I’d Rather Be a Dad

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“First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, Then Comes…”

A rare photo of Jocelyn enjoying a baby. Notice how the photographer’s hands were shaking in disbelief. This was a very cute and very special baby (2011).

After getting married last year at age 34, the most common question I get is, “So, are you thinking about having kids?” 

Sure, it’s a more delicate line of inquiry than in generations past, when it was assumed that every woman’s life ambition was to have children—not a matter of if but when. Back in those days, getting married and having kids was endemic to a woman’s survival when we were all but excluded from universities and the most lucrative jobs.

At 35, my answer is still maybe. Unlike some, I feel zero baby fever—in fact, call me a monster but I find babies gross, loud, boring, and frankly parasitic, especially on their mothers’ bodies, brains, and sleep patterns. 

I took care of three kids (ages 14 months, three years, and five years) during the summer I was 16. Being the baby’s full-time custodian wasn’t as difficult as it was tedious—reading the same picture books, being attentive to her minute-by-minute needs, repeatedly picking up the books she’d thrown from the shelf, changing foul diapers and contemplating how many thousands of my own plastic diapers from the 80s must be still decomposing, rocking her to sleep on a pillow for naps and laying it ever so gently into her crib. (She refused to go to sleep unless she was physically in my arms.) 

People say, “It’s different when it’s your own,” but I call bullshit: I think some U.S. mothers simply can’t admit how much they despise their young children. A component of postpartum depression is a mother’s realization that her old life is gone. American fathers have the luxury of being more honest about their indifference—especially toward babies—although I admit that men today are much more involved in the process than they used to be. 

So what are the common reasons for wanting to have children? 

One person told me it was an opportunity—maybe even a public duty—to shape a mind for the next generation, to pass on the best of my accumulated knowledge and sense of civic responsibility for the betterment of our collective future. I reject this premise. I can shape many more minds by becoming a teacher (been there), mentor (done that), or artist (working on it). 

If you think about the people who have inspired you, are your parents at the top of your list? Parents in the U.S. seem to do a lot of work for very little credit. They don’t have the same respect afforded to elders in Japan, for example, or in Latin American cultures. For many, an American therapy session is just a bitch-fest about how awful a person’s parents were and how a person can overcome all of the limitations of their upbringing. I don’t want to be the subject of my unborn child’s therapy sessions.

Another person asked me who will take care of me when I get old. That’s easy: I’ll pay someone to do it, just as many elderly people—even those with large families—do. Having children and grandchildren in this individualistic youth-obsessed society doesn’t guarantee you won’t die alone. In fact, I’ll feel better about having a stranger wipe the soup from my mouth than having to reverse roles with a child I raised and compromise my dignity.

Plus, how many of us still feel truly connected to our parents? The majority of children take much more than they will ever return and many in my generation continue to do so; a third of my fellow Millennials have boomeranged back into their childhood homes to live cheaply. I wonder how many of those parents are happy to have their adult children home. And even for those who manage to live independently, the reality of American culture is that young people follow the jobs, often in places far away from their parents, only to return once or twice a year for holidays, often begrudgingly so. And many Americans consider calling their parents a chore rather than a joy. I’m fortunate that my mother is a vibrant, smart, continually evolving person and I enjoy her company, but others are not so lucky. 

I actually asked my mom how she would feel if I didn’t have kids. At first, she said she would be fine with whatever decision I make, but she later revealed she’d actually be disappointed because I’d “never fully understand everything [she] had to go through.” I told her, “Actually, opting out of parenthood is precisely a recognition of everything you had to endure as a mother.” (After publishing this piece, my mom clarified what she meant. She told me that when a person becomes a parent, they truly understand unconditional love and this produces a new appreciation of one’s own parents—and a closeness that comes from that shared experience.)

A couple of weeks ago, my best friend told me about her family friends, an older childless couple, who now regret not having kids. This is the one that stumps me. There’s no guarantee that Jon and I won’t someday be reading in rocking chairs on the porch of our beachfront house and wonder, “What if? Wouldn’t it be lovely to have some grandchildren around?”

I agree. I would love to have grandchildren to spoil for a weekend and hand back to their parents. I also would love to be a modern American father—involved and loving but not leaking from my tits for a couple of years. For men, it’s a bonus if they opt into the parenting process; for women, it’s a necessity—and they’re judged mercilessly every step along the way without a shred of institutional support.  

Maybe I’m just not wired for motherhood. I’m sensible and responsible to a fault, but I lack the desire to have my life—which I love—subsumed by the needs of another. 

Growing up with a single mom, I also was exposed to the hardest version of motherhood, which I acknowledge is a bias.  And as an only child, I’m used to lots of time alone. I love my solitude and unless I got an expensive live-in nanny, that would be gone for at least a decade.

I think about fostering or adopting older kids. Perhaps it’s just babies and toddlers I don’t care for. I simply don’t want to be a janitor for a human—I want to be a teacher. (And I’m not talking about the dull instruction of object permanence, the ABCs, and shapes.)

All of this said I’m still a maybe. I have one friend who continued to play kickball with us until she was 39 weeks pregnant and unlike many new parents, she and her husband, a pediatrician, continue to host gatherings at their home and meet up for events. This version of motherhood gives me hope. It’s so damn cool and inspirational when women don’t make a fuss and continue to have lives outside of being mothers. 

My real fear is that I will end up with a needy little parasite who will deprive me of all I hold dear in this life: reading, writing, traveling, my friendships, and sleep. Above all, putting my career on hold to pay thousands of dollars to stretch and ultimately tear open my body to perpetuate my genes is too horrible to contemplate—and that’s only step one. There’s no guarantee that my kid won’t be a criminal or worse, an asshole. I don’t like that roll of the dice.

At my bridal shower, my aunt told me not to wait to have kids or I’d never do it. Perhaps she was right. I’m just grateful that the days of assuming that parenthood is part of a complete life are over.

How to Plan an Air-Tight Super Secret Surprise Party

There are precious moments in life when a person’s raw happiness overwhelms them. Weddings, childbirth, and important ceremonies can have this effect. But we needn’t wait for these milestones to give those we love unforgettable feelings—a well-executed surprise party for the right person can inspire tears of unbridled joy. In December, I made my partner cry with sheer delight. 

The theme was “characters” (since Jon is such a character). Moments before Jon arrived, 25 of us crowded on the stairs and in the hallway.

In his 40th trip around the sun, this was Jon’s first real birthday party in decades. As any end-of-the-year baby can attest, Jesus’ day casts a formidable shadow—especially for Jon, who was born not only a twin but also on Christmas Eve. Not even his technicolor personality can outshine billions of twinkle-lights, indulgent feasts, and presents for all.

A few months ago, I decided I wasn’t going to let this birthday pass without a celebration worthy of Jon’s big-hearted exuberance. He’s a natural-born extrovert who relishes in the company of others. I knew there would be no greater gift than an unexpected night full of the people he loves.

