Some thoughts on being fifty

Three days ago, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday.

Well, perhaps “celebrated” is too strong a statement. I was in the middle of an allergy attack that made me miserable, so I spent it faffing about on the computer rather than engaging in the kind of orgiastic bacchanal that one might expect from an Internet sex gargoyle.

In any event, in between faffings on the Internet, I spent some time musing about what an absolutely bizarre trip it’s been, and some time cleaning in my writer’s loft. These two things are related, as it turns out, because in the process of cleaning I came upon some old photographs.

I started the journey through life in New Jersey. Before I was a year old, I realized that living in New Jersey was a bit rubbish, so I moved to Idaho, taking my entire family with me. My parents drove a Volkswagen Bug, something which apparently left quite an impression. What can I say? I was struck by the elegant simplicity and robustness of the design.

We stayed in Idaho long enough for me to pick up a sister, then bounced around the Great Midwest for a while, where I picked up the hobby of model rocketry. There is, it seems only one battered and scuffed Polaroid photo exists from this particular time in my life–peculiar, when one considers that model rocketry was pretty much the greatest thing in my life for quite a long time.

And yes, that’s a plastic model of a Romulan bird of prey from the original Star Trek on my desk. Don’t judge me.

I had a computer back then as well, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1 that was a Christmas gift from my aunt in 1977. That thing might have saved my sanity. I didn’t have any friends while I was growing up in Venango, Nebraska, but who needs friends when you have a computer and a bunch of rockets?

Radio Shack published the complete schematic of the TRS-80. Seriously, you could walk into the store and buy not only the schematics but also books on how to modify it, and a complete, commented disassembly of the ROM chips–something that is beyond unthinkable today.

I modified the computer extensively, spray-painted it black, and overclocked it. Stock, it had a 1.77MHz Z80 8-bit processor, which I modified to work at 2.44 MHz (which caused some software to break) or at approximately 4 MHz (which caused it to malfunction frequently and required that I set it in a tray full of plastic bags of ice). The yellow LED you see in this photo would come on when I ran it at 2.44 MHz, the red LED would come on at 4 MHz. My parents were often horrified to see it spread out all across my bed, which was the only work space I had.

I kept it until I was almost 40, purely from nostalgia.

In my memoir The Game Changer, I talk about taking two dates to my high school senior prom. This wasn’t because I was suave with the ladies; it was because one person asked me to the prom, I said yes, another person also asked me, I said yes again, and it didn’t even occur to me that this might be a problem.

Fortunately, they were both totally cool about the whole thing. I took them both to dinner before the prom, which raised a few eyebrows.

Only two photos from that prom exist that I’m aware of, and I found both of them. Yes, I’ve always been a weird-looking motherfucker.

Until recently, I have not been much into partner dancing, though I do love to dance. My high school senior prom might’ve been the last time I partner danced until I was in my 40s.

I had a storied checkered educational career. I went to school at Lehigh University, where I discovered, and feel in love with, a Digital Equipment Corporation DECsystem-20 mainframe. Ours was a forbidden love. There were certain…allegations from the faculty of less-than-completely-aboveboard activities involving that mainframe. “Computer hacking,” they said. Also, “your scholarship is revoked.” And “don’t come back.”

I bounced around for a bit, worked fast food for a while, then ended up going to school in Florida again. Sadly, that part of my life is poorly documented–if any photos exist from that period, I don’t have them.

I did find this photo of me, taken in April of 1991, the last year I was in college.

My early childhood experience with my parents’ Volkswagen led to a long-term love for the cars, of which I’ve owned two. The first car I ever owned was a 1969 Bug; my third car was a 71 Bug, which, like my computer, I modified extensively.

There’s a passage in The Game Changer in which I talk about how absolutely clueless I was about sex and relationships, and how I could not recognize even the most obvious attempts at flirting:

Worse, I was in that awkward stage of male development where I was so desperate to try to figure out how to get girls to pay attention to me that I completely missed it when girls paid attention to me. Prior to that afternoon at Jake’s place, Caitlin and I had spent quite a lot of time together. We were great friends. But when I look back with wiser eyes, I can see she was trying in a thousand ways to tell me she was open to more.

One particular evening, I drove her home from work in my beat-up Volkswagen Bug. We sat in the car in front of her house talking for a while. She complained there was something on the seat digging into her butt. She dug around for a bit and came up with a small machine screw—a leftover, no doubt, from the work I’d just done replacing the back fenders with the half-sized fenders popular among people who liked to take Volkswagens through deep mud. “Hey!” she said brightly, holding it up. “Wanna screw?”

The whoosh of her flirt passing over my head might have sucked all the air out of the car had the windows not been open. It was years before I realized she’d been flirting with me all along.

This is the car in which that happened.

From about 1978 or so on, I had been involved heavily in the computer BBS scene. A BBS was the forerunner of modern Web forums–a computer running special software connected to a phone line, which you could dial into and leave messages on (text only, generally) at agonizingly slow speeds. Most BBS systems could only accommodate one user at a time, so if you called while someone else was logged on, you’d get a busy signal. Popular systems were constantly busy, so you’d set your computer up to keep redialing, over and over, until it got through, then alert you when it made a connection.

I was on systems with names like CBBS-Chicago, Pirate-80, and Magnetic Fantasies. When I started school in Sarasota, I ended up with a roommate who was, like me, an enthusiastic TRS-80 hacker and BBS fan. He ran a BBS called The Wyvern’s Den. I thought “hey, I can do that!” and started a BBS of my own, called a/L/T/E/R r/E/A/L/I/T/Y.

