Bisexual and Dating Same Sex

I gotta own something. Recently, I’ve been feeling – well – weird towards bisexuals who are in opposite sex relationships.

And, you know, I get it. I was in nearly exclusively opposite sex relationships for, like, 10 years. People questioned my bisexuality. It sucked. I felt invisible, embarrassed, not queer enough, etc.

In fact, there’s a whole list of things on this page if you want to go down that mental path:

And, I in no way want to invalidate the pain of these experiences. Again, I have been there, and I totally get it.

But, something also changed substantially when I started dating a woman. For me, dating a woman is different – very different – from dating a man. I had hooked up with women, had casually dated women, had one night stands with women (not that many, unfortunately,) had casual sex with women (not that often, unfortunately,) and had ongoing relationships with women while I was also involved with men.

All that was totally different from falling in love with a woman, and meeting someone who I could really see spending my life with.

To put it succinctly, the heterosexual fantasy vanished.

On some level, whenever I was dating men, in the back of my mind I expected “we’ll probably get married,” “we’ll probably have kids,” etc. And, there was a deep need at the bottom of this fantasy, a need that had nothing to do with kids and marriage, and everything to do with my own ego.

Sometimes, my girlfriend and I talk about having children. I told her that if she had a child, I could love it like my own, and she said she felt the same about any children I might have. What about an adopted child, we wondered, could we love that like our own? Again, we thought we could. But, we couldn’t take any of it for granted – there is no magical script that our lives can follow.

And, our love can’t stay insular the same way a straight couple’s love can. If we don’t have children, we will need to love other people instead of our children, and if we *do* have children, they will have roots from outside our family somewhere along the line, and fully loving them will be loving where they came from. For us, to be closed only to each other will never work.

Truthfully, I am grateful for it because I would never want my love to be constrained only to my own family, but this type of open love is not something you see in romance novels. It’s something you have to figure out, and it’s something I didn’t figure out in my straight relationships. Some straight people get there, but many of them don’t, and for the same reason many bisexuals in opposite sex relationships don’t get there either.

I remember dating on OK Cupid, and a woman contacted me because she and her husband were looking for a bisexual woman to “pull into their marriage.” (There’s a term for this in the poly community, it’s called “unicorn hunting“.) I did not like her request because it reinforced the “straight” couple tendency to pull all their love inward and to stay closed. And sure, some gay couples mimic this closed-ness as much as they can – perhaps lesbian couples find anonymous sperm donors, or whatever – but at some point a gay couple *has* to turn to the outside for help, either in starting their family, or in getting support as they age if they have no family. And, I think this need for help is both humbling and humanizing. Many straight couples do as well, of course, but not all.

And, it’s this closed-ness, this objectifying-ness that I feel weird about. Truthfully, I was like that myself for a while. I wanted to hook up with women to prove something about myself, to “be” someone. But, as long as the bisexual community is focused on these experiences of not being “queer enough,” the more they really making it about ego and not love. If you look at the gay community and say, “I wish I was more a part of that,” I understand how you feel, but it’s also not the way forward.

If you are willing to be honest about your feelings with every type of person you meet, if you are willing to connect with all sorts of different people romantically and otherwise, you will begin to see all sorts of things about yourself and your loved ones, things you may never have expected. You don’t have to be dating someone of the same gender to get there, but you do have to get over yourself.

The Easy Questions

My senior year in high school, I was taking linear algebra and multivariable calculus – the most advanced math class that my school offered – and I had a teacher who would ask me all the easy questions. I usually got them wrong.

I could tell he was asking me the easy questions, that he didn’t think I was very smart, and I felt nervous. So, I’d fuck up. Fortunately, because it was my class senior year, my grades didn’t matter. I still remember the look of surprise on his face when I told him I’d gotten into MIT, a sort of polite incredulity.  But, I  can remember that feeling – that feeling of just *knowing* you can do something, but being unable to execute on it.

I’ve been getting it recently with my newest client.  It’s a remote gig, and they have a slightly unique system setup – nothing over the top, but something I’d need a little help to getting going. Unfortunately, I never really got setup correctly, and I’m only on it like 10/15 hours a week, so I don’t really have the time to fully figure it out. So, I ask a lot of questions. Anyway, I just feel – dumb – and it gets to me. It’s a Ruby on Rails project, and I have years of experience with Rails. Like, 6 years of experience. And, I find myself just fucking up things I already know.