This was the third surprise party I’ve planned, and I’ve even had two thrown for me over the years. All five were successful in the sense that the guest of honor had no clue. 

I cried on my 23rd birthday when my boyfriend and friends in Japan got me good. My student Yuri had decorated the facade of her apartment like a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. As a newbie to Niigata City, I legitimately thought it was an izakaya, complete with a cute “Open” sign and a full menu, until I saw the large table full of familiar faces and heard their cheers. 

I was overcome with love for several days and couldn’t believe everyone had gone to such lengths to create something special for me. It hits in layers when you realize everything that people do in order to orchestrate that perfect moment for you. 

Years later after I’d moved to San Francisco, I decided to throw a surprise party for my best friend and future bridesman Murray, who was turning 30. He was definitely surprised—but I wouldn’t say he was delighted. He took a full 45 minutes to recover from the shock of having everyone gathered for him at our friend Pat’s apartment. At one point, I thought Murray was going to throw up from astonishment. He had to step outside several times to get some air (and to text his future wife, Jamie, whom he’d just started dating).

I learned that there is a certain type of personality that responds well to a surprise party: a person who doesn’t mind being the center of attention. Although Murray eventually settled into it, we didn’t get the “unbridled joy” we were going for. Jon, on the other hand, enjoys the spotlight and was the perfect candidate for my schemings.  

Although it was a costume party, this fan-favorite duo wasn’t planned.

In addition to selecting an appropriate target, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Capitalize SURPRISE in all communications—and give all of your guests a ready-made ruse if they fuck up. Many a surprise party has been ruined by someone’s slip of the tongue, so you have to plan for it. Not only should “SURPRISE” be written in all-caps for any invitations, texts, and other messages about the event, but also ask guests to generate a ready-made ruse if they do accidentally mention the day (e.g., “Oh, I’m talking about your work/friend’s/family party.”) This ploy should be tailored to their level of intel since the target’s social or professional circles won’t totally overlap. A target might be confused, for example, if a distant acquaintance knew about a pre-planned work celebration which happens to fall close to the date of the surprise.

Plan more than a month in advance. People are busy, so if you want them to show up, plan accordingly. I started a month before the event, which is appropriate to people’s social calendars in Eugene. The bigger the city, the busier your guests—and the further in advance you need to send your invitations. 

The day-of maneuver: know your target. One of the trickiest parts of planning a surprise is getting your target to be at the right location within the timeframe your guests expect. If the person is a planner, it’s best to have that time blocked out with a specific occasion close to your party’s location (dinner with neighbors, attending a play, etc).

Jon is not a planner, so I left this part up to the end. Fortunately, I had the help of his childhood friends (Phil and Jenna) who had flown in from the Bay Area for the occasion. They claimed they were here to visit an aunt and to work in Portland the following week. Over lunch, Jenna mentioned casually she was interested in seeing the movie “Knives Out.” Later, after exploring Eugene’s Holiday Market—movie seed planted—we started looking at showtimes. 

I also asked Phil and Jenna (within earshot of Jon) if they’d rather go out for dinner or come over to our house later. When they intentionally stated the latter, I offered to “make everyone dinner” while they enjoyed the movie. I had bought myself a few hours to decorate our house and prepare.

Ask for help. People love to be in on a surprise party and a guest’s experience will be even more special if they contribute in some way. (You’ll notice everyone sharing their perspectives later with the target and each other.) 

I had a lot of help. My friend Olivia picked up the catering; Jody and Kyle brought a keg; Kathie and Eric picked up the pies and offered to help decorate; and of course, we couldn’t have pulled this off without Phil and Jenna visiting from out of state. 

Expect that things will go wrong. Like a wedding, not everything goes smoothly. For example, on the day of the party, Jon was insisting (rather aggressively) that we ride bikes to meet Phil and Jenna at their hotel. This would have made it more difficult to coordinate for the Holiday Market and movie later. (We’d loosely planned for Jon, Phil, and Jenna to arrive in a Lyft.) 

Jenna reached out to Jon and mentioned she was interested in Christmas shopping and might have several bags, which made Jon back off his insistence we ride bikes.

If your target is being an asshole, keep the long game in mind. When my mom planned a surprise party for me when I was a teenager, I’d been especially nasty the week before because I thought we weren’t doing anything for my birthday. She thought about ruining (or canceling) the surprise, but I’m so happy she didn’t. Everything becomes clear to targets later, so have patience if they’re being difficult. Chances are they’re just feeling ignored because you’re busy behind the scenes.

Details, details, details. In the weeks leading up to the party, I stored decorations, beverages, snacks, and other celebratory accoutrements in our empty suitcases in the garage. I threw money at roadblocks and ordered catering since cooking for 30+ people was a tall order in a few short hours. I found that I was so prepared the day of and had asked for so much help that it took me less than 45 minutes to set up.

Extra photos from the birthday book: Diane Nguyen (Me) & Sister Night, The Dude & Walter, The Eurythmics

Enjoy the drumroll toward the moment. On the day of Jon’s party, I woke up and told myself I was as prepared as I was ever going to be. I decided to relax and relish in the unfolding day, not worrying about how much more I could have done. Being on-edge would have been suspicious and I credit Phil and Jenna for also keeping their cool.

I’ve learned that there’s a special kind of community that emerges from a well-executed surprise party. You get a front-row seat to a lightening-strike moment in a person’s life where they realize just how adored they are. Overall, the big-hearted deception takes more energy to plan than a normal party, but it’s absolutely worth it.

Thank you, Jody, for this awesome capture.

The Eco-Marm in My Head

With the smartest people sounding the alarm

We are wise to heed the sage Eco-Marm

With irreversible climate change on the horizon, I feel guilty every day. I can’t go to the grocery store, travel, have a meal, flush a toilet, or flip on a light switch without the sense that I’m aiding and abetting the imminent destruction of our planet. Does anyone else have an Eco-Marm* living in their heads?

Shopping for food, I bring my own bags and do my best to avoid plastic. The Eco-Marm is quick to point out that excessive packaging is central to our product distribution. She decries the microplastics in our oceans and coursing through our bodies—materials forged long before I was born and will be present long after I die. She adds that my diapers from 1984 are still decomposing in some distant trash heap—and they will need another 465 years to do so. How many more diapers there will be to decompose in the coming centuries?

I turn on my car and the Eco-Marm reminds me what was done to secure the oil and gas that makes it run—the violent extractions, the endless wars in the Middle East—not to mention where the exhaust ends up and how it affects the health of people and our planet.

Food has always been a great pleasure to me, but the Eco-Marm frequently joins me for meals. She asks whether pesticides were used in growing the vegetables. She reminds me of how much misshapen (but perfectly good) produce never made it into people’s bodies because it was too ugly to sell in stores. She begs me to give up meat every time I lick the barbecue sauce from my fingers, and she scolds me for eating sushi when the global fish population has plunged to the brink of ecological collapse.

