The Cartoonishly Implacable Criminal That Gun Owners Fear

A few weeks ago, I admitted my ignorance of guns and how that affects my ability to create workable gun legislation. So I asked gun owners for their input.

I’d say about 70% of the pro-gun feedback that explained why laws were useless when it came to stopping criminals from getting guns could be summarized by this actual quote:

“You cannot stop someone from doing EVIL that is the truth.”

Well, except no. That’s not the truth.

When I was a teenager, some schmuck in Chicago opened random bottles of Tylenol and laced the capsules with cyanide, killing seven people. This was a horrible crime.

Manufacturers made tamper-proof packaging that makes it harder to get into pill bottles and poison them. It’s not impossible. I mean, if you wanted to poison a bunch of people, you could probably devise a way to reseal bottles in a way that folks wouldn’t notice – a dab of clear nail polish would probably do it.

But honestly, the fact is, it’d be a large pain in the butt to pull off, and that guy probably poisoned capsules because it was easy to do. Make it a little harder, and they don’t do that.

Yet by the standards of a lot of gun owners, who kept repeating “If a criminal wants a gun, he’s gonna get one,” the reality would be that the Tylenol poisoner and all his copycat friends – because there are almost always copycat murders – would circumvent any barrier, so why bother changing the packaging?

But no. The actual truth is that while there are absolutely criminals who will not stop at anything until they have committed their dastardly crime, a large portion of criminals – perhaps the majority – respond, quite sanely, to making crimes more difficult.

You put cameras and beeper labels in stores and there’s less shoplifting because they’re more likely to get caught. You have locks on your doors and people are less likely to break in when they know they’ll have to kick in a door. Do stringent background checks at your school, and it’s less likely a child molester will try for a job there. If there’s too many cops on the street, lots of muggers will stay home that day.

Make it difficult for long enough, lots of criminals decide not to bother.

That’s literally how it works.

Yet the pro-gun people seem to genuinely believe that all criminals are this implacable Terminator, having woken up with a deep and implacable bloodlust that says “I AM GOING TO ROB A LIQUOR STORE AND MURDER THE PROPRIETOR, AND NOTHING WILL STOP ME UNTIL I FIND A WAY TO DO SO.”

I mean, there doubtlessly are a few devoted villains like that out there – guys who would find a way to murder Pop down at the Brown Bag with a toothbrush. But most guys robbing liquor stores are doing it because they think it’s something that’s reasonably easy to pull off.

If that store has cameras, they’re not going to do it until they think they can get around the cameras. (Admittedly: a balaclava will generally do it.) If that store is in a place that’s got a lot of bystanders, they’re not going to rob it unless there’s a way to thin those bystanders. (Admittedly: Waiting until night is a good strategy.) If that store is next to the police station, they’re probably not going to rob it ever.

And hell, gun owners know this because one of their most frequent arguments is “That store owner should have a shotgun to scare robbers away.”

In other words, “You can stop someone from doing evil.” Make it inconvenient enough to pull off a given crime, and the lazier criminals won’t bother. I mean, yes, people still try to rob banks – but not as many as try to rob liquor stores, because even dim criminals know that you’re not likely to get away with much when there’s a vault and cameras and trained FBI teams dedicated tracking you down.

And maybe all that does is kick the problem over to tomorrow, but let’s look at the most implacable criminals of all: terrorists. They’ve been looking to get an atomic bomb to destroy American cities for years now. That’s hard because it’s a severely technological issue and the materials are scarce.

Are you honestly willing to look me in the eye and say we shouldn’t even make the attempt to block terrorists from getting nuclear weapons because “You cannot stop someone from doing EVIL that is the truth”?

No. The truth is that every day we stop someone from doing a crime, that’s another day we’ve bought that maybe something else stops them. Maybe that bomb-seeking terrorist drops dead of cancer, one of the rare cases I’m pro-cancer. Maybe he recants his hatred of America. Maybe he’s been promising his terrorist buddies that he’s gonna get a nuclear bomb tomorrow, I swear, it’s totally happening dudes, and he loses financial support because people now think he’s full of shit.

And – this is crazy – maybe if we prevent him from getting a nuclear bomb for long enough, he’ll figure it’s a waste of time and try to get some other form of bomb that’s less damaging. I mean, I don’t want a truck explosion in Times Square, but that outcome’s way better than a nuke.

Because here’s the other truth: even in the few cases where someone is waking up in the morning with a murderous intent that no amount of deterrents will stop them, you can mitigate the damage they’ll do. Maybe she’s desperate to kill as many people as possible, but there’s going to be a difference in her lethality if she can get her hands on a tank instead of a shotgun. Or a nuke versus an IED.

Yet you wouldn’t find a gun owner saying, “Well, we shouldn’t even make the attempt to try to stop terrorists from getting fissionable material, that’s stupid.” Why?

Because “stopping terrorists from getting nukes” isn’t going to inconvenience them. Whereas more laws on guns will inconvenience them. And you may note that in most cases they’re locking up their business at night rather than putting out a sign that says “WE DON’T LOCK UP OUR SAFE HERE” because in the end, they do actually believe that you can stop someone from doing evil, even if you only stop them for one day, because “stopping someone for one day” is still worthwhile.

