Unsettling Thoughts On Bill Cosby

So Bill Cosby’s a rapist.

Those are hard words for me to type: dude was one of my childhood heroes, the first comedian I really got into, and still a funny funny man.  But fifteen women have come forward to say that he drugged and violated them, which is a lot of women.  None of whom have a lot to gain in terms of money or great fame by accusing Cosby (seriously, anyone accusing anyone famous of rape goes through so much shit that it’d be an easier way to fame and fortune by robbing a bank).  Some of whom have been struggling for years to get their message heard.

It’s not a legal definition, no, but if fifteen different people came out over the years to say, “Yeah, Mister Rogers snorted cocaine with me,” I’d go “Mister Rogers snorted cocaine.”  So that makes Cosby a rapist.  (His “Spanish Fly” routine, on fantasies of drugging women into being loose enough to have sex with him, doesn’t help.  I remembered that one, as I had memorized most of Cosby’s routines as a kid, but I certainly didn’t put that one into context.)

(Though as Bart Calendar notes, “rape” is not unusual when it comes to 1960s and 1970s heroes – he’s got a list of beloved musicians who are also rapists, or, at the least, guilty of child molestation by knowingly sleeping with girls below the age of consent.  You may have to understand that all your heroes are secretly vile, which is frankly not the worst message to take away.)

Anyhow, so I was thinking the other day that fifteen women have claimed that Bill Cosby raped them.  Which means there are, likely, more: Women who have gone “Okay, it’s in the headlines now, it’s getting traction, I don’t have to make the ugly fact that I was violated by Bill Cosby the only thing people are going to know about me.”  Women who shrug “Well, that’s what happened back then, I don’t see that as bad.”  It may well be that Bill Cosby raped forty or fifty women, or perhaps even more.

Charles Manson killed nine people.

No, wait; technically Charlie didn’t kill anyone.  His followers killed nine people.  (And some kinder interpretations than mine think that it was his followers who started murdering people, and once that started Cult Leader Charlie either had to go “Wow, that’s awesome! Just what I wanted!” or probably get murdered himself in a cult uprising.  I don’t know, I only read Helter Skelter once just to be cool when I was a teenager.  And the numbers of Manson dead vary, depending on who you talk to, so I’m sure someone will correct me.  Probably Bart.)

Anyway, Charlie’s in the news because he got married – remember, folks, gay marriage is what’s destroying this sacred institution – and I had a weird thought.  Because Manson?  Killed nine people.  Cosby raped, say, thirty.

There’s a math there that I don’t want to do.

Like, seriously, if we assume that the absolute worst-case scenario about Cosby is true, and he raped hundreds of women, does that make him worse than Charlie Manson?

Leaving aside that old do-not-engage question of whether “rape” is worse than “murder” (as murder is a short end, whereas rape traumatizes the victim for decades, but I suspect most rape victims would prefer people not tell them that they’d be better off dead), you have to figure that maybe Cosby was doing deeply nefarious shit for forty years successfully.  He may have had a lot more impact.

And then I start going, “Well, Cos gave laughter to the world!  He did a hell of a lot for black-white relations at a time when there were practically no black heroes in the media!  He’s done a surprising amount of charity work, donating to the community! He’s made the world a hell of a lot of a better place, and all Manson ever did was wrote a marginal Beach Boys song!”

Then I think, “Okay, so is this an equation?  Like, if Manson cured heart disease, would the murders be just a phase we was going through?”

Then I think, “Is it about the order of revelation?  Because hey, we knew happy Jell-O eating Bill Cosby for years, we loved him, then we found out about this secret past – what if Manson was a researcher who cured AIDS in 1987, and then we discover now that whoops, he sorta killed Sharon Tate and covered it up properly?  How would we react then?  I bet there’d be a lot of talking media heads saying that Manson didn’t kill anyone directly, it was just a youthful mistake….”

And of course this whole chain of thought is fucking ridiculous.  People can do good things and bad things.  Our monkey brains want HEROES and VILLAINS and so try to figure out who’s a goodie and who’s a baddie.  And the truth is that people can contain both wonderful kind instincts and selfish harmful ones, and which one you get depends on who you happen to be.  All of our most beloved heroes have been absolute dicks at some point (well, except maybe Mister Rogers), and all of our worst villains have done something nice for someone.

But we don’t want to think that good people can do bad things.  Or that bad people can do positive ones.  We want to do Cosby Math, where we total everything up and try to see whether they’re above the level of “EVIL.”

And Cosby Math is dangerous, because we start thinking that there’s some upper end of the scale that’s completely safe.  That there are heroes who’ve done wonderful things, and of course people like them can’t do bad things, and you see that in the trail of the women who’d tried to say “Hey, Cos did this horrible thing to me” and people went “We don’t want to hear it, scrape those allegations from his biography, if you say this we’ll make you look like the villain.” And some of them went dormant for years.  When you do Cosby Math and start flipping binary switches to light up someone as “HERO,” then you actually bury evidence.

Truth is, you can have a good guy who’s got some fucking racist thoughts, you can have an anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage Pope who’s really compassionate towards the poor, you can have a really funny enlightening dude who rapes people.  You can have mixtures of all sorts of things and they don’t really add up.

We want to shuck away all the contradictory evidence, to leave us with a single image – whether that’s good or bad, we don’t really care which, we just want to not do these exhaustng calculations any more.  But people are more like one of those lenticular baseball cards, the ones that look like they’re moving if you flip them back and forth.

But in truth, that isn’t motion you’re seeing.  It’s just four or five different pictures, each similar but radically different.  Which picture you get depends what angle you’re viewing it from. And sometimes, you can’t add all the pictures together to form a satisfying whole.

And as always, apologies.  People come here to get nice neat conclusions.  I don’t have one here.  Sometimes it’s just me pointing at a mess on the floor and shrugging.

Conversations With Gini: Writing Lessons Learned

ME: “So I learned something important when I was writing last night.”

GINI: “Oh?”

ME: “There’s a meditation position called ‘siddhasana’.”

GINI: “How’d you learn that in writing?”

