From: Howard Jacobson <>
Subject: Shave Your Balloon

How to not fear this holiday season

When I was a kid, I was terrified of shaving.

My dad used those two-sided “safety razors.” I found the name baffling, as he was constantly cutting himself, cursing, and applying some foul pencil-shaped mixture of dust and wax to staunch the flow.

I later discovered that the “safety” part was in comparison to earlier straight razors, which could take your head off your neck if you lost concentration for a moment there. (And see “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” for what one of those razors could do if you maintained concentration and had a vigilante streak colored with a touch of psychosis.)

If my dad, who was good at everything and had been shaving for probably hundreds of years, couldn’t make it through the morning without slicing into a bit of his face, how was I ever going to accomplish the task? I knew the pain of a vaccine needle and a skinned knee; a razor cut seemed like it would be ten times worse.

(Never mind that I was about eight years old, and, as it turned out, six years away from my first shave. If there were no more pressing worries, I was quite capable of getting anxious of the heat death of the universe, let alone accidental future self-mutilation.)

Introducing the Balloon

Then came the Purim carnival.

Purim is a Jewish holiday that features, in the following order, the threat of genocide, dancing, eating sweets, and merriment.

The merriment one year came in the form of a carnival thrown by our synagogue as a fundraiser for some good cause. It featured all the games that could be put together by a bunch of sixth graders and their teacher on a tight budget.

Beanbag tosses, ping pong balls into cups, wheels of fortune, knocking down the stacked cans, throw a wet sponge at the rabbi, that sort of thing.

And one of the games – which I will remember forever – was shaving the balloon.

It consisted of a balloon, a can of shaving cream, and a razor per contestant. Three of us were pitted against each other to see who could remove the shaving cream the fastest without popping the balloon.

I watched others play for a long time.

I noticed that very few balloons got popped, contrary to my expectation that simply being in the vicinity of one of those nasty blades would lead to mortal damage to rubber and skin alike.

In fact, it appeared that it took some skill and focus to pop a balloon, which for some of the children was a much more exciting prospect than winning a ticket that could be redeemed for 1/60th of a stuffed doll of Moses holding the 10 Commandments.

I wasn’t thinking about winning the carnival game, however.

My head was spinning with the implication that shaving may not have been the slow-drip death sentence I had been anticipating my whole life.

Maybe I could survive the daily ordeal after all.

Finally, I took my place in line at the carnival game.

I can’t remember if I won. (I don’t have any stuffed Moses dolls, so probably not.)

It wasn’t important. I removed most of the shaving cream and left the balloon intact. Full of air. Unmarred.

I played a few more times. I can’t even remember doing the other games; just removing shaving cream from balloons.

And between then and when I eventually started shaving (about a year after I really needed to – see my 9th grade yearbook photo for proof), I no longer fretted about the impending blood- and pain-fest. I had overcome my fear of shaving my face by successfully shaving a balloon.

The Fear of a Tense and Unhappy Holiday

Look, I get it. The holidays are coming up, and for many of us who have “evolved” in direct directions from our families of origin, it’s a difficult and sometimes painful time. It’s natural to fear them, at least the “let’s get together and eat and impose our political views on each other” part.

Especially those of us who reject this society’s food paradigms, about eating animals, about harming ourselves with the quality and quantity of the stuff we cram down our pie holes, and the lionization of gluttony (how many “food coma” photos did you see in your Facebook and Instagram feeds last week?).

Because the holidays are all about food, aren’t they?

Meals are the centerpieces of our gatherings, and rich animal-based dishes are the centerpieces of our meals.

And with the alcohol often flowing a bit too freely, we hear defensiveness and judgmentalism from relatives we don’t feel comfortable in confronting or capable of ignoring.

Many of us withdraw from family gatherings completely. That’s one strategy, sure, but for most of us it comes with a cost. It separates us from those we love, and establishes their traditions and values as “normal” while ours are deviant. This takes a huge psychic toll on us, as “non-belonging” is the root of most existential distress.

Another tack is to show up, shut up, eat whatever, and face the consequences later. That almost never feels good, both because the consequences suck, and because the act of acquiescence is actually a self-inflicted boundary violation. And ancient traditions and modern psychology both tell us that boundary violations lead to anger.

A third approach is to attend, bring our own sad little Tupperware container of greens, enforce an iron will, and silently judge everyone else for their selfish, cruel, ignorant food choices. This is the right approach, and I recommend it to everyone.


That’s a terrible way to live, mostly because it goes against the most fundamental tenets of veganism - compassion and unity – and makes you feel like a hypocrite.

A Fourth Way?

Fortunately, those aren’t the only options for dealing with the holidays.

If you haven’t experienced a happy holiday in the presence of family members who eat differently and may feel threatened by your health and perceived “purity of ethics,” you may feel that anxiety, alienation, and strife are the only possible outcomes.

Just as I believed that a daily series of painful bloodbaths was the only possible outcome of my shaving career.

I transformed my beliefs, not by thinking about them, but by putting them to the test.

First I watched others shave balloons.

Then I shaved the balloons myself.

Then, finally, I was ready to take a naked blade to my face.

Some Balloon Shaving Strategies for You

My friend and coaching student Jul Nov has put together a very useful event, the Plant Super Holidays online summit.

I don’t like summits.

I find them overwhelming. Too many speakers, too many free gifts, too many offers to join mailing lists, too many emails.

And in spite of this negative reaction, I’m participating in this one.

Partly because of Jul, and her energy and passion and true sense of mission.

Partly because it’s more of a “mini-summit,” with just nine speakers, many of which aren’t the “usual suspects” that you come across all the time.

And partly because it’s focused on a single challenge: eating according to your values, goals, and priorities during the holiday season.

You’ll see how other plant-based folks have shaved their balloons without popping them; how they navigated family and other gatherings without damaging relationships or their own sense of self.

You’ll get strategies, tactics, recipes, and scripts to try out yourself; to practice shaving your own balloon before doing the high-stakes thing.

And you’ll get guidance and support for those critical moments when you get to show up in your clarity, strength, and love. When you have the opportunity to represent powerfully your plant-based ideals without triggering or creating resistance in others.

The summit begins in two days, on Wednesday, December 4. Check it out and register here.

I’ll be sharing some behavioral science, dropping a few tips for how to navigate the season based on your current strengths and weaknesses. The goal is to come out of the season ahead of how you went in – you’ll discover how to adhere to the GPS of progress even if not every step is in the perfect direction.

When you click the link, you’ll see the other speakers and their chops. A couple of chefs, a pair of docs, some plant-based food educators, the founder of a whole food plant-based meal company, and me.

See you on the inside!