I ran A/R for about six or seven years, on a TRS-80 Model 4 that had been heavily modified. The IBM PS/2 computer had just come out, and the PS/2 systems used 3.5″ floppy drives that had a design defect: they were prone for going out of alignment. IBM would replace them under warranty and then, rather than taking the five minutes to fix the floppy drives, would just throw them out. I went Dumpster diving behind an IBM repair shop one evening, came out with a big pile of 3.5″ floppy drives, cleaned them up, aligned them, and connected them to the TRS-80 by way of a custom hardware interface I designed and built. These became the storage for the A/R message boards. You can see two of them, sitting bare without cases, to the right of the computer in this photo. There’s a third one sitting on the shelf just behind the center of the computer, and a fourth one under the 5.25″ floppy in the foreground on the right.

TRS-80 floppy drive controllers were only supposed to be able to access four floppy drives, but it turned out to be possible to instruct the floppy controller to access two drives at the same time, so with a bit of software trickery and a 4-line-to-16-line demultiplexer chip, you could actually get them to talk to up to 16 drives at once.

There’s a wooden box just barely visible in the right-hand side of the picture. It held a power supply that powered all the floppy drives. I used to warn guests to the apartment, “don’t touch that, you’ll get electrocuted.”

I was a late bloomer sexually, but made up for it through the rest of my life. In the late 90s, I developed a prototype of an Internet-controlled sex toy. It rose up out of a toy I’d developed in the mid-90s that was designed to be plugged into a telephone line and controlled by the tones from a Touch-Tone phone. My former business partner and I tried to bring it to market, with less than stellar success.

We designed a plastic cabinet for it, which we made with a vacuum-forming rig we built. We had a run of circuit boards made, and I would sit for hours at the kitchen table with a soldering iron in my hand putting components on them. The company we’d hired to fab the circuit boards made a mistake in the fabrication, so each board required reworking as well.

We called the device “Symphony.” This is the very first one we ever sold. It’s supposed to have the name “Symphony” screen printed on the front; somehow, this one ended up without the screen printing.

And now, decades later, Im still exploring the intersection of sex and technology.

From high tech to low tech: in the early 2000s, I was invited to speak at Florida Poly Retreat. One of the classes I taught was in how to build a trebuchet, a Medieval siege engine. During the course of that workshop, we designed and built a working model trebuchet.

The T-shirt I’m wearing in this photo reads “Catapultam habeo. Nisi pecuniam omnem dabis, ad caput tuum saxum immane.”

Even after my divorce from my ex-wife Celeste, which story forms the backbone of The Game Changer, I kept this habit of extensively hacking any computer I own. (That continues to this day; I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro that has had its DVD drive removed and replaced with a second hard drive, and the first hard drive has been replaced with an SSD.)

My partner Amber and I moved into an apartment together after the divorce. The living room looked like this.

I kept the TRS-80s and an Apple Lisa, even though they’d largely been retired by this point. The black thing stuck to the ceiling is an Apple //c monitor, spray-painted black. It had a green screen monochrome display that accepted a composite video signal, so it was easy to pipe just about any video into it. Most of the time, Amber and I had it showing Bladerunner on a loop. When I played World of Warcraft, though, I would pipe that to it instead.

Amber and I ended up rescuing two cats during the time we lived together. One, a rather handsome tabby, had climbed a tree to the third story of the apartment building next to ours, jumped from an overhanging branch onto the roof, and then realized he couldn’t get back down. He cried piteously for days. We threw food up to him until we could figure out a way to rescue him. We named him Snow Crash.

The other adopted Amber when we were out walking in a large park late one night. We heard a cat meowing from under some bushes. When we turned around, a cat came catapulting out straight for Amber and jumped up into her arms. She refused to let go, holding on to Amber until we walked all the way back to the car, then insisting on accompanying us home. We named her Molly, for the character Molly Millions in Neuromancer.

So here I am, fifty years old, and what a peculiar thing it is to be a human being. Life is amazing.

When I was a child living in Venango, the bus that took me to school would drive past a church with a sign out front that had pithy sayings on it intended to inspire us to live better lives. One day, that sign said “Your life either sheds light or casts a shadow.” I knew, at eleven years old, there was something wrong with that, but I didn’t have the words to describe what. Now, almost forty years layer, I understand: it’s bullshit. We are all, every one of us, made of light and shadow, good and evil.

I have screwed things up and hurt people. I have been hurt. I have gotten things wrong, made mistakes, been careless with the hearts of others.

I have also experienced the most amazing love. I have known and been loved by people who are so remarkable, I consider myself privileged merely to have known them. I have learned things and gotten some things right.

We are all made of light and shadow. It is on all of us to treat each other with care. We’re all confused. Being human is fundamentally weird and more than a little scary. We’re all making this up as we go along, even those of us–especially those of us–who try to pretend we Have It All Figured Out.

I’ve spent thirteen and a half billion years, give or take, not existing, and fifty years existing. That’s enough of a sample size to tell me that existing is better. It’s harder, sure. We have to do stuff. We have to make choices. You don’t have to make choices when you don’t exist. Making choices means sometimes we make wrong choices, and making wrong choices means sometimes we hurt people. Hurting people sucks.

I carry a lot of regrets with me. There are many things I have done that I wish with all my heart I could undo–times when I have not been as careful as I should be, perhaps too preoccupied with my own fears to be properly gentle with other people. It’s a consequence of being plonked into existence without a user’s manual.

