What’s at the root of (un)happiness? How can you start and maintain a daily meditation practice? Where might minimalism fit in? And what about politics? Better Humaning is where I write about all that and more.
“What’s the meaning of life?” he asked earnestly, as if he actually wanted the answer.
“To live true, to be honest, to experience spiritual connection, to give, to be…” he replied, rambling on platitudes. The same niceties he found himself saying on a regular basis — a daily basis. The niceties that only ever cross his mind when he’s asked to recite them. When he wasn’t reciting what life was, he was living it. And, for him, more times than not, life was a person.
It was a person who pulled him out of himself. A person who made him need, in a way that need was embodied by want. It was a person who lured then faded, who teased then parried, who pulled then pushed. It was a person who meant more to him than he felt comfortable acknowledging, because there was no sense in it. But his life had never made sense.
I think a lot about life. If you’ve read much of what I’ve published on this site, this likely comes as no surprise to you. If you know me as a person, in the real-life, touchy-feely world, it’s definitely not a surprise. I don’t sleep much. I never have. But I daydream a lot. I always have.
When I was younger, I had a hard time relating to people who were my age. My mom explained this to me by pointing out that I was younger than everyone in my grade. But I suspected it was something else. While other people were sleeping, I was laying in bed, wondering, thinking, considering, debating — all with myself, of course, because I was the only one awake. I’d lay there for hours awake, my mind spinning. If we spend a third of our lives asleep, then we only spend two-thirds of our lives aging. If you only sleep an hour or two a night, well, you might end up like me.
All this time I spent in my head, for the longest time, remained in my head. When I started letting it out, it started to make more sense to me, and I learned it helped other people make sense to them. It was good. It was cathartic. It became necessary.
“Yeah, I know, I know. All that stuff. Those are good things. But none of those really mean anything. When you boil it down, you can say all those things, and try to be all those things, and just end up exactly where you started: clueless and floundering through life. So, maybe I asked it wrong. What’s the meaning of your life?” he asked.
“What do you want me to say? Live life to the fullest? Be more than yourself? Sex, drugs, rock and roll?”
“I want you to be sincere.”
Damnit, he thought. ‘Sincere’ he says. Not honest. Sincere. He knows me. He’s heard me. So how can I possibly tell him the truth? He’ll hate me if he knows.
Because he’s never lied. Not to anyone. But he’s also never been sincere. His world is centered around people. He has too much love, his mom always told him this. And he’s managed to create a life that is honest, where he can find Meaning that is true to himself. But the idea that a person has so much sway over him, a person who barely knows him can pull on his mind the way the moon pulls the tides out of the sea, scares him. It makes him feel weak. Vulnerable. Incredibly, irrevocably human. And that, to him, is life. It’s perfect. But it’s not the way things should be. He knows this.
When I started writing, I finally started to calm my mind and channel the chaos into a discernible message. I wrote a lot of fiction for years, many years ago. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words. I would never share it with anyone, write it and delete it. It was catharsis with no other purpose. It was perfect.
I started writing with other purpose. I wrote cover letters for jobs I was applying to. I wrote emails to the memberships of organizations I was responsible for. I wrote training manuals and educational pamphlets. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. And I really loved it. It was natural for me. I had all these thoughts built up in my mind from dozens of years of not sleeping — all this age I hadn’t aged — and I finally found a relief for it.
I was told by someone I respected a great deal that my writing was the “best student writing” she’d ever read. I didn’t know at the time how meaningful that would be, and I doubt she does to this day, but a few years later it would be the nudge I needed to become me.
“It’s hard to be sincere,” he replied. “Because I’m worried you won’t understand.”
How could he believe that the meaning of life was a person? But how could I not, he thought, not even entertaining the idea. His life had changed a lot in the years he’d been alive, and he’d said a lot of things “absolutely” that changed just as quickly. Maybe this would change. But he didn’t think so. There isn’t much he’s sure of — he’s a person who celebrates and relaxes into the greys between the blacks and whites — other than this. This was right. This was yes. This was clear. Absolutely.
“I’ll understand,” his friend reassured.
When I wrote my first “article” I had no idea what I was getting into. In fact, at the time, I wouldn’t’ve even called it an “article.” I just thought of it as “this thing I’ll write because I was told I should write it.” It got 20 views, three of which were probably my mom. When a little over a month later my site broke 100,000 readers, I was more surprised than anyone.
I became a writer. I’ve since written a few books, one of which is published, and the others will be published soon. I’ve made a wage as a writer, hammering keys and expunging overburdened thoughts to the shared consciousness of everyone who deems me worthwhile.