Flushing a toilet has become a mini existential crisis—and I wonder how much longer our planet can survive droughts and the wasteful consumption of fresh water.

Leaving on a light in an empty room is an indulgence, and I feel a gentle sting for any lapse in my own conservation of electricity. The Eco-Marm wags a finger at the office buildings glowing through the night, the cooling apparatuses for vast networks of electronics, and other energy-ravenous systems.

I know that overall I’m a conscientious citizen and a good steward of our planet for future generations. I also know that I owe the Eco-Marm my gratitude for her mildly irritating voice pushing me to always be environmentally aware. She’s a product of my understanding of how human systems of production and consumption have affected our planet. 

In the abstract, humanity’s goal was to increase people’s quality of life. At least in material terms, we have no doubt succeeded. More people than ever have access to the bare necessities and technologies that power civilization: water treatment plants, medicine, electrical grids, communication networks, etc. The global average lifespan and years of education have increased, while extreme poverty and rates of violent death have decreased. (Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness is an eye-opening account of the widespread improvements for humankind this past century.)

As much as I was heartened to learn how much better life has gotten for our species, environmental destruction could swallow it all. With scientific predictions of devastating natural disasters and the vast displacement of millions of people, will our unchecked economic growth have been worth the chaos for our children?  Is it really too late? What does “too late” even mean? Can our awareness and ingenuity—powered in part by these incredible advancements—help make us a less greedy species? Can it save us?

Nobody has the answers, but for now, the more people who embrace their own Eco-Marm—that constant voice of conservation and sustainability—the better.  

*Yes, the voice of environmental justice is proudly female, which is probably why so many arrogant self-serving men like Trump have chosen to ignore it.

Working From Home For a Meritocracy

As children, we’re taught that with the right degrees and skills, we can advance in the workplace. It was acknowledged that people with connections and charm can rise somewhat faster, but in theory, American jobs are meritocratic—with enough discipline and training, any person can succeed.

As much as we admire this sentiment, we all soon discovered that the reality of employment is messier. People rise in the ranks for a complex web of reasons—many of them out of an individual’s control. Accomplishments play an important role, but depending on who is in power, other variables can shape an employee’s career path. 

Perhaps a leader is sympathetic to the number of years a subordinate has been around the office and believes it’s their time to move up. Maybe they’re childhood buddies or sorority sisters. Other managers are susceptible to flattery or hold biases against specific groups. 

In all cases, promotions aren’t blind. So how much of professional success can we actually attribute to talent and hard work? 

After five years of working from where I please, I’d argue that fully remote companies are closer to pure meritocracies.

Spring view from McMenamins North Bank (Eugene, OR), where I’ve worked many a shift

Working from home cuts out a lot of the spontaneous connections and relationships developed over cubicle walls and around the water cooler. Rather than having a perception of the entire employee—what they bring for lunch, whose pod they frequent, the family pictures they have on their screensaver, the energy they exude in the office—they are reduced to what they present in email, video conferences, and projects. Without the confounding influence of appearances, it’s easier to be known for one’s accomplishments.

Of course, this model doesn’t work for all types of businesses or industries; workplaces in agriculture, construction, retail, and R&D require in-person collaboration. But for many types of computer-bound work, telecommuting is an attractive option. It not only saves companies money on overhead costs, but it also cuts out most of the gossip and politics. 

I remotely manage a team of writers and we communicate through email and texting. Written communication can be addressed when it’s convenient for me, as opposed to the immediacy of having someone come to my desk. I have better control over how I spend my day. Most importantly, since writers are turning in full articles that I edit, I’m able to evaluate their progress (and offer raises) based on the merits of their work. 

My writers are a motley crew; they’re mostly women, but they have varied backgrounds and ages (25 to 60+). One woman lives in Pakistan and reached out on LinkedIn in response to my post seeking new talent. Her samples and performance on my editing test were flawless. My top-paid contractor is an older graduate-trained expert in business education who sends me lengthy, eloquent proposals for each of his topics.

The point is that I’ve been able to evaluate each of my writers on the outcome of their labor. I don’t critique their process, hours worked, friendliness, hobbies, or attractiveness—variables that play a role in traditional workplaces.

Some of my office-bound friends have been quick to point out two problems with working from home: 1) They’d never get anything done, and 2) They’d get lonely. 

To the first point, I wonder how people get things done in brick-and-mortar companies with the roving buffet of distractions. Unless you have a private office, having an unbroken stretch of concentration is tough to achieve. Even with noise-canceling headphones—office-speak for “Don’t Fucking Talk to Me”—there is a flurry of activity in one’s peripheral vision. At least at a cafe, strangers are unlikely to approach.

Telecommuting was a bit of an adjustment, I admit, but this work can be treated like college: sure, you’ll spend a little time in a classroom, but you get to choose the environment where you study and write papers. Some people aren’t self-starters who thrive without structure, but like anything, this can be learned.

To the second point, it can be tough to lack a community of coworkers, but it makes me that much more eager to fill up my dance card in the after-hours making dinner for friends, enrolling in classes at the University of Oregon, or joining Spanish conversation meet-ups. Plus, unless you’re in charge, coworkers are like a family: you can’t really choose them. You’re thrust into their company, and sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. It takes more effort, but I’d rather nurture relationships that I choose rather than those of proximity, power, or convenience.

If we want our workplaces to be purer meritocracies—places where we’re evaluated strictly on our output—giving employees the freedom to labor when and where they please is helpful. 

Winter Survival Skills for Sun-Loving Softies

All winter-lovers are alike—but each person who is unhappy during winter is unhappy in their own way. 

Eugene, OR ice storm in 2016. It made the trees look gorgeous—as if they were encased in glass—but as the boughs broke under the weight onto power lines, it sounded like bombs were going off.

I’m not built to withstand extended periods of cold darkness. I grew up in Laguna Beach, where temperatures and daylight hours varied little throughout the year. Even in winter, beach days were abundant and apart from the gossamer marine layer, the sun kissed everything in its wake throughout the year. 

In 2016, however, I fell hard for an artistic city that didn’t have an endless summer. Eugene, Oregon, just west of the Cascade Mountains, welcomed us our first year with ice storms, unplowed roads, and power outages. Although the snow we receive is adorable by midwestern standards, the perennial gloom late October through April got under my skin. 

The drumroll toward the holidays isn’t bad—everyone is in high spirits despite the unfriendly chill and unending rain. But now that we’re sweeping up the New Years’ confetti, the realization sets in: we still have several more months of cold rain and wind before the tulips and fruiting trees burst into bloom.

Since I moved to Oregon, this time of year has always been rough for me. People retreat indoors and the sun rarely shines. I realize a little glacial rain and gloom would constitute a mild winter for many Americans, but my background made me cold-averse. I needed to develop a system that made me look forward to these days.