And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that some significant percentage of murders are caused because a gun made it super-easy for someone to make a stupid mistake. Which happens all the time. Flip through the news and you’ll find a family argument that turned lethal because tempers rose and someone had a gadget at hand that’s designed entirely to end lives easily. A lot of those people, if you watch the interviews afterwards, seem stunned and regretful, because sure, they were angry, but if they had to strangle Uncle Phil instead of shooting him, they might have changed their minds.

Which is not to say that I believe we should get rid of guns entirely. (Some liberals do; I don’t.) I made a major error when I asked pro-gun folks, “So what gun laws can we pass to lower gun deaths?” – because honestly, restricting that solution to “Gun laws only” is needlessly restrictive. If people want to discuss alternative solutions like “better mental health care” or “less news PR for mass shooters” or, well, anything, I’m open to it.

And there’s an honest debate to be had about the balance between effective laws and inconvenience to law-abiding citizens. I’m for decriminalizing marijuana because I think it’s a comparatively harmless drug that winds up getting a lot of otherwise-innocent people arrested. (Even if I personally dislike pot myself.) If you want to argue that passing laws would inconvenience law-abiding gun owners and not lower the crime rate all that much, well, that’s a legit debate to have.

(Even if I think of what my friend Sean said when he told me, “This is now so far gone we have no hope of cleaning this up for us. We may have to look at reducing gun deaths as a task that will take a generation to solve, some national battle like reducing smallpox. And honestly, America is terrible at that.” The more I ponder that, the more I come to believe that yeah, it might take decades to stem the flow even if we all agreed on a solution.)

But that is now my litmus test: does this person I am discussing gun laws with acknowledge that yes, we not only can we stop someone from doing evil by making committing a crime more inconvenient, but we do it all the time?

There are dedicated criminals, sure. But most of them are not operating off of some preordained notion of “I WILL DO THIS SPECIFIC EVIL,” but rather “What can I get away with today?”

And for some of them, “What they can get away with” is predicated on having easy access to a weapon designed to make murdering people as simple as possible. Maybe guns are so widely available in America that we no longer have a reasonable hope left of stopping that person from getting a gun any more.

But when you argue that there’s no sense in trying every criminal in the world wakes up with this Snidely Whiplash, salmon-spawning motivation to “DO EVIL TODAY” and there’s no hope of blocking his dastardly plan to get himself a weapon because every criminal will find a knife if they can’t get a gun and they’ll smother you with a pillow if they can’t get a knife, then I know there’s no common ground we can find.

Because we can stop evil. Because the true horror is that evil is, all too frequently, a matter of convenience.

Ignoring that means you’re ignoring reality – and alas, I can’t listen to your advice on gun laws then. Sorry.

Things I Have Learned After Two Months Of Personal Training

Extending off my previous essay Things I Have Learned After Three Weeks Of Personal Training….

I stand up wrong.

My trainer refuses to hit my quadriceps, or, as I call them, “the muscles in front of my thighs,” because they are strong. They’re too strong, in fact.  They’re so strong my other muscles have atrophied because my quads, like that loudmouthed dude in the trustbuilding exercises, rushes in to do everything until everyone else has given up.

When I stand up, I sort of cross my legs and push with the front of my thighs, which is something I’ve done unquestioned for forty-plus years.

My trainer questions, though. She gave me an exercise where I had to get up off a chair on one leg using only my glutes.  I couldn’t do it.  Like, literally, even when she gave me a hand and helped me pull, I was helpless as a kid.

So now, when I get up off the couch, I have to plant my feet equidistantly and shove, like a long-distance ski jumper racing down the slope.  And half the time I get off the couch using my old method and then have to return, sit down, and stand up the right way.

I now can get up with one leg.  But I still need her help.


The dietary changes are creeping in.  Every morning, we drink a quarter cup of fish oil.

It’s not as bad as you’d think.  Or at least I’d think.  I like drinking olive oil – a habit I picked up in Italy – and pure fish oil doesn’t taste fishy.  And since my cardiologist already said I had to take four horse-sized pills of fish oil a day, which damn near choked me and were occasionally rancid, it’s easier just to slurp the fish oil and be done.

It’s the ketones that I can’t stand.

The ketones are, as my sweetie Fox reminds me, not entirely justified through scientific study alone.  And they taste like chemical orange creamsicle goop, which is cloying and sickening.  But we agreed to try them for a month, and the one day I skipped my ketones I had the worst possible workout, and I actually do think it helps me think more clearly.

So here we are: maybe it’s bullshit, but anecdotal evidence seems to be in its favor.

I pity my wife, however, because to shut our trainer up she tried going off gluten – a substance which, as it turns out, is in everything delicious.  To my wife’s horror, her arthritis immediately got better and her face got less puffy.

She does not want to find that the gluten-free lifestyle will make her healthier, because we both love bread.  But evidence is piling up, evidence we, in fact, do not want.


I am clueless as to how my body works.

My trainer will demonstrate how I should look when I lift a weight, and I can see her doing it – yet I am incapable of mapping her stance onto my body. I flail around while she pushes me into place, hoping I’ll get it if she literally molds me like clay.

She’s learning to speak my language, because the only thing I know is “What muscles burn when I move them.” She’s constantly touching my back when I work out, saying, “Do you feel it here?” And if I don’t, I shift things around until I feel it there.

