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.

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. 

Repeal The Eleventh Commandment

During the 1966 gubernatorial race in California, Ronald Reagan crafted the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican. 

Can you imagine being part of a team—one that’s supposed to set a good example for the whole country—and not being able to hold anyone accountable for lying, cheating, violence, or bigotry? To have a loyalty so blind that you stand for nothing but winning? 

This bad faith is the rot at the center of the modern Republican Party. By illustration, today’s GOP stands united with: 

  • Rapists (Donald “Pussy Grabber” Trump)
  • Liars (Mitch “GOP Tax Cut Won’t Cost a Penny” McConnell)
  • Shameless racists (Steve “Calves Like Melons” King)
  • Tax cheats (Steve “Offshore Accounts” Mnuchin) 
  • Drug addicts leading the War on Drugs (Newt “I Like Pills” Gingrich)
  • Sexists (Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin)
  • Morons (Michelle “Lion King is Gay Propaganda” Bachmann)
  • Vote suppressors (Wilbur “Census Swindler” Ross)
  • Domestic abusers (Rob “Fist-Goes-Boom” Porter)
  • Religious looneys (Mike “Period-Tracking” Pence)
  • Xenophobic assholes and nefarious Disney villains (Stephen “I Hate Immigrants Because Nobody Will Sleep With Me” Miller)
We all know whom he votes for.

To stand silently with this party is to condone its toxic behavior. The very few conservatives who have spoken up either have defected from the party (Justin Amash, Andy McKean) or are continually harassed by Trump (Mitt Romney). Also, the countless GOP incumbents who aren’t seeking reelection in 2020 are shamefully quiet, even though they have nothing to lose.

Modern Democrats are better at enforcing codes of conduct—and certainly don’t tolerate criminal behavior within their ranks. Remember all of the times former Senator Al Franken played grab-ass during photo ops and was forced to resign? He was beloved, but he was held accountable for unacceptable behavior. 

It gives me hope that Democrats take sexual misconduct more seriously than they did 20 or 30 years ago. Bill Clinton, for example, would be unelectable in today’s post-#MeToo society.

Of course, there is one appalling behavior that southern politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to get away with: dressing up in blackface. Look at governors Ralph Northam (D-VA) and Kay Ivey (R-AL). This just shows how deeply American racism runs and how far we have to go to take it seriously. 

I wonder: are Republicans so cowardly because MAGAts consume Fox News and live with “alternate facts?” Are they afraid that the wealth gap, climate change, a more diverse citizenry, and the skyrocketing costs of college and healthcare are politically inconvenient for the GOP? 

Decades ago, at least Americans had an agreed-upon reality. There were a couple of news channels, but it was understood that you would be more-or-less informed after watching any of them. 

Screenshot from November 13, 2019: the first day of the impeachment hearings. The reason there is a picture of kittens is that I have the “Make America Kittens Again” browser tool, which turns all online photos of Trump into adorable cats. I highly recommend it.

That’s not the case today. Fox News—provably fictitious—manipulates millions of people with fear, hate, and outright lies. Growing up, I always thought that propaganda was a problem in distant dictatorships or monarchies, in places like Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia. It turns out that with enough money, you can buy your own self-serving “facts” and attractive dimwitted “journalists.” It’s infuriating that this garbage doesn’t come with a disclaimer. There is simply no progressive counterpart to Fox News, yet it is routinely compared to MSNBC or even CNN. That’s like comparing a light rain to Hurricane Harvey. Sure, they’re both technically “storms” and are watering our crops, but only one of them will tear down your fucking house.

I was also taught to believe that Republicans and Democrats have two equally valid ways of seeing the world. In 2019, that’s total horse shit. Doesn’t it at least feel weird to Republicans that their party lacks women and people of color, especially in their leadership? How do they explain that?

This is how I imagine it: one balding white man drinking a Bud Light says to another,  “You know, man: Latinos, blacks, and the other non-whites just don’t know their place. Trump is trying to make our country great, ya know? And to make it, like, great again.”

“Yeah, man. Those damn socialists want to take all of my guns and all of my money and pay for immigrant healthcare. Fucking commies.”

“Yeah, we’re the true American patriots. God bless this country’s whites.”

Or something like that… 

Even the bright conservatives don’t seem to understand what it means to be progressive: they assume that we’re against small businesses and taking personal responsibility. On the contrary, Democrats have become the only party of personal responsibility because we call out our own. Look at the clown car of assholes profiled above. None of them have been held accountable for criminal behavior and yet we’re presented with the false equivalency of left vs. right, liberals vs. conservatives.

There’s more to making a country great than cutting taxes or locking immigrant children in cages. Republicans need to call out the bad behavior on their side or history will consider them the party of greed, cruelty, misogyny, and white supremacy. I sure as hell do. 

Until they get rid of the Eleventh Commandment and start thinking as humans rather than as Republicans, the blind partisan loyalty will continue to make the GOP ruthless and despicable. 

