100 Things

From an answer to a Quora question: 100 random facts about me.

  1. I can’t cross a street at a crosswalk without the music from the agent training scene in The Matrix playing in my head.
  2. I don’t know how to swim.
  3. It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 1: I made a homebrew diving bell when I was a kid. My parents moved to Florida when I was 14, and our house had a swimming pool. I hate being wet, and I don’t know how to swim, but I love making things, so when I found a big 12-volt air compressor at a surplus store, I was like “I know! I’ll make a diving bell!” I cut a slot in a 5-gallon pickle bucket, hot-glued a flexible bit of plastic over it, ran a hose from the compressor to the bucket, put a 12-volt car battery on the edge of the pool, and went diving. I didn’t think about the fact that the air always smelled of oil, meaning I was probably inhaling some nasty hydrocarbons, nor about the fact that if I somehow passed out or something I’d probably die.
  4. Speaking of not liking to be wet, I have a condition called “congenital thermal allodynia,” inherited from my mother, which means I perceive changes in temperature as pain.
  5. I also have a weird mutation inherited from my mother that mens I’m highly resistant to local anesthetics in the lidocaine family. My mother has it even worse—she’s essentially immune to most local anesthetics. This makes visiting the dentist about as fun as you might imagine.
  6. I really love cats. Somehow, they know. It’s hard for me to go anywhere without any cat that sees me wanting to come over and be my friend. I was once at a client’s home office installing a new computer. My client’s cat kept watching me from the door. My client was like “She won’t come any closer, it took two years before she let my husband pet her.” By the time I was done with the install, the cat was curled up asleep in my lap. (Zaiah says it’s because I interact with cats as equals, not animals or pets.)
  7. I lost my virginity in a threesome.
  8. I’ve never been in a monogamous relationship—not once in my entire life.
  9. I took two dates to my high school senior prom.
  10. I’m straight, which I consider a bug, not a feature. I resent the fact that half of the human sexual experience is forever closed to me. If there were a magic pill that could make straight people bisexual, I’d take it in a heartbeat.
  11. I started programming computers in 1977.
  12. I saw Star Wars on opening night, also in 1977.
  13. I’ve had a vasectomy. I got it in 2001. I had an appointment to go to the diagnostic lab to make sure I was shooting blanks on…September 11, 2001. Yes, seriously. The lab was tiny, with only a small waiting room that didn’t even have a television. A member of the staff had brought in a little battery powered TV and set it up on the reception counter, and a bunch of people—staff and patients—were crowded around watching news about the World Trade Center attacks. It made it really hard to produce the sample.
  14. I design sex toys as a hobby. I make them in a 3D rendering program on my computer, print molds on a 3D printer, and pour silicone into the molds.
  15. I own a patent—US 10265240—on a sensor-equipped strapon that stimulates the wearer so that the wearer can feel touch on the strapon.
  16. For years I was into black and white photography, seriously enough that I had a darkroom in my house. I often asked random people I met if they’d let me photograph them. The answer, more often than not, was yes.
  17. I have seven years of university but only have an undergraduate degree. That said, things I’ve written have been used as teaching materials in graduate-level courses, and I’ve been cited by academics. That’s…flattering and also frustrating.
  18. I only have an undergraduate degree because I changed major five times in my first six years of university. Everything interests me. (Well, everything except sports. And knitting.)
  19. It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 2: I used to free-climb buildings as a hobby. I started in my first year at university and kept doing it through my mid-30s.
  20. At one point in my life I was so heavily into aikido I did a six-week aikido intensive that involved a study session and two mat sessions a day, seven days a week. I belonged to a dojo in Sarasota for years.
  21. I used to own two PDP-11s, an 11/03 and an 11/24. I set them up in my college dorm room, which was a bit…problematic because the power draw caused some weird problems with the dorm electrical supply. (We discovered the circuit breakers in our dorm were defective when we tripped the branch circuit that fed power to the entire dorm.) Later, I moved them into the first apartment I shared with my ex-wife. She called them “Washer” and “Dryer” because they lived in the utility room. We didn’t have a washer and dryer, but hey, we had two PDPs!
  22. As a kid, before my family moved to Florida, I lived in a tiny town called Venango in Nebraska. When we lived there, the town had 242 people in it. The entire school, kindergarten through high school, had fewer than 50 students.
  23. In Nebraska, I was super into model rocketry as a hobby. I designed and built my own rockets, including some exotics like boost gliders.
