Yearly Archives: 2014

Rational Relationships: The Motte-and-Bailey Doctrine


The motte-and-bailey doctrine is a concept created by Nicholas Shackel as a critique of post-moderism. I was introduced to it through Slate Star Codex

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

An example:

The religious group that acts for all the world like God is a supernatural creator who builds universes, creates people out of other people’s ribs, parts seas, and heals the sick when asked very nicely (bailey). Then when atheists come around and say maybe there’s no God, the religious group objects “But God is just another name for the beauty and order in the Universe! You’re not denying that there’s beauty and order in the Universe, are you?” (motte). Then when the atheists go away they get back to making people out of other people’s ribs and stuff.

SSC give several more examples, which are very helpful if you’re not quite getting the concept. To me, it refers to a situation where your position is not easily defended, so you retreat to a stronger position when challenged. Then, after the challenge is over, you go back to the weaker position.

We do this all of the time in relationships. The most common area I see this in is STI risk. STI’s are a real danger, and taking precautions against STI’s is an extremely defensible position. “What?! I just want to be safe” is the motte. The bailey ends up being all kinds of emotional needs, accommodating jealousy, or soft veto power. There is almost no restriction that one could put on a partner that could not be somehow justified by pointing at STI risk. Want veto power (bailey)? Just say you don’t trust the other person’s sexual safety (motte). Want to cut your partner’s dating pool significantly (bailey)? Insist that all partners receive extensive STI testing by our sponsors every six months (motte). Want to be the only person who gets to do kink with your partner (bailey)? Point out that it’s riskier from a sexual health perspective, and say you’re not comfortable with that risk level (motte).

It can also be used with other legitimate concerns. Don’t want your partner to stay overnight with other partners (bailey)? Claim that you can’t sleep alone (motte). Want to limit the amount of time your partner can spend away from home (bailey)? Come up with a household duty schedule that conveniently requires your partner to be home most of the time (motte). Want to make sure your partner stays closeted (bailey)? Say that your boss is a total bigot and would fire you if they found out you were poly (motte).

The motte-and-bailey doctrine is so dangerous precisely because the “motte” positions are really good reasons. It’s totally legit to want to minimize your STI risks, and communicating that to a partner is something we should all do! Some people can’t sleep alone! Some people have terrible bosses! There is no way to tell the difference between when someone has an honest issue and when someone is just trying to control their partner.

Worse, we can even fool ourselves with motte-and-bailey thinking. Human motivation is complicated, and there are often multiple reasons motivating us for a single action or position. Often, when examining our motivations, we will seize on the most palatable motivation and ignore the others. So it’s possible that we can have legitimate fears about STI’s, but weigh those fears more heavily because we have unaddressed insecurities which motivate us to control our partner(s). Our fears about coming out may be less about getting fired and more about wanting to avoid conflict or awkwardness with our friends.

The only real solution is to rigorously examine and communicate our motivations, which can be incredibly demanding and difficult. It’s not easy to sort out your primary motivation from numerous contenders. The key question is this: but for your stated reason, would you be comfortable with the behavior at issue? For example, if there was no risk of STI’s, would you be ok with your partner dating promiscuous people? If your job was safe, would you have any objection to coming out? If you would still object, then your stated reason is not your actual reason.

Knowing and admitting our motivations is a key step toward personal growth, and the growth of a relationship. We must always be vigilant that our motivations are what we think.

Rational Relationships: The Sunk Cost Fallacy

“We must do whatever it takes to justify what we’ve already done” – Stephen Colbert

The sunk cost fallacy is one of my favorite concepts. I first encountered it in business school. In the business word, “sunk costs” are any past costs that cannot be regained. The sunk costs fallacy describes an occurrence whereby managers will overvalue a project based on the sunk costs invested in it, rather than the prospective future gains.

A simple example is buying a stock. If you pay $1000 for ten shares of stock, that $1000 is a sunk cost. The current value of the stock is independent of the price that you paid for it. The only way to accurately value the stock is to determine its price at the current moment or to attempt to estimate its future value. However, if the market will currently pay only $900 for your ten shares, then there is psychological pressure on you to continue to think of your stock as worth $1000, even if its actual value is less than that.

The sunk cost fallacy comes from people’s natural tendency toward loss aversion. For almost everyone, the pain of receiving something and then losing it is greater than never having it in the first place. In other words, we tend to feel losses more strongly than we feel corresponding gains. Because of this, we tend to try to avoid losses more than we try to pursue gains. The sunk cost fallacy is a result of loss aversion, because we tend not to see sunk costs as “losses” until we dispose of the object paid for. When you buy those shares of stock, you have lost $1000, but it doesn’t feel like you’ve lost $1000 because you’ve simultaneously gained a stock that’s valued at $1000. If the price of the stock drops to $900, you’ve lost the equivalent of $100, but it doesn’t feel that way unless you sell the stock. If you sell the stock for $900, you’ve gained $900, but it feels like a loss of $100. This is the feeling that enables the sunk cost fallacy.

This is a problem for business people. Let’s say my company decides to research a new widget, incurs substantial R&D costs, and tasks me with the decision whether to introduce the widget into the market. There is a temptation to see the large amount of R&D put into the widget and conclude that the widget will be profitable and we should launch it. However, the amount of R&D spent has no bearing on whether there is sufficient demand for the widget. If I actually relied on the sunk costs to make my decision, it would be a disaster. Profitability depends on demand, production costs, overhead, advertising, and a whole host of other factors, none of which are sunk costs. Sunk costs are completely irrelevant to the value of the widget.

The sunk cost fallacy is that little voice that encourages us to finish the book once we’ve read half of it and decided that we don’t like it. It’s what keeps us driving the wrong direction rather than turn around (literally and figuratively). It’s what keep us using the fancy $150 universal remote long after it’s apparent that the cheap $10 remote is more user-friendly and useful.

It’s also what keeps us in bad relationships. People change. Often, those changes will result in formerly good partners no longer being good matches for each other. In those circumstances, it’s best that couples break up or transition to some other form of relationship. It is often the case, though, that couples will look at their history and conclude that too much time, effort, and energy has been invested in the relationship to end it.