ME: “A character in the story meditates.  And it turns out!  To properly seat yourself in siddhasana, you are supposed to seat one heel in your asshole, and the other in your junk.”

GINI: “…that’s… fascinating?”

ME: “That’s not what I learned, though.”

GINI: “What’d you learn?”

ME: “That if, when you’re trying to block out a character’s movements within a scene, you use the phrase ‘She pulled her heel up against her anus,’ you pretty much derail the rest of the chapter.”

So Who Were You Speaking For?

“Naughty. Naughty. Naughty.”

The other day, a friend-of-a-friend was at a BDSM spanko party, where heavy-handed spankers meet up with willing spankees.  And the host cruised by, pointed at three girls, and pronounced them each to be naughty.

Problem was, one of the girls did not feel that she was naughty.  To her, “naughty” had a very specific context used among lovers – only someone with power over her could pronounce judgment on her – and so she hotly told the host in no uncertain terms that she was not a naughty girl.

The host replied that this wasn’t a big deal, and she shouldn’t get offended, and as such blew her off.  Publicly.

And I think the relevant question is, “Who was that ‘naughty’ intended for?”

Because the weird thing about language is that sometimes we say things to amuse other people – and that attempt fails.  In which case, we’re often a little hurt, but the response is going to include some regret, because you were just trying to lighten their day and instead you hurt them.

Which sucks.  And it’s hard apologizing when you were just being silly and someone bites your fucking head off.  But if what you said is not a big deal, then it’s not a big deal to apologize, either – and so the usual response here is a stiff “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” (Perhaps followed by a vow not to make jokes with that person again, jeez, they’re prickly.)

But the underlying feeling is regret.  You wanted to lighten their day, and instead you pissed them off.  Fuck.  Sorry.

On the other hand, that “naughty” can also be a form of claiming.  In other words, in my fantasies you’re a naughty girl who needs a spanking, and so I aim my finger at you and pow!  You are.

In those cases, people say it’s not a big deal… but really, what’s happening is that I’m forcing my desires upon you.  I think you should act this way, so I can live in the fantasy world that I long to be in.  When you tell me you’re not a naughty girl, you’re actually shattering this dreamlike state I am living in, one where any girl is pliable to my exact desires – and I am going to react extremely negatively to that, because you’ve just hauled your ugly reality into my unmarred dreamstate.

I built castles in the sky made of naughty girls who needed punishment, and you cast me down.

Those little commands – “Naughty,” “Smile, pretty girl,” and endless other microaggressions – are actually a way of marking territory, saying, “You exist to fulfill my desires, whether you want to or not.”  Which is in itself an insult, when properly parsed.  And when that territory asserts itself to say “No, I am not that,” it’s seen as umbrage – because the “naughty” girl isn’t just reacting poorly to a joke that fell flat, she’s actually telling him that the world he wants to live in does not exist.

In those cases, what often gets told is that the woman is being too angry.  If she’d just politely apologize, the argument goes, then she’d deserve an apology.  Yet she was too uppity.

But that, too, is a form of enforcing fantasy: In the dream-world these dudes live in, women exist to carry out their desires.  The women cultivate their favor sweetly, and if they are good enough – you know, not naughty – then he magnanimously grants them a favor.  A woman demanding something of him angrily is yet another unwelcome reminder that women are not extensions of his sexual fantasies.

Now, I’m not saying necessarily that’s what happened here.  The danger of pointing to any specific incident is the debate over whether this incident meets those criteria, which always gets muddied because “Hey, the dude who called her ‘naughty’ is a wonderful man, he does so many good things!” – which is undeniably true that dudes who do this can have good sides too, as no human being is so simple that you can flip a switch and go “ANGEL” or “DEMON.” (EDIT: Nor, in fact, do I know exactly how the woman responded here, which she claims is far less “haughty” and angry than the host claimed.  Again.  Wasn’t there.)

And the larger problem is that frankly, it could go either way.  Sometimes people make innocent mistakes, angering when they meant to charm.  They were, in some clumsy way, trying to lighten someone else’s day, and for whatever reason – miscommunication, bad tone, an overly-prickly person – they fuck it up.

But the other sort of shit looks exactly the same, and happens an awful lot: dudes, off-handedly commanding a woman to participate in their desires.  The women react poorly.  And the dudes are all like “Hey, this isn’t a big deal, why’s she getting so bent out of shape, I’m not going to apologize!”

And if it’s not a big deal, then it shouldn’t be a big deal for you to apologize.  Because is this about you, intending to make someone happy and falling short?

Or is this about you quietly enforcing control, and getting properly called out on bullshit?

Every Piece Of Advice Given Unleashes A Demon

So I’m reading Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux’s More Than Two, which thus far is a damn fine book on effective practices for good polyamory.

Yet ten chapters in, I can already see how the solid advice in More Than Two is going to get abused by some people, because the book is covertly tilted towards a certain kind of person.  And I’m wincing.

I’m wincing because the wrong kinds of people often grab my advice and use it as a club, and there’s no way any of us can stop that from happening.

That’s the problem with writing essays designed to help people pick apart their problems: every piece of advice is meant to fix a very specific problem.  If I told you, “When you’re deep in subspace, here’s six ways to communicate with your top!” then the bias would be extremely clear.  People who don’t bottom would go, “Oh, that’s not for me” and move on.  People who do bottom but don’t go that deep into subspace would would go, “I don’t need that.”

(Non-kinky people probably wouldn’t even parse the headline.)

But when you say subtler stuff like “The key to a good relationship involves knowing when to stop getting and start giving,” this is actually covertly aimed at “People who ask for a lot in their relationships.”  But that’s not apparent until you’re experienced enough to break it down.

“Stop getting and start giving” is perfectly true advice… for an aggressive dude like me who has zero problems stating what he wants.  For me, 90% of my bad relationships were because I was so used to asking for what I wanted (and getting it!) that I often didn’t realize when I was asking for too damn much.

But for a passive person who barely ever says a peep no matter how badly they’re mistreated?  This is terrible fucking advice.  This person will hear this advice and go, “Oh, I asked for my partner to stop having unprotected sex with strangers, look how mad she gets when I ask her that, clearly I’m an awful person.  I need to stop getting and start giving!” And they curl up into a ball and use this good advice to allow some terrible fucking things to happen in their relationship.

