All You Need Is Love

The disclosure of my sexuality was never really a big deal to me growing up. Even though I wasn’t lucky enough to be a child with LGBT-friendly legislation being passed, or shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and The L Word on television, or even total babes like Kristen Stewart and Ellen Page blazing trails with their unabashed, unapologetic declaration of who they are, I never really wrestled with coming out. Perhaps it was the result of already being a haughty weirdo with a chip on her shoulder as a result of hours spent watching Headbangers Ball on MTV and going to the Warped Tour, or from attending invitation-only writers workshops at liberal arts colleges when I was in high-school. Regardless, I pretty easily embraced myself through the ever-mutable kaleidoscope of self-expression as a teenager. When I realized that I liked girls, the result of some summer camp experimentation with fellow hormonal pipsqueaks at French Woods, I told my parents, and my classmates, with little more than a fuck you glance. At those who scoffed, I simply insisted to whatever faculty member would listen that our Quaker high-school needed to organize a LGBT committee for kids to discuss their sexualities as they came of age.

Now as an adult, with one ex-domestic partner and a slew of ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, and andro former play partners, I’m emerging from the cocoon of singledom and into the dating scene in a different environment and with a different outlook entirely.

Somewhere in the mid-nineties, it became a supposed ‘trend’ to call oneself bisexual. From the girls in Hole making out with each other to Britney, Madonna, and Christina (or was it Xtina then?) sucking face in a threeway on MTV, there were legions of girls licking their friend’s tonsils for the approving hoots and hollers of bros and a few comped Long Island Iced Teas.

Years later, these girls are married and popping out kids once the dust of their early twenties has settled. Their crop tops, thongs, and low-rise jeans have been relegated to the back of the closet, much like their weathered bisexual brethren. As an actual bisexual, this leaves me floating without flippers in the deep water of the thirty-something dating pool.

And when I say ‘actual bisexual,’ I’m not being glib or misusing an adverb.

I once had it pointed out to me by a former male roommate that not everyone is attracted to both genders. This baffled me. Much like trying to describe a color blindness to someone who doesn’t suffer from it, I couldn’t comprehend what it would be like to go through life with a limited scope of romantic interests. It’s a subtraction problem I still can’t fully grasp.

Considering I began puberty knowing I was bisexual, claimed my early sexuality as a lesbian, meandered into full-fledged bisexuality in my twenties, and last was in a relationship with a man, I can cite more than one example as to how I truly don’t understand preferences discriminating. I mean, I guess if I were to interpret it, it’s like how I don’t like overly-muscled men or women who wear a lot of makeup. I can appreciate the effort that goes into both, but neither wiggles the needle.

That said, dating, especially using the aid of a website, is further complicated when you can’t simply check one box. Certain popular sites only allow for you to be searching for one gender, while others are basically the online equivalent of a bar with shot specials, anything goes and nothing matters. What about if you’re genuinely split between the two?

The problem I initially faced was knowing that my sexuality was being written off as a trite “all-inclusive,” liberally minded statement on my beliefs by male perusers to my profile. This was fine, as I figured that there were far higher hurdles for them to clear before we had that discussion, like employing proper grammar in their messages and not believing that their band was “really gunna make it thz yr ;)” [sic]

Moreover, I was guilty of the same judgment, ruling out girls (and guys) who, like me, were marked as ‘Bisexual.’ The real label I should have had on my profile was ‘Hypocrite.’

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But soon a more thorny, more rattling problem presented itself. I found myself looking at lesbians’ profiles and realizing that I came across as the type of girl who was probably just looking to sow some thirty-year-old oats and experiment a little.

I cringed at the thought that these women, many of whom had well-written, introspective profiles (even if their musical tastes differed from my own) would perceive me as using their hard-fought self-awareness and minority status as a mere stepping stone to some idiot’s self-actualizing enlightenment, much like a post-college trip backpacking across Europe or a Kripalu workshop on transcendental meditation. I found myself fawning over these girls from afar, browsing anonymously and fearing rejection to the point that I wouldn’t reach out.

And this is just in the online dating arena, where single misfits meet one another behind the pixilated velvet curtain. What of my family, coworkers, and acquaintances who have marginalized my same-sex sentiments in favor of the more comfortable mainstream, viewing the B in LGBT as an improper fraction where the straight outweighs the gay?

“That’s their problem,” my close friend Bean would say. “Anybody who loves you already knows the way you are. And anybody else shouldn’t care.”