My other client is working on a Python project. I didn’t know Python at all before starting the project, it was a totally new language and a totally new framework. But the clients *trusted* me, and when they trusted me, I trusted myself. Somehow I could just get everything working. When something doesn’t work with this client, they’ll email me and say “we couldn’t get this going, so we’re just going to wait for you to come in and fix it.” Sometimes, when they want to work on something they’re unsure about, they’ll say “can you just sit with me while I work through this, in case I get it wrong?” Can I? I’d be happy to!

When people treat me as competent, I find myself becoming competent. When people don’t trust me, I lose trust in myself.

This isn’t a reflection on my new client. I’ve never worked on a remote job before, so it’s natural that I would feel a little bit shakier about it, but it is a reflection on how my awareness of other people’s perception of my shapes my own behavior. With my old client, I know they trust me, so I take risks. If I tell them I’ve pulled down staging for 2 days because something went wrong, they’ll say “oh wow, that must have been a really difficult problem.” With my new client, if I pull down staging for two days, they’ll say “oh my god, this new hire is an idiot.” Because of that, I’m much quicker to ask for help when anything goes wrong with my new client, and I haven’t gained the confidence of being able to solve problems myself when I’m working on their system.

Anyway, this trust – this given trust – I think is a major problem for women and racial minorities. Women, for instance, are generally rated as less confident in male dominated fields (and, interestingly enough, men tend to be rated as less competent in female dominated fields like nursing.) What that means, is it takes people a little longer to trust women, and they don’t build up this competence as quickly, if at all. I can only assume the same thing happens to racial minorities.

Actually, I remember one time one of my black coworkers made a fairly large mistake which ended up deleting about weeks worth everyone’s of work. All my white coworkers were really nice about it, “it could have been any of us,” kind of thing, but I always sort of wondered if that was an ignorant approach. Part of getting the easy questions is that everyone is nice when you fuck up because they sort of expect you to fuck up. Like, his mistake in no way got expelled from his system – he was forced to internalize it. If it had been two white dudes, I’m *sure* some shit would have flown. At least a “dude, that was fucking dumb” would have been said.

What I think actually should have happened, is our CTO should have taken him aside and said “Drew, that was a pretty big fuckup. I know you’re better than this, so why did it happen? Why didn’t you ask for help? We’re trusting you with the most important parts of our website, and no one person can know everything, so I need to know my team members will ask for assistance when they are in an area out of their expertise.”

Children don’t get in trouble for their mistakes, adults do. Competent people do, it’s part of being competent – when you fuck up, it matters. I think when someone makes a mistake, you should either fire them, or  discipline them *while reassuring them of your trust in them*. Never hire someone you don’t trust, get rid of them. It’s bad for you, it’s bad for them.

At the end of the day, that is really my main worry with this client, “are they so desperate for developers, they’re going to keep me around even though they don’t trust me?” Women and minorities think a similar thing, “are they just keeping me around for diversity reasons?” These questions are no good.

So, what to do? I was talking to my friend, and he (no joke) suggested reading lean in. To try to learn techniques to help women seem more credible in the workplace, and that’s fine, but I’ve been down this path before. I’m sick of looking outside myself for confidence.

Right now, I have one client that thinks I’m awesome, and a waiting list of about 3 more clients. I’m done trying to prove my worth with gimmicks like not sitting on my feat when I code. My contract is up with my first client, so I’ll probably have an honesty moment – why not? Either I’ll get my shit fixed, or my contract won’t get renewed, and I’ll get to try again with a new client.

Free Acts of Kindness

There was this vet who wrote a blog post about fixing up a homeless women’s sick dog but then TOTALLY RUINED my emotional voyerism with excessive displays of modesty.

“I don’t take any credit. And I honestly do not write this story to look like some kind of a hero.”

“It’s easy to puff your chest out when you do something difficult. But this wasn’t difficult.”

“Please don’t leave any comments. Like it if you want, and share it.”