Like many others, I admire the Danes and read up on “hygge”—their sense of coziness, familiarity, and togetherness, embodied in a warm pair of socks or candlelit dinner of hearty stew. I also took stock of my cute coats and indoor hobbies (reading, writing, painting), hoping to unlock a routine. This winter has been much easier than in years past, helped in part by a few axioms and tricks I’ve picked up over my years in my new (often sun-starved) home:

There is no bad weather—just insufficient dress. My friend Justin shared that this is similar to a Norwegian proverb—and it’s spot on. It took me a while for me to find the right coat and hat for icy, angled rain (among other conditions), but once I did, winter could no longer keep me inside. I was never much of a clothes horse growing up—I lived in my more stylish friend Alexis’ hand-me-downs for most of my 20s—but having well-made Patagonia and Pendleton jackets has saved my ass. I even found some of them second-hand at Plato’s Closet, so there’s no need to break the bank. 

Candles slay the gloom. There’s something primordial about our love of a blaze. Who among my readers hasn’t been captivated by a bonfire? I have candles all over our living room and bedroom and I only light them when it’s cold. This simple ritual—inspired in part by my readings on hygge—lifts my spirits every time. 

Invest time in making your space welcoming to you. Whether you’re a garage sale aficionado or a modern minimalist, take pride in where you live since you spend so much time there. It will make it that much easier on the day you don’t feel like facing the blizzard. 

Slate specific winter hobbies and events. Every Tuesday, I play indoor volleyball with an awesome group of girls. I typically read 25 percent of my books for the year in January and finish at least two acrylic canvasses. My partner and I also love hosting parties. I did none of these things (apart from reading) when I first moved to Oregon—and I suffered for it. Growing up in southern California, I’d never divided my interests into seasons, recognizing that I can foster different parts of myself depending on the time of year. Recognizing this fact—likely obvious to people who didn’t grow up in sunny beach cities—catapulted my winter serotonin to new highs.

Am I soft? Absolutely. But if there’s a desert-dweller out there who needs to relocate to Minneapolis, they will be grateful for my superficial insights.

Let’s Hear It For the Silver Cities

There’s something intoxicating about constellations of city lights along a bridge or skyline. I stand in awe of these concrete, steel, and glass cathedrals of industry—the banks, the department stores, the tech companies, the historical structures—tracing the tops of their buildings, creating a jagged key of the unique angles from where I stand. It’s moments like these that make people forget the smell of skid row on a hot afternoon or paying half one’s salary to rent a hovel. As the glitz and grime rose in tandem, one day I woke up and San Francisco—my Gold Medal City—was no longer my home. 

Skyline from Russian Hill in San Francisco (2012)

Gold Cities are the major metropolises of the world: New York, Tokyo, London, Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, etc. These places have made it. They have achieved global relevance due to their density. They are crowded with structures, machines, events, wealth, and bodies—the ingredients of a dynamic financial and cultural economy. They are marvels of human achievement but can be cold to the touch, gilded and exclusive, blind to strangers. They are littered with wide eyes and empty pockets, company cars and expense accounts.

Just as many New Yorkers bemoan their love/hate relationship with their home, I grew tired of the coarsening demeanor of San Francisco. What had once been a nice place with open arms and a beating heart was going into cardiac arrest after a binge of evictions. Tent cities sheltered the displaced. Little boys with computer science degrees masqueraded as businessmen and fancied themselves the emperors of modern Rome.

What’s left when teachers, janitors, families, and artists can no longer afford apartments in a city? A one-bedroom (747 square-feet) in SF goes for $3,683. Oligarchs with fuck-you levels of wealth have multiple homes while most people are stuck on the unending treadmill of rent. The bigger houses are, the less they get used. 

San Francisco also now leads the nation in property crimes and theft. Residents are desperate and hardened, some of them addicted to opiates and other drugs. The gritty underbelly and exorbitant cost of living in a Gold City push people out—or like me, they leave voluntarily. And having developed a palate for good food and culture, a village wasn’t an option. I opted for what I call a Silver City—a welcoming mid-sized town with sufficient density to cultivate some of the best features of a San Francisco or New York.

Silver Cities are accessible and comfortable for musicians, writers, and other artists who grow with the region as they shape it. These places are often college towns in the Goldilocks zone of affordability, amenities, and social mobility. They are more casual, amenable, and sincere than Gold Cities, with less traffic and materialism.

Overall, in Silver Cities, wealth has not overwhelmed the culture. Those with few resources can still shape the area with their relationships and creativity. These community members are producers and participants. By contrast, grandiose Gold Cities contain awe-stricken consumers and ossified power, where wealth dictates what’s seen, what matters.

I’ve traveled around 42 U.S. states, visited dozens of cities, hundreds of towns. Our Gold Cities—among the largest metro areas in the country—include San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Washington DC, Houston, Austin, and Miami. There are even some larger cities (>200,000 people) that still feel like Silver Cities on the ground: New Orleans, Portland, Boise, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis come to mind. And then there are the real Silver Cities, which often receive the creative spill-over from their larger counterparts: Eugene, OR—the town my partner and I chose to call home—is my favorite example with its thriving university, beer culture, bike-friendly streets, vibrant parks, and weekly community market. Other Silver Cities I’ve visited include Fort Collins, Flagstaff, St. Petersburg, and Knoxville.

Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith painting a mural two blocks from my house in Eugene, OR

Not every place fits neatly into these categories, of course. Some long-time residents of Gold Cities like New York might consider the Village or Park Slope their own cozy Silver Community. However, there is a big difference in the energy on the ground from a visitor’s perspective. 

When the creatives and other locals leave Gold Cities—the artists, teachers, long-time residents—there’s a palpable void that new wealth can’t fill. Silver Cities stand to benefit from the exodus and receive these people with open arms. 

A new friend told me that Eugene peaked in 2014 when the downtown had been revitalized but everything was still affordable. I suppose one person’s Silver is another’s Gold, depending on their experiences, income, and other opportunities. Maybe one day I’ll wake up and feel Eugene flirting with Gold status. After all, we are hosting the World Athletic Championships for track and field in 2021—the first time this international event has come to the United States. In preparation, Nike billionaire Phil Knight is rebuilding the historic Hayward Field and the construction of new hotels and other facilities is rampant. 

I just know that right now, to me, Eugene feels perfect—snugly in the zone of world-class culture at a fraction of the Gold price. Friendly, not too crowded, and so damn beautiful. 

Pinot country is 20 minutes from Eugene, which is in the southern Willamette Valley

The Most Popular (and Universally Despised) New Year’s Resolution

Across the United States, the gyms are packed. It’s early January—that great time of abundance when waistlines have expanded with holiday cheer. And as divided as we are in 2020, the majority of Americans share one New Year’s resolution: lose weight and get into shape. 

My gym (Fox Hollow Trail up to Spencer Butte, the highest point in Eugene, OR)

When I was a teenager, I used to flip through Woman’s World, Prevention, and other garbage magazines at supermarket check-stands in search of tips to slim down. Those rags traffic in making women feel terrible about their bodies. I was a healthy size 9, but there was nothing I wanted more in the world than to be a petite size 0 or 3 like some of the other girls at Laguna Beach High School—a physiological impossibility for my frame. 

