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.


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.


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.


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?

Polyamory, Monogamy, and Ownership Paradigms

On another forum I read, someone made a complaint that folks in the poly community tend to see monogamy in terms of ownership and control; that is, for many poly folks, monogamy is about owning your other partner, while polyamory is more egalitarian, treating other people as fully actualized human beings.

And, sadly, I’ve encountered poly folks who do believe that. The misguided notion that polyamory is “more evolved” than monogamy comes, in many cases, from the assumption that monogamy is inherently rooted in ownership and polyamory is inherently egalitarian.

As with many preconceptions, it’s possible, if one squints hard enough, to see where this idea comes from. There’s nothing inherently wrong or controlling about monogamy per se; monogamy, by itself, is not necessarily disempowering or ownership-based.

But there is some truth to the notion that monogamy as a cultural norm comes with a set of social expectations that are deeply planted in the soil of ownership of others.

People in our society are expected to believe not just in monogamy, but in a whole set of social expectations that comes along with it. People say things like “you let your wife spend time with other men?” or “you let your husband talk to his ex?” as though it is natural and expected that we should be able to control who our partners interact with. People say things like “I would never allow my partner to masturbate” or “I would never permit my partner to fantasize about other people” as if it is normal to control our partners’ bodies and minds.

Not every monogamous person does this, of course. But these ideas are very commonly attached to our social expectations of monogamy; monogamy as a social institution began in cultures in which ideas of ownership were deeply embedded, and those ideas have proved very tenacious.

There’s a problem, though, in that polyamory is not necessarily any better.

People who live outside the cultural mainstream love to believe that they have escaped the petty social norms that enslave all the other sheeple still trapped in the spider web of normative behavior. In reality, though, cultural ideas have an insidious way of seeping into us even when we’re aware of them. Simply knowing that we were raised in a climate of ownership assumptions about sex and love doesn’t make us immune to internalizing them. In fact, many, many people in the poly community cling just as strongly to paradigms of ownership and control as they believe all those poor “unevolved” monogamous folks do–they simply manifest differently, that’s all.

I’ve been putting some thought to the sneaky ways that social expectations can creep into relationships even when they’re outside the social mainstream. Here are some examples I’ve come up with.

Control paradigm Egalitarian paradigm
I let you have other partners. This is a privilege I grant you. I can tell you who, under what circumstances, when, and how you may have other partners. You are a human being with the right to make your own choices about having other partners. I will tell you what I am comfortable or uncomfortable with, and trust you to make choices that honor and cherish our relationship.

I let you have sex with other people. This is a privilege I grant you. I can tell you how you may or may not have sex or otherwise control the timing or manner of your sexual activity. You have an intrinsic right to make choices about your sexuality. I will communicate you what I am comfortable or uncomfortable with, because I trust you to make choices that honor and cherish our relationship.

My sexual health is your responsibility. I will set limits on your behavior to ensure that you only engage in sexual activity that meets my sexual risk limits. My sexual health is my responsibility. I will communicate to you my sexual health boundaries, risk limits, and concerns. Because your risk limits and concerns may not match mine, you are free to make whatever choices with your own sexual health that you like. If your behavior exceeds my threshold of risk, I have the right to change the sexual relationship between you and I, including adding barriers or even ending it entirely. If having a sexual relationship with me is something you value, you can make choices to remain within my levels of acceptable risk.

I may fetishize your other sexual partners for my gratification. I have the right to tell you how to or not to have sex and/or demand the intimate details of your sexual activites for my sexual gratification. Your sexual activity with other people and your other partners are not merely for my sexual gratification. I will accept your right to choose sexual activities that you and your other partner find fulfilling, and that you and your other partner have a right to privacy about your own intimacy.

If I am sexually attracted to your other partners, it is your responsibility to share them with me. You have an obligation to provide me with access to your partners if I want it.

Your other partners are human beings. As they are not your property, it is not your obligation to make them sexually available to me.
My sexual partners are mine. You are not permitted to express an interest in them; if I want to keep them to myself, this overrides the wishes or desires of both you and my other partners. My other sexual partners are human beings. As they are not my property, I do not have the right to "keep" them; they are people, not things, capable of making their own decisions about sexual intimacy and partner choices.