Woah – that’s mighty defensive for a kind deed. What was he so worried about? That all of us selfish, self centered people would feel shamed by our indulgent lifestyles to which he wanted to reassure us “Don’t worry! USUALLY I’m just as selfish as you, this was really a small thing – I’ll go back to eating my slave chocolate later tonight.” (Eating slave chocolate is one of my own vices.)

Thing is, we’re all hardened, selfish little creatures at our core – or maybe it’s just me. Anyway, people who are really able to hold others in the same esteem with which they hold themselves are rare, but we’re going to need more people like that to fix the ways that the world is broken. So, what do those of us do who aren’t there yet?

In about ten minutes, I’m going to go walk out in the street and implicitly tell about ten homeless people that their starvation is less important than my coffee. And, what I will feel most for them is contempt, some level of guilt for my own selfishness. Why do they have to be homeless right outside where I live? Why can’t just one morning go by when I can go get my coffee in peace?

On some level, I think my mistake is not that I am selfish, but that I am able to view their wellbeing as separate from my own. Still, despite my logical perception of the problem, I can’t un-belive my separateness. Not yet, anyhow.

Is it right to give a homeless person a dollar? Jury’s still out, but I know I tend to feel better when I give them one. The reasons I tend not to are often social. I will never give money out if I’m with another person because I’m usually worried they will see me as weak (unless it’s one of my very close friends.)

We have a culture which causes us to be less charitable, which causes people like the vet to feel defensive when they open up about the kind things they do. But, what if it was just ok to brag? What if we allowed that?

Then, the exchange would be different. It would be more like,

“I want to give, but I still struggle with wanting to impress people. By listening to me brag about my charity, you help me be more charitable, so thank you.”

The Stories We Comfort Ourselves With

I was reading Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Trungpa Chogam, and a passage of the book has been popping up in my mind ever since.

We would rather hoard and preserve the flavor and beauty of the experience so that, when bad times come, when we are depressed and down, we can bring that memory to mind in order to comfort ourselves, to tell ourselves that we have actually done something worthwhile.

I believe Chogam was talking about the way some people mentally cling to some of their more moving spiritual experiences (frankly, I don’t fully understand a lot of what he’s saying) but it stuck out to me because it seemed to be a more general applicable. Why do people post only their happiest memories on the internet? Why do people create this sanitized, beautified story about their lives? I had always found it somewhat offensive, even though I do it too. But, when I read that line, instead of feeling my normal annoyance at all the people who did this, I felt a sort of sadness – as if I were looking at a bird with with a broken wing trying to fly.

Apparently, the singer Amy Winehouse died alone of alcohol poisoning watching youtube videos of herself. Something about her death struck me as particularly iconic of our times, as if she had given a bolder expression of what so many of us do every day. It’s so easy to get caught in this loop, watching ourselves, and obsessing, trying to see how beautiful we are but never quite seeing it. I’d always thought facebook was a tool to show off to others, but I think actually it’s appeal is that it allows us to show off to ourselves.

When we are forced to see something difficult about ourselves, we can turn to these stories and say “see, this is who I am, the person in these photos!” But, we never actually believe it do we? Because if we did, we wouldn’t need the stories.

The Pain of Praise

Sometimes people tell me I’m pretty. Often, I ask for it directly.

How do I look today?

You look fine.

Just fine?

You look great, gorgeous. Absolutely stunning, happy now?

Thank you, baby.

Sometimes, I ask for it indirectly.

God, I feel so fat lately.

You’re not fat.

Ugh, I just like – feel it. I mean, maybe it’s not even true, I just can’t shake it.

You look great! It’s absolutely ridiculous that you’d think you’re fat.

Thanks! You always know the right things to say.

Sometimes I don’t ask for it, and people will tell me unprompted.

Oh hey, new haircut? It looks good.

Oh, yeah! Thanks!

And, sometimes complete strangers will stop me on the street and tell me I look good. Some phrasings are more crude than others, but some people do seem genuinely interested in paying me a compliment. They will stop, look me in the eye, and say “Wow, has anyone ever told you you’re really pretty?”

I smile and say thank you, when the reality is people tell me I’m pretty all the time. Because, one way or another, I *ask* them to tell me I’m pretty all the time.

