“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.

On Gun-Ignorant Liberals And Their Clumsy Attempts At Gun Laws.

Watching liberals try to discuss gun laws is all too often like watching Steve Carell in The 40 Year Old Virgin describe what it’s like to make love to a woman – it sounds superficially right unless you know, well, anything about how it actually works.

You’ve got folks thinking that the AR-15 stands for “Assault Rifle,” and not knowing the difference between a semi- and and an automatic rifle.  You’ve got folks that want to pass anti-gun laws that have already been passed (if not necessarily enforced).  You’ve got folks who would craft overly-simple bills who don’t realize that, because of the laughably inaccurate way they’ve defined what a “dangerous gun” is, would not stop the problem at all.

It’s a world full of folks who don’t understand how guns work at all.  Hell, I’m one of those liberals, and I’ve run face-first into some very smart and very educated people on guns.

What I’d like to say is “…and they set me straight.”

Alas, that’s never what happens.

See, what happens is that they explain to me that what I’ve suggested would never ever work because of X, Y, or Z.  And then I ask the legitimate question:

“Okay. I understand guns are a complicated topic with a lot of laws in place, like pretty much everything else in America, and I’d like to get the details right from someone who knows what’s happening on the ground.  So how would we stop maniacs from getting their hands on the type of gun that makes it easy for an elderly man to kill almost 60 civilians?”

And if we started this by comparing liberals to the 40 Year Old Virgin, the conservatives become that guy on Tinder who talks big sexy stuff until you finally invite him over to your apartment and whoops it’s a ghost.  Because they disappear.

Because what inevitably happens when I start asking, “All right, you have high standards on how you want your laws crafted, how would this work?” is that after some debate I get told, time and time again by these experts, that no law would work, really, we’re doing everything we can, the existing laws are fine and why are you dumb liberals even worried about this?

And then I ask, “Because we’ve had 1,516 mass shootings in 1,735 days and I’d like not to get shot?”

They’ve got a lot of responses there before they eventually dwindle and disappear – they’ll twiddle with the definition of “mass shooting” to shave off some of those numbers, thus making it maybe 800 mass shootings, as if that should reassure me.  They’ll explain that a proper guy with a gun would have stopped all of those shootings, which also fails to reassure me because even if that’s true – and I’m pretty sure it isn’t, because a horde of armed people firing up at the shooter’s windows at Mandalay Bay doesn’t seem like it would have worked out well – that implies that the massive wave of shootings in America are even more explosive than any other country, because we’d have five times the shootings if it weren’t for all these responsible gun owners, and holy crap that is in no way reassuring.

They’ll tell me I should own a gun.  I’d love to!  But I’m a depressive with suicidal ideation, and I know the statistics – that gun would make it significantly more likely that I’d kill myself.

And finally, they’ll tell me how dumb I am, which I’ve already admitted, but then I ask: why not reach across the aisle to see how we can make this work?  Three times now, I’ve offered to start up a podcast with the smartest, most knowledgeable folks I’ve found debating me – let’s have dumb anti-gun guy vs educated pro-gun guy on a show where we discuss how gun laws fail by liberal standards and see what ways we could craft laws that could work.

They ghost.

And the reason they ghost is that for all of the supposed education, their fundamental message is despair.  Scrape off the sneering gun facts, and what they’re actually saying is “Daily mass shootings are a price I’m willing to pay to keep my guns.”  Which isn’t popular at all.  They know that.

That’s why they hide behind a screed of gun trivia and “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

And look: liberals, we do get the facts wrong, and so you should try not to be that asshole who’s saying blatantly wrong things about guns.  Guns are tricky, and it’s not as simple as “ban the assault rifle” because absolutely every gun manufacturer in the world will have dodges ready for that and besides, how you define the gun from a legislative perspective totally matters.

But pro-gun conservatives?  It’s easy for you to write off people’s concerns because they got a fact wrong, but that’s like throwing out the Declaration of Independence because it has a typo in it.  The fact is, something’s wrong with America gun culture if we’re having this many massacres, and common sense indicates that it’s some problem we could solve with legislation in the same way we’re trying to do so for terrorism and drugs and murder – so flinging your hands in despair and going, “You can’t regulate evil!” is a dumb fucking statement unless you’re for also dropping laws on burglary and shoplifting.

We will not craft perfect laws.  We never do.  But it’s astounding how laws intended to prevent Muslim terrorism can be sloppy as hell, laws intended to stop illegal drug use can put tons of the wrong people away, yet gun laws and gun laws alone must be 100% effective before we contemplate passing them.