  24. I was once heavily involved in the small-press ‘zine scene, in the early 90s. I helped publish a number of underground magazines, including Mythagoras, The Caffeine Quarterly, and Xero Magazine.
  25. One of my websites, xeromag dot com, started out life as the site for Xero Magazine. The magazine hasn’t published an issue in twenty years or so, and the site has grown into a weird mix of photography, kink, philosophy, and other stuff.
  26. I once set myself on fire during a bottle rocket fight with a bunch of friends. (Nobody ever said I was terribly smart about such things.) Burned my favorite T-shirt.
  27. I have a pattern of running into famous people by accident…literally. I ran into Sam Walton at a Walmart. (I was buying a case of oil for my car, which had a leak. He was inspecting the store. I came around the end of the aisle and walked right into him. Bam, bottles of oil everywhere.) I ran into James “The Amazing” Randi at a hotel. (I was carrying a sewing machine. He was coming off the elevator. I ran right into him and almost dropped the sewing machine on his foot. He handled it with fantastic grace and humor.) I ran into William Shatner at a convention. (I was leaving the bathroom, he was coming in, neither of us was watching where we were going, wham. He’s shorter than I thought.)
  28. Even though I’m not religious, I love old churches. I’ve attended Mass at Notre Dame and at St. Peter’s in Vatican City. I’ve been to the Church on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia; climbed the 409 steps to the roof of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Gdańsk, Poland; been atop the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland; sexted in Old North Church in Boston, the place where the Railroad headquarters is hidden in Fallout 4; and done a cosplay photo shoot in Lincoln Cathedral in Lincolnshire, England.
  29. When I was in elementary school, I wrote a letter to the President, suggesting the idea of putting cameras on kites and flying them over cities to look for criminals. I reasoned, naively, that if people knew there were cameras all around, they wouldn’t commit crimes. I got back a polite letter on White House stationery thanking me for my idea.
  30. Speaking of kites: When I was a kid, I was also into kite fighting. (You use dual-string kites with a sharp spar on the nose and powdered glass on the string to try to destroy, cripple, or cut the lines of your opponent’s kites.) Under most kite fighting rules, if you capture an opponent’s kite by tangling and then cutting its strings, you keep the captured kite. I decorated my bedroom wall with captured kites.
  31. I love dancing. Goth/industrial and fusion blues, mostly. I’m not terribly good at it, but I love it.
  32. I took a course in chess theory in university. It didn’t help. I’m still a rubbish player.
  33. Perhaps surprisingly, I have a bit of a nudity taboo. I am deeply uncomfortable being naked around people who aren’t intimate partners—and sometimes even then. My partners know this about me and love pressing that button—for example, by ‘making’ me go nude in places like public dungeons or BDSM conventions.
  34. One of my websites, the More Than Two site, is archived by the Library of Congress as a site of significant literary, cultural, or historical significance.
  35. My favorite city in the world is Tallinn, in Estonia.
  36. I wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Adolph Hitler. My grandmother came to the US from Germany after the Nazis rose to power, and met my grandfather here.
  37. I’ve been skydiving. I found it boring. A couple minutes of unpleasant wind in your face and then several minutes of “here I am, hanging under the canopy…look, that’s the ground down there…still hanging here…look, the ground is a little bit closer now, doot doot doo…”
  38. There was a time in my life I could code in Z-80 Assembly about as fast as I could type.
  39. I once carried a duffel bag full (as in completely full to the top) of dildos through TSA. No, they weren’t mine. I was carrying them for a friend. A duffel bag full of dildos weighs way more than you think it does. Silicone is heavy.
  40. I was once involuntarily and non-consensually dosed with methamphetamine at a swinger convention. One of the worst nights of my life. Meth sucks. If I live to be two centuries old I will never understand why people take that shit voluntarily, knowing the ride they’re signing up for.
  41. It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 3: Driving down Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa one day, I hit a small but heavy object that fell off the car in front of me. I still don’t know what it was, but it was maybe baseball-sized and heavy enough to destroy both driver-side tires and put a huge dent in the front rim. Amazingly, my car (a Honda del Sol) didn’t even swerve out of its lane.
  42. Whilst I was in the shop getting the car fixed after that, I sat in the waiting room reading Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin. An elderly lesbian couple in their 70s sat down next to me and one of them started talking to me about how Anaïs Nin was her favorite writer. The whole thing was adorable.
