The Smoke Trail: Something To Consider About Consent Violations And Running Cons

So here’s something most people don’t think about when it comes to consent violations: the smoke trail.
But if you’ve run a convention for long enough? Oh, you’ve thought about it because you’ve tried not to ignite it.
Because here’s a not-uncommon scenario for kink conventions: someone well known in the community – let’s call ‘em “Famous Dave” – sexually assaults someone at your convention.
The victim is traumatized enough, and has requested not to be named – so your goal is to not cause a gossip shitstorm that shoves this person into the spotlight as everyone starts debating what Famous Dave did and whether he really meant to do it and besides, wasn’t the victim out to get him anyway?  Keeping their details obscured is good because if someone’s been sexually assaulted, the last thing they need is all of Famous Dave’s fans dragging their name through the mud and making them relive this stuff.
Your goal: to take some sort of action without revealing the victim.
Well, you’ve got options, and none of them are good if the victim doesn’t want to come forward:
1) Ban Famous Dave And Tell Him What He Did Wrong.
Unfortunately, if you give him details, there’s a really good chance Famous Dave can figure out who reported this violation – because there’s only so many people he’s played with at that con.  It’s not too hard for him to flip back through his playlist and home in on his accuser.
And that risks serious backlash.  Famous Dave might write an essay naming his accuser, often in the guise of begging forgiveness, but all that really does is make the victim look shitty if they don’t charge forward into social media to tell their side of the story.  Famous Dave might pester his victim repeatedly, pressuring them into forgiveness at a time when the victim may not even be ready to talk about it.  Or Famous Dave might rally his buddies to get a smear campaign, proactively (and sometimes unconsciously) raising the troops to go after some victim’s reputation before Dave’s gets torpedoed.
You can expose the victim to further harassment and shame merely by the act of banning a famous predator.  Because all of those things have happened.
That’s the smoke trail; you think you’ve solved the problem, but you’ve created a backlash that hurts the victim.
2)  Ban Famous Dave And Don’t Tell Him What He Did Wrong.
Well, as noted, it’s often not too hard for Famous Dave to figure out what he did wrong if that wrong was done at the convention.  So you risk igniting the smoke trail again.
But what if Famous Dave legitimately doesn’t know what he did?  Because that, too, has happened, particularly to famous kink rock stars – sure, they did this sexy thing to nine other women without checking and it went down like gangbusters, but that tenth woman was distinctly not into it.  If he takes to social media to claim he did nothing wrong, then to certain people your con looks like you’re tetchy dictators who ban for no good reason and hey why are you being so mean to Famous Dave what about his constitutional rights what about due process?
Which is good for the victim, but negative PR for your con.  Because while there are people who very much support black-box bannings, in the absence of facts a lot of people assume the con is just power-mad because hey, I met Dave and he was awesome.
And in either case, if you don’t say what went wrong, then the gossip train goes nuts.  People hear that Famous Dave got banned, and all sorts of crazy rumors fly because anyone who’s played with him (or her) is now a potential target, because man, communities can be fierce when it comes to wanting to know what’s happening.
Sometimes people who never accused Famous Dave of anything get marked as the accuser, and have to defend themselves from some onslaught, particularly if Famous Dave decides they did it.  Shitty?  Absolutely.  But it’s also happened.
(Though sometimes a flurry of gossip turns up additional victims who are willing to come forward, which is one of your best-case scenarios – though obviously you have no way of guaranteeing that.  Though I should note that another weird “best-case” scenario where you get to have both the victim remain concealed and avoid swamping the con in drama is when you black-box-ban Dave, and he knows precisely what he did, and he doesn’t want the PR happening either so he goes quiet.  But then you have the unwanted side effect of a predator being quiet so he can go about abuse at other cons, which, you know, not that ideal from a “global effects” perspective.)
3)  Don’t Ban Famous Dave Because The Victim Doesn’t Want To Be A Target For Famous Abuse.
Well… you protect that victim from further trauma.  But not further victims from Famous Dave.
And the problem is that, yes, the victim doesn’t feel like going toe-to-toe with someone who has fifty rabid fans who’ll defend his every move because “Famous Dave did CPR on my sick puppy once and therefore Famous Dave would never do anything wrong.”  But that’s a real concern, if you’re trying to help someone heal.  It can get super-stressful if you’re trying to return to normality and everyone’s clutching your shoulder like you’re made of fine crystal and going, “Oh my God, are you all right?”
And sometimes you see conventions not revealing details, and the victim gets furious because they’re not perceiving the convention as being on their side, because if the con was on their side they’d have been more forward with the horrible thing that happened.  Why are they being so slow to respond?
And the answer is often that it’s not the con’s place to decide what level of exposure a victim of a consent violation should have.  They’re slow to react because, frankly, they’ve seen other scenarios where some idiot at a con gave one too many details that allowed an abuser – or a community – to put a name to the victim when they really did not want to have their name put up for debate, which made it infinitely worse for them.
And sometimes it’s not even someone famous.  Sometimes Dave is just someone well-liked in the community.  He isn’t dragging fifty fans, but he has got friends who are gonna start poking around because we like Dave, why did these organizers do this mean thing to him?   And then you’ll have asshole victim-blamers who demand that every victim step forward to be a punching bag for any organization that needs them, because we all know that the crime of “being sexually assaulted” should carry a mandatory sentence of “being forced to perform psychologically-damaging community service.”
The smoke trail is real.  Violations that happen at conventions are complex.  There are other, narrower, reactions that can be taken, of course, but not all of them might apply to this particular incident.
And if you’re in charge when the victim wants privacy, shielding them and being open about your process and managing good PR for your con often becomes a balancing act even the best can’t manage.
It’s not fair.  It’s not good.  It’s not right.
But sometimes there are no good solutions, and all you can do is choose the particular flavor of shit sandwich you’re going to choke down that day.
And that’s all.

The Cartoonishly Implacable Criminal That Gun Owners Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s literally how it works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things I Have Learned After Two Months Of Personal Training

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

I stand up wrong.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

It’s the ketones that I can’t stand.

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

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

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

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


I am clueless as to how my body works.

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

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

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

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

If I fuck up, it’s body work.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Maybe I’ll have abs before I die.


 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Do I feel any different?  Not really.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are they the good guys?

Because they call each other on their shit.

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

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

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

Now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway. Here’s my point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because you call each other on your shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s the takeaway:

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

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

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

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

And you fight that in one of two ways:

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

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

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

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

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

Because you might well know someone.

You just don’t know you know.

Don’t assume.

World Mental Health Day, And Me, And You.

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

It’s embarrassing.

I don’t want to tell you any of that.

Yet I do because speaking up is important.

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

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

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

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

Yet there is also hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe you could be one of them.

Maybe you could get up and try again today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except he started serving The Impossible Burger last month.

My ears pricked.

My wife and I made a date.

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

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

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

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

We took a bite.  Chewed, puzzled.

Then we took a bite of the meat-burger.

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

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

Then it came to us what the difference was:

We’d stopped handicapping the veggie burger.

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

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

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

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

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

But at the end of the day…

It tasted like a burger.

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

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

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

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

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