The Evolutionary Root of the Internet Hate Machine

Your Rage is a Commodity

Faces in the Crowd: Tampa, Florida, late 1990s (photo by author)

You do not love all humankind.

This is a fact. It’s written into your biology. There is a limit, coded into the size and structure of your brain, on the number of people you can form close, personal connections to, or even remember as individuals before they start to blur into faces in a crowd. That is, I think, is one of the things that makes the online world so toxic, though perhaps not in the way you might think.

Before I get into why social media is so toxic, let’s talk about that limit. It’s called Dunbar‘s Number, named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar. The basic idea is there’s a specific, quantifiable number on the close interpersonal connections—not passing acquaintances, not faces in a crowd, but meaningful social interconnections—you can make. People debate exactly what this number is (and some anthropologists have questioned the validity of research that extrapolates from other primates to humans), but the most commonly accepted figure is in the neighborhood of 150 people or so—which tracks nicely with the size of early hunter/gatherer tribes.

That means we all have emotional space for somewhere around 150 people in our inner orbits. Again, these aren’t acquaintances—they’re your family, your friends, your lovers, your confidantes, the people you have a genuinely close connection to. Above this number, people tend to become faces in a crowd. You don’t fundamentally connect with people outside your inner orbit the way you do with people inside your inner orbit. You can’t. Regardless of whether your own personal limit is, 150 people or 200 people or 147 people or whatever, at some point you lose the ability to form independent, differentiable emotional connections. With eight billion humans on the planet, you can’t even remember everyone’s name!

That worked fine when we all lived in small tribes of a couple hundred people at most. Things started getting a little weird when human social groups got bigger than that. We had to invent surrogates for those close personal connections: governments, religions, structures that could impose boundaries on our behavior…because make no mistake, we hold very different standards for how it’s acceptable to treat people inside our personal spheres and outside them.

And that sorta worked for a long time, though at a cost. When you replace individual connections to people you know with abstract bonds with members of your religion or your city-state or your nation—in other words, with a group of people you’ve mostly never met—it becomes easy for people to hijack that apparatus and tell you who to love and who to hate. Instead of your tribe being defined by personal connections, it becomes directed for you from the top down: your in-group and out-group are defined not by people you personally know and trust, but by the hierarchy that directs these abstract groups.

Remember how you’re hard-wired to behave differently toward people within your personal sphere and outside it? Yeah, that. If someone convinces you that all members of your religion or your city-state are inside your sphere and everyone else is outside it, then getting you to trust people you shouldn’t trust, or commit acts of atrocity against people who’ve done you no harm, gets a whole lot easier.

It doesn’t help, too, that when you start dealing with people outside your inner circle, you have to make hasty group generalizations, which means you start judging entire groups of people based on superficial characteristics. So there’s that.

Being Human in an Age of Social Media

If our evolutionary heritage didn’t prepare us for living in groups bigger than a couple hundred people or so, it definitely didn’t prepare us for social media.

There are eight billion of us sharing space on this planet. Eight billion. That’s a number of people literally, not figuratively, impossible to grasp emotionally. We cannot really even imagine eight billion people.

Most of us live in enormous societies several orders of magnitude larger than the hundred and fifty to two hundred our brains evolved to cope with, so we create our own little subcommunities, social circles, networks of family and friends.

Social media gives us an easy, low-friction way to interact with other people. Problem is, interactions on social media feel like in-person interactions, but they aren’t. You’re presenting, and interacting with, carefully curated personas. Social media makes it much easier to curate these personas than it is in person—we choose what we show and what we share. And, importantly, it’s easy for us to hide things.

So we end up feeling like we have genuine connections with people we don’t actually know. We know only a carefully constructed facade, but to our emotional selves, to the parts of us that define our family, our tribe, these connections seem genuine.

Psychologists have a name for this: parasocial relationships. We become invested in people on social media, people who might not actually share a connection with us, who might not even know us at all except as a name on a follower list.

The thing about parasocial relationships is they occupy a slot in our inner sphere, even though they are not, in fact, genuine close relationships.

And that, I think, is a huge part of why the Internet is such a hate machine.

Mass-Produced Synthetic Rage

The Internet is a hate machine, fine-tuned to manufacture outrage in industrial quantities. Part of that is deliberate engineering, of course. Engagement drives revenue. Waving pitchforks and screaming for the heads of the heathens is “engagement.” Outrage sells, so Adam Smith’s ruthless invisible hand has shaped social media into high-efficiency outrage generation machines.

Early pioneers wanted to use the power of this globe-spanning, always-on communications network to bring people together. Looking back, that seems charmingly naïve, though in fairness it wasn’t obvious back then that anger would be more profitable. Who knew?

