Woke AF (But Still Not Happy)

(Hey friends, I just wanted to put in a note that I wrote this post before the incredible tornado of dumpster fires that is Trump’s presidency began. It seems like I’m ignoring the very obvious truth that, in at least the U.S., everything is not in fact amazing. However, I think the concept of cultivating happiness in your own mind holds extra significance in tough times. So while this post lacks a little bit of temporal relevance, I hope you’ll still find its points useful.)

It’s amazing how I can walk through life with a personal philosophy bordering on nihilism yet still experience the effects of a generalized anxiety disorder. You’d think one would surely preclude the other. How can the mundane tasks of an ordinary day stress someone who sees the cosmic futility and overall unimportance of absolutely everything they do? This is just one of several great examples of the magic and mystery of the human brain.

The answer to this question answers several others, including but not limited to: Why don’t people take their own advice? How do I keep making the same mistakes? Why is it so difficult to choose to be happy?

In case you haven’t noticed, your brain is not your personal assistant. You do not hand it a list of tasks to complete, and it does not respond, “Roger that!” and get straight to work making your life easier. Your brain, while quite possibly being the most complex and advanced piece of biological equipment in the known universe, is still just a collection of reactionary components. It is designed, by natural selection, Mother Nature, God, whatever you want to call it, to respond to stimuli in order to keep you alive. The ability to conceptualize and enjoy the experiences with the world our brains give us is a special, and fairly recent (evolutionarily speaking), externality of this complexity. Yet this little footnote is the cornerstone of our world.

The ways in which the archaic machinery of our brains inhibits the enjoyment of “modern life” has been addressed ad nauseum by people far smarter than myself. For great reads on the subject, try Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by the surprisingly snarky neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky or Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. The first gets into the nitty gritty of how and why our brains mess with our health and lives, the second attempts to give strategies on how to fix this.

My intention is not to attempt to summarize the information in these books to tell you how to live better. My intention is to draw attention to the fact that information alone is not enough. To put a spotlight on how fucking hard it is to change your mind. Just like the hippies you meet at music festivals who complain about our political system yet can’t seem to stumble their way to a voting booth come November, seeing the cracks doesn’t always lead to trying to fix them.

In most forms of schooling we’re taught to learn and regurgitate pertinent information. If you’re one of the lucky people with a sticky brain, some flashcards are all you need to push concepts past recognition and into the filing cabinets of your brain. Others absorb information more like temporary tattoos, the details pristine when the sponge is removed, but fading in the days that follow. Regardless of how easily you remember mathematical theorems and Latin names, attempting to change the very nature of your mind is more like the second model. No matter how long you soak that Lisa Frank kitten, or how delicately you pull off the paper, you’re not going to get much more than a week out of that sucker.

Learning something, even digesting information on a deep, contemplative level does not directly lead to manifesting it. Just because you intellectually know something to be true does not mean your reality changes to reflect this fact. This is why dreams, psychedelic experiences, and pain do not disappear once you realize they are constructs of your neurology, rather than realities being imposed directly on you by the outside world.

Your reality is produced by your brain. At first glance, this can be a freeing notion. If our brains produce our individual realities and we are in control of our brains, we all must be free to design our own realities. This is the premise on which Buddhists build the capacity to resist suffering, enduring severe pain and discomfort without so much as a shudder. But for all of us who haven’t made it to Buddhist monk status, the realization that your brain constructs your reality can be the opposite of freeing. More than likely, it means you are at the mercy of the predispositions of an undisciplined mind. It means you can be surrounded by beauty, comfort, and love yet still feel empty and alone.

In other words…

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Louie always says it better.

Recently, I found myself at odds with a philosophy I had adopted in full: don’t give advice you don’t already follow. Essentially I’m scared of being a hypocrite. I can’t tell someone to avoid packaged foods if I ate a nutrigrain bar the other day. I can’t tell someone they should start meditating regularly when I’m lucky if I get to it a couple times a month. How dare I tell someone to reduce their dependency on drugs when I’m generally on two cups and a bowl a day.

What made me realize the problem in this philosophy was, strangely enough, Krav Maga. During a training drill, I was told to correct my partner’s form. My partner had been coming to class longer than I had, her form wasn’t perfect but it was sure as hell better than mine. It was like my entire mind hit a wall; I literally couldn’t correct her. Our instructor threatened us with pushups if he didn’t hear constructive criticism coming from every pair. I panicked. Finally I blurted out, “Widen your stance a little, and pivot more at the hips.” To my anxious brain’s shock and dismay, my partner responded with, “Oh! Right!” and repositioned herself for the next flurry of jabs and crosses. Really? No calls of hypocrisy. No eye rolls? No wordless facial communicating of “this bitch”? Why would this person take advice from a novice? Because like it or not, her stance was too narrow and she was not pivoting at the hips enough. Facts are facts, regardless of who communicates them. And facts help make people better.

Does this revelation make it any easier to criticize my partners in class? Fuck no. Just knowing a fact does not immediately change your behavior to align with it. And this is the whole point of this seemingly aimless, rambling anecdote. Just because you see the realities of your life and the surrounding universe, does not mean that change immediately follows. Changing the way you perceive and interact with the world around requires diligent, constant, and often difficult mental action.

I see this evidenced so clearly in my dealings with introversion and social anxiety. Logically, I know people care far more about what’s going on in their own lives than what comes out of my mouth. Yet I still find myself acting as if others’ opinions of me change drastically in response to every small thing I say or do. I also behave as if the opinions of strangers and loose acquaintances actually affect me when, logically, I also know this to be false.