I used to stare at the young women with lithe limbs and flowing clothing, especially when they seemed not to care what they ate. What is their goddamn secret? I played sports; I ate healthy; and I obsessed over my body, but I simply couldn’t lose any weight.

A healthy size 9 during the college years (2008)

By the time I got to college, my size 9 was thrown into relief by Berkeley’s demographics—a far cry from Laguna’s supermodel standards—and I stopped caring quite so much. But echoes of that pining to be more slender endured. I even wrote my sociology honors thesis on the disordered eating behaviors of young American women. 

There is an entire range of methods to control one’s food intake apart from severe restriction (anorexia) and purging (bulimia). There are emotional and behavioral manipulations and nearly all of the 30 girls I spoke to had her unique techniques to placate her carnal obsession. 

Some women put bright-colored stickers on “off-limit” foods in their fridges and cabinets; one wore a rubber band around her wrist to snap it in punishment if she reached for the wrong thing to eat; others chewed up massive quantities of junk food and spit it into a vessel like wine-tasting—the satisfaction of taste without the threat of digestion. 

Young women in particular labor under a yoke of bodily shame and anxiety. What I realize now in my mid-30s is that what prevented me from achieving my ideal body wasn’t really grounded in what I ate or how I exercised. It was more psychological—my constant fixation on the issue was my biggest problem. Counterintuitively, the more I focused on it, the more difficult it became to get thinner. Sure, good habits are a foundation, but disabusing myself of the obsession was even more important.

These days, people sometimes ask me now how I stay in shape. I’m a size 4 or 6 and I no longer watch what I eat. I’ve developed habits that mitigated my old preoccupation with size—and most have nothing to do with diet or exercise.

Since thinking about my weight consumed so much of my youth and it’s a popular New Year’s resolution, I wanted to share what I’ve learned. Keep in mind that I’m 35, have no kids, and work from home. I also happen to love vegetables and proteins more than pasta and dairy. I realize that not everyone has the same freedom or flexibility in their schedules as I do. The underlying principles, however, can be adapted to scheduling constraints with some effort and planning:

Find a job that doesn’t make you count the hours until lunch. Too many employers in the U.S. tell people when they can eat. School is also like this. You have to abide by your teacher’s or boss’s schedule, whether or not your body craves fuel. This makes us associate food with a break from a grueling activity. It also makes us eat at times we might not be hungry and forgo food when we need it. I believe that this rigidity and the subsequent association of food with a reward is partially responsible for the obesity epidemic in this country. Now that I work from home, I eat when I’m hungry—not when someone tells me I can.

Get as much sleep as you need. In school and at all of my jobs in San Francisco, I was sleep-deprived. The benefits of getting enough sleep are well-documented. As WebMD puts it, “Skimping on sleep sets your brain up to make bad decisions.” Not getting enough sleep also affects our metabolism and elevates our cortisol—a stress hormone that makes our bodies hang onto more fat. 

Develop your hobbies. Another difference between now and when I was in school is that I’ve had sufficient time to figure out how I enjoy spending time. When I was younger, I never understood how people could “forget to eat” because at that time, thinking of my weight and food was unrelenting. I also hadn’t enjoyed the luxury of figuring out who I am and what I like to do—the activities which now occasionally make me forget to eat. I read, write, paint, travel, hike, and catch up on award-winning films and TV series that I never watched. (I’m in the middle of Mad Men right now and just finished the Sopranos last year.)

Cook most of your own meals, but treat yourself to good restaurants. I didn’t grow up cooking (and my single mom rarely had time), but I started to take pleasure in culinary creativity and the way it shows love to others. I’m lucky my partner also enjoys cooking (so it’s not all on me) and we have friends over for dinner frequently. I’ve also learned a lot from dining at well-reviewed restaurants. I treat going out as a learning experience and try to recreate my favorite dishes at home. For example, my favorite cuisine is Thai. I took classes in Bangkok and I now grow my own chili peppers to make prik nam pla, the fish sauce and chili condiment you’ve probably seen. From eating at so many different Thai places, I’ve improved upon my old recipe, adding lime juice, fresh-grated galangal (Thai ginger), and garlic. Also, as much as I like to cook, I don’t like following recipes. I cook by taste, which for me is more fun and creative.

If you dislike the gym, find a different activity. I’ve always hated gyms and I wonder what our calorically-challenged ancestors would think of them. You can’t imagine a 17th-century farmer—much less a cave dweller—running a track or lifting weights to try and maintain their figure. It turns out that a lot of people don’t like the gym. They go because it’s the most time-efficient way to burn some calories. Once my schedule became more flexible, I started taking the same 7-mile hike up Spencer Butte—the highest point in Eugene—a few times per week. I ride my bike to the trailhead and listen to podcasts while walking through a lush forest. I look forward to these two-hour outings and now realize that I don’t like to exercise indoors (unless it’s for a sport like volleyball). I also rarely use a car and walk or bike nearly everywhere in town. Rather than treating my body’s work as a chore or task of maintenance, I use it to get where I need to go. Everyone has to find something active that works for them and fits seamlessly into their schedules, even if that exercise is carrying trays of food, delivering packages, or chasing down a toddler. 

Beer is not the enemy. People are sometimes surprised that I’m an avid beer-drinker. I’ve visited over 250 breweries across the country and live in Oregon, the state with the highest number of breweries per capita in the country. To me, beer is as variable as food and can play with all of the senses in a way that wine and pure spirits can’t. Each brew is an opportunity for me to try something new, whether its a slightly salty and sour passion fruit gose or a caramel-rich stout on nitro with chocolate notes. 

When it comes to eating, go for quality—not quantity. I look forward to my food. Whether I’m cooking or dining out, I’ll eat anything, but I’m picky about quality. I’ve found that mediocre food makes me want to eat more of it to find satisfaction. Instead, seek out the best culinary experiences possible every time you’re hungry. Sure, it costs more sometimes, but can we put a price on future health and present pleasure? 

Get to know when you’ve had enough. I don’t calorie-count; restrict portions; or have any specific “diet tricks.” I pay attention to when I’m full and because I’ve sought out the best quality food, I leave most meals satisfied.

Overall, my perennial obsession with food and weight began to melt away when I started living the life I chose—working from home in a creative and rewarding job, living in a city that my partner and I selected after a year-long road trip, engaging in all of the activities I’d finally figured out I enjoyed. 

When I was younger,  I didn’t have so many choices and food served as an escape from a schedule I disliked at school or work. After many years of hard work and self-reflection—most of it unrelated to diet or body image—food is now a pleasure to me rather than a forbidden reward. 

I hope others can create the life that works for them because once this happens, they might find that weight and body goals no longer dominate their New Year’s resolutions.