  43. I play chess (badly) and pool (badly). I used to be able to shoot darts reasonably well—-well enough that I had a rather nice set of tungsten soft tips I would bring with me to the local biker bar to shoot almost every weekend—but those days are gone.
  44. I am a shy extrovert.
  45. I started writing on the Web in 1997. Back then, the world was a quite different place; you had to pay quite a bit more for web hosting, and also pay for bandwidth.
  46. I created one of the first polyamory sites on the web. Montel Williams did one of the first mass-media talk show episodes about polyamory, a fact I learned when I woke up to find my site flattened and a huge honking bill for bandwidth from my hosting provider.
  47. I met my co-author at an orgy in a castle in France. I wrote the first paragraph of what became the first novel we wrote together on her naked back at a different orgy in Lincolnshire.
  48. I love inventing wildly impractical things. For my girlfriend Maxine’s birthday party, I connected a single-chip EEG to a Ruben’s tube (a tube with a row of fire jets along it that change in response to sound), so that you could change the patterns of fire just by thinking about it. I did not, sadly, think to get video.
  49. I used to have a darkroom in my house, back in the day when I was into film photography.
  50. I wrote a video game for the TRS-80, Master Blaster, with a high school friend. It was a sort of vertical Space Invaders/Galaga-style shooting game, only you move up and down along the left hand edge of the screen rather than back and forth along the bottom. I released it free on TRS-80 BBS systems. It…wasn’t very popular.
  51. Speaking of BBS systems, I ran a BBS for several years back in the late 80s and early 90s, called a/L/T/E/R r/E/A/L/I/T/Y. It ran on a TRS-80 Model 4, and was popular with writers and artists. You can find three years of archives of a/L/T/E/R r/E/A/L/I/T/Y on Textfiles.com.
  52. I wrote a terminal emulator program for the TRS-80 that emulated a Televideo 920c terminal, which I used to log into the DECsystem-20 from my dorm room during my first year at university. I released it for free on TRS-80 BBS systems, and unexpectedly got a rather nice check in the mail one day from a guy who’d found it and installed it on systems where he worked. He included a letter that explained that he had a TRS-80 and a terminal for accessing the mainframe on every desk at his place of business, and the emulator program let him get rid of all the terminals.
  53. I am completely heterosexual. I think that’s unfortunate, because I really like sex, and being stubbornly straight takes half the human sexual experience off the table. If someone invented a magic pill that would let you decide your sexual orientation, I’d choose to be bi.
  54. My first car was a Volkswagen Bug, and I loved it so much my third car was also a Volkswagen Bug. At one point I could drop the engine out of a Bug by myself in under 15 minutes. I still remember the VIN of my second Bug (1122609696),
  55. I once participated in a threesome in a van on a train under the English Channel.
  56. When I was a kid, my parents knew I loved sci-fi (Star Trek was my favorite TV show, Star Wars my favorite movie), so when I was like 12 or so they took me to see Alien, thinking it was just another sci-fi movie like Star Wars. I had nightmares about the alien from Alien for the next 35 years. (That’s not an exaggeration.)
  57. Despite that, Aliens is my second-favorite movie…
  58. …after The Matrix…
  59. …with The Princess Bride in third place.
  60. I once helped the FBI build a case against a group of computer hackers responsible for a piece of malware called W32/Zlob, after I wrote a blog post about a large-scale hack of an Internet hosting company called iPower Web, as a result of which I received a rather nice reward.
  61. For many years, when I lived in Tampa, I had a pet snake, a boa constrictor named Eris.
  62. I drink a lot of tea. A LOT of tea. I buy it by the case. I don’t drink as much as my crush/co-author Eunice or my girlfriend Maxine, but I drink a lot of tea for a normal person who isn’t British, and even quite a lot by British standards.
  63. I got into model rocketry as a kid when a friend of my father’s had his son go off to college. The son decided not to keep up with rocketry, so he gifted me all his equipment: launch pad, launch controllers, engines, parts, everything. I was totally blown away; I couldn’t believe someone would just give away all their gear like that. Years later, after my family moved to Florida and I got out of model rocketry, I gave all my stuff—launch pads, controllers, engines, materials, everything—to a neighborhood kid.
  64. I spin fire. I took beanbag poi and fire poi on the European book tour. We went out one evening in Edinburgh and I thought about taking my poi, then said nah, what are the odds of randomly coming across people spinning poi? Walking through a park, we came across—you guessed it—a group of people spinning poi.