I can’t imagine life now without writing. But I also couldn’t’ve imagined that writing would be such an important part of my life. And for a person whose life relies on his imagination, this is disconcerting.
“The meaning of my life is a person,” he said through his teeth, realizing that saying it out loud wasn’t just admitting it to his friend, it was affirming it to himself. “A person who inspires in me need embodied by want. Who lures then fades. Who pulls and pushes. A person who will likely never understand the importance they have in my life, but will hold that meaning regardless.”
And then his heart quickened, and he felt sweat upon his brow. He knew that he’d gone too far, said too much, been too sincere. He’d always been honest, but he’d never been terrifying. And to say that the meaning of life is a person, well, that’s terrifying. He never wanted to terrify.
“Sounds like a person I would love to meet.”
He smiled. Because it made him feel weak. Vulnerable. Because life was perfect.
We don’t live in the same world, you and I. But I’d love for you to try to show me yours, if I try to show you mine.
If you’re an artist, you see line and shape wherever you look. You take note of the cues that create perspective, and imagine mixing the colors you see. You wonder how the reality you’re looking at might appear in pastels, oil, and acrylic, and how you might recreate that reality later, and how you might alter it.
If you’re a comedian, you see humor between every line. Every word you hear, every thing you see, is passed through an algorithm in your head. [q:] Would that make people laugh on stage? [if no:] What do I need to change/tweak? [if yes:] Write it down.
If you’re a photographer, you see light and the absence of light in everything. You know that everything you’re looking at, and everything you can’t see, is being translated to your eyes through myriad reflections and refractions. Continue reading → “Many Lenses Construct Reality”
It’s gotten far easier to allow ourselves to hate than it is to choose to love.
We’re getting it from all sides. Controversy sells better than sex, and when you combine the two you have pretty much every magazine you see in the grocery store check-out line. We’re told to be terrified by our news people, that message is reaffirmed by our Facebook friends, and then we bring those messages into our social circle echo chambers and bounce them around. Don’t rinse. Repeat.
If you’re “conservative” you’re reminded on an hourly basis how the “liberals” are evil and actively working to undermine civilization. If you’re “liberal,” ditto the opposite. The actual ingredients of the message change daily, weekly, monthly, but the recipe has been the same for over a dozen years: exploit ignorance using fear, reintroduce fear byproduct to perpetuate ignorance. Create distrust, and through that distrust breed dependence on You as the Sole Trustable Message. Create a small “Us” and emphasize how big and nefarious of a “Them” we’re up against.
We need need to make a bigger Us, and a smaller Them.
We need to stop exploiting and demonizing ignorance, and start celebrating it as an opportunity for learning, expanding one’s perspective, and increasing one’s connection to others. Ignorance isn’t a bad thing. We’re all ignorant about a lot of things, and all started out entirely ignorant to whatever we think we know so much about now. Willful ignorance, something we’re encouraging with our demonizing of ignorance, is dangerous. If you beat someone back into a hole enough, they’ll stop trying to come out and start realizing how nice it is in their hole.
You Have a Choice
It’s comforting, sometimes, to think of the world as black and white, easily understood, where there is one “right” and one “wrong.” If someone does/is/believes X, then they are Right, they are on my side, we’re buds, I love them, let’s hug. If someone does/is/believes Y, they are Wrong and I hate them and wish they were dead dead dead. This is a nice, dualistic, simple way of thinking about things. Unfortunately (and fortunately!), the world allows for a mangled, cognitively complex, complicated way of thinking about things. And, among the myriad choices in life you have, one of them is whether you’ll embrace the comforting, misleadingly simple white/black of dualism, or the uncomfortably accurate grey of cognitive complexity.
You obviously have more choices than that. In fact, the choices at your disposal are limited only by your imagination and caffeine intake. But in the spirit of embracing the comfort of dualistic thinking while nudging toward cognitive complexity, here are two BIG choices we all have in how we act toward others:
We Can Keep Allowing Ourselves to Hate
The people we don’t understand; the people we think we disagree with; the people we know we disagree with; people whose belief systems are different from ours, or harmful, or wrong, or weird; people who have done bad things; people who aren’t nice to us, or don’t love us, or hate us; people who are part of Them, not one of Us.
Or We Can Start Choosing to Love
The people in the last paragraph, as well as everyone else. We can recognize our power of choice, understand that understanding can be more fruitful than willful ignorance, and start to believe that it’s possible that if we allow and encourage people to come out of their holes they might like it more out here (even though it will be scary at first, but that’s why we’re here to help).