But even that is tricky, because I have an immense pain tolerance.  My appendix burst while I was in a mosh pit and I wandered around for three days afterwards with pain my doctor said should have had me writhing on the floor.  So I not only am flailing, but numb.  I usually have to lift the weights five or six times before I feel the strain clear enough to mark it, and by then I may have done them in the wrong place.

And everything is miniscule.  If my shoulders slump or my feet are angled wrong, I work an entirely different muscle.  Maybe one I shouldn’t have worked.

If I fuck up, it’s body work.


Body work feels like it should be a vacation from exercise.  I lay down, she massages me for forty minutes.

Except it’s not massage.  It’s painful.  She’s contorting me because my body has been standing wrong for years and she’s trying to yank me back into position – my feet are splayed out, my back is hunched like a question mark, my hips refuse to open up.

Body work consists of her digging fingers into my muscles until I’m thumping the floor with pain, and me realizing how far I have to go.

I will do almost anything to avoid body work, but because I am numb to my body I keep straining things I shouldn’t and then I have to be repaired.

Repair is humiliating.  Even if she tries to be really chipper about it.


She does keep raising the weights, though.  She’s impressed by that.

She told me that I could have been a hell of a power lifter if I’d started younger.  Which fills me with pride; my body may have cluelessly sagged into a slouch it’s taking months to unkink, but it does build muscle like no tomorrow.

People told me I had a bodybuilder’s form when I was in my twenties.  Nice to hear they were right.

Maybe I’ll have abs before I die.


 

I still can’t stand. I’m befuddled when Gini tells me my butt is too far in and my feet are pointing in opposite directions.   Standing correctly feels apelike, like some bizarre hunch, this isn’t how people do it, is it?

I watch the guys in the garage as we do Woodworking Wednesdays, seeing how they’re standing.  It’s not like I’m supposed to, I think.  Or is it?

God, I’m spending more time thinking about my hips than Beyonce.


I’d have quit at this point except that I wisely anticipated all my future lazinesses.

I know that I hate leaving the house to go to work out, but I hate wasting money.  We’ve paid the personal trainer a ton of cash, and last-minute canceling means we lose that cash, so I’m incentivized to go.

But when my back aches and I don’t want to go in because I know it’ll be bodywork day, there’s Gini.  If it was just me, I’d skip it and say “fuck it.”  But I wisely signed Gini up to go with me at the same time, because if I don’t want to go I have to look my wife in the eye and tell her I’m so lazy that I’ll literally fling our money out the window.  And have my wife, in turn, look sad because she has to go to the trainer alone.

Or maybe she’d stay home with me and slack off.  In which case I’d be subverting my wife’s health, because in the wake of her own heart problems, we need to work out.

Gini wants to quit some days, but then she’d have to look me in the eye.  And for her, pleasing the trainer has become a part of her ritual – she needs external affirmation to function optimally – so knowing that she’d disappoint the trainer and worsen my health, she goes.

I’ve set this whole thing up so we’re hostages to each other.  It doesn’t make us happy, but it does get us there.

I wish I wasn’t so smart about my laziness.


Do I feel any different?  Not really.

I want to say that yes, I’m filled with vibrancy and pep, and that everyone notices how much more hale I look, but this is subtle stuff; it’s how I stand, how I walk, how I breathe.  When I jogged, every day I could say, “Hey, I did another quarter of a block” and then I’d jog everywhere and whoo, look how in shape I am.

This is a sweaty, cardio workout.  My heart pounds.  But it’s entirely core work. I joke that one day I’ll find a child trapped underneath a car and the only way I can shift the car is with my freshly-swole shoulderblade muscles, but that’s not happening.

I’m not out of breath much.  But I’m also not feeling like super athlete, either.  Which is, in a sense, good; this feels more like life instead of some weird aberration – The Summer I Could Jog For Five Kilometers.

But I do wish I could point to something a little more impressive for strangers.  As it is, asking people, Did you see me get off that couch? is asking a bit much of my guests.


We signed up for three months of personal training to see what effect it had upon our lives.

At this point, Gini and I are in firm agreement: Let’s try it for another three months.

If it’s a lifestyle, it’ll be an expensive one.  But as I’ve mused in the past: if we take all the cash we spent on going out to eat and spent it on getting healthy, would that be so bad?

It’s a process.  We’ll see how it goes.

My Book FLEX Is On Sale For $2.99, or: How Harvey Weinstein Is Like A ‘Mancer

So my books Flex and The Flux are on sale for $2.99 all this month, which I haven’t mentioned much because, as usual, the news is a shitshow. It’s hard to give with the BUY MAH BOOK when the headlines are “RAPE DEMON HAS NOT-SO-SECRETLY INFESTED HOLLYWOOD.”

However, I did want to talk about how Harvey Weinstein is basically an analog for how magic works in my ‘Mancer series. Because my ‘Mancer series is essentially an extended metaphor as to how Harvey Weinsteins get created in the real world.

First: lemme hit you with the worldbuilding in Flex, if you’re not familiar. All magic starts with obsession – your life sucks, so you start focusing in on something that distracts you from the pain. For my lead character Paul Tsabo, that distraction is paperwork. For my co-lead Valentine DiGriz, that distraction is videogames. Doesn’t matter what it is – you just need somewhere to escape your troubles, and this becomes your focus.

