The Lucifer Effect effect

Eve loves to read to me. It’s one of the love languages we share, and it’s been a part of our relationship for years. We’ve read fiction (like Use of Weapons) and non-fiction (like Parasite Rex) together.

The Lucifer Effect is a book by Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who designed the now-infamous Stanford prison experiment. The Stanford prison experiment was an attempt to understand the dynamics of deindividuation in prison environments. Zimbardo hypothesized that prisoners lose their sense of individual identity in institutional settings. The experiment, which had been focused on prisoners, ended up showing that prison guards become abusive not because they are evil or abusers, but because the psychological environment of prison creates enormous pressure for otherwise normal people to become abusive and sadistic. The experiment recruited a group of college students to role-play prisoners or guards in a false prison. Within days, the students assigned to guard roles became so violent, abusive, and sadistic, and tortured the students playing the role of prisoners so severely, that the experiment was discontinued.

And the book has turned into a rough ride for me.

Reading the book, which goes into great detail about the physical and psychological abuse inflicted on the “prisoners” by the “guards,” has been surprisingly difficult. When Eve reads this book to me, I find my blood pressure shooting up, I end up angry and irritable, and I have trouble sleeping.

This is Venango Elementary School, in Venango, Nebraska, the tiny town where I grew up.

It’s more fair to say this was Venango Elementary School. It closed for lack of students decades ago. Venango had 242 people living in it when I was there; at the last census, the population had fallen to 167, none of whom are children. The grounds are still maintained by a retired gentleman who’s lived in Venango most of his life, but nobody’s had a class here in a very long time.

When I was in middle school, I was socially isolated and alienated. I was the only kid in town who didn’t follow football, and the only one who owned a computer. I had no friends, and spent my time building model rockets or dialing computer bulletin boards from my TRS-80.

Needless to say, I was bullied extensively during my career in middle school. The two worst offenders were the two Mikes, Mike A. and Mike C. They were both a couple of years older than I was and quite a lot bigger, and they were inseparable. One of them—I think it was Mike C., though time may have garbled that detail—was fond of coming to school in a T-shirt with iron-on letters on it that spelled out “It’s nice to be injected but I’d rather be blown.” (It’s about cars, geddit? Geddit?)

The particulars of the abuse I suffered at their hands is as predictable as it is tedious, so I won’t bother cataloging them. The official response from teachers and faculty was also tediously predictable; they were aware of the abuse but not particularly motivated to intervene.

I went into high school shy and with few social skills. Then, about the time I was midway through my senior year, I changed.

I had always believed that the reason I was bullied was the reasons bullies gave for bullying me: I wore glasses; I didn’t like football; I liked computers. It took a very long time for me to learn that the content of bullying is completely separate from bullying. That is, bullies bully because they are bullies. If I didn’t wear glasses, if I didn’t like computers, if I did like football, they would still have bullied me, they just would have bullied me about different things.

But that wasn’t the life-changing revelation. In fact, it didn’t come until after the life-changing revelation.

The life-changing revelation was that bullies bully people who don’t fight back. If you want to end bullying, you walk up to the biggest, meanest bully of the bunch, reach back, and punch him square in the face. When bullies realize you bite back, they look for easier prey.

So I went into college with a whole new attitude about violence, one that a lot of folks who know me now find difficult to believe. I was, for a while, quite willing to resort to casual violence in the service of self-protection. I got into fistfights often, and learned yet another lesson: victory does not go to the biggest or the strongest person in the fight. Victory, nine times out of ten, goes to the person who escalates fastest, the one willing to do what the other person is not. I could get in a fight with opponents far larger and stronger than I was, and I almost always came out on top, because I escalated swiftly and aggressively.

I am not the person I used to be. Or, more accurately, I am not the people I used to be. I’m not the shy, friendless, unsocialized bullying victim I was in Venango. I’m also not the aggressive, in-your-face, ready-for-a-fight guy with a hair trigger I was in college. In fact, most of the time it’s hard for me to connect with either of those mindsets any more.

