20 March, 2017


I would like to talk about regret—and when it makes sense to return.

You are sitting, eating from a box of cookies. Through a moment of carelessness, you drop a cookie. It lands on the floor. What is the appropriate reaction? Should it be discarded, even if it looks okay? What if the cookie was dropped not through carelessness, but on purpose?

There are lots of possible answers here. In many cases, it depends upon the specific circumstances. How hungry are you? Are there more cookies in the package? How clean is the floor?

I recall taking a test in middle school. It was in band class; I was supposed to attempt a difficult piece of percussion sight reading. I recall having a good understanding of my own capabilities. I knew how well I could spell, and competed in the state spelling bee as a result (2nd place). I knew how proficient I was at martial arts, and competed in state competition there, as well (also 2nd place). I also knew exactly how capable I was when it came to sight reading a difficult piece for percussion; so when my instructor said that taking this test was voluntary, I declined. I knew I would perform poorly, especially in comparison to other gifted drummers in that same class.

Afterward, the teacher explained that the true test was to see who had the initiative to take the test, even though it was very difficult for our age group. Everyone who attempted the test was given an 'A'. I was given a 'C' for that course, mostly because I did not even attempt to take that test.

Is there value in making the attempt, even if one recognizes in advance that it will be especially difficult? For a child who never puts themselves out the, the answer may well be yes; but this was not me. I pushed myself in other fields where I knew that I could be successful. I traveled to Birmingham for state competitions. I read books that were aimed at much older audiences than I was, at the time. I had no general problem with putting myself out there. So, in the case of this percussion test, should I have attempted it anyway? Even in knowing that I would not perform well at it? What lesson would this teach me? Is there value just in the attempt itself?

I've had several romantic relationships in my life. Some short; others long. I'm polyamorous, so I'm never really not open to new relationships, but I'm also an extremely busy person, so I'm never really actively looking for new ones. This means that my relationships rise and fall mostly with where and when I happen to move to a new place.

Early on in my life, I placed a large amount of importance on specific people being in my life. As is common in our culture, I would begin a relationship with someone and then want to continue it, even when it made little sense to do so. I was always quite loyal. I felt that, if my feelings for a person were true, then it was important that I continue loving them through good times and bad. I would always pick up the cookie, even when it was good for neither of us.

As I grew, I came to realize that even the rarest of cookies were still relatively plentiful in this vast world. When a relationship would sour, I learned to walk away and begin anew elsewhere.  This made sense. Even though I felt (and still feel) that I made a particularly good mate, that capability is harmed when problems in the relationship overshadow possibilities for positivity. I never made first chair in percussion in middle school, even though I was at a similar level of competence as my peers; the fact that I was unwilling to try kept me from being considered, even though I deliberately choose not to test because I knew I would perform poorly. But I did well in other fields where this souring incident did not occur.

Of course, relationships don't just sour by themselves. In many cases, I caused the souring through actions I took. When I was very young, these tend to be actions that were mean-spirited. When I became an adult, they were actions born of accident, or sometimes carelessness. Occasionally, they've been on purpose. Most recently, it has been because I did not understand why it was bad at the time (an excusable offense), and did not take seriously a warning that it would considered bad by the other party (a less excusable offense).

Unlike most people, I don't have to stop being in a relationship with someone in order to move on to other things. Being poly means maintaining long distance relationships is easier for me than for most. I can amicably end a close relationship while maintaining it at a less intense level of intimacy. Relationships can endure errors and continue even when pursuing other relationships might be easier.

When I was young, a dropped cookie was always picked up. I focused solely on maintaining even flawed relationships, mainly because I felt that the love of felt earlier in the relationship would be somehow tainted if I didn't continue to love the same person regardless of circumstance. Later, I learned to let go, but still kept open any relationships I could, even when I had done severe damage to the cookie of my own free will.