Now it’s true that technically the advice is buried in there still – I mean after all, the problem with the too-passive person is that they *do* need to know when it’s right to ask for things and when it’s wrong.  But because their personal balance is skewed to “never ask,” as a result they’re unlikely to find the actual message I meant to give them.

They’ll take this advice intended to prune aggressive people’s grabbiness, and use it to justify their own terror of confrontation.

Likewise, More Than Two has a lot of spectacularly solid advice on how to communicate and to be fair with your partners.  But it’s very subtly – yet quite consistently – tilted towards people who are overly solicitous of their partner’s needs, the sort of people who are terrified to say “no,” the kind of person who tends to quietly shuck all the good parts of their life away to make their partner happy.

For these people, More Than Two is full of advice that will transform their goddamned lives.  It’ll give these people the tools to take their natural tendencies to overfocus on their partner’s needs, and transform it into a healthy series of “no”s – so they don’t treat every jealous snit by their partner as a reason to cut ties, so they don’t abandon their own self-esteem in search of some sort of distorted mockery of pair-bond love,  so they don’t take this deep well of love they feel for their lovers and give away too much.

It’s not that More Than Two doesn’t encourage you to be compassionate – one of the two axioms they give is “Don’t treat people like objects,” and they repeatedly stress that your partner has to be respected.  But at least in the first part of the book, for every one time they say “Remember to respect your partner’s feelings,” they have at least three other emphases on “Don’t give in to your partner’s needs unnecessarily” and “Your partner’s being upset is not a sign that you should change your behavior.”

In other words, it subtly assumes that the person reading this book already cares deeply for their partners.

Sadly, what’s going to happen here is that someone who isn’t caring will read all of this very healthy advice and go, “Aww, man!  My problem is that I’ve wasted all this time letting my partners weep on my shoulder!  If they’re jealous because I didn’t tell them where I went for the weekend to spend time with a girlfriend I never mentioned to them?  That’s not anything I’m doing wrong!  That’s them being idiots!  They’ve gotta learn to deal with this shit, baby!”

And they will become monsters.

It is important to clarify here: That is not a problem with More Than Two.  (I think they could have had a different mix of emphases here, but that’s a minor critique of a book that has a lot of moving parts and jines up with much of what I’ve been telling y’all for many years.  I fully anticipate when I finish it, I’ll be happily exhorting you to purchase this sucker.)

The problem I’m actually attempting to highlight here is that when you start speaking to large audience, it becomes nigh-impossible to give advice to people that someone will not internalize in drastically harmful ways.

You can frame any given piece of wisdom as clearly as you like, but humans are bias machines, designed to take in the bits they agree with and silently discard the parts they don’t.  I only notice this subtle issue with More Than Two because, well, I hand out lots of advice.

I try to provide a lot of context for my thoughts on relationships, to make it clear that This advice isn’t universal, it actually only applies if X, Y, and Z are all true.  Yet even still, I’ve seen people doing poly in ways I consider to be loathsome citing my articles as reasons to be shitty to their partners, or to themselves.

I groan.  I contact them to tell them that no, that’s not what I meant.  And they always look betrayed, because I gave them this advice, they acted upon it, and what kind of a jerk am I for telling them no, they’re wrong?

But that advice wasn’t for them.  It was for someone actually exactly the opposite of them.  And they used it to amplify their worst habits, and nothing I can actually tell them would convince them otherwise.

So it goes.

(Cross-posted from a not-particularly-loved entry on FetLife, but I thought it was interesting.)

And We Forgot The Taste Of Bread: Soylent, Day Seven

“So what is Soylent for?” Kat asked.

“It’s a food replacement,” we told her.  “Pasty nerds made it because they got tired of eating.”

“But what’s it supposed to do?”

“Well, it gives you all the nutrients you need to live.  So all you have to eat is this sludge.”

“Okay, but – ”  She frowned, trying to rephrase the question.  “What’s the goal?  What are you supposed to do with it?”

“It doesn’t really have one,” we demurred.  “It’s… well, it’s a tool.  What you do with it… well, that’s up to you.”

“But they went to a lot of effort to make this stuff.  Surely they must have meant it to do something.  A goal.”

Gini and I looked at each other, embarrassed.  Because if the makers of Soylent had a clear goal beyond “Let’s see how we can fuck with the human body,” well, we were unaware of it.  But for a week, at least, we were the vanguard of this new method of devouration, and everyone we turned to had a clear expectation of what we were supposed to do.  Now, we faced a clear choice: either abandon the taste of foods forever and become the Gray Goop People, or return to the friendly shores of pizza and cake and tell everyone how dreadful those days were.

But food is complicated.  As humans, our relationship with food is complicated.  And Soylent?  Is not an on/off switch.

I wonder if the makers of margarine got this, back in the early days when margarine was an unappetizing whalefat-white and you had to massage a packet of yellow food dye into it just to make it palatable.  “So is margarine designed to replace butter?  Margarine is going to supplant butter, isn’t it?  We have no need for butter now, right?”

But no.  I’m a heart patient (triple-bypass FTW YAY), and while I use margarine because it’s better for my heart, occasionally I still have butter on the right kind of bread.  Some days, I even crave margarine.

The thing about humans is that we’re repelled by the idea of the artificial in our foods, but yet we come to love them all the same.  I think we all know that a McDonald’s burger is not a hamburger in any way that we traditionally understand it – a gray, thin, mealy patty of meat, devoid of that big beef taste, slapped on a bun that will not rot – and yet most of us have a craving for that McDonald’s burger once in a while, even as we acknowledge this has more in common with chemical plants than cows.  We groan about Red Bull and Twizzlers as being artificial, but they sell and they sell well.  I don’t think anyone has ever savored a Dorito, as they’re explicitly designed to be madness for our tastebuds – an experience that blossoms, satisfies, and fades quickly enough that we automatically reach for the next chip.

I think that comes down to some suborned guilt within us: we know we should be eating healthy.  But somehow, we’re continually surprised when the foods that are scientifically designed to light up all of our taste receptors turn out to be more delicious than broccoli.

