewed as a personal failing that elicits little empathy. Instead, it should be considered a sociocultural disease. It’s distressing that our working and middle classes are one medical emergency away from financial ruin while our richest families accumulate obscene fortunes rather than sweating it out like the rest of us.

We should be sharpening our pitchforks at the injustice of it all, but we get dazzled by cheap technology and easy entertainment. We are each a community of one—and how can one person raise a sword or a pen against the tidal wave of a callous culture, wealth inequality, and crumbling public investments? Without the tools of widespread high-quality education, healthcare, infrastructure, childcare, eldercare, housing, and public trust, we’re left to turn inward to our addictions. The luckiest among us stare at a phone screen for several hours a day—the not-so-lucky collapse on public sidewalks.

That man did live, by the way. I believe that the woman who stopped her truck in traffic saved his life and gave him the heartbeats he needed while the NARCAN took effect. There are good people everywhere—folks who, on instinct, would dodge traffic to give an unkempt, unresponsive man chest compressions. 

But better than counting on heroes like her, we need to shift as a people toward more compassionate, communitarian values in our culture, government, and institutions. Individualism does not make sense for an inherently social species; our “everyone for themselves” ethos is the disease. Without this realignment, we’ll continue to witness Americans dying as we go about the individual business of keeping our own heads barely above water.

Our Highest Caliber Problem

It’s only a matter of time. Will it happen today? Tomorrow? Our short fuse is burning, and another American school, church, grocery store, or concert is going to explode, devastating a community.

Seen at a community center in Thayne, WY

Gun violence has affected me personally. My grandfather killed himself in 2003—the most common cause of gun-related deaths. One of my former coworkers from the Bay Area was shot and hospitalized. And the only time I did ecstasy, two men were killed in the San Francisco club I was at; the DJ’s bass was so loud that we only knew because of the throngs of people backing up from the bodies until the police arrived and interviewed everyone on the premises. 

I’ve also been shot at in Eugene, an incident that prompted me to write an informal will. Jon and I were walking home on the Amazon Trail late one night, a protected pedestrian and bike path that runs along a creek through athletic fields and park space. We were nearly home when we heard two booming cracks—it was so random and out of character for this city that until the next day, I’d insisted that the muzzle flash was fireworks. Sure enough, our neighbors had a bullet go through their bathroom window in the incident, confirming that someone was aiming at us.

My stories aren’t unique in this country—I suspect that most folks’ lives have been shaped by homegrown gun violence in one way or another. Several times a year, The Onion promotes its quintessentially American article: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Many people from other countries consider this a dangerous nation and couldn’t imagine sending their children to schools where shooter drills and bulletproof backpacks have been commonplace.

Although violent crime was more prevalent through the 70s and 80s, the Columbine Massacre in 1999 ignited a trend: men started slaughtering Americans in crowded places. Instead of taking action, “pro-life” congressmen and organizations such as the National Rifle Association circled their wagons and reaffirmed their constitutional right to bear arms—an amendment written when loading one bullet into a gun was a total pain in the ass.

Killers’ manifestos and court testimonies lack a common theme: some are xenophobic or misogynist, while others are purely delusional. Mental health experts pore over murderers’ upbringing and beliefs, and the media’s hot takes are often appallingly racist: white killers suffer from psychiatric issues while Black killers are evil.

This uniquely American problem has a simple solution—banning all assault weapons—but our elected leaders lack the courage to enact it. Many of them have been bought off by the NRA and weapons manufacturers or see themselves as “patriots”—their shorthand for absolute gun rights supporters. They don’t care that guns are the leading cause of death among our children. They don’t care about the hypocrisy of their “pro-life” extremism that condemns pregnant women to die. They don’t care that students are protesting across the country, and a majority of Americans support gun regulations. They dig in their heels and reissue their hackneyed “Thoughts & Prayers” across social media when the inevitable occurs, week after week.

Aldous Huxley wrote, “Propaganda…offers false, garbled, or incomplete evidence, avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign or domestic scapegoats, and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals, so that the atrocities come to be perpetuated in the name of God.” 

This was written in 1958, but it feels fresh in light of today’s Republican Party. The right-wing propaganda insists that Democrats want to take away all their guns, which is false. It’s a specific type of gun that should not be in civilian hands, no matter how manly it makes them feel. It’s the same damn gun used in most mass shootings: the AR-15

There’s also a specific type of person who shouldn’t be allowed to own guns: those convicted of domestic violence. Two-thirds of mass shooters have a history of beating women and related crimes. For a group so obsessed with curbing violent crime and “protecting life,” why can’t conservatives see that assault weapons and domestic abusers are the problem? 