But man, this book.

This book does not mince detail. It describes, directly and even clinically, the abuses suffered by the “prisoners” on behalf of the “guards,” abuses that range from verbal bullying to refusing to allow the prisoners to use the bathroom and forcing them to urinate and defecate in their rooms.

When Eve reads this book to me, I’m transported back to the person I was in college. I can feel my body amping up—I can feel the adrenaline, the shaking, the hair trigger coiled up inside me ready to explode that I used to feel back in my college days whenever someone would start harassing me. And I mean that literally; my hands will shake while she’s reading.

I can identify with the group of students who were made into prisoners. I can understand what they’re experiencing. And I believe that if I had been chosen to participate in an experiment like the SPE and had been assigned to the role of prisoner, there is a very strong likelihood I would have injured or killed one of the “guards,” or been injured or killed myself in the attempt.

It’s been rough, this book. It’s brought me viscerally back to a time and place that I haven’t been in for more than half my life now. We’ve had to switch from reading it in the evening before bed to reading it in the afternoon, because when we read it at night, I can’t sleep.

The book is an excellent deep dive into the underworld of institutional evil (and it’s astonishing how closely the casual abuse that happened in the faux prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building mirrored the abuses in the real world at Abu Ghraib, and for exactly the same reasons). It’s a book I think everyone needs to read, now more than ever, and I’m glad we’re reading it.

But man, it’s turned into a painful slog.

A trip down memory lane

I recently spent some time digging through a huge cache of old CDs and hard drives I found in a drawer containing files that date back to the early 90s, and one of the things I found was copies of the old xeromag Web site from 1998.

Man, it was appallingly bad. Dear god.

In April of 1998, the home page of looked like this:

Contrast that with how it looks right now:

I look at the old design and cringe.

I also found some old .ARC files that contain letters and other word processing files from as long ago as 1984(!), and source code for TRS-80 software I wrote in 1979(!!). I can’t wait to see what’s in there, but first I’ll need to find software that can uncompress .ARC archives.

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.

Some thoughts on being out

One of the many questions that inevitably comes up in almost any poly discussion group,usually multiple times, is the question about being open about being polyamorous.

The same thing comes up in kink-related social groups, and I imagine in just about any other alternative sexuality group you can name.

Now, I’m a big fan of openness and transparency. There are a lot of reasons for that. On a philosophical level, I do not believe there is anything to be gained by pretending to be something you’re not, and I don’t see how deceiving people who would shun you if they knew the truth actually benefits anyone. (To my mind, if someone–your family, say–loves you only so long as they don’t know the truth about you, then they don’t actually love you. They only love an imaginary projection of you, and that love is conditional on you agreeing not to do anything that might spoil the projection.)

On a practical level, it’s hard to find other people like you when everyone is closeted. If I am polyamorous, and I’m in a room with ten other poly people but none of us are open, all eleven of us might be thinking “Wow, I wonder where I can go to meet other poly people? It’s so hard to do!”

But there’s one objection to openness that I hear all the time, and that’s what I’d like to talk about here. A lot of folks say “I’m not open because it’s nobody else’s business how I live my life.” And to some extent it seems true, but there are problems with that idea.

Before I talk about those, though, I’d like to back up a little and talk about the way I grew up.

I spent my elementary and middle school years growing up in the rural Midwest. This is where I lived:

See that clump of trees on the right? It’s where my old house is. We lived outside a tiny town called Venango, Nebraska, population (at the time) 242.

I’ve written about a trip I took as an adult through Venango, with lots of pictures, in my blog here. Time has not been kind to the town. It’s half deserted; many of the houses are boarded up, and the school closed a long time ago. The most eerie thing about it is the total and complete absence of children. We stopped at the playground behind the school when we visited it. All of the playground equipment is covered by a fine dusting of rust, and when we turned the merry-go-round, rust drifted off it in flakes. I have to think that if there was even one child left in the entire town, the playground wouldn’t be this disused.