The Beauty of Asking Your Enemy For a Favor

Do you remember your most stressful, thankless, low-paying job? The type of miserable work that felt as useless as polishing firewood and made you drink way too much cheap wine? I do. I worked as an addiction specialist in a San Francisco methadone clinic for two years.

When I first moved to the city, I was in my 20s, fresh out of four sublime years living abroad. I’d studied psychology and sociology and was interested in putting my education and international experience to good use. I had no idea that these weren’t the tools I needed to help people struggling with addictions.

I worked from 7:00 am to 3:30 pm on weekdays. Since the pay was low, the staff all clamored to work holidays and weekends for time-and-a-half. I had a caseload of over 50 clients. It was excruciating trying to get each of them to sit down for the state-mandated 90 minutes of counseling per month. 

“What do you know, blondie? You aint never been no addict,” an older client barked.

“My wife is jealous that I get to talk to you every month,” another sneered, licking his lips.

Of the 50, I had about 10 who were interested in detoxing. They would ask for city resources or want to talk about their difficult childhood, their service in Vietnam, or even Carlos Castaneda books. Others were still actively using and would sometimes come into my office completely out of their minds. 

One morning, my client—let’s call him Danny—came roaring into the clinic screaming obscenities and throwing whatever he could get his hands on. Other clients scattered as chairs, pamphlets, and our main bulletin board went flying. Dr. K (my boss) tried to calm Danny down. I was watching from my office doorway and could smell Danny’s soiled clothes from 15 feet away. His pupils had completely consumed his irises and his wild-eyes darted around the clinic. My knees began to shake and I avoided eye-contact.

Since we drug-tested clients regularly, I knew Danny was quite fond of speed, but it could have been any combination of drugs coursing through his veins, making him psychotic.

Dr. K and our security guard finally got Danny to leave, who bellowed his garbled intentions to exact revenge on us all. The staff and I breathed a sigh of relief and laughed uncomfortably at the lunacy of this job.

A couple of hours later, I took my lunch break and was walking north on quiet Steiner Street, trying to avoid the rush on Fillmore. Suddenly, I heard someone running up behind me with clumsy heavy steps.

Oh fuck, I thought. I know exactly who this is. Danny jogged up beside me, looking me up and down with his wild eyes. He had an open can of SpaghettiOs in his hand and was shoveling finger gouges of the thick red sauce into his mouth, which dribbled down his chin onto the front of his soiled jacket.

To my own surprise, I smiled at him and said, “Danny! Oh my God, thank you. I’m so grateful you’re here. This isn’t the best part of town. It’s kind of dangerous actually. Would you mind escorting me to the Walgreens on Fillmore?”

His eyes widened and he smiled with delight, putting down the half-empty can on the curb and licking his fingers.

He took his new security job very seriously. As we crossed Post Street, Danny sprinted out 20 feet in front of me, swiveling his head in search of cars and spreading his arms wide, shielding me from traffic.

“Come on, Jocelyn! It’s safe!”

As we got closer to our destination, he kicked some broken glass out of my footpath and indicated I should walk around it. When we got to Walgreens, I told him, “Danny, thank you so much. I was really worried about that stretch of Steiner and you made me feel safe. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

The beauty of this story is that even when we’re enraged or out of our minds, at our core, we just want to feel useful, loved, and connected to others. 

This reminds me of a theory I learned in one of my psychology classes: the “Benjamin Franklin Effect.” The basic idea is that if you want your enemy or opponent to like you, ask them for a favor. 

The story goes that Franklin had some political rival and wanted to thaw the relationship, so he asked the man if he could borrow a book. When the rival granted that favor, he felt a sense of usefulness and connection.  Although they’d been fierce opponents, after asking for a favor, the tension melted and they became friendly. 

Also, the rival’s kind behavior toward Franklin, a political enemy, produced cognitive dissonance—a mismatch between one’s behavior and emotions. The theory goes that it’s very uncomfortable to have a mismatch between one’s external and internal worlds, so we change one to fit the other. For the sake of internal harmony,  the man ditched his negative emotions toward Franklin to align with his positive prosocial behavior. 

Overall, when we treat people well and rely on them, they feel good about being needed and connected. 

So ask a favor of that awful coworker or your judgmental mother-in-law! You might develop a closer relationship. And at the very least, you’ll give them a raging case of cognitive dissonance.  

American Puritans: Stop Yucking Our Yums!

I know a young God-fearing man who waited until marriage to have sex. He was still in college and decided to propose to his girlfriend after less than a year. They fast-tracked the wedding and set the date for January… in Alaska. Nine or ten months after the sub-zero ceremony, they had their first child. Another came not too long afterwards—and the wife started an affair. The couple is still suffering a long and bitter divorce.

How common is this experience? How often does a pious religious couple wait until marriage to relieve the most primal of human urges? And how many of these young men and women—hormones raging—make a lifelong commitment just so they can finally have sex?