Progressives have called for a commonsense gun buyback program similar to one enacted in Australia after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre that killed 35 people. In the years since their gun deaths have dropped precipitously. Further, states such as Oregon have closed the “Boyfriend Loophole,” which makes it more difficult for those with violent pasts to buy or own guns. But without a nationwide adoption of these policies, we’re still seeing spikes in gun deaths.

There’s no logic to the arguments of gun rights absolutists because they’re not thinking—they’re feeling. Their emotions surrounding their identity and security are threatened, and conservative leaders are happy to manipulate this fear to seize more power.

I wish I had solutions to extinguish the rift between Americans on this issue, but when data fails to sway our leaders and conservative voters, we sit and await the next tragedy in the cycle. 

“A High Tolerance for Harmless Weirdnesses”

My friend Sooz has an expression that perfectly encapsulates Eugene, Oregon: it has “a high tolerance for harmless weirdnesses.” This city actually encourages eccentricity, and that’s one of my favorite things about it.

Consider our annual S.L.U.G. Queen contest: since 1983, the Society for the Legitimization of the Ubiquitous Gastropod has chosen an unofficial goodwill ambassador who “rains” in the spirit of environmentalism, free thought, creativity, and counterculture. They don fabulous costumes and volunteer in the community, planting trees, reading to children, organizing events, and engaging in other ceremonial responsibilities. They have names such as Scarlett O’Slimera, Marie Slugtoinette, Eugenia Slimesworth,  Slimebledore, and Bruce.

Eugene is full of unusual haircuts, tattoos, and sartorial choices. People’s style runs the range: goth, Harajuku, hand-sewn, Patagonia chic, van-dweller,  RPG costuming, Mennonite pioneer, daytime pajamas, grunge, preppy, and hippie camouflage (i.e., tie-dye). It rains constantly, but you can always tell the out-of-towners: they’re the ones with the umbrellas.

Oregon Country Fair (2023)

Sure, it’s got the unique features of other cities, such as goat yoga, amateur improv, weed snobs, astrologers, crystal enthusiasts, naked bike rides, multiple ultimate frisbee programs, Star Trek Live Theater, and a healthy appetite for hallucinogenics, but this town is extra. We have human foosball, the PSILO Temple (for mushroom trips), nude river beaches, Ferret Agility Trials, and several of the original Merry Pranksters. I once saw a person walking downtown in a full suit of armor in spring—perhaps to ward off the metric tons of pollen that flood this verdant valley from the “Grass Seed Capital of the World.” A Eugenian even crafted the world’s largest rubber band ball—175,000 in total, with sponsorship from Office Max.

Have you ever heard of Irish hurling? Yeah, we have a team for that, too. The Willamette Valley Nomads Hurling Club is one of 11 teams in the northwest. I’ve watched several videos of this sport, which involves players passing, carrying, hitting, or bouncing a small ball across a pitch almost twice as large as a soccer field. Envision lacrosse players bouncing the ball on their scoop-shaped sticks (hurleys) if they ran more than four steps. The rules are still an enigma to me—just when you think you understand what’s going on, a dude kicks the sliotar (the small leather ball) as far as he can—but I love that Irish hurling enthusiasts can call Eugene home.

It’s also legal for women to go topless here, one of a handful of American cities with these protections. Relatedly, this town is one of the most sexually and gender-diverse places in the world. Trans, non-binary, queer, gender void, gender flux, polygender, novigender, xenogender—everything on, off, and around the spectrum of gender identity is represented here and typically welcomed. Among my friends, I count throuples, swingers, polycules, and ethically non-monogamous folks. We may lack racial and political diversity, but we humbly boast an incredible range of ways to relate to one another: the funky gamut of humankind we embrace.

For those itching to taste this anything-goes society, the Oregon Country Fair is the veritable Mecca of Weird. I’ve written about this radically inclusive annual festival—the amplification of the spirit that made my partner and I choose to move here. It’s experimental, pagan, vibrant, and wild, feeling ancient and futuristic all at once. The masks we all wear to fit into society come down in a cloud of eco-friendly glitter, and people’s better nature often shines through.