What happens when you fill up slots in your inner sphere with parasocial relationships—with people you genuinely feel a sincere connection to, but you don’t actually know?

You become easy to manipulate.

You feel a bond to a person you don’t know, whose motives you can never be certain of, who has an entire life lived away from social media. This person is part of your inner circle, and part of that evolutionary heritage I was talking about is that you are predisposed to believe things people in your inner circle tell you. You are descended from a long line of ancestors who were part of a tribe. For our early ancestors, losing their tribe meant death. We are descended from people who survived—the ones who did not get expelled from their tribes. Accepting the values, beliefs, and worldview of the people in your inner circle is wired into your genes.

So when someone who is part of your social media inner circle tells you someone else is a bad person, you’re disposed to believe it without question. When your social media tribe tells you who to hate, you do it. Yes, I mean you. You think you’re far more rational and less tribalistic than all those other people. You’re wrong.

Now consider that in the age of COVID over the past few years, more people are getting more of those social needs met online, and consider the digital generation growing up in a world where parasocial interaction is the norm, and, well, things get weird. How could social media become anything but a hate machine?

And, ironically, spaces that consider themselves “loving” and “welcoming” and “safe” are especially prone to this, because a great deal of in-group/out-group policing is done on the basis of feelings of comfort and safety; if someone tells you that someone else says that so-and-so is a bad person, you want to keep your space loving and safe, right? And it can’t be loving and safe if it has bad people in it, right? There’s only one thing for it: we must lovingly band together to drive out the evil among us.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a manipulator

The thing about parasocial interactions is your brain really wasn’t meant for them. You tend, when you interact with someone one or two steps removed, to see only a curated version of them—but at the same time, emotionally, the ancient parts of your brain will respond as if this was a person who’s a member of your family, who you can trust implicitly.

Believe me, that creates some really messed-up opportunities for things to go wrong.

The people you see on social media may have an agenda you’re completely unaware of. As a particularly vivid case, I know of one person who attempted to take over a conference that had been running for many years. She simply tried to walk up and start hosting a new conference using the same name, same trademark, everything. (This sort of thing is more common than you think. There comes a point in the normal development of any subculture or subcommunity when a tipping point is reached; once the community grows to a certain size, it’s easier to make a name for yourself by stealing someone else’s work than by doing the work yourself.)

When her attempted hijacking didn’t succeed, and the conference organizers informed her they would defend their trademark legally if necessary, well…Internet hate machine. She started so many rumors and accusations about the existing conference (each one laughably simple to debunk by itself, but quantity has a quality all its own…where there’s smoke, there must be fire, not someone running around with a smoke pot yelling “Fire! Fire!”, right?), the Internet hate machine did what it does best. The internetverse whipped itself into such a frothing frenzy, people unconnected with anyone remotely related to the conference started sending threats of violence to people scheduled to speak at the conference. It got so bad, the organizers had to cancel.

I might say here that if one person you’ve never met in person but know on the Internet tells you that another person you’ve never met but know on the Internet is a bad person and therefore you should send threats of violence to a whole set of other people you’ve never met but know on the Internet, you’ve completely lost the plot…yet here we are. The thing is, the nature of the Internet and your legacy evolutionary heritage makes this kind of thing feel right. It feels natural. It feels righteous and just.

You are a tribal being. We all are. It’s a fact of our biology. Social media is engineered to produce rage, because rage gathers clicks, and emotions like fear and anger make you less rational. Add that to the fact you’re already inclined to accept people into your inner circle you’ve never met because interactions on social media feel convincingly authentic, and it’s a perfect storm. People can manipulate you and make you feel righteous about it.

None of these problems is unique to the internet, of course, but the parasociality inherent in the Internet makes the problem much worse. And, of course, knowing that the Twitter hordes with the torches and pitchforks might turn them on you if you fail to pick up a torch or a pitchfork and rally to the cause when you’re told to, really doesn’t help.

Don’t be a sucker

What’s the solution?

I don’t know. I wish I did. I’d like to say it’s as easy as fact-checking and being aware, but it’s not. Your fact-checking is emotionally biased by in-group/out-group dynamics. Being aware that you can be manipulated doesn’t help as much as you might think, because awareness is so intellectual and manipulation is so emotional. It’s hard to stop and say “hey, wait a minute” when what you’re being told feels right. That feeling is exactly the Achilles’ heel I’m talking about.

So yeah, don’t be a sucker, but that requires constant vigilance, and the ability to go against the grain of the pitchfork-wielding mob. A lot of folks just plain aren’t prepared to do that.