We all get banged up a bit on the journey through life. But despite that, I would not trade a goddamn minute of it for anything. I am flawed and I make mistakes. All the people I know are flawed and make mistakes. And yet, this brief moment we share in the sun is a gift of inestimable value. I am grateful for every moment of it, and I hope to be here in existence for much, much more.

#WLAMF no. 13: Zaiah

Today is the ninth anniversary of my relationship with my partner zaiah.

A lot of folks will say polyamory doesn’t work. “I knew some people who tried that,” they’ll say. “They broke up.” If you ask these people how many monogamous folks they know who’ve broken up, you’ll get some humphing and hawing, but you probably won’t make your point.

zaiah and I have had an interesting adventure, these past nine years. She and I have traveled across the country together, lived together, explored together, tried new things together. I’m looking forward to many more years of adventure. Happy anniversary, darling! I love you.


I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/thorntree-press-three-new-polyamory-books-in-2015/x/1603977

More Than Two blog post: Coming full circle

I wrote a thing over on the More Than Two blog! It talks about the new book I’m working on, The Game Changer, and a bit about how More Than Two came to be. Here’s the teaser:

There is something we don’t talk about much in polyamory. Those of us who are educators and activists tend to focus only on the positive aspects of polyamory. We’re so busy playing cheerleader (see, polyamory is healthy! It’s fun! You can have your Kate and Edith too! There’s no need to be afraid your partner will leave you from someone else, when they can have both of you!) that we don’t talk about the bits that are scary and disruptive. We don’t talk about the fact that, yes, even in polyamory, sometimes you do choose one person over another.

A game changer is a relationship that’s so amazing, so spectacular, so absolutely mindblowing (or sometimes, so terrible and destructive) that it changes your life. It changes your sense of what’s possible. It changes you, in a thousand different ways. Game-changers change things. It’s in the name. They’re disruptive.

I was married when I met Shelly, my first game-changer. Shelly, whose guest posts about consent and family you will find right here on this blog, is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met in my life.

I really believed I had a pretty good handle on things when I met her. I truly believed I had it all figured out…what I wanted my life to look like, who I was as a person, what my priorities were. Shelly changed all that. She showed me a world I did not, in a very literal sense, believe was possible.

The Game Changer is a memoir about my experiences with game-changing relationships. It, along with two other poly books, is being crowdfunded right now.

You can read the full post here.

Intermission: Some thoughts on love

In the midst of all the writing I’ve been doing about GMO food lately, I thought I’d take a brief digression into an entirely different subject: love.

Recently, someone online pointed to the writings about love by Francesco Alberoni, an Italian sociologist who has this to say on the matter:

No one can fall in love if he is even partially satisfied with what he has or who he is.The experience of falling in love originates in an extreme depression, an inability to find something that has value in everyday life. The “symptom” of the predisposition to fall in love is not the conscious desire to do so,the intense desire to enrich our lives; it is the profound sense of being worthless and of having nothing that is valuable and the shame of not having it. […] For this reason, falling in love occurs more frequently among young people, since they are profoundly uncertain, unsure of their worth,and often ashamed of themselves. The same thing applies to people of other ages when they lose something in their lives-—when their youth ends or when they start to grow old.

Now, I am not a sociologist, but when I read this, I rolled my eyes so hard I feared they would fall from my head onto my keyboard.

I am a deeply, profoundly happy person. My normal baseline emotional state is almost overwhelming joy almost all the time. I am constantly awestruck by the wonder and beauty of the natural world, as I’ve blogged about here.

In other words, I am about as far from “the profound sense of being worthless and of having nothing that is valuable and the shame of not having it” as it’s possible to be.

I fall in love deeply, unhesitantly, and with abandon, without fear or reservation. Love is an amazing thing. It is the profound sharing of myself with those I love, and through it, the sharing of joy. Life is filled with wonder and beauty, all of which is amplified by love. I create with the people I love. I explore with the people I love. Love is a fantastic thing, a process for multiplying joy and dividing sorrow.

It’s easy to be cynical about love, because love is not for the cowardly. It lets us share ourselves with those around us, and that makes us vulnerable. Like anything worth doing, love carries risks. It’s easy to get tangled up in our own egos and fears–what if we get hurt? What if the person we love doesn’t love us back?–and so to believe, mistakenly, that those we love owe us something simply because we love them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Love cannot be coerced. It exists only when it is given freely. It’s not for wimps. To risk loving is to risk exposing yourself in the most profound way possible. Love requires courage.

But that is precisely what makes it so valuable.

I do not entirely understand the depth of cynicism that would lead Mr. Alberoni to the conclusions he has reached. But I am very, very happy he’s wrong.

Some thoughts on love and sacrifice

I recently encountered, during the normal course of my regular trawling across the width of this thing we call the Internet, an essay posted on the Psychology Today Web site. The article is a rejection of the notion that adultery is okay (an argument made by a different essay on a different site) and, as far as that goes, I have no quarrel with it. If you’re going to make a promise of sexual fidelity, keep it. If you can’t,renegotiate the relationship or end it.

But the problem comes near the essay’s end, where the author says:

More generally, the author doesn’t seem to appreciate that the value of commitment is based in part on the value of what is given up for it. Of course, sexual desire has a unique pull on most of us. But promises of fidelity would mean much less if we were promising to give up something we didn’t want! The fact that most of us want sex so much is why it means so much when we promise it to just one person…

And I find this argument to be very problematic indeed.

I reject this premise wholeheartedly. I do not–I cannot–buy the notion that in order for something to be valuable, we have to sacrifice something in order to have it.