I wish all communities had more respect for innocuous differences—too many places try to legislate and enforce what they consider “normal,” and it makes everyone miserable and lonely in the process. Cruelty is considered free speech; violence is seen as a means to stealing political power; and Americans everywhere feel divided and victimized. 

Imagine a country where differences weren’t pathologized but were treated with respectful curiosity and humanity, where love outweighs hate and fear. Eugene, at its best, is a microcosm of this, cultivating these harmless weirdnesses that live within us all.

The Masculine Mystique Still at Large in America

“This is a generation that is living increasingly without purpose or place, without meaning, without direction….It is the calamity of our age that so few men feel a sense of purpose anymore!”

Josh Hawley, Conservative Blowhard  

While I usually write about the pernicious effects of sexism and racism, it’s clear that American men are facing their own crisis—and we’re all suffering for it. 

Before I begin, please note that this does not detract from the real oppression of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. The scourges of the patriarchy, white supremacy, and homophobia still run rampant in this country. I’ve just usually overlooked the related difficulties modern men face.

Seen in New Orleans (2015)

I recently finished a book called Of Boys and Men by Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and president of the American Institute for Boys and Men. He examined how men are falling behind academically, professionally, and socially in our country. 

The bottom line was this: women’s opportunities, expected roles, and accomplishments have expanded in the past few decades while many men have been left feeling redundant, rudderless, and lonely. In a world where women are assuming leadership not only in the traditional domestic sphere but also in higher education and breadwinning, many straight men are left wondering where these changes leave them.

Men still hold the vast majority of the world’s wealth and power—in 2020, there were more male CEOs in the S&P 500 named Michael or James than there were total female CEOs—but there are some foreboding signs for history’s dominant sex:

  • Men in the U.S. are roughly four times as likely to commit suicide as women
  • The life expectancy gap between men and women ballooned from 4.8 years in 2010 to 5.8 years in 2021—this has been attributed to higher rates of Covid and drug overdose fatalities
  • Forty-six percent of women ages 25 to 34 hold bachelor’s degrees, while only 36 percent of men do
  • Young men are more likely to live with their parents than young women
  • Fifteen percent of men say they have “no close friends”

Let’s step into a young man’s shoes: it can’t be easy to feel that you’re blamed for all of society’s ills. Sure, straight white men have made the world go tits up, burying us in wars, colonialism, predatory capitalism, religious fundamentalism, mass shootings, and other absolute fuckwittage. 

But we aren’t getting anywhere by finger-wagging at one generalized group—the backlash to our anti-sexist (and anti-racist) backlash is only deepening the divides. I believe white men are misled in referring to “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism,” but we should examine the kernels of injustice in our treatment of historical oppressors.

Censuring white men and boys for everything pushes many of them into extremism—the success of men like pseudo-academic lobster-lover Jordan Peterson and arrogant douche-nozzle Andrew Tate isn’t a coincidence. They appeal to young men who have been shoved to the fringes by our collective blame, not to mention the enchanting algorithms of profit-hungry tech companies that ignite our baser instincts and grievances.

If I’m casting aspersions at men and blaming everything on them, what about the loving, nurturing blokes just trying to get by? Or the boys who are still learning what it means to be man? 

Many lost men reflexively blame women or people of color for losing their assumed status as leaders and providers. They feel demonized for “being men,” and although many wouldn’t admit it, they’re lonely as fuck.

Reeves admonishes the Left and the Right for their misguided assessments of this situation: the Left hasn’t been sensitive to the unique challenges men and boys face amidst so much rapid social change, and the Right simply wants to return to traditional patriarchy. I agree with Reeves on this: men and women are different, and our institutions and culture need to learn to support the unique needs of folks no matter who they are. We can recognize differences without pathologizing them.

Think about how Americans frame masculinity and femininity. Even in my equity-minded gut, I’d find it absurd to seek out role models for “femininity.” Being feminine isn’t fundamental to my identity—in fact, the term “femininity” has overtones of submissiveness, sexualization, and self-objectification. It feels like an agenda pushed by conservatives who want to maintain traditional gender roles. To be feminine in this country is to be gawked at, belittled, ignored, gaslighted, or disparaged. Just ask a “feminine” man.

But there’s another side of femininity that should be more widely respected and emulated: vulnerability, empathy, collaboration, compassion, and nurturing are fundamental to humanity and ideals to which I aspire. 

