Category Archives: Personal

Avoiding Nice-Guy Fantasy

I’m writing an urban fantasy novel, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the genre. I’ve always been a fan of fantasy/sci-fi stories, but there are some unfortunate tropes in the genre that reflect a lot of male power fantasies. Classic stories like the Lord of the Ring, Star Wars, and most superhero comics tend to feature a powerful Leading Man who was born destined for greatness. He develops some kind of supernatural combat powers (or is just really good at fighting) which allows him to fight his way to the end boss and defeat him with the powers of goodness (but also superpowers). Often, this wins him the affection of the Female Lead, who is mostly just there to need rescuing and provide the hero with a prize. It’s pretty much the James Bond/action hero formula.

Some modern stories have been subverting these tropes, some in really excellent ways. Other stories have been subverting the specific tropes, but not really addressing the attitudes that lead to them. Recently, I’ve read a number of modern fantasy/sci-fi stories that have all shared a lot of the same elements that seem to be a reaction to the classic formula. They tend to be written by men and feature male heroes, but these are not your typical heroes. The Leading Man isn’t overly powerful or impressive, and is often weak or low-status. He’s not devastatingly handsome, but he has an understated attractiveness. Rather than use his great combat prowess, Leading Man defeats the enemy using his unique, special-snowflake mind. He may or may not have magic powers, but any powers he has appear at first glance to be useless or underpowered, though Leading Man eventually finds a clever, unexpected way to use them to defeat the evil bad guy. The bad guy is unequivocally evil. Leading Man has no real flaws, but all minor flaws are treated like a much bigger deal than they are. He constantly feels guilty about his “bad” decisions despite the fact that everything he did was the only reasonable option given the circumstances.

Unlike the classic story, the modern stories feature strong female characters. Women are never the main characters, of course, but they have substantial supporting roles, and the story always makes sure to squeak out a passing grade on the Bechdel test. In the modern fantasy novel, women are the ones with the physical prowess, able to fight, shoot, and generally kick ass. Leading Man is often saved by his female sidekick multiple times throughout the story, though he never feels emasculated or anything but grateful because he’s not a Neanderthal like those classic action heroes who spent their time saving helpless women. Female sidekick is always attractive, but in a quirky, nontraditional way, which is pointed out multiple times during the novel. Still, there is often a helpless woman who needs to be saved, but this is a different woman, and not a love interest, because this isn’t the kind of story where the hero wins a woman’s affections by saving her. That’s for those James Bond-style brutes. Still, there is often a female antagonist hassling the hero for unjustified, personal reasons (bitchy ex-wife, anyone?).

I checked in with my literary Facebook group and confirmed that this is an ongoing trend. I’ve taken to calling this “nice-guy fantasy,” because it seems to reflect the same attitudes that underly the “Nice Guy” phenomenon in pop culture. Nice Guys are a reaction to the perceived deficiencies of the “dumb jocks,” who are thought to be unworthy of the affections that they receive because of their regressive attitudes toward women. Nice Guys feel that they are more deserving of women’s affection because they avoid the worst behaviors of jocks, though in reality, their attitudes are just as sexist and unjustified, just in a different way.

In the same way, nice-guy fantasy just swaps out one set of rigid gender roles for another. Nice guy fantasy appears to be a reaction to perceived deficiencies of the classic action-hero formula and its regressive attitudes toward women and its simplistic view of heroism. Nice-guy fantasy avoids the worst tropes of the classic action-hero style writing, but merely takes that box and replaces it with another to force all of its characters into. Sophia McDougal, writing in the New Statesman, summarizes the problem:

Nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses. They’re still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how they don’t take no shit, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps, and then with ladylike discretion they back out of the narrative’s way….

What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains.

Nice-guy fantasy continues the action-hero trend of representing a male power fantasy, but this time it’s the fantasy a shy, geeky man who grew up resenting the Superman archetype. Rather than fantasizing about being the superspy who can beat up rooms full of people, seduce any woman, and shoot the wings off a fly, this story is a fantasy about being the underdog who rises to the challenge foisted upon him by circumstance (and, of course, his big heart). The problem is that this ends up being just as formulaic as the classic action story and just as reductive in terms of gender roles. It’s still about a Great Man Becoming Great, it’s just a nerdier, more chess club/silicon valley view of greatness rather than the classic captain-of-the-football-team view.

In writing my own story (34,000 words and counting!), I’ve tried to be conscious of this trend and avoid any sort of self-congratulatory stereotypes. It’s a fantasy story about an isolated society, so one thing I’ve done is just changed the society’s views of gender roles. Because of the way the “magic” works, women are stronger and generally more physically impressive, so the society evolved so that women are the dominant gender. However, women still carry and nurse children, so that gets taken into account.

The other thing I’ve tried to do is to have a large variety of female characters. The ratio of male:female in my is about 1:4. This is a literary device, but also an artifact of the culture in that, because men are the marginalized gender, there are more women in roles like detectives, doctors, transportation operators, and other jobs that are featured in the story. The two viewpoint characters are women, though in our society their behavior would probably be read as masculine (or, let’s be honest, “bitchy”).

It’s been a challenge, but I’m hoping it turns out well. I’m still on my first draft, and I’m planning on going back and rewriting the entire thing once I finish. This is the first novel I’ve ever attempted, so I’m sure it won’t be a masterpiece, but I’m hoping it will end up being something I can be proud of, and above all, I hope it doesn’t come across as reactionary. I’m writing the story the way I am because I think it’s interesting, and I would like to read a story like it, and I hope it doesn’t come across as merely a reaction to other fantasy tropes.

The other thing that worries me is that my characters are all kind of jerks in their own way. Not in the sense that they have minor flaws which are easily overlooked, but in the sense that they have large personality defects that will take a lifetime to improve, and will not be resolved by the end of the book (though some progress will be made). My characters are often self-absorbed, short-sighted, irrational, downright foolish, and they don’t always understand how consent works. I’m worried that someone reading my story will think these characters were intended as role models or heroes when they are actually just meant to be humans that I (and hopefully a few readers) will find interesting, but I don’t know how to make that clear without imposing contrived consequences on the characters for their flaws. My main protagonist will be learning from her mistakes, but overall, the story features far too many character flaws in numerous characters to address individually. I’m hoping that readers will understand that even the “good guy” characters aren’t intended as role models.

Man, writing fiction is difficult.

Atlanta Poly Weekend Harbors Abusers and Scapegoats Victims

The following is an email sent to the Relationship Equality Foundation, the organization that hosts and organizes Atlanta Poly Weekend. 

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Dear Relationship Equality Foundation,

I’ve always been a big supporter of Atlanta Poly Weekend. My first year attending, a presenter cancelled at the last minute and I volunteered to step in and do my Online Dating presentation. Last year, I gave two presentations as well as put on a burlesque show. I’ve also promoted your event on my blog and in many personal interactions. I’ve done everything I can think of to support your organization because at the time it seemed like a really good cause. Unfortunately, that support has not been mutual.

Last winter, several of my wife’s ex-partners, including Shaun McGonigal, engaged in a coordinated smear campaign against me. While most organizations and individuals were able to see that this was a case of resentful exes attempting to continue their abuse post-breakup, your organization accepted their accusations uncritically, gave me no meaningful opportunity to defend myself, and never told me what I was accused of doing. When I provided extensive evidence that all public allegations were false, exaggerated, or left out important context, I was ignored.

Your organization designated Billy Holder (and old friend of Shaun McGonigal’s from his time living in Atlanta) as an investigator. Billy’s “investigation” was anything but. Billy never got my side of any of the stories that he was told. He never spoke to any of the witnesses that I identified, in person or online, despite numerous opportunities to do so. His conversation with me largely consisted of Billy expressing his anger and disappointment regarding how the Polyamory Leadership Network handled the situation. He never disclosed to me that he was investigating anything. He expressed multiple times that he was in the dark. He outright lied to me by telling me that he didn’t know the content of any of the accusations. Instead, he pretended to be my friend and reassured me that he was on my side.