Everyone doesn’t need to have the same beliefs, we just need to start believing in everyone.
Choose to Love
If this is sounding like something you want to get onboard with, here are the sometimes-daily steps I run through in my effort to choose to love more, and allow myself to hate less:
- Remind myself, first and foremost, that I do have a choice. “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters” or however that Epictetus quote goes. No matter how horrible, nefarious, or Disney-villain-evil someone seems (or is), I choose how I will make sense of that an act.
- Try to find the good. And I mean actually find it. Don’t trick myself into believing something about the person is good “Well, they said they hate gay people but that’s only because they love families — families are cool.” There’s likely genuinely something about this person you’ll deem good, if so, great! If not…
- Try to understand the bad. This requires asking the person questions and actually listening to the answers, not just listening for your cue to jump in and destroy them. Sometimes just asking those questions (a lot of “why?” questions — that they may’ve never been asked with genuine curiosity) will be enough, and the person will realize how dualistic they were viewing things. But even when it doesn’t, it’ll help you realize how dualistically you’re viewing them.
- Now, forget about all of that and remember what your goal is. Your goal is to choose to love this person, and the goal of that is to create mutual understanding of one another, your differing perspectives, and hopefully replace fear with respect (or at least unfear). To do that it doesn’t matter if you can’t find any Good and you can’t understand any of their Bad.
- Replace the Courtroom in your head with an Elementary School Art Teacher. We are so often the prosecuting attorney, defense, judge, and jury in these elaborate cases we play out in our heads when determining someone as Good or Bad. Instead, be more like your art teacher from elementary school and give the kid who painted a beautiful, almost photorealistic sunset the same grade as the kid who ate glue and created a color abomination that only makes sense to a kid who is super high on glue.
- Choose to love. It’s usually harder to choose to love than to allow yourself to hate, but like with other hard choices (“Should I get up after my first alarm or stay in bed for the rest of my life forever until I die?”) it’ll do you more good. And it gets easier if you work to make it a habit.
“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Incidentally, my friend slash wonderful person I look up to a great deal, Kevin Wanzer, named his LLC “Choose to Love” after a poem he wrote (that he published as an illustrated book). Please don’t consider this article to be affiliated with or an endorsement of Kevin and his work — it’s just coincidence in phrasing and a shared philosophy we have. But please consider this is an endorsement of Kevin and his work: buy his book, bring him to your campus/org to speak, and tell everyone you know about both.
Have y’all heard of Laura Vanderkam’s “List of 100 Dreams” idea? I hadn’t, but I have now, and I love it.
To me, it feels like a bucket list, but better: the items don’t have to feel realistic, or things you can only do if you put the time aside. They can be big and scary and feel impossible.
I don’t usually do things like this, but one of my goals for this year was to put myself in unknown situations more. And now that I’ve done it, I can’t recommend it enough. Let’s get uncomfy together.
Here’s my list of 100 dreams:
Note: 1 – 42 are professional-ish, 42 – 69 are personal-ish, and the last 31 are all experiential. I’m occasionally updating with a ✅when a dream has become a reality (last update November 2018).
- Write this entire list with 100 legitimate dreams ✅
- Create a line of social justice-y greeting cards ✅
- Write and illustrate a children’s book
- Publish 3 books, then keep writing more ✅
- Keynote a conservative conference/event
- Record and release my EP
- Translate A Guide to Gender into 5 languages
- Perform/speak on every continent (yes, especially Antarctica)
- Perform/speak in every U.S. state (I’m at 49/50, and looking at you, Alaska — I’ll do a free show if anyone at UofA is reading this!)