This is a mistake. There are certainly plenty of reasons why long-standing partners might not want to break up. Their experience with each other may show them that they are only in a temporary rough patch. Their lives may be so entangled that leaving the relationship would be incredibly painful. Their issues may just not be as bad as they seem.

But it’s a mistake to think that the amount of investment in a relationship automatically adds value to that relationship. It doesn’t. The value of the relationship consists of what is happening in the present and in the future. The past is done. The past is useful in predicting the future, but the past by itself doesn’t actually add any value. The length of a relationship or the amount of effort put into a relationship doesn’t actually add value. If it’s clear that a relationship won’t serve you in the future, your previous investment in the relationship won’t change that.

Rationally evaluating our relationships requires acknowledging that their value is derived only from our reasonable future expectations. Sunk costs are unrecoverable.

Copyright 2014 by Wesley Fenza

Adventures in Therapy: Hulk SMASH

As you recall, I decided to try adding Wellbutrin to my brain meds to see if I could deal with some increased depression I had been experiencing.  The first couple of days were me being kind of high and feeling a little jumpy.  Then I stopped feeling those ways and waited for the actual effects of the drug to take place.

After a few weeks, I wasn’t really feeling any better but was still giving it a shot thinking that  it might change OR that the dose I was on was too low and that I would get it increased this week.  However, on Friday night I decided that I was going to stop taking the Wellbutrin because I finally noticed an important correlation between taking the drug and getting pissed off all the time.

See, I noticed that I not only felt a little more depressed, but also that the depression was now combined with simmering frustration and anger.  This is a pretty nasty combo because if it is due to meds, it could be lying and this combo tends to make you really question your life decisions.  The depression makes you feel despair and the anger makes you want to rashly do something about it, regardless of the facts.

At least, this has been my experience.  I know I’ve said this a bunch of times, but it bears repeating: mental disorders like depression lie because the chemicals in your brain change your perception of reality.  Medications change the cocktail in the brain.  If you get the right thing, it raises or lowers the offending chemical to improve your outlook and ability to cope.  If you get the wrong thing, it can drive you further into the hole.  Depression lies and medication can lie too.

As I’ve mentioned, it helps me a great deal to think about my mental health in terms of chemistry and this has been no different.  But I don’t always notice the overall trend right away.  After two weeks of being on Wellbutrin, I found myself getting really frustrated over small things.  There were then enough small things that I concocted an entire tale of woe that was about how I’m in the wrong job, wrong house, and wrong part of the country.  I was constantly screaming in my head that SOMETHING NEEDS TO CHANGE!  I would stomp around about trashcans being left out after trash day.  I would be fine and then would become frustrated for no real reason.

angry hulk

At some point I started communicating out loud that I was frustrated or angry and that it wasn’t making sense to me.  While out with Wes and Amber on Friday night, I said a few times, “Ugh, I’m just angry all the time.”  Wes said I was like Bruce Banner in The Avengers when he was like, “my secret is that I’m angry all of the time.”  It was relevant because despite being generally more angry and short tempered than usual, I was doing a relatively good job not taking it out on everyone, except when I failed to do that.  I was isolating myself more and was thinking that becoming a hermit in the woods was once again a good plan for me. By the time I got home that night, I was smoldering over nothing and finally remembered some of the message boards I read when deciding to try out Wellbutrin.  A lot of people said it was great but a significant number of people reported having trouble with rage while on it.  Finally this thought crept into my mind and I put it together.

After reading about how best to decrease the dose, I saw that generally a doctor will have you decrease it 100-150 mg a week.  Since I was only at 150 mg, I figured it would be safe to just stop taking it.

The difference after a couple of days of not taking it has been impressive.  That smoldering rage has left and little things haven’t been getting to me.  Our bodies are so whacky and fascinating!

I’m happy that it didn’t get worse and that I didn’t do anything rash like quitting my job, moving out and revisiting my old barista career.  I’m glad I have patient people around me who trust me to get through these strange changes in my mental weather and support me in trying to get down to the bottom of what’s going on with me and help me figure out what’s internal and what’s external.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do next.  After stopping the Wellbutrin, I feel better than I did before I began.  It still might be time to up my dose of Zoloft to get the best benefits, but I’m not super worried anymore.  Keep moving forward, right?  Right.

bruce banner

Wherein I Talk Too Much about Art Supplies

When struggling with physical and mental illness, work and home frustrations, and still healing from the difficulty whirlwind that has been 2014, it’s good to stop and take notice of little bright spots when you can. Don’t get me wrong, there have been plenty of bright spots in the year, but now that winter is setting in and darkness arrives each day so much earlier, struggles are often amplified and it’s important to give yourself a break from the bleak every now and then.

Really this post is for me to wax poetic about the art supplies I have waiting for me when I get home. I’ve been tracking the shipment and just saw that my stuff has indeed arrived! Oh, how I love thee.

For those of you who don’t know, this year I discovered the wonderful world of high-end markers. I’ve always liked nice pens and markers in general. I doodle a lot and as any “serious” doodler knows, satisfying doodling is all about the feel of the pen on the paper, the flow of the ink, and the boldness of the color. I was, however, only acquainted with the likes of Crayola and Sharpie markers and had largely ignored them as an artistic medium once I hit my teens.

Back then I painted with acrylics and slowly graduated to the optimized dry vs. blendability speed of alkyd oils. I never really dug linseed oils because OMG HOW LONG DO I REALLY WANT TO WAIT FOR THESE THINGS TO DRY?! Then I drifted more towards colored pencils and water soluble crayon. Then I was doing straight up graphite pencil drawing.  Like these:

bowl sweet bowl pitcher plants

Then one day this year, I wandered into Staples.

Staples was having a mega sale and I was able to buy two big sets of multi-colored Sharpies for $20. I started playing with them and realized that markers were the perfect medium for the kind of style I really like. Basically, I like to draw everything in “stained glass” style, with dark outlines and bold solid coloring. I also found that I liked the way shading looked with markers because you could see the gradient as a series of lines. Here’s an example:

A Squid At Home

Within a few weeks, I had filled a sketch book with abstract drawings and had killed many of the Sharpies. As it turns out, Sharpies aren’t really built for heavy ink coverage.