This idea is one of the malignant gifts bequeathed on us by our Puritan ancestors, who believed it so passionately they never saw the hypocritical self-contradiction in it (they yearned for an afterlife in which there is no want, no suffering, and everything is perfect forever, and they thought the way to get there was by rejecting what you want, by suffering, and by working against basic human happiness…something they regarded with suspicion at best and hostility at worst.)

I think, rather, that the value of a thing is not what we give up in order to have it, but instead whether that thing is an authentic expression of who we truly are.

There is nothing noble in denying who you are in order to get something you want. Just the opposite: that is the most craven sort of commerce, exchanging truth for gain. We rightly deride dishonesty in politicians and businesses; we understand that pretending to be something you’re not in order to get votes or money is a perfidious act. Why don’t we understand the same thing about love?

There is no virtue in exchanging your true self for the affections of someone else. Love admits no such cynical transaction. Love is most meaningful when those who love us know who we truly are and love us anyway. It is not about what we can make those we love give up; it is about how we can help those we love be the most genuine, the most honest versions of themselves.

We do not make an act of fidelity meaningful because we don’t want to do it. We make an act–any act–meaningful when it most truly represents who we are, when it most honestly shares what we actually desire. Believing that sex is valuable because we pledge it to one person when we really want to do just the opposite is the most crass kind of commoditization of both sex and love. Matters of the heart are not about artificial scarcity and transactional gain.

The Cucumbers of Wrath: “Fairness” in Poly Relationships

My sweetie Eve pointed me to this video, which was presented in a TED talk about moral reasoning in animals. It shows two monkeys who have each been trained to perform a simple task (handing a researcher a rock) in exchange for a reward (a bit of food).

In the experiment, the researcher could give the monkey a bit of cucumber or a grape as a reward. Monkeys given cucumber rewards were quite happy…unless they saw another monkey being given a grape for the same task. When that happens…well, see below.

Eve showed me this video while we were talking about polyamorous relationships. And she pointed out that the things these monkeys are feeling translate directly into the things that can trip us up as human beings when we’re involved in non-monogamous relationships of all sorts.


OF GRAPES AND CUCUMBERS

The notion that relationships have “cucumbers” (things that help feed the relationship, but aren’t necessarily fun or thrilling) and “grapes” (exciting things that are fun to do) seems straightforward.

The problem, naturally, is that what constitutes a “cucumber” and what constitutes a “grape” can be highly subjective, and can change depending on where you happen to be in the relationship configuration.

For instance, to me some of the most delicious grapes of life are also some of life’s most mundane things: the day-in, day-out living with a partner, doing all the tasks and chores that add up to shared intimacy and a shared life together. I’ve had relationships where I live with my partner and we spend our time doing dishes, watching Netflix, and snuggling on lazy Saturday mornings, and relationships where I see a partner perhaps once a year for a wild frenzy of hot kinky group sex in a French castle.

Don’t get me wrong, the hot kinky sex in a French castle is a grape, no doubt about it. But for me, relationships where I spend time just quietly sharing a life with a partner are incredibly rewarding, and it’s far easier to build intimacy with that kind of shared life than with one week a year spent together. No matter how much fun that week happens to be. With a partner I see seldom, the time spent with that partner can look like an intense whirlwind of nonstop fun, because we have to pack all our relationship time into a very small space. It doesn’t account for the long periods of time spent apart, when the relationship is barely fed at all, with grapes or cucumbers. (I am a person whose love language is touch; it is harder to meet that need long distance.)

To a person who has that day-in, day-out living together, the weekend trips to a faraway land can look like grapes, and the doing of dishes and moving of furniture looks like a dull and unappetizing cucumber. On the other hand, to the partner who only gets my time in small dribs and drabs, the shared experiences of a life spent together looks like a plump, sweet, delicious grape. And so each person sees nothing but cucumbers in front of them, while the other person has an entire plateful of grapes.

GRAPES AND HIERARCHY

When you look at your own plate and see nothing but cucumbers, while it seems like someone else gets entirely 100% grape,it’s reasonable to feel like the monkey in the video up there. And when we feel like that, often our first impulse is to want all the grapes for ourselves.

It gets worse if we feel that we’re entitled to all the grapes, or that someone else might steal our stash of grapes.

Since I’ve been thinking about polyamory in terms of grapes and cucumbers, it has occurred to me that often, the rules and hierarchies imposed in prescriptive relationships, particularly prescriptive primary/secondary relationships, seem calculated to make sure that all the grapes belong to one partner and other partners are metered out nothing but cucumbers.

This can sometimes even go so far as “grape hoarding”–fencing off particularly tasty grapes to make sure nobody else comes near them. (Examples of grape hoarding might be forbidding a partner to go to a certain restaurant with another partner, say, or forbidding a partner to spend any holiday or vacation time with another partner.) Even sharing a grape with someone else can make us feel like that poor monkey on the left, if we feel that grape belongs to us by right. When our monkey emotions get monkey going, someone’s likely to get things flung at them.

The impulse to want to keep our grapes and make sure nobody else takes them isn’t just a human thing, or even a primate thing. Dogs do the same thing; a dog trained to do a trick to get a reward who sees the other dog get that reward for nothing may stop doing the trick.

SEPARATING THE GRAPES FROM THE CHAFF

What are the grapes in a relationship? I’ve been thinking about that ever since my sweetie showed me this video.

Kinky group sex in a Medieval castle is definitely a grape, don’t get me wrong. Intense experiences that form lifelong memories are very tasty indeed.