Today, I think back and I regret. I had a relationship end that I did not want to end. I made an error: a significant error that warrants serious consideration. I was told: don't do X. It's inappropriate. In the heat of the moment, I might change my mind, but that will not be the real me. The heat of the moment came, and I wanted X. She wanted X. So we did X. But in doing so, I had betrayed the level-headed person by listening instead to the one acting in the moment—the one with a brain chemistry spiked by endorphins that was not acting per the request of her past self only a few moments earlier.

This is a serious breach of trust. It is assault, in one sense, because it went against a person's will. In another, legal, sense, it did not rise to assault, since she welcomed it in the moment and gave no indication to stop once it was in progress. Once she did object, I immediately ceased. It was confusing in the moment to have such conflicting signals, but I honestly tried to do what I thought was best.

Later, I learned that she felt violated. It is an odd sort of violation, where I felt that I was acting appropriately at the time, but it was indeed a violation nevertheless, because individuals need to be able to set boundaries that should not be crossed, even if their future selves invite them to be crossed.

Legally, what I did was not assault. But the law is not a good judge of what is moral here. I clearly acted wrongly; when a person sets a boundary, it should be respected even if that person recants, if the recanting is done in a situation where they are but thinking as clearly.

This remains true even though I was in the same situation, and I was similarly not thinking as clearly. Once a boundary is set, it should be respected by not allowing ourselves to get into a situation where we expect we might be tempted to cross that boundary.

So although this was not legal assault, I believe it morally counts as something like assault. I invited disaster by going into a situation where we might reasonably expect a boundary to be crossed. This is no different from running with scissors; even if my intent was not to injure, the act of running itself risked injury to a degree where I should be held ethically at fault. (The seriousness of this topic nags at me so strongly that I cannot help but to make several hyperlinks in the above text, in a misguided attempt to distract the reader into something more interesting to them (and less personal to me).)

And so the cookie lies upon the floor. The question now is: should I have picked it up?

This blog entry is titled "Regret", and so maybe you already know the answer. But do not be so sure.

In one sense, the harm that was done is not necessarily relationship-ending. We both made errors, and what fault exists is due solely to choosing to run with scissors, with no intent to use those scissors to harm. We both prefer the company of each other; it's not as though we have serious issues with our relationship that haven't been listed here. I really enjoy being with her, and the feeling seems to be reciprocal. But there are two main problems.

The first problem is that she feels violated, even as she recognizes my good intent. It would take a large amount of effort to make the relationship work with where it now stands. This first problem lies mostly upon her; she feels hurt, and she would need to move on from that hurt in order to enjoy her time with me. The only way she could do this is with time and significant effort on my end.

The second problem is my will. It is the portion that is primarily my problem. It takes patience and deep care to nurture a relationship back to health from this set of circumstances. She is worth that effort, of course—she has many of the qualities I admire most, and all in the same package. She is intelligent, ethical, motivated, caring, and genuinely fun to be around. She matters as an individual to me, but even beyond that: as a person with a set of qualities, it would be exceedingly improbable for me to ever find another like her in the world.

This second problem is my willingness to go through such effort. Is it that I am lazy? That I am not thinking straight? No, I think it may be because I am polyamorous. I have another partner whom I love very much. I am comfortable with her. She helps to smooth my life and make it easier. I am quite happy being with her. There is no perceived lack in my everyday being, no person-shaped hole in my heart. Yes, I care deeply for this person whom I am no longer with, but it is not as though my life is empty without her.

This second problem is that the effort involved in rescuing this cookie is immense. It would take away energy from my life. It would complicate my ability to do other things. It would require such a large focus from me. She is worth it, that's for sure, but with limited resources, being worth it is not enough. The poor in developed countries deserve to be helped; they are worth our charity. But as an effective altruist, I'd rather my money go toward developing countries, where it can produce more good. Being deserving of something is insufficient to actually receive when limited resources are at play.

This second problem is that there are countless other possible relationships out there that would take far less effort to cultivate. Cookies in the tray are easy to pick up, and as rare as the cookie that lies upon the floor may be, I am already content with the cookies already in my possession, and there very well may be equally rare cookies still in the package. The effort of cleaning and repairing the dropped cookie is just too high a price to pay.