That said, compared to women’s mixed relationship with feminine ideals, masculinity still feels central to the way most cis-gendered American men perceive themselves. Further, men are more inclined to listen to other men (rather than women) and to care about their opinions. Denying that men feel this way isn’t helpful. 

One of the problems is that women have fought hard for their novel opportunities in school and work, while men haven’t been as eager to assume a greater share of traditionally feminine responsibilities: childrearing, house chores, emotional self-work, or employment in growing HEAL occupations (healthcare, education, administration, literacy). 

Men might be reluctant to become teachers, nurses, home health aides, physician assistants, or vet techs due to the more “feminine nature” of caretaking, but they will miss out on work opportunities as a result. 

Men might be reluctant to be stay-at-home dads, but with evermore women becoming primary breadwinners, this is a missed opportunity to raise their own children. 

Men might be reluctant to share their emotional truths, cry, or go to therapy, but modern women want to date mature men who aren’t stuck in 20th-century ideals of stoic masculinity. 

Overall, men are the gatekeepers for their own growth and need to adapt to the changing society and economy. 

Women have created larger, more meaningful lives for themselves—and men can do this, too. Since masculinity still seems essential to the identities of so many straight men, it’s worth examining what it means to be a man in this country. For example, who do American men look up to? Who are their role models? 

The twisted binary that championed men over women for so long is collapsing under a long-needed correction, a rebalancing—and I believe that is why so many American men feel lost. It was up to women to finally excel at work and school, and it’s up to men to be accountable for their own evolution with the times.

Charisma Wears Orange Fur

Readers of Blore’s Razor know that my interests are diverse. I’ll write about Big Pharma, porn stars, social conservatism, the benefits of traveling, and why I’d rather be a dad. But considering what I actually spend most of my time thinking about, it’s shocking that I haven’t written a piece about my absolute favorite topic of conversation: my neighbors’ community cat. 

Meet Freak, the charming champagne tabby who visits an untold number of homes on his daily rounds. If you’ve been to my house, chances are not only have you already met His Highness, but you ask me how he is every damn time I see you. He technically belongs to Kathie and Eric Lundberg, our dear friends at the end of Hummingbird Lane, but they have accepted that keeping the Fur Prince happy entails letting him roam. 

I believe this liberty is the root of my Handsome Little Gingersnap’s charisma: his relative freedom makes him a supremely satisfied being. If I were locked in a one-bedroom apartment for my entire life, you’d better believe I’d fuck up your couch and vomit in your shoes. Most cats still have one foot in the savannah and prefer some autonomy. We’re also lucky to live on a cul-de-sac, so traffic is minimal.

My Tangerine Dream has impeccable manners and social skills, particularly when he’s indoors. When he exposes his delicious fuzzy belly for rubs on the carpet, he won’t even think of using his claws. He carries conversations better than many people, altering the cadence, intonation, and frequency of his meows in response to whatever we’re discussing, never interrupting. His cutest meow is his “thank you,” which trills in a low pitch like someone rolling their Rs. This usually occurs at his tuna bowl.

The Sweet Snuggle Muffin has an uncanny sense of who needs his love and affection. My mom was here for her birthday last December, and she adores cats. That evening, she tucked into our guest room, and without any prompting, Freak slept at the foot of her bed all night—perhaps the best gift she received that day. He chose her. And when someone’s sick or sad, he always seems to show up and be there for them. 

He’s so friendly with strangers that we fear he’ll jump in the back of a UPS or gardening truck, never to return. He regularly comes home smelling of wood fire or women’s perfume, and he purrs when people pick him up.

My love for the oranges runs DEEP

Our Bubba Sponge Cake is also very brave. A few summers ago, I was in my backyard when a thunderous boom erupted from our neighbor’s property, which was under construction. You’d expected a cat or dog to hide, but my Darling Bellini came ripping around the side of the house at full speed, sliding all paws on the gravel, standing his ground between me and the threatening sound. I laughed in awe and disbelief.

He even has an adorable routine where he shows off his prize-fighting skills. He’ll sharpen his claws on unpainted wood fences, turning to us at regular intervals to ensure we’re paying attention. When his murder mitts are ready, he’ll crouch down, ears back and looking fierce. He’ll then dart off full speed toward nothing in particular with all his might. 

On our first night in our house, my Little Cornbread Cookie made the death-defying leap from our fence onto our roof, outside our bedroom window. It was around 2:00 am, and he clicked one of his claws against our screen—not ruining it, but letting us know that he’d like to be let inside. He had us so trained that we removed our bathroom screen, and he jumped in, settling at the foot of our bed, uttering his trilling meow of appreciation. 