- Give Ellen DeGeneres a hug
- Give away 100,000 copies of A Guide to Gender
- Host SNL
- Open a vegan restaurant/food truck
- Create a fun audio book version of A Guide to Gender
- Do my show or give a talk at all the schools I personally attended
- Have a book on the NYT Best Sellers List (organically, not by buying my way in)
- Collaborate with three different activists on three different projects in a year ✅
- Earn enough money to pay all my bills doing Good (and no freelancing) ✅
- Appear on a Late Night show talking about something positive
- Create and curate an activist/artist retreat collaborative camp thing
- Hire someone to read [and respond to most of] my email
- Write a column for The New Yorker
- Speak at Creating Change
- Launch the Uncopyright Movement ✅
- Serve on the Board of some cool national organization I love ✅
- Publish a piece in a print magazine ✅
- Translate the Genderbread Person into at least 7 more languages
- Shift my income to be primarily from writing (not speaking/performing) ✅
- Work less than an average 14 hours a day in a year
- Make a documentary inspired by and following the development and reaction one of my projects
- Publish a book of poetry and prose
- Tell jokes on Comedy Central
- Get a studio space that I can share with collaborators
- Teach at a university ✅
- Finish writing a novel
- Go one week without receiving any hate mail or hate campaign related garbage
- Write and produce an off-broadway show (or produce one of the ones I’ve already written)
- Create a social justice conference
- Give a talk/performance in a language other than English (German, Russian, Portuguese, or French)
- Write a screenplay
- Create and sustain jobs for at least two wonderful, passionate people for a year
- Convince people “social justice comedian” is a thing, and that it makes perfect sense ✅
- Build a house for myself
- Learn French and Portuguese
- Yoga with regularity and consistency
- Paint a mural in Austin
- Become 100% debt-free
- Cook for friends on a regular basis
- Halve my possessions once more, for the last time (probably)
- Pay someone to do my taxes
- Get my PhD
- Find a secret place in the world where I can escape and sabbatical (and tell no one)
- Attend a culinary school academy type thing
- Brew my own beer ✅
- Get a puppy and love it to death (after he’s lived a long, happy life, of course) ✅(Chewbacca!)
- Drink more wine, more tea, and less coffee ✅
- Learn to be less afraid of money
- Fund a scholarship for students “who otherwise would not consider higher education an option”
- Get surgery on my eyeballs so I can see better
- Actually live in Hawaii near my fam for at least a little bit, if nothing else but to confirm my theory that I’d get island fever despite all the wonderfulness
- Get braces or whatever is necessary to straighten my teeth so I can chew better
- Grow a garden
- Build a motorcycle
- Develop a family of friends in Austin, or wherever I live next ✅
- Live abroad for at least six months
- Continue finding healthy ways to mitigate the stress of this life I’ve chosen and go a year without asking for permission to smile.
- Spend a month with no contact with any other human beings
- Spend a month touring/performing/speaking every day ✅
- Spend a month following the 253 vows of the Vinaya
- Swim in the Sea of Stars in the Maldives
- Fly in a helicopter
- NYE in NYC
- St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin
- Scuba dive the Great Blue Hole
- Road trip around the great lakes (including seeing a movie at the Cherry Bowl drive-in) ✅
- Surf the cliffs of Moher
- Go on a safari and shoot a rhino (with my camera)
- Read Anna Karenina ✅
- Ride a train from Austin to Mexico City
- Visit Flores Island, Indonesia when the Lake of Old People is blue, the Lake of Young Men is green, and Maiden’s Lake is red
- Do a backflip out of an airplane (ideally with a parachute attached to me) ✅
- Ride in a hot air balloon (ideally in Anatolia in Turkey)
- Go to the Sasquatch Music Festival
- Visit the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx
- See Zhangye Danxia in China
- Buy a van/bus/station wagon and live/work out of it on the road for a while
- See Flight of the Conchords live
- Climb Mount Roraima
- Literally walk 500 miles to see someone I love
- Go to Burning Man
- Swing on the “End of the World” Swing in Baños, Ecuador
- Ride an elephant, ideally one named “Bubbles” (but I’m not picky) ✅(Not Bubbles, Meena)
- Spelunk the caves of Hang Ken in Vietnam
- Walk from the Shire to Mordor (or, rather, the real-life places in NZ those locations were shot in)
- Oktoberfest in München
- Walk the Tunnel of Love with a коханець in Klevan, Ukraine
- Experience zero gravity, ideally in space
- See Mike Birbiglia live ✅
- Attend the World Cup
- Visit the Himalayas and a Zen Buddhist monastery in the region
That’s it. That’s a lot. If you want to make any of these dreams a reality with me, or have a tip/inside track for one, I’m all ears.
Some days, I wake up spooning my guitar. This comforts me, then I realize I could have destroyed it so it terrifies me, then I realize I didn’t destroy it so I’m comforted again. It’s a roller coaster. Other days, my guitar is the first thing I reach for in the morning. I’m still rubbing sleepies out of my eyes while I fingerpick a few notes and think about what I’m going to do with my day.
If I’m having a tumultuous day, or I’m feeling particularly down, or I feel like the world is broken, or if I run out of hummus ingredients, I’ll pick it up, pick some strings, and it will immediately pick me up. Sometimes I only need a few minutes, sometimes I need a couple of hours, but it always works. Every. Single. Time.