But focusing on those kinds of grapes, I think, makes me lose sight of the grapes I get every day–the grapes that it’s easy to disregard because I have so many of them. I’ve resolved to be more conscientious about valuing the grapes that I have, the ones I might otherwise take for granted.

If I were to make a list of the grapes I’m blessed with, it would include kinky sex in castles and trips to exotic places, no doubt. But it would also include:

  • Being able to wake up nearly every morning with my partner.
  • Having my partner close enough to touch, almost all the time.
  • Curling up on a rainy afternoon with my partner, snuggling beneath warm covers.
  • Building a private language from a shared history of experience.
  • Having someone next to me while I deal with all the various ways I have to hold back entropy.
  • Being able to plan with someone
  • Working on projects with a partner.
  • Creating with a partner.
  • Having a partner who sees me, who really get me and understands me.

So I do very much like the trips to see my distant sweeties, but I wish they were closer. I enjoy vacation time spent with far-flung lovers, but I would not trade those experiences for living with a partner. At the end of the day, if I had to choose, I would give up the vacations for having the people I love close to me all the time.

And that might be the real test of what’s a grape and what’s a cucumber: Would you choose to trade places with the person you see getting all the grapes? If the vacation experiences seem like such tasty grapes,would you trade a life spent together for a distant, vacation relationship?

How about you, O readers? What are your grapes and what are your cucumbers?

On the Care and Feeding of Giraffes


Image: Luca Galuzzi, Wikimedia Commons

I am in love with a dragonslayer.

Not all dragonslayers, as it turns out, are knights in shining armor. The dragonslayer I love is a giraffe.

Her name is Shelly. She is not an ordinary person; one does not generally become a dragonslayer if one is content to travel from cradle to grave by the path of least resistance. And I have been in love with her for quite a number of years.

It’s interesting, and sometimes a bit intimidating, to be romantically linked to a hero of yours. We met at a gathering of polyamorous folks in Florida a very long time ago. We started dating a short while after that. I didn’t know then that she would become a dragonslayer, but she did tell me early on in our relationship that she is a giraffe.

By this point, you can be excused, gentle reader, if you have absolutely no idea what I am talking about. Allow me to backtrack a moment to explain.

Shelly, this person I love very much, is not, as I have mentioned, an ordinary sort of person. Not being an ordinary sort of person often leads to loneliness, and loneliness leads to sadness; we are social animals, after all. Many years ago–long before I met her–she talked to a therapist about feeling alienated and isolated from the people around her. The therapist listened patiently, then explained that there was absolutely nothing wrong with her; she wasn’t alienated because she was broken, she was alienated because she was a giraffe surrounded by alligators. “Find other giraffes,” the therapist told her. “You’ll be fine.”

It’s easier to find giraffes nowadays than it used to be. Back before the Internet exploded all over the world like an overripe grape in a hydraulic press, locating a community of non-traditional, non-monogamous, sex-positive people was a bit like finding a hundred-dollar bill lying on the ground; sure, it was theoretically possible, and every now and then you heard of someone who knew someone who talked to someone who’d totally heard of it happening to someone else, but it wasn’t exactly something that you could count on to meet the household budget.

When Shelly and I met, we recognized each other immediately. I didn’t know, back then, what that would mean.


I wrote a while ago some meandering thoughts on the tenuousness of the connections that drift by us, and how these slender threads–the accumulations of entire lifetimes of choices made and random chance–can profoundly change our lives.

My relationship with Shelly changed me more than my experiences with any other person I’ve had in my life, arguably including my parents.

When we met, I was still married to a monogamous partner, someone for whom polyamory really wasn’t a good fit. We had spent quite a lot of time trying to navigate the tricky waters of balancing the needs of a person who can’t be happy within monogamy with the needs of someone who can’t be happy without it, and more often than not, it was other partners I got involved with who bore the brunt of that.

Shelly has a way about her. That way usually starts with her raising a finger, a slightly puzzled look on her face, and saying “I have a question.” Invariably, the questions that follow completely rearrange your mental landscape. “I have a question,” she might say. “If you say that you want to love other people, why do you bring them into a situation where it is not safe for them to love you back, because you can be ordered to end the relationship at someone else’s will?” Or “I have a question. If you say you value having other people in your life, why don’t you value their agency?”

There’s one very important lesson I learned about being involved with her: If you are to be romantically linked to Shelly, you had better have your house in order. She will not easily accommodate the thousand little compromises that many people make when they try non-monogamy, the little rules and rituals that reinforce insecurity and avoid difficult change. If she finds a weak place, an area where for the sake of convenience some little unintended cruelty has become written into the fabric of a relationship, she will push on it. Band-Aids over unresolved problems do not work for her. Feelings swept under a carpet will be dragged into the light. That’s the first rule of being involved with Shelly: commitment to honesty and self-knowledge. You don’t get to say everything is OK when things are not OK, and you don’t get to make compromises that exclude other people.

It was the relationship with Shelly that finally let me see how hurtful, for all those years before I met her, my rules and treaties with my monogamous wife had been to my other partners. It was Shelly’s insistence that I deal with that hurtfulness that brought me to the choice that I could no longer be a party to hurting others that way.


This is the ring I wear on my left hand. Shelly has one identical to it.

After we’d been together for several years, Shelly felt the call to become a dragonslayer. I have written about that here. One of the things she and I share in common is the fact that we both do not accept the idea of death. One of the things that makes her a better human being than I am is that she has made the decision to spend the entirety of her life fighting it.