During the weekend that he was in town, Billy gained and then took advantage of my trust. I consented to be in a sexual situation with him having no idea he was acting in an official capacity as an investigator . It felt (and continues to feel) disgusting because I consented under false pretenses. I feel violated. Had he been honest with me, I never would have engaged in any kind of sexual contact with him. I consider his failure to disclose his role to be a major consent breach (in addition to the appalling ethics of an investigator having sex with the target of his investigation).

Billy then turned around and used his position as a member of your board and principal organizer of Atlanta Poly Weekend to get me banned from the event, ostensibly due to the fact that I’m some kind of danger to the community.

Billy also used his influence and position of power to make sure that his friend Shaun McGonigal was able to attend, despite the fact that over the past year he and the Relationship Equality Foundation received reports that Shaun:

  • once beat his girlfriend so hard that her injuries caused her to miss three days of work
  • emotionally and verbally abused my wife Gina for over a year
  • without provocation, threatened to break my nose
  • manipulated, abused, and gaslit other former partners

Since then, Shaun also beat his wife in a fit of rage, which led to their divorce. Your organization has ignored all of these reports and allowed Billy Holder to protect his friend and scapegoat me.

It is obvious that none of this is about protecting the community or effectively dealing with abuse, and it is about Billy Holder playing favorites and the Relationship Equality Foundation allowing him to do so.

For obvious reasons, I do not wish to attend or support APW, nor will I unless significant changes are made. However, I hope you and your attendees will take the event this weekend as an opportunity to rethink how you handle this sort of thing and make some attempts to establish some actual accountability in your community. Your current system serves only to enable abuse by proxy, empower abusers, and make your community more dangerous.

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For anyone attending APW this year, the only thing I’d ask is that you let the organizers know about your unhappiness with how they handle abuse complaints and request that they establish a system which provides genuine accountability while respecting the humanity of everyone involved.

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UPDATE [6/6/15]: APW issued a statement on its Facebook page:

APW earnestly aims to create a safe place for our attendees, guests, presenters, staff and volunteers. We treat all reports of abuse seriously and are concerned for the people in any situation of abuse. Our first responsibility is to create a convention space that is safe for everyone. We act in good faith within our role as an event to honor the sense of safety in the community at large.
In order to support the survivors, we try to give the accusers the benefit of the doubt and the accused a reasonable opportunity to participate in the discussion. Because we support the survivors and are not against the accused, the accused can be welcomed back into the community and APW.
While we are part of the community we serve, we are not the arbitrators of personal situations and must focus on the small confines of our event. The Board of Directors reached a consensus regarding a particularly volatile situation outside of our event that was nevertheless disrupting our event, in our opinion. As our community changes, we evolve along with it and use this experience to learn and continue discussions about what creates safe environments.
Currently we are in the stage of supporting the survivors:http://emmfett.blogspot.com/…/the-community-response-to-abu… We are learning what it means to support accountability for the accused. It is our hope to learn this alongside the community

In addition to being vague PR-speak, this statement does not reflect any of my or my family’s interactions with APW. They have not taken our reports of Shaun McGonigle’s abuse seriously, and they have conducted zero followup with any of the multiple people who have contacted them to report his abuse. For example, when Shaun engaged in behavior at a different conference that bordered on stalking me, I reported it to several organization including APW. Their response was to mock me:

But yet, the conference leadership was not informed about the situation nor were any complaints, to our knowledge, brought against that person to the conference leadership as he remained at the conference all weekend.  We found this to be odd if you are truly scared to be at an event where he is present.

Never mind that I didn’t realize he’d been following and watching me until he blogged about it after the conference. Never mind that the conference leadership was informed immediately, and had been informed prior to the conference about Shaun. Never mind that my wife Gina fled the conference in tears on Friday night because Shaun was there, and didn’t return all weekend despite paying over a hundred dollars for a ticket. This has been typical of APW’s treatment of us, minimizing and discrediting our fears and working overtime to protect Gina’s abusive ex. APW absolutely does not take abuse complaints seriously or support victims. For them to claim otherwise is insulting and degrading to all of Shaun’s victims that have repeatedly contacted them to no avail.

Stop Telling Fat People to Be Thin

source: fiercefatties.com

Last month, Harriet Brown published an article on Slate comprehensively laying out the science around weight loss and showing how (a) diets don’t work long-term; (b) weight loss isn’t healthy; and (c) that it’s out culture’s obsession with being thin that drives people (including doctors) to assume that being thin is healthier than being fat. The Slate article was a summary of what’s in her book Body of Truth, and reflects what fat activists have been saying for years.

In response, Julia Belluz published an article on Vox claiming that Brown’s article was misleading and that losing weight is a worthwhile and attainable goal. Belluz’s article is terrible. It’s so terrible that I have to rant about it at length here. So consider this your trigger warning for angry ranting and diet talk.

Claim One: Diets Don’t Turn Fat People Into Thin People

Brown lays out what we know about diets:

doctors know the holy trinity of obesity treatments—diet, exercise, and medication—don’t work. They know yo-yo dieting is linked to heart disease, insulin resistance, higher blood pressure, inflammation, and, ironically, long-term weight gain. Still, they push the same ineffective treatments, insisting they’ll make you not just thinner but healthier.

In reality, 97 percent of dieters regain everything they lost and then some within three years. Obesity research fails to reflect this truth because it rarely follows people for more than 18 months. This makes most weight-loss studies disingenuous at best and downright deceptive at worst.

Brown’s statements reflect scientific findings about the ineffectiveness of diets over the long-term, which more often lead to weight gain than weight loss (83% in the linked study). Nobody quite knows why that’s happening, but one of the most plausible theories is set point theory, which is the idea that each body has a certain level of fat that it wants, and without drastic interventions, it will remain at the same level long-term. Set points can change, but nobody really knows how, and most diets tend to slightly raise a person’s set point rather than lower it. Set Point Theory applies to fat people and thin people alike:

Kolata goes on to discuss a later study that demonstrated it was just as hard to gain a significant amount of weight and keep it on. Male prisoners agreed to do this weight-gain experiment, and it turned out they had to eat a ridiculous amount of food–literally up to 10,000 calories a day–to increase their weight by 20-25 percent. Once they did that, their metabolisms went apeshit trying to get them back down to their normal weights. As soon as the study was over, the weight fell off.

There is also some evidence that gut microbes contribute in a significant way to weight gain or loss. The thing about all of the theories, though, is that they are not yet proven, and more importantly, that nobody understand them well enough to say how to turn a fat person into a thin person (or vice versa).

Belluz disagrees:

Some of the best research on what works for weight loss comes from the National Weight Control Registry, a study that has parsed the traits, habits, and behaviors of adults who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a minimum of one year.

[…]

“What makes maintaining weight loss seem ‘almost impossible,'” writes obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff, “are the goal posts society has generally set to measure success.” So no to quick diets, yes to long-term lifestyle changes. They can help.

Can you spot the error? I can! A few of them in fact! But the most glaring error is the one-year time requirement. There is no question that people on diets can lose weight and keep it off for one year, maybe even two. But once you get to year three, and especially when you get to year five, nearly everyone has not only regained the weight that they lost, but put on additional weight.

The other error is what’s known as selection bias. The registry includes 10,000 people who have successfully kept their weight off. Belluz tries to use the registry as evidence that long-term weight loss is possible for most people. However, nobody has argued that weight loss is impossible for anyone, just that it doesn’t work for 97% of those who try. Given that 45 million Americans diet every year, that’s over a million people every year who are successful. The existence of a registry of 10,000 people who have successfully lost weight proves nothing other than that they are part of the lucky 3% whose metabolism is cooperative.

Belluz tries to claim that the people on the registry have valuable advice for the rest of us. I’m reminded of a parable about mutual fund management I was told in finance class. Let’s pretend that picking stocks at random will outperform an index fund 30% of the time (the actual number is probably much higher). Let’s also say that there are ten thousand asset managers in the market. That means that, statistically, there will be 24 managers who are able to say “I beat the market every year for the past five years!” They will claim that their success is due to their incredible skills and insights, and try to convince you to invest all of your money with them. Their success is actually due to dumb luck. Their stock picks for the current year are no better or worse than anyone else’s.