My guitar is my pacifier. Continue reading → “My Guitar is My Pacifier. What’s yours?”
I was reading a blog post someone wrote about me (I know. Let’s move on.) and they described me as “incredibly ambitious.” This was meant to be a compliment. Cool. Nice of you. But I don’t see it that way. I get upset when people describe me or think of me as ambitious. In general, I discourage ambition.
In many ways, ambition is the opposite of who I am, want to be, and what I want for others.Continue reading → “I’m Insulted When You Call Me Ambitious”
I hadn’t really heard much about About Time, the newest Love-Actually-Notting-Hill-Brit-Rom-Com-warm-fuzzy delight. And, to be honest, while I love watching feel-good movies (because they, you know, make me feel good), I don’t generally have high expectations for them. They tend to be rather empty.
This one is not. Continue reading → “You Should Watch the Movie “About Time””
I don’t often get sick, but when I do, I get sick. While I was in New Orleans I came down with a wicked case of Swamp Flu. Or maybe it’s the Bayou Bug. I just hope it’s not Crawfish Sickness. I also hope I’m not offending my Nawlins friends with my silly imaginary NOLA illnesses. And the overall body sadness I’m experiencing right now is anything but imaginary.
There’s not much good that comes from chills and fevers and bears (oh my!), but it can be a nice time to play catch up on things in life that otherwise don’t get much attention. For me, that’s reading fiction and watching new television shows. Two things I’ve done a lot of today, and will likely (but hopefully not) do a bit more of tomorrow.
Now please excuse me while I simultaneously sweat and shiver. Oh, Body, how you amaze me so.
Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club introduced me to the term “single-serving friend,” a person who is your friend for a short period in time. In the movie, he’s talking about the people he meets on flights (“everything on a plane is single-serving”).
As someone who travels a lot, I’ve had the opportunities to make a lot of single-serving friends in the past few years. Sometimes it’s a few hours on a plane, and sometimes it’s a couple of days if I’m in a town for a conference or series of shows. For a long time I thought, like Norton’s character in Fight Club, that a single-serving friend was someone you only interacted with during that one short time period, greatly enjoyed one another’s company, then never saw each other again.
But that’s silly.
I’ve met some of the most fascinating, encouraging, inspirational, clever, and all-around sparkly people I may ever know when I’ve been traveling. To limit our connection to that hour, day, or week is more than a bummer — it’s life sabotage. “I really wish you lived here” is a common sentiment. Long distance relationships are hard, if not impossible. People have overfull lives. They don’t have room for a Sam from thousands of miles away. Or at least that’s how I thought of it for a long while.
I’ve changed the way that I think about single-serving friends.
Instead of viewing the friendship as single-serving, something that only exists for that one moment in time, I now think about that experience with that person as single-serving, with the hope and intent that we might have opportunities for future experiences together, even if they are similarly single-serving. We don’t need to maintain contact, be pen pals, or talk every day, but I like the idea of keeping the door (or inbox) open. This change has led to some really wonderful relationships, with folks near and far, that I deeply value. It’s also changed the way that I interact with folks on the road.
Knowing that I can have a meaningful single-serving friendship with someone means that I am more willing to have real conversations with people I meet on the road. Conversations about things that matter to them and to me, or to us — look at that: we just became an us. Instead of talking about the weather, or some stupid sports thing I don’t actually care about, we talk about life, in all of its wonderful fragments and facets. And talking about life, and hearing other people’s perspectives on life, helps me be better at life.
The possibility of a single-serving friendship also creates the possibility of real, meaningful connection to people I would have otherwise never allowed myself to connect to. And the more I connect, the more I want to connect. Connecting feels good. Wanting to connect more is a good habit to form. Connected life is a loving life.
If you’re digging the idea of single-serving friends, but aren’t sure where to start, or how to do it, here are a few humble tips:
- Be clear up front. If you want to stay connected with someone, tell them. Ask if that’s okay. Explain what you mean.
- Don’t force it. One of my best friends in the world is someone I only chat with or see a few times a year, but when we do, we’re immediately best friends again. That’s how our relationship works. It works that way because we’ve allowed it to be that way and haven’t tried to force it to be something it’s not. Feel it out.
- Hugs are good. If you’re a hugger.
- Phone numbers are better than emails are better than Facebooks are better than Twitters. Social media is a great way to disconnect from people. Let them tell you directly what they want to tell you about their life. Do the same.