The problem is that your brain gets wired a certain way by genetics, the way you are raised, and your experiences as you grow into adulthood. If you were taught impeccable manners by your parents after inheriting a predisposition for generalized anxiety, you may end up stuck in these thought patterns (like me). You may have created a negative feedback loop with yourself in grade school, where you perceived situations as going better the more you worried and planned for them, rewarding your brain for debilitating over-activity.

Sadly, the pathways created by repeat behaviors and cycles of reward centers in your brain are much easier to create than to break (for more on this see Hardwiring Happiness). Thus, forcing your brain to actually align it’s responses with new information you’ve gained about the world, instead of with what it already thought it knew, is like trying to walk in immaculate tall grass instead of a flattened deer path. You must consciously focus on lifting your legs higher than you normally would and pay attention to where you are setting them down. To change the way you think, and thus feel, you must constantly acknowledge and often redirect your own thoughts.

I want people to understand that there is really no such thing as “enlightenment.” Sure, those Buddhist monks have their shit pretty together, and it’s not likely they’ll relapse into anxiety-ridden, caffeine-guzzling westerners anytime soon. But the idea of being enlightened (or my current favorite shorthand phrase, “woke as fuck”) is that it implies stasis. It gives the impression that once you figure out how your mind works and how to control it, you’ve unlocked the achievement and life is smooth-sailing from then on. Instead, I want people to realize that taking on the endeavor of being self-aware is a lifelong commitment to a very complex game. It’s a game that feels like work and can often be exhausting. And it’s a game in which you will never stop racking up points and those points will never be enough. But it also may be the only game worth playing.

Categories: Humanity, Lifestyle, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Insufferable Practice of Gifting

Common adages of gift-giving tend to center around the idea that nothing should be expected in return. True gifts are given to elevate the happiness of both the gifter and the giftee, not to further personal agendas. But the Darwinian concept of altruism leads me to believe this is, to put it bluntly, a lot of horseshit. Most who have taken any kind of animal behavior or evolution class may recall that instances of “altruism” in the animal world aren’t so warm and fuzzy. Most “selfless” acts of animals are indeed selfish on the genetic level, as Richard Dawkins has so thoroughly pointed out. Altruistic deeds such as sharing food or grooming a friend have been linked mostly to one of two explanations: kin selection or expectation of return on investment, so to speak.

Adult male birds of some species may forgo having their own “family” in favor of helping mom raise the next generation of chicks. This occurs because the male somehow recognizes better odds in passing on his genes by aiding the survival of his (likely half) brothers and sisters than by trolling for bitches (passing along his genes directly). Why does this happen? Maybe that bird is fugly. Maybe he’s really directionally challenged. Or maybe he’s just more of a grey-ace. Whatever the reason, his nanny-like role in this weird Brady bunch bird family is for his genes’ gain, not charity. This is referred to as kin selection.

In a different example, unrelated primates who live together in troops often groom one another or share food. Now, sometimes the primate in question happens to be one of those adventurous foodie types that like to eat bugs. In this case his grooming is of a bit more symbiotic nature, not altruistic. But in many other cases, the debris removed from the back hair of a comrade are not valued, and the job is being done as a sort of friendly service. How altruistic! Except no…well, sort of. Most biologists and behaviorists would probably agree that primates engage in these activities to strengthen social bonds and up the chance that a friend will come to their aid in the future. In short, they expect a return on their friendly investment someday. Primate friends that are always on the receiving end of these good deeds are more likely to be ignored by their so-called friends, and eventually even expelled from the group.

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“If you find anything good in there Steven, let me know. I don’t know what to get Clarice for Christmas, she has everything.”

If anywhere near thousands of people read my blog (hahaha), hundreds of those people would now be clamoring to say “well yeah, animals are selfish because they aren’t evolved like us, and don’t understand love in the dimension we humans do.” And I would say, that’s a fine argument and a notable possibility. But it’s just a possibility. I’d argue a small one at that. Let’s not pretend to be ignorant to the role so-called “gifts” play in human social record keeping. Folks in business and politics exchange money, goods, and services every day in the hopes of getting closer to a desired outcome, loosely camouflaging their contributions as “gifts.” Most people seem to accept this fact yet refuse to entertain the idea that almost all gift giving might be tainted with similar intentions of self-service. As above, so below.

To me, the question is simply whether these intentions are conscious or not. You may not think you’re giving someone a gift to strengthen a social bond and increase your chance of receiving something (either tangible or intangible) from that person later one, but it’s still entirely possible this motive is buried in your subconscious. If you’ve read anything in this blog before this post, you’re probably aware I’m not of the opinion that humans are a chosen species existing in a moral and emotional realm head and shoulders above all other life on Earth. I recognize that our cognitive capabilities have developed to a level so as to serve as our primary survival mechanism and have thus surpassed those of other species. But I do not believe we have extracted ourselves entirely from survival-oriented mental processes.

My understanding of the biological function of altruism coupled with what I would characterize as moderate to severe introversion have led me to hate the practice of gift giving. I find myself continually searching for exchange rates. If this person gave me an unexpected gift, what is an appropriate gesture to exchange for this at some point down the road? Regardless of whether or not that person “thinks” they want something in return, the imbalance of social cues that has been created in my brain becomes at best an irritant, at worst a source of stress and shame. Sure this can occur in other ways besides gift-giving. Maybe a friend has helped you through an emotional crisis, or helped you out financially and you haven’t had an opportunity to return the favor. This creates and imbalance of social exchange as well. However, nothing seems so direct and superfluous as gift-giving. The imbalance is created for silly, arbitrary reasons and the course of action to even the score is not always clear.