(Don’t worry – at no point am I going to suggest that Weinstein’s repugnant habits were just some hobby that got out of control. It goes deeper than that, thankfully.)

But in the world of Flex, if you’re attached to something deeply enough, your devotion starts to rub holes through physics. If you’re a crazy cat lady, you start (often unwittingly) doing magic that changes the world to alter what cats are for you. (Note that this is not the same as “What benefits your cats.” Trapping innocent kitties in a recursive, infinite House of Leaves-style maze because you’re terrified of them leaving is not cool for cats, even if you’re not entirely aware that you’ve folded physics so your cat door points back into your bathroom. Nor is it cool when you don’t want to see the injuries your neglect fosters upon cats, so your felimancy quietly reshapes the cats into more pleasing forms.)

Eventually, the universe gives way entirely and you start forgetting the boundaries between reality and your obsession.

I think we can all agree that’s not entirely a good thing, right?

Because as Abraham Lincoln once said, “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Because what frequently happens to ‘mancers in this universe is they implode, either psychologically or physically or both – and they chew up innocent people along the way. That crazy cat lady becomes the nexus of some never-ending cat trap that engulfs entire blocks, subsuming apartment buildings full of living people into her need to be surrounded by loving cats.

It’s unsurprising that ‘mancers are feared in this world. Yet my characters are heroes, and they are also ‘Mancers.

Why are they the good guys?

Because they call each other on their shit.

Seriously. Break down the plot of the ‘Mancer series beat by beat, and you’ll see a consistent pattern: brutal friendship snaps a friend back to a much-needed reality. Paul calls Valentine out when she gets out of line, and hoo boy does Valentine call Paul on the carpet.

When your magic has short-circuited the universe so the laws of physics no longer apply, “friendship” is all that will fucking save you.

Which is one of the lessons that I think draws people to that series, for all its flaws: family is what hauls you back from the abyss. There are plenty of critical plot points when Paul or Valentine, left to their own devices, would make choices that would both harm themselves and the people they love – but in the world of Flex, conflict is kindness.

Now.

Harvey Weinstein is his own form of ‘mancer. Because yes, the laws of physics still apply to him, but the laws of society stopped sometime back in the 1980s.

He’s got these malignant urges to leverage his power for some twisted sexual gratification – and in a better world, people would have been able to say “Harvey, that shit is out of line, you shut that down or we stop working for you.”

But they didn’t. He climbed the Hollywood ladder, and the higher he got, the less people told him what he was doing was wrong. In fact, it was the opposite: staffers quietly started setting up whole bureaucracies devoted to encouraging this behavior – assistants who’d ensure the hotel room was set up the way he liked it, publicists and lawyers ready to quash official rumors, people who were tasked with ensuring the right talent never got a whiff of it.

(Because as has been noted elsewhere, when you realize your star’s career depends on working with a notably repellent guy, there’s pressure the star may not even realize is happening to have her staff keep those rumors far, far away from her.)

And then there was the pressure of uncertainty that swirls around any consent violation – maybe you’d heard things but didn’t know anyone directly, so Harvey’s lawyers and industry news connections made it hard to come out with unsubstantiated rumors. Maybe you were a nobody, and you knew you’d speak your piece and get blackballed at best and at worst smeared in the press as a whorish attention-seeker, so you didn’t say anything. (One wonders how many wannabe starlets did try to speak up in those pre-Internet days and had their careers quietly snuffed out.) Maybe you were someone powerful who did know someone directly affected, but revealing what you knew had enough details that it wouldn’t be hard to trace it right back to the source, and did you want to open that person up to retaliation from Weinstein’s crew without her explicit permission?

A lot of silence. And the end result was that Harvey Weinstein became unmoored from reality.

And like a bad ‘mancer, the less feedback he got that he shouldn’t sexually assault women, the more monstrous his acts became. And it’s not hard to see how that got worse – he was separated from their pain, because his staffers kept that shit away from him. He was surrounded by people whose salary depended on shrugging off those abuses, so they probably cheered him on.

And even now, you can see Weinstein’s baffled. He thinks this is gonna blow over. He thinks that this is just what people did in the 1970s, even when you have people from the 1970s telling him “No, I never forced a woman to watch me masturbate.” He doesn’t get it, because he’s been doing this for, what, thirty, forty years and nobody’s been that upset about it, so this has gotta be a mistake, right?

(Worst of all: maybe he’s right. I mean, Mel Gibson’s getting the Hollywood makeover now, and Woody Allen’s got a hot new Amazon series, and there are Republicans drooling over how irresponsible liberal Hollywood is when they voted for a guy who was literally in a court case for statutory rape during the election that the victim only dropped because she was terrified of reprisal by a future President, so maybe Weinstein knows something about society that, as a society, we don’t want to admit.)

Anyway. Here’s my point.

There’s been a lot of discussion over what the revelation of women’s harassment in Hollywood should mean, going forward.

And for me, I wrote an entire series that’s literally a metaphor for how to save people from falling into places where their obsessions grow to devour them.

Harvey Weinstein had some disgusting urges in him to trade sex for roles – but the reason he got away with that is because the people he respected never said “no” consistently enough to make it stick. At some point in Hollywood, the people who could have said, “That is not cool, and if you keep that up, I can’t afford to work with you” fell away.