- Be no-holds-barred honest. We all lie more than we likely realize. Single-serving friendships can be amazing in that you have never told the person a lie (where most of the long-term or more high-contact friends you likely lie to inadvertently dozens of times a week). You don’t have to “protect” them with white lies, and you don’t need to puffer yourself into something you’re not. You can be blissfully, heart-relievingly honest. And it’s fantastic.
- High fives are good. In case you’re not a hugger.
I remember the first time I played Show Me Yours I’ll Show You Mine. Some people call it Doctor. If you’ve never played, worry not: the rules are the simple. Show me yours. Then I show you mine. And who is the winner? Everyone.
It’s a fascinating game in every way. It’s taboo, breaking the rules your parents and teachers imposed upon you, so that’s awesome. But it also grinds against our personal comforts at the expense of satisfying curiosity — a paradox we’re faced with frequently in life. It’s doesn’t mean anything while at the same time meaning everything. And it’s something many people are ashamed of, or won’t talk about doing, but a lot of people do. Just ask someone, right now, “Did you ever play Show Me Yours I’ll Show You Mine?” I just asked a friend sitting beside me in this coffee shop and got a bashful smile and a reluctant yes.
It’s a game we played as kids, but many of us still play as adults (because alcohol). Yet, for many of us, we’re just as bashful as adults as we were when we were 5 years old (not bragging). Can you imagine playing Red Rover at a work retreat with the same glee and wonder as you did on the playground? There is NO WAY Sue from accounting is gonna break this grip! We mature in so many ways but one.
I also remember the first time I got in trouble for playing that game. I was terrified. And more recently, viewing this game from the “adult” lens, I’ve heard friends talk about disciplining their kids when they are caught playing. “Sam, you know about sexuality and gender stuff. What should we do? Is this okay? Is it normal?” I generally have a rule in these circumstances of replying Socratically, “What do you think? Did you play that game as a kid? Are you okay? Are you normal?” Which is ultimately code for “There is no way in hell you’re outsourcing the guilt for whatever punishment you’re about to mete out to me. You’re on your own, friend.”
Why are we so afraid of genitals? A lot of us treat them with the fear and reverence of Voldemort. You-Know-Who. “I’ve got a rash on my He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named!” Sometimes I’ll yell penis or vagina on stage just because. It’s outlandish. Those words! One of my favorite shows, Scrubs, features Elliot Reed, a doctor who is unable to say the proper words for sexual anatomy and instead has a ton of hilarious replacement words.
We refer to our genitals as our private parts. Worse, we think of them as our family jewels. “Behold my treasure! Worth a king’s ransom, if I do say so myself. And I do. I say so.”
We are Troy. We are the Achaeans.
The Trojan War is pretty famous. You’ve probably heard of it. It makes a great analogy for how we view our genitals and how we view (or, more commonly, don’t view) other people’s genitals. Also, this isn’t a sponsored message (though there’s a lot of power and duplicity in the message of that brand, if you know what I’m talkin’ about). So, how are we Troy, the city with fabled impenetrable walls, as well as the Achaeans, the enemies who breached those walls and destroyed the city?
We internalize a message that our genitals are valuable, sacred, meant to be defended and safeguarded, and that we are gatekeepers and the world is full of would-be keymasters. This makes us unique. There’s one of us, and everyone else. It’s worth noting that this message is often more vigorously [phrasing] reinforced for people with vaginas, but people with penises are also taught to protect their nethers.
At the same time, we’re navigating a confusing and mixed-message world that pushes us to want to enter other people’s Troy. We want to see their Helen (if you know what I mean), and are encouraged to devise a number of strategies to do that. If you’re doubting this line of thought, just start to google any celebrity’s name and see what it auto-suggests. Like so:
“Sorry to put you on the spot here, Jon. But we really wanna see your Helen. And I know you haven’t lowered the gates, so we’re gonna find a way around that. We are Achaeans. We have the internet. We will see your penis.”
To wrap things in a nice horse-shaped package [phrasing]: we simultaneously are working to keep something in obscurity while we are trying to uncover it.
Our Two Signature Moves When Confronting The Unknown
Humans. So simple in their complexity. When facing the unknown, humans generally react in one of two ways with millions of subtle variations: fear or curiosity. </robot-voice> Xenophobia versus Wanderlust. Terrifying Abyss versus The Final Frontier. Couch Potato versus Couch Surfing Potato.
When faced with talking about, thinking about, interacting with genitals, and all the unknowns and taboo circulating all of this, a lot of us react with fear. Let’s dissect [phrasing] genital xenophobia.