My fears, insecurities, and jealousy are your responsibility. I have the right to control your behavior and/or the behavior of your other partners in order to manage my fears and insecurities. My fears, insecurities, and jealousy are my responsibility. I have the right to communicate with you about them, and to ask for your help in dealing with them. Because you love and cherish me, you will work with me to help me when I am afraid or insecure. These feelings do not give me the right to dictate your choices, however.

I have the right to ensure that you may have other partners only to the extent that your other partners do not affect me or our relationship. I may limit or control your other relationships so as to make sure they do not affect me. I understand that there are many uncertainties in life. Everything from a new job to being fired to illness to family of origin problems to being hit by a runaway bus may affect our relationship together. When your other partnerships affect me in a way that concerns me, I have the right and the responsibility to communicate with you about it, so that we can work together to address my concerns.

Your other relationships exist only on my say-so and only for so long as I permit. I have the right to order you to terminate any of your other relationships if I feel it is necessary or desirable. Your other partners are people with needs and feelings; they have have the right to explore and develop their relationship with you, to be supported by you, and to expect that their relationship with you will continue for so long as it benefits you and them. I may reasonably expect that they will respect the relationship between you and I; they may reasonably expect that I will respect the relationship between you and them.

Understanding my needs is your responsibility. If you fail to meet my needs or expectations, even if I have not made them explicitly clear, you have wronged me, and I have the right to control your behavior so as to ensure they are met. Understanding my needs is my responsibility. Communicating my needs with you is also my responsibility. You can not be expected to meet any needs of mine that you are not aware of. I may ask for your help in making sure I am taken care of, and trust that you value me and want to take care of my needs.

The relationship between me and your other partner is your responsibility. I may require that you arrange meetings between us, that you keep the other person separate from me, that you ensure I am comfortable with your other partner, or otherwise make it your responsibility to manage the relationship between us.

The relationship I have with your other partner is our responsibility. As I am an adult and your other partner is an adult, it is on each of us to negotiate what kind of relationship we want to have with each other.
I permit you to have other relationships only so long as they are subordinate to me. The people with whom you develop relationships have needs and feelings, and have just as much right as I have to asking your help in meeting them. Should our needs run into conflict, we can come together to communicate and negotiate as adult human beings; I may not claim authority over another human being merely because I met you first.

I have the right to control your emotional engagement with other people. This includes the right to tell you that you may not experience certain emotions (for example, you may not fall in love with another partner) and/or the right to control the extent to which you feel emotions with others.

Your emotional experience is one of the most fundamental parts of who you are as a person. I recognize that it is impossible for us as human beings to place arbitrary controls on our emotions.
I have the right to control how far and to what extent you become entangled with other people. For example, I may forbid you to become financially entangled with other partners. Decisions about how to conduct your life can only be made by you. Realistically, whatever promises you have made and whatever rules I have made, there is nothing short of a shotgun and a length of chain that compels you to stay with me. I have the right to expect that you will uphold agreements you have made with me, and I have the right to expect that your decisions will account for the responsibilities you have incurred with me. Beyond that, I can not realistically lay claim to your autonomy; even if I want to, it is not possible for me to compel your decisions.

I have the right to control your expressions of love, affection, or feelings for others. I may forbid you to give gifts to other partners, do errands with other partners, use certain pet names with other partners, or have certain experiences with other partners. The way you express love is one of the most intimate of all choices you can make. Attempts to dictate how you may or may not do this are not only extremely intrusive, they may undermine the foundations of your other relationships. As long as you express the love you feel for me with me, it is not necessary for me to control your expressions with others.

My emotions are your responsibility. If I feel something that I don’t want to feel.this is your fault, and I may limit your behavior as a result. My emotions are my responsibility. Even when they are surprising or unpleasant, they belong to me. I have the reponsibility to communicate with you about my emotions, and I may ask for your help in feeling loved and supported by you.

I have the right to define your other relationships. As adult human beings, you and your other partners have the right to define your relationship for yourselves.

I have the authority to place your other relationships in a hierarchy of my choosing. As adult human beings, you and your other partners have the right to determine the shape of your relationship. I have the responsibility to communicate my needs to you; as long as you are able and willing to work with me to meet those needs, the ordering of your other relationships is a decision between you and your other partners.

Agreements between you and I are binding on any other partners you may have.

All the people involved have a right to negotiate any agreements that may affect us.

I’m sure there are more. What are your experiences?

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.