Occasions hardly make the situation better. Those who know me well are probably familiar with my distaste for Christmas. They may also know it arises almost entirely from the practice of giving and receiving Christmas gifts. To me, Christmas time is a social minefield of opportunities to be ambushed by surprise gifts. I take almost no joy in receiving gifts unless I have an equivalent one to give. This explanation of why I hate gifts does not even touch on my hatred of “stuff.” That’s a separate rant though. See this post from 2015 if you’d like that angle.

I don’t really have an agenda here. I’m not advocating we abolish all gift giving in the name of science. Nor am I trying to call bullshit on people who insist they just really like giving gifts and never hope to receive anything in return. If you’re one of those people, I appreciate your intentions and commend your kindness. Mostly I just find it interesting to dissect things that most people find normal but I find odd or uncomfortable and look at why this might be. Furthermore I know there are other people who feel this way. The more validity I can add to our viewpoint on the subject, the more likely people are to start listening to us when we say we don’t want gifts. However, if you’d like a concrete take-home message from this rant let it be this: the greatest gift you can give me is not giving me gifts. Happy holidays or something.

Categories: About me, Humanity, Thoughts, Waste | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Failed Submission: 10 Views of DC

So here I am on a lazy Friday morning (fuck me, right? I swear I work sometimes) trying to figure out how to squeeze a blog post out in 23 minutes before I have to go walk some dogs. Realizing I could definitely dump some of the contents of my brain onto electronic paper in 23 minutes but certainly not edit it, I go to the junk drawer of my desktop. The “writing” folder–where all good ideas go to die. It’s not that nothing in my writing folder ever gets shared, it’s just that most things I put in there are so half baked that I’d rather just start on something new than try to shape them up to be viewed by another human being. Or I’ve just read them so many times that I’ve become annoyed by my own whiny, petulant voice seeping through the words and banished them, not having the balls to delete the fruits of minutes (ok, hours) of my precious time.

But sometimes you just have to kind of laugh at yourself and throw shit out there. Not because it’s good, not because it means a lot to you, but because it still exists for some reason. In the spirit of exorcising demons from my desktop, here is an article I spent an embarrassing amount of time on, to submit to one of those goony online buzzfeed-esque listicle websites that somehow managed to count down something different about a certain state (or district) each week. After being invited to submit the article it was promptly ignored, at which point I assumed it was horrible and I was a failure at all things. I constructed the article not more than a few months after moving to the district, so hilariously I hadn’t been to a single one of these places (save for the few I hit during a middle school trip when I was 12). But now I’ve been to a decent chunk of them, and I must say I think I had the right idea. So without further ado,

**Disclaimer: I did not take, and do not own the rights to these photos. I probably shouldn’t be posting them here even. I will take them down if someone asks me to.

 

These 10 Dazzling Views Will Make You Rethink The District

Washington, DC is often known for its cutthroat professional culture and suit-clad populace. But scattered among the city’s monolith government facades and office buildings are true scenic beauties, both man-made and natural. A stroll through the capital city may offer babbling creeks amid flawless fall colors, European-style art and architecture, or waterfront landscapes with flowering trees. Some may be icons while others are hidden gems; either way, prepare to fall head over heals for America’s Rome.

 

  1. The National Cathedral

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Looking as if it were plucked from the ancient histories of Europe and dropping into our young country’s capital, the National Cathedral’s gothic architecture makes it an extraordinary sight not to be missed. The sixth largest cathedral in the world and second largest in the country boasts impressive towers, climbing spires, and mesmerizing stained glass windows.

 

  1. Top of The Monument

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Climb to the top of the world’s tallest stone structure to get a sweeping view of the National Mall and surrounding city. At over 554 feet tall, the obelisk towers over the city. In fact, it’s law in DC that no buildings can ever compete with its height. However, you can see all the way across the Potomac River to Arlington, Virginia where apartments and offices reach for the sky once more.

 

  1. The National Arboretum

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The old National Capitol Columns sit among wildflowers at the expansive and breath-taking National Arboretum. Home to hundreds of species of native and exotic plants, the Arboretum is both a restorative public garden and an important botanical research facility.

 

  1. The Capitol Rotunda

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Don’t forget to look up! The staggering beauty of the Capitol Rotunda is found in all “corners” of this impressive round room. But the undisputed treasure of The Rotunda is the ceiling. At its center, a fresco-style painting by Greek-Italian artist Constantino Brumidi, entitled The Apotheosis of Washington, depicts the nation’s first president surrounded by god-like figures in a heavenly scene.

 

  1. Georgetown/Theodore Roosevelt Island

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Georgetown, both an esteemed private university and the moniker for the area surrounding it, looks colorful and alluring from Theodore Roosevelt Island. Take the footbridge across the river to the secluded, forested island that serves as a memorial to the late president to take in this iconic vista.

 

  1. The Jefferson Memorial

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Flawless pure marble steps lead up to this striking domed monument. For many, its unmistakable architecture makes the Jefferson Memorial the most iconic emblem of DC. Reflections of its impressive façade and the trees that surround it dance across the waters of the Potomac River, which it sits directly on.

 

  1. Rock Creek Park

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Rock Creek Park, a large urban forested region that bisects the city, is a safe haven for stressed professionals and tree huggers alike. Rock Creek, the park’s namesake, babbles and flows throughout, providing scenic vistas such as this one captured at the old stone bridge.

 

  1. The Smithsonian Castle

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The very fist of the Smithsonian buildings to be constructed, the Smithsonian Castle sits tucked away behind the more well-know landmarks of the National Mall. It was artfully crafted using Seneca red sandstone from Maryland and is sure to impress even the most blasé tourists.

 

  1. Meridian Hill Park

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Meridian Hill Park, or as it’s known to many locals, Malcolm X Park, is touted as one of the best examples of neoclassical architecture in the country. The park is situated on an incline, offering staggered recreation areas and picturesque views rivaling the Italian gardens it was modeled after. Swing by on Sunday afternoon to witness drum circles that have frequented the park since the 1950s.