(Which isn’t to say that I don’t want the antiterrorism and antidrug laws tightened.  All legislation should be as good as we can make it, and continually improved.  But every law will be imperfect on some level because humans are imperfect.)

So yeah. The next time a liberal goofs up on what kind of ammo that gun takes, that’s an error.  And we should fix that.  But in turn, you should not use that as the excuse to toss that concern out to promote your special brand of despairing nihilism.

There are solutions.  Maybe you fear us taking all the guns away, but most of us don’t want all the guns away, we want not to be shot.  As, I suspect, do you.

What can you do to help us achieve that goal?  Because hint: what doesn’t work is writing everyone off who fails the Gun Trivia Quiz.

Help us fix a problem. You can do that by admitting there is a problem, and the solution is not to chug despair until some murderous clod puts a bullet in our head at random.

Embrace hope.  Even though, unfortunately, hope seems to be an increasingly liberal concept these days.


Complicated Thoughts On Hugh Hefner

How long would it take you to find a picture of naked boobs now, if I asked you?

The answer, for most of you, could be measured in “seconds.” Some of you could flip to another browser window right now and have a naked woman looking back at you. Some of you would check your phone for pictures from, or to, a sweetie. Still others might have to Google it, maybe turn off safe search first, but still: I’m willing to bet most of you could get from here to a picture of bared breasts in under a minute tops.

It wasn’t that way in the 1980s.

Particularly if you were a horny thirteen-year-old.

We didn’t have the internet; hell, we didn’t have VCRs yet to maybe sneak some peeks at something Dad rented. And being thirteen and a social outcast, there was no chance in hell an actual lady would consent to getting naked with me, so whacking it was pretty much all I had. I was sufficiently lonely that pictures of naked women were fantasy material in the sense that Lord of the Rings was a fantasy – I was never going to be Bilbo, never going to cast a spell like Gandalf, and I was going to die unloved and alone and a virgin.

In that sense, staring at naked photos of women was longing for a future I’d never have.

Yet finding those photos was a hunt that every boy swapped tips on – we talked about common locations where dad might hide his secret stash of nudie magazines, because they were always locked up somewhere in a vault. Or we’d figure out which cashiers didn’t care who they sold to, as long as you had the cash on hand to buy it.

And if you got your hands on a magazine, that might be all the naked women you got. You get bored today with your woman, you go to another site. For us, maybe Miss April 1984 was all we could get our hands on. We imprinted on her. It was kind of like dating because, well, our options were limited.

And the magazines themselves?

They were oracles. Windows to a world where people not only talked to women, but got to photograph them naked. We scanned them eagerly because there was some trick to getting these naked women we desired, and it must be in here somewhere, so we’d scour the words and hope.

Some of the magazines did lie to us, of course – the really nasty ones spun fake stories about seductions that bore no resemblance to anything that human beings did, attractions based entirely upon bulges and 70s leftover fashions and musky scents. But honestly?

You could have told us anything. We were a captive audience. We’d read the words just because they were there, and if you’d told us that fluoridation poisoned the water and commies were out to steal our teeth, well, we’d probably have believed you.

Playboy, the most common source of naked women, did not do that.

Playboy had interviews.

And I remember reading those interviews with perplexion because they went on forever – I didn’t know who Ted Turner was or Jesse Jackson or Fidel Castro, but Playboy thought they were important. So I read over them again and again, realizing there was such a thing as politics and people thought it was important and the interviewers sometimes disagreed with their subjects and forced them to justify their positions and really, shit, there was a complexity there that thirteen-year-old me didn’t get but came to understand that “being a grownup” was more than just “getting girls naked” but in fact was “comprehending how the world works and taking a moral stance on the issues of the day.”

There is, in a very real sense, a line drawn straight from Playboy to my essays here. Playboy caught me when I was literally masturbating and said, “Hey, there’s more to the world than your dick, ya know.” And they encouraged me to investigate that even as they also showed me naked women.

That is one fucking weird market to hit.

Because yes, absolutely, Playboy exploited and encouraged sexualization of women in a way that for many became degrading. (Though it’s interesting that even in this supposedly enlightened day and age there’s still the perception that any woman who got naked for Playboy must have been some dumb bimbo who got used, because “a woman who gets naked voluntarily” is perceived as dumb and exploitable.)