And we are ashamed.

(Or snottily proud. I know someone will sniff, “Well, I love broccoli more than Doritos!” – and they’ll do it as a mark of pride, because they should love that natural-food thing more than this shabby artificial concoction.  And by God, having aligned their mouth properly, they want the credit for it.)

The truth is, we have replaced much of our food already, and we still oscillate between the artificial and the natural.  I do want a McDonald’s burger every now and then, but I also love a good thick Texan burger straight off the grill.  I like Pop Tarts, but I also love my birthday cake when it comes out of the oven.

We have this urge to turn all the foods into Sharks and Jets, into Montagues and Capulets, into warring factions – but the truth is that we are omnivores, and that genetic need seeps from every pore.  It goes against our grain to supplant; we ingest and add.

But how can Soylent be that?  It’s intended to replace all the foods, right?

Well, no.  It can replace some of the foods.  And I remember my disappointment with my friend Geoff Hunt, who hopped on the Soylent bandwagon ahead of me, and uses it as a supplement.  He drinks it during the day when he’s got nothing better to eat, and then dines on full meals whenever he wants to experience the full taste.  Which, before I started this, seemed like a crazy idea – come on, Geoff, commit.  You either go full-bore or you don’t.  Why would you drink gray goop some of the time?

And after converting exclusively to Soylent myself, the answer is simple: a lot of the time, I’m eating because I don’t have anything better to do.  A lot of the food I eat is effectively dead calories – come my 11:30 snack, it would be difficult to care less about what I’m eating, because I’m focusing on a programming problem and am just devouring to quell my stomach pains.  If I thought about the foods that I’ve actually focused on, giving active consideration to the delicious taste in my mouth, well, I’d probably be happy if that was as high as 40%.

I mechanically eat a lot.  Most of us do.

So if I’m going to eat something and not pay attention to it, why not put something harmless in my stomach instead of a bag of fried corn chips?

And then, when I have another Michelin restaurant to go to, or another Pupuseria has opened up in Cleveland, I can order and savor, and put the delicious things in my mouth when I need them.

Soylent can be an addition to a diet.

But people are disappointed by this.  “So it’s an Ensure diet,” they say, sighing.  As if they were hoping that Soylent would be the gateway to some grand new world of doing things, and all I’ve done is put a glossy hi-tech coat on the old Slim-Fast routine.

Yet that’s the way our eating habits work.  We adapt and ingest.

Which is why Gini and I ordered another two-week supply of Soylent this weekend.  I don’t think we’re going to go Gray Goop all the time, but we are going to try Soylent as a Sometimes-Food, that glass of muck that staves off the mindless hunger, so we can focus on the food that we choose to eat.  And that will probably be healthier than whoops, Ferrett makes another two turkeyburgers swimming with mayo, and chomps them down absently while he’s trying to figure out why this absolutely-positioned CSS element isn’t where he wants it to be on this web page.

That all depends on Soylent shipping, of course.  They claim 1-2 weeks for prior members.  They also claim 1 month for newbies, and if you’ll recall it took us five months to get our first shipment. So if we’re lucky, we get our Soylent by December.

(They are a remarkably inefficient company, when it comes to shipping.  We may go open-source.  But in their defense, were I a venture capitalist, I’d be veeeery reluctant to say, “Soylent orders are exploding!  Hire two hundred people!  Put all hands on deck for this, as the future will be Soylent!”  I suspect they’re viewing this Soylent rush as being akin to a Tamagotchi craze or a Pet Rock, this freakish wave of attention that will soon subside, and they don’t want to expand so rapidly they fall apart.)

But Gini and I haven’t been eating much.  We’re supposed to consume a full pitcher, each, daily, and we’ve been going through maybe a pitcher and a half.  We still have several bags left.  So though today is technically the end as of one o’clock, we’ll be running out the clock to finish what’s left of this.

Because honestly?  It’s not nearly as hard to drink this full-time as we’d thought.

LATER: So What Happens When You Switch Back?

You’re Gonna Fall On Your Sword To Call Your Friend An F-Word?

Here’s the deal:

I work for a company that sells Magic cards online.  I also Tweet and blog privately.

In my private spaces, I write a lot about polyamory and sexual positivity and politics.  I recognize this comes with a danger.  At any moment, my company could decide that hey, Ferrett said something really offensive, and it’s generating a lot of heat, and we don’t want to be associated with him any more.  That happens.  It happens on both sides, liberal and conservative.

But I do not stop writing about such topics because I consider that to be a political issue.  Every time I put hands to keyboard, I take a minor risk that I might anger the wrong segment and call some mini-boycott down around my head, and then I would lose a valuable source of income.  Yet I feel that being out as as someone of alternative sexuality is important enough to take that risk.

Yet someone got shitcanned today for calling people “faggots” on Twitter, and I’m like: Really?  Is that what you want to fall on your sword over?

Look, it’s well-known that calling people “faggots” is preeeeeeettttty fucking offensive to large swathes of the Internet.  You must have known that it could cost you connections, jobs, writing gigs.

And yet you continued.

Why?  I mean, is it that important to you to be able to be able to insult your friends using the precise terms you’ve chosen?  I get making a principled stand, but is your need to utilize a gay-negative term so powerful that you’re willing to risk alienating potential income sources?  What pressures are you under that you’re all like, “I am going to prove to the world that ‘faggot’ doesn’t mean what you think it does, and to do so I’ll wager my livelihood on this topic!”  (Or, alternatively, “It is extremely important to me that I am allowed to portray my straight friends as homosexual for humorous purposes!”)

Look, dude, there’s plenty of battles to fight.  Even if you’re all anti-Social Justice Warrior, I somehow doubt your family would be proud if, engraved on your tombstone, were the words “JOHN DOUCHE: SAVED ‘FAGGOT’ FOR THE MASSES.”  And certainly yes, I get that RAR IT’S FREEDOM OF SPEECH, but the truth is we don’t get full free speech anywhere without taking our lumps – even us leftiest of SJWs would get in deep trouble if we said “Hey, someone should gas every last one of you Gamergaters” – so given that some opinions are less popular than others, might I suggest you tuck this term in your back pocket and find some other hilarious way of taunting your buddies?

