“Love is infinite,” the poly saying goes. “Time is scarce.”
The thing is, if you’re willing to communicate with me via my preferred channels, we can talk a lot. I loathe the phone, but I’ll cheerfully text you two or three times a day. I’ll write emails and send goofy pictures and say howdy.
And up until now, that’s been a filtering system. There’s been only so many people who really want to deal with someone who largely exists online with snippets of real-life visits, so… I’ve managed.
It’s starting to fray, though.
Part of that’s my upping of convention appearances. People are asking to have me talk on polyamory at conventions, and I’m happy to go as long as I don’t lose money on the event, so I’ve been doing that and book conventions. That eats up a weekend or two a month.
But I’m also dating more women now, and they strangely enough want actual time with me, and that’s consuming a weekend or two a month.
And I have friends! Actual friends who want to visit from out of town, or those crazy in-town people who want to say hello, and they want weekends! And that’s consuming a weekend or two a month.
And I didn’t realize how bad things had gotten until I tried to book a weekend with my girlfriend and realized every weekend between now and January was booked. Taken. Not a one for myself.
For an introvert, that’s a solid way to guarantee a meltdown. (Fortunately, I also have like nine days’ vacation left this year so I can shim in some free time among the edges.)
And the thing is, I don’t regret any of the weekends I took! I had friends visiting, and that was great! I had a good time at conventions, and that was great! I got to smooch people I’m attracted to, and that was great! And the problem is that my life is so overflowing with greatness now that I’m going to have to figure out what to leave on the sidelines, and it’s killing me.
So I have to figure out how to work all of this in. Some ugly choices are going to have to be made, for I’m going to need weekends alone to play Fallout 4 and recharge and, you know, not die. And there are going to be people who I very much want to meet up with who I literally don’t have time to see, which is a sad thing because I love them very much but Jesus, I have only 365 days and I am dying here.
I think I have to choose my convention appearance spots, and schedule far in advance, and spend a lot of time wishing I had eight weeks’ of vacation time so I could show up everywhere. But I don’t, and so this is going to get frustrating.
This is what’s known in the business as “polysaturated.” And I dislike using the term for me, as this indicates the only reason I’m not seeing someone new is because I’m fucking everyone I know. But “polyamory” for me covers a wide spectrum of affections, where I have deep platonic friendships I have to maintain as well, and family connections that matter, and all of that adds up to “saturated” – and poly has only a tiny amount to do with that.
I should add that I’m not looking for fixes, though. Sometimes, like my depression-blogging, I chronicle things so people will know, “Oh, that’s A Thing that happens in people’s lives,” and then people clog in with all sorts of suggestions and fights break out in the comments because people know how to solve it. I’m not asking to solve it; there’s not a solution that will make me happy, aside from people I like magically paying them to hang with them (and even if I could crowdsource an experience like that, I’d feel scummy about doing so). I’m just saying that when some people say “I am polysaturated,” this is the wall they are hitting.
Now you know! And now I have to figure out how not to melt down in 2016, especially when I’m hoping to do another book tour for FIX.
(NOTE: THE FLUX is dropping on October 6th. There will be no book tour, alas, but feel free to buy that shiz anyway.)
“I want to be online more,” my friend told me. “I wanna get more into Facebook, Instagram – you know, all those social networks my friends are bugging me to get into.”
“No you don’t,” I said.
“I do!” she protested. “All my friends are online!”
“I believe that. But you don’t want to be online. If you really wanted to be online, you’d be online.”
“But I’ve been depressed lately…”
“You absolutely have. Which is why if you’d told me, ‘I want to binge-watch Netflix all day,’ I’d have believed you. If you’d said, ‘I want to draw, or sing songs,’ I’d have believed you. But I’ve watched you telling me every six months that you want to be online more for almost a decade now, and the fact is you do a lot of things – but checking into Facebook regularly isn’t one of them. You’re not an online person. You’ll never be an online person.”
“But I keep falling out of touch with my friends!”
“Ah.” I raised a finger. “Now, that I believe is something you want. But you didn’t say you missed your friends. You said you wanted to be online more. And there’s where you fucked up.”
“My friends are all online, Ferrett,” she snapped. “I’ve moved a lot. How else am I going to stay in touch?”
“Again, a subtle difference. If you’d said you needed to be online more, I’d have nodded in sympathy. But you weren’t doing that.”
She scowled. “What do you think I was doing?”