I suppose that brings me to the pointed tip of the arrow. Straight, gay, or bi, male, female, or trans, when dating goes from casual dinners to an actual connection that demands to be seen as a coupling, that’s a scary thing…for anyone. (Yes, even conservatives and the polyamorous kinksters.) Having a significant other is, well, significant. And perhaps that’s where my trepidation truly lies. It isn’t so much a fear of coming out again with regard to my sexuality, it’s coming out again as somebody who is emotionally ready and stable enough to be in a relationship. And that is something that can be as frightening, undeniable, and hard-won to accept on a personal for me, even more than realizing that my feelings for our high-school soccer captain weren’t simply athletic admiration. I guess when it comes to realizing that one day I will be in a relationship, I mean it in every sense of the expression that I really can’t think straight.

Appy Trails

It’s hard for me not to adopt the stance of “Get off my lawn!” when it comes to modern day youth now that I’m old enough to regularly be asked if I have kids of my own. When it comes to the passage of time, it seems that once one gets over the age of 28, it’s hard not to become a senior citizen yelling at a cloud.

Recently I’ve grappling with the question of whether or not technology has truly led to progress, or if we’ve just created an entire legion of developing citizens who can’t think beyond the next selfie. (Pauses from writing. Takes a selfie. Posts on Tumblr.)

I’m not knocking kids these days, in fact, I praise them for their creativity, curiosity, and general attractiveness in photographs that I incessantly see on social networks. (Who would have thought that taking a photograph of yourself while driving a car could present your pout so perfectly! Or you, fresh bro, flexing topless in the mirror…your tube of Clearsil on your nightstand really unites the composition, nevermind the flash from your iPhone reflecting in the mirror.)

May humanity be progressing at a faster rate than ever, or if there’s simply a generation of self-obsessed narcissists with little ability to think ahead, the conflict and argument is pretty kaleidoscopic. It has gradation. And hashtags.

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For one thing, the dissemination of information has allowed for access to current events and editorials on a grander scale, and at a younger age. Teenagers are opting to live their lives online. Sure, this can be regarded as dangerous, especially when approached from the elder’s perspective of “There are sexual predators out there!” and “The consequences of what you put on the Internet can last a really long time, be careful!” (Hey, look who’s talking.)

But it’s also inspiring to me. Kids are able to explore their identities in a mutable way, with various online communities creating supportive and inspiring platforms and movements. Don’t believe me? Just search “body positivity,” “blackout,” or “trans” on Tumblr. Your mind will be blown, regardless of how old you are. Every moment on the Internet consists of sixty teachable seconds. No longer relegated to microfiche and grandpa’s newspaper clippings, kids can access history as it happens. Better yet, they can choose to be a part of it.

So the ability for younger people to be potentially better informed on a wider swath of topics is encouraging. So is their participation in larger social movements (Arab Spring, Ferguson, and the current situation in Baltimore are the quickest to come to mind) and their general moxie behind the digital veil. They can affect change. They can give voice to issues, and shape the dialog as much as contributing to it. I think this is a very good thing.

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Of course, the lack of self-awareness, dearth of self-censorship, and the absence of acknowledgment of consequences boomerangs my opinion in the other direction. Like, holy shit, seventeen year old girl with the body of a twenty-two year old, don’t post that picture of you wearing nothing more than your manicure up on Tumblr! You there, you on Instagram who should be studying for your SATs, is that…an herbal cigarette?! WHAT IS THAT GLASSWARE ON YOUR FACEBOOK TIMELINE, DISTANT COUSIN UNDER THE AGE OF 25?!

Other than the fears I have for these future beings as they grow and morph and become wholly different people with a trail of cyber skins they’ve shed in their wake, all I have to do is scroll down to the comments section of nearly everything – especially YouTube – to give up all hope and want to go live in a yurt in the desolate woods of New England. I know, I know, “never read the comments.” But it’s like picking a scab. A scab made of text shorthand and vitriol. I can’t help it.

A lot has changed in 40 years but, if we really take a look at it, the most ambitious time of the modern age took place before the advent of the socially networked selfie.

Think about it. Electronics and computers. Before those devices, The Pill. Nuclear power, cable and network TV, rocket launches, air travel, nuclear power. Hell, even Civil Rights, Roe v. Wade, Stonewall.

Between 1945 and 1975 a lot of huge changes took place, largely for the better. The adventure of development, spurned by economic possibilities and post-war security, gripped our nation, and consumerism as well as social exploration, created a ripple effect of inventions and improvements that were seemingly limited by only the imagination. But at some point, the ouroboros began to eat beyond the tip of the tail, and ego was trumped by outright narcissism. It’s hard not to surmise that a thirst for universal advancement was surpassed by the appetite for money. Macro became micro. Star gazing became navel gazing. As venture capitalist Peter Theil said, “We wanted flying cars, we got 140 characters.”