Or maybe you really do think that it’s tres importante to be able to call your buddies “cocksuckers.”  Okay.  Fine.  But don’t get outraged when someone complaints to the right people.  You knew the risks.  You took your shot.  And what happened to you is pretty much what anyone could have predicted.

And We Forgot The Taste Of Bread: Soylent, Day Four, Five, And Six

So a long-time Internet crush of mine was in Ohio, and I’d agreed to drive down to Columbus to meet with her.

What do you do with a girl in a strange town when you can’t take her out for coffee?

What you come to realize when you’re on Soylent is how omnipresent our food is as a social construct.  Want to see someone?  Go out for coffee.  Have a date?  Take her out to dinner.  Have friends in town who you really love?  Cook a meal for them.

But if I wanted to have a space where Kristen and I could sit down in and chat in relative privacy that didn’t involve food – because God, if you put me near an iced coffee I would drink that fucker quicker than the dog steals your dinner – then I had only one other option.

And it seemed a little, shall we say, aggressive to suggest renting a hotel room on our first date.  Particularly one that charged by the hour.

Yet when you take away the shared comestibles, you come to realize what a restaurant’s true purpose is: it’s a neutral, pleasant place you can pay someone else to allow you to talk in public.  Which is super-useful.  You don’t want to go over to stranger-danger’s houses, or even necessarily have friends over to yours if you’re messy.  Or maybe there’s not enough space.  So you go out to a restaurant, which gives you a low-key and interactive thing to do that doesn’t involve you wandering around looking at stuff.

The “not looking at stuff” is key.  We eventually settled on meeting at the arboretum, which was nice, but not exactly private.  And it was a little awkward, talking about polyamory and the kink scene and oh, did you know she used to be a porn star? in a big echoing room when there are small children playing with the koi at our feet.  We could have found a bench, but then we’d be facing straight outwards, not at each other, and given that we’d been exchanging texts for years and the novelty of this whole experience was the actual presence of her pretty eyes, I kind of wanted to look at her.  And yes, the flowers and the brickwork were nice to look at, but often kind of distracting from actually catching up because we’d be discussing her past history with her ex and we’d round a corner and a parrot was cawing in our faces.

What I needed was a nice place to sit down and have people bring us the entertainment to poke at on our own time, and then pretend they didn’t hear us talking about Queen Victoria’s sex life.  (Because honestly, that’s how I roll: historical kink.)  When I tip you well, Mr. Waiter, that’s my way of saying “Thank you for sufficiently covering your smirk when you overheard us.”

Despite the lack of entries, I didn’t skip the weekend’s Soylent-blogging – I was actually collecting data, trying to see how awkward a rather social weekend would go when we couldn’t have food.

And I am sad to tell you that Gini and I flat-out cheated.

We had a Home Free concert to attend on Friday with two friends, and I suggested meeting up for dinner beforehand.  Gini was horrified.  “We can’t go out for dinner!” she cried.  “We’d just sit there empty-handed like fools!  What would they do?  Would they also eat nothing, in some fucked-up Guantanamo hunger strike solidarity?  Would we look the waiter in the eye and stir goop into our glass and say, ‘Sorry, we’re taking up seat space and stuffing your tip up your ass?’  There is no dinner now!  There is only Zuul!”

Then Gini said, “I don’t talk like that, Ferrett, would you stop exaggerating my words for comedic context?”

Then Gini said, “I totally talk like that all the time, I don’t know why anyone would think that that very nice, handsome, and above-all accurate reporter Ferrett would possibly misconstrue my words.”

But yeah, we punked out on the pre-dinner show, because it would have been totes awkward.  And we’d only been drinking Soylent for four days, and already we felt like a freak show.  Admittedly, we set out to be a freak show, and this whole “Let’s drink Soylent” was pure performance art, but we weren’t quite ready to go all Andy Kaufman and start entangling others in this whacky process.

And what we realized was that if we decided to do this full-time, we would have an incredibly awkward time trying to keep up a social life.  On average, we go out with friends three, maybe four nights a week.  Of those, about two to three involve eating as part of the catching up, whether that’s dinner at the Meyers or coffee with Karla or hey, new restaurant, who can we take there?  And the remaining night is usually a movie, and the best part of the movie is going out for a drink afterwards and dissecting why the hell Christopher Nolan thinks that turning the music volume up to 11 is an EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE.

And going out without goop is, well, kinda dangerous.  As noted, Soylent digests at a very consistent rate – if I drink a glass, I’m good for about three hours before I start to feel hungry again.  If we go out for a long evening and don’t bring our goop, then according to the rules to as to how we are doing this right now, we cannot buy a cruller or a bagel or a candy bar or a piece of fruit or Jesus think of all the snacks you can just casually buy and then imagine them not being there when you want them.

Being on the all-Soylent diet is basically like being on the Oregon Trail.  You have to pack your goop and stuff it into the back of your wagon, because once you hit those hills there’s no place to buy anything.  And if the concert runs long or you get stuck in traffic or you decide to go out afterwards, you will feel the dwindling nutrients in your stomach slowly shrink.  And if you get really hungry, then sorry, YOU HAVE DIED OF DYSENTERY.

Basically, the all-Soylent diet gives you a nice sharp preview of what it’s like to have massive food allergies.  And unless you’ve had those, you don’t realize how truly fucked up it is to have to carry your own food around with you, constantly monitoring your caloric input, inventorying what you have and making sure you can make it to the next day.

So we didn’t even bring goop to the concert.  We just chugged a lot of it, enough to hopefully get us through, and then left right away to go home and chug more goop.

Saturday, we skipped dinner at the Meyers, but when we walked in, we found that winter had arrived.  And Kat has an allergic reaction to snow: whenever there’s ice on the ground, she bakes.  Obsessively.  So when we walked in there were racks of cookies, three loaves of bread, the house filled with the delicious yeasty scent of a new loaf in the oven.