“You were attempting to redefine yourself as the sort of person who wanted to be online. You were mustering enthusiasm, going ‘This time I’m going to become someone who really likes talking to people via email,’ like you’ve done a hundred times before – ”
” – yeah, okay, I’ve done that – ”
” – and what will happen is that you’ll go through this burst of enthusiasm where you’ll log in once a day and try to be really excited about talking to your buddies on Facebook, because that’s who you told yourself you were. And after a week you’ll start to hate looking at that blue screen – and worse, you’ll feel guilty every time you open up your computer, because aren’t you supposed to be the sort of person who wants to be online? And yet you don’t, and you’ll feel guilty because you’re not feeling the way you’re supposed to, and you’ll get depressed because you should love this and you don’t, and eventually you’ll just feel like shit all the time. And then you’ll disappear from the Internet again.”
She went quiet.
“Look,” I said. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay in better touch with your friends. But what you’re doing is this fucked-up equation where you go I miss my friends == I need to use the Internet == I want to use the Internet. And because you think the only way to do something is to be the sort of person who wants to do it, you’re psyching yourself up to be something you’re not.”
“…this is like the way you hate exercise, isn’t it?”
“Fucking loathe it. Went for a hard twenty-minute workout on the elliptical this morning. Hated it every step of the way. I realize I hate exercise so much I literally have to do it right after I wake up, because if I hold off until my brain comes online I’ll manufacture good excuses why I don’t have to work out all day. I can only get exercise because I’ve acknowledged that I fucking hate doing it.”
“So if I hate being online so much, then I just gotta suck it down and go online?”
“Oh fuck no. That’s the other problem with ‘getting enthusiastic about the perceived solution instead of fixing the problem.’ You get stuck in that one solution, and stop looking for others. Maybe you call people. Maybe you make day trips. Maybe you become that hipster friend who writes hand-written letters. There’s lots of ways to stay in touch without being online – maybe you work up this hybrid solution where you get on Facebook just enough to plan phone calls and weekend visits with your buddies in other states.”
She smiled. “I could, couldn’t I?”
“The thing is, you need to want what you want. And trying to manufacture enthusiasm for I want what I think I need almost always ends in disappointment and feel-bads. Just be honest with yourself. Maybe you think you need to be online, but don’t skip ahead to the conclusion that you want to be online. Because, as noted, you clearly don’t.”
“Good. I don’t wanna talk about this topic any more.”
“Is that what you think you want? Or is that just a perceived need?”
That’s when she hit me with a pillow, and we went on to talk about other things.
That even years after, you’ll sometimes have a nightmare that you’re having another heart attack – a nightmare so intense that it hauls you right out of sleep – and then you have to spend a half an hour debating whether this tension in your chest is Heart Attack #2, or just a crushing panic attack combined with hypervigilism.
I woke Gini to get her opinion, took some Advil, and come the morning I’m pretty sure it was a panic attack. (That was one scary-ass dream.) And it’s not the first time I’ve had phantom chest pains – I wore a holter monitor for three weeks post-surgery, worried that something was going wrong, only to have it turn out that no, in the wake of major heart surgery you just pay a lot of attention to random pains and pressures you didn’t notice before.
(Exacerbated, in my case, by the fact that my actual heart attack ranked about a 1 or 2 on the pain scale, and I nearly didn’t go to the ER.)
But yeah. You have one set of clogged arteries, and even if you’re exercising more than ever and generally eating healthy and taking all your medications, the worry that the next one is around the corner never really fades.
Watching the old Star Trek with my youngest daughter, Amy starts complaining: “This old Kirk sleeps around, but he really cares about the women he’s with! And the new Trek – forty years later – has Kirk as this womanizing jerk!”
And it’s interesting.
TV Kirk was, at the time, a real left-winger. He believed in equality way beyond what a “normal” dude thought, and was presented as such. His womanizing was just what a single guy was expected to do, and the women all died or left because, well, as an episodic show, everyone but the “main” cast had to go. (As witness, you know, the endless parade of dying redshirts.)
The womanizing wasn’t a part of his character as far as the writers were concerned – he was a dude in power, and dudes in power got lots of strange. He slept around yes, but there was a sense that he actually cared about each woman in his own way.
Yet by the time we got to the reboot, Captain Kirk’s main power was being a womanizer. And “womanizer” was no longer on the bog-standard list of Things Men In The 2010s Do. The entire frame had shifted, so that progressive Kirk now looked horrifically regressive. And so they wrote him like a womanizer – someone who slept around, forgot people’s names, a sort of Barney Stinson with a phaser.
And I wonder how much more interesting Star Trek the new movie would have been if Kirk had been a womanizer in a compassionate sense – again, progressive, in the sense that men can have one-night stands with women who don’t necessarily want a commitment, that men can sleep with friends without this apocalyptic When Harry Met Sally fiasco of crushed emotions, that casual sex is not the antithesis of connection.
That would have been a very different Star Trek. And one, I suspect, that would have resonated a lot more with fans than the movie – which did well in the box office, but doesn’t have one-tenth the Tumblr love that “Sherlock” does – has done.
Basically, a cigar is a good way of slowing the world down for a bit.