What we got was – how did I put it fictionally? Someone who implodes, either psychologically or physically or both – and they chew up innocent people along the way.

So the buried lesson in Flex, which I’m making explicit for you here, is that calling your friends on this shit is critical. If the harm your friends are inflicting upon other people isn’t somehow enough to spur you to action, you’ll also help stop your friend from bloating to the point where eventually someone drops an Internet on them and everything they have collapses.

(But honestly: the victims should be enough.  Assuming you’ve got your eyes open enough to notice them.  Which you should.)

Real friendship is taking someone aside and saying “no” sometimes. And that costs. Your pals don’t always don’t want to hear your message, and there’s drama, and sometimes you don’t get the cool things like, say, hey, late-night parties with celebrities and Harvey Weinstein!

But unless you say “no,” loudly and forcefully enough to put your friendship on the line, the laws of society get erased for these people. And you get to see who they truly are with no external morality to hold them back.

And when it explodes, you’ll wonder whether you should have done anything more. And the answer is certainly: you should have. Because you were close enough to them that your feedback might have mattered, unlike the poor victims who didn’t much matter to these schmucks at all.

That’s my lesson: You can do better. Confront your buddies, because why are you the good guys?

Because you call each other on your shit.

(Also, my other lesson is that my books are available for $2.99 until the end of October. Maybe buy it if you’d like to see how friends can butt heads to keep each other safe and happy? But if you know that already, maybe just be good friends with people. Yes, that is also good.)

“I Don’t Know Anyone Who’s An Asshole To People Who Have Herpes.” Really? You Sure?

A guy who did not have herpes (as far as he knew) said this to me yesterday:

“Personally, I don’t know anyone who is an asshole to people who have herpes.”

But scratch the surface, and what he was really saying was this:

“As someone who hasn’t been diagnosed, I haven’t noticed my friends being mean to anyone with herpes, so I assume they’re all good with it.”

Which is a pretty loaded, and stupid, conclusion. Because it takes a lot of things to go right before that statement can be true, most of which don’t actually happen much in real life, include:

1) That “everyone you know” includes only your close friends, and not, say, work-buddies or those dudes you hang out with at the club or your mailman.

2) That your close friends would necessarily tell you about that time they discovered their potential lover had herpes. Or reveal to you that they had herpes. Or that they casually bring up herpes enough without an inciting incident so that you can be 100% certain as to their reactions.

3) That your friends would accurately recount the way they reacted to someone with herpes (they say “I turned her down” when their actual reaction was backing away and muttering “Oh, Jeez, fuck, no, I can’t get near that”), and that they wouldn’t tailor their recounting to make themselves more sympathetic to you.

4) That even if the reaction was accurately recounted, you would actually recognize someone being an asshole to someone with herpes (“Of course you told her you couldn’t get near that shit, she was infectious. What’d she expect?”)

5) That in the absence of your diagnosed herpes, people would react pretty much the same to you as they would someone with herpes (“We’re all basically treated the same, amiright?”).

Those are all fucking dangerous assumptions. Remove any one of them, and it turns out you might be completely blinded to your friends’ assholery to people who are unlike you.

Which has been a shock for a lot of people who thought “Yeah, the people around me are totally cool with this,” and then they contracted a disease they may have had no choice in getting (if, say, a partner cheated on them), and suddenly they discover that whoah, they do know someone who’s an asshole to people with herpes, and it’s people they once trusted.

And here’s the takeaway:

This applies to way more than herpes. It applies to literally any group you’re not a part of.

If you’re cis, you don’t know whether your friends are mean to trans people until a) you’ve seen your friends interacting with a lot of trans folk, and b) you know enough trans folk personally to get an idea of what sorts of things tend to hurt them.

If you’re white, you may not know whether your friends are mean to PoC. If you’re straight, you may not know how your friends feel about gay people. If you’re a guy, you don’t necessarily know what your guy friends do to women.

There’s this consistent assumption that just because your friends are good to you they must be good to everyone, and, well, that’s an assumption that’s turned out to be spectacularly shitty almost all the damn time.

And you fight that in one of two ways:

First: You talk about other people’s experiences and where you stand upon those issues, even if nobody else is doing it. I don’t have herpes that I know of (because remember, the blood tests are hella unreliable and nobody can really say for sure that they don’t have it), but I write about herpes periodically to remind people, “Here’s how I feel about this.”

Maybe my friends feel differently. That’s fine. But it at least starts a conversation that potentially changes minds down the line – because many of the issues for minorities is that people in the majority don’t bother to think about them at all, leading to some pretty unthinkingly harmful reactions. (And I’m just as guilty of that as anyone else.)

And second, you don’t assume the way your friends react to you is the way they react to everyone else. You’re seeing a lot of that with Harvey Weinstein now (and, yes, Trump), where dudes are going, “I never saw him do that to me.” As if an intelligent sexual predator would react the same way to victims and colleagues alike!

Maybe your friends are assholes to people with herpes – or assholes to gays, or assholes to women, or assholes to trans and PoC and, well, everyone who’s not you. You don’t know unless you’re sufficiently educated in that culture to know what’s hurtful to them, and you don’t know unless you really look closely at what your friends are doing when you’re not the focus of their attention.