Strangely, the presence of the food didn’t bother me all that much.  At this point in the Soylent diet, I still crave food – anything buttery will knock me on my ass – but the scent is almost enough of an experience to get me through the withdrawal.  It’s a mild hunger, like you might crave gum once in a while.

And yet I found myself wanting to be social.  Everyone there was cutting up pieces of cheese, snacking on apples, noshing on this fresh hot bread – and my hands kept reaching out to take the bread, as though eating with them would somehow let me be a part of them.

Gini and I did not bring goop.  Because we could probably chug enough in advance to not be hungry.  And because mixing up a batch and bringing it would be awkward.  But at least for me, I felt like enough of a freak show being on this week-long experiment, with everyone asking “So how’s it going?” – and actually chugging the goop in public would have marked me as the alien I was.

I would not be sharing the warmth of this meal.  I would be drinking something else, something they found disgusting and freakish, and actually putting that into my mouth in front of them would have just emphasized my otherness.  And I wonder if that’s how it is for native Chinese when they come here and people mock their disgusting food, or any other immigrant.  Did they once have this social pressure of “Eeeyew, you really eat that?” – a subtle pressure that kept them pent with their own kind, where they could have a nice yummy haggis at home and not have anyone force them to justify this?

I thought Soylent would teach me about food.  What it’s teaching me about is how we react to food.

And what I’m learning is that food is so integrated with friendship that it gets really, really awkward to separate the two.

TOMORROW: So Where Do We Go From Here?

And We Forgot The Taste Of Bread: Soylent, Day Three

I’d like to talk to you about my anus.

…well, no, actually I wouldn’t, but that act puts me in a very small crowd. Because I really fucking hate fart jokes.

Because everybody farts.

Imagine a world where everyone around you burst into belly-clutching spasms of hi-lar-ity every time you sneezed.  Each sneeze would be met with, at best, someone smirking like you’d done something truly shameful but maybe just a little bit enjoyable, and at worst a sneeze would lead to a so-called “epic” story about that time – hee hee! – you remember that Aunt Sady?  Had a cold?  And she went to church?  And right in the middle of the pastor’s sermon, she – oh, yeah, she did – she let out a big wet sneeze right in the middle of the homily?

Then everyone around you would laugh for like ten, fifteen minutes while you sat there feeling vaguely embarrassed for everyone.

But no.  They loved sneezes so much they made fake sneezing noises and then giggled like this was the height of comedic technology.  Every comedy trailer featured, prominently, a scene where some dignified mayoral-type got sneezed on, spewing gallons of fake snot all over his monocle.   Down at the warehouse, it was considered the super-funniest of pranks to sneeze on the back of someone’s beck.  People would go out of their way to snort black pepper at declasse parties, because the biggest sneezes were naughty, but by God you secretly had to admire the loudness of Jackie-boy’s sneezes, amiright?

There you’d be, trapped in a world full of sneezeophiles, feeling like people were basically idiots for taking a vaguely unpleasant act and ritualizing it into the funniest of funnies.  Sneezes would be so hallowed, in fact, that if you said “Really, I think a little less of people who get off on sneeze humor” that you would be automatically seen as the sort of tight-nosed prude who deserved a good head-cold.

Then you hear about this new diet you can go on!  And it turns out that one of the side effects is rampant sneezing.  So you figure, “Okay, well, I don’t find sneezing funny, but at least writing about this diet will allow me to make a bunch of cheap nose jokes.  It’ll amuse somebody.”

But alas, though I’m supposed to have turned into a human whoopie cushion at this point, I am not a fart machine.

Gini claims to be windier, but frankly I haven’t noticed.  We were promised huge toxic clouds, and I anticipated being basically a gas giant at this point, surrounded by a ball of toxic miasma, perhaps even having acquired Saturn-like rings – but nothin’.  I mean, I do fart, but no more so than in the course of a normal day – which is totally hysterical, right?  Ferrett farts!  Oh my God, clutch your purses to your chests.

But what is happening is that Gini is starting to freak out.  Last night, she clutched my chest and said, “This stuff tastes like baby food.  My poop smells like baby food.  I smell like baby food.  I don’t know if I can do this.”  She wailed when characters ate food on The Big Bang Theory, pounding her armrest and demanding that someone give her nutrition with actual texture and taste.

I told her to hang on, but at this point my only hope of her making it to Day Seven is everyone on social media shaming her into not giving it up.  So I hope I can rally enough troops to provide psychological pressure on my wife.  Remember, she is a bad person if she cannot do this and then no one will ever love her again if she cannot drink silty artificial goop for seven straight days.

What is happening, however, is that my body is readjusting, much like Matthew Murdock after getting a canister of radioactive waste straight to the face.  My sense of smell has never been particularly keen, but yesterday I was in the basement writing…

(SIDE NOTE: What I am writing currently is the first draft of a novel which can best be described as “The Velvet Tango Room in space.”  It begins with a starving character turning up at a space station and being invited to dine at the finest cuisine in all the known worlds.  Much of what I am writing now is an uneducated boy learning how to eat well, in a different prose style than I’m used to – and if “authorial experience” colors a chapter, these early bits are going to be some of the strongest writing in my entire life.)

…yesterday I was in the basement writing, and the entire room was suffused with the buttery taste of popcorn and salt.  Like, so vivid I wondered whether a ghostly Orville Redenbacher was sitting next to me.  I actually put down the keyboard and walked upstairs to investigate, only to discover that my daughter had microwaved herself some popcorn and both Gini and I were circling around her, noses uplifted, as if we could live on scent alone.

Which I, personally, kinda could.  It was disappointing to follow that up with another glass of sludge – and that petri dish of crawling growth at the back of my throat gets worse with each glass – but the smell was almost like eating popcorn, at this point.  It was nebulous, but there was a weird ascetic satisfaction in going, “I can live on this odor” and then drinking my muck.  The same thing happened later when she heated up some Greek food – a burst of sensation in the nose, but my stomach was full.  What I craved was taste, but so much of taste was in the nose that I could alllllmost get there.

But not quite.

Because goddamn, writing this right now?  I want some fucking popcorn.