J Blo costume (Halloween 2019)

’Tis the Season to Sling Your Jollies!

Doesn’t work rhetorically, but still cute AF

Yippee ki yay, motherfuckers! It’s that magical time of year where we massacre some trees! And not just the ones in our living rooms that we festoon with lights, colorful glass, and pre-school paper-crafts. I’m talking about the 1.6 billion Christmas cards that Americans send annually.

Your Millennial friends—especially the ones with babies—check their address books once and check them twice to decide who is worthy of murdering a small forest with Minted or Shutterstock. 

It’s tough picking the best pictures of their two children, ages 2 and 4, because to the parents, each cherubic photo is a precious gift to the universe.  Jessica, the proud working mom, pours herself a generous glass of pinot grigio and types up a double-sided, four-page update on their family’s activities, including gems such as:

Mason will play ‘townsperson’ and ‘third sheep’ in our church nativity play. He’s such a talented actor! His daddy predicts that he will attend USC’s theater program. Fight on for ‘ol SC, Mason, class of 2038!

… Arya picked up a green cube and placed it into the square-shaped hole. Our nanny says she has never seen such a brilliant child! We believe that our budding genius is on the path to becoming an engineer or a tech entrepreneur. Watch out world!

“And me? I’m just happy with my pilates, açaí bowls, crafting, church volunteer activities, and gorgeous children. #Blessed!

After typing up the letter, Jessica wonders why she never sees her friends anymore, quietly resents her husband for gaining 50 lbs. since their wedding, and pours herself another glass of pinot to prepare for an epic Amazon gift-shopping sesh. Her husband is too busy “managing” his four Fantasy Football teams—it’s the playoffs, babe!—but he promises to take her to a fancy dinner if he wins all of his leagues.

Gen X parents are having an even tougher time with holiday missives. After a grueling day of work, the couple sits down with double martinis and wonders how to best cover their family’s 2019: 

“Honey, should we include that Nick now goes by ‘Nichola?’ Will that freak out Grandpa Pete?”

“I wouldn’t risk it. We don’t want to be thrown out of our church or worse, out of our inheritance.”

 “Shit, ok. And I couldn’t find a recent picture of Nick without a dress on so I used the one from two years ago. Dad won’t know the difference.”

“Gotcha. What about Em? I feel like we’ve barely talked since we dropped her off at Pepperdine. Except when she needs money, of course…”  *labored parental sigh*

Of course, sending greeting cards isn’t the only way Americans peacock this time of year. There are also these jolly assholes: the Instagram influencers with bells on their bobtails. 

@kweilz account is endearing enough to vomit

For example, Kate Weiland’s photos incite equal parts envy and disgust. Not only is she gorgeous and fit (strike one), but she has three adorable children and a hot husband who happily play supporting cast in her social media photo flurries (strikes two through five). 

She posts captions such as “Someone doesn’t want to GIFT it a rest! 🎁” and “Talk turkey to me 🍗” which makes me throw up in my mouth a little. 

The Instagram content Krampus is always hungry, always feeding—and Kate fears drifting into irrelevance if she doesn’t keep him satisfied. I wonder how many hours per week her family poses and smiles when they’d rather be doing something else. And with 354,000 followers, have they already quit their jobs to live off sponsored posts for Old Navy and L.L. Bean? I want details on their cookie-cutter cuteness, dammit!

The reality is that a lot of Americans feel the need to flex this time of year, whether it’s through the mass-produced holiday letter or immaculate family photos. It’s stressful to project unending jollies, especially for mothers and wives who are typically tasked with buying gifts, sending cards, and maintaining the family social media presence—not to mention the holiday cooking and thank-you writing. 

Why do men feign incompetence over innocuous tasks like writing letters or wrapping presents? My partner recently fixed our washing machine using only the manual but plays dead if I ask him to take the initiative in buying his mother a gift or fold some wrapping paper around a box. 

I suppose holidays are tied up with the idea of “home”—that most stubborn of womanly spheres. And rather than admit that carrying the emotional labor of the holidays is suffocating, women (myself included) put on a brave face, snap some cute photos for Instagram, and slog on through.

Be extra kind to the ladies in your life this season. Slinging holiday jollies is much harder than managing an imaginary football team (or four).

The Pampered Voter

Cape Perpetua, Oregon

Living in Oregon, I’m a pampered voter. Ballots are lovingly gift-wrapped and placed on our doorsteps by county bell-hops with little hats. The foil-embossed voting card comes with an artisan cake: voter vanilla swirl, ballot buttercream caramel, or “choice is yours” chocolate. Later, friendly creatures of the forest retrieve the ballots and do a little dance for democracy when we submit our votes.

For real, though: not only do Oregonians have automatic voter registration at the DMV, but every state resident mails in their ballot and avoids the Election Day hullabaloo. Not surprisingly, we have one of the best voter turnouts in the country. Roughly 61.5 percent of eligible voters in Oregon came out in the 2018 midterms—the fifth-highest percentage of any state. And by extension, our elected leaders better reflect the interests of our people. 

If I were a non-voter, it actually would be difficult to avoid exercising my constitutional right in Oregon. The ballots arrive weeks in advance; if I don’t have a postage stamp, there are drop boxes everywhere; and our 2016 “Motor Voter Act” made it so we must opt out of automatic registration at the DMV. 

Sounds ideal, right? Like that type of responsive democracy we all learned about in grade school? 

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that strong, widely supported ideas should have power in determining our future. When voters show up, political candidates are forced to pay attention to their constituents’ demands.

There are several features of our nation’s “democracy” that have perverted the process. Recently—perhaps more than ever in the wake of the disastrous Citizens United decision—our policy-making has reflected the interests of a few greedy, mean-spirited donors. 

Here are examples of several recent changes which have been unpopular with a majority of Americans:

The immigrant internment camps, which have separated thousands of desperate children from their parents

  • The erosion of EPA measures protecting our clean air and water
  • The shrinking of national monuments to open them up to private development
  • The decision to make wildlife hunting trophies (e.g., lions, elephants) legal again
  • The watered-down “gun control” bill, which didn’t do anything about assault weapons 
  • The gutting of ethics rules in the House of Representatives 
  • The closing of women’s health clinics across the country

Garbage bills become law when wealthy political donors with cruel and unusual tastes are allowed to become kingmakers. 

Instead, let’s return our democracy to its purest form—one in which every eligible person gets a say so that the most widely supported ideas inform policies. 

I can already hear groans from my cynical friends: 

But Jocelyn, there’s too much entrenched power!

Why would politicians willingly adopt these policies when the broken system is already working for them?

You’re so naive. Don’t you know how politics works, darling? Nothing will ever change.

Tell that to my great-great-grandmother who couldn’t vote. Tell that to my grandmother who had to get her husband to co-sign a credit card even though she was a working nurse. Tell that to my close friend Derek who married his husband in 2014.

Everything changes.