She returned to school, to seek a doctorate that would allow her to do research in the field of radical longevity. She sacrificed a tremendous amount to do so, including moving away from where we had been living together to pursue her education. She made the decision and, just like that, both of our lives changed.

That is the second rule of Shelly. She has fortitudes of will that would astonish Winston Churchill. She is remarkably flexible in many ways, but when she has resolved to do something, wild dogs will not budge her. She is one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.

She went off to school. The company I was a minority partner in–one which would later implode in a fiery economic flameout that often happens, I’m told, when one puts engineers in charge of financial decisions–moved to Atlanta, and I went with it. We remained family, but the nature of our relationship changed.

That’s the third rule of Shelly. You don’t get to dictate what a relationship with her will look like. She is who she is; to love her means to accept that. She is neither flighty nor uncommitted; quite the opposite, in fact. She commits to the things that are important to her with ferocity. But she does not prefer the comforting illusion to the uncomfortable truth. People change. Shelly is not a person who hides from that change; she will not retreat into comforting routines.


Shelly does, and always will, hold a place in my heart, no matter what happens. There have been other people in her life while we have been together–people who sought to dictate only one kind of relationship with her, people who tried to impose restrictions on the way her heart will work. When they could not have what they wanted, they have chosen to fall out of her life.

It’s a poor choice, in my opinion. Being close to Shelly is incredible. I can not fathom why someone would that up simply because they could not impose rules on her about who she was permitted to love or how. But then again, I also may be part giraffe myself.

Caring for a giraffe, of course, requires special skills. One does not raise a giraffe the way one would raise an alligator or a puppy or a water buffalo. Here, as with all things that are important, flexibility matters; one can not toss scraps of raw chicken at a giraffe the way one might do with an alligator and then say there is something wrong with the giraffe because it does not thrive.

The biggest part of the care and feeding of Shelly I have discovered is simply developing the skill to listen to her when she talks about what she needs. Her needs in relationship, I have found, are generally quite modest, and easy to care for; but being heard is top among them.

Another is expectation management. Expecting Shelly to accommodate choices made for the sake of avoiding unpleasant reality is never likely to succeed. She has, more than anyone else I know, a commitment to emotional integrity that does not permit patching or working around problems like insecurity or fear. Almost all the practical skills I’ve learned about going under the bed, grabbing the monster that lives there, dragging it out into the light, and making it pay rent I’ve learned from her. Being involved with Shelly is not for the faint of heart.

And if her needs are not being met, she will let you know.

Funny things, needs are; when they aren’t being met, they can feel bottomless. In some relationships they are met more effortlessly than others; and in poly relationships, it can be very tempting to point to someone who’s needs aren’t being met and say “What’s wrong with you? Why are you so miserable? Why can’t you just be happy, like Sally over there is?” when the reality is that Sally is happy simply because her needs are being met.

Call this the Fourth Rule of Shelly: if her needs aren’t being met, she will be unhappy. She is not an unhappy person; she is, however, far less likely to sit in a corner and quietly suck it up if her needs aren’t met.

That is, as it turns out, a feature, not a bug…at least if you want relationships built on a foundation of absolute, unwavering emotional integrity.

Which, the cynic in me whispers, is the one thing many folks are not really prepared for. Perhaps that is one of the things that differentiates an alligator from a giraffe? Perhaps alligators prize relationship stability ahead of emotional integrity?

In any relationship, there will be times when chaos slips in through some neglected back door or some little crack in the ceiling. It happens. We are all born of frailty and error. I have, as I’ve gone about this business of placing my heart in other people’s hands and accepting their hearts in mine, learned that when those moments occur, there is often an instant, right at the start, when we make a choice. It’s a tiny choice, that happens in a fleeting instant, sometimes too fast for us to register, but it’s there: the instant when we choose compassion, or when we sigh, feel frustrated, and head down the path of “God damn it, I had plans to watch Friends on TV tonight and then maybe wash the dog–anything that’s more fun than dealing with human beings who have needs–and now here you are asking for my support with something, and and and why can’t you just be more convenient?

Compassion, in case it needs to be said, is better.


I am fortunate beyond measure to have connected with Shelly, and I feel blessed to have her as part of my life. Thank you for being who you are.

Some thoughts on connection and love

A few weeks back, I traveled up to visit my Canadian sweetie. While I was there, she observed something interesting. My blog, she noted, has half a dozen tags for sex, but only one for love.

The interesting thing about that is I actually care more about love than about sex, though I rarely seem to write about love.


I went to visit her on the bus. There’s a bus service called BoltBus that travels between Portland and Vancouver, you see, and it’s really cheap to take.

Sometimes.

They have this bizarre pricing structure where the first seat on a particular bus sells for a dollar, and the next few seats sell for eight dollars, and the next few seats sell for fifteen, or something like that. What it means is if you plan well ahead, and you are willing to sit there and click Refresh on their Web site over and over, you can sometimes travel for next to nothing.

Plus, their buses are black and orange, which is kinda cool.

On the bus ride up, there was a pretty girl with a blond pony tail seated to my right. She spent almost the entire trip texting someone on her cell phone. Ahead of me, two bearded geeks in glasses talked excitedly about Python on Linux.

We stopped in Seattle to pay homage to the monument of the Dalek god and drink coffee. Yes, there is a monument to the God of the Daleks in downtown Seattle. No, I don’t know why it’s there. It looks like this:

I don’t drink coffee, so I sipped my hot chocolate, given to me by a surly Starbucks employee, and contemplated the fact that these people I was sharing the bus trip with–the girl glued to her cell phone and the geeky Linux programmers rhapsodizing over Python’s, like, total readability–had crossed paths with me in a tiny, insignificant way, and that I would quite likely never see any of them again for as long as we all lived.