I love her. In our culture, this usually means I should 'fight' for her. "Love conquers all." It's considered romantic to overcome obstacles and 'win the girl'. But I honestly believe that is all bullshit. Yes, I love her, but I also love others. She and I might have equally fulfilling relationships elsewhere. Neither I nor she is so unique as to be undiscoverable elsewhere. I love her, but being with her is like starting a race with a heavy backpack on. There is so much negativity to overcome, and the benefit from overcoming it is solely that we get one another. Sure, I am special, as is she, but we are not so special that fixing a crumbled cookie is worth the immense effort, given limited resources. Wouldn't she be better off with another, someone whom she would not have to go through this effort?

So, yes, I have regret. But the regret is that I made the error in the first place. I don't think I have regret for my choice to not complicate my life by trying to work it out with her. Perhaps, with time, we might rekindle. It would require time to heal the feeling of violation she felt, and time for me to be more certain that I would not risk running with scissors. I would like that, if it happened in time. But regardless of how much I love her, I cannot justify going through such immense effort. We do not live in a fairy tale world where each person is assigned a soul mate. There are plenty of people out there for her, just as there are plenty out there for me. It makes little sense to pay such an exorbitant price to continue this specific relationship when so many other cookies in the container require no such additional effort.

I have regret. I regret that the relationship seems to have ended. I regret and mourn the loss. But I honestly believe I'm acting appropriately in the moment by just moving on. (Cognitive dissonance be damned.)

12 February, 2017

Of Laziness and Dentistry

I am 35 years old. This is very young, given how long I expect to live, but it is still a rather long time to go on this planet without seeing a dentist.

Now, I can't say for sure that I never saw a dentist before. My memories from seven years old and earlier are pretty hazy. But I certainly don't ever recall going to a dentist.

It's not like you wouldn't think to send someone like me to the dentist. One of my two front teeth is a snaggletooth: it juts out at a nontrivial angle that is quite noticeable. It's the kind of thing that really accentuates the fact that I never had my teeth looked at, even though it's never really bothered me beyond preventing me from whistling loudly.

(In fact, when I dream, my self-image has the same snaggletooth. I also wear glasses, though I'm beardless and am able to travel much, much faster than my real self can manage.)

In Alabama, this wasn't that big a deal. Going without dental care wasn't that uncommon where I grew up. But here in Maryland it's almost unheard of, so it stands out much more than it would if I lived elsewhere.

So I grew up not going to the dentist, and as an adult I just continued not going. I didn't really care about cosmetics, and my teeth never really bothered me, so I just continued not going. Over the years, people have said: you should go to the dentist! Who knows how bad your teeth are at this point! You must have so many cavities! I can't believe you haven't been to a dentist in 35 years! But I've been too lazy to really do anything about it. I guess I figured that at some point I'd buy insurance and then I'd eventually go to a dentist.

When the Affordable Care Act was passed, I bought health insurance for the first time. I didn't bother with dental insurance, though. It just seemed like an extra expense that wouldn't do anything, given that I never went to the dentist. Time passed. I didn't take any new steps.

And then Trump became president.

There are many things I could say about Trump, but the item that is most relevant to me is his insistence on dismantling the Affordable Care Act. All of a sudden I realized I had better take advantage of insurance now, just in case I don't have access to it later.

So last week I went to the dentist.

Note the sideways tooth in the lower left.
They were surprised to learn that I had no teeth pain. Apparently most people who go 35 years without seeing a dentist only come when a problem occurs that has them in intense pain. They took x-rays, examined my mouth, and basically just said how lucky I was to have such good teeth.

My non-wisdom teeth are all fine, with the exception of a small chip in one tooth, which they said they will leave alone and just keep watching as I come in every six months for checkups and cleaning. One of wisdom teeth never came in. Another came in sideways, but is apparently fine in every way and not causing any problems. Another came in normally, and the last is angled poorly. This last tooth is the only one with a cavity, but since it is a wisdom tooth, they said they might just extract it rather than do anything with the cavity.