Which is a lot of work. I’m not asking you to be all Harriet the Spy on your friends. I am saying to pause for a moment before making some blanket statement like “Personally, I don’t know anyone who is an asshole to people who have herpes.”

Because you might well know someone.

You just don’t know you know.

Don’t assume.

World Mental Health Day, And Me, And You.

Today’s World Mental Health Day, and it shouldn’t surprise any of you to discover that I’m still crazy. I write about my depression and social anxiety regularly, and specifically – explaining how this party made me melt down in a shrieking fit, or how I can barely get out of bed today because my brain is telling me I’m a failure.

It’s embarrassing.

I don’t want to tell you any of that.

Yet I do because speaking up is important.

In the end, you have to remember: I have depression and social anxiety, yet I also have a writing career and a loving wife and a decent job.

I worry all you hear when I discuss my depression is the ache of mental illness. But what I want to convey is that if I hid my illness – as many do – then what people would see is the “functioning lifestyle” and never guess that there was thrashing and despair underneath.

A lot of mental illness is spoken about as though it is an untreatably terminal illness, irrevocably deadly for everyone it touches – and that’s because, in part, depression tells you that there’s no hope, so why bother?

Which often leads to a one-upmanship of depression, where your depression can’t be serious if you’re managing to live with it, and it’s only true mental illness if you’ve succumbed on some level to it.

Yet there is also hope.

No, it’s not easy some days. And some days, the black dog gets me and I can’t get out of bed, or I have a relationship implode because of my crazy. The nature of depression is that, yes, some days despite all of your effort your brain is going to crumple like a paper crutch and you’re going to lose an hour, or a day, or a week.

Yet honestly? I feel romancing what depression takes from you all too often discourages people from seeking treatment. There are often ways to mitigate the depression, to learn to function when all seems lost, to find support groups who can help you.

People often say “You need treatment to get you through the worst of it.” That’s not true with mental illness; the worst of it is the untreatable stuff. But you need treatment to get you through the rest of it – and what you often find through the right approaches is that you can expand your zone of functionality. You’ll find yourself able to keep going through days that once would have hamstrung you.

You probably won’t ever get so strong that you’ll never have bad days, but you can get strong enough to function through days that would have crushed you before.

The worst thing about mental illness is how not treating it leads to objectively worse lifestyles. If you lose your job because of your mental illness, you can’t pay your bills and the stresses rise and even mentally healthy people would find it hard to be happy under the strain. Learning to function when you can (and be gentle to yourself when you can’t) will 100% improve your life.

I reveal my illness because all too often, “mental illness” is defined by its failures. Even now, some hurt soul will tell me that I don’t know what true depression is like simply by the fact that I’m up and functioning most days – even though I’m still not sure why I didn’t die after swallowing that bottle of sleeping pills, and if I’d died during that attempt surely everyone would have agreed soberly that I was, in fact, truly depressed.

And look. It’s not easy for me to open up about all this. It costs me friends. I’m pretty sure it costs me writing opportunities. And it’s hard when I discuss something personal to me and people treat me like fragile eggs for the next week afterwards because I just opened up my gooey center.

Yet I’m discussing my craziness because there’s two things I think you should know:

  • You are not alone. I hear you. I know you. I am you, on some level. And this is painful, and crushing, and distorting, but there are others with you in this darkness.
  • Depression lies. It tells you there’s no hope. And nothing is guaranteed, but lots of people function on some increased level by seeking out the right treatments for them, so if you’ve got nothing left to lose, why not try a new therapist or another medication or reaching out to a new friend?

This isn’t easy. It can’t be, for people like us. But there are plenty of people who manage to live lives that are fulfilling despite the illness nibbling their sanity away.

Maybe you could be one of them.

Maybe you could get up and try again today.

I Tried The Vegetable-Blood Burger Substitute. Here’s What I Thought.

If you’re a foodie, you’ve noted the swirl of interest around the Impossible Burger – a burger made with plant-based blood.

Okay, that’s not quite true, but it’s close enough.  The Impossible Burger is made with vegetable-based heme – the compound that lives in hemoglobin and is what, the Impossible people claim, gives actual burgers their meaty taste.   If the Impossible Burger were to be a realistic substitute for actual burgers, we could save the 11,000 gallons of water that it takes to raise just one cow and make wheat-burgers with some planty compounds thrown in.

Yet to be honest, I’ve had a lot of veggie “burgers” over the years, and what I hate most about them is their insistence that they’re burgers.  I mean, I enjoy a Boca burger or a Morningstar or even those black-bean patties they claim are burgerlike – but stop trying to convince me they’re anything like meat.  You can have them as dry, scratchy pads, or moist clumps like a beany mortar-paste, but they do not have the toothsome satisfaction of a greasy, medium-rare burger.

But when Michael Symon started serving the Impossible Burger, I took notice.

Because Michael Symon, Iron Chef and The Food Network’s basted-up sex symbol of choice (sorry, Bobby Flay), is Cleveland’s Meat Chef.  Pretty much all he does is kill animals, serving up roast after roast until PETA cries for delicious mercy.

He has been the veggie burger bouncer – every veggie burger aspirant knows that Michael Symon hates veggie burgers, so they line up hopefully at his door to have his stamp of approval.  For years he’s shrugged off what I presume are some pretty financially-incentivized taste tests, refusing to serve veggie burgers at his hamburger chain The B Spot.