But the thing is, I was thirteen and seeking naked women, as most horny hetero teenaged boys do. There were definitely more enlightened vessels of political awakening, but I was not going to find them. If you’d handed me a copy of bell hooks, I would have said, “Oh, yeah, thanks,” with the politely dismissive attitude of a kid who got socks for Christmas and then gone digging through the dumpster in hopes of a crumpled up Penthouse picture.

Yet Playboy did eventually get me to reading bell hooks (and she was fucking mind-blowing). It was a winding path, but it got me there.

So for Hugh Hefner, it’s weird. He was never quite the feminist he claimed he was, and his personal life was more than a little controlling and creepy. (EDIT: This article sums up a lot of the downright rapey vibe at the Playboy Mansion.)  He would never be my poster choice as someone who fostered women’s rights. There’s a lot of women who dislike the culture he perpetrated, and they are correct to dislike that culture.

Yet if he’d been more perfect, he never would have done the things that penetrated (pun intended) my adolescent brain. All I was looking for was whack material, and he probably could have done just fine delivering that – as other skin mags did, providing just the girls and a smattering of spackle-articles to fill pages.

And as a society, we don’t necessarily have an emotional socket to plug “an imperfect guy who changed a lot of minds that more enlightened people could never reach” into. Women may not like the dudes who took the Playboy lifestyle seriously, and that’s a valid critique, but I’m pretty sure they would have liked those dudes a lot less if Hefner hadn’t interfered. Because in the absence of Playboy’s political stances – and Playboy was, for its time, highly liberal – many of those dudes probably would have just unquestioningly jerked off a lot and become something even worse.

(Especially if you take the view that some biographers have, namely that Hef started Playboy because at the time “bachelor” meant “gay” and he wanted to devise a more liberal lifestyle that was socially acceptable.)

So how much credit does society give for incremental improvement? Particularly when that “improved” version is, in and of itself, problematic? Complicated by the fact that, as noted, you kind of needed a Hugh Hefner to provide pornography to the right audiences before the philosophy could work its magic?

Hefner did some good work, and in the process he also perpetrated some negative aspects of women. And that will always be snarled up in the idea that “sex work” and “women” is inherently degrading, as witness the way society assumes anyone who’s doing sex work must be stupid or enslaved or both. So it gets complicated. Real complicated.

But Hefner, at least for me, gave me something I don’t know if I would have gotten another way. He latched onto some base instincts and built something decent out of that – so decent that I later came to disagree vehemently with some of Hefner’s statements. But I credit the awareness of that debate, in part, to Hef.

On Twitter, I said this: “Whenever someone dies: remember that the good they did for you doesn’t magically erase the harm they did to someone else.” That’s true the other way around. For me, Hefner did some good even if he also contributed to the oppression of women.

I can take the positives that he did without occluding the negatives. The man used naked women as a platform to publish all sorts of political screeds and stories that ultimately did some good in the world. The attitude he took towards those women was, for some of them, dismissive and objectifying.

I think you can go mad trying to balance that out to come up with a single average number.

Far better to just say that he did good, and bad, and leave it at that.

Hey, San Francisco, Come Say Hello To Me Saturday At Borderlands Books!

In case you forgot, I’ll be at Borderlands Books (my favorite place in SF) at 3:00 pm this Saturday to read to you from my new book The Uploaded, sign whatever you put in front of me, and to, as usual, go out for hamburgers afterwards.

(And if you’re extra-special-good, I may do a super-secret advance MEGA-preview reading of The Book That Does Not Yet Have A Name. Not that, you know, you shouldn’t be rushing out to your stores to buy The Uploaded right now.)

I will, of course, bring donuts after my massive DONUT FAIL in Massachusetts, which I still wake up in cold sweats about. I will bring you donuts or die.

Let Life Happen.

“I’m not up for sex,” she told me. “I’ve had a lot of medical issues lately. It’s more painful than not to even try.”

“Cool,” I said, and we spent the day going to a street festival.

I woulda liked sex. But life happens.

“I’m in the middle of my seasonal affective disorder,” I told her. “You show up, I might not be able to leave the house. I might just curl up and cry all day.”

“Cool,” she said, and I was pretty morose but we cuddled a lot and eventually managed to go out to dinner.

I woulda liked to have a working brain. But life happens.

“I’m not sure I can make it through this convention,” they told me. “My flare-ups have been really bad this season. I might not be able to go out with you in the evenings.”

“Cool,” I said, and I went out for little hour-long jaunts before heading back to the room to cuddle them, then charging out again to circulate.

I woulda liked to have them by my side when I hit the room parties. But life happens.