Thing is, I think this is highly counterproductive for my current personal goals. Every time someone tells me I’m pretty, I don’t leave reassured about my appearance. I leave with the reinforced belief that my appearance matters, which triggers a deeper fear I have. “How long will I be pretty for? How long will this last?” I may start asking my friends to say “Looks don’t matter,” every time I ask them for a compliment.

This doesn’t just apply to appearance, however. Many forms of praise I find counterproductive. For instance, I started this blog intending to write directly what was in my heart and not worry about what other people thought. I showed some of my writing to some of my friends, and some of them really liked it, and now every time I sit down I think “what I’m about to write isn’t going to be very good.”

But, it doesn’t matter if my writing is good. That’s not the point.

Praise feeds the watcher. “You’re doing a good job, keep it up!” she says to me every time I get praise, which feels a lot more enjoyable than when the watcher is critical. “How could you have made that mistake? You are so stupid!” Yet, it is part of the same dichotomy – praise and insult, bring me into a mindset where I am not *doing*, I am watching myself doing. I don’t want to be a writer, I just want to write. I don’t want to be pretty, or ugly – I want to be.

I can’t isolate myself from the praise other people give me. I can ask my friends to tone it down, but I will never be able to escape it. People think they are being kind, they are trying to connect with me. I will need to learn to hear these complements without feeding off them, and I’m not quite sure how to do that. Partly, it is to see that it’s not really about me – it’s about them. When people tell me I’m pretty, they’re not usually describing what they see. They are really saying, “I want you to be happy right now, I am trying to make you happy.” Which raises a bunch of questions, why do they want me to be happy? Why did they pick that particular complement? What is going on for them? I think that will help.

But, I also think I just need to learn to not attach to the words.

“You are pretty.”

I am not pretty. I am indescribable, I am beyond words. I am not even “I”- and neither are you.


Have you ever been accused of having too much ego, or being too egocentric? I certainly have! Many times.

And, you know, the people who told me that were right in a way. The times I have been the most depressed, for lack of a better word, heavily correlated with the times I spent the most energy introspecting, thinking about myself, and ruminating on everything I did wrong. Unfortunately, after being accused on being egocentric, I simply ruminated too much on how egocentric I was. To try not to be be egocentric starting with the idea “I am egocentric, and this is bad” is, unfortunately, by its very nature deeply egocentric. It is very focused on who “I” am, and who “I” want to be.

Also, accepting someone else’s evaluation of this can be dangerous. Sometimes, when people say “you are being too egocentric” what they actually mean is “you are being too inconvenient.” Often, for instance, oppressed groups of people are encouraged not to feel angry about their oppression. I took a class in non-violent communication with a black woman, who was careful about expressing frustration because she didn’t want to be another “angry black woman.” But, black women in America have plenty to feel angry about! And, it is possible to use pseudo-spiritual language to oppress people even more. “You have too much ego, you care so much for these little slights when clearly someone just made a slip of the tongue when talking to you. You will be happier if you just let go of some of this anger, and don’t stress out about every little comment someone makes.”

(On a side note, I *hate* the idea of “letting go” of anger.)

I disagree that a black woman who represses her anger is letting go of ego, however. I think a black woman who endured a racist remark, and hid her anger, would be embracing her ego. Not that that’s “bad” per se – sometimes it’s necessary – but she would not be expressing what she feels, in the effort to maintain a good image either to herself, or to others. To be or nor to be an “angry black woman” – both paths are full of ego. However, people who don’t like to face the repercussions of their own racism, or sexism, will gladly tell black women not to be “angry,” and if they can clothe it in hippie, new age-y type language to give it more credibility, so much the better.

In fact, I don’t think it is very useful for someone else to tell you you have too much ego, because to attack it directly like that is to play right into the ego. “I don’t want to be an egocentric person,” is a trap from which we cannot escape. The very desire itself stems from ego.

Perhaps a better question is, “What have you wanted to do, but been able to, because you were preoccupied with your self image?”

One answer for me is dance! I love dancing, but I care so much about what other people think of me, I will sometimes not do it. Even when I’m alone in my room, I’ll start to dance, and then sometimes stop because I am ashamed at how “badly” I dance. Even though there is no one else there, to think of myself as a “bad dancer” is so painful I will avoid thinking about it by avoiding dancing.