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The instant gratification of our warp-speed digital age is fucking with our heads, literally. While the actual neuroscientific data is limited, one thing is clear: you are, in fact, addicted to your smartphone. From the dopamine hits that screen staring provides, to the lowered activity in white-matter pathways indicated in fractional anisotropy imaging, nearly 10% of Internet users are truly unable to control how affixed to their devices and the Internet they are.

Neurodegenerative disorder specialist and author Susan Greenfield hypothesized that a reduced sense of self leads to the subject clinging to the present moment through external means. She cites the high dopamine and lowered prefrontal cortex activation can be viewed as proof of the erosion of identity, with the confabulation of self as presented online trumping the recognition of actual self.

While I will always default to “correlation does not imply causation,” and her work has been criticized for being flimsy, Greenfield’s claim that that prefrontal cortex activity and the mapping of neural pathways for dopamine can illustrate the way that social media has rewired us to be click-happy selfish junkies is an interesting one. It’s an idea that I wouldn’t be shocked to find out is more truth than pop-psych fiction.

So if the need to get our next fix – and refresh our profile – has surpassed our yearning for a more encompassing revision of our environment beyond our 4.87″ x 2.31″ screens, are we doomed? Who’s to say. This is yet another example of how patience isn’t optional. Whether or not the youth of today even realizes what they’re waiting for is their own selves remains to be seen. Unfortunately, there’s no app for that.

Chancing with the Stars

We’ve got something for everyone!” – P.T. Barnum

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One of my best-friends will speak about things happening in her life – something fantastic, like landing a new network gig, or something not-so-great, like a bunion – and will tack on an epilogue that includes, “…I should have known, my horoscope was so right this month.”

Before you start thinking that this friend is a Nag Champa huffing woo-peddler, allow for me to tell you that she sat next to me at college graduation, talked me out of staying with my ex after things got violent, and has gotten into bar fights for me. She’s as down-to-earth on the surface as they come, with a streak of angry-crazy that every female friend should have, with the ability to cite great literature and pop culture in the same sentence. She’s been my companion at hospitals, funerals, and first dates, and I trust her implicitly. She also believes in astrology.

I like the idea of horoscopes. A paragraph-long cheat sheet for the day or the month, based on something fundamentally out of our control, with professionals able to gaze into the sky and predict whether it’s the right time to embark on a journey, sign a contract, stop using birth control…what’s not to love about a little interstellar guidance? I’ve always been intrigued by the occult, which is probably why I’m a tried-and-true skeptic. The universe is huge, and galaxies frighten me; my father can attest to the fact that he had to carry me, fireman-style, over his shoulder out of the theater when we went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey at the movies when I was a child.

I’ve never done well when reminded of my insignificance and space, with all of its dark blackness and pinpricks of gaseous light. The night sky is the most regular reminder that my little cellular mistake of a life means less than nothing. It seems almost sensible to believe that there are some predictive qualities to be gleaned from the great above. After all, horoscopes are published in newspapers, and have a rich history attached to ‘em, even if they’re just as closely linked to swindling as they are to space.

In 450 BC the twelve-sign zodiac was concocted by the Babylonians, and by the time the Greeks did battle with the Romans what we consider astrology today was already pretty solidified. Of course, leave it to a Pope to condemn it and make it taboo, by the 1600s it was considered verboten to partake in stellar divination as a Christian. That said, its efficacy was never really proven. I’m not even going to attempt to address the Chinese zodiac, or other pseudoscientific attributions of the heavens to destiny.

The zodiac of Western “sun sign” astrology is based on is a map of twelve zones, with each zone named after the constellation that originally fell within based on the time of one’s birth. Because of equinoxes and solstices, the precise points of the signs have moved roughly 30 degrees in the past 2,000 years, meaning that the traditional constellations of the zodiac don’t exactly correspond to the original star signs, and that there should probably be 13 signs, not 12. But who cares! Run the forecast in the papers! Mars opposes Jupiter during the Aries moon, all decisions are fortuitous according to Uranus!

Subjective validation, the Forer effect, and confirmation bias can all be considered the foundations of astrology, scientific reasoning isn’t even in the same area code. Philosophers including Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn have remarked on the idea as being a simple manifestation of cognitive bias, lukewarm generalizations, with a smattering of wishful thinking. Kuhn postulated that non-empirical beliefs of pseudoscience are what can strip astrology down to its glittery unicorn of falsehood, while Popper stated that, “it appeals to observation and experiment, nevertheless does not come up to scientific standards.” Meaning that its even devoid of the experimentation that most of these hogwash woo ideas disregard as biased means of poisoning the public. Astrology, as it is, hasn’t even really been able to be tested as bunk, mainly because of the selective thinking that can force nearly any occurrence into the cubbyhole of being caused by your sign and the position of the stars.