The same goes for people who have successfully lost weight. Yes, they exist. No, they don’t have anything to teach the rest of us. For some reason, they got lucky. However, as the vast majority of studies have found, their success is not replicable for most people. They are not role models, and they have no helpful advice for how to turn fat people into thin people. Yes, this includes you.

Claim Two: Losing Weight Doesn’t Improve Health

Brown’s article claims:

Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention repeatedly find the lowest mortality rates among people whose body mass index puts them in the “overweight” and “mildly obese” categories. And recent research suggests that losing weight doesn’t actually improve health biomarkers such as blood pressure, fasting glucose, or triglyceride levels for most people.

Brown’s claims have been well-documented by various sources. There is an effect some call “the obesity paradox” where “[o]bese patients with heart disease, heart failure, diabetes, kidney disease, pneumonia, and many other chronic diseases fare better and live longer than those of normal weight.”

Belluz takes issue:

Stokes actually looked at more than 10 years of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and death records of American adults between the ages of 50 and 84, and went back in time, accounting for people’s weight histories. This made it possible to break up the normal weight category into two separate groups that are usually lumped together: those who had maintained a normal weight throughout their lives, and those who were normal weight at the time of the study but had experienced weight loss.

Stokes found that people who were always normal weight had an extremely low risk of death, but that the other normal weight group — with people who were formerly obese — had a much higher mortality rate. After redefining the normal weight category to only include the stable weight individuals, he found much stronger associations between excess weight and mortality.

Belluz claims that this “definitely has implications for the intensity with which we should be pursuing lifestyle and behavioral modification.”

inconceivableThis was the point at which my jaw dropped. I’m still having trouble believing Belluz is serious. She just presented a study that shows that losing weight not only doesn’t make you healthier, but it makes you so unhealthy that it throws off the statistics for the rest of the group, and she uses that as an argument in favor of weight loss! Belluz discovered really good evidence against the idea that weight loss is good for you and then wrote an entire article about how we should all be dieting! And claiming that it will improve our health! I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.

Related to the health question, Brown addresses the kind of energy is takes to maintain weight loss long term:

Debra Sapp-Yarwood, a fiftysomething from Kansas City, Missouri, who’s studying to be a hospital chaplain, is one of the three percenters, the select few who have lost a chunk of weight and kept it off. She dropped 55 pounds 11 years ago, and maintains her new weight with a diet and exercise routine most people would find unsustainable: She eats 1,800 calories a day—no more than 200 in carbs—and has learned to put up with what she describes as “intrusive thoughts and food preoccupations.” She used to run for an hour a day, but after foot surgery she switched to her current routine: a 50-minute exercise video performed at twice the speed of the instructor, while wearing ankle weights and a weighted vest that add between 25 or 30 pounds to her small frame.

“Maintaining weight loss is not a lifestyle,” she says. “It’s a job.” It’s a job that requires not just time, self-discipline, and energy—it also takes up a lot of mental real estate. People who maintain weight loss over the long term typically make it their top priority in life. Which is not always possible. Or desirable.

Belluz is unsympathetic:

But I would ask Brown: does being obese require any less mental energy?

Is it really more mentally freeing to feel tired when you walk up a flight of stairs, to have to buy two seats on an airplane because one won’t do, to not be able to play with your children because you’re too unfit, to continually worry about whether your clothes are going to fit in the morning … the list goes on.

This is where Belluz reveals what is at the root of her science-denialism and wrongheaded thinking: prejudice against fatties. Belluz assumes that being fat means you’re too “unfit” to walk up stairs or play with children? That you have to worry whether your clothes will fit? Seriously? In the same way that body size doesn’t determine health, body size does not determine fitness. Newsflash, asshole: fat people exercise! And when a fat person exercises, their muscles, lungs, and heart develop strength and endurance. Just like a thin person! Being fat doesn’t mean it’s tiring to walk up a flight of stairs. There are many fat and thin people alike who end up out of breath after walking up the stairs. There are also many fat and thin people who have no trouble walking up a flight of stairs. Body size does not determine cardiovascular health, and to suggest it does is nothing short of bigotry.

Do you know what actually uses up a lot of mental energy in fat people? Fat stigma, which is exacerbated by ignorant articles pushing tired bullshit that’s been disproven over and over again. Want to improve the health of fatties? Spread the word about Fat Acceptance and Health at Every Size.

I am fat. I have always been fat. I am actually one of the lucky few who has managed to lose weight and keep it off long-term, which I did almost a decade ago by starting low-carb and then going low-calorie. Since then, my weight has been slowly but surely creeping back up. I’ve tried low-carb followed by low-calorie again, with no effect. I’ve tried going low-carb for longer. No effect. I’ve tried Whole30. No effect. I’ve tried The Smarter Science of Slim. No effect.

I’m not doing it anymore. I live a healthy lifestyle. I drink green smoothies for breakfast. I eat salad for lunch. I probably eat fewer calories than you do. I exercise regularly. I’ve started jogging. I walk up three flights of stairs to my office no problem. My doctors tell me I’m in excellent health. I have no reason to lose weight, and I’m not going to.

If Julia Belluz has a problem with that, she can kiss my fat ass.

My Poly Nightmare

“A lot of unethical behavior comes from people trying to protect themselves by controlling partners”

— Franklin Veaux, Poly Living 2015

This is a story about how the polyamorous community failed me my family. It details our abuse and mistreatment, first at the hands of several of our partners and friends, and then at the hands of community leaders.

I was happy to have this conversation in private, and much of it has been. However, my antagonists have since moved the conversation into the public sphere, and therefore I think a public response is necessary. I am writing this for several reasons. First, I wish to address the public accusations against me, as they are, by and large, false and misleading. Second is purely self-expression. There are a lot of people attempting to shame me into silence, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to give in to those kinds of tactics. But more than anything, I am writing this in the hope that it will help the poly community improve.

I’m hoping that my story can help the rest of the community see how even well-meaning policies can end up furthering and reinforcing abuse if they aren’t well thought-out in advance, and how lazy, irresponsible, or corrupt leadership can mean disaster. Above all, this story is meant to show that we are not building communities that reflect our values, and to hopefully inspire some changes in the way that we do things.

One of my favorite quotes from More Than Two is the following (pp. 51-52):

We keep hearing that polyamory is hard work. We don’t agree-at least not for the reasons that people say. But developing the skills to be successful in poly relationships? That’s a different story. Learning to understand and express your needs, learning to take responsibility for your emotions… that’s hard work. Once you’ve developed those skills, poly relationships aren’t hard.

In the above quote, authors Veaux and Rickert identify two key skills that make poly relationships easy: (1) understanding and expressing your needs; and (2) taking responsibility for your emotions. This is a story about people who do these two things and people who don’t, and the conflicts that arise between them. At different points in this story, I fall into both categories. But if you don’t agree that it’s best to be in the former category, then you can save yourself a lot of reading and just conclude that I’m a jerk and our communities are fine, because that’s all this story is going to show you.

This story is completely true, as best I can remember it. However, memory is seriously unreliable, easily distorted, and even falsely manipulated.  Many of these events took place years before this account was written, making all memories of events especially unreliable. Wherever possible, I’ve relied on written records. Unless otherwise indicated, anything that appears in quotation marks is a direct quote from a written source. Any description of emails, texts, or IM’s has been made after a thorough review of all such communications, and I’ve attempted to give a reasonable amount of context for any such communications where appropriate. I’ve also attempted to verify accounts with witnesses whenever written accounts aren’t available.

Still, several of the events contained in this account are not recorded anywhere, and so rely purely on memory for their descriptions. The necessity of this is unfortunate, but unavoidable. I’ve tried to make it easy to tell which portions are from memory and which are from records, and the portions relying on memory should be viewed with greater skepticism.