I’m a massively flawed human with a mental illness. I need to have poly relationships that include for the possibility of breakdowns. Because if I need to have a perfect day before I allow anyone to see me, I might wait for weeks. Months. Years. And then what the fuck is left by the time I get to see them?

I know there are people who need perfect visits. They have to have the makeup on when you visit them, and they’ll never fall asleep when they had a night of Big Sexy planned, and if they get out the toys there’s gonna be a scene no matter how raw anyone’s feeling.

But I can’t do that.

My relationships aren’t, can’t be, some idealized projection of who I want to be. If I’m not feeling secure that day, I can’t be with a partner who needs me to be their rock so the weekend proceeds unabated. And if they’re feeling broken, I can’t be with someone who needs to pretend everything is fine because their time with me is their way of proving what a good life they have.

Sometimes, me and my lovers hoped for a weekend retreat of pure passion and what we get is curling up with someone under tear-stained covers, holding them and letting them know they will not be alone come the darkness.

We cry. We collapse. We stumble. We don’t always get what we want, not immediately.

But we also heal. We nurture. We accept.

And in the long run, God, we get so much more.

The Best Musical You Never Heard: How Groundhog Day Made Me A Better Person.

I knew musicals could cheer me up, but I’d never heard of one that gave me new tools to deal with chronic illness and depression. Yet when I saw Groundhog Day last Wednesday, I was so stunned by what a perfect, joyous metaphor it was for battling mental illness that I immediately bought tickets to see it again that Saturday.

I would have told you about this before, but it was too late. The show closed on Sunday. A musical that should have run, well, for as long as Phil Connors was trapped in his endless time loop only got a five-month run.

But I can tell you about it.

I can tell you why this musical made me a stronger, better person.


So let’s discuss the original Groundhog Day movie, which is pretty well-known at this point: Bill Murray is an asshole weatherman named Phil who shows up under protest to do a report from Punxatawney, Philadelphia on Groundhog Day. He’s trapped in town overnight thanks to a blizzard. When Phil wakes up the next morning, it’s Groundhog Day again. And again. And again.

Phil goes through several phases:

  • Incredulous as he can’t believe what’s happening to him;
  • Gleefully naughty as he uses his knowledge of people’s future actions to indulge all his greatest fantasies;
  • Frustrated as he tries to romance Rita, his producer, but he’s too cynical for her and nothing convinces her to hop in bed with him unless everyone else in town;
  • Depressed as he realizes that his life is shallow and there’s no way he can escape;
  • Perplexed as he tries to rescue a dying homeless man but realizes that nothing he can do on this day will save this poor guy;
  • And, finally, beatific as he uses his intense knowledge of everything that will happen in town today to run around doing good for people.

Naturally, that’s a great emotional journey. It’s no wonder that’s a story that’s resonated with people.

Yet Groundhog Day changes just one slight emotional tenor about this – and that change is massive.

Because when Bill Murray’s character gets to the end of his journey, he’s actually content. He’s achieved enlightenment where he enjoys everything he does, toodling around on the piano because he’s formed Punxatawney into his paradise. He laughs at people who ignore him. He’s satisfied.

And when Rita, who senses this change even though she doesn’t understand why, bids everything in her wallet to dance with him at the Groundhog Dance, the Bill Murray Phil is touched but also, on some level, serene.

Andy Karl’s Phil is not happy.

We spend a lot more time in Andy’s Phil’s headspace, and at one point he breaks down because of all the things he’ll never get to do – he’ll never grow a beard, he’ll never see the dawn again, he’ll never have another birthday. Anything he does is wiped away the next morning.

Bill Murray’s Phil gets so much satisfaction out of his constantly improving the town that his daily circuit has become a reward for him.

Andy Karl’s Phil is, on some level, fundamentally isolated. People will never know him – at least not without hours of proving to them that yes, he is trapped in this time loop, he does know everything about them.  No matter what relationships he forms, he’ll have  to start all over again in a matter of hours. There’s no bond he can create that this loop won’t erase.

And so when Rita finally dances with Bill Murray, it’s shown as a big romantic moment. And in the musical –

In the musical, Rita moves towards Phil and everything freezes in a harsh blue light except for Phil.

This is everything Phil has ever wanted in years, maybe decades, of being in this loop – and instead of being presented as triumphant, everything goes quiet and Phil sings a tiny, mournful song:

But I’m here
And I’m fine
And I’m seeing you for the first time

And the reason that brings tears to my eyes every fucking time is because this Phil is not fine – he repeats the lie in the next verse when he says he’s all right. Yet this is the happiest moment he’s had in years, finally understanding what Rita has wanted all along, and this moment too will be swept away in an endless series of morning wakeups and lumpy beds and people forgetting what he is.