I’m not going to go through each sign (sorry, but if you’re interested, this seems like a decent resource, maybe you can pick up some snake oil to lube up for the Tooth Fairy through one of their click-through links…) but I will show you mine.

I was born August 7th, in a year that shall remain undisclosed. I share the same birthday as Mata Hari and David Duchovny, and the date of my birth is the approximate midpoint of the summer. This means I am a Leo, the fifth sign in astrology, measured from the 120-150th degree of the Tropical zodiac, celestial longitude between 125.25 and 152.75, respectively. The lion was chosen for the Nemean lion of Greek mythology, whose hide, like my sense of sarcasm, is impervious.

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Let’s start with the most obvious. Some characteristics of Leos include “great judgement,” “strong leadership,” “knowledge of self-worth”…c’mon, keep the sweet talk coming! After all, who doesn’t want to be lauded with compliments from strangers?

Sadly, these are not true. I’m a recovering alcoholic massage therapist with an inbred chihuahua who is single at an age where everyone is having their second kids: good judgement is not the leading skill that I would put on my resume.

“Strong leader.” No. I am shy, incapable of confrontation, and did you see the part about my judgment? I will find the highest bridge to ask you to jump off of with me.

“Knows self-worth.” Sure. The way that fat kids know vegetables.

How about some other defining marks for those who share my sign? “Very generous and loving,” “intuitive,” “dynamic, with an inherent sense of right and wrong.”

Again, who doesn’t want to be called these things? Let’s look a little closer at a particular systematic deviation from rational thought: cognitive bias.

The cognitive bias of personal validation and inductive reasoning are the sort of thing nobody really wants to pick apart…that’s kind of their definition. Every human being wants to feel both that they are good and that they are right. Keeping things general allows for astrologers to say loads of stuff that a lot of easily duped people will read as, “Oh, wow, that’s really me!” mainly because they want to believe that they really possess whatever glowing and general character traits are described.

In 1948 a psychologist named Bertrand Forer performed an experiment on some of his psych students that demonstrated cognitive bias in a mock personality test that later became known as The Forer Effect. This is another example of what’s been labeled the Barnum Effect. (Yes, named after the circus Barnum, whose chicanery and bamboozlement is the stuff of well-documented legend.)

Forer administered a personality test to his pupils, but intentionally ignored their answers. He privately gave each student the same personality profile as a “result” of their tests, it read as follows:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

Forer then asked each student to evaluate their phony ‘profile’ on a scale of 0-5, with 5 being “excellent” and 4 being “good.” The average evaluation of the profile from the students was 4.26. This experiment has been replicated endlessly since the first run in 1948, and seems to conclude that most of us will accept ambiguous and broad descriptions of ourselves as unique to our individual character.

Using this as the basis of reasoning, one can assume that most descriptions of most astrology signs could be applied to just about anyone.

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I’m having sex with someone whose sign is labeled as “penetrating,” which is quite possibly the only accurate assessment a star sign has ever given me. But other than universally applicable traits, what about the actual predictions? Can a horoscope’s efficacy be proven or disproven? To take a look, I searched Susan Miller, one of the more prominent astrologer’s out there, and the one that my best-friend leans so heavily on for unsolicited advice.

“The full moon lunar eclipse of April 4 brings some sort of shocking truth to the surface. Watch court actions, legal maneuvers, matters happening on foreign shores and at a distance, or news emanating from the media reporting on you.”

That was, what? The Friday-into-Saturday before Easter? The Islanders played the Sabres, but I don’t really remember anything else happening. I certainly didn’t go to court, or talk to anyone in a different country (even New Jersey) and “news emanating from the media reporting on you” sounds waaay too tinfoil hat for me to even concern myself with. “Breaking news! Girl pets her chihuahua! Tune in for our follow-up story, girl eats a yogurt in five minutes!”

Most horoscope devotees would dismiss this sort of whiff as the part of the prediction that doesn’t relate to them, while glomming onto the parts that can be applied. In my case, “The new moon April 18 will bring in lots of exciting opportunities” is about the closest thing that I can hope to being truth, as I can only assume it means the Islanders will win at home and maybe I’ll score a seat at that Playoff game.

Other than that, all of the noun defining articles probably apply to me, right? I’m no graduate of space camp.

Look, if you believe that the power to tell the future can be found simply by looking up at the same sky we share, more power to you. But with six billion people on this magnetic spinning orb, with three people arriving each and every second, don’t you think that there would be a large, large number of folks sharing the very same destiny based on their birth date and time?

And, if you think about it, gross generalizations about people’s characteristics based on arbitrary information sounds an awful lot like prejudice to me…

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