As a nocturnal dude, he often wanted to go back outside, then inside, and outside again. We were only too happy to be woken up every few hours to cater to his whims. He usually would start by jumping onto the floor and sighing heavily a few times. Then, he would issue a quiet meow, wait patiently for a minute or two, and utter a slightly louder meow. If we were still snoozing, he’d move to the door-stopper and flick it with his paw. Bow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow. He politely used it as a last resort. 

A year or two after we bought our house, the Lundbergs went to Hawaii for a month, and we were taking care of my Honey Bunches of Oats full-time. After many nights of the door-stopper routine, we finally had the good sense to install a cat door.

In his younger days, he’d present his gifts to us in immaculate condition. We’ve received giant rats on our doorstep that were killed so surgically that I was unable to locate the site of the fatal wound. We’ve never had rodent problems, while our former neighbors and their two useless mongrels struggled with rats and mice.

I inject his name into many songs. One of my favorites is “The Schuyler Sisters” from Hamilton:

He’s the greatest kitty in the world—the greatest kitty in the world!


(Work, work) Jon-a-than! 

And Freakers (work, work)

For all of these reasons and more, I love my Precious Butter Biscuit unconditionally, even when he eats his tuna too fast and needs to hurl, or when he comes home looking like Sylvester Stallone at the end of Rocky 4. On that note, if I had to name a flaw, it would be Freak’s feline bloodlust. He despises all other cats and pretty regularly gets his ass kicked. But even this behavior is understandable: in his mind, he’s defending the neighborhood from interlopers.

I know that just about everyone adores their own pets, and I’m curious how many folks share the experience of spoiling a community cat or dog, or even a raccoon or crow. And how do those animals see us? 

As I write this, I see him running through the rain and darting underneath the south fence of Hummingbird Lane. Whether it’s to visit the house with the wood stove, to chase off that large tuxedo cat, to nuzzle that woman with the floral perfume, or just for the thrill of getting his paws dirty, I’ll never know. He’s simply the best.

Viagra is the Ultimate Gender-Affirming Care

Within the U.S. military and several conservative regions, there’s been a wave of sickening anti-trans legislation. Twenty-two states have passed laws or policies banning gender-affirming care among minors. This affects 35.1 percent of transgender youth in our country, who are already at a heightened risk of substance abuse, bullying, and suicide. Life is hard enough without this sanctimonious smackdown from American Christian supremacists.

Gender-affirming care is expensive—unless you’re in the military receiving taxpayer-funded Viagra (Sculptor Unknown)

But what exactly is “gender-affirming care?” Expanding on the WHO’s definition, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) states that it “encompasses a range of psychological, behavioral, and medical interventions designed to support and affirm an individual’s gender identity.” 

By that definition, gender-affirming care runs as rampant as fiery gonorrhea among my fellow cis-gendered Americans. I argue that while the term is typically reserved for the healthcare of transgender and non-binary folks, it can include any medically unnecessary procedure to appear more feminine or masculine.

Cis-gendered women, for example, regularly receive gender-affirming care in the form of breast augmentation, Kardashian ass implants, nose jobs, liposuction, vaginal reconstructive surgery after giving birth, and those lip and cheek fillers that give every LA woman the same damn face.

Botox, tooth veneers, face lifts, and other appearance enhancements run both ways among cis men and women, but if we accept that these are all designed to increase one’s attractiveness and youthfulness, these are borderline gender-affirming—particularly among women, whom the patriarchy still doesn’t allow to age.

And while cis-gendered men don’t get as many frivolous surgeries and procedures as women—again, because of patriarchy!—two types of manly pharmaceuticals are still quite popular in dude-bro society: steroids and Viagra.

Let’s recognize that many sad congressional Bible-thumpers take gender-affirming boner pills and still discriminate against the trans community. Being virile and having a rock-hard lightsaber is fundamental to American masculinity. Not only are these pills legal, but they are subsidized by you, me, and all American taxpayers. That’s right: the military spends $41.6 million annually on helping men avoid the hyper-gendered embarrassment of erectile dysfunction.

Look, it’s none of my business if Donald Trump snorts vitamin V to give Stormy Daniels a C- evening, that Mike Pence takes his little-blue communion to give Mother a missionary rogering, that Ted Cruz…ha, just kidding. We all know that no human woman—least of all his poor wife—sleeps with that bloviating fuck!