Now, normally I’m awash in input – writing, checking texts, hey a Twitter notification, Gini has a joke to tell me, new email! – but this summer, about every two weeks, I’ve poured myself a nice tall glass of good bourbon, set up my chair in the back yard, and lit up a cigar.
I leave my phone in my pocket. There’s only the cigar, my drink, and my company.
There’s something delightfully contemplative about a cigar. You’re not supposed to draw the smoke into your lungs – in fact, you’d choke on it. No, you’re supposed to puff to fill your mouth, and let it linger there for a while. It’s not an act I could imagine doing quickly, or casually. To enjoy it, you have to move at the pace of rising smoke.
And you can’t just puff away like a madman. It takes a while to cycle, maybe a minute or two between draws, so you’re made to be leisurely. Everything else slows; conversation becomes delightfully paced as people draw thoughtfully on their cigar between thoughts. Even arguments take place sluggishly.
The thing is, I still feel dreadfully ignorant when it comes to cigars. I don’t even know the general classifications of cigars yet – if cigars were beer, I would not yet know the difference between an IPA and a stout. And when I go to my local cigar stores, they ask me, “So what do you like?” and I fumble out my phone and show them the pictures of cigar bands from the four cigars I’ve enjoyed, and they go, “Oh, we don’t carry those.”
My education is very incomplete at this stage. And everyone seems to assume that I do know what I like, or even where to start, and it’s a bit vexing.
It’s also vexing to realize what a snob I am. Were I a normal person, I might go, “Well, I liked this brand!” and then buy more of it and smoke the same thing. But no. I’m the sort of explorer who has to try everything, to see the finest and the worst any experience has to offer. People ask me what my favorite bourbon is and I tell them “The one I haven’t had yet” – and that’s because for me, finding the shades of difference between a good Blanton’s and this Eagle Rare is the fun.
If I wasn’t so prone to wandering, I could be content. But as it is, there’s thousands of cigars, and I can’t even group them, so when someone asks me “What flavor intensity do you like?” I just flail.
The little fuckers don’t even have the respect to look the same. If all dark cigars smoked similarly, I’d be happy, but sometimes the cigar store rep points at a dusky cigar and says “That’s very intense” and points at another one the same shade and goes, “That’s much lighter.”
Ah, but there’s a ceremony I crave. I like cutting the head. I like toasting the edge. I like realizing that I’m not particularly good at this ceremony, and when I go smoke with others, I’ll eventually see what I’m doing wrong. I like learning. Cigars are a skill to be mastered, like writing.
The summer’s drawn to a close. I’ll probably get to go out in the back yard once, maybe twice, with my daughters before it’s too cold to smoke any more. And then what will I do? I could go to a cigar bar, I guess, but part of the thrill is being anchored in a place I’m usually trotting past on the way to walk the dog or get some wood or park the car, and just taking it all in. I puff until the stars come out. I drink until I’m light-headed. I smoke until I’m clear.
I couldn’t get that in a bar.
I couldn’t get stoked up on my life on someone else’s stool.
And so I’ll hope for friends, and bourbon, and a new wadded leaf of tobacco, and I’ll wait for spring.
I’ve never looked forward to summer, before.
So lovely to find new treasures as I get older.
My wife is long used to being disappointed in me. I think most marriages are, if the people are honest.
Not the big disappointments. If you’re disappointed in your spouse’s fidelity, or their trustworthiness, or their support, then usually that marriage is gonna collapse like a deflating hot air balloon. Those are worth getting really mad about. But any normal co-existence is studded with little disappointments like:
“Did you remember to pick up the rubbing alcohol on the way home?” “…shit.”
“You watched that show? But I told you I wanted to see it with you!” “…shit.”
“You went to my favorite take-out fried chicken joint in the world, and didn’t bring any back for me?” “…shit.”
And yesterday, I almost – almost – committed that crime. I went to Hot Chicken Takeover, which is quite literally the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, a place so good that there’s a 200-person line at 10:00 on a Sunday morning and the chicken is usually gone by noon. I stood in that line with a friend, ate my chicken, and then realized in horror that I’d forgotten to get takeout for Gini.
So I went back and got some more. Then posted this status:
Love is getting in a very long line again because you were so sleepy you forgot to get your wife chicken but you’re not going home w/o it.
— Ferrett Steinmetz (@ferretthimself) September 13, 2015
And the interesting thing was the number of friends responding across the social media platforms with something like, “That doesn’t seem like love. That seems like a survival instinct, so she doesn’t kill you.” And I’m uncomfortable and then baffled by that.
I’m uncomfortable because – even though I do it sometimes – that whole “My God, my wife will kill me” joke plays into a stereotype that normalizes male abuse and trivializes women’s power. Basically, it’s a gag that springs from the whole idea that women are so powerless that they can’t really hurt a guy, and so it’s okay to discuss disproportionate fatal rage that springs from a lack of take-out chicken.