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 (More) Thoughts on Brain Modeling and the Coming Geek Rapture

The notion of “uploading”–analyzing a person’s brain and then modeling it, neuron by neuron, in a computer, thereby forever preserving that person’s knowledge and consciousness–is a fixture of transhumanist thought. In fact, self-described “futurists” like Ray Kurzweil will gladly expound at great length about how uploading and machine consciousness are right around the corner, and Any Day Now we will be able to live forever by copying ourselves into virtual worlds.

I’ve written extensively before about why I think that’s overly optimistic, and why Ray Kurzweil pisses me off. Our understanding of the brain is still remarkably poor–for example, we’re only just now learning how brain cells called “glial cells” are involved in the process of cognition–and even when we do understand the brain on a much deeper level, the tools for being able to map the connections between the cells in the brain are still a long way off.

In that particular post, I wrote that I still think brain modeling will happen; it’s just a long way off.

Now, however, I’m not sure it will ever happen at all.

I love cats.

Many people love cats, but I really love cats. It’s hard for me to see a cat when I’m out for a walk without wanting to make friends with it.

It’s possible that some of my love of cats isn’t an intrinsic part of my personality, in the sense that my personality may have been modified by a parasite commonly found in cats.

This is the parasite, in a color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph. Pretty, isn’t it? It’s called Toxoplasma gondii. It’s a single-celled organism that lives its life in two stages, growing to maturity inside the bodies of rats, and reproducing in the bodies of cats.

When a rat is infected, usually by coming into contact with cat droppings, the parasite grows but doesn’t reproduce. Its reproduction can only happen in a cat, which becomes infected when it eats an infected rat.

To help ensure its own survival, the parasite does something amazing. It controls the rat’s mind, exerting subtle changes to make the rat unafraid of cats. Healthy rats are terrified of cats; if they smell any sign of a cat, even a cat’s urine, they will leave an area and not come back. Infected rats lose that fear, which serves the parasite’s needs by making it more likely the rat will be eaten by a cat.

Humans can be infected by Toxoplasma gondii, but we’re a dead end for the parasite; it can’t reproduce in us.

It can, however, still work its mind-controlling magic. Infected humans show a range of behavioral changes, including becoming more generous and less bound by social mores and customs. They also appear to develop an affinity for cats.

There is a strong likelihood that I am a Toxoplasma gondii carrier. My parents have always owned cats, including outdoor cats quite likely to have been exposed to infected rats. So it is quite likely that my love for cats, and other, more subtle aspects of my personality (bunny ears, anyone?), have been shaped by the parasite.

So, here’s the first question: If some magical technology existed that could read the connections between all of my brain cells and copy them into a computer, would the resulting model act like me? If the model didn’t include the effects of Toxoplasma gondii infection, how different would that model be from who I am? Could you model me without modeling my parasites?

It gets worse.

The brain models we’ve built to date are all constructed from generic building blocks. We model neurons as though they are variations on a common theme, responding pretty much the same way. These models assume that the neurons in Alex’s head behave pretty much the same way as the neurons in Bill’s head.

To some extent, that’s true. But we’re learning that there can be subtle genetic differences in the way that neurons respond to different neurotransmitters, and these subtle differences can have very large effects on personality and behavior.

Consider this protein. It’s a model of a protein called AVPR-1a, which is used in brain cells as a receptor for the neurotransmitter called vasopressin.

Vasopressin serves a wide variety of different functions. In the body, it regulates water retention and blood pressure. In the brain, it regulates pair-bonding, stress, aggression, and social interaction.

A growing body of research shows that human beings naturally carry slightly different forms of the gene that produce this particular receptor, and that these tiny genetic differences result in tiny structural differences in the receptor which produce quite significant differences in behavior. For example, one subtle difference in the gene that produces this receptor changes the way that men bond to partners after sex; carriers of this particular genetic variation are less likely to experience intense pair-bonding, less likely to marry, and more likely to divorce if they do marry.

A different variation in this same gene produces a different AVPR-1a receptor that is strongly linked to altruistic behavior; people with that particular variant are far more likely to be generous and altruistic, and the amount of altruism varies directly with the number of copies of a particular nucleotide sequence within the gene.

So let’s say that we model a brain, and the model we use is built around a statistical computation for brain activation based on the most common form of the AVPR-1a gene. If we model the brain of a person with a different form of this gene, will the model really represent her? Will it behave the way she does?