By then I was hooked and decided that I needed to go to the next grade of art markers. This meant grabbing a set of Prismacolor markers. These were definitely way more expensive than Sharpies and they seemed to be worth it. Their colors were super saturated and vibrant. My complaint however is that these markers are expensive and not refillable and don’t last any longer than Sharpies do (for the type of art I do).

And so it was that I went in search of a higher echelon set of markers. Art supplies are one of those categories of materials where you really do get what you pay for. There’s a lot of stuff that I don’t care that much about. If it’s cheap, it’s cheap and I can make it work or I find something that works really well but is lower cost because it lacks a bunch of unnecessary features. But artistic media quality is directly proportional to its price bracket. And that’s how I found out about Copic markers.

I had noticed Copics while on Amazon looking for Prismacolors. The price difference was pretty huge and I wasn’t ready to make that kind of financial commitment. After the Prismacolors died in a disappointingly short time, I decided to look into these fat cat markers and see what all the hub bub was about.

The main advantage that I saw from websites was that Copic markers are refillable. This is huge. Sure, one marker costs $8, but a bottle of refill ink costs $8 and is good for 5 or 6 refills. The nibs on Copic markers are also replaceable. Basically, Copic markers appeared to be a true investment with good returns. To me it looked like the price was about the endurance and longevity possible with them and since this was my number one complaint, I knew that I needed to try them.

So I went and bought myself a $400 set of 72 markers for my birthday. The ink flow is lovely and the colors, while not quite as vibrant as Prismacolor, are quite satisfying. But here’s the most impressive part: I bought those markers in March and use them often and none of them have run out of ink. Talk about quick return on investment!

Now, the longevity of these markers is likely also due, in part, to the paper I use now. Did you know that there is special marker paper? I didn’t until I was farting around on the internet. Marker paper is just absorbent enough for quick drying of the ink, but it doesn’t allow the ink to bleed through. This is likely due to a very high quality clay coating on the paper’s surface and some kind of proprietary method of something or other in the paper fibers. I tried to look it up on the internet and it’s just a bunch of ads for “revolutionary blah blah blah”. But regardless of the possible advertisement smoke and mirrors, marker paper is really fab stuff. Because it doesn’t soak up so much ink, way less ink is required for uniform coverage. I particularly like Bee brand because it has some heft to it. Copic makes a pad too, but the paper is super thin and, while I am impressed that the markers don’t bleed through the stuff, I don’t like how flimsy the sheets are.

In addition to discovering the wonder of Copic markers, I also discovered the awesomeness of paint markers. I have always liked paint markers, but I didn’t really have an application for them in a lot of my work. Or, more to the point, I hadn’t really embraced mixed media yet. But when I started playing with all this stuff, I happened to have a silver metallic solvent-based paint marker and was amazed at how much it added to my pieces.

I went on a hunt for a rainbow of “true metal” looking colors and have been strangely unsuccessful in finding what I want. There are a lot of sets of cheap “metallic” markers that achieve a pastel metallic look using pearlescent pigments in the inks. This is a cheat, really, because metallic = sparkly, right? But it doesn’t. Metallic is shine. Metallic is high reflectance! The pearl markers have their place and are perfect for certain accents, but when I want metallic blue I want it to be ultramarine and look like I could color a Schwinn with it. There is seemingly not a market for “true metallics” other than silver, gold, and copper. I have a “red” one too, but it’s more of a rust color. I, of course, appreciate that because rust is oxidized metal, so the color is at least thematic.  The closest thing I have found recently is this metallic paste that you can rub into paper.  It’s interesting, but I’m still learning what it can do and it seems kind of limited.  Here was my first attempt:

metal tree

OK, so this post really shows that I’ve been working with the printing industry for a long time. I don’t really talk about doing art in flowery ways anymore. It’s been replaced by the practicality of image production. There is plenty of creativity but I generally find talking about the artistic process pretentious and boring (this goes for every kind of art I do, whether it be drawing or acting or playing music). What I really enjoy thinking about is how to physically get different aesthetic results and I really REALLY enjoy seeing how different materials work together. As it turns out, this is quite a large part of my job. Every day, I guide customers through their desired printing/coating process. It’s commonly called technical service, but it could easily be construed as an aesthetic enabling. The best looking/performing print jobs require the optimum combination of appropriate equipment, paper, ink, and coatings and there are just so many options out there that I have learned a ridiculous amount about how to make printed media look good. Apparently, this type of thinking comes home with me every day too.

A few years ago I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Blue Beard, a fictional autobiography of an abstract expressionist who hit his stride in the 60’s. There’s a lot of great stuff in the book but one of my favorite parts is about the artist using a new brand of paint for a whole series of huge paintings. Something was wrong with the paint though and after just a few weeks, all of the paint on the canvases was bubbling and flaking off. I always enjoy when the scientific reality of art is highlighted. Art oft becomes science and science oft become art.

Anyway, as I said at the beginning of this thing, I ordered some stuff from and it’s totally waiting for me on the porch. What did I get? Thanks for asking! I got a fancy case/binder thing that can hold all of my markers and also a sketch pad. It seems to be compact and has a SHOULDER STRAP. I’m excited about this because it allows me to keep everything in one place and should be compressed enough for me to more easily bring the whole shebang traveling with me. Do you know how hard it is to just pick a few colors to take with you when you have a whole 72 to choose from? I also got a few metallic acrylic paint markers (blue, green, and black) in a brand I haven’t tried before. I also got a smaller pad of Bee brand marker paper (to fit in my case thingy!) and a totally different kind of paper called Graffiti paper. Apparently, it is made to accept all sorts of media include, as the name suggests, spray paint and such. I am looking forward to seeing what it’s like. There is little that is more fun to me than nerding out over art materials.