But why do these men insist on denying trans folks the power to shape their own bodies in the image of who they are? Virtually every prestigious medical professional group supports the self-determination of trans youth. The American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Counseling Association, the American Society for Freedom from Outdated Social Constructs…ok, I made that last one up, but you get the picture.

Being against gender-affirming care is one of many hypocrisies within the GOP: the “patriots” who tried to overturn the 2020 election; the “pro-lifers” who support capital punishment; the “party of family values” who cut Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP); the “religious liberty” zealots who only recognize Christian doctrines.

So why do Republicans get their testes in a tangle when people don’t adhere to outmoded gender and sexual identities? Queer couples and drag queens don’t roll into evangelical churches and tell them how to add some sparkle to their boring Sunday services. Live and let live! There’s no reason to expend energy trying to suppress harmless differences between humans.

So here’s my modest proposal: if these backwater American states want to discriminate against trans people and deny them the healthcare they seek, Viagra-hungry congressmen should be forced to go flaccid as their Lord intended. It’s only natural, guys.

What AI Can’t Replace: The Most Valuable Skill of Our New Era

“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

Edward O. Wilson (Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998)

When ChatGPT was introduced to the world in late 2022, hundreds of AI products and services cropped up overnight, upending every industry and casual conversation. Previous technological leaps seemed to crawl—not run—allowing us time to digest and adapt. The Internet, for example, ramped up over many years in the 90s, starting with a limited number of HTML-proficient bloggers and businesses. The same happened in manufacturing robotics: these inventions took time to mature and optimize production lines. Artificial intelligence hit differently.

Things sure have changed since the early days of my writing career

Engineers, legal analysts, artists, authors, radiologists, stockbrokers…name an occupation, and chances are that AI is already changing it. As a writer and editor, folks ask me how it will transform my work. I haven’t employed AI professionally, although the applications I frequently use (Google Docs, Gmail, and Grammarly) have all introduced AI-driven writing tools to auto-generate prose. 

Here’s the thing: ChatGPT-4 is a remarkable tool to create first drafts of virtually anything—book summaries, business plans, technical manuals—but there’s a catch: the perspective will be generic, error-prone, and derivative. Words may be strung into grammatically correct sentences based on writing patterns, but without a human touch, the voice will be lifeless.

Let’s do a test: can you spot which of the following was written by ChatGPT-4?

Prompt: Give me a one-paragraph synopsis of the movie “Barbie.”

1. Like many, I didn’t expect to enjoy the movie “Barbie” as much as I did. Greta Gerwig opens with a dawn-of-mankind scene, an homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Barbies were revolutionary because girls in the 1950s wanted more than to role-play as mothers with traditional baby dolls. They now could imagine they were scientists, surgeons, and presidents with their new toys. In Barbieland, the film brilliantly inverts men’s and women’s expected roles in society, with the Kens playing a supporting cast to the Barbies’ hopes and dreams. After stereotypical Barbie and Ken (the impeccable Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling) travel to the real world and observe men’s power and privilege, Ken decides to introduce the patriarchy to Barbieland.

2. “Barbie” is a live-action film that follows the iconic Barbie character as she embarks on a whimsical and empowering adventure in a modern, fantastical world. Barbie, portrayed by a talented cast member, discovers her unique abilities and embarks on a journey of self-discovery and growth. Along the way, she encounters a diverse array of characters, faces challenges, and learns valuable life lessons about the importance of authenticity, friendship, and believing in oneself. Filled with dazzling visuals, heartwarming moments, and a message of empowerment, “Barbie” is a captivating cinematic experience that celebrates the enduring appeal and timeless charm of the beloved Barbie doll.

Which one did I write? The first one, obviously. The second summary is grammatically sound but lacks an understanding of the movie’s themes. It relies on flabby, generic terms (“talented cast member,” “journey of self-discovery and growth”) and doesn’t feel like the voice of someone who has seen the film. Remarkably, a machine wrote that paragraph in seconds, but it’s speciously constructed and doesn’t have a heartbeat. 

AI is a tool that will transform our connection to our work and each other. As a writer, I hope to harness its ability to do data-gathering (which I will fact-check) or to pitch me 50 creative names for my latest recipe. I believe that prompt engineering skills will eventually crown the leading professionals in many fields—those who learn to see AI as a useful tool or an assistant will be at an advantage by automating tedious tasks. But our human-made work will stand out in a crowded field of AI imitation based on our discerning taste and decision-making.