So: 35 years without a dentist and the only tooth with a problem is a wisdom tooth. I guess that's pretty lucky. Now my only problem is that they made me promise to brush my teeth twice each day and floss daily. I guess this is what everyone does; it's just not something I'm used to yet. We'll see how it turns out when I next see the dentist in six months.

06 November, 2016

On Live Music

Photo from Krysti Marie, a fellow concert-goer.
Yesterday, I went to Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, a touring concert that celebrates 30 years of music from the Legend of Zelda franchise.

As a longtime fan of the series, I've been excited about going for quite a while. I bought tickets for (literally) the best seats in the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC. I replayed several games in the series over the course of the past year. I listened to my favorite Zelda songs during my commute to work. But it's not like I did these things just in preparation for the concert; I am a sincere fan of Zelda, having played every non-CD-i game in the series. I've watched every single substantive commentary on Breath of the Wild at least once, including the several hours of streaming done by the Nintendo Treehouse and the two hour analysis from GameXplain. So you might well expect that my experience of the concert would be extremely positive.

Unfortunately, I found the experience disappointing. This isn't because the concert wasn't good. Nearly everyone around me in the theater raved about it, not just by clapping enthusiastically and exclaiming loudly how happy they were when their favorite game of the series came up in the concert, but also by several people after the concert coming up to me organically, wanting to talk about the experience with a stranger they had experienced this event with.

No, my disappointment was not with the quality of the concert, but with the concept of listening to live music itself. This was my first time going to listen to a concert for the purpose of listening to the music. I think I may have sat in a park while music was playing or went to support a friend as they played a small venue, but I've never actually gone with the intention of actually listening to the music being played.

As I sat in what very well may have been the best seat in the theatre, I found myself realizing that the songs I was hearing were songs that I already listen to. Those songs I played during my commute to work were nearly identical to the ones being played at the concert. It's then that I realize that I've already been listening to these songs this entire time, and if I closed my eyes to hear the music, all I could think was "this feels just like I'm on my way to work".

I'm not sure what I was expecting. Lots of people have favorite artists, and they often love to go to live concerts where the artist plays a song that they already have a better quality version of on their phone. What are they getting out of such events? I honestly am not too sure. It can't be the music, as the music is better in recorded form. Is it the company?

To be fair, it was fun to see people cosplaying as various Zelda characters. But even though I do love Zelda, I don't really identify with this crowd at all. For me, playing Zelda is primarily an experience in isolation. Even when it comes to multiplayer Zelda games, I've strongly preferred playing with close friends over the trolls that join public online games of Tri-Force Heroes. I don't see myself acting as a fan in the same sense as the way others were acting at that concert. Perhaps it is because I'm more comfortable being more reserved. Maybe I'm just not as into fan culture. But if being in a group with other fans is what people get out of live music events, then it just isn't for me.

Yet when I mentioned these thoughts aloud, I got back the objection: "That's not what live music is about. Live music is better than recorded music." And here is where I am most confused. The symphonic performers at the concert I went to were quite good. They were so good, in fact, that it reminded me exactly of the recorded versions I'd heard dozens of times before. Their sameness in sound is part of what made the experience dull for me.

Would I have preferred if I could have heard more errors in their performance? Or maybe what I would want is some kind of improvisation?

When I look to something like Michelangelo's David, I'm impressed. But when I look at recently made statues of similar realism, I am unimpressed. I think this is mostly because the skill needed to create such a statue in the past is nothing like the skill needed to do so in the present. Yes, there is still skill in the posing. But the David required working around the good parts of the material, understanding how to scale up the dimensions realistically, understanding the center of gravity, understanding the proper width of needed hidden trusses. Meanwhile a modern statue can be made by scanning a model, scaling it up, and having a laser cut each part perfectly from a piece of marble that is predetermined to perfectly work with those cuts. It still takes skill, but of a different sort. And if you try to do it the old way, it just seems silly to me. Why not take advantage of modern methods to make the finished product better?