So…there’s a review of some things. It’s true that I’ve been having a bit of a hard time lately, but I keep trying to find ways to cut through it. Good tools and creation of art that doesn’t require an audience to enjoy are good ways. Sure, I like showing my art off, but it’s one of the few things I do where the process of creating is more satisfying than the “public” reaction.

Is it time to go yet? I’d like to art please!

Most Online Dating Advice is Terrible

Online Dating

In my guide to OkCupid, I included the following:

PROTIP 2: DO NOT TRY TO MAXIMIZE THE AMOUNT OF MESSAGES OR DATES YOU GET! Most online dating advice will give you tips on how to broadly increase your appeal. Don’t fall into this trap. I’ll probably write a full post on this topic later, but for now, remember: you are a unique person, with strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and weirdness. Don’t try to make a profile that appeals to everyone. Instead, try to make a profile that appeals to only people who would actually be good partners for you. In other words: be honest about who you are. Instead of trying to make a good impression, try to make an accurate one. To the right people, that will be a good impression. You’ll also waste less time on bad matches, because they’ll all be scared off after finding out that you’re not what they’re looking for.

There is plenty of advice out there that advises the opposite. The first offender is Amy Webb. Webb created multiple fake profiles and crunched the numbers on 72 different data points. She took all of her data and created the most appealing profile she could. She offers ten pieces of advice. Some are ok, but most are terrible, and will virtually guarantee you bad matches. Webb got lucky and met a guy she actually likes, but I guarantee you, unless you have no personality, these suggestions will not help you meet the right people:

Amy Webb's TED talk

Amy Webb’s TED talk

5. Don’t use specifics. Avoid mentioning specific comedians, shows, books, musicians or movies unless those are top-tier attributes on your list. It’s possible to be generic about what you like while still being specific enough to sound interesting. Just because you like Louis C.K. or Kid Cudi doesn’t mean that a potential suitor does. Unless that comedian is one of your deal-breakers, leave him or her off your profile.

No. Seriously no. Remember in high school, when you would ask someone want bands they like, and they would say “I don’t know… what bands do you like?” Don’t be that person. Say what you like. That sort of thing really matters to some people, so it’s better to tell them sooner rather than later.

6. Avoid taboo topics. If there’s something in your life or personality that may be controversial or taboo, leave it off your profile. Perhaps you are an avid NRA member, are passionately Pro-Choice, or a strong advocate for medical marijuana—you may want to leave out things that someone could potentially interpret that information in a way that disadvantages you. Odds are you may turn off more people than you attract.

This is the single worst piece of advice I’ve ever seen. This is basically advising you to hide what you care about until you’ve already “caught” your mark. If you’re passionately pro-choice, why on Earth would you want to date someone who has a problem with that? Ideological compatibility is important! And OkCupid is one of the best tools for figuring it out! This advice will not help you meet people who like you. It will help you meet people who don’t like you, but just don’t know it yet.

7. Save your accomplishments for later. If you’ve won a Pulitzer or climbed Mount Everest or for some reason own a jet, this is wonderful news—just don’t share it online. These are the types of details to work into a conversation on your first or second date. If someone introduced himself to you at a party, would the next thing out of your mouth be items off your resume? Of course not, so don’t act that way online. Let your personality win someone’s interest, not your bragging rights.

This… offends me. This advice seems obviously gendered. Webb’s experience is as a hetero woman, so her advice is most relevant to hetero women. Men are notoriously threatened by women who accomplish more than them. Webb’s advice? Just downplay your accomplishments! Then you can land yourself a nice, patriarchal, head-of-household to father your children! Barf.

9. Use the 20 hour rule. If someone instant messages you while you’re online, go ahead and IM back if you want. Otherwise, wait 20 to 23 hours between e-mail contacts for the first few messages. Webb found that successful daters waited that amount of time and as a result still seemed eager without coming off as desperate.

Don't be this guy

Don’t be this guy

I’m gonna let Urban Dictionary take this one: “a rule used by douchebag guys who think that waiting three days after a date to call means that the girl will want them more, when really it just pisses them off.” But hey, now it’s for women too! Don’t play these games. If you want to message someone, message them.

Offender number two is Chris McKinlay. McKinlay was having trouble meeting women online, so, being a mathematician, he decided statistically calculate (with the help of several sockpuppets and bots) how to appeal to women. He focused on match percentage. To his credit, he answered all questions honestly, but he manipulated the importance ratings to boost his match percentage with the right demographics. He ended up with over 10,000 90+ percent matches in L.A.

Bad dating advice, now with math!

Bad dating advice, now with math!

Next, he wrote a script which would cause his profile to visit 1,000 profiles per day. Users can see who visits their profile, so this got him a lot of attention. He started getting hundreds of visitors per day and tons of messages.

Here is where you can tell that McKinlay’s strategy is hare-brained: he started going on dates. Bad dates. He started cramming in 2-3 dates per day, and still had no luck. Ultimately, he went on 88 first dates. Out of 88 dates, he had four second dates, two third dates, and one person who he was still dating a year later.

That… is not a good track record. Out of 88 dates, he had 4 second dates. That’s a success rate of 4.5%. That’s terrible! And it’s exactly the kind of thing that happens when you try to appeal to large amount of people instead of only to the right people. I’ve been on OkCupid for about four years, and I think I’ve only been on about 50 first dates. That’s about one first date per month. If I’d needed 88 to meet a good match, I still wouldn’t have made it! However, almost none of my dates have been unpleasant, over 50% of those have led to second dates, and a substantial amount of them are people that I’m either still dating or are friends with. The reason is that my profile only appeals to people who have a good chance of actually liking me (and vice versa).

McKinlay wasted huge amounts of time on bad matches because his profile wasn’t designed to scare away people that don’t like him. So what happened was neither he nor his date were able to tell that they weren’t into each other until actually going on the date. For a guy who is all about efficiency, that seem terribly inefficient. Unless you’re really into going on bad dates, it’s much better to let those people sort themselves out before they even write to you.

The actual effective part of McKinlay’s strategy was that his profile visited 1,000 women’s profiles per day. Anyone could do that and end up with a lot of interest. If he’d only designed his profile better, his matches probably would have been much better, and we wouldn’t have needed to invest so much time in bad matches before meeting the right one.