For a brief second, the threads of our lives almost touched, before they spun off in their various directions once more.

Statistically speaking, the odds that I would cross paths with any of them were vanishingly small. If you were to start some kind of probability assessment going form the moments of our separate births, the odds that we four should ever be in the same space at the same time would be incredibly low.

And yet, we did intersect for that short while.

Which started me to thinking about love.


Statistically speaking, the odds that I will meet, much less fall in love with, any given person are also incredibly low. Each connection we make is statistically improbable, the result of a long gossamer thread of chance, decisions, fortuitous happenings, heartbreak, and all the other things that make us take the path we do. A death in the family, a different choice of college, a different career, a phone call from a childhood friend, a flat tire, any of a thousand things could have altered the decisions any of us made that led us to be on that bus at that time. The breathtaking confluence of life paths, events, and choices that led to us all being there is as fragile as it is amazing.

That’s kind of how it is with love.

For any two particular people, chosen at random, to become entwined in each other’s lives in such an intimate way as falling in love requires a statistically improbable chain of events, any one of which could cause the connection to fail altogether. The person you love most in all the world might, with just a few tiny differences in life path, be living a life almost indistinguishable from the one that brought you together–and yet you would be strangers.

It might sound like I’m saying that love is an incredibly rare thing, but it’s not. Opportunities for it are all around us; the possibility of love is abundant. But each individual connection, each set of circumstances that leads to any two specific people falling in love–that is a rare and delicate thing.


It might seem like those two ideas–that love is abundant and that connections between any two people are rare and improbable–are contradictory, but they’re not.

Think about a casino. Imagine walking into a casino and, with the snap of your fingers, freezing everything inside. If you were to look at every hand of cards in play, the arrangement of every card in the blackjack shoes, the position of every ball on every roulette wheel, the odds of seeing that exact configuration are so remote that you could set up casinos just like it all over the universe and let them all run from now until the stars burn out, and you’d never see that configuration again.

And yet, there it is.

In a world of seven billion people, opportunities for love are everywhere; but that doesn’t change the fact that the odds of meeting and falling in love with any one specific person are vanishingly tiny, the connection between two individuals spun from the slenderest of threads.

Those slender threads can make a huge difference. Those threads change our lives. They wrap around us until every one of our decisions is made because of them. A chance meeting, that most statistically improbable of connections between two individuals, and their lives suddenly change course in dramatic ways.

A thread like that called me to Portland. Another put me on that bus to Vancouver, where my life intersected ever so briefly with the other people on that bus, each of them there because of the sum total of thousands of choices large and small they had made.

There would be people on that bus; the statisticians who design bus routes, the accountants who apportion resources all know it. but each individual person is there as a result of an unbroken line of choices, any one of which could have sent that person somewhere else entirely.


This is the person I was on that bus to see, the thread of connection that altered the course of my life and put me on that bus.

Whenever I think of any of the people I love, I always think about how improbable it was that our lives crossed paths, and how profoundly such an improbable thing has changed me. Yes, if I had made different choices, if they had made different choices, if our lives had not intersected, then we might not be lovers, but I would still have love in my life. I absolutely believe that’s true.

And yet…

It is those threads that have made my life what it is right now. It is those improbable connections, those fine threads of chance and choice, that brought me here, and that led to me writing the words you’re reading right now.

I like who I am. I like being where I am. I have, in large part, all those people who I love, all the delicate lines of chance and choice that brought us together, to thank for that.

I am profoundly grateful for every person who has touched my life in this way. I am profoundly grateful for every one of those connections, for every person I have ever loved and who has ever loved me. From tiny, delicate threads, entire lives are woven. For all the people who have helped me weave mine: Thank you.

Some thoughts on courage

I hear you will not fall in love with me
because I come without a guarantee,
because someday I may depart at whim
and leave you desolate, abandoned, grim.
If that’s the case, what use to be alive?
In loving life you love what can’t survive:
and if you grow too fond and lose your head,
it’s all for nought–for someday you’ll be dead.

— Erica Jong, To X. (With Ephemeral Kisses)

This post started out as a reply to one of the comments in my first go-round of the relationship skills poster I’m working on.

I believe courage is among the most valuable traits any person can have. It’s a trait I look for in a potential partner. One of the things I say often, and included on the poster, and one of the things I believe it would have been most helpful for me to have learned a long time ago, is “life rewards people who move in the direction of greatest courage.”

Every time I say that, I’m always taken a bit by surprise by the amount of resistance I get to it. I hear a lot of objections to this idea, and the objections are usually couched in terms that frankly don’t make a lot of sense to me. It seems like when I talk about life rewarding courage, the idea I’m trying to communicate ends up vastly different in its interpretation. I started to write a response about what I mean when I say that life rewards courage, but I thought it deserved a blog post of its own.

First, let me talk about what I mean when I use the word “courage.”

Courage is not the absence of fear. If we never felt fear, there would be no need for courage; indeed, without fear, the idea of courage would be meaningless. We as a species never experience the emotion of fluntillation, for instance, so talking about making a virtue of bandestility in the face of fluntillation makes no sense. Courage isn’t in what you do when you are fearless; it’s in what you do when you’re fearful.

Courage does not mean recklessness. It does not mean acting on impulse or without intent. Recklessness is sometimes easier than real courage; when you’re reckless, you may act without considering the risks or consequences of your actions, and when you don’t consider the risks of your actions you might be less afraid of them. The kind of courage I’m talking about is not blind, impulsive recklessness, but action that comes from calm deliberation.