This story is told in ten parts. It carries a trigger warning for abuse, sexual assault, gaslighting, victim blaming, and just generally people being awful to each other:

  • Part 1: About Me. Background about my views on relationships, Ask vs. Guess Culture, certain boundaries I have, and how I respond to criticism.
  • Part 2: Opening Up. A short summary of Gina and my early experiences with open relationships, my game-changing relationship with Jessie, and some poor partner- selection decisions that Gina and I made.
  • Part 3: Failure to Communicate. This part discusses my relationship with Ginny Brown and her massive dishonesty, which I consider the worst romantic relationship of my life.
  • Part 4: Gina’s Abusive Relationship with Shaun. The story of Shaun McGonigal’s abuse of my wife Gina for over a year, Ginny’s enabling and excuse-making, and its effects on my household.
  • Part 5: The Community Abandons Gina. A short interlude about the lack of support that Gina received from the poly community after reporting that she was an abuse victim.
  • Part 6: Terry. My greatest regret: my first date with a friend of Ginny’s, my own negligence, and our mutual inability to see each other’s lack of enthusiasm about sexual activity.
  • Part 7: Idealization, Devaluation, Discard. Our ex-friend Hilary Nunes, her unwavering support for us, and her complete 180 after we stopped giving her what she wanted.
  • Part 8: Ginny and Shaun Attack. Ginny and Shaun’s first attempt to blame us for Shaun’s abuse of Gina and Ginny’s dishonesty and enabling.
  • Part 9: The Second Attack and the Community’s Disappointing Response. Shaun, Ginny, and Hilary’s February 2015 offensive and the shameful and counterproductive way it was handled by the Polyamory Leadership Network and Billy Holder of Atlanta Poly Weekend.
  • Part 10: Waking Up From the Nightmare. A discussion of how to establish real accountability in the poly community.

Amber has also told her story, which people may find relevant.

On Culpability

Culpability is a general theme of this story. Culpability is a term from the criminal law, and generally depends on one’s mental state. I feel that’s a reasonable way to judge what degree of blame someone bears when someone else gets hurt in our personal lives as well as the legal system. Our system generally recognizes four categories of culpability for harm done (in descending order):

  • Purpose: a person is considered to have acted purposefully when the harm done was the conscious goal of the actor. When a person takes an action with the explicit goal of causing harm, their mental state is considered purposeful.
  • Knowledge: a person is considered to have acted knowingly when they were aware that their actions would almost certainly cause harm, but such harm was not their conscious goal. When a person takes an action that they know will cause harm, their mental state is considered knowledgeable.
  • Recklessness: a person is considered to have acted recklessly when they acted in conscious and unreasonable disregard of a known risk. A person is reckless where they are aware that their actions have a substantial risk of causing harm, and such risk is unreasonable under the circumstances.
  • Negligence: a person is considered to have acted negligently when they took an unreasonable risk that they should have known about, but were not consciously aware of. Where a person is unaware that their actions pose an unreasonable risk of causing harm, but they should have known the risk, their mental state is negligent.

Except for the unusual situation where a person announces their intentions, a person’s mental state is inferred from circumstances, which usually requires a rather comprehensive understanding of the facts of the situation. People are presumed to intend the natural and probable results of their actions. Factfinders will properly consider the “totality of the circumstances” in order to determine a person’s mental state. If there is evidence to suggest that someone acted with a certain level of intent, then any such evidence is worth considering.

Outside of certain exceptional circumstances, our legal system does not punish people for actions unless their mental state falls under one of the categories above. The theory is that, unless we are at least willing to say that someone should have known that their actions would cause harm, they are not responsible for the harm done. In terms of degree, a negligent mental state generally carries far less punishment than a reckless mental state, which carries less punishment than a knowing mental state. I consider this a reasonable way to judge how blameworthy a person is, so it is the standard I apply in my personal life as well, and the standard I feel we should use in our shared spaces.

Louisa Leontiades expresses the importance of intentions for reasons other than culpability:

For me there is a striking difference between continuing to be an abuser when it is intentional and conscious and being an abuser when it is unintentional and unconscious. The difference has less to do with levels of culpability, and more with understanding which source to tackle in order to prevent further abuse even whilst acknowledging that all abuse has severe ramifications whether it is unintentional and unconscious or intentional and conscious. The goal must be to become conscious of it, in others and especially in ourselves.

It’s often said that “intentions are not magic,” which is true. Nothing about a person’s intentions erases the harm done by their actions, so a person’s intentions are not relevant to the question of whether harm was done. Such harm should be acknowledged and appreciated regardless of fault or intent. A person’s mental state is only relevant to the question of how much responsibility that person bears for the harm done. If we are unable to conclude that a person knew or should have known that their actions were unreasonably harmful, then it makes no sense to place any blame or fault on that person for harm done. If, on the other hand, we can conclude that a person was aware of the harm they were causing and did not have a good reason for doing so, then it makes sense to hold that person accountable for that harm.

“Abuse” is itself a loaded and vague term. Some people describe any relationship where a person is significantly harmed as abusive. Others reserve use of the term to describe a situation where a person’s behavior was intentional. Some people use it to describe mild irritation. No single use of the term is correct or incorrect, but inconsistent use leads to confusion. For purposes of this document, “abuse” will be used only to describe situations where the abuser has been at least negligent, and a person will not be described as an abuser unless I’m willing to say that, at the very least, they should have known that their actions would be unreasonably harmful.

Culpability, Guilt, and Emotional Blackmail

My girlfriend Amber and I are reading Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward. A general theme of the book is that guilt is a favorite weapon of blackmailers. A blackmailer’s favorite statement is “you hurt me,” because it’s an easy way to create guilt which can then be leveraged to control people. From the book (p. 69):

Love and respect are equated with total obedience, and when that’s not forthcoming, it’s as though a betrayal has taken place. The party line of the blackmailer, repeated with infinite variations, is You are only doing this to hurt me. You care nothing for my feelings.

Keeping the focus on culpability short-circuits the blackmailer’s attempt to create guilt by requiring a discussion of facts and competing needs, not just one person’s feelings. Blackmailers are used to a situation where the mere acknowledgment that someone was hurt means that the other person feels guilty and usually gives in to whatever they’re asking.

One of the first points made by the book is that “blackmail takes two.” Because it’s difficult to make me feel guilty unless I also feel culpable, emotional blackmail is mostly ineffective against me. A person can’t just say “you hurt me” to create guilt unless my culpability is apparent. To create guilt, they must say “you hurt me by doing this specific thing, which you should not have done because….” which is difficult to do without a legitimate case. Would-be emotional blackmailers usually give up when it becomes clear that just saying “you hurt me” isn’t enough to create a fog of guilt. I consider this one of my most important defenses against emotional blackmail, and probably the biggest reason that would-be emotional blackmailers have such a problem with me.

Rejecting the idea that one should automatically feel guilty over another person’s pain also helps with good communication. It’s much easier to inform someone that their actions hurt you when you’re not worried about them collapsing into a pile of guilt or getting overly defensive. When both people in the conversation require culpability to assign guilt or blame, it’s easy for “you hurt me” to be the start of a conversation, not the end of one.

The Right Way to Have Relationships

I feel very strongly that people should be allowed, free of negative judgments, to conduct their relationships however they please so long as everyone involved gives coercion-free, informed consent. What is a healthy relationship for one person may be severely damaging to a different person (and vice versa). I know that the relationships that are healthy and enjoyable for me can be miserable for the wrong kind of person, and can even result in feeling abused. The converse also applies: relationships that are healthy for others can be seriously damaging to me, leaving me feeling abused and mistreated. I believe that everyone should be given the choice for themselves about what kind of relationship(s) to have, and how to express them. So long as people give informed consent that is free of coercion, I don’t think anyone ought to tell them how to behave with each other. I also have no tolerance for the attitude that that one’s preferred way to practice relationships is obvious, and that everyone should conform to that preference without even being told what it is.