If you want some good advice, read Erica Jagger. Jagger wanted casual sex. So she made a profile that hinted at her desire for casual sex, until some dickhead wrote to her about how “unseemly” it was for a 50-year-old woman to openly have an interest in sex. Not one to be bullied, she added a section to her profile making her interest in sex absolutely explicit.

Adding this clause did exactly what it was designed to do. It has given men who are really just looking for sex permission to contact me and say just that. It has attracted men who have a sense of humor and who respect a woman who owns her sexuality. It has prompted conversations about the wasted time and hurt feelings caused by the lack of sexual transparency. And, I’m happy to report, it has not elicited a single outraged response from a man who thinks he has the right to regulate my sexuality.

Owning my sexuality, both on OkCupid, and in real life, has been profoundly empowering. It’s a gift that has come with age. I was so crippled by social conventions when I was young that I compartmentalized my sexual persona — a move that killed the chance for true intimacy with any man.

The only regret I have about coming out of the “good girl” closet is that it took me until I turned 50 to do so.

If you’re reading online dating advice, go with the person telling you to be yourself, not the person telling you to pretend to be someone else. You’ll meet better matches, you’ll waste less time, and you’ll have an overall better experience.

Consent-Based Relationships

As part of this year’s Beyond the Love polyamory conference, I gave a presentation on relationship anarchy. Most of the content has already appeared on the blog in my previous posts about relationship anarchy, and it drew heavily from my posts about rules and decision-making.

The presentation closed with a discussion of how anarchic relationships actually work in practice. The main idea is that anarchic relationships are completely consent-based, down to the smallest details. This is how I visualize it:
anarchic relationships

As you can see, the idea is that “a relationship” consists of the activities that both people genuinely want to engage in. Anything that I want to do that you don’t want to do, we don’t do. I either do that with someone else who consents, I do it alone, or I just don’t do it.

This can sound somewhat harsh, but in practice it isn’t that far from what most people believe. What I want to do is infinitely changeable. The fact that a partner wants to do something can easily move something into the “I want to do that” category. There are many things I do with my current partners that wouldn’t be enjoyable without them. Just knowing that something would help a partner to be happy is often all the motivation I need to do it. But sometimes it isn’t, and that’s ok too. And that’s the key difference in a consent-based relationship. When your relationship is based on consent, you will affirm and support a partner’s decision to say “no” to you.

I don’t actually know too many people who disagree with this outlook. But I know a LOT of people who will get angry at a partner for not doing what they want. My theory is that the anger is inspired by the fact that their happiness is not a sufficient motivating factor. I also think that people are very good at fooling themselves into believing that their partner is acting free of coercion, when really their partner is just doing what they want to avoid a fight or other negative consequences. It’s easy to say “I’m angry because you wouldn’t come with me to my cousin’s wedding.” It’s more complicated to say “I’m upset because my happiness wasn’t enough to motivate you to want to come to the wedding.” In the former, the solution is easy – just go to the wedding! With the latter, there is no clear solution, and you may just need to adjust your future expectations to reflect the reality of the situation.

Despite that, however, I think it’s a good idea to affirm the general idea that a consent-based relationship involves only activities that both parties genuinely want to do. If you find yourself doing things that you don’t actually want to do, it’s worth thinking about why you’re doing them. If fear of consequences imposed by your partner is motivating you, it may be a sign that there is a problem in your relationship.

It is my firm belief that all ethical relationships are consent-based. Coercing a partner into doing what you want is never an ethical thing to do. Just as consent is the foundation of sexual ethics, consent is also the foundation of relationship ethics. It forms the base on which all other relationship ethics are derived. Relationship anarchy is about ensuring the maximum freedom for everyone, and that starts with respecting everyone’s consent.

Adventures in Therapy: Is that Strawberry Alarm Clock I Hear?!?

As I mentioned, I went to the doctor yesterday to talk shop about changing/adding meds. She agreed with my assessment and we decided that I would keep the Zoloft going at its current dose and add the lowest dose of Wellbutrin to see if it can help counteract some of the side effects. I’m seeing her again in a month and we will continue to figure out the best course of action (will I be lowering the Zoloft dose? Is this the right additional med for me” etc).

So, it’s Day One of a new medication and that old familiar adjustment period is here. I was told that this stuff is activating. Somehow, I thought that it wouldn’t be too noticeable because of the Zoloft, but I was wrong about that. I took the pill around 7am and by 8am I was feeling pretty zippy. It reminded me of the first time I took Sudafed for congestion…but without the congestion and background illness. This extra energy felt a little like anxiety but not overwhelmingly or primarily so and so far that aspect has been nothing I can’t handle.

I had to hop into action doing various things and it was a little harder to concentrate than usual, but I managed. Then around 10am, I found that it was becoming increasingly difficult not to stare off into space or pass the time by poking myself in the face. By noon, I felt pretty stoned.

This is, at least for me, par for the course now when adjusting to meds like this. Granted, my only other experience has been with Zoloft, but seemingly my body/brain has a relatively predictable pattern when responding to chemical changes. I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry, so I went and wandered around Target for most of the hour. I was drawn to all sorts of things, and was enjoying inspecting the soft, fuzzy blankets for sale now that the weather is getting cold. I wandered all through the store, being fascinated by pretty much everything and laughing at myself for how aimless the entire trip was. In short, “stoned” is a good way to describe it. Slightly delirious is another good way to describe it.

At some point, I had an inkling of a thought that I was hungry and figured I should eat, so I grabbed a sandwich and went on with my day. I’m still out of it but I’m functioning.

It’s times like these that I am really glad I decided to get my education in chemistry. Sure, I hated school, like, a whole lot BUT I am grateful for the way focusing on chemistry wired my brain to think about the world and my body. It makes responses to medication like this not so scary. “Some of your subroutines are being rewritten. Your feelings are nothing but a bunch of molecules in various states of imbalance or equilibrium.” It’s quite calming and while wandering around like a jackass in Target I could rest assured that it was simply because of a reaction running its course and that everything would reach a baseline soon enough.