Courage is not desperation. A person with nothing to lose has nothing to fear.

Someone in the conversation that followed the first go-round of the relationship poster used the argument that a person who hits on a hundred women a day might succeed in finding sex partners in the short term, but will likely eventually run out of people to hit on and also end up being socially ostracized.

I find this argument a little baffling. It is not lack of courage that prevents me from hitting on a hundred people a day; it’s the fact that hitting on a hundred people a day wouldn’t succeed in getting me the kind of relationship I value. Hitting on every woman I see would not be an act of courage, because I don’t want a relationship–or sex, for that matter–with every woman I see.

Which brings up what courage is.

Courage is making decisions that take you closer to what you want, or to the person you want to be, even when you’re scared. Courage is not allowing fear to be in the driver’s seat. Courage is talking to the person you are interested in, even though you’re aware that you may be rejected.

Courage is saying “I will reach for what I want” rather than saying “I have been hurt before, and I don’t want to be hurt again, so I’m not going to risk it; I’m just going to sit here and do nothing.” Courage is saying “This new thing you’re doing scares me; it makes me feel unsure and insecure, but I will support you in it anyway” rather than “This thing you’re doing scares me; I forbid you to do it.”

I have tried both approaches. Moving with courage more often results in me having the life that I want to have than allowing my fears to control my actions does. Relationships with people who move with courage are more satisfying to me than relationships with people who don’t.

Now, sure, moving with courage is not always rewarded. Again, if there were no possibility of hurt or loss, there would be no virtue in courage. Yes, you might reach out for what you want and come up short. You might be rejected. You might be hurt. Absolutely.

But what’s the alternative? Never reaching for what you want? Always backing down in the face of fear? Never choosing the harder path? What does that gain, other than a life lived from cradle to grave by the path of least resistance?

If one person reaches for the relationship she wants ten times, and is rejected nine of those times, and another person never reaches for what he wants for fear of rejection, which of them has been more rewarded? The person who was hurt but now has the life she wants, or the person who has never been hurt but also never been happy?

Life rewards people who move in the direction of greatest courage. Yes, moving with courage means running the risk of being hurt. But hiding in the corner, afraid to take a chance, also hurts; it’s just that it hurts all the time, so you become less aware of it.

And being hurt isn’t the end of the world. Broken hearts mend. Indeed, I’ve written in the past about the value of having your heart broken; often, it’s in the way we deal with pain and loss that the best inside us has the chance to blossom.

To live a life built on a foundation of fear, in the end, breaks far more than just a heart. It destroys any chance of having anything worth keeping. Moving with courage means risking pain; but failure of courage means risking everything.

Courage is not fearlessness, or recklessness, or desperation. It is choosing who you want to be, deciding what kind of life you want to have, and then moving toward that even when it’s scary. It is not rewarded every single time; we do not always get what we want, and sometimes, we get hurt. Courage is in living the life we want in spite of that. If there is any other way to be happy, I have not found it.

Love, love, love: where the Greeks went wrong

Everyone who’s ever had a liberal arts background, and most folks who’ve ever spoken to someone with a liberal arts background, and some folks who’ve never done either but who’ve talked about the philosophy of polyamory for any length of time, are probably aware that the Greeks, who loved creating classification systems for things almost as much as they loved war, developed a classification system for love.

In the Greek system, there are four distinct types of love. They believed in Agape, unconditional all-encompassing love like the love of the gods for humans (presumably just before the gods kill lots of people in an earthquake or a flood or something); Eros, or passionate love, usually (but not always) sexual; Philia, or friendship love, of the sort between comrades (and later used by psychologists for sexual kinks that most folks don’t have and usually that the psychologist in question doesn’t quite understand); and Storge, or familial love.

It occurred to me while I was preparing to shower this morning, as such things often do, that the Greeks missed a couple of types of love in their categorization.

Now, I am aware that the Greeks were legendary for their considerable talents in sorting and labeling things, an art they developed to such an advanced degree that their philosophers even devised classification systems for people (bronze, for slaves; silver, for tradesmen and politicians; and gold, for philosophers)…so it is with the greatest trepidation that your humble scribe dares to suggest that the Greek taxonomy of love might in the slightest way be lacking.

However, as much respect as I hold for their considerable skills at pigeonholing (and believe me, I hold it in exactly as much respect as it so richly deserves), I feel I must point out that their system is incomplete.

So I would like to propose two additional categories of love:

Orwellos, for compulsory love that is mandated by authority, such as the love of Big Brother, the love of Kim Jong Il, and the love of various hypothetical divine entities who love you in return but will cast you into a lake of fire if you fail to love them enough, or love them in the wrong way.

Stockholmia, or the love of one’s abuser, such as the love of Patty Hearst for the Symbionese Liberation Army and the love of Linux users for Linux.

There may yet be a seventh category of love, for love of people for political institutions which act against their interests, though it is not entirely clear to your humble scribe whether that’s an entirely separate category of love or simply a combination of the last two.

Edit: After further consideration and consultation with zaiah, I have come to the conclusion that the love of people for politicians and political parties who act against their interests is indeed its own unique form of love, rather than being a combination of Orwellos and Stockholmia.

I would therefore like to propose a seventh type of love. Following slutbamwalla‘s brilliant suggestion, may I propose:

Santoros, the love that people have for politicians or political organizations who appeal to their sense of identity while simultaneously acting against those people’s own interests.