The evidence suggests that, no, it won’t. Because subtle genetic variations can have significant behavioral consequences, it is not sufficient to upload a person using a generic model. We have to extend the model all the way down to the molecular level, modeling tiny variations in a person’s receptor molecules, if we wish to truly upload a person into a computer.

And that leads rise to a whole new layer of thorny moral issues.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that autism spectrum disorders are the result in genetic differences in neuron receptors, too. The same PDF I linked to above cites several studies that show a strong connection between various autism-spectrum disorders and differences in receptors for another neurotransmitter, oxytocin.

Vasopressin and oxytocin work together in complex ways to regulate social behavior. Subtle changes in production, uptake, and response to either or both can produce large, high-level changes in behavior, and specifically in interpersonal behavior–arguably a significant part of what we call a person’s “personality.”

So let’s assume a magic brain-scanning device able to read a person’s brain state and a magic computer able to model a person’s brain. Let’s say that we put a person with Asperger’s or full-blown autism under our magic scanner.

What do we do? Do we build the model with “normal” vasopressin and oxytocin receptors, thereby producing a model that doesn’t exhibit autism-spectrum behavior? If we do that, have we actually modeled that person, or have we created an entirely new entity that is some facsimile of what that person might be like without autism? Is that the same person? Do we have a moral imperative to model a person being uploaded as closely as possible, or is it more moral to “cure” the autism in the model?

In the previous essay, I outlined why I think we’re still a very long ways away from modeling a person in a computer–we lack the in-depth understanding of how the glial cells in the brain influence behavior and cognition, we lack the tools to be able to analyze and quantify the trillions of interconnections between neurons, and we lack the computational horsepower to be able to run such a simulation even if we could build it.

Those are technical objections. The issue of modeling a person all the way down to the level of genetic variation in neurotransmitter and receptor function, however, is something else.

Assuming we overcome the limitations of the first round of problems, we’re still left with the fact that there’s a lot more going on in the brain than generic, interchangeable neurons behaving in predictable ways. To actually copy a person, we need to be able to account for genetic differences in the structure of receptors in the brain…

…and even if we do that, we still haven’t accounted for the fact that organisms like Toxoplasma gondii can and do change the behavior of the brain to suit their own ends. (I would argue that a model of me that was faithful clear down to the molecular level probably wouldn’t be a very good copy if it didn’t include the effects that the parasite have had on my personality–effects that we still have no way to quantify.)

Sorry, Mr. Kurzweil, we’re not there yet, and we’re not likely to be any time soon. Modeling a specific person in a brain is orders of magnitude harder than you think it is. At this point, I can’t even say with certainty that I think it will ever happen.

New poster: Relationship Skills, Take 2

Since I offered up the first go-round of a poster design promoting relationship skills I’ve found to be incredibly valuable in happy, successful relationships, I’ve received a great deal of helpful feedback.

I’ve redesigned the poster, taking a lot of that feedback into account. It’s been tightened up considerably, some of the principles have been changed, the design has been tinkered with, and generally it’s been greatly improved by your thoughts and comments. So, thanks!

Here’s the new version:

I’ve also created an entry for it on my online store; you can actually order copies of it now! The poster is 16″ x 20″ (smaller than the Map of Human Sexuality, which is a monster), and printed on very heavy semi-gloss paper. Barring any major last-minute edits, it will be going in for printing tomorrow, which means I will be able to start shipping it early next week.

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.

New poster: Relationship Principles (I wish I had learned in kindergarten)

On a mailing list I read, I recently wrote an article summarizing the basic things about relationships that I wish I had learned in elementary school. Several folks have suggested I make it into a poster. Here’s a first go-round of a poster version, which I plan to have printed if there’s enough interest. Let me know what you think!

The principles themselves are:

You can not expect to have what you want if you do not ask for what you want.

Just because you feel bad doesn’t necessarily mean someone did something wrong.

Just because you feel good doesn’t necessarily mean that what you’re doing is right.

Integrity matters—not for the people around you, but for you.

Life rewards people who move in the direction of greatest courage.

An expectation on your part does not incur an obligation on someone else’s.

When you feel something scary or unpleasant, talk about it.

Your partners add value to your life; treat them preciously.

Make sure your partner’s heart is safe in your hands.

The easiest way to attract people with the qualities you desire is to be the sort of person that someone with those qualities finds interesting.

People are not commodities.

There are a whole lot of things your partner will do that are Not About You.