TOMORROW: Social Engagements and Soylent

 

 

And We Forgot The Taste Of Bread: Soylent, Day Two

So I text a lot over the course of a day.  And in light of attending the Geeky Kink Event last weekend, I had lots of new people I was chatting with.

And about two hours into Soylent, I asked someone what she did, and she replied with…

…a picture of a cake.

I should add: this was a totally innocent picture of a cake.  She was a baker.  She was showing me her craft.  But to a man condemned to slurping goop, she might as well have sent me pornography.

And as the day went on, one by one, my so-called “friends” started sending me pictures of food.  “Miss this yet?” they’d ask, texting me a photo of a turkey dinner.  A Dunkin’ Donuts coffee narrowly missed my hunger mark, as it wasn’t iced.  Chocolate chip muffins were displayed like a stripper’s nipples.  Which led, eventually, to this conversation:

Soylent.

The lesson: my friends are dicks.  (But they make me laugh.)

But come the end of Day Two of Soylent, and I have found this new diet to be… weirdly revealing.  Because my days are now as gray as the goop in my glass.

See, I never realized this before the (literal) gravy train ended, but I tended to parcel out mini-rewards to myself over the course of the day.  Did I just untangle a hard math problem?  Hey, time for a low-fat Rice Krispy treat.  Do I feel like I’m halfway through the day at work?  Let’s commemorate the occasion by grilling up a nice juicy turkey burger!  And of course, after I put in my ninety minutes of writing in the evening, a nice cold glass of chocolate milk goes down smooth as the author’s reward.

And those various flavors provided both a pulse and a variety to the day.  I worked in my same living room, I checked the same email programs, I checked the same websites – but come my 11:30 snack, would I have a buttered hot dog roll, or hummus?  When it came to the sugary treat I’d allow myself, would it be a S’mores Pop Tart or a bowl of cereal?  For dinner, would it be roast chicken or meatloaf or a balsamic salad or Italian wedding soup or…?

Food, I’ve come to realize, was what broke up the sameness of routine.  Food and books were the two things that were endlessly mutable for me, and now without one, the days take longer.  I have no real way of marking time at work – oh, sure, I can look at the clock, but I’m sippin’ goop and wrangling code, sippin’ goop and wrangling code, sippin’ goop and wrangling code and God, what time is it?

Time passes slowly without these markers.

And you realize how much “eating” is actually a skill.  My blood sugar levels kept rising and crashing, rising and crashing, because my stomach would take a glass of Soylent and extract the ingredients with clinical efficiency in a methodical way.  You need to not just drink big gulps, swilling four separate glasses a day doled out in discrete intervals; you need to space out the fuel, because otherwise your body will just greedily process it all and leave you in a trough of starvation.

When I ate during the day, I had an unconscious library of how to eat, a library so comprehensive that I hadn’t even recognized how thoroughly I’d internalized it – am I crashing? Have a glass of milk.  Want something to last me an evening? A nice, dense chicken breast.  Need to think clearly? Sugar blast.  I understood how to manage my energy levels and moods by stuffing various organics down my gullet, and now I have just… Soylent.

And yet… Soylent has removed something stressful from my life.

There is a pleasant purity about it.  There are no bad choices to be made.  Particularly after they’ve cracked open your chest to rewire your fat-clogged heart, every meal becomes a crossroads: Do I eat what the doctor wants, or what my instincts want?  How much margarine should I spread on that hot dog roll?  Shouldn’t I be eating fishy old tuna instead of this marvelous chicken a la king?  You should be eating more fruit, less Pop Tarts, God, you’re killing yourself, you’re literally killing yourself, but this food is so good.

I have wept in the grocery store.  Because after you’ve been on the ventilator, you feel this terrible weakness growing within yourself like a cancer.   There are all these worlds closed off to you except maybe in tiny snippets – no more cashews, no more juicy burgers, no more tubs of Ben and Jerry’s – and whenever you do allow yourself that one-time pleasure, it comes mixed with the horrified realization that you have just thrown a spadeful of dirt onto your own grave.

After the triple-bypass, there are only foods you hate but must eat, and foods you love that will destroy you.

Yet all I can have is this Soylent.  I can’t have too much.  You can’t want too much of this.  And it feels – well, safe.  It’s boring, but it’s a path that means I can’t overdose on a the heart-strangling meat of prime rib, can’t eat a weekend’s worth of calories in one hot fudge sundae, can’t lie to myself about what I ate.

No, it doesn’t have all the micronutrients that natural foods have.  But honestly, how many natural foods am I eating?  If I was leaving behind my vegan diet of roots and berries to go to Soylent, well, that’d be insane.  But truth is, I’m eating turkey hot dogs and Instant Breakfast Bars.  It’s probably a net growth in health to eat this.

And when I go to bed at night, there’s no heartburn because I was hungry at 9:30 and gorged.  There’s no question that what I ate was at least okay.

There are no decisions, but there are no bad decisions.  And it’s only day two.  I don’t know whether I could live like this.

But I could see how much better it might be if I could.

TOMORROW: Not Without My Anus

And We Forgot The Taste Of Bread: Soylent, Day One

I’m one of those annoying gits who actually calls himself a foodie, and I usually don’t feel too ashamed about that.  Over the past two years I’ve made it a quest to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants to find out what great food truly tastes like.  I’ve eaten plenty of weird stuff.

So when it came time to eat the food that was not a food – the weirdest food that could be – of course I had to try it.

I found out about Soylent at the same time mainstream America did – when that New Yorker article went live.  Soylent was a gray goop that contained all the nutrients a human needed to survive, and several pallid men had replaced their entire diet with this sludge and were still living – well, if you can call a life without a good steak “living.”  They’d developed their own culture, where “pleasure eating” was a kind of weakness, touting a new lifestyle that was purer because you didn’t have all of these sugar-frosted distractions.

Also, they farted a lot.  Like, ambulance-engulfing clouds of pure toxic sulfur.  So I’m told.

So for a foodie, what better experience could you have than trying to live without food as we understand it?  What would it be like to spend a week dropping that experience from my daily life?  Sure, the physical changes would be intriguing – but mentally, what does drinking goop do to you? Would we become placid nutrient-animals, the next level of the hipster-food crowd turned to goop-enlightenment, sniffing haughily that really, you don’t need that quinoa, when the pure stuff is in this sedimented glass?