(Don’t believe me? Switch the genders. It’s a little more uncomfortable to joke that it might be a “survival instinct” for a wife to not forget to bring home the chicken to her male husband.)
And given that it’s hard to say just how prevalent female-on-male domestic abuse is, simply because so many men are ashamed to be “unmanly”, and because that “the wife will kill me joke” can wind up being toxic, I’m a little tentative to just nod and smile with it. (Even if said jokes are often made by both feminists and whatever we’re calling anti-feminists this week.)
Yet even aside from my social concerns, I have personal concerns about how dangerous that line of thought is.
The proper survival technique to survive disproportionate rage is to lie. It would have been nothing to say, “Aww, by the time we got to the front of the line, they’d sold out.” I wouldn’t have gotten in hot water, and Gini wouldn’t spend the day fuming what a fucking idiot, how could you do that to me, and I’d still have a belly full of delicious chicken. If your partner is really going to fly off the rails for trivial things, then they don’t encourage honesty: they encourage subterfuge.
But Gini wouldn’t have been mad. She’s reasonable. She understands mistakes will happen, particularly when I’m running on four hours’ sleep after a long convention, facing a two-hour drive home. If I’d come back without any Hot Chicken Takeover, she would sigh, and be sad, and get over it.
And in our relationship – and, again, I think most sane ones – it hurts me a lot more when I see my wife sadly accepting than when she’s yelling. Yelling gets me defensive; seeing her sad thinks Oh, fuck, my life’s goal here is to make her happy, and I just did… not… that… thing.
(I get very nonverbal when I realize I’ve fucked up.)
And if I had forgotten, there could be two outcomes:
The next time I’m at Hot Chicken Takeover, I’d remember Gini screaming at me for an hour when I got home without the chicken. And everyone, bafflingly, seems to think that fury and shame is a great incentive – as witness Donald Trump’s candidacy – but really what happens for me is that I see Hot Chicken Takeover and I feel that defensive anger welling up inside me again, and my fear has a battle with my resentment, and I think, She yelled at me, I don’t wanna reward that bitch with chicken.
And maybe I get her the chicken, if fear wins. Or maybe I skip getting chicken entirely because now my chicken’s now tainted with the unpleasant reek of verbal abuse. Or maybe – just maybe – I go get one over on Gini by getting my chicken, and lying about it, and feeling like I’ve secretly gotten my victory in here.
But the outcome that happens here is that when I get to Hot Chicken Takeover, I think, my wife was so understanding of what happened last time. She looked so sad. And it’s a pretty shitty way of rewarding her for being so nice by forgetting again. And now, in getting the Hot Chicken Takeover – and I swear I wasn’t paid for this advertisement – I become not a convict being forced to provide services, but a fucking hero in a redemption story.
By bringing her the Hot Chicken Takeover, I become a better person, and my wife becomes more loved, and that is so more win-win than any bullshit “survival mode” framing.
And yeah, there are oblivious people who don’t ever think about their partner’s needs and need to be shamed and yelled at and banged around before they’ll listen to you. But I tend to think that someone who needs major overhaul work before they can remember the little things like chicken is gonna be even harder to teach when it comes to major things like fidelity and trustworthiness and support, and the question is – as it always is when seeking long-term relationships – “Do you want to spend years of your life trying to teach someone who’s not fundamentally compatible with you to be compatible, or would it be better to spend years of your life looking for someone who you don’t have to scream at so they remember your preferences?”
In any case, no. It’s not a survival mechanism. Gini would forgive me a tray of fried chicken, as she’s forgiven so much in life before.
The real survival mechanism is realizing that her acceptance of my flaws means I should do better. And I do. And she does. For there are days she forgets my fried chicken, and I hug her and tell her that’s all right.
The end result? We have a lot of fried chicken, and a lot more love.
(THE SCENE: Having gotten out of a lovely but exhausting convention, my friend Raven and I go out for fried chicken on the morning after, as is tradition.)
ME: Oh, God, this mac and cheese is brilliant. It’s gonna kill my heart, but it’s worth dying for.
RAVEN: Ferrett, no! You have to live until Star Wars! If you die on my watch, Gini is never gonna forgive me!
ME: All right, fine. I guess I’ll live until Star Wars.
(A few minutes later, when I snatch a bite of food off her plate:)
RAVEN (raises fork): Do not make me stab you in the throat with this fork.
ME, loftily: Too late! You’ve shown your hand. You’ve told me you don’t dare harm me, lest Gini harm you! You have to protect me!
RAVEN: …and what are the odds that Gini sanctions me injuring you after I’ve explained what you did?
ME: Don’t use that logic. It’s a very bad logic.