  65. It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 4: Me, my best friend, and his girlfriend at the time were out in my Volkswagen Bug in the middle of nowhere, where my friend was trying to teach me the particularly tricky heel/toe/emergency brake maneuver required to do a fast turn using the emergency brake. I went into the turn way, way, way, way too fast, and so the Bug promptly went up on two wheels and slid sideways down the road about 60 feet. (We measured later by the two black skidmarks I left in the asphalt.) It ripped both tires on the passenger side right off the rim and trashed both rims. The only reason we didn’t roll over is my friend’s girlfriend, who was sitting in the back seat, shrieked “We’re all going to die!” and flung herself against the high side of the car, which caused us to tip over back onto all four wheels again.
  66. It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 5: Okay, so a VW is an air and oil cooled engine with a large vertical fan shroud that sits on top of the engine and blows air downward. There are two hoses that come out of the fan shroud, go over theat exchangers, and blow into the passenger compartment, to give you heat when it’s cold. So, these hoses are exactly the same size as the business end of a Weber aftermarket carburetor…can you see where this is going? I thought, hey, if I attach one of those hoses to the air intake of the carburetor I’ll have a cheap, easy ram-air system, like a poor man’s turbocharger! Look how clever I am! If you know anything about cars, you’re probably cringing at the thought of what happened next…and you’re not wrong. Suffice it to say I destroyed the engine in dramatic fashion.
  67. It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 6: Another of my early cars was a 1977 Honda Civic CVCC. It had a weird, compound-ignition engine that got about 40 miles to the gallon. I modified the hell out of it—put a Holley 4-barrel carb in place of the weird 3-barrel (yes, seriously) CVCC carb, put in a racing advance distributor, did some other stuff. My best friend—same one—and I were on Interstate 75 late one evening. The road was basically deserted, so I decided to see how fast we could go. It took a long time, but the speedometer kept creeping up and up until it hit the peg, and then the tachometer kept creeping up and up past that. The car started shaking so badly the door windows were rattling in their frames and the steering wheel was vibrating like it was trying to throw my hands clean off it. What followed was a conversation between Tim and I that I will never forget: “Hey Franklin!” “Yeah?” “Are we really going 140 miles an hour?” “Yeah.” “That’s pretty cool.” “Yeah!” “Hey Franklin!” “Yeah?” “Back off a little, will you?”
  68. When I started using America Online in 1992 or so, I used the name “TacitR.” (I still have that name.) It comes from “Tacit Rainbow,” a handle I used on old-school BBS systems. “Tacit Rainbow” was an old, top-secret military project, that was canceled before it produced anything, intended to make loitering munitions—semi-autonomous hybrid cruise-missile-like things that could be fired over an area, where they would remain, circling in the air, until they spotted and recognized a target, which they would then autonomously destroy. Didn’t go anywhere, but I liked the way those two words sound together, so I started going by Tacit Rainbow online. Several years after I started using that name on AOL, a guy messaged me out of the blue to say “I hate to intrude, but does the R in your name TacitR stand for Rainbow?” When I said yes, he was like “Oh, when did you work on the project?” I explained that I didn’t, and he said “Ah, that’s too bad. I was one of the engineers working on that at Northrop in the 80s.” We had a really interesting conversation after that.
  69. Years ago, I flew out to London to visit my partner Maxine. She was living in a big house with an extended poly network—several of her other partners and their partners and so on. She came out on the tube to pick me up at the airport. The first thing she did when she saw me past customs was tied my wrists together, blindfolded me with a polka-dotted sash, and led me back to the subway bound and blindfolded. On the ride to her house on the subway, she kept whispering filthy things in my ear she wanted to do to me. (I still have a photo of me sitting on the subway blindfolded with my wrists bound together. As soon as we got to the house, she shoved me against the wall, yanked down my pants, and held me pinned against the wall while she went down on me. People use the expression “mind-blowing” far too often for sex, but man, it was mind-blowing.
  70. I went to a public dungeon called the Egyptian Club many years ago with one of my partners, where we did a really fun flogging scene. When we were finished, a rather lovely young woman walked up to me and asked if I’d flog her. Before I could answer, her girlfriend started yelling at her. They had a huge argument right there in the club that ended with the girlfriend dragging the woman who had asked me out of the place.
  71. I wrote a computer sex game called Onyx, which is still available, though I haven’t updated it in years. (It’s 32-bit, so it won’t work on modern Macs, but it still runs fine on Windows.)
  72. in 1987, I got kicked out of a Radio Shack because I went in looking for a radio controlled toy car I could tear apart to make an RC vibrator. I asked the guy at the store to show me the RC cars. He asked what kind I was looking for. I said “I don’t care, I’m just going to take the radio out of it to use it for something else.” He refused to sell it to me and threw me out because he said “I think you’re going to make a bomb.”