Whether that baseline will be the baseline I want still remains to be seen, but in the meantime, everything is A-OK. One of the things I really appreciate now is that I’m not stigmatizing myself for needing medications like these to be the best version of myself. I take other medications for other bodily needs and I don’t see these as anything different. I’m still doing all the other work to be my best, but in the end none of that work can shine through with all that chemical noise in the way.

Since it’s Day One, I can’t really say if it’s doing what I need it to yet, but I can say that I’m not experiencing anything nasty. I’ll take it. An easy day on the journey, ey?

Beyond the Love: the Midwest’s Only Polyamory Conference, and One of the Best Anywhere

BTLlogoBanner800x180This past weekend (November 7-9, 2014), I had the good fortune to be able to attend Beyond the Love, a three-day polyamory conference in Columbus, Ohio with Gina, Jessie, and Amber. Jessie I attended the first-ever Beyond the Love last year, and were totally blown away. The organization did a great job putting together an engaging and enjoyable program, and they exceeded expectations yet again this year.

The con started on Friday night with an Intro to Poly orientation. My partners and I arrived shortly afterward, and participated in the human scavenger hunt meet & greet, which was a variation of what they’d done last year. They gave us a list of ~20 items such as “someone who has performed in a burlesque performance,” “someone who can juggle (prove it!),” and “someone who has the same birth month as you.” The idea was to get people talking to each other and asking questions, and it works great. Everyone got up from their seats and moved around the room, interacting with everyone else. It’s a great idea, and I’d like to see it used more often.

Opening ceremonies were next, where Sarah Sloane gave a terrific keynote. Highlights included:

Opening Ceremonies
This was followed by a poly speed mixer. We were all divided up by our dominant love language, and sat across from each other. After a few minutes, one side would shift down a seat. I got to meet a bunch of interesting people. Between the scavenger hunt and the speed mixer, I’d somewhat effortlessly been able to meet a good portion of my fellow attendees, which is always appreciated by out-of-towners like me.

The BtL staff also did two other things to encourage flirting amongst the attendees. First, they offered red, yellow, and green stickers that attendees could put on their badges to indicate that they were open to flirting, unsure, or were not open to flirting. I sometimes worry that those kinds of systems can backfire, but this one seemed to work well, and nobody (that I know of) took a green sticker to mean that consent wasn’t important.

The other innovation was the flirt board! Attendees could write their name on an envelope and tack it to the flirt board. Anyone else could write something on a scrap of paper and drop it in their envelope. It’s an incredibly simple system, but people had a lot of fun with it, and it was a very low-pressure way to signal interest in friendship, flirting, or any kind of interaction with a person.

After the opening ceremony was the relationship styles summit, where the staff put balloons around the social space with different relationship styles on them. You could hang out at the balloon that represented your style, or you could go around and try to learn about other styles. It was kind of a cool idea, and I had fun hanging out at the relationship anarchy balloon and fielding people’s questions.

The last activity for Friday was a burlesque show, by Big Girl Burlesque. I only caught the first few numbers, but Jessie saw the whole thing and loved it. After the show, I was able to spend some time with some new friends and some friends that I’d met last year. I didn’t get to sleep until 4am.

Saturday, classes started at 9am. I attended Billy Holder’s class “Coming Out Poly – Why?” Billy runs Atlanta Poly Weekend, and was recently featured on several news outlets. He told us about what coming out meant for him, and what it might mean for us. I’ve been out for years, so I didn’t need to be convinced, but I really liked Billy’s message. Highlights included:

Coming Out Poly

For the next sessions, I jumped around between a few classrooms. I started in “Poly as an Avenue for Growth” from Michelle Vaughn. She had some good things to say about how nonmonogamy can inform our values and change us as people. Then I jumped over to “For the Love of Labels: What Does it Mean to be Poly?” from Dr. Antoinette Izzo. I was only there briefly, but it ended up being one of my favorite parts of the con. Dr. Izzo discussed how labels can mean something to us on multiple levels, reflecting knowledge, feelings, identify, and practices. I often struggle to identify with people’s attachment to labels, and Dr. Izzo was able to shed some light on that for me.

Next, I went to Jessie’s presentation: “Healthier Hierarchies & Communicating Compatibility.” This was a two-part class exploring hierarchies in relationships and how they affect our partners. Part two was focused on metamour relations. Some highlights:

Healthier Hierarchies
After Jessie’s presentation was my presentation on OkHacking: OkCupid for the Polyamorous. I’ve done it a few times before, including a Beyond the Love last year. It went well, apart from a few brief technical difficulties getting the projector to work (I’ve since ordered a TouchPico, so I shouldn’t have those problems in the future). If you’re not familiar, it’s in written form here.

After the class session, VIP ticket holders were invited to eat with the presenters, then there was an evening program where people were invited to ask any questions they liked of the presenters. The audience didn’t seem to have many questions, but such is life. We then moved on to Rent a Presenter! Staff and presenters had been given “Love Bucks” at the start of the weekend, and were encouraged to hand them out for good deeds, participation, and otherwise beneficial behavior. Saturday evening, attendees could use their Love Bucks at an auction to rent a presenter for a 15-minute Q&A session. It was a cute idea, and people had fun with it. I volunteered (of course), an I was rented by a very cool woman going by “Snu Snu.” I traded her OkCupid tips for Muay Thai instruction.

Saturday night was the masquerade ball, which finally gave us an excuse to wear the Carnivale masks that Jessie and I got for everyone in Venice on our honeymoon. The ball was great. The dance floor was in heavy use, song selection was good, and everyone seemed to have a great time. Afterward was more socializing. This time, I stayed up until 5am.

Sunday had some great-looking classes at 9am… but they were at 9am, so there was no way that was happening for me. At 10:30, I gave my Relationship Anarchy presentation. I had a great audience (standing room only!), and after a few more projector difficulties, the workshop went great. This was the first time I’d done that one, and I wasn’t satisfied with how my RA presentation went in Atlanta, so I was nervous. It ended up going very well, the audience seemed engaged, and I had a few people tell me afterward that it really gave them a lot to think about. If you’re curious, my writing on the topic is here, my presentation slides are here, and a Relationship Anarchy Facebook discussion group is here.