Another answer is meditate. Often, when I am meditating I get up with thoughts that approach something like “I can see so much!” Sometimes it’s not so much a thought, as a feeling of excitement, that stems from a sense of “this means something about me.” It throws me out of wherever I was, and starts me down a path of thinking about myself.

And, in a way, that’s ok. There is a lot of culture there, that I’m carrying. I exist in this facebook world of self promotion, and I don’t want to just cut it off or cut it out of me. It’s how I relate to my friends, it’s how I connect with the people around me. It’s part of what will enable me to understand pain other people are going through.  It’s important, but it interferes with some things I’m trying to do. I don’t really have a good solution. My current plan is to keep trying to do the things I’m trying to do (to dance, to meditate) with the hope that eventually, I’ll just get bored. I’ll stop being interested in thinking about what this means “about me,” and just do them.

Being Female or Being Feminine

My girlfriend works in the call center of a tech company, and was promoted to be a team lead. She just came back from a retreat with the other team leads, and said it was kind of funny that all of the team leads were either male, or lesbian. (Two of the three lesbians, including her, were “masculine of center” or “butch” lesbians.)

I thought that was interesting, because it’s something I’ve sort of heard before. One of my friends did research with one of the few female physics professors at MIT, and my friend pointed out to me “Many people think it’s particularly great that she’s become a professor while being a fairly masculine lesbian, but I wonder if the fact that she was a masculine woman made it easier for her male colleagues to accept her.”

When I started discussing this with my girlfriend last night, I read her reaction as a little defensive – like, maybe she thought I was privilege shaming her for her gender expression? That was not my intention, I have no strong emotional attachment to the sexuality or gender expression of women who enter tech. In fact, I have  no strong attachment to the number of women in tech. Given that I didn’t particularly enjoy my life as a programmer, I’m not inclined to encourage women to live a life they don’t enjoy in an effort to hit an arbitrary metric for the “ideal” number of women.

Yet, I think there’s something *there* – something important drifting around the fact that femininity itself is a marker for “non technical.”

Personally, I think the one true failing of feminism is that traditionally female roles did not gain in prestige after the movement. We freed up women to express masculinity, which was really wonderful for some women, but we did not learn to respect the work women used to do. So now, no one does that work – at least, no one I know. I think I have one friend who stays home to take care of her kids, and I’m nearly 30. This is always a tricky point, because sometimes people will read this as “women should stay home and take care of the kids,” which isn’t want I intend to convey.

I have often wondered is why did women want to take on masculine roles, but why are men so reluctant to take on feminine ones? Is it because it is worse, because raising children is a far more terrible task than being a middle manager? I suspect not.

I think that for many people (dare I say, most people? Myself included) prestige is very important. And, women’s work does not have prestige, but, it’s necessary. Sometimes, I despair because the world seems so cold now. People my age are expected to work these 50, 60, 70 hour weeks, with no concern for our own enjoyment or pleasure in life. And we’ll do it! Why? Why are people my age willing to work so hard to make someone else rich? Why do we put so much effort into producing material goods, and making money?

Do you work more than 40 hours a week? If so, why?

The traditional “feminine” role was a dependent one, dependent on children for fulfillment, on a husband for material support. I’ve heard an accusation that “women act like they don’t need men anymore,” but sometimes, I think the reverse is true. I think men act like they don’t need women. I’ve met so many men in tech willing to sacrifice their personal relationships for their career, to work such long hours they have no time to date. And, even if they are dating, they often view their main contribution to the relationship to be money, not love.

I wish traditionally feminine roles were more valued, not so we could force women to get back in the kitchen, but so that anyone who chose to pursue them – male or female – would not be ashamed of their choice. Men could say, without shame, “My connections with those I love are more important to me than the money I make, and so I will not put the best part of myself into my job. I will save it for my friends, and family, and lovers.”

Traditional femininity (as I understand it) was about nurturing the family, and maintaining social relationships within the community. Traditional masculinity was about making things manifest in the physical world – and it’s no coincidence that as we’ve lost femininity, our consumerism and materialism has skyrocketed. But, how can we start to respect something? How can a culture change its own values?

I don’t know.

Sexism and Tech and Love

Sexism in tech is something I am asked about somewhat frequently, because I am a woman, and because I used to be a programmer in Silicon Valley.