So it seems to me with live music. Being able to record multiple performances and edit them into a final product just seems better to me. Sure, mp3s are lossy, but if you use a lossless format and high quality headphones, then I suspect you get the best experience. Far better than live music, which requires you to have to go somewhere in public (ugh, the traffic) and doesn't have the amenities that you may have at home (when I asked for a cola, they said they were out and offered diet cola instead).

With all this said, I do want to say that most everyone else enjoyed the concert. And the venue was pretty good. Having in-seat service is a big plus, even if it was fairly expensive. So if you're considering going to Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, then you shouldn't use my experience as a strong reason not to go.

But the Warner Theatre did run out of dessert before the concert even began, and there was the lack of non-diet cola in the VIP room. All in all, I think I can confidently say that I never intend to go to a live music event again, and if I do, I probably won't do it at the Warner. It just isn't for me.

I think I'll stick to plays instead. I'm looking forward to when Hamilton comes to the Kennedy center.

23 October, 2016

An Unusual Place

At Animal Charity Evaluators, we have a monthly "water cooler" meeting. We all get together on Skype and talk for an hour about non-work topics. It's a team-building exercise that supposedly helps teams that only work together remotely.

This month, the topic was "a favorite place", and each team member talked about some wonderful place that they had been to. Some spoke of gorgeous landscapes, others of meeting wild animals up close, and still others of self-built structures in the middle of nowhere.

When it was my turn, I decided to speak about a half remembered memory from when I was young. I had only just started to drive on my own, and, being the adventurous sort, I tended to go wherever fancy took me. Often I would go down a dirt road just to see what was at the end, or take a few wrong turns on purpose to see if I could get myself lost.

On this particular occasion, I was driving along a state highway in Alabama, just north of Saraland, where I grew up. The highway had double lanes going in each direction and the sides were covered with dense forests. Traffic along the road was continuously 55mph or higher.

As I drove along at the pace of traffic, I noticed a small clearing on the side of the road. It was almost invisible, and was gone in a moment, so I nearly missed seeing it. I certainly missed any opportunity of stopping at it; there's no way you could know it was there unless you knew in advance where you were going. So I turned around at the next exit, retraced my route and slowed, pulling over at the clearing.

The clearing was literally just big enough for my car to park. Any less of a clearing would mean I'd need to park on the shoulder of the road. The forest surrounded this area just like it did any other, but there was a trace of a path leading away from the road here, into the woods. It was unmistakenly a path, even though it was overgrown with young trees, vines, and brush of all sorts. The woods on either side looked untouched for decades, but the path before me appeared like it had once been cut down completely, and had only overgrown since then.

I went back to my car to gather my walking stick, which I kept with me just for adventurous situations such as this. I used it as a blunt machete, hacking my way through the brush, following the trail as best I could.

Eventually, I reached a clearing. The ground was set in concrete, so no brush could overgrow the area. A pedastal, also of concrete, stood in the center, and atop it lied a statue. It was about the size of my torso, and it depicted a naive american in a sad repose. I can't recall what the statue was made of, but it was clearly quite worn.

The pedastal that held it had a plaque with a date of 1950 or so. It said that the statue above it was placed on this spot a hundred years earlier, in 1850, to commemorate the a tribe that had been forced from this place during the trail of tears. To the side was a picnic table, also made of concrete. None of this looked as though anyone had seen it in decades. There were no other visible paths leading away from the clearing.

This memory is from nearly twenty years ago. At the time, I had no camera. No mobile phone. No GPS. I wonder if the local government is still aware of it. Clearly, they made an effort to create a clearing for it in the 1950s, presumably around the same time that this state highway was constructed. But it looked almost as though since then it had been left untouched.

The next time I return to Alabama, I would like to revisit this statue, mostly because I tried to find a photo to accompany this blog post and was unable to find a reference to this monument on the internet. Perhaps when I do, I can upload a photo to the wikipedia page of whatever tribe it commemorated.