Different people express love in different ways; learn to recognize the way your partner speaks of love, so that you know it when you see it.

Don’t treat people the way you’d have them treat you; treat them the way they’d have you treat them.

Pay attention.

We are all born of frailty and error; it is important that we forgive one another’s failings reciprocally.

Being in a relationship that does not meet your needs is not necessarily better than being alone.

Love is abundant.

It is not necessary to be the best at everything, nor even the best at anything; alone of all the people in the world, only you bring your unique mix of qualities to the table.

Relationships entered into from conscious choice are often more rewarding than ones entered into out of default assumptions.

Don’t play games, especially with other people’s hearts.

The things you think are important when you’re theorizing about relationships are not always the things that turn out to be important.

Be flexible.

A relationship with a partner who chooses, every day, to be with you is more satisfying than a relationship with a partner who is with you because he or she can’t leave.

Real security comes from within.

People are not need fulfillment machines.

Don’t look to others to complete you.

Change is a part of life.

Occasionally, you will feel awkward, uncomfortable, or both; that’s normal, and not something to be feared.

We are all lousy at predicting how we will respond to new or unfamiliar situations.

When you hurt someone—and you will—suck it up, take responsibility for it, and do whatever you can to make it right.

There will be times when relationships end; it doesn’t mean they were a failure, or that the other person is a bad person.

Your heart will, at some point, almost certainly be broken, and that’s okay; you will survive, and find love again.

Feelings are not fact.

Fear of intimacy is the enemy of happiness.

The times when compassion is the most difficult are the times when it’s most necessary.

Don’t vilify those who hurt you; they are still people, too.

It is possible to deeply, profoundly love someone to the bottom of your heart and still not be a good partner for that person.

Being uncomfortable is not , by itself, a reason not to do something.

It is almost impossible to be generous or compassionate if all you feel is fear of loss.

The world is the way it is, not the way we want it to be.

Life’s song is filled with beauty and chaos and joy and sorrow and pain and uncertainty and ecstasy and heartache and passion; to fear any of these things is to fear life.

Benchmarks for Good Relationships

On another forum I read, the subject of how to tell whether or not a relationship is a good one–benchmarks, if you will, for positive, vibrant relationships–was raised.

I put some thought to the question of creating benchmarks for good relationships, and came up with this set:

1. Am I striving to treat others with compassion, even when it’s hard? Am I being treated with compassion?

2. Does this relationship offer me the opportunity to grow and develop in the way that feeds me and makes me happy? Does it offer the same opportunities to all the other people involved?

3. Am I moving with courage in this relationship? Are the people around me moving with courage?

4. Does this relationship help me to be the best possible version of myself? When I look around at the other folks involved, do I see the best of them?

5. Can I say whatever I need to say, whenever I need to say it, and have a reasonable expectation that I will be heard and understood? Am I creating an environment where everyone else can tell me what they need to say, even if it’s something I don’t want to hear, and I will hear it?

6. Is this relationship fair to everyone concerned? Not “fair” as in “everyone gets the same thing,” but “fair” in that “everyone has a hand in the relationship, everyone’s voice can be heard, and everyone has the ability to help build the things that make their parts of it happy and healthy.”

7. Does this relationship give all the people involved the opportunity and support they need to pursue their joy?

This is a first stab at the question of defining benchmarks for good relationships. I think there might be some things I’m missing. Opinions? What would a list of benchmarks for healthy relationships look like to you?

Complicit in a Complicity

Since I first moved to Oregon, one of the things I’ve been most struck by is the quantity and quality of the scenic natural beauty around here, which the state leaves carelessly lying all over the place. It’s been part of life since the move, so it’s fitting that when zaiah and I decided to have a commitment ceremony, we would do it in a place that had a particular abundance of it lying about.

The place we chose was the ruins of an old stone cottage in a large park here in Portland. This particular park has a ruined stone cottage a short hike from the road, that we thought might make a lovely place for a gathering of friends and family.

We first started mooting the idea of a commitment ceremony about a year or so before it happened. One of the things that was important to both of us was the idea of a ceremony that wasn’t just about the two of us, but that was about our entire extended networks. Being part of a polyamorous network can be a bit tricky, sometimes, in that there is a tension between dividing up into couples and honoring all of the people who are important to you. zaiah and I wanted a ceremony that showed our commitment to each other, but also to the people we have chosen to make part of our families.