Part of me just doesn’t want to engage with people on this topic because I find it painful to remember. About 9 months ago, I quit my job as one of the first engineers at an early stage start up, and began taking classes to become a massage therapist. One of the things I loved about taking massage classes was interacting with my teachers. My teachers were often women over the age of 40, and they were kind, and loving, and funny, and witty, and were people who just generally seemed to be enjoying their lives. Not only that, however, but there was a respect that both male and female students had for the teachers. I heard male students gush about their one on one time withe a female teacher, and how much they learned. It would not have been embarrassing for them to say something like, “I would really like to be like Julie when I become a massage therapist.”

I think it’s that essence, that essence of men being willing to emulate female role models – or rather, lack of it – that I found very difficult in tech. Being an intern is easy, because usually men are very kind and would like to increase the number of women at their company, and will happily teach women whatever they know. Being an equal on a team I found more difficult, and being a team lead I found the most difficult. The biggest obstacle I faced, I believe, was that many people were more interested in impressing me than learning from me. That’s why I was so moved to see men being willing to learn from their female teachers when I took massage. I realized this is not something about men and women, this is not something about human nature,  this is something about tech.

When writing this post, I burst into tears, remembering what it was like to work in tech. I felt like there were a thousand challenges I had to face alone, that no one else could see. I was usually the only woman where I worked, and I felt so isolated. More than anything else, what I found myself really wanting was for someone to say “I see how difficult it is, and you’re doing a great job. Just keep going.” For instance, once I was accused of being emotionally attached to my code (in front of a client, might I add) – an accusation I didn’t believe anyone would levy at a man.

“Well, were you emotionally attached to your code?” a friend of mine asked when repeating the story. And the truth is, maybe I was, but, nearly everyone is emotionally attached to their code (recognizing this is the first step to behaving rationally about it.) The thing is, even if I was particularly attached, and even if that *was* a comment that was just as likely to be said to a man, I didn’t *believe* it. I believed I had been shamed in front of the client for being female, and I felt resentful about this . And, I had no one to talk to – I thought people would just judge me for not being rational. What I wanted, deep in my heart, was for someone to say, “Yes, I see this is difficult for you – I see hearing that comment was hard for you because you are worried about the sexist implications, and it was a challenge to maintain composure in front of the client.” I don’t mind taking on a difficult task, I just minded having to do it alone and unseen.

I wrote love in the title of this post, intending to somehow circle back and discuss the role love plays in all this, but the anger I still feel about my time in tech is getting in my way. I mean, I suppose that’s the ultimate problem with the whole thing – there is so much anger it impedes movement. Thing is, I think women are unlikely to get empathy for men on their situation if they’re unable to see the forces that are leading men to the behavior they exhibit.

Life is very hard for men in tech as well, a point which I have grown to appreciate over the years. Many of them are single, many of them work 70 hour weeks for years and survive with minimal love and compassion and kindness. They are also unseen. There are not many people, and especially very few women, who can truly appreciate their technical accomplishments. I have watched my coworkers slave away for days on a project, to have someone in the marketing department say “oh, it’s like magic!” when they’re done. It’s not magic. It’s blood, and sweat, and lack of sleep. It’s time, and devotion, a little chunk of their soul, and a very particular kind of love. Our entire modern economy is resting on the toil of these unsung workers, and all flattering lip service doesn’t disguise the fact that most people don’t *get* it.

I’ve struggled with this for over a decade now, coming to terms with the humanity of those I believe oppress me. I can see why they do what they do. I can see that men are sometimes so desperate to be appreciated by me, they try to impress me and this blocks them from learning from me because they will find my criticism very painful. If this happens too many times, I feel angry, because these men “refusing” to learn from me are making it harder for me to improve in my career. So, I begin resenting the people I’m supposed to be teaching – but they feel it, and become even more desperate to impress me, and are able to hear me less. It’s a cycle that can only be broken by – and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this – broken by love. When I can make it clear that I care about the people I work with, that I will still care about them if they make a mistake, that I will not think they are stupid for trying something that doesn’t work – that’s when these walls start coming down. But, truthfully, I find it very hard to do when I’m so full of pain myself.

Nerd Voice

I find myself getting super annoyed by nerd voice.

