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.