Our Puritanical history taught us to be afraid of genitals, and to keep our genitals covered up and secret because otherwise… I’m not really sure, exactly, but because bad! This perspective leads to encouraging abstinence, to keeping your private parts private. The common sense benefits of this are that you don’t end up engaging in sexual stuff until you’re ready, you’re less likely to get sexually transmitted infections, and you won’t have oops babies. Unfortunately, common sense is often the best way to be completely wrong about humans. The opposite is true on all three accounts.
I also blame genital xenophobia for a lot of the unhealthy and dangerous interactions we have with gender — ours and other people’s. Why do half the emails that fill my spam folder have some variation of “penis” and “enlargement” in the subject? (“Hugify Your Wang Today!”) Why is acknowledgement of menstruation met with public shaming? Why do people react with violence against trans* folks?
On the other hand, many of us have the urge to explore genitalia, to uncover the covered, to boldly go where no man has gone before (If you read between the lines, Star Trek is really just about space doin’ it). People born with penises are affirmed in this exploration — we’re told we are “biologically evolved” to wander. People born with vaginas are shamed if they do, because biology.
Biologically, again, our common sense is met with a scientific “nope.” The “research” (scare quotes!) that has people believing that men have evolved to spread their seed and women have evolved to keep a one-farmer garden is more than just questionable, it’s nonsense. The exact opposite is true. We’re biologically inclined to find one partner and to latch on to that person like the Kraken to a pirate ship, but with our genitals (how’s that for powerful imagery?). And if you don’t believe me, read my friend Andrew Smiley’s book Challenging Casanova. You finished? Cool. Let’s continue.
But the curiosity that’s created by the societally-required unknown surrounding genitals leads to genital wanderlust. And, like genital xenophobia, this creates a lot of not-so-healthy interactions with gender. Why do you think teens have entire websites dedicated to asking strangers about their genitals? (some of which are wonderful, necessary sites due to this phenomenon, like Scarleteen) Why are young people being convicted of pornography for taking and sharing nude photos of themselves? Why is sexting a word? Why is one of the first questions many trans* people are asked some version of “what do your genitals look like?”
Let’s Be Naked All The Time
Hahahaha kidding. Sorry to freak you out. I bet you were all, “Wow, Sam, this took a sudden turn,” then you read my “hahahaha” and you were all, “Phew. That made me really uncomfortable. I’m happy you were kidding. Ever the jokester, Sam.” Don’t worry, friend. This isn’t a healthy gender article red herring nudist manifesto. I’m not a nudist. But I am totally serious. Sorry for the double gotcha. Now let’s take off our pants and talk about this seriously.
Whoa. How uncomfortable does that idea make you? Pretty freaking uncomfortable, right? Me too. I know I’m publicly anti-pants, but I’m only genuinely comfortable with that idea in private. I’m just as freaked out about people seeing my penis as you are. Interpret that sentence however you’d like. It’s a visceral, powerful discomfort. I’ve had dreams of forgetting to wear pants in public situations (like at school). You know, like in the movies. And by dreams I mean nightmares. Pantsless Nightmares (the title of my forthcoming memoir). I’d like to think of myself as normal (ha!), and this is forever in the back of my mind, lurking below the surface of my mind ocean, waiting to Genital Kraken my Thought Pirate Ship (how’s that for confusing imagery?).
But I do believe that the world would be a happier place if we didn’t wear clothes. And I don’t think it would be a 24/7/365 Worldwide Sex Party, like the conservative reaction to this article might misinterpret (also, that’s the title of my forthcoming fictional memoir, AKA my A Million Little Pieces). Okay, let’s slip into something more comfortable, and break this down list-style.
1. If we removed the unknown of genitals, we’d remove the fear and the curiosity.
You might be saying, “But there are a lot of positives to the curiosity! But romance!” And I would reply by arguing that relationships would be healthier and more fulfilling if the romance was about who you were on the inside, not about the genital surprise you get to unwrap after five dates (or one, or ten, or marriage — freak what you feel).
2. We’d become more comfortable with ourselves.
If the only comparison you have for your own genitals is what you’re able to find in porn or same-sex relationships, you’re likely not getting a broad or representative perspective. Anyone who has seen hundreds of real-life genitals (like a doctor, or someone who has sex with hundreds of people) can tell you that genitals are like snowflakes: no two are identical. Sure, this wouldn’t relieve all the comparison pressure, but it would definitely help clear the air. Like the way we view our noses.