Or would we be grabbing our friends’ lapels and thrusting our noses into their mouths, huffing, “Please. Lemme just smell your food. I can tell – that’s popcorn, isn’t it? Oh, God, I miss popcorn, let me lick your teeth, I’ll give you a dollar.”

So my wife and I bought a week’s supply and committed to a week of Soylent. Because frankly, we live our lives to maximize our chances of whacky sitcom experiences, and this seemed like the sort of dumb-ass bet that the Seinfeld crew would commit to.

The interesting thing is that we started debating what “food” was even before the games begun.  I rummaged around in my pocket for my keys and wound up asking, “Hey, does this gum count as food?”  (It did.)  My wife had to write her obituary for her mother, and we both agreed that a glass of wine to dull the pain would be acceptable – but then I talked her into taking a Xanax instead, just to keep the experience pure.

Yes, we are sufficiently hardcore that we are Soylenting it up during funerals.

When you order Soylent, you… don’t get Soylent. My initial Soylent order was back in May and they sent it at the end of October. Apparently, reprocessing all those dead humans takes some time. So if you’re sufficiently encouraged to go, “I’d like to replace this delicious food in my fridge with nothing!” well, sadly you’re going to have to keep your taste buds primed for the next half a year until the Gods of Soylent send stuff out to you.

(Alternatively, you can make your own Soylent by going all Breaking Bad with a bunch of ordered-in chemicals, but… I’ve done crafts projects before.  I’ve seen how my first sad attempts to build a jewelry box went.  And I thought about eating the equivalent of that warped and badly-sawn jewelry box, and decided that feeding myself my own incompetence was probably not the way to go.)

But when you do get Soylent, this is a day’s supply.

Soylent.

Inside the packet is a grainy sand that looks like dry pancake batter mix. It smells malty, with a surprisingly sharp sting of artificial sugar in it, even though there’s no artificial sugar. It doesn’t feel threatening, though at any moment we hoped a small sand worm would burst from the surface so we could proclaim ourselves the Muad’dib of the goop circuit.

Soylent.

Then you pour the Soylent into the airtight jug they give you. They make a big deal about it being airtight, which I guess is because if it wasn’t vacuum-sealed then the other foods in your refrigerator would lend it flavor. And then you’d drink and be reminded that hey, this is a ludicrous idea, we have fucking cheese in this fridge, and then you’d fling the airtight container at the wall and eat a bowling ball-sized hunk of cheese.

…also, I now wonder whether hipster Soylent fanatics are going to remind us that they don’t have a fridge in the same way that annoying hipsters go way far out of their way to remind us that they don’t have televisions.

“So the power went out the other day at my apartment…”

“Oh?” *slurps Soylent conspicuously* “That must have been so hard for you, what with that gigantic power-wasting appliance full of perishable foods and all.”

Soylent.

Then you pour the fish oil into the Soylent, which was a major concern to me. As a heart patient, I have to take four fish oil tablets a day, and if you buy the cheap kind you get what are known in the biz as the “fish burps” – wherein every five minute or so, you burp and your nostrils are filled with the rich scent of rotting salmon.

If I were a genie and wanted to wish a living hell upon my enemies, I would give them all ENDLESS FISH BURPS.

But the fish oil had no smell – literally. I shoved my nostril right over that bottle like I was about to spritz some nasal spray right up in this schnozz, and all I smelled was the pain when my wife beat me about the head and shoulders and yelled “STOP PUTTING THAT BOTTLE UP YOUR NOSE, WE ARE DRINKING THAT.”

Soylent.

Then you add water! Doesn’t it look delicious?

Soylent.

Gini does not think it looks delicious.

Soylent.

But after you shake it up, you have two glasses of goop. Gini had hers on the rocks, much like our marriage after I suggested this lunatic idea; I had mine with crushed ice, crushed like my dreams of eating food ever again.

Soylent.

And we toasted. Gini’s toast was, “The problem with performance art is that eventually you have to perform.”

Soylent.

And…

It wasn’t terrible.

Basically, what you had was a grainier Slim-Fast (or Ensure, if that’s your recovering-from-dental-surgery jam) that wasn’t overpowered with sugar to make it palatable. People said it was like drinking thin pancake batter, but that’s inaccurate, at least when it’s cold – pancake batter has a sort of eggy, sweet edge to it, whereas this is basically drinking chilled yeast. You have to keep swirling the glass to keep it from sedimenting, which makes you look like a douche – the glass-swirl is the trick of wine connoisseurs everywhere, and you look like, “Hrm, what kind of top notes am I detecting in this quicksand?” when really you’re just trying to stop all of the muck from collecting in the bottom and the ice from melting at the top.

Soylent.

But the first taste wasn’t bad.

Yet what nobody’s discussed about Soylent that I’ve seen is the fermentation problem.

Because when you drink Soylent, you get a muck-slick at the back of your throat. That stuff washes over your tonsils like the sea pulling out at low tide, leaving them coated in a fine grain of Soylent-sludge. And that’s not too bad – you wind up swallowing convulsively like a dog eating peanut butter, but that’s a worthy sacrifice to make for Goop Life.

(I didn’t choose the Goop Life. The Goop Life chose me.)

Yet as the minutes wear on, the sediment in your throat reacts with your back palate, and in about twenty minutes there’s an olfactory pit created back there that starts jamming the odor of “bad barback” up the underside of your nostrils. It’s the scent of dive bars everywhere, that beer poured onto a mat and left to just do its own beery thing, the alcohol long since evaporated but the grains living on. And it seems to grow at the back of your throat like a chia pet, fuzzing more and more like that yellowish slick you find on your tongue after a hard night out, and then you run to the kitchen for a glass of water to try to wash out the back of your mouth.

It’s not that bad, actually. But it’s a little distressing when you’re typing emails and realize you’ve got a petri dish growing at the back of your throat that needs to get dealt with.

But hey! That first glass went down pretty damn well. What could go wrong after this?

TOMORROW: The terrible things your friends do when they find out you’re drinking Soylent.