  73. When my ex-wife and I first moved in together, we got a land line that used to belong to someone named Grace Rodriguez. From the calls, we assume she was likely a drug dealer. For the first six months we had that number, we would get all kinds of bizarre calls at all hours of the day and night looking for Grace. Over time the calls tapered off, but we were still getting them occasionally three years later. About two years after we got the number, we got a phone call from a man looking for Grace Rodriguez. I answered the phone and did what I always did: “Grace Rodriguez has not had this number for years.” Most people said “okay, sorry,” and hung up. This guy started sobbing into the phone and yelling “I know she’s there, man, I know she’s there! You gotta let me talk to her! Please, I gotta talk to Grace, man! Why won’t you let me talk to her? I gotta talk to Grace, man!”
  74. As a young kid, I used to plant “bombs” in my sister’s room. They were simple things: a 9-volt battery, an old-fashioned flashcube, and some sort of trigger, usually as simple as a clothespin with jaws wrapped in aluminum foil and a bit of paper between. I’d put them in her dresser, her jewelry box, wherever I could hide them, so she’d open the dresser or box or whatever and foom! The flashcube would flash in her face.
  75. I never even tried any recreational drugs at all (apart from alcohol) until I was 46 years old.
  76. Members of my extended family are part of the Quiverfull cult. I haven’t spoken to them in decades.
  77. Timothy and I (yes, same Timothy) once hot-wired a grader. Turns out they have very simple ignition switches. We’d been out in the middle of the night driving my Bug around, as we were wont to do, screaming down a road that was under construction so had no traffic, when we went flying right off the part of the road that was finished and sank the car up to the axles in mud. We tried for hours to get it loose, but couldn’t free it, so Tim got this idea to try to hotwire one of the graders parked by the side of the road and use it to pull the car out. Getting the grader started was easy. We couldn’t figure out how to work the rather weird, cumbersome clutch/shift mechanism, though, so we were only able to move it about ten feet. We gave up and spent hours walking back to town. Came back out with friends the next night at midnight to find that the people working on the road had lifted the car up, packed the dirt around it, and set it back down, so it was sitting high and dry surrounded by a sea of mud. I still wonder if that wasn’t their vengeance for us moving the grader.
  78. I’ve done a workshop at a conference on building siege weapons. I was at the conference wandering around with friends looking for something to do. We found a pile of scrap wood by a dumpster and used it to build a small trebuchet with an eight-foot throwing arm, which we played with for the rest of the convention, flinging glowsticks and a baseball and even someone’s little movie camera wrapped up in T-shirts and duct tape. The following year, the convention organizers invited me back to do a workshop on building a trebuchet.
  79. The first date I ever went on with my ex-wife, we drove my car to the middle of nowhere in a place called Lehigh Acres in Florida. We were making out when a tiny, scrawny, and very dirty kitten jumped through the car window and landed in her lap. We ended up adopting him and named him Goblin He hated everyone on earth except us and my parents.
  80. I used to have a close friend named Carey; we even lived together for a brief time. She drove a Fiat X1/9, a slick little 2-seat targa top sports car. We went out to a bar one night to shoot pool. The weather was beautiful, so we had the top off. As we were pulling into the parking lot, the local TV news anchor came staggering out of the bar, leaned over the car, and started making throwing-up noises. She turned her head at the last possible instant and puked all over the ground right next to the car, but fortunately not in the car.
  81. Carey and I once drove from St. Louis to do laundry. We had a long weekend. We didn’t have a washer when we lived together, so we packed all our laundry in my car to go to the laundromat and just sort of…kept driving. We made it to St. Louis, did our laundry, turned around, and drove back.
  82. My favorite command line operating system is TOPS-20 for the DECsystem-20.
  83. It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive part 7: One of my VW Bugs left me stranded in a parking lot one night when the fuel pump failed. So, right there in the parking lot, with only the tools and materials I had on hand, I tried to rig up a gravity-feed fuel system that would at least get me home. You can probably guess where this is going. Yes, I set the engine on fire.
  84. I once bought a secondhand Apple Lisa with a bad video display and an Apple Profile hard drive from a computer shop for $100. The shop owner gave them an estimate to troubleshoot the problem and they told him to just keep it, so he sold it to me. The problem turned out to be incredibly simple to fix, literally a 5-minute job: the connector had come off the end of the picture tube. That’s it. When I fired it up, I discovered it had been used by an IT company that did work for banks. There were a bunch of LisaDraw files with network diagrams for several bank offices, and the network diagrams for every one of that bank’s ATMs in Tampa.