It was no picnic for me growing up there. I was the stereotypical geek as a kid; I was into model rocketry, and I owned a TRS-80 computer, the only computer of any sort in a 40-mile radius. (I know this because the only other computer within any distance was an Apple II belonging to the owner of the business my mother worked at in the next town over, about 45 minutes away; he used it to do bookkeeping.)

There were eight people in my middle school class, the largest class the school had seen in years. While I was teaching myself the basics of aeronautics, electronics, and Z-80 assembly language programming, the main topic of conversation among my peers were the relative merits of the Denver Broncos vs. the Dallas Cowboys–a discussion that often involved a great deal of heat but never seemed to get resolved, no matter how many times it was hashed out.

So it’s safe to say I grew up alienated from all the people around me.

Which is pretty unpleasant. I was able to partially mitigate the fact that I had no friends when my parents got me a 300 baud telephone modem, and for quite literally the first time in my life I was able to encounter, if only in a crude way, people who were kind of like me.

As alienated as I was, I still had some things going for me. One of the things I noticed growing up was the casual, offhand racism that permeated the Midwest; the people around me were quite confident that whites were better than blacks, even though most of them had, quite literally, never once met a person who was black. Even as an outcast, I still had some measure of privilege; it’s hard to say how much better or worse things might have been had I been a football-loving African American, or (worse yet) geeky and also black.

My parents moved to Florida when I started high school, so all at once I went from having eight people in my class to having two thousand. For the first time in my life, I met other people who were like me. I was still something of an outcast from most of the folks around me, of course; the fact that there were other geeky, nerdy people in the school didn’t mean we weren’t a distinct minority. I was still introverted and painfully shy back then, but at least I had a social circle, something that was totally new to me.

What does this have to do with being out about polyamory? Quite a lot.

After my first year in college, I made a conscious decision: I did not want to be introverted or shy any more. I deliberately and systematically set about learning the skills that would get me there. I started choosing different kinds of people in my social circle. If I found a social situation that made me uncomfortable, I deliberately kept putting myself in it.

It was about this same time that I started realizing that I was kinky and poly, as well. Prior to starting college, I wasn’t a sexual being in any meaningful sense of the word; I barely even recognized that boys and girls are different.

But even before I was interested in sex or relationships, I still knew I was polyamorous, though there was no language for it. The stories about the beautiful princess forced to choose between her suitors never quite made sense with me; if princesses live in castles, which seemed axiomatic to me when I was a kid, why wasn’t there room for all of them?

As a person newly interested in sexual relationships, that idea stayed. Why on earth should I expect someone to pledge her fidelity to me, simply because I fancied her? On the face of it, the idea just made no sense.

Growing up alienated seems to have had a positive side effect; I found out that being isolated from a social circle is inconvenient, but it isn’t fatal. I learned that I could find ways to interact with people like me, first online and then in person. And I learned that things like “being shy” and “having poor social skills” weren’t death sentences; they were things I could learn to cope with and skills I could acquire.

So in that sense, having an isolated childhood didn’t really leave that much of a mark on me. i was resilient enough to make choices about who I wanted to be and then find ways to be that person.

In the 1990s, which is positively antediluvian as far as the Internet goes, I started working on a Web site. (The Wayback Machine only started capturing the poly section of the site in 2000, for reasons I don’t completely understand.)

The goal in making the site was to create the resource that the younger version of me would have found valuable. When I actually started doing this polyamory thing, I didn’t have the advantage of being able to learn from other people’s mistakes, which meant that I had to make my own…and while experience might be the best teacher, sometimes the tuition is very high.

The site became a whole lot more popular than I expected it to be, which pretty much finished off any chance I might have to be quiet about being polyamorous. Not that there was ever much chance of that to begin with, but still.

So I’ve never been closeted. Not even a little bit.