 

  1. The Tidal Basin

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The Tidal Basin, a partially man-made water body between the Potomac River and Washington Channel, offers some of the most impressive views in the District. Sunsets cast glorious colors across the calm waters, which stand as perfect reflection pools for the monuments that line it. Visit the Tidal Basin during the blooming of the cherry blossom trees to be blown away by the vibrant, contrasting colors (and the number of tourists!).

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Residential Unit

There’s a sign in the elevator of my downtown DC apartment complex that unabashedly refers to my 600-square foot dwelling as a “residential unit.” I looked at the sign for much longer than it took to read the simple arrangement of words, trying to decide why it made me feel strange. Perhaps it’s because the phrase “residential unit” bares hardly any resemblance to the word home. “Welcome to my humble residential unit.” “My residential unit is your residential unit.” Nice.

I’m sure there are others who would find discomfort in the utilitarian nature of the phrase. It does conjure some Orwellian images; humans living in simplistic, identical cubicles packed into an aging brick facade. Yet these notions really don’t bother me. Simple, condensed housing is affordable and sustainable and can be made beautiful.

The sign unsettles me ever so slightly because it reminds me that I live in an epicenter. A human hive. My apartment, though I consider it my current “home,” is one unit of hundreds contained within the same monolith structure, neighbored by countless other monolith structures, creating a man-made landscape that blots out the horizon.

It’s not that I necessarily object to this arrangement. If ants and termites didn’t arrange themselves into hills and towers, their presence would likely overwhelm the spaces they inhabit. Living close by one another, where we can easily access the goods and services we need without burning long-dead organic matters and releasing toxic fumes, is the most sustainable, logical way to support our populations at their current numbers.

I don’t mind my residential unit. It’s the perfect size for two human beings and a cat and requires minimal maintenance. Were it to serve as my entire world however, it would be in desperate need of what a zookeeper would refer to as “enrichment.” Sure there are books on the shelves, a TV, and implements for my various hobbies. But living solely within the confines of any space becomes difficult after too long, regardless of the opportunities for amusement.

I suspect that I am overly aware of my captivity in much the same way that some pets are. While I am not explicitly kept in doors and on asphalt against my will, I am a prisoner of my nature. Just as a golden retriever does not want to be abandoned on the side of a dirt road, I don’t long to escape the shackles of civilization for a proud life of shitting in the woods and eating rabbit meat. I like baths, coffee, and live music as much as the next girl. I have been designed, by both nature and nurture, to exist in this framework of human existence and find little romanticism in the idea of wholly “returning to nature.”

Still, I often look over the railing atop my 11-story building and revel at how exceedingly easy it would be to initiate the fall that would crumple my body and end my brief experience with this world. The image is both a nightmare and a fantasy.

Perhaps someday I’ll find the proper balance of “nature” (this word is it’s own conundrum) and practical human existence. Maybe the lingering, sticking sensation of living in a hamster cage would evaporate if I were to achieve my dream existence in an earthship in the woods, or nomadically wandering the continent in a comfortably compact van. But deep in the recesses of my brain I suspect that wouldn’t be the case. You can always make your dog happier, but you can never make it understand what it means to no longer be a wolf.

Categories: About me, Humanity, Lifestyle, Sustainability, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Your One-Word Ideology Sucks

Here I go making brash, vague, and mildly irritated statements with my title again. And here I go attempting to explain the rat’s nest that is my neurotic brain again.

What is a one-word ideology? Simply put, it’s a boring, limiting, and underdeveloped way of looking at the world. It’s allowing yourself to subscribe entirely to pre-conceived ideas instead of absorbing information on a case-by-case basis and developing your own opinion. Probably the most familiar one-word ideologies are religions and political affiliations. However, I think it’s entirely possible to have religious beliefs and political leanings without letting a collection of them become your ideology. Just because you believe in being nice to people and praying to a certain god doesn’t mean Christianity governs your life.

Religion and political profiles aren’t the only one-word ideologies. Basically anything that someone identifies as in a public forum without proper credentials could be an example. By “proper credentials” I mean legitimate, practical reasoning for referring to yourself as such. Do you clean people’s teeth for a living? It’s probably ok to call yourself a hygienist. Have you worked as a researcher and professor at a prominent university for years? You might be an academic. These aren’t ideologies, these are just short, information-packed words that describe what you do with most of your time.

Ideologies are much more nebulous. Despite dictionary definitions, their meanings and rules fluctuate based on whom you’re talking to. It can be difficult to pin down exact meanings for ideologies, but that doesn’t stop people from using them as powerful identifiers. People assume a lot about someone that identifies with a certain political group, philosophy, or lifestyle.

The obvious trouble with subscribing to a one-word ideology is that it deprives you of open discourse and even limits your cognitive ability by refining your thoughts to a matrix of pre-conceived, internally confirmed ideas. Adopting a rigid set of rules that govern the way information is processed by your mind can lead to a warped perception of actual facts such as statistics. If you consider yourself a liberal or conservative, you may jump to an opinion on an issue without even analyzing the facts because others of your “tribe” feel a certain way. We are all familiar with this and I don’t think I need to expound any further. You’ve seen Facebook.

A less obvious drawback to navigating the world through one-word ideologies however is that it can actually screw up your relationships with people. And I don’t mean getting into an argument with your racist, homophobic uncle at Thanksgiving dinner; that guy is a dick and you shouldn’t care if your relationship with him is ruined. I’m talking about assuming you understand someone when you really don’t. I’m talking about accepting a word as an explanation of how someone sees the world when what you really need is a library.