Even the name we chose, borrowed from figmentj, was an expression of the fact that this is something that involves all of us. Rather than a commitment ceremony, we opted to call it a “complicity,” and to make everyone who attended an accomplice in our union.

Not everyone in our extended networks was able to show up. In particular, my sweeties emanix and figmentj weren’t able to be there. A lot of people did make the trek out to Portland, though, including my entire Florida network–people I don’t get to see nearly often enough.

We gathered together and hiked out to the ruins of the stone cottage. Along the way, we passed over a small foot bridge where someone unknown had written good wishes on strips of masking tape and placed them on the path.

I have no idea who wrote this, or why, but I think these are good sentiments.

As I’ve mentioned, Oregon is known for the abundance and exuberance of the scenic natural beauty it manufactures and scatters about the landscape. Even the walk up to the stone cottage was drenched in it, which can be a bit disorienting for folks from places like Florida, where scenic natural beauty is kept tightly guarded and is sold in small parcels by licensees of the Disney corporation. The Florida part of the network paused along the way to recover from the onslaught of gorgeous, which they had developed little natural resistance to.

That’s my sweetie joreth, her boyfriend and my former archnemesis turned apprentice datan0de, my partner Shelly, datan0de‘s wife femetal, redheadlass, and her partner zensidhe. These are folks who have been my family for a decade or more, datan0de‘s attempts to eradicate me, destroy the world, and crush all of you beneath the massive iron treads of his robotic war machines notwithstanding.

When they had recovered sufficiently, we finished the journey out to the stone cottage. We’d tried to be selective in the number of folks we’d invited to this part of the Complicity, but it was still a bit of a tight fit.

My friend edwardmartiniii graciously agreed to oversee the whole shebang, and did an absolutely fantastic job of it. Here, he is seen at the start of the Complicity asking for volunteers to be given over to the Great Old Ones, so as to appease them and call down their blessing of protection upon all who attended. My friend Amanda volunteered; I’m sure going to miss her.

KIDDING! I’m kidding. Of course I jest. There were no sacrifices to gods ancient or modern; for one thing, where would we even find a virgin these days?

Why yes, don’t mind if I do!

One fo the central parts of the ceremony involved passing out dollar coins, which everyone made a positive wish on and then placed in a container. As people left, they drew out a coin, to bring into the world with them with a wish for good things.

I like the idea of mindfully passing out something which represents a desire for good. The wish itself may not have any material effect on the coin–there is no metallurgic Transubstantiation at work here–but the idea that this represents something is a powerful one, I think.

A part of the ceremony that we’d planned for quite some time was the creation of human Langdon charts, using lengths of rope to indicate the connections between the various people there.

What we hadn’t really counted on was the size and complexity of the network, and how much space (and rope!) it would require. Plus, with not all of our sweeties in attendance, it would have been impossible to create a full chart anyway.

But we were able to map out bits of it. Here are zaiah and I with the Florida part of the Squiggle:

We also did Langdon charts centered only on certain parts of the network. Here’s zaiah‘s Portland portion of the network:

Here’s the bit that centers on me, with the partners who were able to make it (emanix and figmentj, you were both sorely missed!):

It’s fascinating to me how human communities of all sorts tend to follow the same structure. If you map romantic connections in poly networks, or business contacts on Linkedin, or friends networks in a large company, you see the same patterns emerging: most folks have small numbers of connections, with a smaller number of people forming large numbers of connections that act as bridges between different groups. There’s something really interesting lurking somewhere in there. I’d love to make some software that lets people easily and quickly create charts of their poly networks, and then analyzes the network and puts the data into a database somewhere.

I still like the idea of doing photographic Langdon charts. I’d very much love, if everyone in my network could ever get together in one place, to do a photo that shows all of us. Perhaps if I suddenly find myself receiving a suitcase full of cash from shadowy government figures in exchange for, like, foiling a plot to hold the moon for ransom or something, I will fly all of us out to Easter Island to do a picture with all those funky statues of giant heads. Or, less ambitiously, maybe I’ll just register or something. (Anyone know a good database programmer?)

But I digress.

I won’t say that I am lucky to live the life I do. I don’t think that’s accurate, for reasons that I outline here. But I will say that I am profoundly grateful for, and humbled by, the people who I have chosen to be my family, and who have chosen me as well. These are all people who, every day, make my life richer simply by being who they are.