Because legitimate consent must be informed, I consider it unethical to be dishonest about anything that you know (or should know) will impact someone’s decision to be in a relationship or how to practice that relationship. A person cannot consent to something they don’t know about, so misleading people into forming relationships is a serious consent violation.

On a practical level, it is impossible to give someone all of the information that may impact their decisions about your relationship. Different people care about different things, and nobody can guess everything that’s going to be important to someone else. So just like in any other situation, people should not be blamed for failing to make disclosures unless they knew or should have known that such disclosures were necessary to establish informed consent.

Part 1: About Me

But…I Really Love Baguettes, Guys

[Content Note: Food Talk, Mental Health, Illness]

OK, guys. I know in my last entry I sounded all “Zen” about everything (I think I did anyway), but as the week has progressed I am not feeling at all “Zen” about anything.

For instance, I went on a diatribe to Wes, Jessie, and Amber about how I now understand my work difficulties and simply didn’t know how to solve them (because I feel that I have done about all I can). While I believe this to be true, I found myself in the throes of questioning all of my decisions and trying to make some grand plan for the future where I would be my own boss, being one of the few extremely successful sellers on Etsy.

(I also used to have the delusion that I would totally survive the apocalypse because…I’m awesome or something.  I didn’t really have any argument to back this up.  My survivalist resume is pretty lean.  “Knows some relevant science.  Cooks well over campfires.  Tends to be badass when there is no other choice but to be badass.”  Yeah, I know, I would be dead within the first 5 minutes.)

Again, all of these ideas are ideas that I have, even when I’m feeling stable, but on days like today, I was so in a whirl that the idea of making rash decisions seemed like a great idea and I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into the quagmire I perceived. Wes pointed out that he knows that these things I feel are based on facts, but also that I have felt like this before and was happy that I didn’t do anything rash. I couldn’t quite see it until I thought on it longer, but I was definitely going sailing in and through a mental storm, the likes of which I have been desperately trying to disappear forever through hard work and food/medication chemistry.

(The spiral also manifested in my engaging in massive word vomit, talking about everything that bothered me about my situation.  This went on for a long time and then I felt bad about it and started apologizing for being a pain in the ass.  These are all things that I rarely do anymore without good reason.)

I have made a tremendous amount of progress on that front. These spirals happen rarely, and even when they do happen, I can see them happening a little more clearly and they don’t last as long. I find now that I only experience this kind of spiraling…

When I eat crap and don’t drink enough water.

Hence why I’m not feeling all that “Zen” right now. I know I said in my last entry that I was just going to have to accept that I needed to eat a certain way for the long term to feel consistently well. But it’s easy to say such a thing. It’s different when you have to face it and say “um, most of the stuff you normally eat makes you feel a little batshit”. Like, you have to actually accept that you are not well if you eat things not on the Whole30 plan regularly.

Basically, what I’m saying is: GOD DAMN IT. You go decades through life having nary an allergy or physical ailment and then you start caring about whether you actually feel well and happy and sane…and then you find that a bunch of shit is making you sick. I have enjoyed the privilege of being able to eat whatever I want and not being difficult to feed.

And no, I’m not equating this with allergies and syndromes. I can eat some sugar, have a slice of bread, and drink some wine once in a while and be fine. None of this stuff is going to land me in the hospital or hugging a toilet (unless I gorge on it, of course).

But mental clarity, general calmness and rationality, and overall wellness is extremely important to me these days. Happiness and being able to address issues with a clear head and pass through them without much drama is pretty much my goals every day. I need to be able to provide honesty without fear and have confidence without guilt. Trading all that for too many donuts and too many baguettes or too many glasses of wine too many days a week doesn’t really seem all that worth it, does it?

I know I sound like a whiney jerk here, but this realization is just straight up frustrating. I have gotten quite used to being able to eat whatever wherever and that’s just not the case anymore. CAN I eat that way? Sure. It won’t kill me. But it’s definitely not the right choice for me, not by a long shot.

Incidentally, this is how I felt about polyamory. When Wes and I first talked about it and made the decision to give it a go, I was all “sure, that makes a lot of logical sense. Easy peasy.” But it’s easy to see the logic and benefits of that particular relationship philosophy when you thinking about it in the abstract. It’s quite another thing to practice it and deal with all the reality of what the decision means and what you have to learn about yourself to make it work for you. The decision requires growth to practice.

Taking care of yourself physically also requires this kind of introspection and growth. It’s like when I finally made the choice to give up caffeine (for the most part…I still have some coffee or black tea from time to time). I wanted to believe that I wasn’t adversely affected by it, because that seemed silly. Don’t ask me what my logic there was, other than the idea that nothing I consumed ever adversely affected me in any obvious sense. But finally I saw that I was way more irritable after multiple days of caffeine consumption than when I cut it out completely. Evidence is evidence.

I think it’s the same with processed sugar and all the grains. They don’t do me any favors. I’m sleeping like crap and feel worse now than I have in weeks. I have headaches every day and dragging myself out of bed in the morning in general has been tough, and pretty much impossible to do at 5:30am (when I have to get up to go to yoga). Is eating a bunch of apparently inflammatory lousy things with reckless abandon worth this? Not really.

So I am coming to terms with the fact that a lot of things that I really enjoy consuming are now relegated to special occasions. I feel lucky that I can have them on special occasions. That is a privilege.

And I also must get back into the swing of consistent yoga practice because it’s really good for me and generally encourages me to eat what I should be eating. I always eat better when I’m exercising in some way regularly and unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

I (always) have more to work on and (always) have more growth to accomplish. There are things in my life that are not ideal and I need to figure out how to make them better. But eating stuff regularly that obviously leaves me on the unpleasantly unhinged side of wackiness is just pointless for me. The joy of feeling stable and productive far outweighs the momentary pleasures of candy or bread or booze whenever I want it.

So back to meat, veggies, fruit, nuts, and healthy fats (all things coconut).

Onward and upward, ey?

Ethics and Philosophy: Ethics are Not Normative

Some time ago, I started reading philosophy. Since then, I have been trying to get a handle on leading philosophical views on ethics and morality. This post is my attempt to sketch out my current views on moral normativity. Everything here is tentative and open to revision. I welcome all argument, especially from people who know way more about it than I do. I have read very little philosophy, and what I have read has been somewhat abridged, so I welcome argument and debate on this topic.

I. The Sources of Normativity

My biggest stumbling block in most ethical philosophy is this: is there a rational reason why I should care about other people? Why is selfishness wrong? I did not find a satisfactory answer to this anywhere in Betrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, so I asked my friend and prominent philosopher [1] Dan Fincke for recommended reading. Dan correctly labeled the subject of my inquiry as “the normative question” and suggested Christine Korsgaard. Korsgaard has published her defense of ethical normativity in her book, The Sources of Normativity. However, because I’m allergic to paying over $10 for a book, I opted to read Korsgaard’s Tanner Lectures on normativity, which provide the source material for her later book.

Korsgaard identifies four sources for normativity, all of which she labels correct. The first is Voluntarism:

According to this view, moral obligation derives from the command of someone who has legitimate authority over the moral agent and so can make laws for her. You must do the right thing because God commands it, say, or because a political sovereign whom you have agreed to obey makes it law. Normativity springs from a legislative will.

According to this view, morality is normative because it is imposed from an outside authority. The second source is realism:

According to this view, moral claims are normative if they are true, and true if there are intrinsically normative entities or facts that they correctly describe. Realists try to establish the normativity of ethics by arguing that values or obligations or reasons really exist or, more commonly, by arguing against the various forms of skepticism about them.

Korsgaard goes on to explain that the realist view simply declares certain thing to be intrinsically normative “by fiat.” The realist decides that something is intrinsically normative, and that’s that. The third source is reflective endorsement:

This view is favored by philosophers who believe that morality is grounded in human nature. The philosopher’s first job is to explain what the source of morality in human nature is, why we use moral concepts and feel ourselves bound by them. When an explanation of our moral nature is in hand, we can then raise the normative question: all things considered, do we have reason to accept the claims of our moral nature or should we reject them? The question is not “are these claims true?” as it is for the realist. The reasons sought here are practical reasons; the idea is to show that morality is good for us.