So – I’ll try to own it, by saying “yeah, I realize these are my own issues,” and “yeah, I’m sure I have nerd voice on a fairly regular basis myself,” and “yeah, someone probably has plenty of good reasons to talk in this way, and it is a culmination of their life experience, and etc. etc.”

But, frankly, nothing ever forces my own personal realization of how un-accepting of other people I am like a big old dose of nerd voice. And, suddenly, instead of really hearing someone, I’m awash in my own narcissism and disappointment in my lack of empathy, while simultaneously analyzing the other person and internally blasting them with my judgement.

So – this is what I hear when I hear nerd voice. I hear someone mimicking the tone of authority, but with a slightly over exaggerated intonation, because I assume deep down they don’t fully trust what they are saying. In fact, when I hear nerd voice, I immediately begin to doubt the authenticity of whatever information is being provided. If at some point I question them, and they double down with their hyper-authoritarian tone instead of softening, I immediately brand them as an insecure idiot, and take everything they say with a dose of skepticism. Also, I think this has gotten worse since I’ve tried to become a more empathetic person.

So, back in the day the exchange would usually go like this:

Nerd Voice: “Clearly, a PC is a superior economic investment to a mac, especially since you can just duel boot the mac OS”

My Internal Monolog: This person is an idiot, must disengage as soon as possible.

Me: “Yeah, I can see that. Hey, thanks for sharing your thoughts with me – I gotta run to the bathroom, but it was really great catching up with you.”

Now, it usually goes like this.

Nerd Voice: “It is impossible to lose weight on a diet of less than 1200 calories a day because you’ll just slow down your metabolism.”

My Internal Monolog: This person is an idiot – wait, no. What is it they’re really trying to coney here? Why do they feel the need to state this? Are they fat? Are they self conscious about their weight, and do they have shame about their inability to cut their calories? How do they square this with the fact that people clearly lose weight on very low calorie diets?

Me: “Oh? Well, what about the Jews in the concentration camps? They got pretty skinny, and I’m pretty sure they ate less than 1200 calories a day. I assume, anyway.”

Nerd Voice: “Well, they probably lost a lot of muscle mass. I mean, it’s impossible to lose fat on a diet of just 1200 calories a day.”

My Internal Monolog: Zomg, don’t care. Not trying to lose fat. Wait – not everything is about me. Is often about them. Ok – what to they care about?

Me: “Ah, so you’re more interested in the process of losing fat than just losing weight, per se.”

Nerd Voice: “Well, yes. Obviously. I mean, why would someone just care about losing weight?”

Me: “Well, I used to wrestle and I’d try to lose weight to make a weight class.”

Nerd Voice: “Ah, but that was a special case. And, was probably quite unhealthy to lose weight in that way.”

My Internal Monolog: Well, I was in the best shape of my life back then, but let’s just let that lie. Ok, how do I change the topic to something less irritating?

Me: “Yeah, it was an unusual case. Although, apparently sometimes it can be good to slow your metabolism – I’ve heard of some people who eat very low calorie diets to slow their metabolism in an effort to live longer.

Nerd Voice: “Ah, well yes – if the intention is to slow the metabolism, then yes, eating low calorie diets could be quite effective for that. I doubt it would help you live longer though, that just seems like pseudoscience to me.”

My Internal Voice: Zomg, can you stop acting like you know everything! I was the one who watched the National Geographic special, not you! Oh my god, I still think you’re an idiot, and now I sort of hate you for having this conversation with me as well. Fuck, I am spiritually void – incapable of seeing the inner beauty in other people. Fuck fuck fuck!

Me: “Well, I’ve never tried it since eating less than 1200 calories would totally blow – ha ha ha. Anyway, it was great catching up with you, I gotta run to the bathroom.”

Later, I’ll usually reflect over why someone may feel the need to take a very firm position on a topic with little interest in the nuance, or subtlety of it. Usually, I’ll conclude that it’s a person who has not received a lot of respect for their opinions in the past (hence, why nerds or the more socially outcast often take this tone of voice) and be able to generate a bit more empathy for them. After all, I’ve had some pretty socially-outcast type moments in my life. A lot, honestly. And I get it, I get that they’re trying to like appear more authoritative so I’ll take them seriously because they’re not used to being taken seriously. But, my god, I find it so annoying.