Except he started serving The Impossible Burger last month.

My ears pricked.

My wife and I made a date.

And so it was that we sat on the B Spot’s patio, sipping bourbon and waiting for the Impossible Burger to arrive.  To make this test equitable, we’d ordered our favorite burger – the Lola Burger, which comes with a fried egg and bacon and pickled onions.  My wife Gini got the real patty “because she didn’t want to lose out on this meal” – I got the Impossible Burger for an extra $2.00 surcharge.

The waitress, her arms festooned in tattoos, was bubbly and excited about our test.  “Oh, I tried it,” she told us in a happy whisper.  “It’s all I eat these days.”

She brought us two burgers, and the only difference I could see between them visually was that mine had a little flag saying “THE IMPOSSIBLE BURGER” planted in the bun.

“The only way to do this fairly is to try the fake burger first,” I told Gini.  “We try the plantblood burger, then upgrade to the meaty burger, and see what’s missing.”  She agreed, even though to be honest this was completely arbitrary.

We took a bite.  Chewed, puzzled.

Then we took a bite of the meat-burger.

“…the real meat is better,” we said, unsurprised, but though we’re normally garrulous dinner mates, we could not figure out what the difference was between the two burgers.  Something was unusual about the taste of this veggie burger, some unique and new addition to the veggie burger experience that we couldn’t quite put our thumb on.  We each went through two more slow-chewing exchanges, analyzing the two burgers like with the intensity of investigators on CSI.

“The patty’s a little mushy,” we said experimentally, but that wasn’t why this tasting experience was different.  “The sear isn’t as nice as the real meat one.”  But that wasn’t what was different, either. Because we’d had real burgers that were as mushy as this one, and real burgers without the sear…

Then it came to us what the difference was:

We’d stopped handicapping the veggie burger.

See, years of disappointing vegetable analogs had trained us to quietly slip a veggie burger a few points under the table for trying.  We’d overlook the wrong texture or the lack of flavor depth because the planet was at stake and dammit, these poor burgers were trying so hard.

But the Impossible Burger was going toe-to-toe with actual burgers.  Was it as good as the best burger you could possibly have?  No.  There’s a certain bottom end of meat-flavor that really only comes when you toss a top-quality burger on the grill.

Yet to be honest, 80% of the burgers we’ve had weren’t top-quality burgers either.  I mean, sure, you do the special burger fandango and mix up sirloin and brisket and maybe a bit of pork to beef up the taste, then you’ll have a burger that punches in every flavor ticket on your tongue.

But most burgers don’t hit those heights.  Most burgers are grilled up before the game, meaty enough to go well with some pickles and ketchup – more flavorful than McDonald’s is what we usually ask – and honestly, if you’d tossed an Impossible Burger on the fire and didn’t mention it to me, I’m not sure I’d have noticed.

Every quibble we had was just that – a quibble.  Maybe the texture was a little mushier than the best burgers we had, but we had to be geared up like hamburger judges at the county fair to pick on that.  Maybe the meat taste didn’t resound fully through our palates, but it had a meat taste and it wasn’t fake at all.   Maybe it didn’t live up to the other, “real” burger across the table from us, but that was brought to us by one of the best burger chains in Cleveland, a chain run by a meat-mashing maniac.

But at the end of the day…

It tasted like a burger.

The Impossible Burger actually scores a B when compared directly to other fatty burgers.  Which is, yeah, actually impossible.  I didn’t think they could do it, to the point that we were baffled when we were asked to make a direct comparison for the first time in our lives.

I wonder what Michael Symon thought.  That man breathes beef tallow.

So currently, the Impossible Burger is a freak-show test – run out and try the miracle burger!  And honestly, you should.    But I suspect if we can get the price down – $2.00 a patty’s a bit much to add on to a burger regularly – and deal with the marketing issue that some vegetarians actually never wanted a burger that tasted like dead cow, this is gonna be a real addition to a lot of burger menus soon.

And I’ve gone from being cynical to an evangelist.  Get out there and try it.  It’s not gonna be the best burger you ever had, but in terms of a burger that no mammal died to bring you, it’s an ethical sensation that’ll do you right.

Put it on a bun, put the ingredients you wanted to, and enjoy the last of the summer while you can.  Yes, I know it’s currently October.  But global warming’s a thing, so get out the grill and enjoy the few benefits of a greenhouse effect before we go up in flames.

 

Territorial Markers, No; Rituals, Yes.

So Page Turner has a wonderful writing called Territorial Markers Aren’t a Great Proxy for Love, about handling our partners doing things that we thought of as “our” thing with other lovers:

“In one Savage Love column, the letter writer was freaked out by the idea of their partner having other lovers with their same first name. Still other folks have been upset by shared birthdays. Or their partner wanting to bring dates to their favorite restaurant.

“We get this idea about what makes us or our relationships special, and then we turn them into territorial markers, sometimes without even consciously knowing what’s going on.

“But while these territorial markers can serve as symbols for our relationship, they’re not a good proxy for it. Because they’re not nearly large enough to represent the love we have.”