AI doesn’t judge, for better or worse—it doesn’t understand whether its solutions are clever or ignorant. It combs the entirety of accessible human knowledge and makes trained guesses on what to present to us as answers to our inquiries. It works faster and can access a broader scope of solutions than a human brain, but AI doesn’t know when it’s being shallow, offensive, or ridiculous. Persuasive writing, elegant software code, sound legal arguments, and moving works of art all require a perspective. Without beliefs and goals honed by diverse real-world experiences, innovation falls flat. We can’t evolve without a roadmap of values.

The White Cringe

Being white in America is charged and complicated. The word doesn’t sit well on my tongue—it’s a thunderbolt. 

“White” is an insurrection, a poison river, a noose strung up on a tree branch, a MAGA bumper sticker. It’s a badge with its knee choking the life out of another person. It’s a firehose aimed at peaceful demonstrators. It’s a gun pointing at someone on the wrong lawn.

No evolved person takes pride in being “white.” It is a label without a motherland, language, community, or rituals. The defining characteristic of being white in America is unjustly denying other groups the freedom of movement and freedom from harm. It’s the color of hate and exclusion, of apartheid, Nazism, and Native American genocide. It is the mark of colonizers and oppression—the cruel norm against which other people are compared or excluded. 

As a writer and editor, I refuse to capitalize “white” because it is an invalid culture of modern invention. The only time I bring up my race is to admit ignorance of something: how it feels to be followed around a department store, asked where I’m originally from, or fatally misunderstood by law enforcement. I didn’t earn or ask for the privileges stemming from our bloody legacy of slavery, but I recognize that being white in the U.S. has shaped my opportunities. 

People are surprised to learn that the definition of white has been fluid in American history.  Italian, Irish, Polish, and other folks now considered “white” didn’t used to be. The category has been shaped by immigration trends, wars, and political and cultural shifts. These days, there’s even a growing number of American Latinos embracing white supremacy—what some might darkly consider to be the ultimate act of assimilation in the United States.

One group, of course, has never been invited into the ranks of white, and that is folks of African descent whom white Americans have dehumanized to justify slavery and assuage their own shame. 

Historian and first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams, famously remarked, “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” You can’t subjugate a group of people you respect—you must fabricate reasons for your inhumanity to resolve the cognitive dissonance.

These days, race is used most directly in American surveys and studies. For example, we’re aware of the generational wealth gap and disproportionate arrests within the Black community because we’ve tracked it. This information is important to measure groups’ relative quality of life and expose evidence of discrimination. France and Germany, which don’t collect demographic data on race and ethnicity, are rethinking their policies which obscure the toxic effects of racism within their countries. 

Although this data is currently crucial to show how different groups are treated in an unjust society, I look forward to a future when one’s racial category is of no more consequence than the color of one’s eyes. Ideally, it might even strike future generations as strange that we categorized folks by skin color or that white Americans could simultaneously worship Black culture and denigrate its people. 

Race is an evolving power dynamic used to justify the mistreatment of groups. Take pride in accomplishments and kindness, but don’t celebrate being “white.” To do so is perverse and pathetic. 

American Social Conservatism Always Loses in the End

Some traditions and values should not be held sacred, no matter how long they’ve been practiced. For example, there’s no need for public duels over insults to honor, the burning of heretics at the stake, or hanging bloody sheets outside one’s house after the consummation of a marriage. Fortunately, we’ve outgrown these practices, but it’s worth asking: what are examples of contemporary values and customs that will be spurned by future generations? And who safeguards these soon-to-be-old ways of thinking?

Social conservatives strive to lock in the status quo, and they have littered history with their failures and cruelty. I’m not talking about pious, family-oriented folks who hold their values and customs within their churches and homes where it’s appropriate. I’m talking about reactionary activists who seek to impose dead ways of thinking on everyone else. 

Social conservatism is an ideology that supports “traditional” social organization, institutions, and power structures. In this country, this has meant the elevation of men above women, whites above minorities, Christianity above other religions, straight folks above the LGBTQIA+ community, and the United States above other countries. Overall, it seeks to protect a rigid social order rather than embracing change.

While its specific values and objectives have shifted with the times, American social conservatism is always a losing philosophy. The evidence is in the vast progress made in this country since its founding. 