So I don’t necessarily have a solution, but I will leave you with this:

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

Image: Adam Nemeroff

A frantic flight

A bit over three weeks ago, I got a frantic call from my dad. My mom had been hospitalized after she complained of a headache and then collapsed. The doctors, he said, were investigating, but didn’t yet know what was wrong.

A few hours later, he called back choked up. “You better get down here,” he said. The doctors had found an aneurysm and rushed her into emergency surgery. The surgeon was unable to repair the aneurysm because her arteries were too fragile. She was not expected to survive.

I made the fastest plane reservation I could find. A day and a half later, I was in the air, headed to Florida. I met my wife at the airport and we went to my parents’ house in Cape Coral, where I’d lived from the time I was in high school until I moved out for good, nearly 40 years ago.

Florida is, I’m told, the world’s #5 hotspot for COVID-19. Southwest Florida is deep, deep Trump territory: pickups with enormous “TRUMP 2020” flags, huge “Trump!” signs along the side of the road, and not a mask in sight. These people believe, I mean really believe, that COVID-19 is a Democrat hoax and masks are a ommunist plot.

And they’re dying for that belief. Visiting my mom in the hospital was like stepping into the set of a disaster movie, or maybe a developing nation. So many patients, the hospital was parking people on stretchers in the halls.

By the time I got to the hospital to see her, my mom had been moved out of the ICU, because, they said, they had 30 people in line for that bed behind her. When I visited, she was awake and alert, and her mind was still as sharp as always. (She had some scorching things to say about late-stage capitalism vis-à-vis American healthcare, in fact.)

She improved rapidly over the next few days. When her doctor was convinced she was no longer bleeding internally, he sent her home–not because she was ready to come home, but because they needed the bed.

My mom has two gorgeous Tonkinese cats.

Her cats were overjoyed to see her, even though she was weak AF.

My sister, my wife, my dad, and I all helped care for her. The doctors had told us to expect the worst–“She could go to sleep and never wake up,” her surgeon said–but my mom is a resilient woman and she doesn’t follow anyone’s script. I went down to Florida believing I would never see her again, but it turns out it’s dangerous to count her out of anything.

five days after being released from the hospital, she was already up and around, reading and cuddling with her cats.

Two weeks after she was released from the hospital, you’d never know there’d been anything wrong with her.

Health care professionals are still visiting her at home–they did release her from the hospital way before they should have, after all–but man, I gotta say, my mom is awesome.

Her cats decided my jacket was theirs.

The entire time I’ve been down here, we played a game called “Franklin moves his jacket somewhere the cats can’t get to it and the cats find it and sleep on it.”

The kitchen in my parents’ house has recessed, indirect lighting in the ceiling. Whenever I went to cook, one of her cats, Thelma (they’re called Thelma and Louise, for reasons that are obvious when you meet them), would jump from floor to chair to counter to refrigerator to lightwell and sit in the lightwell watching me. Silently judging me. Inspecting all that I did, which clearly did not rise to her standards.


I am not very good at handling grief. My girlfriend Zaiah says I share emotions like joy and excitement easily, but I have very little experience with things like sadness and grief.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I’ve never lost someone close to me. I’ve never attended a funeral. I think few people my age have been so fortunate.

My parents are both in their 80s. There will come a time when they are no longer here. The older I get, the more grateful I am to them; they did a bang-up job raising me. Even though I only see them once every few years or so, I’m still not sure I’m ready for a world without them.

Right now I’m in Orlando with my wife, working on an RV we hope to drive cross country late this year, stopping at abandoned amusement parks to do photography along the way. Next week I fly back to Portland.

I am so incredibly relieved that my mom is doing well that I can’t even express it in words. I am profoundly grateful for the time I’ve been able to spend with her.

Mom, you’re awesome. Thank you. For everything.

Some thoughts on being fifty

Three days ago, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the car in which that happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#WLAMF no. 13: Zaiah

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

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

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


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

More Than Two blog post: Coming full circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the full post here.

Intermission: Some thoughts on love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is precisely what makes it so valuable.

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

Some thoughts on love and sacrifice

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

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

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

And I find this argument to be very problematic indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cucumbers of Wrath: “Fairness” in Poly Relationships

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

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

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


OF GRAPES AND CUCUMBERS

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

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

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

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

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

GRAPES AND HIERARCHY

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

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

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

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

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

SEPARATING THE GRAPES FROM THE CHAFF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Care and Feeding of Giraffes


Image: Luca Galuzzi, Wikimedia Commons

I am in love with a dragonslayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Some thoughts on connection and love

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

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


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

Sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, we did intersect for that short while.

Which started me to thinking about love.


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

That’s kind of how it is with love.

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

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


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

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

And yet, there it is.

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

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

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

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


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

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

And yet…

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

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

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