31 March, 2016

My Great Aunt Margaret

Yesterday, I learned that my great aunt Margaret died.

According to my sister, who has taken care of her recently, Margaret had not been doing well. She was disoriented often, and angry most of the time she spent with my sister. But this is not how I remember my great aunt Margaret, because the last time I saw her was 2007 (or maybe 2006), nearly a decade ago.

At the time, she was kind and nice. We had a cordial relationship. When I saw her, I'd give her a hug and say hello; she'd return the greeting, and then I'd go sit elsewhere in the house. It was a neutral relationship.

It wasn't always like that. I have fond memories of being close to my great aunt Margaret. I remember being so excited to go to her house in Pensacola, Florida, and listen to the waves on the beach. I remember sleeping upstairs in the guest bedroom and reading The Lord of The Rings for very first time. I remember how she'd buy her meats and cheeses sliced much more thinly than any other person I know, and how I adored the sandwiches she'd make for lunch. I remember the strange-looking ashtrays she had in her house, and the air purifier that ran constantly. I remember the organ I used to play on, and the deck from which my uncle Michael threw me into the Gulf against my screaming protestations, all while he claimed that this was the best way for me to learn how to swim. I even remember watching my sister crawl for the first time while my great aunt Margaret sat looking on in her rocking chair with a smile on her face.

I have all these great memories. But at the same time, I can't be sure that any of them are really true.

They certainly feel true. They feel as real to me as when I ate at a restaurant yesterday, or as the time that I first went to The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas.

But I have good reason to doubt my older memories. I have a clear vision in my head of a wishing tree in my backyard as a child, through which I threw coins and made wishes that inevitably came true. I only ever wished for small things, like getting to go out to eat that evening, or getting some small toy that I wanted (I was a kid, after all), but I have a very clear memory that after dozens upon dozens of secret wishes I made at that tree, every single one came true. This seems unreasonably accurate, so my current guess is that I'm misremembering the times when my wishes did not come true.

When it comes to my great aunt Margaret, I have even stronger evidence that my memories are faulty. Every memory I have as a kid involving her is exceedingly positive. I recall going to her house and having fun every time. I remember it clearly as something that happened repeatedly and always positively.

So, in my teenage years, when I began to have very strong negative feelings about life and did not know where to turn, I found myself retreating to the family member for whom I had the most positive associations: my great aunt Margaret.

I came to her doorstep in tears, hoping for affection, love, and understanding. I don't know exactly what I needed back then, nor even what I wanted, but I did know that whatever it was, I needed it badly. My life felt like it was tumbling down around me at the time, and I was starting what would turn out to be a lengthy (but temporary) bout of depression.

I knocked on her door. She greeted me. I think she was uncomfortable with my tears. I just asked for a hug.

After a short while, she asked: "Why have you come to me?" She was wondering, I think, why I would choose her company over others. So I explained how I had so very many memories of being around her. Of coming to her house and enjoying her company. Of the board games we would play on her glass table, and of all the times that family would come and visit all at once, for some holiday or another.

She looked at me strangely as I said these things. By the time I stopped talking, she looked like she was scared for me -- or maybe scared of me. She told me that we had only met two or three times, because she lived in Florida, and I had lived in Alabama. She told me that my memories were wrong, and that I was expanding a few short visits into the mistaken idea that I had come to see her often as I grew up.

Today, when I relate this story to others, they ask: "Did she have dementia?" or "Maybe she just wanted to be mean." But no, she was not like this. She had a sound mind at the time. She was a nice person. It was my memories that were at fault here, not her.

So I don't even know what to say about my relationship with my great aunt Margaret. On the one hand, I have such strong memories of so many happy times with her. But when I think of them, an image of her from my teenage years beckons, telling me that I am wrong, that we are not close, that it is weird for me to come to her crying in such a state as I was in.

I am sad to know that she has died. I feel like I loved her as a close family member. But maybe it was all in my head. I don't know how to tell the difference. Either way, I mourn her passing.