We had an 8-10 drive ahead of us, so we had to go shortly after my presentation. On the weekend, I had only two small disappointments: first, nobody presented on consent culture. Polyamory as a community is still in its infancy, and now is the time that we’re going to decide what kind of community we’re going to be. Top priority for me is that we end up being a consent-focused community. There was some great discussion of what that would mean at Atlanta Poly Weekend, and I was disappointed that Beyond the Love didn’t include it.

Second, most of the classes that I and my partners attended seemed rather beginner-level. Nothing was exactly Poly 101, but there also wasn’t a lot that was that informative to someone who’s been active in the community for 4+ year (though I did find Dr. Izzo’s class on labels to be very relevant). Next year, I’d love to see some more advanced concepts that assume the audience is familiar with more intro-level ideas. I’m already trying to think of presentations I could give that would appeal to the more experienced crowd.

All in all, it was a fantastic weekend, and I’m still riding a bit of the con high. I got to see some old friends, I made a lot of new friends, and I got to spend the weekend talking, communing, and flirting with like-minded people. I would recommend it to anyone who can make it next year.

Adventures in Therapy: A Change of Scenery

Over this past weekend, Wes, Jessie, Amber, and I went off to Columbus, OH for Beyond the Love, a polyamory conference in its second year. Wes and Jessie went last year and came home with rave reviews so I was looking really forward to my chance to go this time around. All in all it was a really well done and well run conference. It was a nicely structured event with lots of time built in for socializing and meals. The classes were good, though the subject matter for most of them was geared more towards people new to polyamory, so I’m hoping that in the coming years more “advanced” stuff will be presented.   They also debuted some great things for consent culture at the event. First, they had a red, yellow, green system for each person to be able to declare how open they were to being approached/flirted with. It seemed like it worked well and I’m hoping they got a lot of good feedback. They also had a “Flirt Board” which allowed attendees to pin an envelope with their name on it and people could leave them little messages to flirt, compliment, say hi, whatever. I thought that was brilliant because it took so much pressure out of that aspect of the conference. I hope they do that again too.

Overall I had a great time. I spent most of the weekend hanging out with Amber which is generally a pretty great way to spend a weekend (or a weekday or anytime really). The only thing that struck me as odd was at the end of everything when it was time to say goodbye, I didn’t really have anyone to say goodbye to (other than the people I already knew). I had participated in lots of things at the conference, but I hadn’t really connected with anyone…I didn’t really make any new friends. This experience showed me how introverted I have become in the last year.

Luckily for me, Amber is a self-proclaimed introvert and we were able to be at the conference together and weren’t focused much on finding new people to hang out with. It’s just that I’m not historically an introvert. I’m definitely more on the extrovert side of the spectrum, but over the last year I have noticed that I have more energy loss when I go into social situations with a lot of people I don’t know. I needed multiple trips up to our room or out of the conference to recharge.

I’ve been thinking about these kinds of things a lot lately because I’ve been thinking about changing my medication. See, when I was first put on Zoloft I was so happy to have not experienced any of the acute side effects associated with it and it really has helped me. But over the last few weeks I have been feeling like another raising of the dose might be necessary soon (Zoloft historically does not keep working without increases). While dosage increase is certainly an option, I have also started to wonder how many of my current frustrations are related to this no longer being the right chemical for me. While I didn’t see the side effects initially, I have been on Zoloft for 2 years now and I am thinking that certain things I am observing are Zoloft related.

For instance, over the last year I have gained 25 pounds. I didn’t start eating more or having less energy when I started Zoloft and if anything I eat much more healthily now so I don’t think that my weight gain is so much about my diet as it is about a latent effect of the drug. Another example is the fact that I experience depression more now than anxiety. Anxiety was certainly an issue when I started Zoloft but I think that the symptoms coming out of the woodwork now are more depression (lack of focus, motivation, a sense of hopelessness here and there). I also have pretty much lost the entirety of my libido which has been somewhat of an issue for a while but it has gotten worse over the last year. I also get headaches all the time (I go through ibuprofen like it’s about to be discontinued) which has been something I have had to deal with since day one of Zoloft.

Back in June I got a full round of bloodwork to see if anything was amiss. At the time I was having a lot of trouble staying awake when doing somewhat mindless activities like watching television, going to movies at the theater and, worst of all, driving. A friend at the time suggested getting the blood work done and I’m quite glad I followed her advice. At the very least I would get a baseline for myself and at best I would discover a glaring problem. Much to my happiness, I didn’t have a thyroid issue or any other major problem. What I did have was a vitamin D deficiency. The doc wrote me a prescription for a weekly mega dose of vitamin D that I was supposed to take for 12 weeks and then I could take a daily supplement after that. I was skeptical that this was the root cause of the issue (it’s an issue I’ve had for a very long time…it was just getting more severe at that point). But I did the treatment and hot damn if it didn’t work! I’m not scared to drive long distances anymore and I stay awake through movies and such (unless I’m already really tired of course). So that was an easy fix.

The doc was concerned over the amount of weight I had gained. I hadn’t seen him in two years and it shocked him to find out that I had put on most of that weight in that year alone. I take that with somewhat of a grain of salt since I’m pretty sure it’s in doctors’ contracts to freak out about weight gain and my blood work and other vitals came back in healthy ranges. But if I’m just holding onto weight because of the Zoloft and Zoloft isn’t necessarily the right med for me anymore, it would be nice to check and see and maybe shed some of these empty not-muscle pounds.