Yet that mournful tune is also defiant, and more defiant when the townspeople pick it up and start singing it in a rising chorus:

I’m here
And I’m fine

Phil knows his future is nothing.

Yet that will not stop him from appreciating this small beauty even if he knows it will not stay with him. Trapped in the groundhog loop, appreciating the tiny moments becomes an act of rebellion, a way of affirming life even when you know this moment too will vanish.

Can you understand that this is depression incarnate?

Which is the other thing that marks this musical. Because I said there was joy, and there is. Because when Andy Karl’s Phil enters the “Philanthropy” section of the musical (get it?), he may not be entirely happy but he is content.

Because he knows that he may not necessarily feel joy at all times, but he has mastered the art of maintenance.

Because tending to the town of Punxatawney is a lot of work. He has to run around changing flat tires, rescuing cats, getting Rita the chili she wanted to try, helping people’s marriages. (And as he notes, “My cardio never seems to stick.”)

When Bill Murray’s Phil helps people, it seems to well up from personal satisfaction. Whereas Andy’s Phil is thrilled helping people, yes, but his kindness means more because it costs him. On some level he is, and will forever be, fundamentally numb.

This isn’t where he wanted to be.

Yet he has vowed to do the best with what he can. He helps the townspeople of Punxatawney because even though it is a constant drain, it makes him feel better than drinking himself senseless in his room. He doesn’t get to have everything he wanted – also see: depression and chronic illness – and it sure would be nice if he could take a few days off, but those days off will make him feel worse.

He’s resigned himself to a lifetime of working harder than he should for results that aren’t as joyous as he wanted.

And that’s okay. Not ideal, but…. okay.

Andy’s okay.

And I think the closest I can replicate that in a non-musical context is another unlikely source – Rick and Morty, where Rick is a suicidal hypergenius scientist who’s basically the Doctor if the Doctor’s psychological ramifications were taken seriously. And he goes to therapy, where a therapist so smart that she’s the only person Rick’s never been able to refute says this to him:

“Rick, the only connection between your unquestionable intelligence and the sickness destroying your family is that everyone in your family, you included, use intelligence to justify sickness.

“You seem to alternate between viewing your own mind as an unstoppable force and as an inescapable curse. And I think it’s because the only truly unapproachable concept for you is that it’s your mind within your control.
You chose to come here, you chose to talk to belittle my vocation, just as you chose to become a pickle. You are the master of your universe, and yet you are dripping with rat blood and feces, your enormous mind literally vegetating by your own hand.

“I have no doubt that you would be bored senseless by therapy, the same way I’m bored when I brush my teeth and wipe my ass. Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is it’s not an adventure. There’s no way to do it so wrong you might die.

“It’s just work.

“And the bottom line is, some people are okay going to work, and some people well, some people would rather die.

“Each of us gets to choose.

“That’s our time.”

And yes, Groundhog Day the musical is – was – about that lesson of maintenance, as Andy comes to realize that “feeling good” isn’t a necessary component for self-improvement, and works hard to make the best of a situation where, like my depression, even the best and most perfect day will be reset come the next morning.

And yes. There is a dawn for Andy’s Phil, of course, and he does wake up with Rita, and you get to exit the theater knowing that no matter how bad it gets there will come a joyous dawn and you get to walk out onto Broadway and so does Phil.

But you don’t get to that joy without maintenance.

And you might get trapped again some day. That, too, is depression. That, too, is chronic illness. We don’t know that Phil doesn’t get trapped on February 3rd, or March 10th, or maybe his whole December starts repeating.

But he has the tools now. He knows how to survive until the next dawn.

Maybe you can too.


Anyway. There’s talk that Groundhog Day will go on tour, maybe even with Andy Karl doing the performances. He’s brilliant. Go see him.

The rest of you, man, I hope you find your own Groundhog Day. I saw mine. Twice.

Perhaps it’s fitting that it’s vanished.

Hey, Massachusetts, Come Say Hello To Me Tomorrow At Pandemonium Games!

As a reminder, I’ll be at Pandemonium Books and Games (which is an awesome store even in the absence of me) at 7:00 tomorrow to read to you, sign whatever you put in front of me, and probably go out for drinks and/or ice cream afterwards.

I hope to see you there! These donuts aren’t gonna eat themselves.