Oregon isn’t perfect, but it’s a great template for increasing the number of eligible people who vote—the first step to strengthening our democracy. The second step is ensuring that our leaders are responsive to the needs of their constituents, which is difficult but not impossible. 

I’ve given this a lot of thought and here’s a casual roadmap to making those two changes:

The Pampered Voter’s Guide to American Democracy

Make voter registration automatic when you receive a license or ID card from the DMV. Similar to Oregon, this should be an opt-out system rather than opt-in.

Have everyone vote by mail and all states should offer same-day registration. Having mail-in ballots is another policy that has made Oregon such a strong voting state. It makes it easier, especially for people who live in more rural areas, have to work on Election Day, or have other commitments which make visiting a polling place cumbersome. For those without home addresses, there would be alternative arrangements. Having same-day registration is another policy that increased the 2018 voter turnout in seven of the top ten states. Also, cheers to Colorado, which enjoys both voting by mail and same-day registration. It had the second-highest voter turnout (63 percent) in 2018, just behind Minnesota (64 percent), which has SDR. Notably, none of the worst ten states for voter turnout have VBM or SDR.

Ensure that political districts are drawn by bipartisan committees—not the people currently in power. This is obvious and helps prevent partisan gerrymandering. (We’re looking at you North Carolina, Texas, Kentucky, Louisiana, West Virginia…)

Shorten the campaign cycle to twelve weeks. If it takes longer than twelve weeks for a candidate to tell people what they stand for, they probably won’t be an effective policymaker. Also, this allows our current leaders to actually govern rather than constantly worry about wooing enough campaign donors to get elected—not to mention the stress it removes from American citizens’ lives who are tired of the interminable election season.

Limit overall political contributions and limit the overall amount of money a candidate can spend. There are several countries with commonsense limits on how much money a candidate can receive and spend. These include Belgium, Canada, Chile, France, Japan, and South Korea. As it stands, wealth continues to dictate who runs for office and wins American elections. This does not lead to the best policies or to a democracy that provides what Americans need and want from their government. 

Presidents should be elected by the popular vote. The Electoral College is anti-democratic. It’s not fair that during presidential elections, the vote of a person in Wyoming is worth more than three times that of an average American. One person, one vote. 

Centralize all political campaign information by creating the “BetterBallot.” We have algorithms that match us with the people we marry. Why can’t we have a centralized system match Americans with local, state, and national politicians in the same way? 

I propose making a website (BetterBallot.gov) with an easy-to-follow questionnaire that takes 15 minutes to fill out. Each question would have two parts. For example:

Do you believe in banning assault weapons such as AR-15s and AK-47s?

O Yes

O  No

How important is this issue to you?

O Extremely important

O Very important

O Important

O Not that important

O Unimportant

Depending on a person’s responses to questions and the value they assign to each issue, they would be matched up with percentage scores with various candidates. There would be both an overall percentage match, as well as percentage matches with candidates on various issues, such as:

  • Public Healthcare
  • Environmental Protection
  • Public Education
  • Taxes
  • Gun Control

 This data-driven method has been used on the dating website OkCupid with great success. 

Having this information about political candidates also would help eliminate wasteful campaign spending and interminable fundraising—freeing up our country’s leaders to actually work rather than worry about raising enough money to get reelected. 

Furthermore, it would help cut down on negative campaigns. We should be voting according to how well our beliefs match with a prospective legislator—not how much we hate the other candidate.

I suspect some might see these proposals as too simple and unrealistic—that I’m waving my flimsy pen at a tidal wave of political tradition. But why can’t it be simple? And at earlier stages in history, weren’t many of the freedoms we now take for granted also “unrealistic?”

My Name is Jocelyn and I’m a Taskaholic

Hello, my name is Jocelyn and I’m a taskaholic. It’s been 14 hours since I wrote my last checklist. Even when I don’t have a list in front of me, I spend a lot of time mentally planning and checking off boxes. I’ve found that this behavior has turned even what I enjoy—including writing this blog—into a chore to be completed. I also find it difficult to be present when I’m always mentally planning three or ten steps ahead.

Hi Jocelyn…

This dude isn’t planning six steps ahead

Since I can remember, I’ve strived to optimize my time. I’ve been using Moleskine Weekly Notebooks for nearly 10 years. Every working day, I write a lengthy checklist of what I want to accomplish. This habit has served me well, keeping me organized and on-track in both my professional and personal lives. Since I work from home, I’m able to alternate my assignments and errands, punctuating the most labor-intensive endeavors (creating a 2020 content calendar) with less-demanding work (writing a letter to my grandparents).

I notice this tendency even when I’m away from my desk—a constant Mental Planner that applauds me for a day well-executed and rebukes me for suboptimal performance. 

For example, I live in a bike-friendly small city and I try and minimize how often I drive. If I set out to go to the dentist, my Planner ensures I make the most of the trip. It reminds me that I have clothes to donate to St. Vinnie’s; a birthday gift to pick up from Passionflower; and a leather purse to retrieve from the repair shop. I’ll set out in my car, optimize my route, and realize I forgot to grab a package for the post office. Dammnit. Despite the relative success of the day—dentist appointment attended, clothes donated, birthday gift purchased, leather purse retrieved—I’ll feel a twinge of regret that I didn’t score 100 percent on today’s drive.

My Mental Planner even lords over trips up and down my house’s stairs, making me more efficient. Full hands up (toilet paper refills, my new canvas and paints), full hands down (empty glasses, fresh dishtowels, the letter I wrote for my grandparents). Again, I’ll suffer a mild internal rebuke if I forget one of these items, even if it “throws off my day” by less than a minute. 

Is this a mundane mental illness—the constant configuring and optimizing of everything I do? Or is it a product of an educational system and country that values me for my ability to be productive? 

View of San Francisco from Alcatraz

In American culture, being productive is considered paramount to all other qualities. We are workers first, humans next. The success of the U.S. is measured by its economic growth, employment figures, inflation rates, stock indexes, and other metrics that reduce citizens to their ability to make money. We may hear murmurs about public health and quality of life, but these are eclipsed by financial considerations.

By illustration, our public education system is designed to build future workers. My mother and other school teachers have confirmed this. Common Core Standards and “No Child Left Behind” were drafted not to create civic-minded, well-rounded individuals, but rather to churn out a productive and unquestioning citizenry. Math, science, reading, and patriotism are the foundations of future cogs in our economic wheel. Art, music, civics, philosophy, and other courses have all but disappeared in cash-strapped schools across the country.

I was the valedictorian of my high school class. This didn’t mean that I was brilliant; this meant I was the most disciplined, the most obedient. I organized my time well and deferred gratification to do exactly what my teachers asked of me. Kids smarter than I was tended to color outside the lines because that’s what it takes to be extraordinary.

This emphasis on American productivity may have an even darker component. Some argue that the conservative push to control women’s reproduction is to create more fodder for the economy. Cynics in right-wing think tanks are looking at China’s large supply of disposable workers and realizing that our birth-rates just aren’t going to cut it. What better way to make more disenfranchised proles than forcing women to give birth to as many unwanted babies as possible?