People cannot truly be defined by one-word ideologies. And if they think they can, they’re not thinking enough. If you can really explain the way you choose to live and think in one word, I’m willing to bet your ideology just sucks. Instead of telling me you’re a vegan, explain the mental process you used to determine that eating meat and consuming animal products is wrong. And moreover, is it wrong for you or is it wrong for everyone? These are important details. A lot of people hate vegans because they assume their decision to abstain from something is an indication of their wishes for everyone to abstain from it. This isn’t always the case.

Taking one-word ideologies as an indication of personality is also fraught with peril. You might choose friends because they share your religion or lifestyle, but you may quickly find out these choices aren’t prerequisites to being a decent human being. Jumping too quickly into relationships with people based on their prominent self-identifiers can surround you with individuals who offer you little more than surface-level affinity and confirmation bias.

I feel it’s important to point out that I understand the value of identifiers in the social lives of human beings. With more than seven billion people on earth, it’s kind of hard to be friends with everyone. You need to start somewhere in picking who you choose to spend your time with. It takes a long time to delve into someone’s mental process to determine how they see the world, and it’s a lot easier to build a picture of them based on a collection of cookie-cutter identifiers. But a lot of people are actually starved for good conversation. In a world where the “appropriate” topics of polite conversation leave a lot to be desired, I tend to find many people are relieved to have someone ask them about the deeper workings of their mind, such as their motives and core values.

But good relationships are hardly ever quick and easy to build. Just like good ideas, good relationships take time, thought, and understanding. I believe investing in the quality of our own ideas can help us understand the complexity of others’. If your worldview takes more than a word to explain, why would you accept a one-word label for someone else? Seeing opinions, values, and beliefs in this way opens up a conversation abut the roots of those ideas. I’m far more interested in the logic and reasoning behind someone’s opinion than the opinion itself.

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Why is Socialism So Scary?

Why is everyone so afraid to be called a socialist?

A lot of the knee-jerk, frothy-mouthed repulsion to socialism can still be attributed to fallout from the red scare. Americans have been programmed to worship the virtue of capitalism and lump socialism in with communism, fascism, and other “scary” political systems that are incompatible with capitalistic ideals. But even Americans who aren’t completely brain washed and dried by past propaganda and fear-mongering media outlets often still cringe at the mention of the “s” word. So what’s the deal?

With the rising popularity of self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders comes a debate about what his ideas mean for the United States. Although the U.S. is a country with social safety nets on paper, these programs often fall far short of lifting citizens out of poverty and homelessness. In a country where the minimum wage hasn’t been adjusted for inflation, housing prices continue to climb, and universal healthcare is in its troubled, complicated infancy, more people than ever struggle to make ends meet.

Yet voices from the right call for further constriction of the social safety net. Welfare encourages people to live on the taxpayers’ dollar they say. Hardworking people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so to speak, and escape poverty with that good old-fashioned American ingenuity, not help from Uncle Sam.

In stark contrast, there exists the Nordic model of government. Scandinavian countries, often cited as some of the most statistically happy in the world, have much more robust welfare programs. They have a free-market, capitalist economy like the United States, but tax rates between 30-50% (some of the highest in the world) that support healthcare, education, public housing, and other social services. Wikipedia calls Scandinavian countries “welfare states.” While to many Americans this may sound like an insult, it’s actually just a highly logical and intelligent way to ensure citizens in a society have their basic needs met.

I could spend years writing about what socialism actually means to me philosophically or what Bernie Sanders does and does not stand for. I could also delve into the facts that show Denmark’s form of capitalism to be more successful than ours. But in the interest of brevity and relevance to everyday conversations, I’m going to focus on the main arguments I hear from people who hate the idea of socialism or welfare states, and how I might verbally (but in most cases mentally) respond.

 

  1. The Robin Hood Economy

Why should we take one person’s hard-earned money and give it to another? In the words of every 4-year-old ever, “That’s not fair.” People with large incomes generally work very hard to bring in that money and forcing them to pay higher taxes to support those who don’t work as hard is wrong.

 

This objection is based on the flawed assumption that people who earn less do so because they work less. It ignores the existence of privilege, institutional racism, cycles of poverty, and education inequality. It conveniently forgets that college tuition in this country has increased 1,120 percent (for comparison, food prices have only risen about 244 percent due to inflation). Overwhelmingly, those with advanced degrees, thus greater opportunity and earning power, are those who could afford to go to school; not those who worked the hardest to. It also forgets that if everyone had the ingenuity or risk-taking personality to be a entrepreneur, we’d have a bit of trouble functioning as a society.

Those who did overcome all odds and adversity to succeed often don’t help the situation. People who pulled themselves out of poverty by working four jobs, starving, or abandoning the idea of sleep throughout college in order to be successful and debt free are shockingly not the first to speak up for social safety nets. In fact, they’re often some of the strongest opponents. “Well I worked hard for my success, why should someone just get it for free?” They miss the point completely that they shouldn’t have had to jeopardized their health or sanity just to ensure they didn’t spend their life in government housing while their peers’ parents simply paid for tuition. They also seem to suffer from the delusion that if things get better or a little easier for people around them, or in the generations below them, it somehow invalidates their success. It doesn’t. And their insecurity over their own self-worth is hurting people.

 

  1. Competition is King

Natural selection dude. Some people succeed, others don’t. It’s “natural” to have poverty, homelessness, and income inequality.

 

Wow, there are just so many things wrong with this one. Where do I even start? First, as I’ve already said several times in this blog, just because something is “natural” does not mean it is right, desirable, or appropriate. Infectious diseases are natural, yet we generally try to stave those off. Reproduction is natural, yet most (sane) people support the use of birth control. The provision of a social safety net is meant to ensure that all people enjoy basic human rights. It’s not so someone can afford a new video game console, it’s so they don’t have to sleep in a tent under an overpass every night. To me this is an ethical no-brainer.