And that’s very true on a lot of levels. One of my most-referenced writings is The Addiction Of Labels, which was about a girlfriend who needed more and more special things just between us until I couldn’t keep track of all the things that were supposed to be ours. To which I said:

“To this day, I’m skeptical of labels. I think they have an addictive quality. Sure, sometimes you see a couple making a single rule and that’s it – ‘You can’t sleep with them in our bed’ – but more often what follows are a cascade of additional restrictions, each designed to wall off the other partners in some way as a proof of love, each time the couple being convinced that this, this new thing will reassure them once and for all.

“When the truth is, if you need a special label to survive, often they either don’t speak your love language properly, or the life they need to live is going to take such a great toll on your self-esteem that they can’t stay in good faith.”

So case closed. Trying to have little things that you only do with your partner is bad, right? It’s a sign of a dysfunctional relationship. Don’t have them.

Except you should.

Just sparingly. And thoughtfully.

The truth is, most humans seek some form of uniqueness in their relationship – the question of “What makes us special?” often arises when the emotions start deepening.

In monogamous relationships, the answer is easy: “We’re the only ones we’re allowed to fuck.” You can (and really should) add additional emotional layers onto that, but automatically that’s the thing you can point to that identifies you as a couple.

But in polyamory, “exclusive sex” is off the table by definition – so people start seeking out other things that define them as them. Other rituals swell to fill that gap – because my wife and I met on a Star Wars chat room and fell in love in a large part because of our mutual love of Star Wars, “attending a Star Wars movie premiere with another woman” would be a divorce-level event. With another lover, I have a profound ritual in which I leave a shirt behind and then pick up the last shirt I left there as the last thing I do when we say goodbye – and though we’ve never discussed it, I’d never trade shirts with someone else.

That’s just… us.

Those little markers can get weird – I mean, “He saw a movie with someone else so we had to call off an eighteen-year marriage” sounds odd until you realize the intensity of that ritual. There are some things that come to define who you are, and what you share together, and breaking those bonds is sacrosanct.

The hurt comes, as Page’s essay so vividly shows, when you thought this was a ritual that defined who you were, and the other partner doesn’t think that at all. In Page’s case, her partner got out a set of wine glasses they’d gotten on a wonderful vacation to drink wine with someone else.

That was their wine glass, as a couple.

Except her partner didn’t see it that way.

That awkward moment happens a lot in poly, particularly when you’re transitioning from monogamous relationships to polyamorous ones. You’re just living your life, hanging with friends and lovers, and then you do something where your partner stiffens and goes, “…I thought that was our thing.”

At which point, you have to have an awkward discussion where everyone has to be very mature.

Because the partner who thought the ritual was theirs has to realize that their lover intended no harm by getting out the wrong wine glass. And the partner who didn’t think the ritual was there has to realize that whether they meant to or not, they hurt their partner and now they need to handle that hurt.

And here’s the truth: nine times out of ten, whenever you painfully stumble some ritual you thought was “yours,” it is, as Page notes, irrelevant in the long run. Yeah, it stings to realize that your lover didn’t have the intense memories of those wine glasses the way you did – but the alternative is, as happened with my ex, to keep adding a bunch of “exclusive” rituals until your relationship feels more like a bureaucratic tangle of paperwork than a living, breathing, love. (“Which shirt am I wearing today – is it one of the special ones? How do I greet this new person hello, because I only say certain greetings to certain partners? Oh, crap, did I schedule my next date with her on the Special Day?”)

It gets exhausting.

And yet occasionally there is that one ritual you can, and should, fight for. Those are the ones that actually say something special about who you are, some organically-evolved action that cuts straight to the heart of what you mean to each other – and having that senselessly cut-and-copied into another relationship would, on some level, demean who you are.

Which is tricky to define. You have to be mature enough to ask, as Page has, “Am I stopping my partner from doing this with other people just to mark territory?” Your partner, in turn, has to ask whether they’re able to not do this with other people (as a lot of cheating monogamous partners should have questioned before they started dating exclusively).

But without a couple of rituals to yourselves, a relationship can often degrade into a “nice to be here” moment – there’s nothing unique to who you are that they can’t get anywhere else, so why stay?

Marking those special things that draw you to each other as special can help you both appreciate what you love about each other. Even if it’s as silly, as, say, having hour-long discussions about unwise trench run tactics in Star Wars.

And keep in mind, good rituals are small and well-bounded. I’d never see a Star Wars on opening night with another woman, but I’ve seen Rogue One with two of my sweeties because the aim is not to make all of “Star Wars” our exclusive, but just the parts that are most special to us. I’ve been gifted with other items of clothing that have my lover’s scent on them, but I’d never disrobe in a train station with anyone but Fox.

Which is how you help filter out the bad rituals. I mean, yes, that was a lovely trip, but how often do you drink wine together? Did the wine help clarify some absolutely thing you loved about your partner? I mean, two oenophiles could definitely be bonded by the right wine glass, but nine times out of ten that’s just a knickknack attached to a single nice memory, maybe it’s time to make more memories – as Page’s partner, wisely, did.

Rituals are potent. And painful, when you discover that your ritual is someone else’s unthinking habit. And when your partners start dating other people, you’ll stub your toe on all sorts of little things you’d thought of as “yours” but turn out to something they just do with everyone they like – that way they rub your thumb when they hold hands with you, the way they playfully yell “CAT BUTT!” whenever you say “You know what?”, that wine glass.

They sting. But those things usually aren’t who you are.

Learn when to let them go.