And consider this: the social safety net—a given in most industrialized countries—is one of the most controversial issues in our society. Needing help just doesn’t jive with the American mindset. Here, you’re either financially independent or you’re ashamed, no matter what life throws at you. This is especially brutal considering that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Americans go bankrupt every year due to medical issues—not to mention the skyrocketing costs of higher education and housing, two of our basic necessities.

Being a chronic taskmaster has its upsides, sure: I am a productive person because I set clear daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals. But as I mentioned before, this nagging orientation toward planning also can turn enjoyable tasks into chores. In other words, by reducing my hobbies—blogging, painting, reading, hiking, spending time with friends—to items on my checklist, everything begins to feel like work. 

This has some basis in psych research as well. My social psychology professor taught me that if a child likes doing a chore—let’s say she enjoys vacuuming—it would be very unwise to pay her. Because she is fond of vacuuming, she makes an internal attribution to justify her behavior (i.e., she does it because she likes it). If she begins to receive money for the same chore, she begins to make an external attribution. So when she subconsciously processes her reasons for vacuuming, she sees that she does it for the money, which dilutes her internal enjoyment of the task.

To avoid making everything feel like work, I’m learning to control that tyrannical Mental Planner and stop being so hard on myself. Despite my American upbringing, life is not a productivity competition or a race. It’s more of a steady hike up a tall mountain with incremental gains and occasional setbacks. I might sprain my ankle, but it will heal with time and patience. 

And on that mountain—with its gorgeous vistas and valleys, false summits and winding trails—I’ll acknowledge the fault-finding Mental Planner, let her pass by, and just feel present. Because in the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, “If I don’t stop and look around once in a while, I might miss it.”

From 90s Leo Mania to the March for Our Lives

When I was in seventh grade, every girl I knew (and probably some boys) swooned over Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. It wasn’t enough to see the movie just once in theaters: most of us had seen it three or four or seven times. From magazines and TV interviews to bedrooms and locker collages, it wasn’t possible to escape the Leo Mania of 1997. It was ubiquitous and all-consuming—a collective crush that transcended even the most rigid middle school social hierarchies. 

90s swoon-fest

Shared experiences and celebrity obsessions can unite generations, especially decades later in amused reflection. For people who grew up in the 90s, Britney Spears, Dr. Dre, Saved By the Bell, Dawson’s Creek, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had near-universal recognition. Our attention could still be held within the confines of a book, television set, movie screen, or magazine. There was little customization beyond the act of changing a channel, and little interactivity beyond writing a fan letter.

Today, people’s consumption of culture is personalized, controllable, and virtually limitless. I often wonder how this new God-like access to information—especially entertainment—has shaped Gen Z. 

For example, can they can be considered a generational cohort at all? Do they really have enough in common with one another? And what are those characteristics? 

And has the internet created a wider awareness of cultural icons (because information spreads so quickly and easily)? Or since cultural consumption is on-demand and individualized, are there multiple Gen Zs with non-overlapping preferences and qualities? In other words, does having absolute power over cultural exposure increase or decrease what’s universally shared? And how has the ever-greater menu of entertainment shaped young people’s cultural identities?

While video game consoles were widespread among my peers in the 90s, smartphones, Instagram, and internet porn were not. I reflect on how self-conscious and impressionable I was as an adolescent. Attending Thurston Middle School and later Laguna Beach High School offered plenty of painful opportunities for upward social comparisons;  it would have been devastating to not have a break from “thinspiration” at home. Girls today compare themselves to Facetuned influencers at all hours, which seems like its own special hell.

Internet porn also has created its own problems. In Peggy Orenstein’s book “Girls and Sex,” she reveals that many young men today—including middle-schoolers—expect blowjobs. Not just receive them … expect them. What’s sad is that many girls she interviewed complied in efforts to earn “social currency” among their peers.  One girl even compared a blowjob to “a very special handshake.” I assume this new expectation is shaped by increased access to porn—much of which warps men’s pleasure and perspective on sex.  

Of course, there is one commonality with the pre-internet days: discussions of women’s pleasure have always been missing from the American narrative, whether it’s porn or sex ed.  

But maybe I’m thinking about this all the wrong way. Cultural and generational identity is about so much more than sexuality, awareness of a TV show, or a shared celebrity crush. It’s a privilege that to me, the 90s felt so comfortable and carefree; if I could do it all over again, I would have spent less time pining after Leo and more time protesting the abuse of Rodney King, standing up for Monica Lewinsky, or questioning the spread of U.S. military bases all over the world. In a life untethered to smartphones, computers—and in my upbringing, even TV—ignorance was bliss. 

There has been one hopeful trend in this boundless media landscape for all generations: the rise in activism. The March for Our Lives, the Global Climate Strike, Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and #MeToo have played prominent roles in our lives, wherever we fall on the issues. 

Women’s March 2017. The New York Times captured me and my man in DC.

Maybe these are the cultural touchstones which really count—the efforts to expose and uproot the shameful parts of our American identity: our racism, our sexism, our violence, our wasteful consumerism. As much as we bemoan our shortened attention spans and indulgent TV binges, technology has unshackled long-overdue social movements.

The question is: are enough young people engaged in these mass cultural shifts or are they choosing the easy indulgences? The sheer volume of mindless entertainment available can make us comfortably numb. Entrenched power is counting on us tuning out the growing drumbeat of progress. 

I always idealized the 60s for its raw revolutionary power. I thought it was all flowers, free love, defeating “isms,” and being kumbaya as fuck. I realize now that pushing for real social change was—and is—actually uncomfortable and violent. Fifty years ago, high-profile assassinations were rampant: MLK, Malcolm X, JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and others. Both then and today are eras marked by deep divisions within our citizenry and primal rage.

I might even thank Donald Trump—the exquisite embodiment of our worst traits—for making our path forward as clear as cubic zirconia. It’s a lot easier to fight bigotry and other fuckwittages when they’re out in the open. Consider how Trump’s overt racism and sexism have helped renew calls for reparations and the Equal Rights Amendment; look at how his greed-fueled denial of climate change has sparked a greater awareness of the issue. He also ushered in the most diverse Congress in U.S. history. This blue backlash could be considered a tribute to his perfect awfulness.

Do I look forward to a more boring 90s-like era of comfort? The return of mutual respect between liberals and conservatives? Absolutely. Life is hard enough without having a rapist and a liar as the most powerful man in the world. 

But I take comfort in one thing: this moment of history feels excruciating because it should—it’s the dizzying anxiety of justice deferred and now demanded. 

I remain hopeful that much-needed changes to American culture and legislation—strides in gun laws, climate action, sexism, racism, LGBTQ rights, and corruption—will rise from the ashes of this modern chaos. 

A few years from now, we’ll see how integral this turbulence has been for our society’s progress.