I guess perhaps a more interesting question would be, why does it bug me so much? I mean, at least part of it is it reminds me of my own insecure moments when I try to overcompensate. But, another part of it is that I stop believing that there’s gong to be any possibility of making any sort of interesting conversation or emotional connection. I start believing, “Ok, this person is mostly interested in impressing me, not about connecting with me.” Which, is possibly wrong – if I were able to convince them that I valued their opinion, they would likely become more open to my own point of view. But, it’s so hard all of my body language is screaming “I want out of this conversation!” Even if after the fact I can understand what happened, in the moment I find myself a lot more stuck.

Practice, I suppose?

Self Absorption and the Homeless

One of my friends regularly tells me I’m too self absorbed, which is probably a fair point. I think about myself a lot.

However, one thing I’ve noticed is that often the people accusing me of being self absorbed seem to be suffering from a similar affliction themselves. In a way, it would make sense – the most self absorbed people would be the most annoyed about not getting as much attention as they would like in a conversation. They also may be the least likely to see that, sometimes, people have good reasons for being self absorbed.

One time I tend to be very self absorbed is when I see homeless people on the street. There are a lot of homeless people asking for money where I live, and when I see them, I will often go out of my way to walk out of their line of site so they will not see me. Sometimes, I will pretend like I didn’t hear them talk to me so it won’t be “awkward,” even though deep down we both know I did. Or, I will dismiss them with a quick “no, I’m sorry” or just give them a dollar and quickly get on my way. I feel afraid when I see them in the street, even though I know they won’t hurt me. I’m afraid of the confrontation that may ensue.

And I know that, more than money, often what they just need is a little recognition. One of the most painful things, I’ve been told, about being homeless it that people just ignore you as if you were completely worthless. I know this. I know that, ideally, even if I can’t give someone money that by giving them the same attention and respect I’d give anyone else, I am giving them the message “I see you, and you are worthwhile,” and I know that is a message many homeless people need to hear. Despite the fact that I know all this, I still regularly ignore homeless people.

Two days ago, a young and articulate homeless man stopped me on the street. He thanked me for my time, and asked me if I’d get him something to eat which I did. After talking to him further, I bought him a razor, some deodorant and soap at a local Walgreens because he said his lack of grooming was hurting him during his job interviews. He told me he felt bad about asking for what he needed, and I told him not to – that it was a joy to give to someone when I felt appreciated and respected. We parted ways with a hug, and I ignored all the other homeless people who talked to me on the way home.

I am able to occasionally engage with homeless people now, usually by chatting with them. But, I had to forgive myself for ignoring them first. I used to criticize myself all the time – how selfish I was! How much pain they were in, and I would willingly buy myself a latte, and not spare 50 cents for a starving person. What did that say about me? What type of selfish, self absorbed person was I? Thing was, that whole line of reasoning was too painful for me to go down often. So, usually, I would avoid the homeless and not engage with them so I didn’t have to confront these uncomfortable thoughts about what type of person I was.

However, eventually I came to forgive myself for ignoring the homeless people on my Starbucks run, and a funny thing happened. The more I was able to forgive myself for ignoring homeless people, the more I was able to engage with them. When my head was not filled with self-criticism, or actively involved with suppressing it, I had room to listen to them. Every time I have made the space to listen to a homeless person, they have been profoundly grateful. I can now see I was not avoiding them because I was selfishly hoarding my money – I was avoiding them because it is emotionally difficult to engage with someone in that much pain. I could give every homeless person I see in a day 50 cents, no problem, but I can’t take on that much of their experience without becoming profoundly depressed myself. So now, I do what I need to do. If I have the time, and emotional energy, I will talk to a homeless person – see what they need, and if it’s something I am able to give. And if not, that’s ok too.

I’m still working on it. I’ve noticed that the ones I help the most are the nicest and most articulate homeless people, and that probably the ones in greater need of help are some of the more difficult ones. But, I also know I’m not there yet. I’m still too full of ego to engage with someone who can’t moderate themselves for me, and that’s ok. It’s ok to be self absorbed. Because you can’t just replace self absorption with compassion magically, you have to give yourself what you need first.