This view argues that, as we reflect on our decisions, we will involuntarily approve or disapprove of them, so the “moral” action is the one of which, upon reflection, we approve. The fourth source is the appeal to autonomy:

Kantians believe that the source of the normativity of moral claims must be found in the agent’s own will, in particular in the fact that the laws of morality are the laws of the agent’s own will and that its claims are ones she is prepared to make on herself. The capacity for self-conscious reflection about our own actions confers on us a kind of authority over ourselves, and it is this authority that gives normativity to moral claims.

This view argues that it is our own identities and wills which obligate us to perform certain acts and avoid others. These views are fleshed out very well in the linked lecture series, and I encourage anyone interested in the topic to read it. At just over 100 pages, it’s rather short for a work of philosophy, but not what I’d call an easy read.

Korsgaard argues that it is our own practical identities that compel our actions. She defines a practical identity as “a description under which you find your life to be worth living and your actions to be worth undertaking.” She argues that your practical identity is “not merely a contingent conception of your identity, which you have constructed or chosen for yourself or could conceivably reject. It is simply the truth.” Because, upon reflection, we will disapprove of actions inconsistent with our practical identities, then we are obligated to conform to them. The “reflective structure of human consciousness” obligates us to behave in ways that are consistent with our practical identities.

Korsgaard argues that the structure of the human mind makes it impossible for us not to value our identities. To act, we must have reasons, and to have reasons for action, we must see our own actions as worthwhile. We must see ourselves as beings whose actions matter. “Since you cannot act without reasons and your humanity is the source of your reasons, you must endorse your own humanity if you are to act at all.”

Korsgaard goes on to argue that we can obligate others because the act of communication and socializing creates a shared consciousness, that our experiences are not completely private, and that we can involve others in them through communication. We can think and reason together. Therefore, Korsgaard argues, we can obligate one another in the same way that we can obligate ourselves.

II. Morality is Not Normative

Korsgaard’s arguments break down for me in two places. First, I am not convinced by Korsgaard’s description of a practical identity. Second, I do not see the logical connection that Korsgaard draws between shared reasoning and obligating one another.

Korsgaard describes the practical identity as simply a fact, not something that could conceivably be rejected. I think this overlooks the elasticity of identity. Korsgaard claims that when reflection reveals that an action is inconsistent with a person’s practical identity, “she must reject that way of acting, and act in
another way.” This seems self-evidently false. There are two additional options: (1) she can change her identity; or (2) she can change her mind about whether the action is consistent with her identity.

If Korsgaard were correct, and a person’s identity was unable to change in response to threats, there would be no such thing as a religious convert. Many formerly religious people were extremely devout, so much so that “pious” or “faithful” were part of their practical identity in the terms Korsgaard gives. Yet people change this identity, sometimes gradually, sometimes all at once. Similarly, people often begin identifying as nonmonogamous in response to performing an act inconsistent with their practical identity as a faithful, monogamous partner. Rather than reject the action, people often change their identity and/or change what their identity means (i.e. deciding that being “faithful” just means being honest, not being monogamous). There is no such thing as an immutable identity. Once it is acknowledged that practical identity is a fluid concept, Korsgaard’s argument loses its force. Acts cease to be obligatory and merely become optional. Certainly, some people have strong enough identities that they are unchangeable, but that is hardly universal, and thus it is not normative.

The second issue is that the fact that we can reason and think together does not mean that others share our practical identity. Practical identity, as described by Korsgaard, is an incredibly strong concept. It must be so strong that “an agent would rather be dead” than to contradict it. Above, I’ve expressed skepticism about whether this concept applies universally to every individual. However, I can say with near-certainty that this level of devotion to identity cannot be forced on anyone from an outside source. There is nothing I can do to force you to adopt my values on such a fundamental level. While some people are susceptible to that kind of thing, not all people are (and I would argue that most are not), and thus the concept is not normative.

III. Conclusion

Korsgaard’s arguments for normativity are the most convincing that I’ve been able to find, but I still find them unconvincing. Because I can find no evidence for normative morality, I am forced to conclude that morality is purely subjective (although that still leaves room for intersubjective morality). I am forced to conclude that the only coherent moral philosophy is egoism.

I’m planning a future post on the implications of this view, but for now, I’m interested in any comments people have on the sources of normativity, or lack thereof.

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1. Not as prominent as he should be. As someone who is repelled by most philosophy, I find Dan’s writing to be equal parts accessible and brilliant. He is also rebelling against out bullshit higher education system by offering independent classes over Google Hangouts. If you’re interested, you can see his class schedule here.

Happy Frikkin’ New Year!

I usually don’t think much about New Year’s resolutions. The date is somewhat arbitrary and I often set resolutions other times of year (like September, for some reason…probably because I still haven’t grown out of the school schedules that had everything start again after a long summer break). But this year, I’m trying to think of them in a positive and fun way because 2015 is going to be amazing, damn it.

2014 had a lot of low spots, but I think I’ve had enough of all that and instead am thinking about what I liked about 2014 and what I’d like to be doing more of.

Firstly, I decided that I read way too much negativity in the form of blogs. Be it a few personal blogs that don’t do me any good to read or the copious amounts of social justice and political blogs I’ve been reading, I have to say that I need to step away for a while and get my head back into gear seeing the positive in the world. Everybody needs a break. I acknowledge and have extreme distaste for all that injustice, but I have been inundated by it by my choice of reading material to the point of near madness…and full on exhaustion. So I went into my Feedly account and replaced all of the blogs I was reading with humor, photography, and science. I’m stepping back from being “in the know” about all this stuff for at least January, maybe longer depending on how much better I feel.

Secondly, I’m taking another crack at the Whole30. No, I don’t believe in all the stuff they claim BUT I went and read some article about someone who half-assed their first one and then whole-hogged their second one and the difference was huge. I want to see it through and see the difference. Also, January is a good time to do it this year because we’re going to Disneyworld on January 31st which means reaping awesome health benefits during the month and then one big awesome reward at the end! I tend to eat terribly on vacations, so while I will not be following the rules down in Orlando, I hope to be in a place where I easily make better choices. Our schedule while we’re down there is packed and I want all the happiness and energy I can muster! But I think it will be easier to make it to the end of the challenge this time because each day of the Whole30 is a countdown to a vacation I’ve been looking so very forward to for months.

I’m also taking this month to finally figure out a regular workout schedule and schedule my life around it, not it around my life. I want to get into yoga and meditation this year because I need ways to move through waves of anger and grief I still experience and will likely continue to feel because I’m human. In addition, I just want to finally get into decent shape, especially because trips to the Colorado Rockies and Yosemite have been discussed for a few years from now and I want to get into habits that bring my baseline level of fitness up so that training for awesome, challenging hiking won’t be this huge endeavor that I will invariable fail at.

Next, I set a reading goal on Goodreads. My book reading track record has been abysmal over the years, to say the least. I decided that 15 books for the year was a good and attainable goal. A little more than one a month. I ordered three books from Amazon that I will likely read rather quickly because they are bound to be hilarious and I’ve been meaning to read the one for a long time. I’ve got a copy of Neil Patrick Harris’ “Choose Your Own Autobiography” on the way, as well as Jenny Lawson’s “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” and the Hyperbole and a Half book. I want to start the year off with entertaining reads! I preordered a copy of Gretchen Rubin’s “Better than Before”, a book about good habit forming (something I need help with definitely!) and I’ll have that in March. Other than those, I have several books around that I started to read and liked, but never finished because reading used to immediately put me to sleep. As it turns out, this had a lot to do with that pesky vitamin D deficiency and I think I’ll be able to do a lot better now! Also, Amber and I are going to have reading parties. I think that just means lazing around and reading in the same room, but that sounds pretty awesome.