One of the most damaging forces in American culture is its continued puritanism. The rigid anti-sex and anti-drug undercurrents of our society are making people repressed, guilt-ridden, and judgmental of others. 

Let’s start with sexuality. Dating to our 17th century Protestant roots, men are assumed to be unchaste sinners by nature. Similar to the conservative branches of Islam and Orthodox Judaism, men simply cannot be trusted to control themselves and it falls to the women—ironically, the “original sinners”—to not tempt them. (Isn’t it strange how women get all of the blame but none of the leeway when it comes to sins? And don’t get me started on how women’s superpower, the ability to create other humans, was hijacked by male “creators” in the Bible. )

Conservative Christian women are told that their virginity is their virtue and their future currency in marriage. Their chastity must be protected with the utmost vigilance because only “bad women” have sex before marriage.  I mean, come on: conservatives can’t even admit that Mary fucked Joseph! And sexual pleasure? That’s completely absent from the traditional narrative of relationships. 

The pervasive American shame surrounding sexuality produces elevated rates of teenage pregnancy,  as well as rampant STDs and anti-LGBTQ views.  

Is it any surprise that the top five states for teenage pregnancy—Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Kentucky—are among the most religious? And rather than addressing the issue and giving young people access to contraception and safe abortions, God-blinded legislators are launching an all-out assault on Roe vs. Wade and closing healthcare clinics across the country. Furthermore, there’s a bill working its way through the Pennsylvania legislature—similar to a fucked-up bill in Mike Pence’s Indiana—which would mandate funeral services for miscarried fetuses. To put that into perspective, religious lunatics want women to pay for funerals commemorating non-viable human tissue even though there’s no law requiring funerals for dead full-grown human beings.

Also, in 2019, there have been 115,000 cases of syphilis, 580,000 cases of gonorrhea, and 1.7 million cases of chlamydia—a combined record high in our country. I blame abstinence-only education which does not respect our physiological reality: we are sexual creatures and should be taught about the human body and safe sex.

Another dangerous strain of American puritanism is its anti-drug mindset. Like sex, drugs and alcohol should not be treated as forbidden fruit in our culture—that only enhances their appeal and pushes their expression into a dangerous underground. I’d argue that with sex, repressed urges and ignorance can manifest as pedophilia, sex trafficking, and rape. And with drugs, that underground produces binge drinkers, addicts, and widespread deaths of despair. Let’s bring the conversation to the surface where people’s desires and curiosity can be explored in an informed way and in a safe environment.

To do this, we need to move beyond the assumption that all drugs are bad and talk about responsible use at an appropriate age. With more information about the actual effects of drugs, people can make decisions for themselves. Like having a martini, sometimes it’s fun for an adult to enjoy an altered state through the responsible consumption of cannabis, psilocybin, or LSD. 

For these three substances in particular, the evidence is mounting that they can even have beneficial effects. It’s no secret that cannabis is slowly becoming legal for recreational consumption, state by state. It has been used to treat varied medical conditions for decades. Also, microdoses of psychedelics such as mushrooms and acid are being used to combat depression and PTSD. 

What bothers me is that just as puritan anti-sex views have been used to target women and the LGBTQ community, anti-drug views have been used to oppress the poor and people of color. African Americans are incarcerated at much higher rates for the same non-violent “crimes” of substance use and distribution. And look at how differently Americans view the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s compared to the opioid crisis of today. It’s only considered a disease or misfortune when whites are most affected; otherwise, it’s considered a scourge.

In short, American puritanism is used to uphold the power of men, whites, and Christian conservatives. It applies rules disproportionately: 

  • It views gay sex as sinful.
  • It considers women children who are unable to make decisions about their own bodies.
  • It assumes that people of color should be incarcerated for drug use while heroin-addicted whites in West Virginia deserve sympathy and treatment for their disease.

American puritanism is the scourge—the noxious lens through which the same behaviors are viewed differently depending on the actor. And even the most privileged people in this system are denying basic aspects of their humanity: the mental and physical delight of new experiences. 

Why are Americans allergic to discussions of sexual or drug-related pleasure? In this public discourse, it’s assumed that our only indulgence can come from food—and look where that’s gotten us: we’re one of the fattest sickest countries in the world and spend ludicrous sums of money on healthcare. 

We need to amend these ancient currents of fanatical self-reproach and stupidity. If someone doesn’t want to have sex before marriage or experiment with drugs, that’s fine, but we shouldn’t yuck other people’s yums with a stodgy finger-wag—especially when the rules aren’t applied equally. It’s totally ok to:

  • Wait until sex and love to have a marriage.
  • Responsibly experiment with cannabis and psychedelics as an adult.
  • Stop judging and censoring people’s sensual gratification.

American zealots don’t have a monopoly on what’s moral and what’s good. Dusty black and white codes of conduct may be easier to teach for the church, but in many cases, the tight-laced rigidity is dividing us and denying us our very human need to explore.

So throw off that heavy prudish yoke and live in the gray area! There’s no shame in consensual curiosity.