 

  1. But won’t everyone just become lazy?

Giving people stuff for free will just discourage them from getting a job. We’d be encouraging people to sit around all day.

 

Who cares? Take a second to think about all the people you know. Now think about their occupations. How many of them are actually engaged in maintaining or bettering society? Are they working in healthcare or public service? Are they generating products or services people actually need? Are they working for the common good in politics or research? Or perhaps creating beautiful works of art? On the flip side, how many are just busy? Busy pushing paper around in an office, doing a job a robot could do, or hocking stuff no one needs.

Chances are, many of the busy people would choose to leave their soul-sucking jobs if their basic needs were met. Could they choose to then pursue more worthwhile careers that benefit society? Yes! Could they also choose to sit around on their asses all day, living on food stamps and jerking off? Probably! However, I would bet both my kidneys the number of healthy, functional people who would choose option B would be comparatively very low. The number of people who would choose to pursue more worthwhile careers would more than make up for the “tax burden” of the few who chose to live on government money.

Furthermore, needing to work more than full-time just to stay alive creates a desperate populace that falls right into the hands of unscrupulous and socially irresponsible businesses. Personally, I’d rather someone stay home than spend their time selling sweatshop-made items at Wal-Mart* or convincing customers to upgrade their Comcast plan.

*The three largest private employers in the U.S. are Wal-Mart, Yum Brands (Taco Bell, KFC), and McDonalds. Still glad everyone’s employed?

 

When you really take some time to look at it, you can grind this whole issue down to a very simple dichotomy. There are those who believe life should be a lottery, and if you’re unlucky enough to draw a shit number (for example by being born poor or disabled), you should have to work harder your entire life to get the same things others obtain easily. Then, there are those who believe the playing field should be leveled to the best of our ability, and all people should be given relatively the same chance to succeed.

I’d like to reiterate again that arguing the first option is right because it’s natural is absolute, unrefined bullshit. Society itself is not “natural.” Nothing humans do in 2016 meshes with the normal order of the world. The economy does not exist, country borders are imaginary, and your job is made up. But even at a fundamental “natural” level, the whole point of animal social structures are to benefit the various members of the group. If we are going to insist society function in a dog-eat-dog fashion, I’d prefer to just not have one frankly.

The hilarious thing to me is that proponents of the first model consider themselves to be “anti-entitlement” and “against handouts.” Yet, for some reason, they ignore the fact that life is just one big handout for those who were lucky enough to be born into a privileged setting.

“Well, rich people don’t cost anything to support, while government handouts cost the taxpayers money,” they say.

Wrong again. The tendency of rich people to soak up more resources than most other human beings absolutely costs something. The very wealthy can afford to consume more, produce more waste, accrue more land, and even pay off pollution disincentives. Our modern economic system places an infinite growth model on a planet with finite resources. The result is that anyone who can save up enough intrinsically worthless paper currency can buy unlimited amounts of the most precious substances, such as water, land, and food. Make no mistake, concentrating large portions of the resources needed by all of humanity into the hands of just a few people costs a great deal on a much larger scale. Mitigating the water crisis in Flint will now cost millions in state and federal government assistance; investing in insuring all citizens had access to safe water from the beginning would have cost far less.

To me, there are really only two reasons why someone might be vehemently against social safety nets. The first option is pure ignorance. People don’t understand where our tax money actually goes, what privilege and institutional racism are, or what degree luck has played in their success. Or, perhaps, they really just don’t understand the scope of the problem in the first place. If you’ve never lived in a big city and seen the struggle homeless and impoverished people face, you may never truly understand.

The other option however is much more depressing. If you understand how unlevel the playing field really is and how much a country, as a whole, can benefit from evening this playing field, yet you still don’t think people should pay into a system that supports others when they fall, you might just be an ass hole.

There, I said it.

You might just be the kind of person who thinks so lowly of your fellow human beings, that you’d rather believe they’re lazy than misfortuned. You might be the kind of person who attributes all your success to yourself and ignores those who helped you along the way.

Regardless of the genetic, developmental, and environmental factors that led to you feeling this way, I can’t help but see you as someone I do not like.

At the end of the day, if you can look at another human being and say “you should be homeless while I should be warm and well-fed,” I just honestly don’t know what to do with you.

 

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Categories: Humanity, Philosophy, Politics, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Praise San Diego for Renewable Energy Commitment

Finally some positive news! Here’s to hoping San Diego’s actions spread like wildlife in a drought-ridden state. (too soon?)

San Diego is the first major American city to make a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy. Thank the city’s mayor for working to enact such an ambitious energy plan.

Source: Praise San Diego for Renewable Energy Commitment

Categories: Activism, Environment, Sustainability | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tiny Vampires

Hello my lovely 20-something followers! It’s been a while. But don’t worry; I have a whole new cornucopia of excuses to justify my lack of commitment to my blog. First and foremost, I’ve started actually getting paid to write (not a lot, but enough to motivate me to choose the gig over blogging). Second, I’ve had a whole host of life changes recently that kind of threw my routine (if I ever had one) out the window.

The most interesting of those is the subject of this post. After quite some time deliberating on the subject—and getting over some embarrassment and mild PTSD—I decided I am comfortable enough to share my experience. Don’t you feel lucky?

So here it goes.

Over the summer, my life was almost destroyed by a creature the size of a flax seed.

Those who’ve been victimized by this agent of Satan probably already know what I’m referring to. For the rest of you lucky, bright-eyed, blissfully ignorant bastards, I’ll elaborate (and ruin your night’s sleep): I’m talking about bed bugs. Sounds creepy right?