I want to do lots of art! I did lots of art in 2014 and it greatly added to my happiness. I just want to keep that going and explore different media and get better. I sold a piece last week and that was pretty awesome. Maybe that is a trend that will continue! I also want to set up a screen printing space in the basement (and get down to our friends’ house and pick up all the screen printing stuff they have graciously offered me). I am still thinking about doing a stained glass class because I draw everything like it’s stained glass already and would love to do that! I think I found a good one, but I’m still looking around.

In addition, I want to learn how to take fabulous and artful photos with my fancy pants DSLR. I already take OK pictures with it, but I want to really learn how to use it because I currently use it mostly as a point-and-shoot. And I want to get a really great zoom lens for it or whatever kind of lens helps you really play with depth of field and all that. My friend Kelly taught me all kinds of stuff about F stops and all that years ago, but I have forgotten it all and have never truly learned how to use the thing. I want that to change! So I’ve signed up for digital photography at my beloved Fleisher!

There are various other things that I want to do, but those are all pretty big and good ones! Here’s to a healthy, happy, and kick-ass year. May it be a year of excellent decision making and of healing and positivity. May I grow to feel well enough to be my best at home and at work. Sure, these are lofty goals, but whatever. That’s what January is for!

Wherein I Talk Too Much about Art Supplies

When struggling with physical and mental illness, work and home frustrations, and still healing from the difficulty whirlwind that has been 2014, it’s good to stop and take notice of little bright spots when you can. Don’t get me wrong, there have been plenty of bright spots in the year, but now that winter is setting in and darkness arrives each day so much earlier, struggles are often amplified and it’s important to give yourself a break from the bleak every now and then.

Really this post is for me to wax poetic about the art supplies I have waiting for me when I get home. I’ve been tracking the shipment and just saw that my stuff has indeed arrived! Oh dickblick.com, how I love thee.

For those of you who don’t know, this year I discovered the wonderful world of high-end markers. I’ve always liked nice pens and markers in general. I doodle a lot and as any “serious” doodler knows, satisfying doodling is all about the feel of the pen on the paper, the flow of the ink, and the boldness of the color. I was, however, only acquainted with the likes of Crayola and Sharpie markers and had largely ignored them as an artistic medium once I hit my teens.

Back then I painted with acrylics and slowly graduated to the optimized dry vs. blendability speed of alkyd oils. I never really dug linseed oils because OMG HOW LONG DO I REALLY WANT TO WAIT FOR THESE THINGS TO DRY?! Then I drifted more towards colored pencils and water soluble crayon. Then I was doing straight up graphite pencil drawing.  Like these:

bowl sweet bowl pitcher plants

Then one day this year, I wandered into Staples.

Staples was having a mega sale and I was able to buy two big sets of multi-colored Sharpies for $20. I started playing with them and realized that markers were the perfect medium for the kind of style I really like. Basically, I like to draw everything in “stained glass” style, with dark outlines and bold solid coloring. I also found that I liked the way shading looked with markers because you could see the gradient as a series of lines. Here’s an example:

A Squid At Home

Within a few weeks, I had filled a sketch book with abstract drawings and had killed many of the Sharpies. As it turns out, Sharpies aren’t really built for heavy ink coverage.

By then I was hooked and decided that I needed to go to the next grade of art markers. This meant grabbing a set of Prismacolor markers. These were definitely way more expensive than Sharpies and they seemed to be worth it. Their colors were super saturated and vibrant. My complaint however is that these markers are expensive and not refillable and don’t last any longer than Sharpies do (for the type of art I do).

And so it was that I went in search of a higher echelon set of markers. Art supplies are one of those categories of materials where you really do get what you pay for. There’s a lot of stuff that I don’t care that much about. If it’s cheap, it’s cheap and I can make it work or I find something that works really well but is lower cost because it lacks a bunch of unnecessary features. But artistic media quality is directly proportional to its price bracket. And that’s how I found out about Copic markers.

I had noticed Copics while on Amazon looking for Prismacolors. The price difference was pretty huge and I wasn’t ready to make that kind of financial commitment. After the Prismacolors died in a disappointingly short time, I decided to look into these fat cat markers and see what all the hub bub was about.

The main advantage that I saw from websites was that Copic markers are refillable. This is huge. Sure, one marker costs $8, but a bottle of refill ink costs $8 and is good for 5 or 6 refills. The nibs on Copic markers are also replaceable. Basically, Copic markers appeared to be a true investment with good returns. To me it looked like the price was about the endurance and longevity possible with them and since this was my number one complaint, I knew that I needed to try them.

So I went and bought myself a $400 set of 72 markers for my birthday. The ink flow is lovely and the colors, while not quite as vibrant as Prismacolor, are quite satisfying. But here’s the most impressive part: I bought those markers in March and use them often and none of them have run out of ink. Talk about quick return on investment!

Now, the longevity of these markers is likely also due, in part, to the paper I use now. Did you know that there is special marker paper? I didn’t until I was farting around on the internet. Marker paper is just absorbent enough for quick drying of the ink, but it doesn’t allow the ink to bleed through. This is likely due to a very high quality clay coating on the paper’s surface and some kind of proprietary method of something or other in the paper fibers. I tried to look it up on the internet and it’s just a bunch of ads for “revolutionary blah blah blah”. But regardless of the possible advertisement smoke and mirrors, marker paper is really fab stuff. Because it doesn’t soak up so much ink, way less ink is required for uniform coverage. I particularly like Bee brand because it has some heft to it. Copic makes a pad too, but the paper is super thin and, while I am impressed that the markers don’t bleed through the stuff, I don’t like how flimsy the sheets are.

In addition to discovering the wonder of Copic markers, I also discovered the awesomeness of paint markers. I have always liked paint markers, but I didn’t really have an application for them in a lot of my work. Or, more to the point, I hadn’t really embraced mixed media yet. But when I started playing with all this stuff, I happened to have a silver metallic solvent-based paint marker and was amazed at how much it added to my pieces.

I went on a hunt for a rainbow of “true metal” looking colors and have been strangely unsuccessful in finding what I want. There are a lot of sets of cheap “metallic” markers that achieve a pastel metallic look using pearlescent pigments in the inks. This is a cheat, really, because metallic = sparkly, right? But it doesn’t. Metallic is shine. Metallic is high reflectance! The pearl markers have their place and are perfect for certain accents, but when I want metallic blue I want it to be ultramarine and look like I could color a Schwinn with it. There is seemingly not a market for “true metallics” other than silver, gold, and copper. I have a “red” one too, but it’s more of a rust color. I, of course, appreciate that because rust is oxidized metal, so the color is at least thematic.  The closest thing I have found recently is this metallic paste that you can rub into paper.  It’s interesting, but I’m still learning what it can do and it seems kind of limited.  Here was my first attempt:

metal tree

OK, so this post really shows that I’ve been working with the printing industry for a long time. I don’t really talk about doing art in flowery ways anymore. It’s been replaced by the practicality of image production. There is plenty of creativity but I generally find talking about the artistic process pretentious and boring (this goes for every kind of art I do, whether it be drawing or acting or playing music). What I really enjoy thinking about is how to physically get different aesthetic results and I really REALLY enjoy seeing how different materials work together. As it turns out, this is quite a large part of my job. Every day, I guide customers through their desired printing/coating process. It’s commonly called technical service, but it could easily be construed as an aesthetic enabling. The best looking/performing print jobs require the optimum combination of appropriate equipment, paper, ink, and coatings and there are just so many options out there that I have learned a ridiculous amount about how to make printed media look good. Apparently, this type of thinking comes home with me every day too.

A few years ago I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Blue Beard, a fictional autobiography of an abstract expressionist who hit his stride in the 60’s. There’s a lot of great stuff in the book but one of my favorite parts is about the artist using a new brand of paint for a whole series of huge paintings. Something was wrong with the paint though and after just a few weeks, all of the paint on the canvases was bubbling and flaking off. I always enjoy when the scientific reality of art is highlighted. Art oft becomes science and science oft become art.