In the cases of weight gain and lack of interest in sex, it would be fine to me if these were just things about me now but it would be a good idea to do some experimentation to see what the variables are. I have an appointment with my nurse practitioner on Thursday and I’m going to talk to her about options. At one point before I tried bringing my dose down and when we talked about that I asked if there were any downsides to staying on Zoloft long term. She explained (as I mentioned above) that it won’t continue working at current doses and will have to be increased periodically until you max out (I’m at 100 mg now and the max dose is 250 mg). When you max out, you then generally go to a different medication. At the time she mentioned Wellbutrin which is completely different chemically. I have been looking into it and it sounds like a good option to try and address the side effects I am seemingly experiencing. It’s generally prescribed for depression and is very activating and it seemingly historically has none of the side effects of Zoloft and other SSRIs. It has its own stuff, of course. The activating aspect of it can be unsettling and can cause you to be pretty manic and can also cause anxiety. But the activating feeling might be something I can deal with (it was something I liked about Zoloft) and I’m hoping that a change in meds will help me find the motivation to get fit (not for weight loss, but for overall health and strength).

Based on what I’ve read, this is likely what she will suggest and I think it’s a good avenue to explore. I’m not entirely sure what the process is to switch medications (like, do I need to cut back the Zoloft first and then start the other one? Do I take them concurrently while lowering the Zoloft dosage?) but I’ll be able to talk about that on Thursday.

So yeah, it might be rough for a while and I will likely document my experience if I do switch as I have done with Zoloft. If the nurse is against it, then I suppose I will not be switching, but she will probably agree with my thoughts and there’s no harm in trying (I don’t consider the adjustment discomfort to be harm. It’s just something you have to deal with for a month to see the medication’s true effect…unless I feel like becoming an ax murderer…then I will, you know, not take it anymore).

So, on to the next adventure!

Altruism and the Patriarchy

eleanor-roosevelt-2“If anyone were to ask me what I want out of life I would say- the opportunity for doing something useful, for in no other way, I am convinced, can true happiness be attained.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt

It is taken as a given in our society that the highest good is the transcendence of selfish desires and the service of others. Our paragon on virtue is Mother Teresa, who lived in poverty in order to dedicate her life to work in service of the poor (and pushing her religion, but we overlook that). Selfishness is generally considered the worst of all sins. Heroes sacrifice themselves to save their loved ones. Villains say “greed is good.” Our dominant religion is centered around the story of a man sacrificing himself for the good of mankind. The greatest evil is an angel who selfishly sought to exalt himself above god.

Above all, we are told that shallow, selfish desires lead to life devoid of meaning:

Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

The relationship between meaning and happiness was the subject of a recent study. In the study, researchers surveyed 397 adults about how happy their lives were, and how meaningful. The terms were not defined, which allowed each study participant to interpret them as they wished.

The study found, rather unequivocally, that a meaningful life is not a happy life. The study gave the lie to the Roosevelt quote above, and found that when we put our own desires aside and focus on helping others, we end up less happy. This finding reinforces the previous finding that having children does not make people happy. The study found that “meaning” is actually largely achieved through trauma and misery.

Emily Esfahani Smith at The Atlantic, through some bizarre reasoning, spun this finding as proof that people should focus more on living meaningful lives and less on being happy. Smith’s article is heavy-handed in its suggestion that everyone would be better off to pursue meaningful lives through sacrifice, not “mere happiness.”

Smith’s position is not only diametrically opposed to my ethical position that the most ethical decision is often the one that makes the decision-maker happy, but it also reinforces the cultural status quo outlined above, where righteousness is only found in the service of others.

So, according to the conventional wisdom, which Smith reinforces, the way to be a good person is to sacrifice what you want in favor of devoting your life to the service of others. Individual desires don’t matter. What matters is the service of others. Anything else is shallow and selfish.

This is a problem because one of the patriarchy’s main tools of oppression is its ability to convince women that their desires don’t matter. In addition to the “everyone should serve others” meme pervading our culture, there is a complementary meme that says “women should be subservient to men.”

That dominant religion I mentioned earlier? Its scriptures explicitly instruct women to be subservient to men. Women’s reproductive rights are continuously under assault because women’s needs aren’t seen as important. Women’s sexual autonomy is constantly under attack because women’s desires are seen as less important than men’s. The male gaze is constantly catered to. The vast majority of our leaders, from CEO’s to elected officials, are men.

There are thousands of other examples of how the message is sent every day, that women’s desires don’t matter, and that they should be happy in subservient roles. Implicit in this message is the message to men that our desires ARE important, and that we should get what we want. We are told to “be a man,” and to stand up for ourselves. We are taught to be confident and even violent in pursuit of our own happiness.

So men end up receiving two conflicting messages: one is that our individual desires don’t matter, and that we should serve others, but another that we should get what we want and be aggressive and tenacious in pursuing it. Receiving both messages gives men options about how to balance our own individual desires vs. the desires of others, and generally facilitates healthy decision-making. It’s not the best system, of course, but it does have some flexibility. Generally, men are permitted by our society to display a wide range of selfish and altruistic behavior and still be considered acceptable.

Women have no such luck. Because there is no countervailing message, women ONLY get the message that being subservient is virtuous. On one hand, they are told to be subservient to everyone. On the other hand, they are told to be subservient to men. There is no message (except a small-but-growing message from the feminist movement) that what they want as individuals matters.

So it’s no secret why the vast majority of rapists are men, women end up doing most of the housework and child-rearing, women ask for raises far less than men, and men generally make fewer sacrifices than women.

So when I see an article like Smith’s, which denigrates and demonizes the pursuit of individual happiness as “selfish” and “shallow,” I see it for what it is: an oppressive tool of the patriarchy. I think there’s a place for encouraging altruism in our culture, but not at the expense of individual happiness, and not in a way that suggests that anyone trying to make themselves happy is a bad person. People can take the pursuit of individual happiness too far, but the answer is balance. People should be encouraged to balance their individual desires against those of others (or, even better, shown how their individual goals can be served by helping others). Rather than be taught, as they are now, that everyone’s happiness matters except theirs, people should be encouraged to view everyone’s happiness (including their own) as equally important. People should not be told that the only way to live a good life is to sacrifice what they want. People will listen, and most of those people will be women.

This is the main reason I push back so hard against the dominant cultural idea that virtue is found only in sacrifice. I’ve seen first-hand the devastating effects that such ideas can have, particularly on women. As a staunch advocate of Ask Culture, creating space for people to voice their desires is a top priority for me. And step one of that process is encouraging people to value their desires.