3. I’m going to stop this thought experiment here.
Because I know I’ve likely lost you. This is too much. Too radical. Too hypothetical. It’s like skipping learning to walk and jumping right to olympic hurdles. And I know that, because I’ve thought about this a lot. I’m sorry for pushing you so hard. I normally wouldn’t. But I wanted to take you here, and to walk you down this thought road, because I think that there is a lot of value in going here hypothetically, even if there is no intention of going here societally.
But Let’s Actually Not.
We don’t need to become a nudist planet to move past the uncomfortable and unhealthy relationship a lot of us have with our genitals. It would be the microwave, Easy-Bake™ attempt to solve an incredibly complex, slow-cooked gumbo of a problem. And it would also terrify so many people that it would likely backfire and cause more harm than good. Too much challenge leads to recession, not growth.
But we can gain a better understand our own genital xenophobia and wanderlust, how those things influence and distort our understanding of gender, and come up with healthier approaches to how we relate (or don’t) to our own genitals and other people’s.
Let’s work to create a culture where genitals aren’t a taboo subject. Starting from a young age, using the proper words (sorry, Dr. Reed) is a great way to start. Teaching a person with a penis to call it a hoo-hah isn’t helping anyone, especially that kid. We need to demystify genitals if we want people to have a healthy relationship to their bodies, and be able to have healthy relationships with one another.
Let’s work to create a culture where people aren’t shamed because of their genitals. This is a lot to ask, because we shame people for just about every other part of their bodies, but I’m asking it anyhow. Diminishing the taboo will help, as it will hopefully lead to more open dialogue. Exploiting self-consciousness in advertising will also help, and we can stop (as individuals, with our dollars) supporting companies that do this. But above all, as I always say, the best thing you can do is work to make sure that the people in your immediate life are unashamed of who they are.
Let’s work to create a culture where sex and genitals are decriminalized. I mean this as it relates to comprehensive sex education, trans* persons’ rights, reproductive justice, and sex workers’ rights. For something we call our “private parts” we sure do a lot of public policing. If we satisfy the first two cultural shifts, this one will follow naturally. But changing the law can also change the culture, and that’s why I support pushing legislation in these areas as a means to remove the taboo and shame on an individual and interpersonal level.
Ultimately, I want you — your whole you — to be able to be happy. These are my three arguments for how we can make that happen. My three requests. Maybe you have other ideas, and I’d love to hear them. I’ve shown you mine. Let’s continue this conversation and you can show me yours.
Christmas Time is a few days (or weeks, or months, at this point), when a lot of us change the ways we approach our life and the people in it.
There are a lot of positive changes that are part of that shift, things that would likely make the rest of us our year a bit more merry if we were intentional about them all twelve months.
The first dictate in the Code of Elves, after all, is “Treat every day like Christmas.” What would that look like if us humans raised by humans gave it a shot?
Here are some ways to treat every day like Christmas:
- Focus on what you can give to others to make them happier. And focus less on taking or giving to ourselves. Giving and making others happy will make you happy.
- Be extremely grateful when a restaurant or store is open. Be grateful they are allowing you to give them money for things you want. Don’t take it for granted. It’s a pretty sweet deal.
- Sleep in a bit. Snowflake pajamas or jazzy socks optional.
- Cook more, and put your heart into it. Microwave and order out less.
- Spend time with people you care about. Even if it takes a bit of work, or it’s cold, or you kinda-sometimes hate them, or they smell, or they’re a cotton-headed ninny muggins.
- Drink wine. You know, for your heart health.
- Play. With a kid. With yourself. Whichever. Just not both at the same time.
- Open a present every morning with the enthusiasm of a four-year-old kid unwrapping a present. Which present? How about the present? The gift of a new day! (Too corny? Really? C’mon. I thought that was pretttty clever — no? Okay, whatever, Grinch)
- Find ways to laugh. Even if you think a joke is corny. Stop being so damned bitter all the time. Yeah, I’m talking to you. Jerk.
- Give more hugs. Hugging makes the world better. Or, if it’s more your style, do it on your twin bed. Regardless, touch [with consent] more people.
- Touch more people (in the figurative sense). Give nice cards, say nice things, express your thanks, peace on earth, good will toward man — the whole kit and caboodle.
- Eat chocolate. You know, for your heart.
- Watch feel-good movies. Or feel-good videos on the internet, or have feel-good conversations. More feel-good = feel more good. You are what your mind eats.
- Be conscious of the memories you’re making. And take some photos [with consent].
Have more ideas on how we can live more positively by treating every day like Christmas? Share them with me on Twitter!
This is what it might look like:Continue reading → “If Passion Can Be Portrayed in Film”