  85. I was introduced to the band Disturbed while watching porn on a friend’s laptop while we sat in the porn room of a public dungeon. We were ignoring all the porn on dozens of screens around us because she wanted to watch something on her laptop, and I don’t remember anything about the porn except it used the Disturbed album The Sickness as the background music, and I was like “holy shit, what is this music, it’s awesome!” I bought the album on CD the next day.
  86. Speaking of porn: I write literary porn, I’ve been on set when porn is being filmed, I have friends who are porn performers, and yet…I don’t have much of a taste for porn, and rarely watch it.
  87. I haven’t even watched the porn one of my partners has performed in. I kinda sometimes feel like a bad boyfriend for that.
  88. I’ve attempted to learn to play flute and clarinet, and failed dismally at it.
  89. I’ve attempted to learn Latin, French, and German, and failed at that, too.
  90. I don’t understand integration by partial fractions. I’ve had multiple professors try to teach me in multiple calculus classes at multiple universities and it’s just never clicked. I see someone using partial fractions and I feel like a dog staring at a stock market report—nothing about it makes sense to me.
  91. I have a favorite virus (of the biological variety, not the computer variety): polydnavirus.
  92. I have such poor attention to detail, in the first version of this list, number 92 was a repeat.
  93. I worked for many years doing prepress professionally. I started using Photoshop at version 1.0.2 and Illustrator with Illustrator 88.
  94. I invented one of the world’s first Internet controlled sex toys, Symphony. This was before USB was a thing, so the Symphony plugged into your computer’s headphone jack and was controlled by pulses of sound. I designed the hardware and wrote the software. It…wasn’t a success.
  95. I am allergic to bee stings.
  96. If I were a spacecraft from the Culture novels, I’d be the Limited Systems Vehicle Let’s See What Happens.
  97. I am not a leader. I have incredibly, almost impossibly poor leadership skills. I am so bad at telling other people what to do, and not only disinterested in but actively repulsed by controlling anyone else (in any sense except consensual, limited, and mutually negotiated kink), that I can’t even do it in video games. My raiding guild in World of Warcraft tried to put me in charge of a mythic+ 5-man dungeon run and it was a disaster. Whatever it is that lets people take control, I don’t have it.
  98. I am fascinated by creodonts, the early, less sophisticated, and now completely extinct forerunners to modern carnivores (in the literal sense of order Carnivora, not “meat-eating animals” generally).
  99. I love rum, especially light spiced rum. Lamb’s Black Sheep is one of life’s sublime pleasures, though it is, alas, almost impossible to find anywhere near where I live.
  100. It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive part 8: I was once out exploring rural Florida with my friend Timothy (of course) when we found an abandoned quarry of some sort with a significant drop to water. I drove along the edge of the quarry for a bit, looking down into it wondering how deep the water went, when Tim was all like “Franklin, drive straight, don’t speed up, don’t slow down, don’t turn the wheel.” So I did. I was all like “what’s up?” He said “look behind us.” The edge of the quarry had crumbled and there was only one tire track behind us.

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.

The Lucifer Effect effect

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

But man, this book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A trip down memory lane

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

Man, it was appallingly bad. Dear god.

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

Contrast that with how it looks right now:

I look at the old design and cringe.

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

Some thoughts on being fifty

Three days ago, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the car in which that happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts on being out

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s kind of the point.

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

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

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


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

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

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

Origins II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Needless to say, we knew each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And speaking of team spirit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origins

This is the “town” of Venango, Nebraska:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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