Which takes us back ’round to the issue of what business it is of anyone else’s.

On the face of it, “it’s nobody’s business who I’m involved with” seems to make sense…except that, in a very real sense, it is.

We live in a society that sanctions only one kind of relationship, and tends to stigmatize others.

When a person wears a wedding ring and says in casual conversation “My wife and I went to dinner last night,” that person is validating those social conventions. He could say that it’s nobody’s business how he conducts his romantic affairs, of course; but the simple act of wearing a wedding ring is a public declaration of a very specific kind of relationship. And it’s hard to talk about the things we do, even casually, without talking about the people we do them with, and what those people’s relationships are to us.

When folks at poly get-togethers talk about being closeted, by far and away the most common thing they talk about is being afraid of other people’s reactions to learning the truth. Essentially, it boils down to a very simple idea: “I want to control information so as to control the way people interact with me.” The fear of being shunned, and the extent to which people are willing to jump through hoops to control information and to create the impression of normalcy in order to avoid that fear, is sometimes quite remarkable.

I’ve never had the fear of how people will react to me for being polyamorous (or kinky or anything else). I’d like to think it’s because I’m, like, all evolved and stuff, but it’s really a lot simpler. I know what it’s like to be totally alienated from my peers. I know that I can survive it. I know that I can create my own social circles and my own family. I’ve met that monster under the bed. It has no power over me. If there’s a monster under my bed, fucker better pay me rent, just like anyone else living here.

I realize that I am in a privileged position about this. I work for myself; I don’t have to worry about a conservative employer firing me if they find out how I live my life. I’m not in the military. (Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, adultery is a crime, punishable by dishonorable discharge, prison, or both.) I am not financially dependent on a family that would disown me if they found out. I don’t have children who might be vulnerable to being taken away, or an ex-spouse who can use polyamory against me in a custody hearing.

So I can be open about who I am, and I don’t have to worry about suffering for it.

And that’s kind of the point.

In a world where it really was nobody’s business how we conduct our private lives, nobody would have to worry about these things. Nobody would have to worry about getting fired or getting a dishonorable discharge or losing children because of being polyamorous. The fact that there are people who do have to worry about these things means that much of the world tries to make it their business how we conduct our romantic lives.

Polyamory, and homosexuality, and BDSM, and all kinds of other non-socially-sanctioned relationship structures are perceived negatively in part because people don’t often see them, and it’s easier to vilify something that you don’t see every day. Like the racists in Venango who’d never laid eyes on a black person, when you don’t have the experience of seeing something yourself, it’s easier to project all your own fears onto it.

When those of us who have a privileged enough position to be able to live openly choose to do so, we help create a visible face for polyamory that makes it that little bit harder for others to vilify or marginalize us. So in that sense, it very much is other people’s business what I get up to; by creating institutions which can be used against folks who are polyamorous, they’ve made it that way, whether we like it or not. By creating the social expectation that people in officially sanctioned relationships can advertise their relationship status but people who aren’t, can’t, they’ve made it that way.

Columnist Dan Savage started a campaign aimed at teen gays and lesbians called “It Gets Better.” Part of the campaign is to do exactly what edwardmartiniii talks about in this essay: namely, to speak up when we see something wrong.

If the alienated, disenfranchised me from 1977 could see the me from 2012, he’d be amazed. The person I am today is the person the elementary-school version of me fantasized about being, and more.

But it took a lot of work to get here. And that’s why it matters. By being open about who I am, not only do I live my life without compromise, exactly the way I want to; I help make it that much easier for other people who, right now, don’t have a social group where they belong. I think that everyone who, like me, is in a position to be able to be out without risk, does a service to others by choosing to be so. It does get better, because we make choices that help make it better.

Origins II

On the trip out to Portland from Atlanta, I made a point to pass through Venango, Nebraska, the tiny farm town where I grew up.