Anyway, as I said at the beginning of this thing, I ordered some stuff from dickblick.com and it’s totally waiting for me on the porch. What did I get? Thanks for asking! I got a fancy case/binder thing that can hold all of my markers and also a sketch pad. It seems to be compact and has a SHOULDER STRAP. I’m excited about this because it allows me to keep everything in one place and should be compressed enough for me to more easily bring the whole shebang traveling with me. Do you know how hard it is to just pick a few colors to take with you when you have a whole 72 to choose from? I also got a few metallic acrylic paint markers (blue, green, and black) in a brand I haven’t tried before. I also got a smaller pad of Bee brand marker paper (to fit in my case thingy!) and a totally different kind of paper called Graffiti paper. Apparently, it is made to accept all sorts of media include, as the name suggests, spray paint and such. I am looking forward to seeing what it’s like. There is little that is more fun to me than nerding out over art materials.

So…there’s a review of some things. It’s true that I’ve been having a bit of a hard time lately, but I keep trying to find ways to cut through it. Good tools and creation of art that doesn’t require an audience to enjoy are good ways. Sure, I like showing my art off, but it’s one of the few things I do where the process of creating is more satisfying than the “public” reaction.

Is it time to go yet? I’d like to art please!

The Importance of Affirmative Verbal Consent

For the past few weeks, the internet has been debating California’s new law which requires aid-receiving universities to adopt an “affirmative consent” standard in disciplinary hearings. Predictably, there have been many objections, claiming that asking for consent will “ruin the moment” or that we’re criminalizing normal sex. Charlie Glickman wrote an excellent response to such concerns:

The thing is, I understand where some of these fears are coming from. Leaving aside the folks who are actual rapists… changing the rules of the game is scary. We live in a culture that teaches and shames us into bad sexual communication. We shame men who don’t want to have sex within a narrow range of acceptable activities. We shame women who express their desires or want sex more than we think they should. (And slut-shaming enables rape.) We’ve created a performance model of sex, in which people copy what they see in porn because they don’t know any better. I’ve worked with a lot of people who are miserable because they’re performing sex rather than enjoying it. So when we talk about shifting what sexual consent means, even when it’s for the better, we’re stirring up a lot of pain, triggers, shame, and trauma.

One thing we need to move through this is a more clear idea of what “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity” looks like. It’s a great phrase for a legal document, but unless you get turned on by that sort of thing, it’s a rather dry concept. As a sex & relationship coach, I want to see something that you could actually put into practice in the bedroom.

Glickman asked people for example of what nonverbal consent looks like on his Facebook page. Here are the highlights:

  • Looking me in the eye and giving me a hand signal that says ‘come towards me’
  • When I guide someones hands and place them on my body nodding yes.
  • I think that the only real test of affirmative consent is when the other person takes initiative of her or his own accord–without prompting or pressure. Without stopping and waiting for that initiative, there is just too much room for misunderstanding, especially with a newish partner. 

For example, when offering a kiss, coming close enough almost to make contact but not quite, and waiting for a partner to bridge the gap–or not–communicates both my desire to act and my desire to be met, without words.

 If there is hesitation, then I know that more verbal conversation is in order, and that’s good. It saves much grief all around.
  • Reciprocation. Guiding hands. Asking about preferences. (Is this ok? Faster? Slower? How is this?) Taking initiative, responding in like, exploring your body with their hands, etc.

Look for things about the hook up that your partner seems apprehensive about, such as stiffening up, pulling or leaning away, or generally letting you do all the work –pretty good indicator that you are with someone who isn’t into it and probably cannot tell you or is scared shitless to tell you.
  • Gripping, grabbing, pulling me closer, reaching for kisses, initiating position changes, following after a touch when it stops or moves, nuzzling, smooching whatever part is near enough, and playing with my hair are all signs of active, engaged enthusiasm for me.

Glickman followed up that list with a warning:

I really like this list because it shows some of the many ways that we can show someone that we’re actively enjoying a sexual experience. Of course, there’s always the chance that someone is performing rather than actually expressing their pleasure. Non-verbal communication can be faked, especially if someone feels pressured into it. Plus, it lacks bandwidth and it’s ambiguous since two different people might have very different ideas about what any of these things might mean.

That’s why non-verbal consent can only be relied on when you already know your partner and how they respond. Until you have that foundation, due diligence suggests making verbal communication your standard. It’s unfortunately easy to do something that you genuinely believe your partner is enjoying and then find out later that they didn’t. I’ve been on both sides of that and it’s no fun.

In his article linked above, Glickman proposed a “due diligence” standard for consent, which includes things like checking in routinely, asking a partner what they want you to do, and having a discussion regarding safer sex concerns. Glickman explained the need for due diligence:

I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve had sexual partners who didn’t tell me that what we were doing wasn’t comfortable for them. Some of them told me afterward, and unfortunately, there have probably been others who didn’t. I’ve also been the one who wasn’t able to speak up and tell my partner that I wanted something different, or that I wanted to stop. I know what it’s like to feel like my partner assaulted me, even as I recognize that they had no idea at the time. I know what it’s like to not say no and feel violated, and I know what it’s like to find out later that someone felt that way about an experience we had. Both sides of that are pretty awful.

So, yes, it is possible to accidentally assault someone, in the sense that we can do something that we didn’t realize they didn’t want to do. When that happens, we need to hold onto the fact that an injury happened AND the fact that we didn’t intend it. Those are equally important, although I find that healing works best when the fact of the injury gets attention first. And having said all that, it’s also important to be honest with ourselves about whether we’ve actually done enough to qualify as due diligence. We need to have the self-awareness and honor to be able to acknowledge when we could have done more. We need to be able to be honest with ourselves and our partners about whether we really did the best that we could.

I can personally attest to the need for a due diligence standard, because under Charlie’s definition, I have accidentally assaulted someone. Around a year ago, I had a first date with someone. For privacy reasons, I won’t be going into too much detail, but I was in a situation where I believed that the sexual activity in which we were engaging was enthusiastically consented to. I was wrong, and it was my fault. I made the mistake, as Charlie specifically warned against, of relying on nonverbal communication. I didn’t do my due diligence. I didn’t ask for verbal consent. I didn’t pay close enough attention to my partner’s hesitation. I didn’t have a safer sex discussion beforehand. I didn’t ask her what she wanted to do. I just saw that she was actively participating and assumed that meant she was enthusiastic about what we were doing. I also didn’t communicate my own desires about where I wanted to set boundaries (and, as a result, things went further than I wanted). I let my own fear of rejection and insecurity distract me from the importance of communication and establishing unequivocal consent. I forgot that women are taught that their needs don’t matter. I forgot to move in the direction of greatest courage. Through my negligence, I hurt someone who deserved nothing but love and care.

Afterward, I took her friendly and flirty interactions with me as a sign that she had enjoyed herself. I didn’t find out how she felt until over nine months later, when her boyfriend told me. I was, and am, deeply sorry and ashamed of my actions. I urge everyone reading to take heed of my mistakes and commit to a Due Diligence standard for all sexual (or quasi-sexual) partners in the future.

While I don’t think I would be disciplined under the new California law for this situation, the law was never meant to establish best practices, only minimum disciplinary standards. I think Charlie’s Due Diligence standard is a much better model of enthusiastic consent. I’ve been employing Charlie’s standard ever since, and I can promise everyone, it does nothing to ruin the mood. If anything, it makes sex more fun and less nerve-wracking. When people are explicit about what they want and what they don’t, there is no fear of accidentally crossing any boundaries, and it makes the entire experience lower-pressure for everyone. Also, talking about what you want to do with someone can be really hot. Just saying.

I’m glad that California’s new law has gotten people talking about this. It’s an important discussion to have. I hope that the national conversation that we’re having will help move us in the direction of consent culture. I hope that discussing this out in the open will inspire more people to commit to a Due Diligence standard, rather than just “no means no.

Like the New Logo? Hire the Designer!

Alex Gabriel, the designer of the Living Within Reason logo and blog header, is having a serious financial crisis. If you like his work talk to him about your design or editing needs. I can attest that his design skills are top-notch, and he is a joy to work with. I encourage anyone with design needs to consider hiring Alex.