Trump’s Inauguration Day, Washington DC (2017)

Here’s a thought experiment: what would the United States look like if social conservatism had always won the day? 

  • Women wouldn’t be able to work, vote, or own property because Christianity dictates that we should be raising children and obeying our husbands. Some social conservatives still hold (or recently held) these views. John Gibbs, a Republican running for a House seat in Michigan, founded a “think tank” at Stanford called the Society for the Critique of Feminism. In 2000, he wrote, “Some argue that in a democratic society, it is hypocritical or unjust for women, who are 50% of the population, not to have the vote. This is obviously not true, since the founding fathers, who understood liberty and democracy better than anyone, did not believe so.” 
  • Slavery would still exist because “traditional” American power structures held that Black folks were inferior and could be considered property. Some are surprised to learn that the Bible was used to justify slavery. It’s also no coincidence that today’s most socially conservative, religious states are those which owned slaves. 
  • Non-Christians, somewhat ironically, would have to flee American religious persecution. (Apparently, there are still 7 states that bar atheists from holding public office, although a 1961 Supreme Court decision makes these bans impossible to enforce.)
  • Gays, lesbians, and trans folks would live in constant fear and be sent to reeducation camps because they are not accepted under God’s “traditional” order. Considering the recent surge of anti-gay legislation and book banning across the country, overcoming these cruel, ignorant beliefs is clearly a work in progress.

The vestiges of this racism, misogyny, and homophobia—the greasy residue of social conservatism—still haunt our institutions and culture. Some of the lasting prejudice is insidious (e.g., Americans tend to dislike female politicians), and some is obvious and legally enshrined (e.g., “Don’t Say Gay” laws in Florida). 

That is the legacy of social conservatism.

One of the most egregious recent examples has been the overturning of Roe v Wade, which allows the government to force women to give birth. This happened because Catholic conservatives hijacked the Supreme Court, using a thrice-married vulgarian to nominate three judges vetted by the Federalist Society. 

Roe was the white whale of social conservatism because it returns women to the home with forced motherhood. In states such as Texas, rapists can, in effect, choose the mothers of their children—unless women have the resources to leave the state, they must carry their rapists’ babies to term. Some conservative legislators perversely believe rape is actually a blessing by God and an “opportunity” to “help that life be a productive human being.” 

Here’s something I don’t understand: how do social conservatives rationalize the abuses and bigotry of their tribe throughout history? Doesn’t Clarance Thomas realize that in his grandfather’s time, he could have been lynched by fellow social conservatives for looking at a white woman, let alone marrying one? Doesn’t Amy Coney Barrett see that in her grandmother’s time, she could have been accused of having a difficult temperament due to her high intelligence and institutionalized for hysteria or some such nonsense? 

There’s a throughline from violent racism and misogyny to the Right’s anti-LGBTQIA+ crusade today. It wasn’t the progressives of their day who wanted to maintain slavery or lock up “difficult women”—those abuses were propagated by social conservatives. They are (and continue to be) the guardians of savagery.

But, as with all backlashes to progress, social conservatism is doomed to lose this fight. The Dobbs ruling was deeply unpopular among Americans because our country has outgrown the idea that the state should force women to give birth. 

Although reactionary leaders may occasionally get elected or achieve court victories, free democratic societies are never dominated by socially conservative values. This is because power is not inherent in one’s gender, race, or religion—it is constructed and protected by the society in which it occurs. 

For example, in a fundamentalist Christian house, the man is assumed to be the head and the wife must obey. But the privileges of being a Christian man are imaginary—they are only made real by the people who uphold those values. To those who don’t adhere to this interpretation of the Bible, this power is unearned, unjust, and antithetical to meritocracy.

Overall, social conservatism is doomed to fail because it runs counter to advancement. Like the forward march of science and technology, human thought and values can’t be locked into their medieval forms. 

Imagine that instead of using a modern washing machine, you decided to wash your clothes by boiling water, soaking them, and scrubbing them against rocks with lye or animal tallow. Sure, at one time in history, this was the best way to get our clothes clean, but we’ve evolved. By adhering to old, dead values, social conservatives are still beating their dirty clothes against the rocks. 

 If a country’s policies and culture fail to adapt to natural changes, those left out of power become restless and the revolution is seeded. Especially these days, knowledge is too widespread for disenfranchised folks to remain powerless forever. This is the story of women, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, non-Christians, and the working class. It’s only a matter of time before those unfairly denied social mobility will rebel.