I’ve posted about Venango before, with a Google Earth view of the house I lived in. This time, I was able to pay the house a visit at ground level. zaiah and I spent about three hours wandering around with a camera, and it brought back some half-submerged memories.

We spent the night before in a hotel in Ogallala, Nebraska, the nearest town with amenities like hotels and restaurants. Ogallala is about an hour and a half from Venango; I remember making the trip as a kid on those rare occasions when we wanted to do something like eat out at McDonald’s.

One of Ogallala’s features is this water tower, painted to look like a flying saucer. At night, a ring of lights around the walkway flashes. I’d entirely forgotten about this water tower, and was a little surprised to find that, thirty years later, it was still there. (And, from the looks of it, with a fresh coat of paint.)

There’s something appropriate about this icon. In small Nebraska communities, anyone who hasn’t been living there for several generations might as well be an alien. I can remember a kid I went to grade school with being regarded as an “outsider” because his family had only been there for a couple of generations.

As you can probably imagine, I blended in like a squirrel in a den of velociraptors. The notion that I was an alien was only made all the more stark because I didn’t like football, wheat, or playing football in wheat fields.

Instead, I launched model rockets in wheat fields. I also had the only computer in town (an antique Radio Shack TRS-80 that was state of the art at the time). There was a guy in a similar small town about three hours away (Brandon, Colorado) who had an Apple II computer.

Needless to say, we knew each other.

This is Venango as seen from the main (and only) highway into town. The big white structure, for those of you who aren’t farmers, is a grain elevator, where vast quantities of wheat can be stored before being shipped out by truck or rail.

The last time I saw these elevators was almost precisely thirty years ago. From the looks of them, they haven’t been painted in that entire time. At least they’re all still there; every so often, some damn fool walks into a grain elevator with a lit cigarette and blows the entire thing into low earth orbit (note to mad scientists on my flist: grain dust is explosive, yo).

This is the main street through the center of town. The grain elevators can be seen from almost every angle everywhere in town.

Normally, at this point in the post, I’d talk about some pleasant or funny little anecdote about growing up in this place, but I really don’t have one.

This is where I went to school. This building housed everyone from kindergarten through high school.

In my memories, the schoolhouse is huge; the reality is quite tiny. The first thing you see when you pass through those double doors is an enormous, dark polished wooden staircase leading up. That staircase still, to this day, features in some of my dreams.

Not that anyone has passed through those doors in a while. When the population of Venango started to fall shortly after we left, the school was closed. It’s been about fifteen years since the last time anyone has been there. The front lawn is still beautifully manicured, but nobody uses the building for anything. zaiah observed that an enterprising person who wanted to form an intentional community here could probably buy the place for a song and move in a dozen families or so, which would probably be the largest influx of residents in at least five decades.

The back of the school isn’t as nicely manicured.

One of the eerie things about this pace is that there are no children. Anywhere. We visited on a gorgeous, breezy summer midmorning, and no kids. We saw people walking around the town, we saw folks working at the grain elevator, but no kids. Had there been any, anywhere, I’ve got to believe that some of them would use this playground, but nothing. Ours were the only footprints. The playground equipment is covered with a fine dusting of rust. Nobody plays here. You could film zombie apocalypse movies here. It was weird.

Just as eerie is the fact that the place looks like it was just closed yesterday. When we looked through the windows, we saw all the trophies still in the trophy cases, and the cafeteria had a deep freezer whose lid was propped open with a Styrofoam cup. It gives the uncanny impression of having been closed for the summer and then never approached again.

My father worked here as a teacher (K-8), and as the athletics coach, and as the bus driver. The number of trophies in the cabinet was always a little surprising, as Venango was infamous for fielding the worst teams ever seen in any sport; our football team, for example, scored a combined total of six points for the entire season the last year I was there. We barely had enough students to have a football team; if one guy was sick, they didn’t play.

I swear this is the same mat they had in front of the door when I was a kid, now crumpled up beside the school and with weeds growing through it. Go panthers!