Well…

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When I first heard of bed bugs it was probably whilst combing travel websites. Bed bugs are often mentioned in the realm of hostels, dorms, and cheap motels, especially those abroad. I believe I checked for them half-heartedly a few times while staying in hostels in Costa Rica, not really even knowing what I was looking for.

However, everyone seems to forget to mention some very important information about bed bugs, predominantly that they are FUCKING EVERYWHERE. That’s right kiddos, nowhere is safe. Since the 80s, bed bug infestations have exploded in developed nations. Bed bugs aren’t just in hostels or motels, but in high-end apartments, restaurants, laundromats, and even libraries—yes they hide in books, and yes you can get them from these books. Commence psychotic breakdown.

Most attribute this rise to an increase in travel and pesticide resistance as well as a lack of education and the stigma surrounding infestations. Well, I’m going to do my share to tackle the last part of that sentence and school anyone reading this about these little vampires:

 

Bed bugs don’t give a shit if you’re dirty or clean, poor or rich.

Anyone and any place can be infested by bed bugs. My apartment definitely wasn’t what I would consider “high-end” but it also wasn’t a slum. Bed bugs may seem to plague poor areas more than affluent ones due to larger amounts of clutter, less responsive pest management practices, and the circulation of second-hand furniture. This doesn’t change the fact that the evil little shits will live anywhere, hitchhike on anything, and feed on anyone. Anywhere they can find warm bodies is good place to settle down. Oh, and they can also wait around for months without a meal. Like I said, nowhere is safe.

 

Bed bugs aren’t just annoying.

Some sources refer to bed bugs as an “annoying pest.” People who write things like this should try waking up to the feeling of something snacking on you, and then dealing with the knowledge that said something has actually been living in your bed frame for weeks, living off your precious life energy and shitting in your bed the whole time. Then they can tell me just how “annoying” that is. It’s not annoying, it’s fucking horrifying. This is the stuff of nightmares. Though they don’t spread disease, bed bugs can turn normal human beings into paranoid, anxiety-ridden insomniacs. So not exactly a great experience for someone who already suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Now I have the added delight of experiencing a mini heart attack any time I see something vaguely reminiscent in shape or size of a bed bug or feel an itch while in bed. For more on “Bed Bug Madness”, check out this article.

 

There is hope. Kind of.

The internet and brazen honesty are our friends in the fight against bed bugs. Through my research I found that in addition to professional extermination services, the most valuable weapon against bed bugs is plain old heat. You can purchase a product called the “Bug Zapper.” It’s basically just a portable oven that will heat your possessions (in a much safer and more effective manner than a conventional oven) to a point that cooks the tiny vampires alive. You can also freeze possessions to kill bed bugs, but this takes a lot longer and is less reliable. Most importantly people need to stop acting like this is something that only happens in the third world. All apartment complexes should warn tenants about bed bugs. Parents should teach their kids about bed bugs. President Obama should deliver an address and turn national attention and full military power towards bed bugs. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Oprah should be solving the bed bug crisis.

 

So maybe I’m just a little bent out of shape about this. But the reality is not that bed bugs ruined my life but that they took something sacred away from it. The second most devastating loss of my bed bug infestation (the first being my sanity, naturally) was my love for second-hand items. I hate buying new things in a world full of unwanted stuff and I love the character of used books, furniture, and clothing. But now that I’ve peered into the rabbit hole of lunacy, desperation and paranoia that is life with bed bugs, my zeal has been replaced with fear. I still buy used clothes, but I throw them immediately into the wash on hot and dry them for 60 minutes to set my mind at ease. I’ve also bought a few used books after flipping neurotically through the pages. But my love affair with used furniture has officially ended. I feel as though my innocence has been taken. I find it tragic that I must pass up a perfectly good futon on craigslist, or a unique end table with a turkey on it at the thrift store for fear of another infestation.

I’m not sure what the answer to the bed bug epidemic is, other than spreading the word to avoid curbside castaways and inspect hotel beds. I don’t know if throwing infested furniture in landfills or using new pesticides will do anything but prolong the inevitable: a hostile takeover of human society by nefarious bed bug overlords.

Ok obviously I’m kidding but it’s still pretty frightening, don’t you think?

 

So for anyone with something important to do today, here’s the ANGTFT (Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That) version of the last six months of my life:

Just when I was starting to really love my new tiny apartment lifestyle, it was unceremoniously demolished by demonic arthropods. My cat and I moved in with my boyfriend, almost infested his place as well, and I salvaged what possessions and sanity I could. Despite all this, we still managed to escape Michigan just before winter truly set in. We now share a small apartment in downtown D.C. where we are hoping to find work before our modest savings run out.

Thanks for reading friends, and may you never wake up in the middle of the night to find a tiny vampire hiding in the pages of your scifi novel.

Cheers.

Categories: About me, Lifestyle, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Protect Utah’s Vulnerable Desert Ecosystems

I’ve started writing for ForceChange! ForceChance is a political activism site that works to enact positive change in animal welfare, environmental, human rights, and social causes. Although my focus will typically be environmental and animal welfare issues, I’m open to covering just about anything. So if you have a cause you would like to see a petition created for, please send me a message (you can find my contact info in the “About” section of this site) and I would be happy to attempt to cover it!

Below is my first petition. Sign to support the protection of fragile desert ecosystems!

Utah

Valuable conservation areas neighboring national parks in Utah are at risk of losing protection. These areas provide habitat to vulnerable species such as the endangered Mojave Desert tortoise. Urge the Bureau of Land Management to place conservation above land use and protect these fragile desert ecosystems.