And speaking of team spirit:

This is, or was, the basketball court and football field behind the school. Each clump of trees you see off in the distance marks a house. The trees are planted as windbreaks and snowbreaks, to prevent wind-driven snow from burying the houses. Yes, I’m being serious.

The view from the front of the school toward the grain elevators. Everything in this town is centered on those grain elevators; without them, there’s no reason for the town to exist.

In the last thirty years, the town’s population has dropped from 242 to 167. Even with the grain elevators, one could argue that there’s no reason for the town to exist.

This is the road I grew up on. The clump of trees on the right is my old house; we drove past it on our first attempt to find it, so this is the view back toward the highway from the road. And finally:

The house I grew up in. From here, I played with my computer, launched model rockets, flew kites, built a huge hydroponics garden that was eventually taken over by spider plants, and generally stayed the hell away from the other townsfolk and their football-in-wheat-field ways. Place looks a little worse for the wear; the past few decades have not been kind.

We didn’t stop. I don’t care who’s living there now. I’m just happy it isn’t me.


This is the “town” of Venango, Nebraska:

I put the word “town” in quotes because this particular town, the small cluster of houses and roads on the left-hand side of the image, has a population of around 170, no paved roads, and a single stop sign. If you like, you can click on the picture in order to see a larger view of the horror.

The house in the middle right, which I’ve enlarged in the inset, is the place I spent a number of my formative years.

Looking at the picture now, it’s amazing how little has changed in the twenty-six years since I left there. There used to be a barn just above the house, in the place where the rust-colored scar in the dirt is now, and the town used to have a few more people in it (at the time I lived there, the population was 242). Other than that, it looks pretty much exactly as it did back then.

I went to elementary school in a class of eight people–the largest the town had seen in a decade. The class one grade ahead of me had two people in it. If one were to plot a map of the popularity of the handful of kids at the school, I’d be at the bottom of it, no question about it. I was the only person in the entire school whose parents weren’t long-time Nebraska natives, and the only kid who didn’t much care for football. I was the only kid with a computer (a Radio Shack TRS-80). This, in an environment that prized conformity above all things–conformity of speech, of action, of thought.

Now, American schools are not, and never will be, places that reward anything but conformity. In this tiny town, though, it was as if someone had taken all the need for conformity, all the closed-minded intolerance, and all the petty asshattery you can imagine dredging up from the lowest strata of the human condition, and refined it, distilled it down to its purest and most elemental essence. The drive toward conformity permeated every part of the town, to where one could scarcely tell its citizens apart. It expressed itself even in the casual, offhand racism that made up the sum of the town’s attitude toward others–despite that fact that not one of the people I knew, not one single one, had ever even met any person whose skin was not white. Not once in their entire lives.

I survived the years in Nebraska by keeping to myself and by doing things that nobody else in the town could even understand, much less relate to. I built and flew model rockets (and occasionally lost them in the wheat fields surrounding the house), and I used antique bulletin board systems with a crude, slow 300-baud telephone modem that set my parents back some $600 (at the time, there were only a handful of such systems out there, CBBS Chicago and Magnetic Fantasies in California being the two I most strongly remember using). I read a lot, mostly science textbooks and fantasy novels.

And I developed a very strong, cast-iron case of don’t-give-a-fuck-what-other-folks-think.

Even back then, as the least popular kid in class, the one who was regularly bullied and beaten by the other kids at school (I particularly remember two rather obnoxious meatbags, both named Mike, who everyone called Mike A. and Mike C.; I don’t remember their last names, though I distinctly remember a number of thrashings at their hands), I would not even for a second have traded lives with any of them.

At the time, living in that benighted hellhole was the worst, most miserable thing I could possibly imagine. I came away from it with an ironclad belief that my life belongs to me and it simply does not matter what anyone else thinks of that, and that’s really not such a bad place to be.

I’m curious whatever became of Mike A. and Mike C. I suspect they didn’t escape.