Source: Protect Utah’s Vulnerable Desert Ecosystems

Categories: Activism, Environment | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Make Your Life Better, Right Now

Alright bare with me folks, I promise I’m not selling essential oils, shake weights, or sex toys (but if I was going to suggest any of the three for making life better, I would definitely go with the sex toys). I’m also not touting “4 Ways To Fix Your Life and Be Happy”. Anyone who tells you they’ve figured out how to be happy is either lying or assuming you’re an identical person to them. Either way run.

I have simply observed the power of certain tasks to improve my life and I’d like to share them. Some of these tips may seem obvious, but I encourage you to take a look at those around you and determine how many of them actually do these things regularly. I’m guessing not many. The selling point of these tips is they require almost no time, money, or changes in philosophy, just perhaps a little dedication. So, for anyone who needs a little pick-me-up, here are 5 EASY ways to make your experience on planet earth a little better, almost immediately.

  1. Drink water.

It feels so silly to have to say this but after seeing people day in and day out drink nothing but coffee, soda, and alcohol I feel the need to remind the human species that we RUN ON WATER. While coffee and soda don’t dehydrate your body as per a common myth*, completely replacing water with them in your diet brings several other ill effects such as increased sugar intake and serious caffeine dependency. Water is the ultimate refreshing beverage and hey, if you’re fortunate enough to live in a developed nation it’s usually cheap or free! Aside from just generally keeping your body a nice, squishy, well-oiled machine, the most shockingly beneficial thing about water to me is its ability to ward off headaches. I used to get a lot of headaches and now not so much. Although some of this is likely due to improved stress reduction and management, I actually believe most of it is just hydration. I tend to get headaches when I leave my water bottle at home, but days I keep it on me and sip periodically are typically smooth sailing. Now, I’m not saying you need to drink the absurd amount of water some health gurus recommend, in fact sources say even the oft-repeated “8 glasses a day” is bull (see same article I cited above). Judging by the size of my water bottle, I probably drink around 35 oz of water on an average day but much more on a day full of strenuous exercise.

  1. Start monitoring your sleep.

As most of us know, sleep makes a world of difference in how you feel each day. However saying, “Hey, you should just get more sleep!” to someone who works two jobs to pay rent or is getting their phD is a dick move. I’m sure most people would just LOVE to “get more sleep” but their schedule and responsibilities do not allow that right now. Therefore, a smaller and more tangible step for someone feeling tired or sleep deprived all the time is to start monitoring your sleep in some way. This could range from just keeping a journal on your nightstand to buying a fancy activity tracker wristband such as a Jawbone or FitBit. I personally use a $1 app for my iPhone called Sleep Cycle. The app (supposedly) uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to track your movements while you sleep to judge what phase of sleep you are in at all times throughout your night. It then uses this judgment to try to wake you up at an “appropriate” time—aka when you’re not in a deep, dark, tar pit of a sleep coma. Although according to current research, the sleep stage you’re awoken in doesn’t affect cognitive performance**, I for one believe it affects my mood and immediate feelings about how my day’s going to go. Most people I talk to agree getting woken up during deep sleep or an intense dream is pretty awful.

Although I won’t say the app works perfectly, I certainly prefer it to my old alarm and the data it provides are where the real usefulness lies. Whether using an app, journal, or device, the goal is to take note of the factors each day that may be affecting your sleep length or quality, and matching those up with feelings and behaviors you observe in yourself. Do you often eat a large dinner close to bedtime? Start writing down when you do or don’t and you may begin to notice a correlation with the way you sleep or wake up. Once you start to pick out these patterns, it often becomes clear that small and easy changes could make a huge difference for your sleep quality. One of the most important things I found was that I sleep much better when I read before bed than when I spend time on my phone or computer. Although this pattern is statistically validated, the push for me to stop reading on my phone before bed came from my own data instead of from real science. Go figure.

  1. Do something to improve your space.

Do you find yourself sitting at home sometimes feeling frustrated yet not sure why? Perhaps it’s just me but this tends to happen a lot. I discovered some time ago that all I need to quell this restlessness is a change of functional scenery. I say functional scenery because I don’t believe just decorating can produce this affect. Aesthetics are important and feng shui is great but I’m all about maximizing the utility of a space. A functional space improvement adds a new, usable dimension or property to your environment, specifically the one you see every day. An example of this could be moving your furniture into a more “social” arrangement, perhaps facing each other instead of a TV. Another could be de-cluttering and organizing a table so the top can now be used as a workspace. Often, you don’t even need to buy anything for this; it’s just a small, seemingly obvious change you just never thought to try. Sometimes you won’t notice the difference or even dislike it. But most of the time it improves your space in a way that allows you to be more of something desirable to you: organized, social, creative, hardworking, sexually devious, whatever!

  1. Do something for someone else.

My final and sappiest tip is to be selfless in some small way. Or big way. That depends on your passion, time, and resources. However, I believe all of us are capable of doing something at least small for someone just about every day. Now make no mistake; just as in the natural world, altruism is not the warm, fuzzy act it often appears. I don’t consider myself a bad person but I’m not Mother Theresa. Obviously I care about people and want them to be happy. But often, I do random acts of kindness predominantly because they make me happy. I would even wager that I often get more reciprocal happiness than the act was even worth. For example, giving a homeless man five dollars may make his hour better but it will probably make my whole day better. Perhaps this is why a study a few years back found spending money on other people is the best way to “buy happiness”***. So donate ten dollars to charity, share your lunch with someone who doesn’t have one, go play with the animals at a shelter, or at the very least smile at someone (sometimes this is all I can muster). I promise you won’t be disappointed.

* http://www.huffingtonpost.com/monica-reinagel-ms-ldn-cns/dehydration-myth_b_1080956.html

** http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/dream2.htm

*** http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88682320

Categories: Advice, Lifestyle | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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